Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was said to have remarked that there are decades in which nothing happens, and weeks in which decades happen. Muhsin Yorulmaz writes that, in Turkey, there is no escaping this particular truism.
Because of the rapid rate of betrayals, shifting alliances and crises, it becomes difficult to summarise what the Turkish government or state are “thinking” in a given week, even for those of us who speak Turkish.
None the less, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in government for more than a decade, and the clique headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that holds the uneasy rudder of the Turkish government and state has been hegemonic for years.
At this point, a certain strategic approach can be identified, reflected in and explaining the governmental style and international relations of this clique.
Opponents of Erdoğan are fond of depicting him as a sort of would-be Hitler for Turkey. His fascistic intention and behaviour is not in doubt. A divisive and charismatic leader,
Turkish leftists are acutely aware of the power concentrated in Erdoğan and more broadly his clique.
But we know from history that the working class and the poor can be swayed by such figures. Erdoğan invokes revulsion from many, but he is also adored by many of the poor in Turkey. Even if they are a minority, their forces must be measured against the organised forces of genuine opposition.
His appeal stems in part from the period of his initial rise to power, associated with the usual rightist populist rhetoric that seeks to exploit and subvert the outrage of the poor. Erdoğan still possesses some real popularity. Despite the ruling class not being united around him, there is no push to replace him, as no other leader has his charisma.
Erdoğan talks in a macho and chauvinistic way, as most Turkish leaders do. But he does so in a way that reminds the Turkish masses of an influential neighbourhood uncle. He does not sound like “the elite”, with private school education and pretensions to belonging to “European” society.
His style of rhetoric aims to appeal to reactionary prejudices among the masses, such as when he rails against women who laugh in public or abortion rights. He also expresses rhetorical outrage against crimes committed by Israel — divorced from any concrete steps against Turkey’s strong economic and military ties with Israel.
So when Erdoğan appeals to conspiracy theory, claiming that Turkey’s financial crisis is a result of meddling by hostile foreign powers, many who identify with him choose to believe him. When Erdoğan defends repressive police state measures, it is associated with a struggle against enemies, hostile to “our” way of life.
Turkish socialists find themselves trying to explain that Israel is not bad because it is Jewish and the Palestinians are Muslim (many are, at any rate, Christian). It is because Israel is oppressive.
Readers from majority Christian countries may see some reflection of the tactics of their own right wingers: the spectre of al-Qaeda and ISIS is raised to legitimise hatemongering against Muslims, to identify outrage at jihadi violence with an oppressive retrograde ideology at home.
Erdoğan relies heavily on our ability to not break through these prejudices, just as the right in Australia relies on the racism of white Australian society to legitimise themselves.
But there is a difference between Malcolm Turnbull and Erdoğan. Turnbull is prime minister of a wealthy, imperialist country that can afford to offer more “democracy” at home, with less explicit corruption.
The fascist conditions of Turkey are in great measure a result of this weakness. There is a clear connection between Erdoğan’s economic corruption and the particular form his political repression takes.
Erdoğan has not robbed Turkey of democracy, because Turkey has never experienced a truly democratic order. Turkey’s capitalist class was always relatively weak, from World War I, through the establishment of the republic in 1922, the Cold War, and up until today.
Turkish democrats and socialists, as well as all Kurdish people, have always faced a hostile legal system. No separation of powers have ever really existed.
The outrage of much the world media at Erdoğan is right, but it misses the point of why Erdoğan now conjures such outrage after so many years of violence against anyone who speaks out for democracy in Turkey. This includes the killing of journalists, massacres of minorities (particularly Alawites), and the most undemocratic electoral and civil society standards of almost any country that keeps up any pretence of democracy.
This is business as usual. Why should Erdoğan inspire such protests? Why should Erdoğan be a known figure to the international left when so many Turkish presidents and prime ministers were practically ignored?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that Erdoğan rose to prominence promising an end to the old undemocratic order built by the Kemalist (Turkish nationalist) elite. Some elements of the conservative masses may feel betrayed by the emptiness of promises for democracy (whatever their social prejudices about what “Turkish democracy” would look like).
But it cannot also be discounted that the democratic and socialist movements, the Kurdish movement, the feminist movement, survived the repression of the Cold War and the 1990s to present a real challenge to the social and political order in Turkey. Erdoğan posed as a democrat in the hopes of subverting this Zeitgeist, and has subsequently struggled against a democratic and socialist opposition stronger and more united than any in Turkey's past.
For the ruling classes, this is one side of the problem. Erdoğan does not have a clear strategy for defeating their enemies, principally the Kurdish movement. One day Erdoğan is playing the democrat and sitting at a negotiation table, the next he is declaring war on Kurdistan and declaring everyone, even many of his own rightist allies, terrorists.
This is also the reason why the international left is more conscious of Erdoğan as an enemy of the people than many of his equally reactionary predecessors: progressives around the world have begun to look to Turkey and Kurdistan for some sort of inspiration, whereas in the past the Turkish opposition was viewed as extremely marginal.
Despite heroic resistance in the streets, workplaces, universities, the countryside and cities, and even in prisons, the political opposition in Turkey was never so prominent on the world stage as the Palestinian or Irish struggles.
Today, however, with the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey and Kurdish-led Rojava Revolution in northern Syria, and the Gezi protests in 2013 in Istabul, this once obscure region is now in world headlines.
Facing this unfavourable situation, Erdoğan has become more and more like the coup leaders of the past.
After a failed coup attempt against his government in 2016, the state of emergency he imposed can only be viewed as a counter-coup. Already known for economic corruption, Erdoğan has put his son-in-law in charge of the economy.
The clique surrounding Erdoğan is aware of their tenuous circumstances. They know Erdoğan is merely tolerated by the Turkish ruling elite due to the lack of a clear alternative.
Erdoğan is personally attached to almost all features of the Turkish regime at present. Under the emergency order, the entire country is being ruled by statutory decrees and not the rule of law.
But what is interesting is how many of these decrees have been carried out not just to repress the democratic opposition, but to bolster Erdoğan’s position.
One decree even ensured Erdoğan’s approval of state theatre. Another changed the law on the registration of media passes so that rather than the usual bureaucratic hurdles journalists might have jumped through, their political allegiance became a condition for their work.
The examples are so many that even political analysts have difficulty keeping up. But the police have no trouble remembering the rule: loyalty to the government (not even the formal law of the state) is rewarded; opposition to the government is subject to harassment (at best).
The connection of political corruption to financial corruption, under conditions of economic crisis (which Erdoğan blames on foreign powers but is the result of his neoliberal development model) has certainly attracted the attention of imperialist powers.
Different imperialist powers have taken different stances towards Erdoğan’s “New Turkey”. The US and their little brothers Australia and Canada, pragmatic as always, mediate their criticisms but generally cooperate with a favourite NATO ally. The European Union, however, being so directly concerned with trade and security issues in the Balkan and Mediterranean regions, are much more concerned with the AKP.
The EU powers do not care about the fate of the Turkish or Kurdish peoples (as is easy to see by their mollycoddling of Erdoğan and other fascists in Turkey), but several EU states have been more vocal because Erdoğan’s economic corruption and the free rein he gives to ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalists threatens EU stability.
Erdoğan is fully aware that the EU is on the side of the Turkish state, not the Kurdish people. But the insecure feeling many elements of the Turkish ruling classes display towards him is mirrored in their partners in the EU.
Just as Erdoğan tried to domestically reshape the state to keep himself as an indispensable part of it, he is wary of the higher level economic and political interests that stand in his way of this quest.
Playing different sides
Thus we have seen Erdoğan's closeness with Russia, China, and Iran. Erdoğan hopes to secure for Turkey a role like Qatar in the Gulf. Qatar manages to play an intermediary role for Western imperialist powers. The US still does not view Qatar as “rogue” or make a big deal out of its horrific human rights abuses.
Like Malaysia and Pakistan, Erdoğan imagines a “modern Muslim” society (meaning one which is not totally reliant on oil and gas revenues), which can nonetheless be ruled by a pro-imperialist dictatorship, occasionally posturing to its enraged poor as a defender of the downtrodden, and “upsetting” the US by working with Russia or China.
But there is a flaw in this strategy, in Turkey as in Pakistan: the US has made very clear what it will do if some smaller, weaker capitalist country threatens its interests, and neither the Turkish nor the Pakistani regimes have any faith that defenders of the homeland would be defenders of these ruling classes in such a case.
Furthermore, while Turkey might inch its way closer to Russia, the US is perfectly willing to deal with Russia and China as well. These powers have their contradictions, but they also have extremely strong points of cooperation, hence their penchant for proxy wars over direct wars: why spill the blood of a good business partner over a small deal?
Further, Turkey, like Qatar, frequently finds itself at odds with these “alternative” partners. Turkey and Iran might appear to agree on Palestine, but it is only Iran that backs serious resistance to Israel’s ever-worsening occupation.
Turkey and Iran might be able to agree and make deals with the Syrian government one day, but Turkey’s own regional interests force its hand back the next. Turkey and Iran might agree on the occupation and subjugation of Kurdistan, but both sides have shown their willingness to use the Kurdish movement against the other when it suits their purposes.
The same can be said of Russia: even if Erdoğan could leave NATO, sever all manner of agreements with the US, and take on Russia as his patron, all without provoking the sort of internal conflict that occurred in Ukraine when pro-EU elements tried to impose their will on such a divided country, Turkey and Russia’s interests have sharply diverged in the recent past.
There’s a reason why Iran is closer to Russia than Turkey is. The political culture of the Turkish republic is based on Turkish nationalism and Sunni chauvinism, which makes the Turkish regime a natural friend to Gulf states, and a natural enemy to Shia-ruled Iran.
Erdoğan is playing a dangerous game: he cannot switch sides, but he must try to keep a foot in each camp as much as he can while keeping himself useful to as many elements as possible. Should another Gezi style mass resistance emerge, should he slip in a more serious way, both popular forces and international forces could easily align to replace him.
Others might align to protect him, but he may well be the first sacrificed. The clique around him must be kept up at night thinking about this problem.
Erdoğan dreams of a “new Ottoman Empire”. But Turkey is too economically subservient to oil and gas powers in the east and south, to investment from Russia, and increasingly China, and to the infrastructure and economic dictates of Western capital — particularly the US and Germany — to realise this in the short term.
The economic crisis that shakes even the richest imperialist powers shakes a country like Turkey even deeper. Erdoğan has no easy out, and violence will continue to plague Turkish and Kurdish politics at home.
What the outcome will be, no one can say. But it is hard to imagine Erdoğan’s strategy of forcing his way to becoming not only the formal but the essential head of state, of positioning himself in an indispensable position to various imperialist powers and other regional players, as achieving anything more than simply buying this dictatorial clique more time.
[Muhsin Yorulmaz is a writer and translator with Abstrakt, a Marxist internet magazine.]