The failed coup and the slow death of Turkish democracy

For Lehigh University professor Henri Barkey, accusations of working to overthrow the Turkish government are old hat, having faced charges of organising the failed coup since shortly after it took place in July 2016. But serving as the link Ankara used last month to tie Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala to the coup attempt and throw him back in jail is an offence of another order. 

“This is absurd. There is nothing one can say to rationally defend oneself from such accusations, they keep inventing an enormous number of facts,” Barkey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval in a podcast. 

Placed in pre-trial detention in November 2017 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government during the Gezi Park protests of 2013, Kavala is the only one of the 16 suspects still in prison. Along with eight others he was acquitted last month of the Gezi charges, but was almost immediately re-arrested for involvement in the 2016 failed coup. 

“Osman has been in jail now for over two years and it’s really really unfair,” said Barkey, adding that the Turkish activist is 63 years old. “We don’t have that many years left at that age in this world...It must be so so frustrating. You probably would want to hit your head on the prison walls.”

The European Council on Human Rights (ECHR) has described the detention as a violation of Kavala’s rights, while Human Rights Watch has said his re-arrest exposed Turkey’s politically manipulated judiciary and Amnesty International demanded his immediate release. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, charged the judges who acquitted the Gezi accused with aiming to manipulate justice and has put them under investigation. “They attempted to acquit him with a trick,” he said. 

The Turkish government has since the attempted coup accused Barkey of involvement, mainly because he previously worked for the State Department and was in Turkey, overseeing a conference on the Istanbul island of Büyükada , during the attempted coup. Ankara, Barkey believes, saw him as an easy way to link the failed coup to the U.S. government, and has done so again in the Kavala case.  

“There is nothing in that indictment except for his connection to me, which they invent,” said Barkey, adding that the link had previously been reported in the nationalist newspaper Aydınlık and other dubious sources. “For prosecutors to actually lift things from newspapers and put it into an indictment -- it makes a mockery of the whole process,” he said. “Who would take any government or state seriously that does this?”

The indictment says Kavala was on Büyükada with Barkey during the failed coup, which is untrue. It also says Barkey and Kaval spoke on the phone for over 90 hours, which is also untrue: Barkey said they had never spoken on the phone at all. 

The only semi-legitimate claim in the indictment is that the two met a few days after the coup attempt at a popular restaurant in central Istanbul. Technically they did not meet there, Barkey pointed out, but merely bumped into each other and chatted for a few minutes. 

The irony, he said, is that Kavala was at the restaurant meeting a couple United Nations officials in an attempt to persuade them that certain historical sites in Turkey deserved UNESCO World Heritage status, hoping to boost Turkey’s tourism potential. 

“Here’s a guy who’s trying to do something for his country and he happens to bump into me, gets up and talks to me for 3-4 minutes and that is cause for suspicion,” said Barkey. 

Turkey blames the movement led by former Erdoğan ally Fethullah Gülen for the failed coup, and has thus linked Barkey to Gülen. One rumour is that Barkey joined a group of American intellectuals in writing a letter in 2007, urging a U.S. judge to give Gülen a green card, allowing him to stay in the United States.  

“I had nothing to do with that. I never wrote for Gülen, this is not something I would write as a professor,” Barkey said. “The irony is that I did not even know that there was such a letter.”

Turkey has dismissed some 150,000 public servants and jailed around 50,000 people since the failed coup, on charges of links to the Gülen movement, known as FETO in Turkey. 

“Because they have purged the bureaucracy and because they accused anyone they don’t like of being a FETO member, that actually undermines their case,” said Barkey.

He acknowledged that some of the coup leaders may have been members of the Gülen movement and that the military brass had reason to be angry at the AKP-led government, which weakened it politically, but the purges and FETO charges had gone way too far.  

“All this stuff about Gülen to some extent shows you the disdain with which the AKP looks at the Turkish population, because they think you say all this stuff and people will believe it,” said Barkey. “Maybe 40 percent, 50 percent people believe it, but there’s also 40 to 50 percent of the country that says this is nuts.” 

This points to what he sees as the most problematic result of the failed coup: the constant barrage of conspiracy theories and anti-American rhetoric coming out of the Turkish government and pro-government media. 

“When the lira goes down in value or the coronavirus, everything is blamed on the United States,” said Barkey, who believes U.S. and European officials under-estimate the lasting damage this makes. “You are educating a whole generation of Turks in this irrational anti-Americanism.” 

A Pew Research study released in January found that just one in five Turks has a favourable view of the United States, while a recent MetroPoll survey found that Russia is the country Turks trust most. This seems to dovetail with the decline in Turkish democracy in recent years. 

This month marks 17 years in power for Erdoğan, and many see his considerable achievements -- greater prosperity, improved transport, infrastructure and healthcare, and a sizable military build-up -- being undermined by problematic economic policies and a dismantling of the rule of law, as highlighted by the re-arrest of Kavala. 

“The state of Turkish democracy, basically it’s on life support. There isn’t much democracy left,” said Barkey, pointing to thousands arrested for criticising the president online, the absence of a free press, and a silenced academia and civil society. ‘Unfortunately, there is no democracy in Turkey.”