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January 23, 2012, Monday

A Turkish puzzle

Until not so long ago, a clear democratization trend could be observed in Turkey. It was not linear; it advanced in fits and starts, but through a series of reforms since it came to power in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) produced a relatively clear image of the Turkey it was seeking to build, even if important pieces were still missing to complete the picture. In the past few months, however, the pieces we are presented with are so disparate that they no longer fit snugly together to produce a coherent image.

Not a week goes past these days without a new report by a respected international organization slamming Turkey for its declining human rights standards and violations of freedom of expression. Last week, we had the very critical report of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg on the dysfunctional state of Turkey’s judiciary. His concerns were vividly illustrated by the Hrant Dink judicial debacle, a verdict so flawed that even the judge who issued it admitted it didn’t reflect the full situation, and the prosecution immediately appealed it.

Human Rights Watch has just expressed its concern for declining human rights standards. Since winning a third term with a strong showing of 50 percent of the vote in the June 12 general elections, it said, the AKP “has restricted freedom of expression, association and assembly with laws that allow authorities to jail its critics for many months or years while they stand trial for alleged terrorism offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence.” The human rights organization also points to police and gendarmerie brutality against unarmed demonstrators. Freedom House recently listed Turkey among the countries that are “partly free.”

In the 1990s, of course, worse complaints were a regular occurrence, but in the meantime Turkey made significant progress and raised the bar on people’s expectations. What many in Turkey struggle to understand these days is why the AKP, which has successfully improved Turkey’s economy, raised the country’s profile internationally and stood up to the army, should have put the brakes on the broader democratization process, and even set it into reverse, after successfully making its position impregnable with a resounding electoral victory.

Few people seem to have come up with a satisfactory explanation. Is it overconfidence, power fatigue or on the contrary continued insecurity? Have the country’s leaders lost touch with the street? Blatant contradictions make the picture all the more blurry: the prime minister can apologize for the massacres committed in Dersim in the 1930s, but the discovery of human skulls and bones in the courtyard of the former JİTEM headquarters in Diyarbakır, pointing to more recent egregious abuses, seems to have little influence on the official discourse on the Kurdish issue.

The AKP had to contend with its share of opponents over the years, but today it is its own intolerance that is threatening the very stability it worked hard to achieve. The crackdown on demonstrators and dissidents, ranging from environmentalists to students and journalists, and the numerous arrests of Kurds under anti-terrorism legislation are only causing further polarization and fuelling restlessness in the country. Criticism of its policies now emanates not just from liberals but also from conservatives who form the government’s natural constituency. If in recent years the AKP could dismiss critics as being hard-line secularists or staunch Kemalists, this is no longer the case.

Experience from the past suggests that such internal tension creates a dangerous vacuum in the country. For years, the EU provided a useful roadmap for Turkey’s democratization project. But as EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee President Hélène Flautre correctly pointed out, the antagonism displayed by France, Cyprus and other countries opposed to Turkey’s bid have eroded Brussels’ ability to influence developments in Turkey. Yet, there is little doubt -- and the current state of affairs appears to confirm it -- that the carrot and stick of EU membership inspired many of the reforms implemented in the past decade.

Today, Turkey has plenty of strategic and economic assets, but as Human Rights Watch pointed out, internationally, its “credibility depends on rights at home.” With political will and a return to the democratizing spirit that animated it in its early years, the government boosts its global influence as well as internal stability. Whether this will exists, however, is in doubt.

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