In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczo regarding contemporary Turkey, Dimitar Bechev discusses how the Justice and Development Party has evolved into a personality cult; how Erdogan pro-active, remilitarized foreign policy has probably reached its limits; how leverage now goes both ways in EU-Turkey relations while Europeanization may also mean a turn to xenophobia; as well as the promising signs of democratic health and political competition.
Dimitar Bechev is a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He acted as a senior fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill from 2016 to 2020 and as a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations before that. He has published extensively in both academic and policy formats on subjects such as EU foreign relations, the politics of Turkey and Southeast Europe, Russian foreign policy, and questions of energy security. His recent books include Historical Dictionary of North Macedonia (2019), Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (2017) as well as the co-edited volume Russia Rising: Putin’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East and North Africa (2021).
Ferenc Laczo: Your newest book is titled Turkey Under Erdogan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West. Turkey is a fascinating country which plays an important and complex role in international politics and your book provides a rich and nuanced interpretation of its evolution in recent decades. Let us perhaps begin our conversation with what might be the most obvious empirical question: How did the Justice and Development Party – or AKP, to use the Turkish abbreviation – change since its foundation in 2001 and how did it manage to capture the center ground in Turkish politics? More generally, how did the hopes of Turkey’s opening and democratization, which were at some point quite closely associated with the rise of AKP, give way to such disappointments, to such an ever more authoritarian and repressive regime? What were the key moments and key steps in this much-discussed process of reversal in your view?
Dimitar Bechev: The simplest way to answer would be to say that AKP, founded in 2001, was once a party installed as a political force, but it has evolved into a personality cult. The party as a collective agent is not there anymore, it’s been replaced by a personalistic network centered on the leader. Back in the early days, AKP – which springs from a tradition of political Islam and whose prehistory stretches back to the 1970s – sort of married together the commitment to democratic development and an inclusive approach to policymaking with free markets and openness towards the West, and not just the EU but the wider West. It turned into a magnet attracting political support from various quarters, including the secular part of the Turkish society. In a way, it transcended the religious-secular divide which was otherwise rather critically important. There were other important players that coalesced with AKP one way or the other. For example, big business in Turkey because the EU connection AKP seemed to be deepening was very favorable to it. With all caveats, the Kurdish movement was a fellow traveler of the AKP too in those early days.
Several critical episodes followed. To cut a long story short, from around 2013 and certainly after the coup attempt in 2016, the politics of AKP changed. It became much more aligned with the statist part of the Turkish elite. It now runs in coalition with the Nationalist Action Party as junior partner, which has controlling stakes in many of the state institutions. This has also contributed to changing the outlook of Erdogan’s party. There are two processes, one leading AKP to the right, to the embrace of Turkish nationalism – and there is a big discussion around the question what Turkish nationalism is – and the other leading to the systematic destruction of alternatives. Erdogan was not the sole owner of these processes. He used to be a first among equals; the party started with several other prominent members, such as former president Abdullah Gül. But, as I mentioned, the party evolved into just a clique of people supporting Erdogan.
The past couple of years have actually seen the rise of splinter groups from the AKP. There is the Future Party started by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and even more importantly perhaps, there is the Democracy and Progress Party associated with Ali Babacan, the former Economy Minister and also, if more informally, with Gül. Those parties are aiming to capture parts of the conservative electorate that is disappointed, for one reason or the other, with AKP – whether that’s due to the personal leadership style of Erdogan or the lackluster economic performance of the country.
Ferenc Laczo: While you underline in the book that tilting the playing field was Erdogan’s way of surviving and prospering in politics, you also insist on long-term structural and institutional forces behind the rise of competitive authoritarianism in Turkey. What would you say are the main reasons behind the quite dramatic democratic decline in the country leading to the rise of competitive authoritarianism? How special or different is the Turkish regime as compared to other countries frequently cited these days when it comes to the subject of democratic decline, such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, or Serbia, to take examples only from Central and Eastern Europe, but you may, of course, wish to compare the country more globally too?
Dimitar Bechev: That’s a great question and I could spend hours upon hours delving into it. Turkey never had a perfect democracy. Even in the best of days, there were many conflicts and deficiencies that tainted the image of Turkish democracy, such as polarization within society, the prevalence of what Turks would call the deep state (even if the term is contested), the nationalist undercurrents in Turkish politics, the history of violence, and the culture of winner takes all, which has been quite systematic.
At a certain stage, it became a matter of survival for Erdogan. The conclusion he drew around 2007-08, when AKP was threatened with closure, was that to persist on top he needs to defeat the opposition and shoot down the alternatives. Power sharing, a coalition culture was never in the cards. The idea that there is no real exit became a self-fulfilling prophecy and I think this applies to this day.
Another factor beyond path-dependency and Erdogan’s persona is the weakening pull of the EU, which is something we could observe also within the EU.
Even though the situation is very different in Poland and Hungary, suffice to say that once you become a member, the external anchor doesn’t have the same impact on domestic affairs. The same thing happened in Turkey for a different set of reasons, because the prospect of membership weakened with the Cyprus issue and especially after Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in France in 2007. The dismantling of checks and balances and the external anchor being dismantled partly because of the EU itself led to the system we currently have in Turkey.
Now to the second part of your question: people often compare Turkey and Russia and it’s not something recent. As early as 2009, the Turkish opposition was screaming “Putinization.” There is an element of truth there, although for those of us who approach political labels with a critical eye, it’s very clear what the differences are between the system in Russia and what you have in Turkey. In Turkey, the opposition was – to cite just one fact – able to capture the main cities in 2019, a bit like what happened in Hungary. That’s unthinkable in Russia, with all the repression and boxing in of the opposition.
Turkey, unlike Russia, remains a country which has benefited from more than 60 years of democratic involvement and multiparty politics. Turkish society is used to elections, they know their vote makes a difference. It’s not an equal fight. The incumbents always have the advantage: they control the economy, they control the media, etc. But the opposition, as I show in the book, has learned how to adapt and to overcome dividing lines. We have parts of the formerly nationalistic, right-wing camp cooperating informally with the pro-Kurdish HDP at the local level and maybe that will eventually happen at the national level as well. This means that it’s very difficult in Turkey to consolidate a full-blown authoritarian regime.
The competitive element in competitive authoritarianism is still very pertinent. My prediction is therefore – and you see this with the regime facing insecurity because of the economic situation – that Turkey will eventually revert to some form of democratic governance once Erdogan has exited the scene. It won’t become an exemplary democracy, I don’t think. The same sort of social conflicts, political issues, institutional challenges that daunted Turkey in the past will be as pressing as before, but it will be a much more competitive system again.
One big question, of course, is what will be the long-term future of the presidential regime, the presidential constitutionalism Erdogan built after 2016.
Ferenc Laczo: You emphasize in the book that Europe appears to have lost its leverage over Turkish domestic politics but that it continues to be relevant to the country’s interests. We may say that mutual dependence has given rise to a partnership of convenience. How do you view the role the EU has played in Turkey’s recent transformations? What characterizes EU-Turkey relations today? Have we perhaps been experiencing a process of drifting apart and ever closer forms of cooperation at the very same time?
Dimitar Bechev: One thing to say at the outset is that the EU has not been a monolith. You have different EU actors and if you examine who did what regarding Turkey over the years in a more granular fashion, the picture is very differentiated. The European Commission, to give you an obvious example, was and still is committed to the process of bringing Turkey on board to negotiate in good faith, but the decisions are taken in the Council. Then you have, or least you had in the past, a clear division between countries saying Turkey will never become a member and countries which were committed to its future membership. Those countries that were skeptical from the very start managed to block the process due to the conflict with Cyprus and the way there was no resolution to that in 2004 and due to the French idea that Turkey would dilute the European Union. At the same time, there are those who believed that, despite everything, there is some value in the negotiations or at least in keeping the process going.
It’s a game of smoke and mirrors as neither does Erdogan want to pull the plug, nor can the European Council form a majority to call off the negotiations. That is a strange situation to have but my main point is that when we put the blame on the EU, we have to take into account its internal diversity.
Something like that is happening now too, even if the negotiation for membership is not where the action is taking place. If you think about the two member states in the driving seat, France and Germany, they have very different attitudes. For France, Turkey is a geopolitical rival. Macron believes in negotiating from a position of strength and certainly believes in playing power politics with Erdogan. France’s alignment with Greece and Macron’s statement that NATO is braindead testifies to this viewpoint. Germany, on the other hand, for geographic, historical, and societal reasons is much more enmeshed with Turkey. Therefore, a bit like with Russia, it believes in Einbindung, to use the German term, it believes in engaging Turkey, of identifying areas of cooperation and shared interests. Those two have sufficient common interests to persist in developing those areas – the refugee deal from 2016 is a clear example, the prospect of upgrading the Turkey-EU customs union, which other people have written about, is another.
The main headline is that the economic interdependence is there to stay. Unlike the US, which can say goodbye to Turkey, there’s no drawbridge option for the European Union.
Turkey will always be there, and it will be integrated thanks to the customs union, but also thanks to society and geography. That might translate into EU leverage, but it’s a leverage that goes both directions. What is for sure is that we are not going back to the old days when the EU could drive the democratization process in Turkey. That’s now an old story – and it is the story of a missed opportunity.
Ferenc Laczo: I also wanted us to talk a bit about Turkey on the global stage. Let us zoom in a bit on what you call Turkey’s new balancing act between the US and Russia, on the one hand, and its attempt to have one foot in Europe and the other in the Middle East. You appear to insist that Turkey remains committed to the Western alliance on some level for sure but that its relationship to the US has deteriorated very significantly. A sense of alienation between the two countries has indeed been palpable in more recent years. Continued disagreements and tensions between the two countries notwithstanding, Turkey has in the meantime pursued a remarkable policy of rapprochement with Russia and has in fact entered a sort of pragmatic alliance with Putin’s regime. How would you compare the country’s respective relations to the US and to Russia? Have they become sort of complementary relations for Turkey? How far has the “new Turkey” really shifted?
Dimitar Bechev: Turkey is sufficiently big and self-contained, it has a problematic relationship with most of its neighbors, and it is introspective. Erdogan doesn’t speak any foreign language, just to give you an example. When Turkey was in the Western camp, so to speak, it was never a perfect relationship. Many people sound nostalgic when they speak about “the glory days” when Turkey was fully in NATO and so on. If you study diplomatic history, you know that at least since the 1960s there have always been fissures in this relationship.
When AKP came to power and eventually grew disappointed with the EU and turned to the Middle East – which is a policy that was originally started back in the 1980s for economic reasons –, they found themselves alone in the Middle East, or at least faced pushback. Turkey is not fully comfortable in the Middle East either, even if there’s nostalgia there too because of religion and because of the Ottoman legacy. Turkey is in a way an island. That is a vision that is shared across society: that the country is surrounded by competitors, by rivals or even enemies, and that it has to fend for itself in an uncertain world. There’s plenty of evidence to support this view, if you look at the type of international system we currently face. Therefore, the balancing act between the West and Russia becomes almost intuitively understandable. Turkey has one foot in either camp; it tries to maximize its gains from this position.
I quote in the introduction my good friend Galip Dalay who has written that Turkey doesn’t see itself in the “normative West” because of various resentments, because of AKP’s ideological leanings, and because of Erdogan personally. It probably does see itself in what Galip Dalay calls the “strategic West.” NATO is relevant but thanks to Turkish power and influence, they can cherry pick – they can invoke NATO when convenient, but they can be defect from it when it suits their purposes. Overall, Turkey is a freelancer, it’s a lone player. The short answer to your question therefore is that Turkey doesn’t belong to either East or West but is fending for itself. The open questions are where the limits of this foreign policy are, and whether it is sustainable.
Ferenc Laczo: You also show in the book how Turkey’s turn to its neighborhood emerged as an alternative to EU membership while new Turkish policies towards its neighbors heavily borrowed from certain European ideas and methods. Turkey also became much more interventionist in its foreign policy and has repeatedly relied on its military in recent years. Did the 2010s indeed make Turkey reorient itself towards the Middle East and, if so, with what consequences? What major impacts did the Arab Spring and the war in Syria in particular have on the country?
Dimitar Bechev: That’s a huge question. On the military side, I think we are past the high point of the remilitarization of Turkish foreign policy. It created opportunities and Turkey made some gains in Nagorno Karabakh, in Libya, even in northern Syria. At the same time, this remilitarization generated pushback. Turkish society is not really supportive, especially because of the economic hardships. Turkey is shifting gears now, trying to reset relations with the likes of Israel and United Arab Emirates, even Greece.
Turkish foreign policy has been oscillating for a long time between a more militaristic posture and a foreign policy consistent with what the EU is preaching, i.e., engage with neighbors, promote trade, cooperation, and investment. This duality has existed for a long time, but in the older days the military was anti-interventionist; the belief was that Turkey needs to be strong but should remain in a defensive position.
What Erdogan brought in was the idea that you can actually use this strength proactively and claim a role in the neighborhood, be it in the Middle East or the Caucasus, and even as far as the Horn of Africa. However, I do believe that the limits of this new policy are becoming very clear, not least because of bread-and-butter issues.
The war in Syria is another major issue and it’s not just a foreign policy matter for Turkey. Syria is next door and there is a nine hundred kilometers long border there, the Kurdish issue transcends that border, and there has also been massive refugee influx into Turkey. There are close to four million Syrians living within the borders of Turkey now and that has had a transformative effect.
The issue is now playing into the politics of intolerance in Turkey with Syrians being blamed for economic hardships and society growing increasingly inhospitable. Ironically, this is something that brings Turkey closer to the European mindset, if you will. After all, Europeanization should not only mean the nice parts we associate with European democracy and the European Union but can also refer to xenophobia and intolerance.
That’s something that Turkey now shares, as it were, and this social attitude is now also being politically instrumentalized, including by the opposition.
Syria was a great opportunity for Turkey to export its model and the same went for Egypt in the glory days of the Arab Revolution. You could see key countries in the Middle East emulating the Turkish example with AKP-lookalikes taking power. However, the changes soon brought huge problems for Turkey, especially with the rise of the Kurdish factor in Syria. Ultimately, Turkey pivoted back to its habitual posture of trying to contain Kurdish nationalism as priority number one while regime change in Damascus anyway became a goal too far after the Russian intervention in 2015.
When you think about Turkish foreign policy and the Erdogan factor in the Middle East and more broadly, there have clearly been many changes, but I also see continuities: one such continuity is the nationalist ideology that feeds into the domestic but also the foreign policy of Turkey.
Ferenc Laczo: Let us return to the question of democratic prospects towards the end of our conversation today. You make two very interesting statements in the book. On the one hand, you state that “The narratives of political and economic empowerment, of putting Islam again at the center of public life, and of turning Turkey into a great power in the Middle East and beyond will resonate with the conservative electorate. Erdoğan will be a father figure and his historical legacy will live on for generations to come.” On the other, you also state that Erdoğan will remain a divisive figure and that Turkey “has a history of competitive politics stretching back more than seven decades, advanced level of socio-economic development, and links to the West that, other things being equal, favor a return to electoral democracy in the future.” May I ask how you see the chances of such a return to electoral democracy? Equally importantly, what do the chances of such a return depend on in your view? In other words, what would it take for the country to escape from the clutches of authoritarian consolidation?
Dimitar Bechev: Turkey is heading for crucial elections next year which will see the Parliament and, even more importantly, the Presidency being contested. It won’t be an easy race and Erdogan has the advantage, but I think the opposition has a fair chance. Some of the opposition figures are polling very highly, including the mayors of Istanbul and of Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas. Even if they lose this time around, there will be other opportunities to capture the presidency. It’s also a matter of how big the margin will be: the smaller the margin, the greater the opportunities for AKP and Erdogan to manipulate the election on the margins, to put it like that.
It’s not inconceivable that change will come as early as next year. Even if that’s too much wishful thinking, AKP is losing ground and Erdogan is finding it hard to sustain his appeal.
There is a soft periphery of AKP voters who never supported Erdogan for ideological reasons or because of Islam, but simply because their life improved in the earlier years of AKP’s rule. That support is now being eroded and getting lost. This offers an opportunity for a reversal of power.
We already saw it at the local level and there’s no reason it cannot be replicated at the national level – other than Erdogan’s survival instinct because if he’s facing the alternative of going to jail or staying in power, you can understand why he’ll be fighting tooth and nail.
There are many moving parts in Turkey but longer-term factors, path dependencies and democratic habits at the grassroots level, if you will – the idea that your vote matters, that participation in civil society initiatives matters, that party membership, which is rather high by Western standards, matters – are signs of political health.
It might turn out that this period we went through was a stress test for Turkish democracy. Even if Turkey may not become another Denmark or Sweden, it might develop a more competitive system with healthy political institutions when measured by regional standards.
But, of course, this is in the future and like you said, Erdogan is not going away, and even if he does, he’ll be a father figure for the Turkish political scene and parts of the electorate the way that the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a father figure. This will sound like blasphemy to some secular Turks, but Erdogan will be an Ataturk-like figure for his supporters. His legend will persist, and his legacy will be there, one way or the other.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In collaboration with Teodora Miljojkovic