Europe’s Troubled Cousin
As riots provoke talk of human rights, Europe needs Turkey more than ever
For Europeans, Turkey is a conundrum. Why can’t Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan just be reasonable about the protests about Gezi Park? The question seems to be on everybody’s mind, yet European leaders continue to speak softly, as if not to awaken the beast.
There have been a few critical remarks here and there, as when EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele urged Turkey to maintain values of freedom and fundamental rights in the aftermath of the Istanbul protests in June.
But where are the grating voices of Angela Merkel or David Cameron when you really need them?
The truth is that Erdoğan has played his cards right over the last few years, turning Turkey from a political ugly duckling into a graceful and stern economic swan, parading its white feathers in between continents. Sustaining a booming economy for over a decade, the country has earned praise not only from financial markets.
Leading economists, like Jeffrey Sachs, have also joined the chorus, eager to applaud the Erdoğan government for policies that have led to an average growth rate of 5 per cent per year between 2002-2012. There has been increased attention to higher education, renewable energy and tourism: In 2012 alone, Turkey attracted more than 29 million visitors, making it the sixth most-visited country in the world according to a World Tourism Organisation report.
In short, Turkey has been the success story of the Middle East, eager to prove that democracy and Islam can be true friends.
Politically too, Turkey has come a long way. It has remained at peace, despite regional turmoil, by maintaining a moderate diplomatic voice to keep its internal balance. Accepting some 400,000 Syrian refugees from its neighbour to the southeast, it has proven capable, yet unobliged, to ameliorate regional qualms.
Even the sensitive Kurdish issue has been addressed in recent months, with the Prime Minister and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan taking steps towards ending the conflict with the help of a "Commission of Wise Persons", a group of public intellectuals and artists meant to promote nationwide reconciliation.
However, in light of the recent public display of anger at what is perceived as an increasingly authoritiarian rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s seemingly unfailing economy and rising democracy have both taken a hit. Erdoğan’s harsh attitude towards the protesters has sparked international critique, and even the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned his people against traveling to the "troubled country".
While mainstream media have been criticised as biased by watchdogs like the Committee to Protect Journalists, for airing documentaries about penguins instead of a live coverage of the protests, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr have been screaming with details from inside the trenches – #ErdoğanResign is still trending. Çapuling, or resisting, has become a favourite past-time in Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities.
With Westerners joining the ad-hoc yoga sessions, grandmas in gas-masks, and pop-up guitar sessions on street corners, the peaceful protests are not unlike Glastonbury festival, but without the mud and the drugs.
In the meantime, the government remains unbendable. On Children’s Day in Turkey, when every year a child is symbolically entrusted with the president’s position for one day, Erdoğan reassured a little girl by saying, "You are the President of Turkey now. You can do anything, you can hang people, and you can kill people. It is all allowed!" – a startling declaration coming from the man expected to seek the Presidency next year.
Perhaps feeling liberated from his dependency to the West, Erdoğan is eager to assert his newly found position of power, both domestically and internationally.
In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu posited that Turks "have to be aware that the Eurocentric culture has reached its limits. Now, there is a rise of authentic cultures, of old traditions," referring to Turkey’s strategic regional importance and its economic advantage.
Erdoğan is beginning to realise that a "new Middle East run by the people of the Middle East, not imposed by outsiders" might be preferable to chasing distant EU ambitions.
For the first time since Ottoman rule, Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. And Erdoğan knows it.
Cristina Rotaru works at the Democratic Progress Institute in London, an NGO for peacebuilding and democratic advancement.
She holds BAs in Journalism and Political Science from the University of Vienna and is completing her MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College London.
Her research focuses on reconciliation, post-conflict reconstruction and theories of religion in Turkey, Syria and the Middle East.