Turkey's Democratic Dilemma

Letter from Istanbul

Journalists and activists rally for press freedom in Ankara, March 19, 2011. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

During a town hall meeting organized as part of Barack Obama’s 2009 visit to Istanbul, a Turkish student expressed his disappointment with the president’s inability to implement substantial changes to U.S. foreign policy. “Moving the ship of state is a slow process,” Obama explained. Not so in Turkey. Since the spring of 2011, Ankara has performed a remarkable volte-face. A country that engaged and appeased Middle East dictators for the better half of the past decade now urges them to undertake democratic reforms -- or risk regime change. There is just one problem: If Turkey is serious about exporting democracy, it will have to do a much better job of nourishing its own.

Turkey’s renewed focus on the Middle East began in the 1990s but hit full swing with the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. Trade with the region boomed, visa restrictions with neighboring countries disappeared, and feel-good bilateral visits abounded. (By his own account, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, billed as the architect of Turkey’s renewed engagement with the Middle East, visited Damascus more than 60 times in the past eight years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, vacationed in Turkey with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family.) Things were going so well that a 2010 free-trade agreement among Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey immediately bred talk of a Turkish-led Middle East union.

Doing business with authoritarian regimes always involved a trade-off, however: Pushing economic interdependence, AKP officials foreswore any talk of meddling in their neighbors’ internal affairs. In the interest of stability and expanding commercial links, Turkey repeatedly looked the other way in the face of authoritarianism and human rights violations. Ankara downplayed the genocide in Sudan, made no mention of Syria’s dismal human rights record, and ignored the violence that followed the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Where most Western governments at least paid lip service to the need for democratic change in the region, Turkey gave precious few hints that it was uncomfortable with the status quo. Erdoğan himself saw nothing wrong with accepting a human rights award from the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in late 2010.

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