Oliver Wright
Jun 07 2018

Turkey: stuck between a rock and a conspiracy theory

One of the most striking changes to the Turkish political landscape in the last decade has been the resurgence of officially promoted conspiracy theories.

Such theories have long found fertile ground in Turkey, though in the early years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, dating from 2002, they were not widely promoted by the government as it sought to expand it relationships with the outside world, particularly with the West, and as the economy boomed.

It was not until the later discredited Balyoz and Ergenekon trials, beginning in 2008, in which hundreds of members of the military were accused of plotting against the government that conspiracy theories made a big comeback.

After that there was no turning back. The Gezi Park protests of 2013 were interpreted as a plot organised by a shifting cast of actors, including such unlikely protagonists as Lufthansa and George Soros.

These days, conspiracy theories are routinely used to explain, or to explain away, almost all problems the Turkish government encounters, be they large or small.

In recent weeks, for instance, alarming fluctuations in the value of Turkish lira have been accounted for in such terms, as has the inability of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to provide evidence that he completed a university degree.

Many of the theories appear outlandish even by the standards of conspiracy theories; examples are the claim by Yiğit Bulut, one of Erdoğan’s advisors, that foreign chefs visiting Turkey to make television programmes are spies and that Erdoğan’s enemies are trying to kill him using telekinesis.

Others have wide scope, such as assertions that a shadowy cabal led by an unnamed “higher mind” is plotting to dismember the Turkish Republic and/or thwart what is presented as the country’s inexorable rise to greatness.  

The large assortment of conspiracy theories offered up all lack much in the way of evidence to back them up. Most feature foreign adversaries bent on harming Turkey. Their primary function is to shore-up support for the government.

The government’s ever-increasing resort to conspiracy theories should not surprise anyone familiar with Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism and the well-attested tendency of such governments to use such explanatory tools.

One respect in which Turkey differs from most other authoritarian states is its economic dependence on foreign and especially Western investment. This presents a problem for the government since the very actors portrayed as bogeymen in the officially promoted conspiracy theories also help keep the lights on.

The Turkish government is no doubt aware of the paradox and has sought to address it both by attempting to find alternative sources of investment and by attempting to restrict the circulation of conspiracy theories to the domestic audience.

In the latter, the government has been assisted by the tendency of many external observers to assume that the conspiratorial rhetoric is merely intended for domestic consumption and is not believed by Turkish political leaders.

But this increasingly is not the case. Following a recent visit to London, Erdoğan spooked investors by announcing he intended to take more control of the economy following elections in June, leading people to wonder whether the unconventional economic views he frequently airs might be rather more than rhetoric aimed at domestic voters.

It is much the same with foreign relations. Turkey on the one hand demonises Western powers, for example accusing them of involvement in the failed 2016 coup attempt, while at the same time relying on them to provide security.     

The Turkish government therefore finds itself approaching a crossroads. On the one hand, conspiracy theories might be an easy way of maintaining popular support. But on the other, the consequences of outside observers starting to interpret these theories as an expression of the Turkish government’s genuine beliefs will be negative, not only for Turkey’s economy, but also for foreign relations.  

Once this Pandora’s box is open it is difficult to shut again. After all, Erdoğan and the small coterie of advisors who call the shots in Turkey are hardly likely to sit down and go through the long list of conspiracy theories they have promoted explaining which they believe in and which are just rhetoric.

Should cooking enthusiasts cancel their holidays in Turkey for fear of being arrested as spies? Should a company reconsider a planned investment because it may be considered part of a plot to weaken the Turkish lira? Should Western governments prohibit weapons exports to Turkey in case they are used against them? The list of uncertainties is as long as the list of conspiracy theories. 

What is clear though is that Turkish authorities cannot easily back down from their conspiratorial rhetoric without causing the many voters who have bought into the hype to scratch their heads. Nor can they continue to promote such theories without the damage to Turkey’s economy and its international standing taking a hit.

Most likely such theories will continue to be promoted as long as they chime with Erdoğan and his AKP party’s base. The consequences for the country may be profound, and indeed are already apparent as Turkey seeks to reduce its dependence on the West and increasingly aligns itself with Russia. And any hardships that are encountered on this road will conveniently be explained using the same sort of conspiracy theories that played a role in setting Turkey off on that path in the first place.