Crackdown on democracy in Turkey: Should Europe still stand by Erdoğan?

15 November 2016 – openDemocracy (London)

The government has fiercely cracked down on those accused of being close to the alleged mastermind behind July’s attempted coup, and thisis slowly turning Turkey into an authoritarian regime. Complecent European leaders, starting with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, should stop supporting president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, says a Turkish academic based in Sweden.

“Is Brussels asleep, or just ignorant?”, asked the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt in an op-ed in Politico, lambasting European leaders’ “tepid response” to the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. “It took some time for the EU to condemn the events”, wrote Bildt; instead, “Europe’s leaders immediately began to question measures taken by the Turkish authorities to cleanse from power any elements thought to be associated with the Gülen movement”.

For him, there was “no question that Turkey has the right to, and indeed must, take measures to safeguard itself against forces trying to topple its constitutional order.” Of course, “there is a severe risk these measures will go too far”, but the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights could assess this when things calm down. In any case, “it is hard to know at this stage if the government is casting the net too wide or not wide enough, but erring in either direction will only create new problems”.

This is also the main thrust of a report published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Carl Bildt co-chairs. Penned by the Senior Policy Fellow Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and dubbed “by far the best you can find on the Gülenist movement and its dangerous role in Turkey” by Bildt, the report takes the official narrative for granted and claims that the coup was indeed the Gülenist officers’ doing – turning a blind eye to the many inconsistencies, indeed contradictions, in the statements of the captured putschists and the factual loopholes in the narrative which have led many observers to argue that what transpired on this fateful night was much more complicated than the AKP government would have us believe.

To be fair, the report does mention the post-coup “crackdown” in its concluding pages, yet blames it on “over-zealous investigators”, worrying more about the threat this poses to Turkey’s “image at home and abroad” than its actual victims. [Note from the Editor: The report’s author also states that “at times, the post-coup period itself feels like a coup in and of itself.”]

How can we make sense of this sudden and, to the best of our knowledge, unsolicited Erdoğanophilia (Bildt’s above-mentioned article is entitled “Europe, Stand up for Erdoğan”, not for Turkey or for democracy)?

Is it simply a show of solidarity on the part of a fellow conservative politician whose career is (equally?) embroiled in controversy – a diplomat who, when he was the EU’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, “blocked airstrikes that could have prevented the massacre of 6,000 men in Srebrenica” according to declassified documentspublished by the Clinton Presidential Library; a foreign minister who was questioned by the Riksdag (Swedish parliament)’s Constitutional Committee for his membership of the board of Vostok Nafta, an investment company with holdings in the Russian company Gazprom (Bildt left the company two months after he became foreign minister); a foreign minister who was also a board member of Lundin Petroleum, an oil company which was accused in a 2010 report by the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan, in addition to several NGOs and human rights organizations, of being complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Or is he an old-school Eurocrat, perhaps a romantic maverick, who is seeking to defend the “political ideal and democratic values” of Europe which he claims were not reflected in EU’s response to the failed coup in Turkey? Does he really believe that a stronger engagement with Turkey could improve the prospects of democracy in Turkey?

If it were a genuine concern or passion for democracy, why has our maverick been watching Turkey’s rapid transformation into a fully-fledged dictatorship in the three and a half months that followed the botched coup silently? Does he think that the measures taken by the Turkish government have still not gone too far? Is the net still cast not wide enough to be worthy of one single critical tweet?

Worried by raid yesterday against @cumhuriyetgzt in Turkey. Hardly a terrorist center.

– Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) November 1, 2016

Or perhaps he is too busy trotting the globe to keep up with the dizzying pace of political change in Turkey. Well, then, let us do him a small favour and provide a quick roundup of the events of the last few days, for a fuller account of the post-coup crackdown would require no less than a novella:

  1. With two new emergency decrees issued on 29 October, 10,158 civil servants have lost their jobs overnight, in addition to the 100,000 who had already been sacked or suspended for being part of or sympathetic to the Gülenist network, the PKK and various leftist organizations. A further 37,000 have been arrested on similar charges since July 15.

  2. 1,267 academics have been dismissed from their universities by the same decrees, bringing the total number to over 2000 (the exact number remains unknown!). This also includes several members of the “Academics for Peace” who have signed a petition asking for the cessation of hostilities in Southeast Turkey. According to the New York based charity Scholar Rescue Fund, there has been an “unprecedented” increase in the number of requests for help from Turkey – 65 applications for funding since July 15. The decree of 29 October also abolished rectorship elections, giving President Erdoğan the right to directly appoint rectors.

  3. 15 media outlets have been shut down by the same decrees, including Jinha, a news agency staffed solely by women. Overall, 168 media outlets have been shut down and around 100 journalists arrested since July 15, bringing the total number of journalists in jail to 144, more than Russia, China and Iran combined as P24, Platform for Independent Journalism, and several others commentators have noted. According to, access to 114.264 sites is blocked at the time of writing. Turkey also dominates Twitter censorship charts. Only in the first half of 2015, hence before the coup attempt, 72 percent of 1,003 requests for content removal by courts and government agencies came from Turkey, followed by Russia which filed a mere 7 percent of the requests.

  4. The emergency decrees of 29 October ordered the recording of conversations between lawyers and the detainees, with the additional proviso that they be made available to the prosecutors. Earlier decrees had extended the maximum length of police detention without judicial review from four to thirty days. Detainees can be denied access to a lawyer for up to five days. The decrees also allow the authorities to cancel or confiscate the passports of those under investigation and their spouses or partners.

  5. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), published on 24 October, documented 13 cases of alleged abuse, including sleep deprivation, severe beatings, sexual abuse and rape threats since the coup attempt, revealing the extent to which the state of emergency conditions negatively affect the rights and conditions of the post-coup detainees. This led the Justice Ministry and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to issue a joint statement which accuses HRW of being “under the influence of people associated with the Gülenist terror organization, FETÖ”.

  6. Mayors and local councils in 27 municipalities, most of them in the overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast, have been removed from office and replaced by government-chosen trustees. The last casualties of this “measure” were Gültan Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, the mayors of Diyarbakır (the largest Kurdish city in Turkey), who were arrested on 31 October.

  7. The crackdown, or the “net cast by the government” to use Bildt’s terms, has extended to mainstream opposition newspapers with the recent raid on the daily Cumhuriyet and the detention of 13 of its staff, including its editor-in-chief, for “committing crimes” on behalf of the Gülen movement and the PKK.

As anyone following the news in Turkey would readily notice, this list is only the tip of a massive iceberg – yet apparently not large enough to be noticed by Carl Bildt and his colleagues at ECFR who prefer to stick to “the view from Ankara” as the title of an article by İbrahim Kalın, advisor to President Erdoğan and a close friend of Bildt, published on ECFR website, indicates.

Carl Bildt is chosen as a conversation partner here as he was the first political figure of some repute to come to Erdoğan’s rescue in the aftermath of the failed coup, and the first to use the trope of “evil Gülenists” (the very people the ECFR cooperated with back in 2011) versus “good, democracy-loving people”. Alas, Turkey was not a democracy either on July 14 or 16, and the fact that there has been a bloody coup attempt in between – the details of which still remain shrouded in mystery – does not alter this simple fact.

On the other hand, the argument that closer links between the EU and Turkey, perpetrated by Bildt and his colleagues is plain wrong since 1) the EU has already been engaging with Turkey for the last two years when it suits its interests, e.g. to bring the refugee flow to a halt, without any scruples about the increasingly authoritarian character of the regime; 2) the EU is no longer in a position to speak from a moral high ground given its own ongoing slide into the dark side; and 3) Erdoğan has proven time and again that he is not someone to yield to external pressure, which he normally uses to his own advantage to stoke the nationalist fire.

Too pessimistic? Indeed. Could there be a crack in the wall through which democracy can come to Turkey – to paraphrase the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s famous song? Perhaps, but not in the near future.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.