Turkish president (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan launched on Tuesday a “human rights action plan”, which claims the protection of freedom of expression and political representation. Ironically, while he was making this announcement, media outlets were reporting the prison sentence of pro-Kurdish MP Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), known for his critical documentation of human rights violations. The next day, the vice chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appeared on TV screens to preach for the closure of the HDP and the lifting of the immunity of 21 pro-Kurdish MPs so they can face charges of “treason” and “terrorism”.
The synchronicity of liberalism and authoritarianism in government’s discourse, like the split personality, is not a new phenomenon for Erdoğan and the AKP, and is often taken as indicative of Erdoğan’s ever-changing political alliances, or a consequence of conflicting indigenous and exogenous pressures. The domestic pressures come from nationalist circles represented by Erdoğan’s ally, Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who goes even further to demand the imposition of legal measures to prevent the formation of another political party in line with the HDP. Pressures from outside, on the other hand, are well known: the European Union and the new US administration both demand democratic improvement to maintain their relations with Turkey.
During his 19-year reign as prime minister and then president, Erdoğan has demonstrated a unique talent for adapting to multiple personalities. He began as a liberal reformer taking steps towards Kurdish peace and Turkey’s accession to full European Union membership. Then his Islamist personality took over to initiate a “shift of axis” from the West to the Middle East in both domestic and foreign affairs, which gained momentum with the outbreak of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict in particular did not only escalate the tone of Islamism in the language of power but also brought about a concrete tendency towards authoritarianism in state-civil society relations, which accompanied the shelving of the Kurdish peace process.
Erdoğan’s adoption of an Islamist and authoritarian personality coincided with Barack Obama’s final months in power and was enhanced by Donald Trump’s presidency during the heyday of nationalism, anti-globalism and rightwing populism around the world. Especially since 2016, Erdoğan has silenced all critical media and other political criticism. The judicial system was destroyed and hundreds of academics were purged from universities. Turkey became the champion jailor of journalists and is moving to be the largest jailor of opposition politicians.
These authoritarian moves have pushed Turkey away from western democracies and the European Union. Instead, Erdoğan seems to be transforming Turkey into a corrupt autocracy modelled on Iran, China, Azerbaijan and Russia. Turkey’s military involvement in the civil wars in Syria and Libya through jihadist proxies, its official connection with the international network of Ihvan and the missionary and intelligence activities carried out by the Turkish state’s religious affairs administration in European capitals have been accompanied to authoritarian measures at home.
Under Erdoğan’s management, Turkey has also engaged in conflict with European countries in Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean waters through navy activity. As the distance from the west grew, Turco-Russian relations improved through trade, energy contracts and military cooperation, leading to the purchase of S-400 missiles, to which the US fiercely objected. Turkey’s international orientation has thus surpassed the initial concerns of a shift of axis to proceed towards an orbital shift leading to a dangerous “change of galaxy”.
In the course of these events, which were accompanied by a new wave of oppression against Kurdish politics and the rapid deterioration of rights and liberties, Erdoğan’s sudden declaration of his will to improve human rights in Turkey is rather curious. Pressure from the West is the prime suspect. The European leaders summit later this month is expected to discuss sanctions against Turkey, including its expulsion from customs union with Europe. Even more pressure is coming from the US: the Biden administration insists on the abandonment of the S-400 air defence program and the release of opposition politicians as a precondition for any contact with the Turkish government. (The name of the jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala has been pronounced in this context by the US State Department.) Instead, Erdoğan may be hoping that his promise to improve human rights would be a sufficient concession.
Comments that appear on Turkish social media are full of sarcastic humour about Erdoğan’s sudden discovery of Magna Carta and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after so many centuries, relating his violations not to ill intentions but ignorance. It is also emphasised that the declaration was within the scope of an EU programme in which Erdoğan was paid one million two hundred thousand euros. This amount, along with the six billion euros previously given to the Turkish government to be spent on the Syrian refugees, is often seen as a bribe to Erdoğan for not sending some three million Middle Eastern and Asian refugees to Europe.
A few days before Erdoğan declared his human rights action plan, female mayor Dilek Hatipoğlu, one of the 60 HDP mayors who had been dismissed by Erdoğan, appeared in a trial with a black eye, having been beaten in prison. Accusations of maltreatment of political prisoners and naked searches of female detainees have been categorically denied by AKP deputies, one of which claimed that female detainees who raise such accusations were “lacking chastity”.
One wonders if the EU funds, which are obviously used as bribery for the Turkish authorities, are spent to perfect their violations rather than for the improvement of human rights.