You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 50: Erdogan's Hold on Turkey

Erdogan's Hold on Turkey

While the modern Turkish Republic was founded in the 1920s as a secular republic, the last two decades have seen this nation move from a democratic regime toward an authoritarian one. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Doga Eralp joins us to discuss the political career and the politics of a man who’s been Turkey’s leader for most of that time period, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Professor Eralp breaks down Erdogan’s rise to power, including how his controversial—and criminal—recitation of a poem played a role in that rise (2:48), and describes the beginnings of the leader’s dominant AK Party (5:42). He then showcases how Erdogan has steered Turkey toward religious nationalism (8:21) and what motivated him to do so (15:33).

To explain Turkey’s current stance on the war in Ukraine, Professor Eralp describes Erdogan’s unique relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin (18:27). He then describes why and how Turkey came to be the world’s largest host of refugees and the role Erdogan has played in that situation (24:33). The episode concludes with Professor Eralp weighing in on whether Erdogan’s power is waning and how much longer he may stay in power (28:19).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Eralp shares five policies he would enact to improve Turkey's standing in the world (12:58).

0:00      Kay Summers: Hi, this is Kay Summers, the host of Big World. Just a note about the episode you're about to hear. We recorded this episode with Professor Doga Eralp just before the United Nations' announcement on June 1st that it would henceforth recognize the name of Turkey as Türkiye in accordance with that nation's preference. So we refer to the country as Turkey throughout this episode and just wanted to make a note that it is now properly referred to as Türkiye. From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Turkey is an ancient place. The land on which it sits is one of the oldest permanently settled regions on Earth. Its location is singular and speaks directly to its unique role in geopolitics. Its largest city, Istanbul, is known as the gateway to Europe and Asia because it literally sits on both of those continents. It is one of only two majority-Muslim nations in the NATO Alliance. And its ties to Russia are deep and complicated. While the modern Turkish Republic was founded in the 1920s as a secular Republic, the last two decades have seen this critically important nation move from a democratic regime toward an authoritarian one.

1:24      KS: And the credit, or the blame, for much of Turkey's near recent history belongs to one man. So today, we're talking about the man who's been Turkey's leader for most of those two decades. We're talking about the political career and the policies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Doga Eralp. Doga is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict resolution who has consulted with international organizations, including the World Bank and the National Endowment for Democracy. He's published a number of articles and chapters about Turkey and the surrounding regions. He is the editor of Turkey as a Mediator: Stories of Success and Failure, which was the first systematic study of Turkish mediation as an emerging power in global and regional conflicts. Doga, thanks for joining Big World.

2:13      Doga Eralp: Thanks, Kay, for having me. It's a pleasure to be on this podcast.

2:17      KS: Doga, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has served as Turkey's president since 2014. And before that, he was the country's prime minister from 2003 to 2014. But before he emerged on the global stage, he had a shorter stint as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, a position he was ousted from because of a poem he recited during a public address. And he was then in prison for four months and banned from participating in future parliamentary elections because of this poem. So I have to ask, what was in this poem?

2:48      DE: Yeah. I think that's a great way to start that. In a way, it launched Erdogan's political career, or let's call it skyrocketed the period that followed his imprisonment. So the poem went like this, "The dome of the mosques is our shield and the minarets are our spears, so we're going to prevail". Basically, this is an early 20th century Islamist poem that basically calls for jihad against governments who are predominantly secular. So after his recitation of this poem at a public gathering as the mayor of Istanbul, he was imprisoned for a few months, stayed rather in quite a luxury situation actually, and then got out of the jail, and the rest is history. Basically, his imprisonment allowed for him to reframe his political career. As someone who later in his political career repeatedly said, he turned his back on his Islamist roots and embraced a liberal democracy as the only way to move forward.

4:05      DE: And he learned lessons from his own imprisonment and basically portrayed himself as this rather Muslim Democrat who's going to liberalize Turkey's pro-militaristic democracy at the time in favor of a more pro-civilian regime. And with this message, he found quite a few supporters in the West predominantly; and that's the interesting part, in North America, in the United States, as well as the UK and other Western European capitals. And it really was the US's support that pulled him up the ranks of this newly established party course at the time in 2001 called Justice and Development Party. And he was later allowed to be the chairperson of the party. And later was, again, as a result of a compromise with the main opposition, Social Democrats, allowed to be the prime minister in Turkey in 2003.

5:08      KS: As you said, he's associated with one party. Over the years, Erdogan has been associated with a number of now defunct political parties, including the National Salvation Party, the Welfare Party and the Virtue Party, but certainly no party is more associated with him than the Justice and Development Party, better known as the AK Party or the AKP. For people who are just learning about Turkish politics, what is the important background on Erdogan's AK Party that people should know or understand?

5:42      DE: I'm glad you brought this up. Even the name of the party is quite controversial, really. The party started as AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, which obviously translates as Justice and Development Party, but Erdogan actually showed his earlier inclinations of his kind of tendency for one man rule by actually rejecting the party's name to be called as AKP and say it, instead, AK Party, which "Ak" in Turkish—A and K together—means white. White resembles as like a blank white page in Turkish political history of sorts, and it also suggests this resistance to corruption and a clean slate of sorts. So, the party's name for that matter is quite controversial. I prefer to call it AKP. The proponents of Erdogan's regime prefer to call it AK Party.

6:39      DE: So going back to the earlier history of the AKP, it started as this rather curious mix of center right, Liberal Islamist, ex Islamist politicians posing themselves very much like the Christian Democrats of Germany or very much like the right wing of Republicans in this country, who are ready to take on liberalization reforms in economy, primarily—opening up the Turkish economy to foreign direct investment, pushing through the reforms that would allow a fast track integration into the European Union of which Turkey has been waiting for the past five decades, much longer than any other candidate state, really. And he did accomplish a few of these goals, the short term goals. And that really was the early period of AKP, which actually was acting more like the harbinger of liberal reforms in Turkey. This period ran up until 2010, 2011.

7:46      KS: Doga, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as you know well, made sweeping reforms to secularize and industrialize the country. He created

8:00      KS: the Six Arrows, or the founding ideology of the modern Turkey, one of which was Laicism and secularism. Since Erdogan has been in power, he's worked to move the country away from secularism and toward religious nationalism. What motivates him to do this, and how has he done this? What steps has he taken?

8:21      DE: One thing to make clear: Erdogan never openly denounced secularism, neither during his prime ministership, neither during his presidency. He, along with the AKP, advocated for a more Anglo-style secularism versus that of the Laïcité model, the French secularist model that was embraced by Kemal Ataturk. Which basically makes a very clear distinction between the expression of religious identities in public spaces, especially by government workers, and the public space according to, let's say the enlightenment ideas of the French revolution, should only belong to the public, not to the religion. Whereas, as you guys may very well know in the Anglo tradition, which is very dominant in the UK as well as in the US, secularism is defined by freedom of expression of religion. And in our classes, let's say at American University, our students are allowed to wear all insignias of their religious beliefs or faiths and whatnot, and there is no pushback against individual or private expressions of faith in a public space like the university classroom. Whereas the Kemalist interpretation of secularism basically banned the expression of individual religious beliefs or faith expressions in public domain.

10:01      DE: And rightly so, the AKP advocated for the change in the mindset of this Laïcité-French-secularism-dominated thinking in Turkish politics and advocated for its replacement of a more pluralist interpretation of secularism, very much like the one in the UK or in the US, where public workers may wear whatever religious insignia or headdress as long as they carry out their duties. That was really one of the propelling arguments that received a lot of support from the predominantly conservative Turkish electorate in going with this kind of liberalist agenda of AKP in the early days. What replaced the staunch French-Laïcité-dominated-secularist idea embraced by the Turkish state for almost seven decades did not really emerge as this liberal interpretation of religious beliefs and whatnot. But slowly it had become dominated, as really was always the source of Turkish nationalism, with this Sunni interpretation of Islam embraced by the government and is used to oppress those who embrace different or more liberal interpretations or secular interpretations or nonreligious interpretations of ways of life.

11:39      DE: So he, Erdogan, and his party, while curling the influence of military as the vanguard of secularism in Turkey, they replaced this vanguard with the state-controlled Sunni-dominated religion institution called Diyanet. Which basically represents the Sunni way of understanding Islam and allowed for this particular state controlled institution to really embrace all forms of life, everyday life, in Turkey, allowing for this state dominated religious institution to run daycares, preschools, increase the weight of religion classes in public schools, and it overall pushed for a more religiously dominated public narrative.

12:37      KS: Doga Eralp it's time to Take Five. You get to reorder the world, or maybe just put your spin on it. What are five policies you would enact to improve Turkey's standing in the world?

12:58      DE: First thing first, what I would do is introduce the parliamentarian representative democracy back into Turkey, so do away with the Erdogan's executive presidency model that, regardless of who the president is, pushes this authoritarian non-transparent way of doing things. So I'll first do away with it. Secondly, I'll reintroduce the peace process with the Kurds and allow Selahattin Demirtaş the democratic leader of the Kurdish political movement, along with his comrades, off the prison and allow them to actively participate in politics. Third, I would introduce a set of transparency reform in Turkish finances and the way Turkey does business that would reintroduce the trust of the international ministers. Fourth, I would reintegrate Turkey's relationship with the European Union by introducing genuine democratic reforms, regardless of eventual membership or not, And last but not least, I would reach out to all partners in the Mediterranean region, including Greece, including all other significant neighbors or rivals, to reintroduce a new platform where East Mediterranean could emerge as a new source of regional point of attraction.

14:31      KS: Thank you.

14:37      KS: Doga, I think one of the things that happens, at least for me, whenever we examine a leader in this depth, is there are questions about their actual motivations versus their political motivations. And a while back, we did an episode about the political career of Benjamin Netanyahu, and I asked our guest if Netanyahu's alignment with conservative and Orthodox Jews in Israel was a result of his devout faith or of political expediency. And I basically have the same question for you. Does Erdogan move toward this Sunni interpretation, and away from both secularism and pluralism, because he is a devout Muslim who believes it is the right thing for his country to do or because it is politically expedient for him to align himself with those who would see Turkey's society move toward a more religious narrative?

15:33      DE: I personally question any religious motivation coming from a mainstream politician with inclination, like you mentioned political expediency. And obviously, interestingly, and not so interestingly, actually, one of the tenants of Islam, as many other religions, suggests this kind of honesty,

16:00      DE: right? Or being truthful and whatnot. And Erdogan and his family have for a long time been associated with corrupt networks and whatnot. So, for that matter, his own personal life does not necessarily appropriate this image of this honest, Muslim persona that he so very much wants to project outside. But instead, when one looks into this breaking point in Erdogan's re-embracing of this Sunni Muslim values, it actually more or less corresponds to 2011. And if you do remember 2011, that particular year was the year when the Arab Spring happened across many countries in the Middle East, starting with Tunisia later in Egypt, Yemen, and finally in early 2012 in Syria. So, Erdogan belongs to this particular belief system that very much resembles that of the political tradition of Muslim brotherhood or Ikhwān in Egypt. So, Erdogan wanted to seize this opportunity when pro-Muslim brotherhood Muslim groups across the Middle East took power, toppling dictators. So, he saw in his own belief system that he should be riding this wave as the leader of this newfound political force.

17:42      KS: Doga, Turkey has responded to the war in Ukraine by closing the Bosphorus Strait to warships—a move that according to the council and foreign relations expert, Stephen A. Cook is clearly aimed at Russia's fleet and is a symbolic action in support of Ukraine. However, in other areas, Turkey is not strongly condemning Russia. For example, the country hasn't sanctioned Russia. Cook states that Turkey is "Remaining rhetorically committed to Ukraine's independence and offering to mediate the conflict while tilting toward Russia." What is Erdogan's relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin? And what role do you think this relationship is playing in Turkey's response to the crisis in Ukraine.

18:27      DE: For one to really understand what goes on in Erdogan's mind with we put in, we need to go back to the early days of the Syrian civil war. So, inadvertently Turkish unconditional support to jihadist groups in Syria against Bashar al-Assad came head-to-head with the Russian influence and Russian support to the Assad regime. And what ended up happening two Turkish F 16 fighter jets downed a Russian fighter jet in Syria. So, that's back in the day in 2014. Later, the Russian ambassador in Ankara was assassinated while he was giving a talk in the exhibition center that he visited celebrating this Russian artist. He was gunned by this strange gunman that Erdogan suggested belonged to the Gulen network. So, after that, the relationship between Russia and Turkey had been shaped by Erdogan's fears of a significant Russian backlash on his plans in the middle east, primarily in Syria.

19:42      DE: And it evolved into this grant compromise between Moscow and Ankara, where Turkey—to make up for the military upset it caused in Russia and Syria—had agreed to basically purchase S 400 missile defense systems from the Russian military industry. And also did allow for Russians to look into building nuclear power plants in Turkey, along with of course, agreeing to build further pipelines from Russia to Turkey while at the same time supporting opposing parties in the periphery, fighting against each other in Syria. So, what Putin and Erdogan struck was a hard compromise. Erdogan also needs Putin as he moves his political agenda away from the West, more closer to the nationalists in Turkey. He also had to work with the Eurasianists. So, there's a particular group in Turkish politics that is called the Eurasianists. That such as Turkey's place is not really Europe and is not really Asia but is Eurasia—it's a Eurasian power.

21:07      DE: And the natural ally of Turkey is not necessarily the West nor the US but is Russia. So Russian intelligence also suggested that they did give the warning to Erdogan in the run up to the coup attempt that Gulenists were preparing to launch this coup. So, they, in a way gave a clear message to Erdogan that he owes his presidency to Russian intelligence and Putin and not to anyone else. So, ever since, Erdogan had become a very close and strategic ally of Russia. So, here's the thing, that's the curious thing: That does not necessarily turn Turkey into this anti-Western actor. Paradoxically Erdogan used and leveraged his close connections with the West to gain more recognition from the West, and from the White House, that he is the person—if the West needs to strike a deal with Russia—only Erdogan could deliver that grand compromise. So, going back to that, Erodogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, he's heading one of the most innovative drone companies in the world and has been selling dozens of these advanced military drone technology to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

22:36      DE: While the Turkish general chief of staff is regularly meeting with the head of the Russian military build up while Turkey is using its rights from the Montreux Convention of 1936 limits the passing of the Russian war ships from the Turkish straits, it at the same time allows for ease of access to Russian oligarchs to Turkish market and Turkish real estate and whatnot. So, over the past few months, a lot of high-end Turkish real estate in Istanbul or on the beautiful Mediterranean coast has increasingly been grabbed by the Russian oligarchs. Yet at the same time, Turkey gives full support to Ukraine's territorial integrity, and denounces the Russian encroachment, not only in Donbas, but also in Crimea. So Erodogan basically, again, uses this as an opportunity—not because he's going to be able to deliver a grand compromise between Russia and Ukraine, but rather this is a great message that he could deliver to NATO and the west that he is the only party who the West could trust as an intermediary, rather than anyone else.

23:56      KS: Doga, you mentioned Turkey's

24:00      KS: preferences toward the situation in Syria. According to the World Bank, Turkey's the world's largest host of refugees with about four million, currently, 3.6 million of which are Syrian refugees. How did this come to be? And what role did Erdogan play in this situation that has resulted in 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey?

24:26      DE: That's the official number. So some suggest the unofficial number is around seven million.

24:33      KS: Oh, wow.

24:33      DE: So many of these refugees did not register with the authorities. So they just do any of these jobs that is available. So Erdogan used this in two ways. One, he used this as a bargaining chip against the European Union, and struck this grand bargain with Brussels, receiving billions of euros worth of European Union funds, as long as he ensures that millions of Syrian refugees are not allowed to swim—or walk across land, or swim across Aegean to Greek islands and whatnot. And he repeatedly keeps making a point of it. He says he saved Europe from the invasion. He doesn't necessarily use the term barbarians, but he suggests that—these hoards of migrants and Europe should only thank Turkey for doing that. That's one. The second advantage of having that many refugees is simply about exploitation of labor. And many of these refugees are living miserable lives in Turkey. They agree to work for breadcrumbs and are doing very difficult jobs in Turkey's heavy industry labor market or let's say they work in the construction industry or in the textile plants for nothing. And obviously, one other important thing. Turkey does not recognize Syrians as refugees because then that would put Turkey in a place where then Turkey has to fulfill certain obligations.

26:17      DE: Turkey instead recognizes these millions of Syrians as guests of Ankara. Who would, once the political situation in Syria calms down, would be encouraged to go back to Syria. And for that matter, Turkey had conducted at least three military operations in north of Syria, where now it directly controls, to open up spaces for resettlement of these Syrian refugees from Turkey back in Syria.

26:53      KS: Doga, last question. Combining his time as prime minister and president, Erdogan has basically been in power in Turkey since 2003. And he has shown, over his career it seems, after talking with you, a preternatural ability to seize a victory from defeat or a bad situation. He was imprisoned, he managed to turn that into a new political persona and rose to power. He managed to turn a coup attempt into a reason to solidify his power base. He managed to turn the Syrian refugee situation, which is a huge humanitarian crisis, into a way to get leverage with Europe. And he has so far been able to balance, kind of on a knife's edge, between the West and Russia over the war in Ukraine.

27:46      KS: So how—despite the fact that you see this movement in Turkey that's saying, we don't like the refugee policy and we want someone who will say that Turkey's for Turks. Do you really see Erdogan's power in Turkey waning? Or is this going to be another time when he manages to pull out some sort of unexpected outcome? And realistically, how much longer do you think that he'll stay in power, having been there for nearly 20 years?

28:19      DE: There are two answers to this question. If we were to presuppose there's going to be free and fair elections in 2023 in Turkey, under the presence of international observers, Erdogan's political time is up. He's done. The political polls show less than 50 percent, if not in the early 40s, support for his presidency. And much less so for his AKP. But here's the other thing. There is no guarantee that Erdogan is not going to take this last one decisive step and call off the elections. There is no guarantee that Erdogan is going to have the elections.

29:04      DE: So we have a saying in Turkish. "A grasshopper jumps three times, not a fourth time." But Erdogan is a grasshopper who had jumped at least five or six times in his political career. It's really up to the opposition, at this point. The democratic opposition in Turkey, the center-right, center-left, the socialist as well as the most important and critical player, really, the Kurdish movement—the extent to which they would be able to exert particular pressure in public for Erdogan to hold free and fair elections in 2023.

29:45      DE: Of course, all the indicators show the awful economy, the growing discontent with the future, especially young people of Generation Z and millennials, they do not like the guy, okay? And his electorate is getting older and older and older—Erdogan will lose. But again, that all depends on if the opposition manages to control to narrative and have the free and fair elections take place in 2023.

30:18      KS: Doga Eralp, thank you for joining Big World to discuss the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It's been a real treat to speak with you, really informative. Thank you.

30:30      DE: My pleasure, as always.

30:32      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like double prizes from the claw in Pizza Planet. Our theme music is, "It was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Doga Eralp,
SIS professor

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