April 4 2014

Author: Semih Idiz
Posted April 4, 2014

Prior to the March 30 municipal elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan had adopted strong anti-Western rhetoric, further tarnishing
his already damaged image in the United States and Europe, as well
as straining Ankara's relations with the West. The question being
asked by Western diplomats and Turkey observers is whether Erdogan,
to normalize ties, will tone it down after the strong electoral
results secured by his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Summary‚~N~Y Print Some are speculating that following the victory
of the Justice and Development Party in municipal elections, Turkey
might seek to build bridges to the West, but this would require a
shift in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's approach.

Author Semih IdizPosted April 4, 2014

Nouriel Roubini, of Roubini Global Economics and a senior economist
for international affairs in the Clinton administration, suggested
before the elections that Erdogan would "shift policies" in a way
that would eliminate political uncertainties in Europe and the United
States concerning Turkey. He argued, "Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan cannot realize his dream of a presidential republic
and will have to follow his opponents -- including a large protest
movement -- to the secular center."

Roubini's prediction is predicated on two assumptions. The first is
that Erdogan still wants to become president, which is not as clear-cut
as it once was, and the second is that he has a desire to move to the
"secular center," even though his Islamist perspective has since been
endorsed by 43% of the electorate.

The criticism Erdogan has been getting from the United States and
Europe mostly concerns his increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic
tendencies, apart from his accusations about external forces,
mostly in the West, trying to topple him and his government. Since
the elections, Erdogan has shown no sign of abating his tendencies,
as indicated by his remarks on the Constitutional Court's ruling that
the government's Twitter ban breaches freedom of expression.

"We have to comply with the Constitutional Court's ruling, but I do not
have to respect it. I don't respect this ruling," the prime minister
told reporters on April 3 en route to Azerbaijan. Questioning the speed
with which the court had dealt with the case, despite there being so
many others in front of it, Erdogan accused the highest court in the
land of "not having displayed a national stance." He also claimed that
the court's stance had nothing to do with law, asserting, "The law is
something else. What is involved here is not a legal implementation."

Political analysts and legal experts, who took note of President
Abdullah Gul welcoming the court's ruling, were quick to assert
that Erdogan's remarks do not augur well for the future of Turkish
democracy. Many see in his words not only a defense of restrictions
on the Internet, but also a dangerous suggestion that if Erdogan
had the power to do so, he would change the constitution to curb the
Constitutional Court.

Erdogan's words came on the heels of his government having hastily
drafted a new law on the Supreme Board on Judges and Prosecutors that
curbed the independence of the judiciary and effectively closed the
path for cases concerning government corruption. The government moved
against the judiciary following the investigation by prosecutors (who
have since been dismissed or displaced) into government corruption
and took action against the Internet after corruption-related
incriminating recordings of Erdogan and members of his government
were leaked through social media.

Erdogan's criticism of the Constitutional Court's Twitter ruling is
not expected to play well in the United States or the European Union
(EU), where his authoritarian tendencies are already under increasing
scrutiny. His actions elicited a number of harshly worded statements
and resolutions in the West condemning his interfering in due process
as well as restricting press freedoms and freedom of thought. The
criticism seems, however, to have had little intended effect on
Erdogan to date.

To the contrary, Erdogan has used the criticism to bolster his
standing with his followers, who traditionally have admired strong
stands against the United States and Europe. Addressing a crowd of
supporters in Bursa prior to the March elections, Erdogan promised
to "root out Twitter," which he has referred to in the past as a
"scourge." He added defiantly, "The international community will say
this, it will say that. ... None of this is of any concern to me.

Everyone will see Turkey's strength." Within hours of Erdogan's
remarks, Twitter was banned in Turkey, to be followed a week later
by a ban on YouTube.

Reactions from the West were not long in coming. US State Department
spokeswoman Jen Psaki uncustomarily read a prepared statement during
her daily press briefing of March 21, affirming that the United States
supports freedom of expression in Turkey and opposes any action to
encroach on the right to free speech: "We urge the Turkish government
to unblock its citizens' access to Twitter and ensure free access
to all social media platforms," the statement read. "This action
is contrary to Turkey's own expressed desire to uphold the highest
standards of democracy and efforts to attract foreign investment."

In the US Senate, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., chairman of the Foreign
Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, cosponsored a resolution
on March 27 with Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.,
"condemning the actions of the government of Turkey in restricting
free expression and Internet freedom on social media." A day later,
34 members of the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Luke Messer,
R-Ind., signed a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to
strongly demand that Turkey protect the democratic freedoms and rights
of its citizens. On April 1, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and founder of
the Congressional Internet Caucus, introduced a resolution calling on
the Erdogan government to allow free expression and Internet freedom
in Turkey.

The picture was no better in Europe, where the Erdogan government was
not only castigated with strong language, but also reminded that it
was backpedaling on its commitments to the EU, to which Turkey has
been seeking membership. European Commission Vice President Neelie
Kroes referred to the Twitter ban, through her own Twitter account,
as "groundless, pointless, cowardly," adding, "Turkish people and the
(international) community will see this as censorship. It is." The EU
commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Fule, in a statement that same
day, asserted, "The ban on the social platform in Turkey
raises grave concerns and casts doubt on Turkey's stated commitment
to European values and standards."

While similar sentiments were expressed after the government banned
YouTube on March 27, none of them has had a moderating effect on
Erdogan thus far, as his latest remarks on the Constitutional Court's
Twitter ruling show. This would appear to suggest that any additional
criticism from the West will merely stoke more defiance, especially
since it plays well among his supporters. There are a number of other,
unrelated developments that will most likely prompt angry reactions
from Erdogan, not only creating strains in ties but also intensifying
anti-Western sentiment among his supporters.

One such development concerns the perennial Armenian genocide issue
and involves a resolution cosponsored by the Democratic Sen. Robert
Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, commemorating the Armenian genocide. Turks
in general, not just Erdogan supporters, reject the Armenians' claims
of genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks, arguing that million of
Turks were also killed during World War I. This issue continues to
hold the potential to poison Turkish-US relations.

Attacks against the Armenian community in the Syrian town of Kassab
by the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra group, which the Erdogan government
is accused of supporting -- an issue that has already been taken up
in the House of Representatives -- could also fuel tensions between
Washington and Ankara. Another development that will have angered
Erdogan and his supporters was an inquiry ordered by British Prime
Minister David Cameron into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood,
which has resulted in speculation that the group could be banned
in Britain.

Erdogan is a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, of which many
consider the AKP to be an honorary member.

Given this sensitive backdrop to Turkey's current ties with the West,
it remains an open question as to whether Erdogan will display the
statesmanship necessary to keep Turkey's ties with the West on course
or whether he will choose instead to play to his domestic gallery,
which is anti-Western by nature, with an eye on the August presidential
elections and the general elections after that.

Al-Monitor's Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

From: A. Papazian