By Jonathan Power
In 1978, a young Oliver Stone directed Midnight Express, a film based on the story of an American sentenced to 30 years in a Turkish prison for drug smuggling. It portrayed in stark detail a total lack of respect for human rights or normal human behavior on the part of Turkish authorities. Many Westerners held this impression of Turkey, even as Turkey was in fact profoundly changing.
Even today, some hold on to this now-discredited viewpoint. This is particularly true in France, a country that has long made it clear that it will obstruct any move to bring Turkey into the European Union. Germany, which has far more Turkish immigrant workers than any other European country, has also historically been home to much anti-Turkey sentiment. However, the truth is the Turkey of today is largely different from the Turkey of 40 years ago. Not least, it has become a democracy, albeit a highly imperfect one.
Yet there also exist appalling signs that Turkey is winding the clock back. Having been rebuffed in 2010 by Europe in its attempt to enter the EU, despite previous promises that its entry would be welcome, Turkish authorities have begun sliding back into authoritarianism. This is grist for the mill for those who have long held a Midnight Express view of Turkey.
A truer picture of Turkey must be more subtle and complex. On one hand, there are undoubtedly signs of growing authoritarianism: the arrest of dozens of journalists; the savage treatment of street protestors; the attempt to undermine the legitimate Kurdish party in parliament, the Peoples’ Democratic Party; and the violence waged against ordinary Kurds in cities like Diyarbakır, a mainly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey.
On the other, it is not very long ago that the government carried out similar repressive tactics. So what is so different today? Isn’t it simply more of the same? In 2005 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk, was prosecuted for expressing a critical opinion on the Kurdish and Armenian policies of the government. Only because of EU pressure were the charges dropped.
There were two similar cases a year later. The journalist Perihan Mağden was arrested for defending in print a conscientious objector who had been sentenced to four years in a military prison for refusing to wear his military uniform. Fortunately, Mağden was finally acquitted on the grounds of free speech. Hrant Dink, Turkish-Armenian editor of the bilingual paper Agos, was not so lucky. He was sentenced to six months in jail for allegedly insulting “Turkishness,” thus violating the notorious Article 301 of the then new Turkish penal code. Before he could begin his sentence, however, he was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist.
Nevertheless, the years spent negotiating with the EU saw tremendous progress in the government’s dealings with the Kurds. Fifteen years ago the government would not allow Kurdish to be taught in schools, nor did it allow Kurdish-language newspapers or television. However, under pressure to satisfy the EU, these policies were dropped.
It was the EU’s on-and-off stance to reject Turkey that dictated first a slow but significant improvement of Turkey’s human rights behavior—and then an equally significant regression to where we are today. The EU’s decision to reject Turkey six years ago made it clear that there was little chance of Turkish entry in the near future. With this rejection, authoritarian and anti-Kurd behavior have returned.
Except. The recent flow of refugees fleeing violence from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan has been a game changer for Turkey. These migrants, who come by the hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Europe, use the Turkish coastline to travel in boats to Greece.
In a matter of weeks EU policy toward Turkey somersaulted, pushed strongly by German chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the Merkel deal, Turkish people will be granted visa-free travel within the EU’s Schengen area by late spring. Additionally, the EU is giving Turkey vast sums to settle more refugees on its own soil. Most significantly, the EU is returning to serious negotiations about Turkish entry.
Does this mean that Turkey will improve its human rights practices? Unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence that it will. The government continues to oppress the Kurds of Diyarbakır. Journalists are still suffering, too: The editor-in-chief of the major newspaper Cumhuriyet was sent to trial last week for publishing a video that allegedly showed Turkish intelligence bringing weapons into Syria.
However, it is still too early to say. After all, President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have no reason to deliver until the EU has actually lowered the drawbridge to membership. Promises from the EU exist, but implementation has still to come. Hopefully by the early summer the EU machinery will be in place and working, for the sake of democracy.
Then we should expect Turkey to loosen up and become once again a country on the road to liberalism and enlightenment. Let’s see.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Vera Kratochvil]