Turkey is getting more authoritarian. Here’s why funding nongovernmental organizations won’t help democracy

A protester holds a placard during a rally outside the courthouse where the trial of 11 human rights activists was taking place in Istanbul on Oct. 25. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

In early November, prominent Turkish philanthropist and civil society leader Osman Kavala was jailed based on dubious accusations of participating in Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt. Later that month, 11 human rights activists — including the chair and director of Amnesty International Turkey — appeared in court facing 15 years’ imprisonment on terrorism charges.

In response, the European Union announced major funding cuts to the Turkish government and promised to increase direct aid to civil society organizations. But this policy fails to consider the changing nature of Turkish civil society. Often considered the last remaining bastion to resist authoritarian drift under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP government, civil society in Turkey has been transformed by selective repression.

Selective repression fragments autonomous civil society in Turkey

Long before the detention and trial of well-known activists, frequent fiscal penalties and police raids constrained civil society organizations. Since the 2013 Gezi protests, and particularly in the post-July 2016 coup period, this repression has become increasingly selective, targeting CSOs perceived as “politically motivated,” such as those working on human rights monitoring and minority rights.

Under such pressure, Turkey’s civil society has become fragmented and weak compared with the participatory and diverse civil society of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, CSOs either risk closure and persecution by continuing activities as usual or seek new ways of organization.

One way to achieve the latter is by pivoting to less politically sensitive issues, such as environmental issues, LGBTQ and women’s rights and electoral monitoring. Such organizations can still continue operating without being labeled political or charged with terrorism. Another strategy has been for citizens to establish loosely organized networks that narrowly focus on a specific issue, such as stopping the AKP’s massive construction projects that would destroy locals’ livelihood and environment.

Government-dependent CSOs polarize civil society

While selective repression has transformed the civic space, civil society activities are increasingly conducted by government-dependent CSOs. These organizations have a certain degree of internal autonomy regarding their membership and activities, but remain highly reliant on the government for visibility and funding.

Such organizations mostly emerge around women’s issues, youth and education, diaspora policies and trade unions and support the AKP’s public policies.

The symbiotic relationship between such CSOs and the government is unmistakable. While several CSOs were closed by executive decrees in the post-coup period, government-dependent CSOs have been encouraged to flourish by easing the country’s cumbersome legal framework.

The government favoritism has created a clientelistic system around civil society. Several newly established foundations have received public benefit status by the Council of Ministers, with tax exemption and extensive rights to fundraising. The government sponsors these organizations to attract international funds and to represent Turkey in forums abroad. Representatives of government-dependent CSOs were also put on the AKP ticket for local or general elections and have become members of AKP’s central executive committee.

However, government-dependent CSOs are not merely window dressing. They regularly consult on policy and legislation and redirect political initiative away from autonomous civil society under the guise of democratic and participatory governance. At best, they play the role of the “loyal opposition” regarding controversial legislation.

Government-dependent CSOs are also an effective instrument of the AKP’s desired cultural and social control. The government grants them the freedom of association, assembly and expression denied to autonomous civil society, making them better connected to their target audience.

The activities of these government-dependent CSOs are wide-ranging, including youth summer camps, training centers, public seminars across the country and in European cities with large Turkish diaspora, pro-government media campaigns, charity events in destroyed Kurdish-majority cities following curfews, opportunities for certain trade union members to buy houses at massively discounted prices, and public demonstrations supporting government’s foreign and domestic policies.

By creating networks of loyalty, dependent CSOs can tailor and reproduce the government’s polarizing narratives and public policies and act as channels for services and benefits. These semi-open spaces also inform the government about the emerging sources of societal discontent, allowing it to take measures before dissatisfaction becomes public challenge.

Yet government-dependent CSOs are highly selective in articulating and conveying bottom-up demands, withholding calls for civic participation, empowerment and equality from ethnic, religious, sexual, linguistic minorities. This creates a skewed representation of interests and societal demands and entrenches deep social polarization, contrary to typical expectations of civil society.

Can international donors help Turkish democracy through civil society?

Can international support make a difference? Even foreign and foreign-funded domestic aid organizations have been targeted by systematic smear campaigns accusing them of being funded by foreign secret services and leaking information to the Gulen network, an Islamic social and religious movement led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States.

International organizations providing services to Turkey’s more than 4 million refugees complain of intentional bureaucratic delays and staff deportation. This crackdown not only stems from the AKP’s concerns over Kurdish forces’ access to aid in Syria but also reflects the government’s desire to channel E.U. and UNHCR aid for refugees through government-dependent organizations.

The European Union is the by far the largest donor to civil society in Turkey. Since 2006, the E.U. has allocated 54 million euros to the E.U.-Turkey Civil Society Dialogue. However, a large part of E.U. democracy aid is distributed through the government to incentivize reform and good governance. But since June 2017, the E.U. has investigated whether that aid reached its target.

Yet the E.U. still lacks meaningful leverage, and its support for democratic civil society remains disjointed. Aid is mostly used to organize events, workshops and publications on specific issues. Such projects advocate the rights of small target constituencies but remain tangential to the government’s core human rights and rule of law violations.

Compared with the government-dependent organizations’ resources, outreach and political engagement with public policy agenda, internationally supported civil society and grass-roots networks risk being confined to niche activities like animal rights, environmental protection, energy and youth entrepreneurship.

Government-dependent CSOs are not interested in Western donors’ democracy promotion agendas. And the transformation of autonomous civil society under selective repression into loosely organized, ad hoc and issue-specific organizations limits its ability to offer an effective site for political and civic dissent in Turkey. International donors have yet to adjust to this transformation.

Bilge Yabanci is a postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University Institute for Turkey Studies (SUITS) and an Open Society fellow.

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