Friday, December 27, 2013

Erdogan Agonistes

The growing political scandal in Turkey may be turning into a genuine political crisis for Prime Minister Erdogan and his government.  A number of figures close to Erdogan have been arrested or implicated as part of a large-scale anti-corruption investigation, and everyone expects to see more arrests.  Erdogan has responded, characteristically, by ordering a sweeping purge of the police force—in Istanbul, this included firing the police chief and the heads of the financial crime, organized crime and smuggling units, among others—and by charging that the whole anti-corruption investigation is a "political plot" being carried out by a "criminal conspiracy" that has infiltrated the police and the judiciary and is acting in concert with shadowy foreign forces hostile to Turkey.

Conspiracy charges of that sort are par for the course with Erdogan and his supporters;  but we know that even paranoids (or politicians inclined to use to paranoid rhetoric) often have real enemies, and Erdogan has plenty of those.  Most informed analysts seem to agree that this unfolding political crisis is bound up with an escalating power struggle between Erdogan and his former allies in the Gulenist movement, a conflict that amounts to a civil war within Turkish political Islam.  So if we leave aside the wilder elements in the conspiracy charges, Erdogan's claim that he and his inner circle are being targeted by political opponents with allies inside the state apparatus may not be purely imaginary.  On the other hand, most analysts seem to agree that the corruption charges being pursued by this ongoing investigation aren't simply imaginary either.

Here are some recent updates in this ongoing drama.

 Saturday, December 21:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday continued his embrace of what has traditionally been the strategy of Turkish politicians facing a crisis: Blame foreign powers, in this case the United States.

On Saturday morning, four pro-government newspapers featured the American ambassador on their front pages, suggesting that the United States, a strong ally of Turkey, was behind an escalating corruption investigation that has ensnared several businessmen and others in the prime minister’s inner circle. One headline said, “Get out of this country.” Other media reports also suggested a plot by Israel.

Then in a series of speeches on Saturday, Mr. Erdogan threatened to expel foreign ambassadors for what he called “provocative actions.”

Mr. Erdogan did not specifically mention the United States, but referring to unnamed “ambassadors” he said, “We are not compelled to keep you in our country.” [....]
[JW:  To interject a small reality check, it so happens that relations between the Obama administration and Ergodan's AKP government have actually been quite friendly on the whole—so friendly that one alternative conspiracy theory, subscribed to by many anti-Erdogan Turks, is that the US engineered, or at least promoted, the AK Party's s rise to power.  The fact that the US government would have no obvious motive for suddenly changing course and getting involved in a high-risk plot to attack Erdogan and destabilize Turkey is one of several factors that helps make these particular charges sound especially implausible.]
The conspiracy theories advanced by the pro-government media — which resonate with certain segments of the population because both anti-American sentiments and anti-Semitism are widespread in Turkey — center on the fact that one of the targets of the investigation, the state-owned bank Halkbank, has in the past been accused by the United States of helping Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program.  [....]
Wednesday, December 25:
Three Cabinet ministers resigned in Turkey on Wednesday, days after their sons were taken into custody in a sweeping corruption and bribery scandal that has targeted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's allies and rattled the government.

The resignations include Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler and Erdogan Bayraktar, the environment and urban planning minister Erdogan Bayraktar - who also called on Erdogan to step down while announcing his resignation and exposing a deep rift with the Turkish leader.

All three ministers denied any wrongdoing. [....]

Media reports said police seized $4.5 million in cash that was stashed in shoe boxes at the home of the bank's CEO, while more than 1 million dollars in cash was reportedly discovered in the home of Guler's son.

Erdogan has denounced the corruption probe as a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to thwart his country's growing prosperity and discredit his government ahead of local elections in March. [....]

In a telephone interview with NTV television, Bayraktar also denied any wrongdoing, complained of being pressured into resigning by Erdogan and insisted "a great proportion" of construction projects that are allegedly under investigation were approved by the prime minister himself. [....]

"I want to express my belief that the esteemed prime minister should also resign," Bayraktar said. [....]
And then on Thursday, December 26 Erdogan announced an even more drastic overhaul of his cabinet that struck many observers as a defensive circle-the-wagons maneuver::
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tapped loyalists to rebuild his cabinet and fight a deepening corruption scandal that claimed its first victims from his inner circle and sent markets plunging.

Erdogan replaced 10 ministers in his 26-member cabinet, parting ways with those implicated in the probe, seen as the battleground in a struggle with a former long-time ally. He appointed his deputy minister Bekir Bozdag as justice minister to lead the legal battle allegedly against followers of a U.S.- based imam, Fethullah Gulen, who fell out with Erdogan lately. [....]

“This is a cabinet based on loyalty, designed to restore discipline and for damage control,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by phone. [....]

“This is the independence struggle for a new Turkey,” Erdogan said yesterday, hours before President Abdullah Gul approved cabinet changes. “Plots against Turkey will unravel.” Erdogan said the probe amounted to an attempted coup. [....]

The next wave of graft-related arrests will target the high-speed railway network and name one of Erdogan’s sons, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik said on Twitter yesterday. The Ankara prosecutor’s office confirmed an investigation, without giving further details. [....]

“For the first time since getting into office, Erdogan looks under siege and clearly on the defensive while unity within his party is starting to show some cracks,” said Wolfgango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence in London. “If the pressure intensifies in the days ahead and the probe gets closer to him and his family, Erdogan may have to resort to snap elections to try to regain momentum.”
=>  I don't pretend to have any idea how all this will turn out.  But while we await further developments,one way to help make sense of what it going on might be to reflect on what we know about the characteristic political style of the figure at the center of this crisis, Erdogan himself.  That's only part of the story, but a significant part.

Back in August 2011 Okan Altiparmak and Claire Berlinski, drawing on the big WikiLeaks dump of US diplomatic cables, put together an overview of political dynamics in Turkey that included an incisive analyses of the strengths, weaknesses, and potential dangers of Erdogan's style of political leadership.  I think that analysis makes for timely and illuminating reading today.  Some highlights:
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey reveal a surprising paradox. U.S. diplomats present themselves as highly-informed, perspicacious observers of Turkey with more insight than one would expect into the Islamist complexes and prejudices of Turkey’s governing AKP, the role of the Gulen movement in Turkey, the political talent and personality of Prime Minister Erdogan, his increasing isolation from competent advisors, and the central problems that characterize AKP governance: lack of technocratic skill, corruption, and influence-peddling. Yet time and again, these diplomats fail to draw from these observations the obvious conclusion: This represents a risk to Turkey, the United States, and its regional interests.

The Wikileaks cables on Turkey have shown that American diplomats understood far more about Turkey under the AKP (Justice and Development Party) than was previously thought. Their reports are in places remarkably perspicacious, yet again and again, they contain obvious analytic missteps. In particular, the authors tend to make important observations and then fail either to ask the obvious next question or draw from it the obvious conclusion.

On January 20, 2004, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman penned a report[i] of nearly impeccable insight into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. He correctly emphasizes the luck that ushered the party into power in November, 2002, notes the Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and aptly characterizes his political talent and pragmatism. Edelman’s description of the prime minister’s personality is almost painfully prescient: “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs… [his] authoritarian loner streak… prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.”

Edelman also observes central problems of AKP governance–lack of technocratic skill, corruption and influence-peddling–that are now well-known to foreign observers but were at the time little-remarked. Finally, he notes the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of several key Erdogan appointees:

"Erdogan’s refusal to condemn these positions, the question of the level of influence of Islamic brotherhoods and groups (including the followers of Fethullah Gulen) on the government, and the presence of Turkish Hizbullah supporters in AK Party provincial structures in the Southeast have also raised deep concerns among many long-standing Embassy contacts who themselves are pious. …how well [Erdogan] can control the phenomenon remains a very open question."

As is now known, these questions have become the questions.

The odd thing about this cable is the conclusion. These observations would, logically, give a rational observer pause, but instead lead Edelman to assert–without further argument–that the AKP is therefore the only party capable of “advancing the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe.” If he drew upon other premises to arrive at this conclusion, they are in a cable that has not yet been released to the public. Of those cables that have been released, none seem to suggest such a thing; indeed, they explain why–precisely why–the AKP has not been able to advance this vision.

In subsequent cables,[ii] Edelman deepens these observations, noting that Erdogan has surrounded himself “with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors,” isolating himself from a flow of reliable information [....]

The key insight of this and the preceding cables is that Erdogan and his advisors are not receiving high-quality intelligence and are instead relying upon “media disinformation.” Edelman notes the dominance of emotion and Sunni cronyism over analytic depth and vision in both the AKP’s domestic and foreign policy. He also notes that Erdogan has compounded his isolation through incessant travel and alienated many supporters in the AKP with his temper.

It is clear from the cables that by the end of 2004, American diplomats had a clear understanding of many critical points that the foreign press would not appreciate for several years to come. (Much of it still does not.)[iii]

"PM Erdogan is isolated. He has lost touch with his Cabinet and parliamentary group. We hear MPs and Ministers alike, xxxxx who is close to Erdogan, complain they no longer have comfortable access, or feel obliged to kowtow for fear of incurring Erdogan’s wrath. Business associations, strong advocates of AKP economic policies, tell us they feel they have lost the PM’s ear….

According to a broad range of our contacts, Erdogan reads minimally, mainly the Islamist-leaning press. According to others with broad and deep contacts throughout the establishment, Erdogan refuses to draw on the analyses of the MFA, and the military and National Intelligence Organization have cut him off from their reports. He never had a realistic world view, but one key touchstone is a fear of being outmaneuvered on the Islamist side by “Hoca” Erbakan’s Saadet Party. Instead, he relies on his charisma, instincts, and the filterings of advisors who pull conspiracy theories off the Web or are lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies, e.g., Islamist foreign policy advisor and Gul ally Ahmet Davutoglu."

Cables from January 2004 to March 2005 return repeatedly to the themes of the cronyism, incompetence, and corruption in the AKP:[iv]

"AKP swept to power by promising to root out corruption. However, in increasing numbers AKPers from ministers on down, and people close to the party, are telling us of conflicts of interest or serious corruption in the party at the national, provincial and local level and among close family members of ministers. We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.[v]

"Among the many figures mentioned to us as prominently involved in corruption are Minister of Interior Aksu, Minister of Foreign Trade Tuzmen, and AKP Istanbul provincial chairman Muezzinoglu. As we understand it from a contact in the intel directorate of Turkish National Police, a continuing investigation into Muezzinoglu’s extortion racket and other activities has already produced evidence incriminating Erdogan. In our contacts across Anatolia we have detected no willingness yet at the grassroots level to look closely at Erdogan or the party in this regard, but the trend is a time bomb."

As anyone who lives in Turkey knows, this cable suggests that Edelman was, indeed, living in Turkey. Corruption is the time bomb—a massively important point no one living here could readily miss. Whether or not these specific accusations are correct, anyone who lives here will hear similar stories from every observer, daily–from shopkeepers struggling with local corruption to companies bidding for tenders worth billions of dollars. Foreign observers tend to miss both the observation and its significance with great regularity, however; and if having this insight has had any effect on U.S. diplomatic posture toward Turkey, it is not clear how. Of what use is such a shrewd observer on the ground if one pays his warnings no mind? [....]
The rest of their piece is also worth reading, even though in retrospect some parts of the analysis look more prescient than others. For example, one theme running through their discussion is the increasing entanglement of the AK Party and the Gulenist movement, and much of what they have to say in that respect remains on-target and important. But no one reading this piece in 2011 would have expected to see Erdogan and the Gulenists locked in bitter conflict a few years later—a power struggle whose underlying causes remain a bit mysterious, at least to me. (Altiparmak and Berlinski do mention a passage from one of the diplomatic cables reporting that a Gulenist spokesman had described the Gulenist movement as "ambivalent" about the AKP. But they express skepticism about whether this expression of ambivalence should be taken seriously—clearly, they felt the Gulenist informant was just telling the gullible Americans what he thought they wanted to hear—and then they drop the whole subject.)  I don't mention that point as a criticism, since political prediction is never an exact science. Actually, both the insights and the omissions in this piece (and even points on which one might disagree) are usefully thought-provoking.

Meanwhile, stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub