'Things will get worse in 2018 with continued arrests and purges'

Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at the history department of St. Lawrence University and a research assistant at Washington D.C.-based think-tank Project on Middle Eastern Democracy (POMED), last week attracted much attention with a report on the increased paramilitarisation of the Turkish state. Here he talks to Ahval about Turkey's predicament and the outlook for 2018.


What are your expectations from 2018?

I expect to see a continuation and expansion of we have seen since 2016: an extension of the purges and continued consolidation of power. I think the Osman Kavala case particularly extremely disturbing as it suggests a continued attack on civil society. I do not see any reason to assume the sense of crisis will diminish. First of all, the sense of crisis has been politically useful for (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan since 2013 (the Gezi Protests and the December corruption scandal). Erdoğan sees the European and American concerns about the rule of law as support for traitors within the state. While I think he benefits from playing up these tensions, they are heartfelt. He believes he is at risk and so will continue to try to crush dissent.  

You argue in your piece that the government has built a network of informal security structures that includes military contractors, political party clubs, and a mobilised and militant AKP base. Does this mean that Turkey became another Middle Eastern regime?

The point that I am trying to make is, in part, that contemporary Turkey is quite different from other authoritarian regimes. The AKP sees itself as transformational, revolutionary. Most authoritarian countries are interested in holding power.  They cut deals and largely let people get on with their lives. In that sense, Erdoğan’s goals are far more dramatic. He doesn’t want to simply hold power; he wants to fundamentally reshape Turkish society.

The second point that the paper makes about Erdoğan is that he does not feel secure and has been moving to radically transform security structures as a way to address this insecurity. He’s doing this, firstly, by radically intensifying his decade long effort to create political loyal institutions, particularly the military and police. Secondly, he has made a number of alliances with non-state actors, like the military contractor, SADAT. This fits into an ugly Turkish tradition, in which security services have employed allies from the outside to do their dirty work. Thirdly, we see a new emphasis on party militants against political opponents. The use of militants against political opponents can last be traced to the 1940s at least. But It was never venerated by the state as being core to the nation. Popular mobilisation of the sort we are now seeing is quite new to Turkey.

Don’t you think that Turkish conservatives have every right to protect themselves, since they feel they have been under attack since July 15?

Clearly, the coup attempt represented a real threat that would be addressed by any state. There was no support for a coup because the Turkish public believes in democracy.

But what we see today in Turkey is not really a democracy. There is no longer a legal pathway for the opposition to take a power in Turkey. Can the opposition parties possibly win? As I tried to outline in a piece for Foreign Affairs a few months ago, there is good reason to believe they can’t. We are left with the skeleton of a democracy, but none of its content. 

Will Erdoğan come back to democracy?

People have been waiting for Erdoğan to moderate for years. I don’t think he is an irrational actor He has, demonstrated a capacity to change policies. He has reversed himself a few times on Kurdish issues and, more famously, in foreign policy. Moreover, there is reason for him to reach out to the opposition; doing so would allow for greater stability. There are also good reasons for him to diminish the present tension with the West. 

But over time, his policy making has become increasingly personalised. He sees a very dangerous world in which compromise is weakness, in which the enemies must be forced to submit.  I don’t think it is impossible for him to moderate on a broader scale, but I certainly don’t expect it. Not in 2018. Not ever.

What will purchasing S-400s do to Turkey–U.S. relations? 

Congress has been frustrated with Turkey for a long while on a long list of issues. It is likely to that Congress’ reaction will be vigorous. I don’t expect relations between the U.S. and Turkey to get better any time soon. A real crisis is possible.

Would you expect anything different coming from the U.S. government in 2018 with regards to the Turkish government’s human rights breaches?

In the end, the U.S. response was not about abuses per se. It was on specific policy differences that relations have really broken. In particular, it was not the prosecution of journalists or the purge that cause the visa crisis, but the targeting of U.S. consular staff. It seems to me that the U.S. is willing to live with an authoritarian Turkey, but it is not willing to live with a Turkey that is unwilling to play by the basic rules of international law.

The biggest clash over the rule of law is Fethullah Gülen and the issue of the extradition of Gülen Movement members. Let me ask you this first -- Nicholas Danforth, a Turkey expert, recently wrote that he believes that members of the Gülen Movement are centrally involved in the coup attempt. Do you agree?

My understanding is that members of the Gülen Movement played a key role in the coup attempt. They may well have been the central core, the truth is that there is a lot we don’t know for certain and may never know. The Turkish government tries hard to create a single narrative. But this has meant confessions under duress and limited access to details. We have lost our opportunity for a full and impartial investigation. There is a very little question that individuals affiliated with the Movement played key roles; it may well be that they played a central, organising role. But given the limits of our information and the nature of the confessions, I am inclined to be agnostic about the full narrative of the coup attempt.

Gülen does not even communicate through emails, and rarely ever uses phones — how can anyone tie him to the coup?

There are a couple ways to respond:

First, difficult or not, there needs to be some body of evidence to make extradition possible. I’m not a lawyer, but it does not appear to be a very not a high bar, though the political nature of the purge and the record of abuses may make it higher than it otherwise would be.  As I understand it, however, the extradition request has not passed the State Department yet. That means the barest of standards has not yet been met.  Producing boxes upon boxes of documents, as the Turkish government has apparently done, is not, in fact, a good strategy. 

My understanding is that Justice Department officials went to Ankara repeatedly to help them make an effective extradition request. But it came to nothing.

So, one of three things happened in Ankara: one is there is no real evidence tying Gülen individually to the coup attempt. Another is the Turkish government does not really want him extradited. And the third is that the Turkish government believed that the whole process was political and that mechanics did not or should not matter. I suspect the third is true, but the sheer laziness of the Turkish indictment effort is a puzzle.

Did the Zarrab case unfold as you expected?

I think it is still early, and it’s institutional questions that are the most important. 

For example, if the U.S. treasury imposes fines on Turkish banks, how would Erdoğan respond? Erdoğan’s guiding principal is reciprocity, as we have seen with regards to visa issues. If the U.S. treasury imposes sanctions on Halkbank, will Erdoğan respond reciprocally to U.S. institutions? If he does, what will the US do? This is what I mean by things spinning out of control.

Do you think the worst is behind us when entering 2018? Or ahead of us? 

I think things are going to get worse. The question is will the continue on the same path or will some new crisis plunge us into entirely new waters.

The possibility of a crisis over sanctions on banks is one example of this.

Another might be if the Turkish government goes after the CHP strongholds and continues imposing trustees on CHP municipalities, this will be a shock to the system. Most middle class CHP voters are living in CHP municipalities. That limits the impact of AKP rule on their daily lives But if they see that Kadikoy or Besiktas [municipalities] comes under AKP rule, that would dramatically escalate the tension. I don’t know if that will happen, but it is certainly possible.

The best case is that the downward trend we’ve seen for the past few years continues: continued purges, continued arrests, continued vilification of the opposition and manufactured crises with Turkey’s allies. But any of these issues have the capacity to metastasise into something far more dangerous.

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