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Where is Turkey Headed? Congress Tackles Issue of Turkey’s Future as a Democratic Model

By Lilly Torosyan
On July 31, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on European Affairs held a hearing on the future of Turkey after the recent protests in Gezi Park and Taksim Square. The tone of the hearing was mild in stark contrast to Erdogan’s authoritarian crackdown, which was barely mentioned by any of the speakers. His various human rights violations towards minority groups, including Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, as well as women and homosexuals, were lightly touched upon during the two-hour session.

Presiding Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) chaired the event, which had the following witnesses deliver testimonies on their opinions: Dr. Jenny White, tenured professor at Boston University; Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace; James Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute; and Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.
Murphy delivered the opening remarks, stating that Turkey’s democratic policies are a good example for the rest of the region to follow, but adding that “Erdogan’s recent comments against the Jewish diaspora and his Western friends is troubling.”
Dr. White provided an analysis of the protests, arguing that they are not a religious contention, but rather center on growing unsettlement over the current party, the AKP. “The laws that were protecting the environment have been weakened, and have led to corruption,” she stated. The AKP has been earning profits from private land/business, and there has been an upward trend in violence against women, as shelters continue to shut down all across the country. White also noted that Turkey “has jailed more journalists than any other country,” but failed to mention the 2007 assassination of Agos editor-in-chief Hrant Dink, for his outspoken views on the Armenian Genocide.
Elected in 2002, the AKP has meshed the generally conservative values of the country with new liberal ideas, such as stripping the military’s once-prominent rule in government, and women’s rights. However, in recent years the government has regressed in many social and political policies, returning to a more traditional role of “patriarchy” and “intolerance,” said White. She described the AKP’s current role as “reinventing Turkey’s past as a ruling empire,” with non-Muslim minorities treated with suspicion. “This is a pivotal moment in Turkey,” explained the professor, and it will “further polarize society.”
“We have to do something because doing nothing may not be to our strategic advantage,” she added. To steer the nation back towards democracy, she said, a law should be instated that does not allow political parties to be funded. “Yes, Turkey’s elections are free, but they’re rigged to allow special interests to win the game,” White explained. She iterated on a few occasions, “Turkey is two steps forward, and one step back.” She continued to say that Prime Minister Erdogan’s attempts to allocate more power to the presidential position have undermined the system of checks and balances.
Former Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey began his testimony by stating that the AKP is not in danger of losing power because it remains very strong. Although he acknowledged that the marginalization of Turkey’s minorities is problematic, Jeffrey argued that “we have to let the Turkish people carry on how they want—as long as they are a democratic state, which they are.” He also added that going against Erdogan is counter-productive because it will not aid the U.S. in the end. He concluded by stating, “We all need a stable, democratic Turkey.”
Robert Wexler argued that the protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park are “no comparison to the Arab Spring because Erdogan won democratically three times.” There was never even a possibility of the military intervening in the government’s job, he said, and that is a case in point that democracy is working. He went further to say that “Erdogan has fundamentally strengthened Turkish democracy” through the dismantlement of the powerful military and its influence in governmental affairs, and recent economic progress. “A so-called ‘Islamist’ in Turkey is different than an Islamist in the region,” he explained, adding that one can be a pious Muslim and still progress. “It’s a conflict—and that’s Turkey. The challenge is to work that conflict toward our favor.” For this, Wexler suggested Turkey strengthen its relations with Israel. “If Erdogan can harness Turkey’s democratic tent, then he can fortify global democratic power.”
A former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, Kurt Volker’s main arguments centered on two points: The first is the need for even stronger U.S.-Turkish relations. “Turkey is potentially an enormous ally—that is contingent upon us. At the moment, our strategic partnership with Turkey has diminished, so our control over [the nation] has, too,” he said. The second is the domestic developments that are occurring inside Turkey. “We should not condemn Erdogan, but speak up on democratic values,” he explained. “We have to try to uphold these values so Turkey emerges stable and mature because at the moment, it has authoritarian tendencies.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) inquired about the Turkish role in the Syrian conflict. Turkey has allowed Syrian war victims to seek refuge within its borders. Wexler stated that it was a controversial decision on behalf of the Turkish government to do so, as it could provide an incentive for the Syrian government to start violence in Turkey. Jeffrey stated that he was “going to defend Erdogan on this [decision].” Dr. White pointed out Erdogan’s poor record in the last two years: “he has not been very civil to the Alevis.”
The only time minorities were substantively discussed throughout the hearing was at the mention of H. Res. 188, which calls upon the government of Turkey to facilitate the reopening of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Theological School of Halki, a Greek seminary, without condition or further delay. All witnesses agreed that the Turkish government should take reparative action on this issue, but failed to go into details on the resolution.
Senator Johnson asked whether Erdogan’s rule is majoritarian or a limiting democracy, to which Jeffrey responded, “A little bit of both. It’s moving towards its own democracy.” He continued, “For the moment, the Turkish people need the chance to react to this.” If they have no animosity towards their government, then why would the U.S. jeopardize its own strategic interests by getting involved in their domestic concerns, he posited. “What do we [the U.S.] put on the table?” To which he responded, “I’m not there yet.”
When asked what a post-Erdogan Turkey would look like, Ambassador Jeffrey maintained that the AKP has other very strong leaders. Volker agreed, stating that the AKP will remain for some time, although some of the authoritarian tendencies will “probably dissipate” when Erdogan leaves.
Murphy’s concluding remarks shed light on the global scheme of the Turkish issue. “With the success of the Turkish model comes a lot of high expectations,” said the Senator. Should a problem like this have been prevalent in Egypt or Iran, then it would have been considered a minor issue, but because it is pertains to a “democratic” ally such as Turkey, the severity of the issue has become heightened. The pedestal for Turkey is among the highest in the region, and for that, the Erdogan government does deserve some praise. But, the Senator cautions, we cannot predict what the future of Turkey will look like.

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