'Grim situation' for civil society in Turkey

Civil society is under sustained assault in Turkey, with the Open Society Foundation announcing last week it would end operations in the country, following the detention two weeks prior of 14 activists linked to Anadolu Kültür, an organisation that aims to bridge social divisions through the arts.

All of the activists were released after questioning, except Yiğit Aksakoğlu of Istanbul’s Bilgi University, who was formally detained.

“It’s a very grim situation for civil society and for civic space in general,” said Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at democracy watchdog Freedom House. “Because of the guilt by association standards used in Turkey and the way prosecutors concoct conspiracies out of thin air, anyone in the country who works on human rights or inter-ethnic issues is vulnerable.”

Open Society’s announcement followed a speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attacking the foundation’s president, George Soros, and linking Soros to Osman Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kültür and one of Turkish civil society’s most prominent figures. Kavala has been imprisoned for over a year without an indictment.

Erdoğan accused Kavala of financing what he called terrorists who took part in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the president’s party came to power in 2002.

“And who is behind him?” Erdoğan asked. “The famous Hungarian Jew Soros. This is a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them.”

Open Society is also under investigation for allegedly financing the Gezi protests, which it denies. One of its members, Hakan Altınay, was among the activists detained on Nov. 16.

“People are afraid” to open new NGOs in Turkey, said Özge Zihnioğlu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bahçeşehir University who has been studying the European Union and Turkish civil society since 2005.

Zihnioğlu said that since the Gezi protests civil society efforts had tended to form loose, unregistered groups in order to stay under the state’s radar. However, this means they are unable to get European Union or other official funding.

“Many of them don’t last very long,” she said.

Critics say that Erdoğan has little tolerance for criticism or advocacy of political goals not in line with official policy, but Zihnioğlu said that the president and his Justice and Development Party had long worked with civil society to support their welfare policies.

“For Erdoğan, civil society isn’t something bad, but their definition is mostly service providers, not rights-based groups,” she said.

Turkey has seen a dramatic democratic backsliding and turn away from its traditional Western partners since the government crackdown following the Gezi protests. An analysis from the European Court of Auditors found that between 2015 and 2016, the number of members of Turkish associations advocating for rights fell by three quarters, from 200,096 to 50,598.

The EU, which opened membership negotiations with Turkey in 2005, made the unprecedented move in September to cancel 70 million euros of pre-accession funds, a relatively small proportion of overall EU funds for Turkey.

“It’s a symbolic gesture to send a political signal to Turkey and its government that it’s been backtracking on democratic issues and rule of law,” said Laura Batalla, secretary general of the cross-party non-partisan European Parliament Turkey Forum, who pointed out that Turkey-EU relations are at one of their lowest historical points.

In November 2016 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of suspending EU membership talks with Turkey, a non-binding recommendation not acted on by the European Commission or Council. More recently, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn stated it would be “more honest” for membership talks to be scrapped.

“Erdoğan’s authoritarian policies have closed the door to Europe for the Turkish population. If we allow Turkey to continue on the path to EU accession, this would completely undermine the EU's entire accession policy,” European Parliament member Marietje Schaake wrote in an email to Ahval.

Experts say there is little to no chance of the membership process ending any time soon, as it would require a consensus from all 28 member states. Nor is there much chance of the negotiations advancing, which leaves the two sides in a kind of indefinite limbo.

“They’re just trying to keep it as it is I think, for as long as possible. I don’t see how it can change,” said Zihnioğlu.

As part of the accession process, Turkey has been designated approximately nine billion euros in two Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) packages between 2007 and 2020. Figures for funds directed to civil society vary according to what is included in this category, but according to data provided to Ahval by Zihnioğlu, between 2002 and September 2018, the EU awarded around 92.5 million euros to 1,018 projects carried out by various civil society organisations in Turkey.

About 85 percent of IPA funds are distributed by the Turkish government through the Central Finance and Contracts Unit (CFCU), and awarded through grants for which organisations can apply.

An EU audit conducted in April found that the funds had only limited success in promoting democratisation, governance and the rule of law, and "insufficiently addressed some fundamental needs".

Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former EU ambassador to Turkey, said there was only so much EU funds could accomplish without proper democratic governance.

“Projects of this type, as well as the support of civil society, still provide considerable improvements to rule of law and democracy in Turkey, but they can only work if the fundamentals of a rule of law-based society are respected. There is no such thing as a top-driven civil society, or a democracy without a right to dissent or a free press,” Pierini wrote in an email to Ahval.

Zihnioğlu said the IPA funds were only meant as a facilitator, and money alone meant little in the absence of meaningful changes in the domestic political and institutional environment.

“It’s meant to complement changes in the legal environment and a change of political will, (but) the will on both sides is lost,” Zihnioğlu said.

Gül Günver Turan, a retired economics professor and president of both the Turkey-EU Association (TURABDER) and the Turkish branch of the European Movement International, agreed that both Ankara and Brussels were to blame.

“The duplicity has always been mutual,” she told Ahval, making clear that her comments only represent her personal opinion, not that of TURABDER.

Turan said the EU’s emphasis had always been more on economics than democracy, noting how Cyprus blocked chapters 23 on judiciary and fundamental rights and 24 on freedom and security.

“The EU acted as if it cared about Turkey’s democracy, judiciary system and rule of law but did nothing to open these fundamental chapters years ago,” she said.

The EU is also distracted by many other issues right now, and beset by problems at home that hurt its integrity as a champion of democracy.

“The fact that some of the EU’s own members are currently violating the values that Turkey is accused of violating considerably undermines the credibility of the EU and the impact it could have on Turkey,” said Turan.

Furthermore, much of the leverage the EU might have used to dissuade Turkey from democratic backsliding and authoritarianism was lost with the signing of the migrant deal in March 2016, in which Turkey agreed to help the EU stem the flow of asylum seekers in return for a pledge of six billion euros.

“The EU as a whole, and (especially) its member states, remain silent on (Turkey’s) democratic backsliding in order not to jeopardise the deal on migration,” said Batalla. “This is how we’ve been gradually losing leverage, and now there’s very little the EU can do.”