At Large

Turkey Shifts Eastward

A country now happy not to have to live up to Western expectations.  

By 3.18.11

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Observing Turkey is a more than frustrating experience. There is no difficulty in finding knowledgeable people who insist there's been no alteration in its objective of joining the European Union and incorporating into the European political and economic world. After all, Turkey has been a valued NATO member since 1952. At the same time there are equally perceptive commentators who contend that the dream of a secular Westernized Turkey has shifted away from its European-aimed target of recent years.

Contrary to those wishful thinkers who seek closer Turkish ties with the West, there is no chance that Turkey will soon come close to membership in the European Union as long as it continues to jail journalists on fanciful terrorism charges. According to the Financial Times, about sixty journalists are now imprisoned. The charges range all the way from personal libel to outright conspiracy to overthrow the government.

These reporters and commentators have joined the approximately one hundred military officers who already have been jailed for purported participation in a coup plot originating in 2003. There appears no question that some form of coup was being planned at the time -- and since then. But it is equally clear that a large portion of the evidence has been fabricated, and in a rather amateurish manner.

Behind this is the growing belief within the ruling, Islam-conscious Justice and Development Party (AKP) that right wing forces are moving for an overthrow of what the AKP considers "democratic change." This may in fact contain an element of truth if one associates such change with AKP dominance.

It is also true, however, that AKP leadership has done little to strike down Article 301 of the penal code that criminalizes any anti-government statements. This legal device is the core of the highly objectionable security element of the authoritarian 1982 constitution that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so often excoriated.

An example of internal political confusion and conflict (one might even call it Byzantine) is the fate of the former head of Turkey's external intelligence division of the National Intelligence Agency. He had just returned from Afghanistan and was summoned to court to provide testimony in a security case. Immediately after completing his presentation he was arrested and jailed in Metris prison. To this date no explanation has been offered.

PM Erdogan, choosing to show an exceptionally thin political skin, reacted strongly to the European Parliament report that condemned "deterioration in the freedom of the press" in Turkey and called on the Ankara government to "uphold the principles of press freedom." Erdogan not only referred to the report as "unbalanced", but he said, "…the people who have prepared this document lack balance as well." Not quite the tone that encourages votes for EU membership…

This tough talk may sound well locally among his supporters, but it certainly plays into the hands of those who wish to show Erdogan and the AKP actually are using the same repressive measures as did opposition military-aligned political powers about which they have complained. The basic obstacle faced by the AKP, President Abdullah Gul, and PM Erdogan is the lack of promised action on the existing constitution. This 1982 document created after a coup carried with it little of the types of freedom of speech and press that mark Western legal, political, and social concepts.

Perhaps the most striking example of the Erdogan Administration's willingness to run counter to EU and American recent positions was the official opposition from Ankara to sanctions of any kind against Col. Qaddafi's Libya. The explanation given by Turkey's foreign minister was that such actions would be counterproductive. According to VOA News, "PM Erdogan accused Western countries calling for intervention of being motivated by Libya's huge oil reserves." Again, not the most diplomatic of comments for an EU-aimed prime minister.

The actions of the Turkish premier appear to indicate that any interest he once had in European Union membership has been substantially diminished by the less than lukewarm interest on the part of France and Germany. Erdogan's AKP-dominated government acts as if it has been freed from having to hew to Western precepts of democracy as a requirement to Turkey's EU membership -- and greets this with a sigh of relief.

Political Islam would now appear to be Turkey's guidepost under its current government. The key question is how PM Erdogan and his energetic president, Abdullah Gul, perceive Turkey's neo-Islamist role in the Middle East. How the United States and its Western European allies plan to respond to this new characterization of modern Turkey will be played out in the very near future.

The days of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk's military --guarded secularist state appears to have ended, though, according to some, brought on by their own excesses. Nonetheless, Turkey under the religious-minded AKP seems headed in the same iron-fisted direction so condemned in the past by its members. Assuming a leadership role in the Middle East region will require Turkey's Islamic-preoccupied civilian government to create an entente with its own secularist military forces -- a tactic more easily said than done.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.