Until as late as 10 years ago, the drafter of this text was a firm believer in the potentiality of a European future for Turkey, reciprocally beneficial to all, the country itself, its neighbours, Europe and the “West” – a concept much less in peril, in those days, than it is now. Why not, when all was said and done? The memory of the heady 1990’s –an age of almost arrogant European self-confidence and optimism, of triumphs of liberal democracy and total defeats of totalitarianism, everywhere–, was still fresh.
Why wouldn’t Turkey succeed to live up to European standards? After all, Turkish political, economic and social structures, under military tutelage as they were, were still a much closer approximation to a free-market democracy than those of several European countries, only just emerging from the abyss of Real Socialism, after almost half a century under the yoke of the USSR. Not least, the upper strata of Turkish society and its ruling class looked and sounded much more cosmopolitan, multilingual and westernized, than what was then surfacing as the ruling class –monolingual, or at best Russian speakers–, of those hapless fellow Europeans, victims of the history of our continent.
If Poland or Hungary, could, despite their complete lack of a democratic past, attain credible parliamentarianism and an increasingly respectable human rig his record, then why not Turkey, boasting, when negotiations with EU were about to begin, a 60 years old facade of parliamentarianism and a tradition of mildly fair elections.
If the status of a full member of the European Community –as it was then–, had been bestowed upon Greece, as early as in the late 1970’s, after seven years of military dictatorship, if only a few years after the fall of the USSR full EU membership could be envisaged for Central European countries as of the beginning of the 21st century, why shouldn’t or couldn’t Turkey’s membership be envisaged for the early 2020’s?
The agreement at the European Council of Helsinki (December 1999), that Turkey would accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice on the extent of the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Greece in the Aegean, seemed as the beginning of the settlement of a dispute which had often threatened to provoke an armed conflict between the two countries. Even the longstanding issue of Cyprus was no longer seen as a grave obstacle within the framework of the EU.
Then, in 2002, the AKP party and Mr. Erdogan came to power. But even that victory of an Islamic political formation, and its gradual consolidation in government did not, initially, weaken faith in Turkey’s will and capability to continue marching towards the EU. On the contrary, as Mr. Erdogan’s government was, methodically, containing the omnipotence of the armed forces, strengthening the plausibility, even the credibility, of Turkey’s democratic institutions and leading the country to unprecedented economic growth, the hope was further encouraged that Turkey, increasingly democratic and prosperous, would, eventually, find a rightful place amongst the other EU member country.
The illusion was not to last very long. It is not the purpose of this text to elaborate on what went wrong. Suffice it be said here that the European side was not totally blameless, as certain European leaders were never missing an opportunity to sound skeptical and fearful at Turkey’s cultural diversity. As to the rest, in a vicious circle of cause and effect Mr. Erdogan, his party and the vast, neglected, masses of Anatolia seemed to succumb to growing brutal political authoritarianism, anti-secular religiosity, extreme nationalism, and imperial nostalgia. Unveiled revisionism of the post World War I treaties which defined Turkey’s present international frontiers, was only a byproduct of such an inflammable ideological amalgam.
How much of all this was there, in Mr. Erdogan’s mind, since the very beginning and what, if any, has been implanted by his early mentor, Mr. Davoutoglou, or mushroomed from circumstances, is without much consequence.
What is important now is that a very different, restlessly mutating, Turkey has surfaced; politically autocratic, instinctively anti-Western, demographically and economically vibrant and geopolitically as vital as ever.
Both, the US and the EU, must neither antagonize, nor attempt to appease this new Turkey. They must only absorb the fact that this old NATO ally can no longer be counted upon as a regional Western asset.
The writing is already on the wall. Mr. Erdogan’s present strategic alliance with Mr. Putin and the theocrats of Tehran is not –this paper has reiterated this ad nauseam–, as ephemeral as some think. The similarities between Mr. Erdogan’s and Mr. Putin’s regime rapidly augment. Let it not be forgotten that in the early 1920’s Bolshevik Russia was Kemal Ataturk’s main ally during his revolt against the Powers of the Entente Cordiale and the Treaty of Versailles.
The difference between Turkey’s rulers of today and their predecessors is that while the latter wanted to be “Western” and “European”, unprepared or incapable as they were to act the part, Mr. Erdogan and his followers do not even care to look or sound it. Iconic evidence to this was Mr. Erdogan’s direct, surprisingly blunt, condition to exchange the two Greek military men held in Turkey for having mistakenly crossed the frontier with the eight Turkish officers and NCO’s who had sought and been given asylum in Greece. His predecessors would not have put it so brutally. They were no paragons of human rights but, at least, they were mindful to appear civilized and well aware of the rules of etiquette observed in a state of law. Mr. Erdogan does not mind sounding primitive and oriental.
Forces of fierce cultural diversity have been released, which had for almost a century been compressed in an iron vessel of secularism in military hands. They cannot be breathed back. The Genie is out of the bottle. Mr. Erdogan is there to stay.
As we said, the US and the EU must neither antagonize nor provoke Turkey. What can be done –apart from yielding to extortion–, to prolong a parting process and render it as smooth as possible, must be done. The fact remains though that this is the beginning of a long goodbye. The EU must start planning ahead, and the US all the more so.
As to Greece, fairly elected governments are what those who have elected them deserve. The punishments of history are usually collective. Thus, it is up to Greeks to decide if they want their country to be seen as an outpost of Europe or a no man’s land between West and East; a gray zone, politically, culturally and economically. For the time being, they look undecided. As shown by multiple polls, Mr. Putin and his thuggish style of government are much more admired in Greece than even in Turkey, his ally and accomplice in Syria.
P.S. In 1979 the Ayatollahs of Tehran found themselves possessing several squadrons of F14 Tomcat fighters, sold to Iran together with some other of the best elements of Western weaponry, while the country was under a very different regime. It is a very good thing that the US seemed to remember that nightmare. The suspension of the delivery of the first F35 stealth fighters to Turkey, (as this paper is going to press) is a first step towards the right direction. Its nessessity was stressed in our February issue.