After a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, Turkey has once again become the center of media attention with the consolidation of power by yet another authoritarian-leaning leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. With the continent facing continued challenges of violent conflict and terrorism, World Policy Journal spoke to Elmira Bayrasli, guest co-editor of our all-women winter 2016/2017 issue and a World Policy Institute fellow. Bayrasli spoke about the complexities behind Turkey’s ongoing conflicts and her work with Foreign Policy Interrupted.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Let’s start with the most recent terrorist attack in an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s, where a gunman opened fire killing 39 and injuring more. It seems like it is just one in a string of attacks on Turkey. Why has Turkey recently become a focal point for violence?
ELMIRA BAYRASLI: When you take a look at the New Year’s Eve attack at the Reina nightclub, I think there’s a lot to unpack because it wasn’t a mass shooting and it wasn’t a bomb. It’s unlike a lot of other attacks that have taken place in Turkey. Mass shooting is actually not a very common phenomenon in Turkey, whereas bombings have been. I think the shooting was taking the terrorism and insecurity in Turkey to another level. But before you can get to what happened and what is now happening, there are a couple of things to take a look at.
One is that Turkish democracy has always been very fragile, so even from the founding in 1923 when Mustafa Atatürk established the Republic of Turkey, it was very much established from very top down. Turkey has struggled throughout the 20th century to gain a hold not only on its political stability, but also on its economy. The government finally seemed to grasp that when the Justice and Development Party, which is known as the AKP, and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power. The party was elected in 2002 and Erdoğan became the prime minister in 2003. From 2003 until now, we have seen Turkey transformed: Its economy has grown under the single-majority rule of the AKP from 2002 until now and the country has joined the G-20, but its political institutions did not grow along with the economy. That’s very important to point out. A lot of the AKP success has been a result of the sound management of the Turkish economy, so certainly we can credit the Erdoğan government and the AKP for not only that, but also for delivering services to people. When you take a look at basic needs in Turkey, whether it’s education, healthcare, or public transportation, those are the things that the AKP did deliver on. When the party first came to power, they were very much technocrats and they very much focused on those issues.
The other important thing to point out is that the AKP also really gained in power not only because of their management, but also because the opposition has been so weak in Turkey. Their main opposition, the People’s Republican Party, known as the CHP, has been suffering from very poor leadership and a lack of a clear policy platform. Most of the people that support the CHP are secular elite Turks located in the major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, but throughout the country, most people are not supporters of the CHP. Those are the two major phenomena.
WPJ: What are the contributing forces to the recent growth of terrorism, and what are they trying to achieve?
EB: The recent growth of terrorism in Turkey has been the result of both domestic politics and foreign policy. Domestically, because there is a very weak opposition, Erdoğan has just grown in power. The saying goes, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and we’ve seen that come true in Turkey. Erdoğan has been out to destroy any dissent and any opposition to him. In foreign policy under Erdoğan, Turkey initially adopted in 2009 something called the “zero problems” policy—they wanted to have good relations with all their neighbors in what is an actually very fragile region. Turkey’s neighbors include Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Russia. These have been historically very problematic countries.
Now with the Syrian civil war and the disarray in Iraq, Turkey has deteriorating relations with everybody. Turkey is now holding about three million refugees flown from Syria. When the Syrian civil war first broke out after 2011, Erdoğan thought he could persuade Assad to implement reforms but he was proven wrong. Assad then became somebody Erdoğan wanted out of power. Turkey was directly supporting the anti-Assad fighters like Jabhat al-Nusra to help topple the Assad regime. Unfortunately, that support early on has now led to the rise of these other extreme groups, namely the Islamic State.
In 2015, Turkey had elections in June, where the AKP lost its majority and couldn’t form a coalition—so a second election was held in November. That summer, there were all sorts of instability in Turkey, like bombings in border towns that the Islamic State supposedly claimed responsibility for. In the meantime, Turkey also reignited its historical problems with the Kurds and particularly the Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK. Why this is relevant and why Turkey becomes a very complicated place to understand is that the Kurds are the biggest minority in Turkey and historically, they have wanted the right to have their own language, schools, and television stations. Erdoğan actually was the first leader in Turkey to extend them those rights. In 2015, he became much more hardline and nationalistic and turned his back on the Kurds who supported him in the first place. This has very much to do with Syria, because the Kurds are aligned with Assad and they’re against the anti-Assad fighters.
WPJ: What role has the U.S. played in this fight against the Islamic State?
EB: If you take a look at what position the U.S. is in, in order to fight the Islamic State, they want to support the Kurds—particularly the YPG, which is a Syrian Kurdish group. The Turks are against that because they are afraid their own population is going to call for rebellion and separatism. It becomes very complicated who is supporting whom. Because of that position, in order for the U.S. to stand down on its position on the Kurds, the Turks aligned with Americans to bomb Islamic extremists in northern Syria from Turkish soil (the Incirlik air base). That’s when we start to see the Islamists lash out at Erdoğan. So in a way he created his own problem. The Reina nightclub attack was the first attack in Turkey that the Islamic State did claim, despite there being a number of other attacks that many believe the Islamic State was responsible for.
So you have the Islamic State trying to damage Erdoğan and cause political chaos in Turkey; you have the Kurds and the PKK, which is at war with the Turkish government; and you have Erdoğan himself who is trying to change the constitution. The 1980 constitution was created by the military after it overthrew the democratically elected government. The constitution needs to be changed, however, for what Erdoğan wants to do: to remove power from parliament so that policies and legislations are not debated in the legislature. Instead, he wants them to through an executive system like we have here in the U.S. He makes the comparison constantly to France and the U.S., referencing how those countries have very strong presidencies. But in those countries, there is also a very strong checks and balances system, and Turkey does not have that. This is why a change of constitution to take power away from parliament is so problematic.
WPJ: In addition to the wave of terrorism affecting Turkey, there is also a feeling of political instability following the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. And there are many reasons why the coup failed, including the non-unified military and Erdoğan’s mass mobilization of his supporters. How has it affected Erdoğan’s larger political agenda? Is it a curse or a blessing for him?
EB: It’s still unclear about who perpetrated the coup, although every indication does seem that it was done by individuals who support an Islamic cleric who actually lives in the U.S., named Fethullah Gülen. He and Erdoğan used to be allies and are now bitter enemies, so it seems credible that the Gülenists are the ones who called for this very badly staged coup attempt. It took a lot of people, including myself, by surprise. I thought the days of military coups in Turkey were over. However much you can criticize and disagree with Erdoğan, he is still the democratically elected leader. To overthrow him and the AKP is completely wrong.
WPJ: Were there any signs were there that the coup might happen? Why did Erdoğan ignore these signs?
EB: Gönül Tol, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., was one of the very few people that actually thought the military might step in and overthrow the government, precisely because the opposition in Turkey is so weak and Erdoğan has grown in power. Another thing he is doing is jailing dissenters, particularly in the press. A lot of newspapers and media stations have been shut down, and anyone who criticizes the government and Erdoğan himself has been arrested. The press is a very important arm of democracy, and it is being suppressed.
In 2013, a lot of anti-government protests broke out, known as the Gezi Park protests. Gezi Park sits next to Taksim Square, which is the main square in Istanbul. The government wanted to build a shopping mall in that area and was confronted by sit-in protests from environmentalists. The government’s reaction went overboard: They sent in police with water cannons and tear gas, which triggered a whole new series of anti-government protests. Erdoğan also purged both the police and the judiciary when phone calls with his son about allegedly millions of dollars they had in their home were leaked in December 2013. As a result, he replaced all the individuals involved in the leak with people who are loyal to him. In retrospect, it is not surprising to see somebody was trying to overthrow the government because there are so very few channels of dissent in Turkey.
WPJ: Erdoğan himself is an extremely polarizing figure. In fact, you’ve even said in a piece published on Medium, “it is hard, if not impossible to find an objective perspective on him.” You met him shortly after he became prime minister in 2003—is he as polarizing or complex as the media portrays? How is he the product of Turkey’s broken democracy?
EB: I found him to be extremely charismatic. People talk about Bill Clinton and how mesmerizing he is—I think Erdoğan is certainly on par with that. He knows how to give a speech and wow crowds. When he first came to power, the thing that appealed to me, certainly, and to a lot of other people was the way he talked. He talked about a united, more inclusive Turkey—a Turkey that reached out and protected its minorities. His language was about inclusion, reaching the European Union, and taking Turkey forward. And he represented what he calls the “Black Turks,” the unrepresented rural individuals that had been forgotten for a long time by the Turkish government and the Turkish elites.
I think where Erdoğan becomes a polarizing figure is his grip on power because when you pit his support against “White Turks” or the “secular elite,” you start to see him hold onto power a lot more. If Turkey had stronger institutions with checks and balances and a strong judiciary that upheld the rule of law, instead of a military that overthrew past governments, Erdoğan may not have taken the path that he has. He is certainly accountable for the things he is doing today, but he is also the product of a broken democracy.
WPJ: Since the coup, the Turkish government has demanded the U.S. return Fethullah Gülen, the supposed ring leader of the coup, now residing in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. The Obama administration has thus far refused to comply, but how might a Trump administration behave differently? And how might U.S.-Turkish relations evolve over the next four years?
EB: I certainly think the Erdoğan government breathed a sigh of relief when Trump was elected because they are under the assumption that they will have a better relationship with the Trump administration than they did with the Obama administration, which has not extradited Fethullah Gülen. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will proceed on Turkey.
WPJ: And while the geopolitical realities of Turkey appear to be quite frightening, there may be a glimmer of hope—particularly on the side of entrepreneurship and innovation. In 2015, you published the book From the Other Side of the World, looking at entrepreneurs from non-Western parts of the world such as Turkey. Can you tell us about some of the Turkish entrepreneurs you met? How are they revolutionizing their country?
EB: If there is any hope in Turkey, it’s because of the entrepreneurs and the startup community, particularly in Istanbul. I’m very close to the community there and the ecosystem that they built. A number of venture capital firms have been formed and some very successful innovative companies are based in Istanbul. That being said, I also think that their future is bleak. This year is going to decide whether that community is able to withstand the political uncertainties. It’s very doubtful that we will see any successful exits or acquisitions in Turkey. Foreign investors have just abandoned this country. 2017 is going to be very problematic for the startup community. I give them a lot of credit and think that they are the one hope in Turkey, but they are so small that I don’t think they can actually take on the big problems that the country is experiencing.
WPJ: What role do grass-roots organizations, activists, and academics play in shaping Turkey’s future? Is there a place for them to bring about change at all?
EB: Unfortunately, Erdoğan shut down a lot of NGOs, particularly ones that engage in political activism. The room to mobilize and organize is very limited. But Turks, like any people, are resilient. If their livelihood is threatened, they will stand up and try to protect their rights. Although certainly things look very grim in Turkey, the average citizens want to make sure that the right thing is done. At the end of the day, certainly they will voice their opinion and hopefully stand up for what is right.
WPJ: We’d be remiss if we didn’t include a note about the winter issue of World Policy Journal, which your organization, Foreign Policy Interrupted, guest-edited. Much like this interview, it aims to provide a forum for female foreign policy experts to be heard. Could you tell us a bit more about your work with FPI and why it’s so important?
EB: Foreign policy is becoming so complicated in the 21st century that power is no longer held with leaders of nation-states like in the 20th century. With the advent of social media and technology, individuals anywhere have power. We are carrying around smartphones that actually have more power than NASA did in the 1960s. We now get information almost at the same time as the president of the United States, and the pace at which we respond to various issues and crises has sped up. We saw that with Tahrir Square.
Not only has the pace at which world events are unfolding changed, but the way that they unfold has also changed. No longer can we say something happening overseas is not going to affect us. Because our financial institutions and supply chains are globalized, something that happens in China or Korea affects the U.S. economy. We can’t wait. I think the urgent need to have as many people on board trying to solve problems has to include women, people from the ground, and people from different countries. We need diversity in foreign policy because we need a lot of solutions and we need to move fast. So the importance of this all-female issue is to really highlight and listen to the voices that have constantly been marginalized at the table.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Connie E]
[Photo courtesy of New America]