Turkish foreign relations harmed by Erdogan’s domestic moves

Controversial moves at home could harm Turkey’s relations with the West, especially its neighbours in the European Union.

Before ending up as the victor of last August’s presidential race, Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to increase the powers of the Turkish head of state. But the borderline between boosting authorities and maintaining an authoritarian leadership style is not fully clear. Erdogan spent more than ten years as a prime minister and head of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).

His achievements, whether in terms of developing the country’s economy or ending the decades-long military interference in public affairs, represent the key causes for such long-term political survival. Perhaps such successes have chiefly allowed him to be the president after ending his premiership term, putting his old foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, on top of the cabinet.

But lately, Erdogan has put himself in a multi-dimensional confrontation, which involves his opponents inside Turkey and the West, mainly the European Union. Tensions with the EU involved domestic acts that the EU has expressed concern about.

Political unrest in Turkey started, or re-emerged to the surface in stricter terms, on 14 December. Police forces raided Turkey’s Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu (STV) channel, detaining tens of journalists and workers. These people were charged with conspiring to overthrow Erdogan.

At such point, allies of the AKP are involved more than any other element. The newspaper, the best-selling in Turkey, and the TV channel are known for their close connections Fethullah Gulen, a prominent cleric currently based in the United States. Gulen used to be a strong backer of Erdogan, providing him with the support of his Hizmet Movement in consecutive electoral races.

Last year, the relationship started to move in the opposition direction after a corruption scandal in December 2013 that led to the resignation of three ministers. Erdogan accused Gulen of pushing the matter to weaken Erdogan’s position ahead of by local elections.

Police officers, judges and prosecutors were taken out of their positions for being linked to Gulen. According to analysts, Erdogan seeks to control Turkish media, since a stronger grip had already been imposed on state institutions.

“The government stalled the corruption investigations with a reshuffle in the judiciary and police,” Abdullah Bozkurt, Zaman’s Ankara bureau chief, told Ahram Online in an interview last March. Bozkurt believed that the government is “exerting a lot of pressure on mainstream media,” leaving social media as “one of the few outlets for the opposition to express itself.”

Erdogan blocked Twitter and YouTube on 20 March, an action that was reversed by Turkey’s Constitutional Court one month later. The banning decision faced massive criticism by international human rights organisations, as well as Ankara’s NATO allies.

 Ironically, last Friday witnessed the emergence of Turkey’s judiciary as an influential player in the ongoing unrest, specifically with an anti-Erdogan orientation. Ekrem Dumanli, Zaman’s editor-in-chief, was freed by a court verdict, though STV chief Hidayet Karaca stayed under custody.

“It is an open secret that this is a politically motivated operation to intimidate the free media. Consequently, although there is no “evidence” except a news report, two articles and a fictional popular TV series, the judge arrested Karaca while releasing me, probably in order to ease the reaction from the world,” Dumanli said in a statement after his release.

Dumanli pointed out that Turkey is witnessing an “erosion of free speech and the dismantling of the independent media,” adding that such phenomenon has” increased immeasurably over the last few years, a worrying trend unseen even in times of military coups.”

Ahead of the court ruling, the Zaman-Samanyolu problem triggered statements of condemnation by international human rights organizations- such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch- urging for the release of workers of both media outlets and asserting that the detention took place without sufficient evidence.

The United States called Turkish authorities not to violate the country’s “own democratic foundations,” asserting Washington’s ties to Turkey as a “friend and ally.”

Turkey and the United States are fellow NATO member-states, and Anakra signifies a historically close friend of Washington in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the United States has usually ignored Turkish requests to extradite Gulen. Even after an arrest warrant was issued by a court in Istanbul this week against Gulen, quick US response is apparently unlikely, at least in the short term.

The fiercest clash over the crisis of media arrests occurred with the EU, which Erdogan’s government had always sought to fruitfully finalise accession talks with its leaders despite constant failure. “This operation goes against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of”, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in the joint statement.

Erdogan responded by telling the EU to “mind their own business”, while Davutoglu accused the pan-European organisation of starting a “dirty campaign” against Turkey. For Mogherini, she said she was “very surprised” with Erdogan’s reaction.

Mohamed Abdelkader, Turkish affairs expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Turkey’s relations with Western states, including the EU, might get negatively impacted with the domestic policies of Erdogan. Though no concrete actions have been taken against Turkey’s strongman and his government so far, Abdelkader believes that the West will “press for improving the political conditions” inside Turkey.

Recently, Erdogan adopted a series of controversial steps that faced severe criticism from his opponents. He ratified a parliament-approved law in December maximizing police authorities and government control over the judiciary. The new law states “reasonable suspicion”- and not evidence- as the basis of searching people or possessions.

The Turkish president also vowed to make the Arabic-alphabet Ottoman language obligatory in high schools. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established the secular basis of the Turkish state, abolished the Ottoman language in 1928 and replaced its Arabic letters with Latin alphabet.

Erdogan’s government lifted a ban on female students wearing Islamic headscarf (hijab) in high schools last September, challenging a key aspect of Turkey’s  Ataturk-created secularism. The secular opposition accused him of attempting to impose Islam on society.

“The man [Erdogan] regards himself as an Ottoman sultan; the symbolism of Erdogan’s perception about himself appears in his building of a large palace, endeavouring to impose the Ottoman language and building new bridges and roads carrying the names of Ottoman sultans,” Abdelkader argued.

Abdelkader asserted that the AKP’s pressure over the society to cope with its approaches might lead to protests, referring to the 2013 massive protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

 He warned that such protests, which security forces had managed to crackdown against, had pushed towards growing inflation and lower investment rates, a situation that is catastrophic for a government that its effective economic policies had essentially enhanced its popularity.

Police clashed and arrested dozens of protesters last Saturday in Ankara as they demonstrated against recent developments to the country’s secular education system. The recent media crackdown also resulted in hundreds of thousands protesting against the government in nationwide demonstrations.