Turkey's Autocratic Turn

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a one-day visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 9. ENLARGE
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a one-day visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 9. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

In 1910, during a war against rebels in remote Yemen, a young officer of the Ottoman Empire liked to entertain his soldiers with music: French and Italian operas that he played every night on a gramophone in the desert.

The youthful musical preferences of Ismet Inonu—who would become president of Turkey some three decades later—were no mere personal quirk. Ever since the mid-19th century, when a series of reforms brought elections, civil rights and modern government institutions to the decaying Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s ruling elites had looked to the West as the standard of enlightenment and civilization.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist army officer who founded modern Turkey in 1923, sought to sever his land’s ancient bonds to the Middle East. A revolutionary determined to transform everyday life, Atatürk introduced Latin letters and the Swiss Civil Code to replace Arabic script and Islamic Shariah law. This longstanding orientation to the West has made Turkey a rare example of a major Muslim country that is also a prosperous, stable democracy (and, since 1952, a member of NATO).

The founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, October 1934.
The founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, October 1934. Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images

Today that tradition is under attack as never before. Nearly a century after the Ottoman Empire gave way to today’s Turkish republic, a tectonic shift is under way. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s iron-fisted rule, Turkey is drifting away from its historic Western allies in perhaps one of the most significant geopolitical realignments of our age.

Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey has come to look increasingly like just another troubled corner of the Middle East. And, many Turks and Westerners fear, the country is becoming infected with the same sicknesses—intolerance, autocracy, repression—that have poisoned the region for decades.

Early on, Mr. Erdogan—who has held de facto power since 2002—was widely hailed as a principled democrat. In recent years, however, he has grown aggressively averse to dissent, and in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July, he has unleashed an unprecedented crackdown. He is now demanding constitutional changes that would give him near-absolute authority and let him remain at the helm of this country of 80 million people until 2029.

“Erdogan’s real aim is to take Turkey out of the Western bloc, out of the civilized world, and to turn Turkey into a Middle Eastern country where he can continue to rule without any obstacles,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey’s biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP. “He wants to turn Turkey into a country where there is no secularism and where people are divided along their ethnic identity and their beliefs. It is becoming a nation that faces internal conflict, just as we have seen in Iraq, Syria or Libya.”

Turkish officials retort that the West is abandoning their country, not the other way around. Mr. Erdogan recently blasted the European Union for its “meaningless hostility” as decadeslong talks on Turkish membership in the bloc neared collapse. “Neither the European Union nor the European countries that are on the brink of falling into the clutches of racism can exclude Turkey from Europe,” said Mr. Erdogan. “We are not a guest but a host in Europe.”

Members of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, often point out that, as the July coup unfolded, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the first call to express support for Mr. Erdogan, hours before President Barack Obama weighed in. That night, many other Western politicians kept silent or even cheered for the putschists.

“It’s not Turkey that is distancing itself from Europe. It’s Europe that is distancing itself from the axis of democracy. For them, democracy is when we don’t elect Erdogan, and dictatorship is when we elect him,” said Mehmet Metiner, a prominent AKP lawmaker. “Turkish democracy is better than Western democracy.”

Such statements cause many Western officials to shake their heads in despair while pointing to Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian record. Some 150 journalists critical of the government are currently behind bars in Turkey, which jails more journalists than any other country in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, a media-freedom group. Tens of thousands of Turks suspected of opposition or disloyalty—from teachers to bureaucrats to police officers—lost their jobs in purges that followed the July coup attempt. And last month, Mr. Erdogan’s government detained the co-heads of one of the country’s three main opposition parties.

Readers held up the latest edition of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s flagship opposition newspaper, outside its Istanbul headquarters after Turkish police raided the paper and detained at least 13 of its staffers, including its editor in chief, Oct. 31. The headline reads, "The coup against opposition again."
Readers held up the latest edition of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s flagship opposition newspaper, outside its Istanbul headquarters after Turkish police raided the paper and detained at least 13 of its staffers, including its editor in chief, Oct. 31. The headline reads, “The coup against opposition again.” Photo: Emrah Gurel/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Turkey’s yearlong campaign against a renewed insurgency by restive Kurds has ravaged the country’s southeast. Dozens of towns and neighborhoods have been flattened in bloody urban warfare between government forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization. A separate bombing spree by Islamic State has hit major Turkish cities.

A month after the July coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan also unleashed a war abroad: Turkish troops invaded northern Syria, where they are fighting alongside Sunni Arab rebels against both Islamic State and a Kurdish militia linked to the PKK. Mr. Erdogan has also threatened military intervention in Iraq, and Turkish troops are already deployed near Mosul, most of which remains in the clutches of Islamic State.

With Turkey in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, the country’s tourism industry has withered, the currency has sunk, and the Turkish economic miracle that had long fueled Mr. Erdogan’s popularity has begun to fizzle.

The Islamic world once envied Turkey’s achievements, but few Muslim leaders now look to it as a role model. Yasar Yakis, a founding member of the AKP who served as Turkey’s foreign minister in the early days of Mr. Erdogan’s rule, recalls wistfully that, as recently as 2011, revolutionary leaders in Tunisia sought to calm fears about possible human-rights abuses by promising to follow Turkey’s example of blending democracy and Islam. Today, he says, many Turks are envious of Tunisia—the lone Arab state to overthrow its autocrat during the 2011 revolutions and remain a budding democracy. “Tunisia was inspired by Turkey, and now we have to be inspired by Tunisia,” Mr. Yakis says.

As Turkey has grown alienated from the West, Mr. Erdogan has moved toward strategic alliances with powers that won’t criticize his newly authoritarian ways. Last month, he raised the prospect of Turkey’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security and political pact that unites Russia, China and the mostly Turkic Central Asian states. Full participation in that group probably wouldn’t be compatible with Turkey’s continued membership in NATO.

As part of his rapprochement with Russia, Mr. Erdogan has already softened his stance on the raging Syrian war. Most notably, he has tacitly acquiesced to the Russian-backed drive by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to retake rebel-held sections of Aleppo, at an enormous cost to vulnerable civilians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a meeting in Konstantin Palace, St. Petersburg, on Aug. 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a meeting in Konstantin Palace, St. Petersburg, on Aug. 9. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Though Mr. Erdogan began his political life as an Islamist, that ideology is not necessarily animating Turkey’s shift. “He knows very well he cannot change Turkey to an Islamic state. He is afraid of the country becoming like Saudi Arabia; this is his nightmare,” said Ali Saydam, a columnist for the pro-AKP Yeni Safak newspaper.

Insofar as any ideology can be ascribed to the protean Mr. Erdogan, many Turks say, it is his resentment—widely shared in the developing world—at being bullied by the planet’s major powers. He has repeatedly used the slogan “The World Is Bigger Than Five,” a reference to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

That suspicion of big global powers is unlikely to recede during Donald Trump’s presidency, but Mr. Erdogan seems to be trying a balancing act with the incoming administration. He criticized Mr. Trump’s call last year to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. and even suggested renaming the Trump Towers in Istanbul in response. But after Mr. Trump praised the Turkish president’s demeanor during the July coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan has been careful not to speak ill of the American president-elect.

Mr. Erdogan may see welcome changes in the new administration. As the coup unfolded in July, Michael Flynn, the retired general who is Mr. Trump’s designated national security adviser, made public remarks supportive of the putschists, who he appeared to believe were driven by a secularist agenda. But after Mr. Erdogan accused a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, of masterminding the coup, Gen. Flynn wrote an op-ed in the Hill urging the extradition of the “shady Islamic mullah” (even though the matter is still under Justice Department review) and saying that the U.S. needs “to see the world from Turkey’s perspective.”

Turkey’s realignment is just part of a global upheaval that includes Britain’s exit from the European Union and Mr. Trump’s election, said Dogu Perincek, the head of Turkey’s small nationalist Vatan party. Ankara’s relationship with Washington will inevitably loosen as America turns inward and the U.S.-dominated postwar world order fades away, he predicted. “Turkey is separating from the Atlantic system and is going to have its place within the Eurasian system,” Mr. Perincek said.

Turkish officials say that Turkey is simply restoring some natural balance in its international relationships and adapting to the rising economic clout of non-Western states such as China. Ankara’s new policy “doesn’t mean that Turkey doesn’t want to continue to work with the West and that it wants to change its path to the East,” said Mr. Erdogan’s senior adviser, Reha Denemec. “But Turkey is transformed. For almost 70 years, we had forgotten our old friends, the countries in the East, and we now have to also collaborate with them.”

The West, he added, shouldn’t hold Mr. Erdogan to the same standards as the leader of a peaceful land in a tranquil neighborhood: “If you criticize Mr. Erdogan with the home parameters of a country like Austria, where there are no bombing attacks, no terrorist attacks, no neighbors like Syria, Iraq, or Russia, where it is easy to run, where there is no coup, you are making a big mistake.”

Mr. Erdogan didn’t always bristle at being judged by European standards. He pushed hard to integrate Turkey into Europe after coming to power in 2002, bringing Turkey closer to EU membership than it had been since first applying to join the club in 1987.

The AKP then saw Europe as a useful ally against Turkey’s secularist security establishment, which worried about the party’s Islamist roots. Using the EU membership process, which required Turkey to comply with European norms, the AKP enacted more liberal laws that weakened the power of military leaders who could have threatened Mr. Erdogan’s rule.

The reforms gave more freedom to Turkey’s more conservative Muslim women, who could now wear a veil in universities and government offices, and to Turkey’s often marginalized Kurdish minority, which was finally allowed to use its own language. At the time, even Turkey’s liberals and human-rights defenders praised Mr. Erdogan and the AKP.

We thought at the beginning that [Erdogan] honestly meant to wage a fight against the militarist structure in Turkey. We believed that.

—Eren Keskin, Turkish human-rights activist

“We thought at the beginning that he honestly meant to wage a fight against the militarist structure in Turkey. We believed that,” said Eren Keskin, a prominent lawyer who co-heads the Turkish Human Rights Association—and now faces a lengthy prison term for alleged offenses against Mr. Erdogan’s state.

But several EU member states, including France and Germany, were uneasy about accepting a large Muslim country. As the Turks were kept waiting in the antechamber, poorer Christian-majority countries such as Bulgaria were fast-tracked for membership. The post-coup crackdown only made matters worse. In November, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to suspend the stalled membership talks.

Over the past decade, disillusionment with the West prompted Mr. Erdogan to embark on a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy of seeking to restore Turkey’s historical trade and political ties to the Middle East—and to become the region’s informal leader. The effort seemed to succeed briefly after the 2011 Arab Spring, when Islamist parties friendly to the AKP rose to power in several countries. But Turkey’s policy floundered after Egypt’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government was ousted in 2013 in a military coup and Ankara became more embroiled in the intractable civil war in neighboring Syria.

Still, Turkey remained relatively free, thanks to continuing challenges to Mr. Erdogan’s authority from the judiciary and the rival Islamist movement led by Mr. Gulen, whose supporters in law enforcement pushed through corruption investigations against the president’s inner circle. A turning point came in June 2015, when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years—in part because many Kurds who once voted for Mr. Erdogan embraced the new, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and its charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas.

But Mr. Erdogan, faced with the prospect of having to form a coalition government, decided that he didn’t want to share power. Instead, he used a series of cease-fire violations by PKK guerrillas to launch an all-out onslaught against Kurdish militants. The move appealed enough to hard-line nationalist voters that Mr. Erdogan was able to regain an absolute majority of parliamentary seats in snap elections that he called in November. Mr. Demirtas, for his part, was jailed last month, alongside other Kurdish leaders.

Osman Can, a one-time AKP lawmaker and former constitutional court justice who worked on the coalition talks, is alarmed by what he sees ahead. “The institutions have failed,” he said. “We have no institutions that can provide rational decisions on policy. Everything is now in the hands of one man, Mr. Erdogan, and when just one man is deciding everything, there is no future for Turkey.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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