After the bombings in Ankara and Istanbul over the last week, it is hard to see Turkey as the economic and the democratically prosperous country it once was. Rather, with continued terrorist violence, many now question whether Turkey under the AKP is becoming a fragmented and semi failed state.
A gateway between the Middle East and Europe, it was not long ago that Turkey was considered a darling amid a fractured Middle East. Nearly 15 years ago, in fact, the newly-elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power on the ambitious promise to transform the country.
The nation’s economy, which had languished for decades, was radically transformed by a comprehensive neo-liberal economic agenda that heralded robust economic growth. This growth, in step with continued political reform, eventually saw Turkey mentioned as an unlikely candidate for EU membership.
Not so anymore. Rather, recent times have seen Turkey’s star begin to fade, with the state slipping slowly into authoritarian rule. And despite boasting one of Europe’s best airlines, its once-vibrant tourist industry is in tatters, particularly since a series of terrorist attacks and policy blunders have seen Turkey becoming isolated, both regionally and internationally.
The once bright star now better resembles a typical Middle Eastern Mukhabarat country than possible EU member, with an oppressive state apparatus and weak institutional framework dominating the modern Turkish state.
Failure in regional policy
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey initially saw itself the leader in a new age of Islamist states. With Syria collapsing into civil war, however, Ankara soon engaged in an interventionist policy, as the personal relationship between Assad and Erdogan, who had reportedly once holidayed with one another, soon soured.
To be sure, the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy was soon upended by a series of continuing foreign policy mishaps. Turkey’s support and funding of Islamist elements in Syria, including groups like Jabhat Al-Nursa, and their ambivalent attitude towards Daesh, fanned the sectarian divisions that had already opened up across the Middle East.
More recently, however, the shooting down of a Russian jet has seen Russia and Turkey pursue the start of a possible ‘hot’ war, with no end in sight to the seething animosity that has developed between the two. A growing Kurdish proto-state – which Moscow now supports – adds another dangerous dimension to the rivalry.
While Turkey has shown a humane approach to the influx of Syrian refugees, Ankara’s recent statements appear as if they are using the refugee crisis to their political advantage as seen with the recent EU-Turkey deal. With talk of a declaration of semi-autonomy by Rojava, many are querying what the AKP’s next move will be and whether there will be an offensive into Syria.
What is readily apparent, though, is that Ankara’s growing intransigence is contributing to the current domestic destabilization inside Turkey.
Since the Gezi protests and the corruption charges against top officials in the government in 2013, there has been a systematic push towards authoritarianism in Turkey. The centralization of authority has given more powers to the security apparatus within the Turkish state. The government has conducted its ‘witch-hunt’ against the ‘parallel state’ and internal dissidence that has seen a significant reduction in the independence of the judiciary.
As such, there has been a continuing politicization of judicial decisions, with more and journalists facing arrests and imprisonment. The seizing of critical media outlets by court-appointed trustees, moreover, has also done little to promote economic and political stability for foreign investors.
Meanwhile, purges of ‘Gulenist’ elements within the police and security forces by the Courts of Peace have left the Turkish security apparatus weakened and lacking much-needed experience and capabilities. The effects of these purges were demonstrated by the recent spate of bombings in Ankara and Istanbul.
With security efforts focused on dissidents – especially given the broadening definition of what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ – there has been a lack of internal security when it has come to capturing potential PKK and ISIS terrorists. The recent bombings by TAK (a splinter faction of the PKK) have shown that the government’s war against the PKK can be brought to Western Turkey.
The attacks in Istanbul on Istiklal Caddesi by ISIS-affiliated members against foreign tourists (despite German embassy warnings of an upcoming attack) are another telling example of recent intelligence failures further.
On top of this, there has been virtually no one brought to account for these attacks. The government and intelligence forces, for their part, have stubbornly refused to accept the blame, despite the fact that the government appears helpless to safeguard their citizens from further attacks.
What’s next for Turkey?
For now, Turkish society remains polarized. Many still support the government’s agenda, especially in the country’s conservative heartland.
In the West of Turkey, however, the story is different, with people asking how many bombings occur before someone is held accountable. And as the conflict in the country’s East reaching new proportions with government-led military operations occurring on a daily basis, many Kurds are fleeing the violence. Internal displacement is now at record levels.
Aside from this, Turkey is also looking more and more Middle Eastern state; the shrinking presence of NGOs, critical media, and civil society, are in stark contrast to its liberal society only a few years ago. Further, as the government pursues its push for an executive presidential system in the ensuing chaos (despite deep polarization between the political parties and civil society on this issue), many are asking whether such a move is pushing Turkey to the brink.
Unless Ankara implements drastic changes, including consistent efforts by the government in bringing about domestic stability, there is the distinct possibility of Turkey becoming another casualty in an increasingly unstable region.