Swedish Democracy Promotion in Turkey

The news coming out of Turkey these days are bleak. Earlier this week, a fifteen-year-old boy, Berkin Elvan, passed away following 269 days in a coma after being hit by a tear gas canister during the Gezi protests last year. Demonstrations in his honor was met by more tear gas, and so far two people are reported dead in clashes between police and protesters.

This is but the latest incident in the country’s political instability which has been going on for years under the surface, only coming out in full view last year. A political civil war is raging between the Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling AKP and the Gulen movement, a conflict between powerful former allies over the control of the country’s overpowered state institutions. Disagreements over policy in Syria, Israel, EU, appointments in top intelligence positions, as well as executive succession are the symptoms of this conflict. The underlying rationale is consolidating the power vacuum left by the old secular elite, many of which now linger in jail after a set of  controversial trials. In both the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, suspects were accused and later convicted to harsh sentences for on multiple occasions attempting to overthrow the AKP government. When these trials were ongoing, Erdogan, the AKP and Gulenist media outlets, such as Zaman and its English version Today’s Zaman, both proclaimed them as the harbingers of democracy.

Today, the tables have turned, and Erdogan now claim these trials to be a fraud and point to followers of the Gülen movement in the judiciary and police as the main culprits of the judicial abuse (here). Although this smacks of political expediency – Erdogan and the AKP have likely been well aware of what’s been going on – it has increasingly become obvious that the trials were often based on fraudulent evidence and conducted with severe judicial impropriety. In the ongoing conflict with the Gulen movement, the government has reassigned thousands of police officers, prosecutors, and judges and new laws have further concentrated the governments hold over the judiciary. Media censorship has also expanded with new laws to monitor internet activity and threats to ban social media sites for incriminating voice recordings of top officials. But just as important as the recent erosion of democratic institutions are the reforms that never came about under AKP’s more than a decade long rule. The way I see it Turkey is plagued by three fundamental institutional deficits

  1. It’s not just that the fragile democratic institutions in place are at risk of going under amid the political civil war, it is also that many of the real underlying problems of Turkey’s institutions remain broken. The restrictions on political competition for parliament remain in place: a ten percent threshold prevent minority parties from any representation, and laws regulating party creation as well as financing create disproportionate, if not undemocratic, advantages to a political oligarchy of political insiders spread over 3-4 political parties. The habit of banning political parties, another authoritarian institution remains another flaw in the system. Together, this prevents Turkey’s electoral system from adequately aggregating voter preferences into representation in parliament. An extreme example of this failure can be seen in the 2002 national election, where the minimum required threshold meant half of all votes did not result in parliamentary representation. A democracy that fails in this its most primary function, to allow people to vote for political candidates, has little prospect for institutional development without reform in this area.
  2. Personal security and accountability within state (and especially security) institutions still remain woefully inadequate. Turkey’s military can still kill 34 civilians by mistake without any meaningful investigation into the event (here). Protesters getting shot during demonstrations, sometimes on camera, result in little consequence for the police. The manner in which political opponents have been rounded up in the Ergenekon, KCK, and Sledgehammer trials reek with judicial impropriety, if not criminal conduct by prosecutors. The degree to which state institutions and its members appear to have more rights than average citizens and are devoid of monitoring, remain an obstacle that needs to be dealt with. A state that requires protection from its citizens rather than the opposite will remain a democracy in name only.
  3. Freedom of expression remains pathetic. Any journalists that are still employed by mainstream news outlets constitute a negative selection (with apologies to the few employed Turkish journalists that I know) as essentially all independent and investigative-minded journalists have been fired, jailed or in exile. Turkey is the world’s largest jailed of journalists, beating countries like China and Iran. A plurality of these journalists are Kurds, a thorn in the side of any attempts to reach a political solution with the PKK. Media owners face incentives to censor news critical of the government in order to win lucrative government procurement contracts, and risk heavy fines if they do not cooperate. Laws limiting academics to speak out on political issues, as well as the degree of politics involved in university appointments, stifle research and innovation.

As an economics researcher in Sweden with an interest in Turkey, I’ve eagerly followed the Swedish government’s activities in Turkey. Over the last several years, the Swedish government has been pushing for closer links with their respective Turkish counterpart, and has become one of the leading supporter’s of Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Several recent high-level state visits have not only resulted in a brand-new Turkish studies institute at Stockholm University, but also in a “strategic partnership” (which I’m still not clear what it’s supposed to do).

I’ve attended some of these diplomatic events and it’s more often than not an unconditional lovefest. Optimism, enthusiasm… and Turkey’s doing a great job of becoming a regional political and economic power…  and its democracy is doing great too… Oh, and great job with the assertion of civil-over-military authority.. Being against Turkey in the EU is Islamophobia, etc, etc… Yes, there are some challenges and… fraudulent evidence in trials, you say? Well, you know, it’s difficult for a foreigner to really understand what’s happening in Turkey and look bunny rabbit!

According to the government’s own documents the objective of Sweden’s development cooperation with Turkey is “strengthened democracy that improves the prospects of membership in the European Union” concentrating on “democracy, human rights and gender equality.”

The degree to the Swedish government thinks Turkey is set to fulfill  these objectives were on display during last November’s state visit by Erdogan to Sweden. Before the visit, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt’s published an op-ed in the largest business newspaper, titled “Erdogan’s Turkey is on the right path”, in which he wrote:

This Euro-Asian, Muslim, G20, NATO and OECD country has, since the birth of the Republic in 1923, made determined efforts to move closer to the Western community. But not until the past decade was the old military-controlled state apparatus transformed into more genuine popular rule, with a more open social climate. Turkish leaders now allow teaching in Kurdish and talk of diversity as an asset for modern Turkey. This is worth pointing out. The guns in south-eastern Turkey have fallen silent and a peace process is well under way. Under Erdogan’s leadership a new Turkey has emerged.

To be fair, the article does point out that “numerous shortcomings remain”. And the peace talks with the PKK are among the better things that AKP has done in my, and many others’, view. Yet even for the casual Turkey observer, this level of optimism may seem a bit misplaced.  The article goes on:

Erdogan will be accompanied by five ministers and a business delegation of almost 200 people. This is a sign of increasingly important trade relations. Since the new millennium began, Turkey has become integrated into the global economy in earnest. Its GDP has trebled over the past decade. This has been the result of liberal reform policies and the customs union with the EU that was created in 1995.

The increasingly important trade relations are still to show up in statistics, however. According to the Swedish statistics institute SCB, in 2013 Turkey’s share of total trade with Sweden amounts to roughly 1 percent of total trade. The size of direct investment between Sweden and Turkey is even more modest, standing at 0.6 percent of the total for the same year. Nonetheless, the hope of greater economic relations between Sweden and Turkey has been persistent and partly explains the founding of the new Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS). On its website, a statement by the foreign minister appears:

”The knowledge generated at the institute would benefit Sweden as well as the rest of the EU and Turkey. It would also contribute to a better international understanding of Turkey’s regional role. For Swedish and other European Union business interests in Turkey, and for Turkish companies active in EU member states, a world class research institute would be a most valuable asset in deepening future relations.”

I’m sure the paragraph with Bildt mentioning the importance of pursuing research to promote democratization in Turkey fell out somehow.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like SUITS. I think it’s a great initiative, and I try to attend their seminars. But I worry about the broader picture, that Sweden’s relations with Turkey, its drive to get it to join the EU and the quest for business opportunities, may come at the expense of the primary goal of Sweden’s cooperation with Turkey, which is democratization.

Sweden nonetheless finances a host of projects related to the core pillars democracy, human rights, and gender equality through its development arm Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, (see list here). Although heavy on human rights and gender equality projects, the list is rather thin with regards to democracy-related projects. An exception is the sponsoring of the Turkish think tank TESEV, in a project called “Justice Monitoring, Constitutional Reform and Rule of Law”.

It struck me as rather odd when a new TESEV report came out at the end of last year on the Ergenekon trial, with one of the main points of the report being that the Ergenekon trial “had not gone far enough”. This is after all, a trial, that by now few people would consider an accurate outcome of justice, given the extensive judicial impropriety involved. The report makes no mention of judicial improprieties in the trial. The report thanks Sida for financial support.

Finding Sida’s signature on TESEV research promoting the legitimacy of the Ergenekon trials is not necessarily a one-off. In a 2012 panel hosted by Sida and the Swedish government institute Olof Palme International Center, one of the invited participants was the former director of TESEV, Etyen Mahçupyan. Mr Mahçupyan is also a prominent columnist of the Gulen-affiliated newspaper Today’s Zaman, and has been leading the paper’s push to legitimize the tainted trials against former members of the secular elite. Most of this article have been about the trials themselves, yet a fair number have been outright attacks at critics of the trials. In addition to a series of personal attacks against Dani Rodrik (see here for a set of links), a well-known critic of the trials, Mr. Mahcupyan in 2011 wrote an op-ed in Today’s Zaman (here) comparing foreign journalists critical of the trials to the mass murderer Anders Breivik, specifically targeting established journalists Alex Christie-Miller and Gareth Jenkins. This was a year before being invited by the Swedish government to discuss institutional reform in Turkey, and during the time he was director of democratization at TESEV.

The TESEV “democracy” project is a minor share of Sida’s projects in Turkey, but appears as the only listed democracy-related project.

The other mentioned Swedish state agency, Olof Palme International Center, also seems to value columnists at Today’s Zaman. In 2011, the center invited to a conference another of the newspaper’s columist, Yavuz Baydar,  who has argued that another now highly disputed trial against Turkey’s old elite, the Sledgehammer Case, contained “uncrackable proof” of suspects’ guilt.

It would appear that the Swedish government’s main partners in Turkey are the two protagonists in the current political civil war, the Erdogan government and the Gülen movement. Its partnership with the former is obvious from Sweden’s support of the Turkish government in EU accession talks, frequent state visits, a recently-signed “strategic partnership” and supportive op-eds by the Swedish foreign minister.

The partnership with the Gülen movement appears more subtle. Government agencies do tend to put high value one the views of Gülen-affiliated Today’s Zaman columnists and or that a main financier of SUITS is SWETURK, the Swedish arm of the Gülenist business association TUSKON. Moreover, as a follower of Carl Bildt on Twitter, it’s difficult not to notice what kind of Turkish newspapers our foreign minister appears to read. But in contrast to its relationship with Erdogan, links with the Gülen movement are much broader than this. The democracy panel with TESEV discussed above feature several Swedish opposition politicians, and other influential politicians regularly meet with Gülen-affiliated organizations in Sweden (see here for an example). Even in media, Today’s Zaman columnists are often invited to comment on Turkish politics (sometimes as in this Sveriges Radio article, without mentioning the association with the newspaper).

It’s natural for the Swedish government to seek partners in its relations with Turkey, and to harness what existing links it has. The risk, however, is that in limiting relations to the Erdogan government and those affiliated with the Gülen movement, some views do not get through to the Swedish Foreign Ministry. As a result, the Swedish government has been late in realizing the democratic reversal underway in Turkey. It’s been late in realizing that the subjugation of the old secular elite and military, for which it has openly praised Erdogan as late as November last year, has been done in a manner and with methods contrary to the principles of democracy and justice. Moreover, the Swedish government seems oblivious to the fact the both of its two key partners have contributed adversely to where Turkey is today.

Erdogan has long since abandoned the idea of creating a democratic Turkey, instead dead set on holding on to the reins of power at whatever cost. Erdogan had plenty of chance to do something about the judicial abuse underway in the political trials, but it wasn’t until he crossed swords with its former partner that these became a concern. In order to destroy the Gülen movement’s power, Erdogan risks tearing the foundation of Turkey’s fragile democratic institutions to pieces.

Followers of the Gülen movement in the judiciary and police have acted as Erdogan’s instrument against their mutual political opponents. The appearance of compromising voice recordings are undoubtedly from former members of the police intelligence unit, long held as a bastion of Gulenist influence in the security apparatus. Similarly, the Gulen movement’s antagonism towards Erdogan has increased as its influence within the AKP has diminished, and appears brought by disappointment over loss of influence rather than concerns over democracy. Opposition over peace talks with the PKK appears to be driven by fear of loss of power in competition with the PKK for hearts and minds of Kurds, rather than anything else. The manner in which it has vilified suspects in, as well as critics of,  controversial trials thru affiliated media outlets, raise questions over the democratic integrity of the movement.

Their conflict now is not about the future of democracy in Turkey, but about the control over the reins of power created by the military coup in 1980. Both these protagonists democratic credentials have been severely tarnished, and there is a real risk that  Sweden’s democracy promotion in the region will as well. Promotion of Turkey in the EU seems to have come at the expense of promotion of democracy in Turkey, an unacceptable outcome given the strategic importance of the country in the region.

Future Swedish foreign policy needs to realign its actions with the stated goals of democracy promotion, possibly at the expense of its friendship with Erdogan, the AKP, and the Gulen movement. Its silence on the undergoing institutional erosion needs to end. A broadening of the stakeholders it engages with would be advisable, to include government followers, those affiliated with the Gülen, as well as the many other interest groups in Turkey. At the development cooperation level, Sida would do well to seek a broadening of its democracy-related projects to match the relative richness and diversity found in the corresponding activities in the fields of human rights and gender equality in Turkey.

The Swedish government has been a good friend to the Turkish government. It can be a better friend to the citizens of Turkey.

3 thoughts on “Swedish Democracy Promotion in Turkey

  1. Spot on + more

    Mr. Meyersson, I came across your article by coincidence but I’m glad I did. I’m just a Turkish citizen with no business in politics but I am well immersed in the news so I try to follow all influencers of politics in and outside of Turkey as much as I can. Therefore I know how Swedish institutions have been very supportive of so-called “democratization” process that you also touched upon. So I wanted to add some comments… I think you summarized Turkey’s deficits well; there might be more, or they can be detailed further but it’s not going to be my point here. I think the biggest disappointment for us by international key-players has been that they promote Turkish reforms and the rule of Erdogan as the best thing that happened to Turkey just like in the example of Carl Bildt’s op-ed. The deterioration was apparent from at least 5 years ago and much so in the last 3 years. I am surprised Bildt wrote those praises just last November. It shows someone with a sense and knowledge of a foreign minister hasn’t lifted the . Actually us being conspiracy loving people, we’d evaluate his statements as an expression of an alternative agenda. Because many of the points made to prove that Erdogan is “on the right path” can be debunked easily. For exaple the GDP has trebled is a lie when you the devaluation of the Lira is ignored. .. Or the argument that the peace process is well under way. PKK has been treating quiet often that the ceasefire will end due to no steps being taken. The list can go on like this… I wish you mentioned some of these arguments in your article.

    The part of your article about TESEV and their problematic report is spot on. Honestly to me the report and the panel they held for it didn’t come as a surprise. TESEV had some good reports but there has always been major contradictions in the “democracy” that they seem to be promoting. TESEV’s report, their views in general and its bigwigs like Etyen Mahçupyan have been the supporting the Ergenekon trial despite numerous problems and human rights abuses. So at this point you stop and ask if TESEV’s objective really about human rights. They argue that the report is not about Ergenekon but more about Kurdish killings not being investigated enough in the trial, so our criticism is not valid. But no, it is unbelievable that a democracy promoting think tank doesn’t mention any judicial problems and take Ergenekon as is and imply that the defendants – many are believed to be innocent and put in the trial for being strong opposition – as members of a terrorist organization. This is just wrong, a real embarrassment for these people who have intellectual minds and resources to know much better than general public. And let me also add here that while they promote their views, they are not afraid to call critiques offensive things. You have given the example of Etyen Mahçupyan comparing critical journalist to a mass murderer. Such accusations still happen, and the latest trend is if you criticize the peace process, you’re against peace, you want “moms to cry”. Unfortunately not only TESEV but most of pro-government mainstream media take everything at a face value and judge people and situations categorically. You are either fully supportive of what they believe or you can be called the next trending offense. Ironically these people are so-called “liberals”. Another interesting fact, in case you overlooked, is TESEV’s silence during Gezi Park protests that spread across the country and had a never-seen toll on not only protesters but bystanders because of police violence. Many people got injured and several people died and all TESEV did was put out a press release on their website, condemning what’s happening with a note saying they will publish a more detailed analysis. Which of course never happened.

    I think TESEV’s main problem is that they are always focused on settling past human rights abuses while they overlook what’s happening right now in front of their noses. In other words, they have a political agenda and if a current controversial situation doesn’t fit that agenda, they cease their rhetoric and reports.

    Overall, I really like your article. It was a relief to see a foreigner (like you said it’s difficult for foreigners to really know what’s going on) to have seen the major problems before it was obvious to the international media, and apparently it may not be that obvious to Sweden yet. As you conclude I also hope Swedish government to be a better friends with citizens of Turkey and be more picky when it comes to funding: instead of think tank with an agenda vs. civil societies.

    1. Erik Post author

      Thanks for your post. The trebling-GDP part is something I, Dani Rodrik, and Emre Deliveli have been pointing out for a while now. That part was deliberately omitted because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write a follow-up post on how Turkey’s economic performance has been overestimated as well.

  2. Pingback: New op-ed on what’s wrong with Sweden’s approach to Turkey | Erik Meyersson

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