After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in the First World War, a new, unified country called Turkey emerged in 1923. Its first President,Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (which translates as the Father of all Turks) recognized the geopolitical importance of Turkey as a bridge between Asia and Europe and took it upon himself to transform the country and make it a modern state. A number of sweeping political, social and economic reforms took place that aimed to modernize the country, improve the status of women and create a more democratic country in which personal rights and freedoms were essential. However, Ataturk’s successor almost exactly 80 years later seemingly has a different idea about the country’s direction, as well as the means to achieve it. Mr. Erdogan’s recent practices suggest his ambition to shift towards the East – a move that may prove very dangerous in the current context of instability in the region.
There are growing fears over the increasingly authoritarian practices that Mr. Erdogan is using in order to establish his governmental control of the country. There have been a number of significant instances in which the freedom of expression and protest of Turkish citizens has been repressed by the government. The most significant example to date occurred last summer during the Gezi Park protest in Istanbul, in which people took to the street to express their disagreement with the government’s plans to remove the Gezi Park (one of the few remaining green areas in the city) and use the space to build commercial buildings, such as a shopping mall and luxury apartments. The government’s brutal response against the protesters costed the lives of 11 people and provoked a world-wide outrage. The country ranks as low as 154th in the World Press Freedom Index for 2014, the same position in occupied last year. Most recently, a former Miss Turkey was arrested for only sharing a poem on social media that was interpreted as a mean to criticize the President.
Many questions are also raised over the speeches from the president in recent years, particularly on topics such as defending the police intervention in Gezi Park, or his persistent harsh criticism against secular Turks. Many of Ataturk’s policies, especially concerning religion and women’s rights have either been reversed, or questioned, by the current government. This has resulted in growing domestic fears about the development of an Islamic morality police.
Erdogan’s recent foreign policy stances have been anything but encouraging for the West. The President openly expressed indifference in 2014 on whether Turkey is accepted as an EU member or not. Moreover, the country’s leaders have recently taken a different stance from the West on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that occurred in Paris. The Deputy Prime Minister of the country claimed “Those who publish images in reference to our Prophet and thus disregard Muslims’ sacred feelings are involved in open provocation and agitation”. Finally, Turkey is well on track to agree an important gas deal with Russia – namely the Southern Stream, which was initially supposed to supply gas to Europa, not Turkey – which is a country currently facing huge economic sanctions and political pressures from the West over its involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.
The several signs presented above about Turkey ’s political direction have put Western countries on alert, especially in the context of the global increase in radical Islamism. Turkey has the potential to play a key role in helping to solve the problems in the region, but in order to do so, the country needs to bring back the values that were so important (and proved to be successful) in Ataturk’s times. Unfortunately, Mr Erdogan’s new $600 million palace is not a good indication that such a shift will occur.