Turkey’s Post-Coup Reverberations Are Just Beginning

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded with an iron fist to last Friday’s failed military coup attempt in Turkey by detaining, dismissing or suspending, so far, 60,000 military officers, police and intelligence officials, judges, teachers, academics and civil servants, and imposing a widespread travel ban and a three-month state of emergency. He is vowing to reintroduce the death penalty, abolished in 2004 as part of reforms required for opening EU accession negotiations.

This uncompromising approach in the post-coup period will have profound negative implications on Turkey’s domestic politics, security and foreign policy in the foreseeable future to the detriment of its stability and prosperity.

Fractured politics

Erdogan’s indifference to the unprecedented political unity against the coup is, regretfully, a missed opportunity to dilute the deepening polarization and divisiveness bedeviling Turkish politics. His determination to use the putsch to consolidate political power in the presidency and to erode or eliminate the secular character of the Turkish state by means of a new constitution will widen the ideological and ethnic divide between, respectively, secular and conservative Turks and Turks and Kurds. Just a few months ago, Ismail Kahramam, speaker of the Turkish parliament and Erdogan ally, exhorted that ‘secularism cannot feature in the new [religious] constitution’.

His policies and rhetoric, in other words, will undermine even more the almost imperceptible presence of ‘interpersonal trust’ in Turkish society - the willingness of one party to rely on the actions of another party – seen as incongruent with a robust polity and cohesive society. According to a 2010 OECD survey Turkey’s levels of interpersonal trust are considerably lower than OECD averages and it stands out among the 20 surveyed countries as the only one where higher educational attainment correlates with lower feelings of trust. That posture can only breed even more discord and mistrust between the different segments of the Turkish electorate and entrench personality-based and top-down politics, the root cause of political turmoil in Turkey.

Diminished state capacity

Turkey’s NATO partners fear that the purges of experienced military and security personnel have the potential to diminish its capability to thwart the threat posed by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militant groups and to better manage its long and porous borders with Syria and Iraq. Thus far, Turkish authorities have incarcerated nearly one-third of Turkey’s senior military commanders and more than 7,000 police and intelligence officials. This constitutes a major loss of expertise and institutional memory at a time of heightening security challenges. After all, Turkey witnessed 14 bomb attacks over the last year, many of them carried out by ISIS or the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Similarly, the removal of tens of thousands of school teachers, both in private and state schools, university academics and education ministry officials will severely disrupt the provision of adequate educational services to enable future generations to succeed in an increasingly complex global economic environment. This ‘cleansing’ operation did not spare even the elite and renowned state and private universities considered bastions of liberalism and cosmopolitan values in Turkey.

In all probability, the government’s replacements of key staff with less qualified loyalists will rupture the institutional integrity and professionalism of the military establishment and the state institutions. Such a hollowing out process was already underway prior to the coup but post-coup decision-making has greatly accelerated the speed. Sadly, under the best case scenario, it will take Turkey years, if not decades, to restore a modicum of rule of law and public services’ delivery at pre-coup standards to which the Turkish citizenry have been accustomed.

Foreign policy challenges

Erdogan’s endorsement of the death penalty might signal the end of Turkey’s (already nearly non-existent) EU accession prospects and a more troubled relationship with Europe and the US. He was, before the coup, a prickly and challenging partner for the US and NATO to handle, a recalcitrant member of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition and vociferously against the US cooperation with PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish fighters targeting ISIS in northern Syria. After the coup, he will probably become more disagreeable to US and European foreign policy and security objectives.

His disagreeability will probably extend to Turkey’s deal with the EU to stem the flow of Syrian migrants across the Aegean Sea and Greece into mainland Europe, which looks increasingly unsustainable. A pugnacious Erdogan may utilize the forthcoming EU refusal to abolish visas for Turkish travellers to the Schengen borderless zone by end-October to wring out more concessions from an Erdogan-sceptical Europe. Despite their exasperation, they should decipher from his rapprochement with Israel and Russia that he tends to compromise with muscular diplomacy as opposed to diplomatic niceties.

Turkey will be so convulsed and self-absorbed by internal political machinations and its security and military capabilities so compromised that it cannot afford to deploy sizeable assets to promote regime change in Damascus. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are, naturally, the prime beneficiaries while the armed largely Sunni opposition are the biggest losers. Arguably, Assad must now feel very secure in power and confident that he will enlarge his territorial acquisitions at the expense of the Sunni groups. Equally, the Syrian Kurds will seek to strengthen and, perhaps, extend the quasi-autonomous zone along the Turkey−Syria border commensurate with Turkey’s declining influence in the Syrian quagmire.

Europe’s lesson

Turkey is a bitter testimony to the ill-effects of sacrificing progressive values to political expediency, fear and interests. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy demonstrated a lack of strategic foresight by stymying Turkey’s desire to join the EU in 2005. Had the EU engaged Turkey in a credible accession process, however arduous it may have been, the coup would probably have never occurred. Turkish political leaders would have been forced to implement deeper and wider reforms to strengthen democracy, secularism, human rights and a functioning market economy. Instead, Europe is reaping what it sowed: a coup-rattled and more unstable Turkey on its doorstep.

Fadi Hakura, Associate Fellow, Europe Programme (Chatham House).

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