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Turkish history expert professor Hans-Lukas Kieser told Ahval in an exclusive interview that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s high-risk governing style mirrors that of Talat Pasha, a late Ottoman leader Kieser describes as the co-founder of the Turkish Republic.
Similarly, the current close relationship with Russia harks back to past periods of close cooperation, like an 1833 defence agreement that angered Western powers by giving Czarist Russia a dominant influence in the Ottoman capital. The Soviets provided even more crucial support during Mustafa Kemal’s independence war against Western colonial powers, giving lie to the idea that Turkey was founded as a Western-facing republic.
Part two of Ahval’s interview with Professor Hans Lukas Kieser (You can reach the first part of the interview here) :
Serkan Şeker (S.Ş): Turkey’s prisons are full of politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Scores of elected Kurdish MPs and mayors are behind bars. Is Erdoğan’s war on the Kurds sustainable?
Hans-Lukas Kieser (HKS): Personally, I would say that we will have more peace one day. Because what is happening now is, if I use my terminology again, the refusal of true, well negotiated, human rights-based social contracts.
Erdoğan and the AKP still follow Talat’s style of the 1910s. That is, the cooptation of the Kurds instead of giving them their place in a modern polity, which ideally allows everybody to have their scope of action, their regional and cultural autonomy. But as long as you imagine the country as homogenous, unitary and with a strong leader, and cultivate related myths, you cannot do it. You have to give up your idee fixe of what the polity, the state is.
The Kurdish question is historically close to the Armenian issue. The 1910s saw the incapacity, the unreadiness to negotiate an appropriate social contract. This was followed by Mustafa Kemal because of the unitary centralism of the state model that he inherited from Talat. Unreadiness to face the complex realities went hand in hand with refusing a complex political system that allows different groups to have their place, including the Kurds. I am not pessimistic for the Kurds, because they possess much more readiness for a new social contract than the others.
S.Ş: And they have paid huge prices since the very beginning of the previous century.
HLK: Absolutely. They have understood that the scapegoat model polity has no future. A hundred years ago, many of them were still an active part of “the scapegoat social contract model”. And soon after, they started to pay the price for this. Many Kurds were perpetrators during the Armenian Genocide. And then they realised that the scapegoat mechanism now turned its violence and coercion against them under Kemalism. They have understood better than many others Turkey’s foundational deficits and the necessity of a social contract that deserves its name.
S.Ş: Fetullah Gülen’s religious movement has been designated an armed terrorist organisation and has been accused of plotting the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Tens of thousands of Gülenists have been arrested, and thousands of them have fled abroad, mainly to the European countries. Is there a future for the Gülenism in Europe?
HLK: They were really part of the AKP’s remaking of Turkey, which was optimistic and constructive in the first years of the 21st century. There were liberal and democratising reforms. But it seems to me that they still shared a myth of Turkish greatness and imperially biased Islam and that their role in the judiciary was ambivalent especially vis-à-vis Kurds. Also, most of them did not grasp the seriousness of the Armenian Issue.
Thus, all depends on if they are able to reinvent themselves and find a more truthful identity as a movement. Now, the experience of suffering is added, which they did not have before – which is similar to what we just said about the Kurds. They need to take the Armenian issue seriously and to emancipate themselves from former myths. I guess that they are more able to do this now, because they know what it means to be made a scapegoat. In this sense, I see a future, yes, sure. Someone who is truthful has a strong future.
S.Ş: Erdogan has changed the fundamentals of Turkey’s traditional alliances with the Western block and is deepening his relations with Russia’s Putin since 2016. Is there a similar period in Turkish-Russian history?
HLK: Yes, we have two comparable periods in history. The current relationship between Turkey and Russia is not totally new even if it is true that to a certain extent Russia was the archenemy of Ottoman Turkey for three hundred years and the Soviet Union for post-Ottoman Turkey during the Cold War. There was by the way also shortly a possible political honeymoon between both countries after Talat’s visit to the Czar in May 1914.
One comparable period was in 1833, that is on the eve of and in the aftermath of the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi. At that time, you had a quite astonishing privileged partnership between Czarist Russia and Mahmut II; the Western Great Powers were very angry about it.
The second one, which is even more important, is, of course, the crucial support by the Soviets for Mustafa Kemal. He would not have won the war for Anatolia without Soviet support in arms, finances and politics. Soviet backing made Western powers much more ready to compromises. In Lausanne, they compromised with Kemalist Turkey and totally buried the Armenian Question. This was fatal. Because it signalled to the Nazis that one could “successfully manage” minority issues with mass violence; international diplomacy would not react. In this way, the Lausanne Conference sent a strong wrong message to Germans and many others.
S.Ş: Is the current relationship between Russia and Turkey, Putin and Erdogan, sustainable? Or it is only a pragmatic relationship?
HLK: Well, we might ask the very basic question: “What is sustainable in human history and politics?”. If you ask me as a Swiss person what sustainable is, we generally think of generations, not of three years. Then, I would say it is not sustainable. But it is a quite natural part of gamble and gambit politics, which we might call another strong legacy of Talat in Turkey. Tell me when Turkey was a stable country. During the Kemalist single-party regime? Yes, to a certain extent, but it lacked stable peace. If you look closely, you see massacres and brutal warfare against the Kurds during the Sheikh Said Rebellion and in Dersim; and a kind of fascist building up in the public space with the ritual celebration of national historical events. As a multi-party state, Turkey staggered from crisis to crisis, from putsch to putsch. I am sad to say that this is, unfortunately, the course of a country that lacks a solid social contract. In that situation, you feel compelled to gamble. You have to balance a labile equilibrium domestically and abroad.
Talat was an arch-gambler. It seems that Erdoğan emulates him. Even if Talat is not often publicly mentioned, his legacy plays a more important role for today’s AKP politics than Abdulhamid, who is an iconic figure of political Islam in Turkey. For party politics and war gambles, you have to look at Talat, not Abdulhamid. Also, Talat started operating the scapegoat mechanism in 1913 against his opponents. Very many were then put in prison, what has largely been forgotten behind the great crime of 1915.
Yes, the Erdogan-Putin relationship is not sustainable, but it is not new. We also should not forget the fact that we are in a global political crisis. This is always the moment of the gamblers. They need crises, fragile situations, insecurity and conflict to perpetuate their work.
S.Ş: What sorts of repercussions could Turkey’s purchase of Russian military equipment cause in the conflict between Erdoğan and the pro-Western Turkish status quo, if there still is one?
HLK: I understand your arguments, but you must see that the turn to the West is relatively late even among Kemalists. Turkey turned to the Bolshevists at the beginning of the second founding period. The first founding period is Talat’s time; the second founding period is with Mustafa Kemal, starting in 1919. Turkey acted against the West in the crucial founding years from 1913 to 1923. At the Conference of Lausanne, Turkey’s leaders compromised with the West, and Western leaders compromised with Turkey. The leaders of Western democracies endorsed non-democratic entities in the interwar Middle East: Kemal’s single-party rule in Turkey and premodern despotism in Saudi Arabia. If you say Turkey was founded as a state turned to the West, it is only half true.
The new civil law, which abolished the Sharia, was indeed important. Introduced in 1926, it can be called the core of Turkey’s laicism and turn to the West. But it was also a diplomatic manoeuvre that allowed to subvert the minority regulations of the Lausanne Treaty, saying: “now no more exceptions, since we have introduced a Western civil law fit for everybody.” Thus, the turn to the West was ambivalent. It lacked democratic faith. In the aftermath of the Lausanne Treaty, it served to claim full sovereignty for a unitary, hyper-nationalist state. After 1945, it prevented the collapse of a dysfunctional polity.
S.Ş: Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Prime Minister of Turkey and once-close ally of President Erdogan broke away from the AKP and has established his party. Another famous defector from the ruling party is former Finance Minister Ali Babacan is expected to announce his rival party within weeks. Can these parties change Turkey’s balance of power?
HLK: Well, it is a question of time. Today’s political style is neither auspicious nor sustainable, but I cannot say anything about times, that is beyond my wisdom. I am reluctant to give credit to Davutluoğlu after all he did with regards to Syria and also having read his books. I might give Babacan credit from what I know, which is limited. Together with the electoral experience of Istanbul this year, a new momentum might build up. Added to this is the new resistance against the canal project. Turkey is a developed country, in many respects, in spite of all criticism. There is a lot of potential, notably among the Kurds. What I hope, therefore is that instead of a total collapse, grass-roots movements would crystallise and cause a fundamental change in Turkey through elections, peaceful demonstrations and acts of civil society. I, personally, never give up hope because I never want to anticipate collapse, though I ponder this possibility, because collapse involves violence and destruction. My short answer to your question: I see serious potential if there is a synergy of groups and forces who sincerely want change towards democracy: Kurds, parts of the CHP, liberal patriots notably around Babacan, and many others, especially of the younger generations.
S.Ş: Could you please evaluate the Canal Istanbul Project in terms of the Montreux Convention, which governs passage through the Bosporus strait?
HLK: You know, if there is a new connection between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, then nobody knows exactly what this will mean in diplomacy. This will be a matter of negotiation between states, including international organisations. I am sure that those who now want the new canal, speculate with this openness and with the relative weakness of the Western powers so that this canal would almost entirely obey Turkish rules, in contrast to the balanced Montreux Treaty. Since the Montreux Treaty is about the Bosporus and could hardly be applied to a new canal elsewhere, Turkish diplomats could argue that “the canal is a new reality, entirely Turkish and nobody has a say, at least not a strong say.” So, diplomatically it will depend on negations to determine what would be the status of the new canal. This involves the risk of major conflicts. If let’s say, the Chinese finally pay for the canal, then they would have their say.
The main problem is the current historical conjuncture. It is a typical one-man regime project that mirrors the current make-or-break gambling. You always need to go on, to move on, to go beyond what is there because you do not solve what is most evident– peace in the country. Since the Turkish public is used to such a style of politics, you can succeed to a certain extent. You could not do this elsewhere, where democracy has stronger roots. There, you need to convince everybody in cases of comparable projects. You have to go to every village and syndicate, and they have their say and their legal means.
S.Ş: Given the human rights violations, failing rule of law and expansionist foreign policy, is Turkey a rogue state?
HLK: There is certainly a serious danger with what is going on with Turkey, at home and abroad. You must understand that I am prudent about labels. George Bush used labels like rogue state. But what I can say is that I see Turkey in a labile situation, involved in risky politics and made-up polarisations. I see Turkey in a slippery post-Ottoman neighbourhood and gripped by hazardous one man ego-politics, however, supported by a large minority.
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