Turkey’s democracy is sinking. To fend off a corruption scandal, the government has launched an assault on the independence of the judiciary and police, freedom of the press, the right of citizens to demonstrate peacefully, and the ability of the Central Bank to act autonomously. U.S. officials have repeatedly visited Ankara in recent weeks to convey concerns about trade with Iran, but officials deem the ongoing turmoil to be a purely domestic matter. The EU and NATO have also recused themselves. When Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Brussels last month, he was grilled by members of the European Parliament, but the visit was neither cancelled nor postponed.
For now, it appears that the West is content to ignore Turkey’s recent autocratic turn. But there are sound reasons for taking punitive steps against Turkey’s current government.
Since the eruption of a graft scandal in Turkey in December 2013, Turkey’s authorities have invested more time and energy purging police and judiciary than cleaning up the corruption mess in which the country finds itself. With thousands of law enforcement and judicial personnel removed in less than two months on what are likely trumped-up charges, it seems that Prime Minister Erdoğan has lost any remaining inhibition about centralizing his control over Turkey.
Not that he had much respect for democracy in the first place. The brutal repression of peaceful protesters at Gezi Park last June, and his obsessive insistence that behind the protests stood a dark international conspiracy, was already strong evidence that Turkish democracy has been dangerously eroded in recent years.
Even before Gezi, Turkey was an unfriendly place for journalists critical of the establishment. According to the 2013 annual report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran. Those not in jail are mindful of the exorbitant fines that the government has extracted from papers and TV networks who resisted pressure to fall into line with the ruling party. Since December 17, pressure has mounted, with restrictions on internet and social media beginning to take root.
Similarly, democratic institutions whose independence from political power is essential to their existence are under fire. Erdoğan’s efforts to neuter the military were initially and rightfully hailed, especially in Europe, as a sign of democratic progress and maturity in Turkey. They were seen as evidence that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was intent on limiting military power for the sake of democracy and earning membership in the European Union.
It is now obvious, however, that Erdoğan’s intent was not to strengthen democracy, but was actually to weaken alternative centers of power in the country so that he could consolidate his rule in Turkey. The military has thus become the target of politicized trials seeking to prove the existence of a non-existent deep state. Dark conspiracies are routinely mentioned to character-assassinate critics. Challenges are thus dismissed, if not used as a springboard to further centralize authority in the hands of the Prime Minister.
The Central Bank is also under assault. With the Turkish Lira on the edge of an inflationary precipice, the Central Bank has finally reined in inflation with a dramatic hike in interest rates – but not without incurring the wrath of the prime minister, who has already issued veiled threats against it.
With a graft probe forcing three senior resignations and potentially implicating the Prime Minister’s family, Erdoğan’s cavalier foreign policy has also come under fire. Much of the scandal surrounds the lavish gifts allegedly disbursed to politicians and their offspring by Reza Zarrab, a dual Iranian-Turkish national who ran the oil-for-gold money-laundering scheme that yielded billions of dollars to Iran in defiance of the global sanctions regime. The scheme operated with the knowledge of officials in Ankara.
The exposure of such a scheme, and the government’s complicity, only confirmed that something is rotten in Turkey. The scandal makes recently admitted corruption-ridden new European Union members Romania and Bulgaria look transparent by comparison. Iranian penetration of Turkey’s economy has turned the country into a zone of proliferation concern. Democratic standards have fallen below Venezuela’s, and the damage done to the fabric of democracy is so extensive that it will take years to fix.
With parliamentary and presidential elections looming this year, the Turkish and international response to the graft probe could be the last chance to repel the AKP’s assault on Turkey’s fragile democratic institutions. Erdoğan knows this, which explains the purges of police and prosecutors, threats of fiscal audits to critical industrialists, arbitrary fines on media critics, and other tactics to silence the AKP’s opponents.
To be sure, elections could usher the exit of those who are weakening Turkey’s democratic institutions. However, the AKP appears to be still firmly in control, even amidst the graft probe. That is why the West has an obligation to step in.
Turkey’s EU accession negotiations should be suspended until democracy is restored. Moreover, Turkey’s membership in NATO and the resultant access to sensitive armaments and dual-use civilian-military technology should be reviewed. And America’s friendship with Turkey should be openly and bluntly made conditional on the re-emergence of transparent governance.
There are, admittedly, few precedents for taking extreme measures against NATO and EU members, let alone candidates. However, in 2000, the EU took drastic steps in response to the inclusion into Austria’s coalition of a right-wing xenophobic party that had triumphed in elections, imposing sanctions Austria. The measures, which lasted for less than a year, were triggered by a much more modest threat to democratic standards than the one currently underway in Turkey. Austria’s nationalists, though deeply and unabashedly xenophobic, had done nothing yet to undermine democracy. Nor did they engage in any systematic effort to silence the media or harass the judiciary while in power. NATO allowed non-democratic members such as Spain under Franco and Greece during the military Junta (1967-1974) to remain within its ranks – under the guise that anti-Communism justified such democratic lapses. But it is doubtful that such exceptions would be made today.
Given the stakes, Turkey’s democratic partners should not stand idly by as fundamental freedoms are dismantled. Turning a blind eye will not only damage Turkey’s democratic aspirations; it will also bring damage to the many Western countries that have invested in Turkey’s ascent.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.