AS Turkey’s President Erdogan extends his purge, thousands have been locked up and await trial for their alleged role in last year’s attempted coup. Ten of them are German citizens who face terrorism charges. In today’s Turkey, any suspected links to the Gulenist movement are equated with terrorism. Thus, schoolteachers, university professors, civil servants, judges and prosecutors — apart from tens of thousands of police and military personnel — have been suspended, sacked or jailed.
This state of affairs is being watched with growing disbelief and dismay by Turkey’s friends and allies around the world. The recent arrest of Peter Steudtner, a human rights activist, has triggered a wave of anger in Germany. The country’s finance minister warned travellers to Turkey that their safety could not be guaranteed. The foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, termed Steudtner’s arrest “absurd”, and went on to say: “German citizens are no longer safe from arbitrary arrests”.
Two mass circulation dailies have stopped ads promoting foreign investment that carried the slogan: “Come to Turkey. Discover your own story.” The government has warned that it is now reviewing its policy towards Turkey.
Considering that some three million German tourists visit Turkey every year, a significant decline in this number will seriously dent the economy at a time it is already reeling from the fallout of the Syrian civil war. The Turkish lira has halved in value over the last five years, and inflation is at 8pc while inflation has risen to 10.5pc. Germany has announced a review of requests for arms sales; in 2016, it exported nearly 84 million euros worth of military hardware to Turkey.
Erdogan has lashed back, saying such tactics would not force Turkey to change its views. He went on to demand why Germany was giving asylum to army officers accused of Gulenist sympathies, and allowing the Kurdish separatist outfit, the PKK, to operate freely on its soil.
This acrimony has been steadily building up in the aftermath of Erdogan’s growing hubris following his narrow and controversial victory in the referendum to practically grant himself dictatorial powers. As he has cracked down on his political opponents, he has permitted his own animosity against Germany to shape his government’s attitude towards its most important European ally. He was frustrated when the Germans refused to allow him to hold rallies in Germany to address the many Turks who live there, asking for their support in the referendum.
With the talks for admission to the European Union in the doldrums, Erdogan feels he has little to lose by lashing out against the Germans, despite the presence of three million Turks who work and live in Germany. The EU — and Germany in particular — depends on Turkey to block the westward journey of Syrian asylum-seekers. Nearly a million of these unfortunate refugees reached Germany until the EU reached an agreement with Turkey.
It is not Germany alone that has incurred Erdogan’s wrath: the United States, too, has been targeted by the Turkish president in his diatribes. When he visited Washington recently, he was accompanied by a contingent of armed guards. These plain-clothed agents beat up a number of protesters on camera, and the FBI has issued warrants for their arrest, even though they are now back in Turkey. Video clips played on American TV channels and downloaded from the internet caused outrage in the United States.
More importantly, Erdogan is furious with Washington for allowing Syrian Kurds to play a leading role in the battle to oust the militant Islamic State group from Raqqa. He fears that an emboldened YPG, or The People’s Protection Units, will seek an independent enclave close to the Turkish border. Turkey has long regarded the YPG to be an adjunct of its own separatist Kurdish group, the PKK, and has launched a vicious crackdown on Kurdish-majority areas in south- eastern Turkey.
And now Turkey has angered Saudi Arabia by its support of Qatar in its dispute with the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. By sending in food supplies to the beleaguered state, and by posting troops at its small base, Turkey has broken ranks with the Sunni states bent on punishing Qatar for its independent policies. The fact that the crisis appears to have been triggered by the UAE hacking an official Qatari website seems to carry little weight with leaders who are determined to reveal their immaturity to the world.
So how isolated internationally is Turkey as a result of these aggressive words and moves? Currently it has drawn close to Russia whose leader, Vladimir Putin, views Turkey’s estrangement from Europe and America as a chink opening up in the Western alliance. Iran, too, is a major trading partner with $4 billion in goods exchanged annually.
The recent rally for the return to the rule of law that began with a march from Ankara to a massive demonstration in Istanbul shows that Erdogan is not the popular figure he would like to be. The margin of victory in the referendum, despite the massive state resources that boosted the ‘Yes’ campaign, was just around one per cent, and this too was contested by many observers.
Erdogan and his supporters have branded their opponents ‘traitors’, thereby deepening the polarisation that has taken root in the country.
The divide is between secular, educated and westernised urban Turks and conservatives who are highly nationalistic, and see Turkey as an exceptional state. For them, Erdogan is a symbol of Turkish rebirth and return to greatness. But the government’s recent decision to remove Darwinian evolution from school curricula shows the backward direction of Turkey’s current trajectory.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2017