Turkey has long been revered as a beacon of democracy in the Muslim world, but the corruption scandal rocking the nation has led to a clampdown by its government. And with the grip tightening on the judiciary, Internet and even Twitter, Turkey's civil society is being put to the test. Will the country live up to its democratic reputation or will it take an authoritarian turn? Oksana is joined by a senior editor at Today's Zaman, Sevgi Akarcesme, to examine these issues.
Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. Simmering tensions between Russia and the West have overshadowed major developments in a country that has long prided itself on being the bridge between the two. How did Turkey go from being a model democracy to a suspected kleptocracy? Well to discuss that, I'm now joined by Sevgi Akarcesme, a columnist and senior editor of Turkey's largest newspaper Zaman. Sevgi thank you very much for taking time to talk to us.
Sevgi Akarcesme: Thank you, my pleasure.
OB: Now I just mentioned this spat over Ukraine and it has preoccupied the global community for the last couple of weeks but it seems to me that what is now happening in Turkey has just as high, if not higher stakes for regional security and geopolitics because whatever issue you take, geopolitical issue I mean, whether it's Syria, Iran, NATO, energy, Turkey is right there front and centre and yet if you analyse the western coverage of this corruption scandal in Turkey you don't really get much coverage at all. Why do you think that is?
SA: I don't know why the international media do not pay enough attention. Actually from my perspective there is an increasing amount of interest towards the corruption probe in Turkey but since it is your perception, I would say that, you know, it it's probably perceived as a domestic issue rather than an international issue. However, it's very likely to influence Turkey’s foreign policy because it is a threat against Turkey stability. It should be an issue that the international community should pay attention as well.
OB: Well it's interesting that you say that it is perceived as Turkey’s domestic issue, and yet the scale of allegations is such that if it was any other country, I think that western media and eastern media would be going nuts over them, but here we have, you know, senior government officials being accused of pocketing millions, if not billions dollars, their relatives being implicated you know, mass dismissal of police, judiciary, what have you, and yet it seems that not much is being done in the way of the investigation, and there's not much international pressure to move that investigation forward.
SA: It is true. Your observation is that the investigation is frozen. It’s unfortunately true, because
in order to avoid the corruption charges and the allegations, the government unfortunately intervened severely in the judiciary. It has changed the judiciary in a way to make the intervention of the executive possible. With the changes to the top judicial body, unfortunately now the Minister of Justice is able to design the top judicial body according to the wishes of the government. So the judiciary is highly politicised, and as you said, the police force and the judiciary, there has been thousands of reshuffling and dismissal within these forces which unfortunately prevented the healthy investigation process.
OB: Now Prime Minister Erdogan has also been very critical of the people that he dismissed. He believed that they are out to undermine his party and to undermine Turkey success, but he didn’t once address the substance of those allegations, did he?
SA: That's true, unfortunately his position is at the rhetorical level. Instead of addressing the allegations in the serious evidence that is portrayed by the persecutors, he chose to undermine the process and blame the foreign forces along with their domestic collaborators. However, recently, you might have, I don't know whether the international media paid attention to this, but the president, Abdullah Gul, actually, you know, dismissed Erdogan’s arguments that this is a foreign plot against his government, you know, President Gul said that, you know, this understanding sounds very much like third world, you know, states putting the blame on foreign forces, soin a way,with this disagreement he dismissed all these arguments.
OB: Now you just mentioned President Gul having somewhat independent role, and we know that, you know, when the government introduced that blanket ban on Twitter, President Gul was also the one who found a way around and was critical of that ban. I wonder if you take that as a rare sign of dissent on his part, or rather him and Mr Erdogan playing this good cop bad cop dynamic.
SA: That’s a little bit complicated question. I mean President Gul has a more democratic stance, much more democratic stance than Erdogan, and has proven it several times. Even in Gezi protests he said that democracy is not only about ballot box, and he was criticized by the Prime Minister. And currently we know that the president is in favour of personal freedoms, freedom of expression, but he was also criticized because instead of vetoing the recent bills on the judiciary and on the Internet, he approved them. So he is also, by main liberals, he is also criticized. In other words we might argue that he is trying to play a balance role between the government and opposition.
OB: Sevgi, if I can take you back to the Twitter ban, which came into force last weekend, which the Turkish government justified by saying that it was being used to spread lies about the Prime Minister. This is quite extraordinary, because there's hardly a single political leader in this world who wasn't lied about on the internet, on Twitter. This is basically the price one pays for being in politics, but banning the whole social network, that puts Turkey in the same category as North Korea, China and Iran, all considered non-democratic countries by western standards.
SA: There’s no doubt that Twitter ban has been a very, very, shameful step on part of the government, because as you said, it places Turkey in the same league with the authoritarian regimes. And it’s going to definitely damage Turkey’s reputation even further, and it's going to strengthen the idea that Turkey is moving towards a more authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Erdogan has panicked so much about the corruption allegations that he is ready to do everything, including banning Twitter to cover up the corruption scandal. In other words, he's trying to prevent all the means possible for people to receive information about the details of the corruption scandal.
OB: Now because of that ban, Turkey indeed the received a lot of media attention. Even the US State Department issued a very reserved statement criticising it. But I wonder if this Twitter ban is not being used as a sort of red herring, because what Mr Erdogan did before that, I mean dismissing, you know, as we mentioned police officers and intervening with the judiciary, I would argue is much more serious because it actually challenges the whole structure of Turkey as a democracy, and yet everybody's talking about this Twitter ban. Come on, people can live without Twitter, but if he goes ahead intervening in the state's structure, then there's not much in store for Turkey as a democracy.
SA: It is definitely a violation of basic human rights. It's a violation of freedom of expression, there is no doubt about it.And to be honest, personally I've never been this much concerned about future or Turkey, becausesuch steps, such a brave, even crazy step, I would say,shows the degree ofrestrictions that the Prime Ministercanthink about when it comes tocovering up the corruption allegations. Of course, Turkey is not, although it placesTurkey in the same leaguewith China and North Korea, we all know that Turkey is an open society. It has an integrated economy with the rest of the world.So no matter how much the pressure is,this ban cannot live for so long because as you know, even thepresident himselfviolated the ban and found ways oftweeting.And millions of other people, including myself,we continue to tweet and we are defying the government’s decision.And the civil society is still vibrant in Turkey, so it's not going to workfor a long time.
OB: Well Sevgi, let me challenge you on that, because just a couple days ago we saw that very massive rally in support of the Prime Minister in Istanbul and, you know, as you said many people are concerned about freedom of speech and Twitter but much of his constituency, many of Erdogan’s supporters - they don't use Twitter, they couldn’t care less about him closing this website. So, on balance, do you think that is really that big of a deal within Turkish electorate, you know, just days before this crucial municipal vote.
SA: It's a complicated question. It’s true that the government has still popular support, especially among the, you know, rural people who are over a certain age and who are less educated. However, the people who went to the rally yesterday are not necessarily people who are not educated or urban, because the rally took place in Istanbul. But sometimes, you know, as much as the number of supporters you have, the legitimacy of your actions matter as well. I mean, after all most of the dictators in the world, they also continue to have support until the very end of their regimes. So, having the support of the crowds does not necessarily justify the means of the government. That's why there is a struggle going on between the supporters of democracy and freedom of expression in Turkey, and the increasing level of authoritarianism between the government. It's going to take some time for the masses to understand the degree of authoritarianism that is taking place in Turkey.
OB: Speaking about the support of the masses, I know that the Internet is now abuzz with rumours of a new tape that allegedly shows some senior politicians, possibly even the Prime Minister himself, involved in some sexual improprieties. And some even believe that the main reason for shutting the Twitter website down was to stop this tape from becoming viral. Now, we don't know whether it's true or not, but one of my Turkish friends told me that, if in fact, that was true, if in fact Erdogan is caught cheating on his wife, that would be the end of his political career. And for me it's very difficult to understand how something so insignificant like that, like you know, like just an act of infidelity could be terminal for your political career, while the allegations, all those allegations that we listed earlier, weren't considered to be so dangerous? It seems that Turkish political culture values, you know, fidelity to one's wife much higher than loyalty or fidelity to your voters.
SA: Of course, these are speculations at the moment. It's true that there are such rumours, because when you choose a way to ban almost all means of communication and ban Twitter, it's inevitable to, you know, to have such rumours, because people think that, you know, if you choose to shut down Twitter, there’s must be something that you are afraid of. But personally I just don't think that we should need the details of the private lives of people to undermine them politically, because currently the level of allegations are so serious, that they should be enough in any other democracy, in a westernised country, for example, any government would have resigned by now because the allegations are serious, from money laundering to hiding massive amount of cash from one's home, to intervention in the media. So this should be already serious level. I think none of us should be paying attention to the details of the private life of any politician because they should remain private.
OB: Well Sevgi I totally agree with you that one’s private life shouldn’t be a matter of political discussion, and yet there was a very similar example just a couple of years ago when the head of an opposition party had to resign over a sexual scandal, so it seems to be the only thing that can bring down a Turkish politician. Anyway, we have to take a very short break now. When we come back. A few years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was hailed as a national hero in Syria and Egypt, while the so-called Turkish democratic model was seen as the example to emulate. Why did all go downhill so quickly? We'll discuss that after a very short break, here, on Worlds Apart.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the extraordinary events in Turkey with
Sevgi Akarcesme, a columnist and senior editor of Turkey's largest newspaper, Zaman.Sevgi, Prime Minister Erdogan has been in power for 11 years, and we wouldn't be discussing Turkey now if his government hadn't been spectacularly successful. Now, under his leadership, Turkish foreign reserves increased more than threefold, unemployment fell to, I think, the lowest level in four decades, and Turkey has fully paid off its IMF loans, and that is not to mention all those impressive infrastructure projects. My favourite piece of data is about the number airports, which have almost doubled in a space of one decade. So one would think that to achieve all of that, he would need a very professional, very dedicated and very disciplined team. How does one go from being so clever, so intuitive, and surrounded by all those professionals, which was the image of Erdogan five years ago, to being so ham-handed, and so short sighted, and surrounded by crooks, which is essentially the image of Erdogan now. It seems almost like the two complete opposites.
SA: Personally, as someone who has supported the AKP party government for the last decade, who voted for the AKP party for the lost decade, I am highly disappointed by Erdogan’s change as well, because the government, as you summarised, the government has a good job in the economy in terms of the development of the country. Initially, the steps towards the EU, those were steps we all commanded. However, unfortunately since 2010, as the government's power increased, the government began to turn authoritarian, especially since 2000, in the last year or so. Because, as you know, power corrupts, absolute power absolutely corrupts. So it's inevitable, in the absence of a strong opposition in Turkey, the opposition is quite weak unfortunately. In the absence of a strong opposition and the checks and balances system, it's inevitable for any government to become corrupt unfortunately. And Erdogan could not save himself from such a trap.
OB: Now Sevgi you were talking about the absence of opposition in Turkey, political opposition, and there are people and forces who speak out against what they see as harmful developments for Turkey's democracy, and here I'm talking about the so-called Hizmet movement, which is a broad social movement, which describes itself as non-political. But I think most recently it has been involved in politics, to some extent, at least in a way of Prime Minister believing that this moment is behind all those corruption charges that were brought against him. Now I need to say for our viewers that Zeman, the newspaper that you represent, is somewhat sympathetic to the Hizmet movement. And the movement itself, many of the people including yourself as you said were supportive of Erdogan in the beginning of his political career, so when do you think that rift between the AKP and Hizmet movement occurred and what is it all about? Is it ultimately about Islam and what it means to be a good Muslim?
SA: Not necessarily. Let me first start off by saying that Hizmet is a religious and social moment that is inspired by the teachings of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, in the United States, since 1999. But the rift between the government and the Hizmet moment is not about, you know, a struggle for power but it's about principles. It's about adherence to democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and European Union values. As long as the government was acting along these lines, along democracy, there was no problem between the Hizmet moment and the government. But unfortunately, it's the AKP government that has changed, that has turned more authoritarian. So it is about principles.
OB: I understand that but if Erdogan was to go now because of all those corruption allegations, who is there, What kind of political forces are there to take his place? Because as you pointed out earlier, the political opposition in Turkey is extremely weak, and Hizmet movement doesn't consider itself to be a political movement..
SA: No it’s not political.
OB: I wonder if we are going to deal with the vacuum of power at this very critical time, in this very critical region, and that could be pretty dangerous, I think.
SA: Let me clarify one more thing, one more time. Hizmet movement is not a political movement, and unlike what many argue or unlike what the government argues, it’s not going to form a political party or anything.
OB: But why not Sevgi?Why not? Why would that be as such a bad idea? Because Hizmet moment is a very populist movement in Turkey, it has millions of supporters, as far as I understand, people are very involved in social life.
SA: That’s true, but its activities are not political. Yes it’s true that it has turned into a scapegoat by the government but it’s not choice of the Hizmet movement, it's a strategy that the government has been employing actually. But let me put it this way, for example. Let's talk about Greenpeace, that’s the first example I can think of. There are certain interests that they want to pursue, but they are not necessarily a political party. So in other words, the Hizmet moment, yes has a say about the political development and social developments in Turkey because there are people from all walks of life among its sympathisers, but that does not necessarily mean that it should form a political party. It might serve, continue to serve, as a pressure group to turn Turkey into a more democratic state.
OB: Sevgi,I just have to mention that we interviewed the head of Greenpeace a couple of months ago, and I have to tell you that there are a lot of people who believe that Greenpeace is a highly politicised movement that is, well ,preoccupied with some country’s political agenda.
SA: That might not be the best example that I could have given.
OB: I'm sorry for interrupting you, but can I press this question, you know, state this question straight? What's so wrong with involving people in a political activity? Certainly, Hizmet moment has a lot of, you know, conscientious people, several million of them as far as I understand. There are a lot of, you know, businessman, teachers, academics, people who want the best for their country. So what's wrong with forming it into some sort of political movement, especially given how desperate things are with, as far as democratic development in Turkey is concerned? Wouldn't that be, actually, the best way out of this crisis - to form a viable strong political force that has very strong grassroots support, that has business support, you know, that has academics, what have you.
SA: It is against the basic principles and teachings of the Hizmet moment. Because by definition, politics means taking sides, but unlike politics, a social-religious movement should appeal to everybody, regardless of political party. So if Hizmet moment establishes a political party it would, by definition, automatically side people, make people take sides on one side, while alienating some others. This is not something that Hizmet wants to do.
OB: Well it's an interesting subject to ponder. You mentioned the word ‘definition’, and I wonder if everything that we have here in Turkey isn't also a matter of definitions, because if you, for example, believe yourself to be a Caliph, which is simply the head an Islamic state, then according to Islamic teachings, you may feel entitled to one-fifth of the proceeds. So what you take in is not dirty corruption money, but rather a well-earned tax. You assist in development and then you receive justice in the form of some remuneration. What's wrong with that?
SA: Simply because we are not living in theocratic state but, you know, the Republic of Turkey is a secular democracy. At least it's supposed to be a secular democracy, and in a secular democracy you can only tax people, you know, as citizens of the Republic of Turkey, not in other forms. It's true that there are such rumours, there are rumours that the money that the Erdogan government, or Erdogan family received from businessman and other people are not considered as something corrupt, but something, some sort of legitimate tax, or the share of the Islamic leader of the country. But the problem is that, you know, even if there is something like that you know, under any means it’s illegal because, you know, under the current law and rules of the country there's no such thing.
OB: Now, I wonder if it's the inherent danger of political Islam, that sooner or later it will always run into, you know, various difficulties with the secular law. Does it mean that the Turkish model as, you know, as a religious democracy, so to say, that was hailed a couple of years ago and that was seen as a model for the region, has actually come to an end, has actually collapsed on itself?
SA: Unfortunately, it's under serious threat, because Turkey is a valuable example of a country mainly because it was able to combine, it is able to combine democracy and Islam. You know, it is the example that showed the world that, you know, you can both become a religious Muslim and also a democratic person. It is possible in my opinion as well. But unfortunately, the corruption charges, the level of corruptness in this Islamic government - unfortunately it changed the image of political Islam in the eyes of many.
OB: In the beginning of this program I asked you about why you think there's so little coverage or so little international pressure on the Erdogan government to proceed with the probe, and I have my own theory that I want to test on you. I think it's because most international players, whether it's the United States, Israel, Russia, China - they want to have Turkey stable and predictable. It doesn't matter, or maybe it matters whether it is democracy or autocracy but it’s a sort of secondary consideration, because in that region, in that part of the world which is now on fire, you have too many countries being unpredictable and unstable that you cannot afford to you lose Turkey. And I wonder if you believe that there's such danger that Turkey may follow in the footsteps of Egypt or Syria where people also wanted to improve the quality of their democracy as you want right now, but that led them into the very chaotic situation.
SA: It would be unfair to Turkish democracy to classify it, you know, in the same league with the other Middle Eastern countries. It is true that we are not an advanced democracy, and it is true that we are under threat of authoritarianism, but fortunately in my personal opinion, civil society and institutions in Turkey are still strong to prevent Turkey from falling into the trap of authoritarianism. That's why this is a struggle we have been actually giving. Fortunately, I'm right now able to talk to you and criticise the government. Of course we are under pressure. For example, my colleague from Azerbaijan..
OB: Mahir Zeynalov
SA: was expelled from the country, unfortunately. Mahir Zeynalov was expelled from the country, for example. So we are under pressure but, you know, loosing turkey shouldn't be and will not be that easy.
OB: Well Sevgi, thank you very much for your time, unfortunately we have to leave it here.
SA: Thank you, my pleasure.
OB: And to our viewers - please keep the conversation going on our Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages. All of them are still open and operating in Russia, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.