The End of Turkey in Europe

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On December 17, 2013, Turkey woke up to mass police raids across the country. The chief executive of state-owned HalkBank was detained, and television stations showed shoeboxes stuffed with millions of American dollars pulled out from under his bed. The sons of three cabinet ministers were also taken for questioning. Investigators would soon come knocking for the son of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the prime minister, now the president, and the most powerful man in the country.

One year later almost to the day, after 12 months in which the government successfully fought to suppress the corruption scandal by reassigning the prosecutors and police who investigated it, Erdoğan and his allies have taken revenge. On Sunday, December 14, the authorities announced a case against 31 people suspected of “establishing and managing an armed terror organization” with the intent of seizing state power. The targets are leading members of the Islamist Gülen movement, also commonly called the Cemaat, including the editor in chief of Zaman, one of the country’s highest circulation newspapers, and the president of Samanyolu, a major television broadcaster. Zaman, Samanyolu, and other Gülenist media outlets pushed last year’s corruption investigation onto their front pages and nightly broadcasts, and kept it in the headlines as recordings of high-ranking officials leaked onto the internet all last winter and spring. The corruption investigation and its wall-to-wall coverage in the movement’s press were widely interpreted as a declaration of war by the Cemaat against the ruling party, with which it had long been allied.

The official charges announced this week apparently allege a sweeping and byzantine plot connected to Gülenist media support for the investigation of a rival Islamist group called Tahşiye that may have been close to the government. The case includes claims that two soapy television dramas carried by Samanyolu were part of the operation against Tahşiye; several members of the shows’ staff have been arrested. Within Turkey, however, there is no question that the true motivation for the probe is revenge for the corruption scandal. Erdoğan himself has left no doubt about his intentions, vowing throughout the year to hunt down his opponents in the so-called “parallel structure.”

It is no small irony that the government is deploying such a convoluted case against the Gülen movement and its supporters in the media. Despite their carefully cultivated image abroad as liberal democrats, at home the Gülenists have a record of fighting dirty. The Gülenist press avidly backed the prosecution of thousands of Kurdish activists in the KCK case, and hundreds of members of Turkey’s military and secularist elite on absurd charges in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases. For many years, the movement cheered Erdoğan’s rise to power as its best chance to break the Kemalist old guard. A popular image circulating on Turkish social media on Sunday showed the now-arrested editor in chief of Zaman together with Erdoğan in 2012, smiling and holding a framed copy of the newspaper with the headline “The Triumph of Democracy.”

Through their supporters in the police and judiciary, the Gülenists did not hesitate to go after journalists and others who crossed them. For this reason, the most promising development from Sunday’s events is the stirring of solidarity within Turkey’s press. Journalist Ahmet Şık wrote a hard-hitting book on the Gülenist movement and in return was sent to jail on cooked-up charges that Zaman loudly supported. But on Sunday he tweeted, “The Cemaat was among the forceful supporters of fascism a few years ago. What they are going through today is also fascism. To oppose fascism is a virtue.” Zaman’s Washington correspondent thanked Şık for his support and acknowledged, “We could never have supported your freedom in such a way.” Leftist and secularist press organizations like the Turkish Journalists’ Association and Turkish Journalists’ Union also condemned the arrests. The new press freedom organization P24—which counts among its founders Andrew Finkel, a foreign journalist living in Turkey for decades who was fired by Today’s Zaman when he criticized its support for Şık’s imprisonment—issued a statement titled “No to the Police State!”

It will be up to Turkey’s media and civil society to stop this crackdown. The simple truth is that external actors have lost all influence in Turkey. In response to Sunday’s arrests, the European Union quickly issued an unusually harsh statement reminding Turkey that respect for rule of law and fundamental rights are required for accession to the bloc. Turkey’s membership bid has been officially open but practically frozen for years due to unrelated objections from France and Cyprus. On Monday Erdoğan responded to the statement by saying he was not worried about whether Turkey would be accepted into Europe, and telling the EU to “keep your advice to yourself.” At least one pro-accession member of the European Parliament has already proposed officially freezing Turkey’s candidacy. It is time to take this drastic step.

Proponents of the accession process—myself included—have argued that it remains by far the best mechanism for Europe and the United States to promote the sustainable development of democratic institutions in Turkey. But Turkey’s leaders have explicitly rejected the EU, in action and in words. Sunday’s crackdown adds to the agonizing list of the last year and a half: the prosecutions of the Taksim Platform and of the soccer fan club Çarşı for an “attempted coup” during the Gezi Park protests, the unapologetic censorship of protected speech online and offline, the empowerment of the National Intelligence Agency to act as an unaccountable tool of executive power, and Erdoğan’s formation of a “shadow cabinet” to rule the country from the presidency in violation of the constitution.

A European vision for Turkey will never move forward with this government. It is time to freeze the accession process, and to prepare for a Turkey that remains outside of Europe indefinitely. Those who dream of a democratic future for the country need to start thinking differently about how to support the cause.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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