Theodoros Benakis

Abdullah Bozkurt: Erdogan has built a new Berlin wall all around Turkey

Stockholm Center for Freedom
Abdullah Bozkurt, pictured with the last issue of the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman (courtesy).

On July 19, the government of Ankara declared the end of the State of Emergency. The end of this two-year long emergency regime takes place just as Turkey’s new constitution comes into force and following the completion of a lustration process that has led thousands to jail and exile. To discuss the significance of this transition, European Interest reached out to Abdullah Bozkurt, Ankara’s former bureau chief for Zaman’s English-language edition, once the largest in circulation in Turkey.

After President Erdogan closed the newspaper, Boskurt fled to Sweden, where he lives in exile and is currently the President of the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, that is, a significant expatriate human rights advocacy platform. In an Exclusive interview to European Interest Abdullah Bozkurt, explains Turkey “the day after,” leaving no question unanswered. He talks about the nature of the attempted coup d’ etat, the future of Turkey’s relations with the EU and NATO, Erdogan’s involvement in support of Jihadists in Syria, as well as corruption. He calls for nothing less than EU sanctions against Turkey.

European Interest: Mr. President, on July 19, the government of Ankara finally declared the end of the State of Emergency. While this is apparently a positive step, it raises the following question: What will this mean, practically, for Turkish society since Erdogan has created a lot of damages in every sphere – leaving behind tens of thousands of unemployed, thousands imprisoned, including children, and forcing countless Turks to flee the country to escape political persecution?

Abdullah Bozkurt: On July 6, 2018 Erdogan’s party proposed a hastily arranged legal changes in Turkish Parliament, effectively making most of the measures we have seen during the emergency rule as permanent. In other words, the emergency rule will continue in virtually everything but name. The amendments provide the government new powers to continue mass dismissals without any judicial review, seize assets and wealth of critics, prosecute journalists on abusive anti-terror and defamation charges, expands powers of the notorious intelligence agency and does away judge’s approval for detentions, search and seizure orders. The reality is that human rights violations will only get worse in post-election period in Turkey. We’ll see a further escalation of crackdown on critics and opponents on top of some 60,000 already imprisoned in the last two years including 242 journalists, some 17,000 women along with over 700 babies. Close to half a million people in Turkey faced some kind of legal action within that time frame, half of it in the form of police detentions.

Erdogan has built a new Berlin wall all around Turkey to stem the escape from mass persecution and turned Turkey into an open prison. When you look at the profile of recent migrants from Turkey, most are well-established professionals with successful careers such as university professors, doctors and teachers. They flee from the oppressive regime that knows no boundaries when it comes to violating human rights including systematic torture including rape.

Not only are those who are allegedly responsible for ‘political crimes’ being imprisoned or chased by Ankara’s regime, but so are their families and relatives. Is this a case of ‘collective responsibility’ – something so much rejected by modern societies? Is this not reminiscent of the deep state, which AKP had promised to fight when it first came to power?

Unfortunately, this is a new form of oppression we see it taking place in recent years. A collective punishment in Turkey where spouses, children and other relatives were punished on the account of targeted people has been systematic and deliberate and defies all the established norms, rules and laws on protection of human rights including ones clearly laid out in the Turkish Constitution.  This practice certainly contravenes the presumption of innocence and recalls Nazi era practice of Sippenhaft, a punishment because of family association. I believe Erdogan has added a new dimension to that by prosecuting and imprisoning many, if not all, who worked for an organization, or a media outlet that is deemed critical of his regime. For example, a driver, a receptionist, a page designer, a brand manager, a customer service rep or a print plant worker were jailed in Turkey because they worked for Zaman, one-time the largest circulated newspaper that is highly critical of the government on corruption and Erdogan’s aiding and abetting Jihadist groups in Syria.

Erdogan came to the power in 2002 with a promise to fight against injustices but over time turned into a dictator when he felt he has consolidated enough power and started dismantling institutions of the secular parliamentary democracy and replaced it with an imperial presidency backed by a civil service that are filled with all loyalists and partisan cronies. Ideology has prevailed over merit-based system in the bureaucracy.

Coup d’etat: a false flag operation

As regards the alleged coup d’etat in July 2016, do you think it was a real attempt against Erdogan?

The events of July 15, 2016 were nothing, but a part of false flag operation orchestrated by Erdogan in cooperation with intelligence and defence chiefs. It was designed to fail from the start and was a sinister plot to set up the opposition for a mass persecution from all walks of life, pave the way for military intervention into Syria and secure executive presidency for Erdogan. If it was a real attempt, both defence and intel chiefs must have been sacked for dereliction of their duties but instead they were rewarded in the aftermath. Erdogan prevented them from testifying either in court trials or in during Parliamentary hearing. No real coup attempt would involve blocking busy traffic on the bridge during a rush hour or bombing the Parliament. The extensive measures such as sacking, and/or jailing over 4,000 judges and prosecutors, one-third of all Turkish diplomats including ambassadors and closure of close to 200 media outlets right after the failed coup suggest all these were planned long before the coup attempt. The military mobilization on July 15 was very limited (only 1.5 percent of Turkish military), yet Erdogan sacked half of the generals including NATO officers who were away on mission at the time. It was a pretext created by Erdogan to move forward on the transformation he wants for the regime in Turkey.

The Turkish President appointed the head of the Turkish military Gen. Hulusi Akar as the country’s new defence minister. If I am not wrong this is the first time a civilian government in Turkey has an active-duty military commander as defence minister. Is there any political meaning behind this decision or is it is simply because the General has international experience?

Akar resigned from his post and Yasar Guler was named as the new Gen. Chief of Staff for the Turkish military. This is part of payback by Erdogan for services provided by Gen. Hulusi Akar who were involved in planning and executing the false flag coup bid. He had been secretly meeting with intelligence chiefs for long hours a day before July 15 to fine tune the details of this plot. Akar also helped Erdogan when Turkish president purged most of the pro-Western and pro-NATO generals from ranks and replace them with Islamists and neo-Nationalists. Perhaps Erdogan also wants to out the Turkish military on a short leash by putting a loyalist — who knows military well — to a defence cabinet position.

Why Gülen?

Fethullah Gülen was accused of orchestrating the alleged coup d’etat. Why him? Why is Erdogan so obsessed with the leader of the Hizmet movement?

Gülen has been the usual scapegoat for Erdogan since the corruption investigations that incriminated Erdogan and his family members in December 2013. The evidence was overwhelming and quite clear for Erdogan government role. Fighting off against these very serious charges on legal platform was a mission impossible for Erdogan. He and his corrupt ministers were taking huge commissions out of fictitious trade and illegal financial transactions with Iran using a gold trader Reza Zarrab who helped Iran bypass sanction regime. Instead of mounting defence on legal merits and challenge the evidence, Erdogan moved the scandal to political arena and shifted the blame to Gulen in order to distract public from his own troubles. The federal prosecution and ensuing trial in New York court by US attorneys against Zarrab — who later turned into US government witness– confirmed that the evidence in the 2013 Turkish corruption investigation were rock-solid.

Gulen’s unwavering stand in opposing the corruption in Erdogan government and his criticisms of Ankara’s aiding and abetting radical Jihadists in Syria, Libya and other places made this US-based cleric a prime target for Erdogan. The Hizmet network, inspired by Gulen, has been the most important civic group in Turkey and as such presented a huge barrier in front of Erdogan’s grand ambitions and regional/global projects. The movement must be eliminated for Erdogan to accomplish his own revolution of turning Turkey into an Islamist state and that is why Gülen has become a number one enemy of the regime. Turkish president has also started targeting schools affiliated with Hizmet abroad because he wanted to tap on these school networks to realize his Caliphate vision overseas but got angry when Gulen opposed to such initiative. Instead Erdogan is now building his own schools abroad by a government-run Maarif foundation which is managed by Jihadist figures. Turkish government not only asks for closure of Gulen schools abroad but also offer cash and other incentives for foreign political leaders if they allow Maarif to operate on their own soil.

If I remember correctly, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the day after of the alleged coup d’etat, accepted on general terms Erdogan’s declarations on Gulen’s involvement. Now, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to be Erdogan’s next target, accused for a defamatory twitter 13 years ago. Is it correct to say that the opposition failed to unite against the regime and that the Turkish President has succeeded in the art of ‘divide et impera’?

Kılıçdaroğlu also entertained the idea of controlled coup narrative which means Erdogan knew the attempt in advance and manipulated it to gain a political advantage instead of suppressing it early on and preventing the bloodshed. But the intimidation factor works for the CHP as well. CHP deputies are scared of Erdogan’s wrath and do not want to risk to get jailed as many Kurdish lawmakers were imprisoned on false charges. That is why the CHP is often seen to be adopting Erdogan’s narrative on many issues including coup plot, cracking down on Kurdish political movement, harsh anti-EU position, belligerent discourse toward Greece and Cyprus. The party supported military intervention into Syria and signed on removing of immunities for parliamentarians that allowed Erdogan to jail so many members of the Parliament on trumped-up charges including one from the CHP.

To be frank, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has never been a real contender in mounting a serious challenge to Erdogan’s rule because of the long-lasting factionalism within the party, internal squabbling, strong neo-nationalist tendencies and state-centred focus instead of defending and promoting rights and freedoms. It is by no means a social democratic party and lacks credentials especially in conservative and religious segments that Erdogan draws his strength most. The CHP does not seem to be convincing outlet for many disenchanted voters and it has quite a disconnect from the voters while the management is locked in internal feuds over petty interests and never-ending leadership struggle. With independent and critical media gone, judiciary is subordinated to Erdogan’s rule and business people being afraid of financing the opposition, neither the CHP nor any other party in the opposition has any chance to win elections which are no longer free and fair in Turkey. Erdogan’s AKP party and state have now merged, creating a party state.

EU-Turkey relations and the USA

EU-Turkey relations are considerably strained. The migration issue, as well as how the Turkish President rules, has been heavily criticised by EU member states. Do you think this worries Erdogan? I mean, does he have a European vision? Do you think he wants to improve relations with Brussels?

To be blunt, Erdogan has no interest in pursuing accession talks with the EU. This was made abundantly clear by the recent abolishment of the EU Ministry in Turkey. All the relevant EU work is delegated to a low-profile government agency attached to the Foreign Ministry. Instead of a cabinet level minister handling the accession talks, deputy foreign minister will oversee this newly created EU agency in Turkey. As long as Erdogan stays in the power, Turkey’s alignment with the EU on political criteria will remain to be merely a mirage. He is not interested in legal and political reforms, would never go back to the rule of law and would not restore fundamental rights and freedoms. Because if the rule of law gets restored, he and his family members would find themselves in a sea of legal troubles. Having said that, he is keenly interested on promoting trade, business and investment ties because EU is the largest trading partner for Turkey, number one supplier of foreign direct investment and sender of most tourists to Turkey. He wants to maintain economic and financial ties which are the lifeline for the Turkish economy that is heavily dependent on trade, investment and business. He wants to do so without giving an inch on political front. He has the leverage on the EU with migrant issue that has potential to destabilize European governments if he decides to flood Europe with migrants. He is blackmailing EU in that sense. EU must attach political conditions on furthering economic ties in order to put real pressure on Erdogan government.

US-Turkey relations also appear tense since Erdogan looks ready to flirt with Putin’s Russia. Turkey risks losing potential US arms deals and being served with an economic embargo if Erdogan moves closer to Moscow. Do you think Erdogan feels so secure and strong to be in position for a clash with the US?

Not really. Erdogan wants to use his government’s overtures towards Russia and Iran as leverage for bargaining from the strengthened position with the US to obtain favours for himself and his cronies who helped violate US sanction regime against Iran, empowered Jihadist groups in Syria and Libya. The US federal case that convicted state bank Halkbank official Hakan Atilla in New York may follow other legal suits that will create real troubles for him. For that, he is pursuing a hostage policy by jailing American citizens and local staff of the US consulates, threatening the US with the closure of NATO bases in Turkey. He is pushing to test the waters on how far he can take this in tension with the US. I believe he feels weaker than he’d like to project outside and will eventually succumb to the US pressure when Washington decides to turn up the heat enough to make that happen. The purchase of S-400 Russian lunge range missile will not likely be completed as the cost would be too high for him and his government if Turkey moves ahead in finalizing the purchase. He tried the same with China before only to drop it in 2015 when China’s president was in Turkey to attend to G-20 summit.

The worsening US-Turkey relations have claimed their first victim: the Turkish Lira. Do you think that a deterioration of the Turkish economy could prove to be the Turkish regime’s Achilles heel?

The economy and financial aspect of his government is the weakest link that presents a huge challenge for Erdogan in sustaining his rule in the future. That is where the real leverage the US and EU have over Turkey, but Western allies seem reluctant to resort to such pressure so far although there are growing signs that it may come to that in order to halt re-orientation of Turkey away from NATO anchor. If a domestic economic crisis erupts, that will take away the major chunk of Erdogan’s supporters and it may be difficult for him to survive. By seizing assets and wealth of critics which have reached to some 1,000 companies so far and valued at $11,00 billion, Erdogan has in fact undermined the underpinnings of the Turkish economy, creating more uncertainty for business community. Not only foreign investors but also Turkish businesspeople are moving their assets out of Turkey because they do not feel safe staying in Turkey.

EU has two important cards at its disposal against Erdogan

As the president of SCF, what is your expectation from the European Union on Turkey? Do you think the EU has any leverage on Turkey but not using it?

The EU has two important cards at its disposal against Erdogan. One is obviously economic and financial ties. We have not seen a concerted and coordinated action on that front against Turkey so far, most likely because of migrant deal and Turkey being a huge market of 81 million people for European firms. This is a short-sighted policy as the political price is getting higher, potentially wiping out any economic or other benefits the EU might be getting in the meantime. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to address serious security flaws when Erdogan is given enough time to solidify his position among Turkish and other Muslim diaspora groups, firmly entrench his long arm that engages in clandestine activities in European soil.

It is time to hit Erdogan where it hurts most by adopting targeted sanctions that will send a chilling message to Erdogan’s cronies that they cannot enrich themselves on the back of this autocratic regime. For a starter, sanction may be imposed for business people and entities if they are involved in taking over, let’s say, seized assets and firms.

Another card would be launching legal cases against Erdogan who is terrified of being held to the account, especially in the court of law. That is why he turned the judiciary upside down when prosecutors investigated crimes that extended to him and his family members back in 2013. He hastened to take out his son Bilal Erdogan who had settled in Italy after Italian prosecutor-initiated money laundering case against the son. The troubling Erdogan’s long arm that has been operating on European soil, already prompted Germans and Austrians to take some administrative and legal actions. Moreover, Swiss prosecutor launched an investigation against two Turkish diplomats for their alleged involvement in abduction plot of critics from Switzerland. The legal actions against the Turkish government at the national level must be complemented with supra-national action to put more pressure on Erdogan so that he can halt his meddlesome Islamist policies among expats in Europe.

Let’s discuss the end of Kemalism in Turkey. What do you think will replace it?

I think Kemalism, which has been yet another form of authoritarian governance in Turkey, is very much alive under differ disguise now. This time, it is more dangerous because it jointed nationalist/neo-nationalist euphoria with Islamist zealotry, resulting in a highly combustible mix that is difficult to deal with. Erdogan uses the ideological commitment rooted in both nationalism and extremist Islamism to mobilize people in Turkey and abroad. I think the more serious challenge presented by Erdogan regime will be seen when Erdogan’s investment in non-Turkish Muslim groups abroad starts to bear fruit. Ankara has been funding Islamist group from other nations to expand the network of proxies and the effect is already seen during the rallies apparently organized by Erdogan regime in many European capitals from time to time. If Turkey moves on the current path, Kemalism will eventually give birth to Erdoganism which is based on Turkish president’s ambitions to position himself as protector of all Muslims, sort of a new Caliph.

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