February 25, 2014 § 16 Comments
Let me stipulate from the beginning that I have no idea whether the allegations are true that Tayyip Erdoğan conspired with his son Bilal to hide one billion dollars once Turkey’s graft probe was opened in December. Recordings of the two Erdoğans having four separate phone conversations about this topic are on Youtube [ed. note: the billion dollar figure is listed in the introduction to the Youtube clip and has been widely reported, but the taped conversation itself shows the Erdoğans talking about hiding tens of millions and not billions], and for those of you – like me – whose Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate a bunch of garbled conversations in their entirety, a translated transcript can be found here. Erdoğan has not yet denied that the voices on the recordings are his and Bilal’s, but instead has dismissed the taped conversations as having been “montaged,” by which I assume he means that different recordings were spliced together to misrepresent what he said. Sabah and Yeni Şafak are both claiming that the recordings were doctored and that they have their own recordings of the people who edited the Erdoğan phone call. It wouldn’t surprise me if Erdoğan was hiding huge sums of money, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if he is being framed to look much worse than he actually is (although the latter would surprise me more than the former). Neither side here is particularly laudatory or above dirty tricks, and it’s a shame that this is Turkey’s new reality; a corrupt and paranoid government in a death match against a shadowy and corrupt powerful social group.
Of everything that has come out of Turkey in the past two months, this is the most explosive and has actual potential to bring down Erdoğan and the government, since these are charges that are going to be less easy to just dismiss. Assuming for the moment that there is some element of truth to the news and that Erdoğan is sitting on a pile of money that he is trying to hide, three quick takeaways come to mind.
First, one has to begin to question whether the prime minister is capable of thinking clearly. He certainly knew that his phones were tapped, as he expressly warns Bilal on the recording. Furthermore, in December 2012 it came out that Erdoğan’s home office, car, and parliamentary office were bugged, which had Gülenist fingerprints all over it. He knew that he was being listened to and he knew that the Gülenists had dirt on many of his closest allies, and yet he still allegedly called Bilal four times to discuss hiding money on the very day that the heat was the hottest. Leaving all of his other issues aside, is this someone who should be running a country? I have always assumed that the crazier statements that emanate from Erdoğan’s mouth are in the vein of him being crazy like a fox, and that he doesn’t actually believe that higher interest rates will lead to inflation or that there is such thing as an interest rate lobby or that social media is actually the worst menace to society that exists. But maybe he really does believe all of these things, in which case his judgment is fatally flawed and it explains why he would talk about hiding one billion dollars over an unsecured line when he had a very strong hunch that the people who were looking to bring him down were listening in.
Second, and this flows from the first, Erdoğan has reached the point where he is in such a cocoon that he assumes he can just do anything and say anything without real consequences. And really, why wouldn’t he? Throughout Gezi and the corruption scandal up until today, the AKP has not been in any real danger of losing a national election, and Erdoğan himself has been able to dictate what his next moves will be. He says all manner of outrageous things, micromanages municipal building projects, has Turks gassed and beaten in the streets, tries his best to sabotage his own economy by driving away foreign investment, and yet still has a large percentage of his supporters who are willing to believe every explanation and denial, no matter how ridiculous, and to go down with their captain as he sinks the Turkish ship of state. Maybe he isn’t losing his marbles, but just assumes based on recent history that he can do anything he wants and get away with it. He can siphon off a billion dollars and give it out to his family and friends, and talk about how to hide it when he knows his bitter rivals are recording him, and then not even deny that it is him talking on the recordings, and he may still not be dislodged from power. Maybe the joke is on us and not on him. Or maybe it’s not, and he is in such a state of epistemic closure and surrounded by sycophants that he has very badly misjudged the situation, which speaks volumes as well. I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but none of them are good.
Lastly, let’s drop the pretense that Turkey’s political system comes close to anything resembling a consolidated democracy, a mature democracy, or any other phrase the Turkish government wants to use. We are accustomed to seeing dictators steal from public coffers in order to line their own pockets along this order of magnitude, whether it be the Shah’s plane having difficulty taking off from Iran because it was so laden down with gold bars or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s various seaside palaces or Teodorin Obiang buying mansions, private jets, and yachts. When a prime minister is elected three times in a country that is trying to join the EU and is a NATO member and has been widely hailed as the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy, you do not expect to see that prime minister – a man who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul and has never held a job outside of working in politics and does not come from family money – amassing a billion dollars on the job. As much as this is an indictment of Erdoğan, it is a far bigger indictment of the Turkish system itself, since a functioning democracy with genuinely transparent institutions would never abide such over the top corruption. No democracy is perfect, and certainly the U.S. has plenty of its own issues, but one can never envision something like this taking place under everyone’s nose for over a decade. As bad as I have been saying that things are in Turkey, it’s even worse than I thought, which makes me extremely sad and disheartened for a country that I adore.
February 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that Turkey is backtracking on a couple of issues that have created friction with the U.S. in response to more open American criticism of Turkey. The Obama administration has generally given Turkey a free pass on its bad behavior across a range of issues, and I’m not confident that this new approach – which is more of a piecemeal one rather than a comprehensive rethinking of our strategy toward Turkey – is going to be more than a temporary blip. It should be though, and it shows that Turkey is indeed responsive to pressure. Here is a teaser:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.”
Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.
It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority.
To read the rest of the article, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
February 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
Almost one year after Bibi Netanyahu’s attempt to patch up relations with Turkey with his phone call apology to Tayyip Erdoğan as Barack Obama stood looking over his shoulder, Turkey is again talking about about normalizing relations with its former ally. In the eleven months since the apology, Turkey and Israel have been negotiating over the terms of an agreement, with precisely how much compensation must be paid to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara the major sticking point. Turkey has seemed in no rush to get a deal done, and at various times has made noise about Israel having to admit fault or to pay more money than Israel is prepared to do. And of course, Erdoğan and others have wasted no opportunity to bash Israel whenever convenient, either directly such as blaming Israel for the Egyptian military coup, or indirectly in referring to “dark forces” and “foreign powers” seeking to bring Turkey down. Formal negotiations may be taking place, but Israel and Turkey haven’t seemed terribly close to actually burying the hatchet.
Last month, however, news leaked that Turkish and Israeli negotiating teams were getting close to a final deal over compensation, and last week Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly confirmed that an agreement to normalize ties was in the works. As usual when it comes to this subject, I have been skeptical that this will actually happen, which is why I have resisted the impulse to write about it. Right on cue, two days after Davutoğlu made his announcement, Erdoğan came out and said that normalization won’t happen until Israel agrees in writing to completely end the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday that Israel is ready to sign an agreement but that Erdoğan himself is the stumbling block holding up a deal.
So what’s up with the mixed signals? Are Turkey and Israel close to an actual deal that will see ambassadors return to Tel Aviv and Ankara, or is this more of the same old routine? It is pretty easy to explain what is going on here, and it boils down to Turkey’s competing priorities that are pulling it in different directions. On the one hand, Turkey has had a very rough eight months. The Gezi protests, the economy spiraling downward, the lira crashing, the corruption scandal, the war between the AKP and the Gülenists, a growing Syrian refugee problem…it is entirely understandable that Turkey is feeling battered. On top of that, the Western response to attempts to blame Turkey’s problems on the U.S., Israel, Lufthansa, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the interest rate lobby, the porn lobby, and anyone else the Turkish government can come up with has been to warn Turkey that it is destroying its reputation in Western capitals. When you add anger over Turkish behavior such as agreeing to buy a missile defense system from a Chinese firm under sanctions or funneling money to Syrian jihadi groups into the mix, Turkey all of a sudden has legitimate concerns about its relationship with the U.S. and EU countries. Viewed this way, the turn toward getting serious about reconciliation with Israel isn’t actually about Israel at all. Because the Turkish government in many instances takes an Israel-centric view of the world, it thinks that patching things up with Israel will solve its problems with Washington. By normalizing ties with Israel, it is signaling to the West that it is still a reliable ally who can be trusted, and that it shouldn’t be left on the outside looking in. Normalization with Israel is another way of saying, “We know we have behaved badly and in strange ways, but we haven’t gone all the way down the rabbit hole quite yet.” This explains Davutoğlu’s comments, particularly since the Foreign Ministry is more sensitive than other Turkish state institutions to Turkey’s perception among Western policymakers and its diplomatic status.
On the other hand is the force that generally drives everything in the Erdoğan era, which is Turkish domestic politics. I’ve written about this so many times that there’s no need for yet another megillah, but making up with Israel doesn’t exactly play well with your average Turk, and that goes double for Erdoğan’s base. I’ve seen some counterintuitive speculation that normalizing ties would be politically helpful since it will give the AKP a foreign policy victory that it can hold up, but I think that misreads the nature of Turkish politics along with mistaking the nature of whatever deal emerges. Forcing Bibi to apologize could be spun as bringing Israel to its knees; signing a deal to normalize relations that lets Israel pay some compensation money without any real movement on Gaza (since Israel is simply not going to end the blockade just because Turkey asks) doesn’t have the same shine to it. Erdoğan is looking at municipal elections next month – elections that he has repeatedly been touting as a harbinger of the AKP’s strength – and then the presidential election this summer and parliamentary elections next year. He is, as always, thinking about maintaining and growing his political power, and taking a hardline with Israel is a no-brainer for him electorally. He is already facing much lowered polling numbers and political approval ratings, so he can’t take a chance at losing what has been such a fruitful issue for him.
Which one of these impulses will win out? I claim no inside information on how the talks are actually going, and my general cynicism and conviction that domestic politics rules all makes me think that normalization is not actually close. But I have been wrong on this issue before and very well may be again, so I don’t rule anything out. These dueling constituencies though – the outside world and the domestic audience – are tough to satisfy simultaneously, so at some point Erdoğan will have to make a choice as to which constituency is more important for Turkey’s long term health and his own political survival, and which of these two outcomes he values more dearly.