August 4, 2016
It was only a decade ago that, despite lingering doubts and internal controversy, the EU launched accession negotiations with Turkey. Peoples of the region were following the process with envy. It was less than a decade ago that Turkey was a facilitator between Syria and Israel. Our relations with neighbors were characterized by a determination to open new avenues of cooperation reflecting shared interests. Syria was a close friend. Turkish-Egyptian business relations were booming. In April 2009 Turkey became the first country to host President Obama on a bilateral visit. He addressed the Turkish Parliament and said:
“This morning I had the great privilege of visiting the tomb of your extraordinary founder of your republic. And I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Atatürk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work this assembly carries on today…”
Then came Turkey’s political climate change. The first external victim was Turkish-Israeli relations. With the Arab spring Syria and Egypt also became enemies. Our involvement in the Syrian conflict soured relations with the US and the EU though we appeared to be on the same side. On November 24, 2015 Turkish air force downed a Russian Su-24. The incident shattered decades of cooperation with Russia. For all our troubles we blamed external powers which were against Turkey’s rise as a global player. We were right and others were wrong. We remained averse to self-criticism.
Following the change of prime minister and in a belated display of common sense, “more friends and fewer enemies” became the Government’s motto. Steps were taken towards reconciliation with Israel and Russia. But then came the coup attempt of June 15 which triggered troubles of a different order. This time the US and the EU have become our primary targets together with a good number of countries where Fethullah Gulen’s insidious movement had managed to establish itself, building schools, dormitories, hospitals with the full knowledge and approval of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). We are now directing strong criticism at the US and the EU for supporting/condoning the Gulenist coup attempt and demanding a crowd of other confused countries to immediately close down all those facilities. Thus, an internal problem, a partnership gone awry is becoming a source of conflict with other nations. In the case of the US the bilateral relationship is continuing its downward spiral. In the case of EU, the fallout from the coup attempt comes on top of the problems arising from the stalled accession process and the dubious refugee deal Brussels desperately concluded with Ankara earlier. And as usual, our self-righteousness and bravado are likely to become further irritants. However, there is a silver lining to this last episode. In a landmark development, the JDP leadership has clearly said that their cooperation with Gulen was wrong. This is the first time ever they have admitted a mistake.
The key to putting our troubles behind, including the disgraceful coup attempt of July 15, is the government’s giving tangible proof of its professed determination to restore democracy in Turkey. However, a course correction would take more than purges and “democracy festivities”. It would require rapidly restoring the rule of law, separation of powers, parliamentary oversight and laying new foundations for our crippled democratic institutions through national consensus. This would also mean restoring Turkey’s international status. Until we do that, if ever, it would be in Turkey’s best interest to avoid new external conflicts. Because at present, we have fewer friends than at any other time in the history of the Republic.