Turkey has always been a worrisome country with less freedom that you could demand, but now, things have come to an explosive point. Since Turkey is still regarded as a, let’s say, European civilized country, it’s all the more worrying. But now… it’s no longer a European civilized country. There is of course a section of intellectuals, academics, people who read and think, people who are really the bridge towards Europe which we think much about and worry about.”
These were the words by Per Wästberg, President Emeritus of PEN International, and Chairman of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee for Literature. Some weeks ago, during a visit to Turkey, along with the members of what was known as the largest PEN International delegation to ever visit a country in its history, he pointed – in an an exclusive interview for Turkey’s much admired book review website, K24 – to a person he apparently sees as solely responsible:
”Freedom has always been so precarious in this country. But of course I think the maneuvours of President Erdoğan now means a breaking point. Because he concentrates power in his own hands, and the judiciary and the parliament do not have much to say. That is a breaking point.”
Hard to disagree with Wästberg. If he sees the powerful president of Turkey as the culprit for the journey into the ‘pitch dark’, any dissident in Turkey would nod. The depiction falls upon a leader at war with most of the world.
If, as the new slogan of Washington Post says, ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’, he is the one whose war targets it these days.
In many ways, what was once coined by the famous Time magazine cover as ‘Erdoğan’s Way’, has evolved into ‘Erdoğan’s War’ – a political warfare especially targeting the weak, the defenceless, the underdogs who choose to disagree with his way. As I keep underlining in this chronicle, Erdoğan’s War set its prime objective as darkening journalism. Although Erdoğan’s War spread to a much wider front over the past three years – since Gezi Park protests, as a milestone – the focus target remains unchanged. Why? Because journalists – particularly those in Turkey, are tough nuts, they won’t go without a fight. If the recent detention of my brave colleague, Deniz Yücel, came as the sharpest wake-up call in Germany and beyond, better see it in the context: Erdoğan’s War chooses the most unguarded, yet the most efficient and democratically conscientious professional group – journalists as priority. It’s a one-sided warfare, self-evident in its cowardice.
Further more, it is a war against all perceived enemies, driven by profound paranoia; a warfare based on the assumption that the success and political survival is only possible by blackmail, hostage taking and archaic form of negotiations. Others would see this from a different angle: Erdoğan’s War as ‘Permanent Populist Revolution’.
War, resulting as a victory against the norms of civility, as Wastberg says.
Rule # 1 is: Criminalize journalism.
Figures tell exactly how ‘successful’ Erdoğan’s Perpetual War has been so far: According to the figures of Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) – an Istanbul based NGO – Yücel is 155th journalist put in Turkish prison.
This figure corresponds to more than 60 % of the total of jailed journalists worldwide, compared to the latest cumulative data issued by Reporters Without Borders (189) and Committee to Protect Journalists (259). (There are also claims that this is the highest ever number noted in a single country since the global monitoring of press freedom began.) But this only part of Erdoğan’s War; the rest spreads all around. The case of Yücel came, perhaps inevitably, like a big drop which spilled over to the already sensitive relations between Turkey and Germany.
While pressure over Chancellor Merkel rises to tell ‘enough is enough’ to Erdoğan, most recent remarks by high-rank government officials in Berlin mean that a diplomatic rift is brewing, and Turkish ambassador in Berlin was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be handed over a protest.
The question is whether or not Erdoğan will change his mind about how he regards media and dissent at home. Bets are, that he will not blink in the least: He is at war and will remain so.
Earlier this week, he lashed out at large-circulation daily Hürriyet for a headline story which reported the ‘unease’ within the Turkish military on a new regulation allowing the female officers to wear headscarf. The background was of stuff worthy of a political earthquake, yet had passed by silently, due to an agenda overload. Ministry of Defence had bypassing customary behaviour, without consulting at least ‘in courtesy’ with the General Chief of Staff, issued a directive allowing female officers and other military staff to wear headscarf.
This was a historic break away from the genetics of an army, formed in 1923. It meant potential divisions in the military, because many Alevi officers are known to serve in it. In a nutshell, it was huge step towards ‘Pakistanisation’, a move to enhance Sunni patterns in a supposedly secular structure. It was obvious Hürriyet’s story, albeit bleakly, tried to shed light on the discontent.
Erdoğan’s rage was focused on the newspaper. ‘They will pay a heavy price for this impertinence’ he said. Hours later, Doğan Media Group that owns Hürriyet announced that its editor-in-chief was fired. No wonder many observers see this as the end of the remnant, semi- independent portion of Turkish media, a sector after the fall of Doğan now almost entirely under the control of the President.
It is now with Europe, Erdoğan is at war with. Emboldened by the State of Emergency as part of his Permanent Revolution, it is his norms against those of democracies – Germany and others.
Tension therefore is bound to rise further. Nothing will not change the already established fact that Erdoğan sees politics at home and abroad as a battlefield where no holds are barred.
He prefers to keep Turkey’s relations with allies and partners on razor’s edge, in the hope of hard-bargaining. Turkish journalists rightfully insist that their imprisoned colleagues and opposition figures are held as hostages for blackmailing the EU. That the number of jailed dissidents rise – as raising hands – constantly point at the brutal diplomatic gamble Erdoğan is engaged in.
Rifts are spreading into a large geography in the EU now: Erdoğan is not in very friendly terms with İtaly, following the ‘forced leave’ of his son, Bilal, then accused of money laundering. Relations with Greece went sour over an artificial crisis with the tiny Aegean islet, Kardak/Imia. Cyprus talks came to a halt due to his indirect interferences. High number of Turkish officers seeking asylum in Greece, Belgium and Germany placed Turkey now as a partner not fully reliable in NATO, as Ankara was unable to produce hard evidence to those allies about the coup attempt.
An equally biting headache emerged between Turkey and Germany, Austria and Netherlands about Turkish imams on Ankara’s payroll being accused as part of an informant and spying network over oppositional Turkish citizens in those countries. Same suspicion began to spread into Belgium, and Scandinavian countries as well.
If the world is his battlefield, European soil is definitely at its center. To reach his overarching goal to autocratic rule, Erdoğan feels he must also organize rallies in Germany and Austria, where more than 1.5 million Turks with voting rights in the referendum live. But, as it seems, the liberal stand of the EU has come to its limits: politicians as well as media in those countries say that a politician with immense oppressive credentials should not be allowed to export the acrimony and polarisation into their territory.
The challenge for Germany and the ‘West – North European’ flank of the EU, in general, is:
How should one approach a leader, who relentlessly continues to grab power, by demolishing the rule of law into a ruin; a leader whose party and well-controlled judiciary jailed the co-chairman of the third largest party, HDP, as well as 12 of its elected deputies, and imprisoned thousands of opposition figures from across the board, when he and his government seeks to expand the propaganda machinery into foreign soil, using its liberal laws?
Thus, rises an enormous dilemma, which will define our times to come:
What should be the mechanisms that democracies will deal with the leaderships swamped by authoritarianist methods?
How would democracies respond to autocrats waging war against their norms?
Who will win, who will lose?
Who will pay the price?