Büşra Ersanlı and the Turkish paradox

Last week an important article on Turkey was published on the website of Foreign »»

Last week an important article on Turkey was published on the website of Foreign Affairs, the most prestigious American magazine on foreign policy.

The authors are Michael J. Koplow, a Ph.D. candidate, and Steven A. Cook, an influential Council on Foreign Relations fellow. The title of their short piece is “The Turkish Paradox.” It is a significant contribution to the debate on Turkey because it reflects a growing consensus among informed Turkey watchers in the US and Europe. I am not talking here about the many unreliable and misinformed publications that have appeared in several US and European media outlets in the past couple of months suggesting that Turkey has become a police state where every critic one day ends up in prison. Cook has been following developments in Turkey for many years and is known for his balanced if sometimes provoking writings on the region. His most recent article is not a quick shot but based on long-lasting observations and a clear sympathy for Turkey’s efforts to overcome its undemocratic past.

According to Koplow and Cook, the problem with analyzing Turkey is that the country simultaneously embraces and abuses democracy. The authors praise the long list of reforms that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has introduced during the past decade and that have allowed for greater participation of citizens in civic life. At the same time, they criticize the pressure on the media and the scores of arrests without proper evidence that have limited the ability of society to contest governmental power. Their conclusion is pertinent: “Turkey has become more open in some ways and more closed in others. … An autocratic slide will undermine its international standing, built largely on its democratization. Should Turkey’s liberalization falter, the country may quickly lose its influence -- suggesting that there are consequences to having it both ways.”

One of the problematic developments Koplow and Cook refer to in their article is the arrest of thousands of people suspected of having links with the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). Of course, the two American observers don’t know the details of all these cases. But their impression, shared by most of their colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, is that the large majority of these arrests are either based on flimsy evidence or on dubious articles in the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and Anti-Terror Law that don’t distinguish between people who actively support the use of violence by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and those who reject terror but sympathize with some or all of the political goals of the Kurdish nationalist movement.

This week we will be witnessing another example of this negative trend that undermines Turkey’s appropriate fight against terrorism and compromises the democratic progress that has been made. One of the suspects in the KCK trial that will start on Monday is Marmara University professor Büşra Ersanlı. She is charged with “leading an illegal organization” and is facing a prison sentence of maximum 22 years. Her crime? She gave lessons at the Political Academy of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and was a member of the party’s Constitutional Commission. Among other things, she is accused of carrying out the instructions of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. In a recent article in daily Radikal, Ersanlı showed how the so-called evidence in her file mainly consists of a collection of reshuffled personal notes. Many friends and colleagues have underlined the point that Ersanlı has rejected violence throughout her life and, as respected writer İpek Çalişlar put it, “It is an absurd claim by the state’s justice system that she participated in an organization which takes power from violence.”

Ersanlı’s case is only one of many that will be dealt with this week, but it has drawn a lot of attention and indignation all over the world because it so clearly lacks any credibility. Even outsiders can see that her arrest is part of the government’s efforts to intimidate all those who empathize with the Kurdish movement and not based on sound proof that convincingly links Ersanlı to terrorist activities.

Ersanlı’s arrest and imprisonment are emblematic of the Turkish paradox. One can only hope that all those in Turkey who want the process of democratization to continue realize in time that cases like the one against Ersanlı have one effect only: They fatally weaken the trust, both in Turkey and abroad, that this government is still committed to introducing more democracy and strengthening the rule of law.