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Turkey: from bad to worse


The Turkish Government’s ongoing response to the 15 July coup will almost certainly exacerbate, rather than address, the significant problems it has been facing in recent years. Turkey’s Kurdish issue, the threat from Islamic State, Syrian refugees and its increasingly polarised society are key challenges for Turkey, as are its tumultuous foreign relationships. And these challenges will only be compounded by the inevitable divisions within the military following the failed coup and Erdoğan’s now-widespread efforts to purge the country of any opposition.

There is widespread agreement among analysts that many of the values associated with liberal democratic systems—free speech, human rights, the rule of law and protection of minorities—have been on a backwards trajectory for some time. And in the wake of the coup attempt, international concern is growing as the Turkish Government rounds up not only coup plotters, but significant numbers of broader opposition. This includes the Gülenist movement, and members of the security services, judiciary, and education sectors where Gülenist influence is either significant, or other generally secular opposition groups have traditionally had influence. The number of dismissals, detentions and purges of people from state institutions in the days following the coup is now estimated to number in excess of 60,000. The state of emergency subsequently invoked by President Erdoğan has also seen Turkey partially withdraw from its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. This will enable the Government to rule by decree without scrutiny from the constitutional court, to rescind various rights and impose limits on freedom of movement, expression and association, and to relax arrest and detention restrictions.

More broadly, the Turkish Government has for some years now made an increasingly concerted effort to consolidate control over those institutions that provide checks and balances on government power. Although, in large part, this has been driven by legitimate security challenges, such as the conflict with the Kurds and ongoing instability in Syria and Iraq, President Erdoğan’s ongoing determination to establish a more powerful presidential system has influenced his approach to other issues and emboldened his unwillingness to tolerate dissent or alternative views. In turn, this has led to a more polarised Turkish society in which people face an increasingly stark choice between supporting or opposing the Government.

While the Australian Government, along with other major powers, was quick to issue a statement in support of President Erdoğan and Turkey’s elected government following the coup attempt, the European Union and United States have subsequently expressed serious concerns about the Turkish Government’s subsequent and widespread crackdown. EU and US representatives have stated that, as a NATO member and EU aspirant, Turkey must observe fundamental human rights and the rule of law. The German Government also announced that restoration of the death penalty in Turkey—a suggested punishment for coup plotters—would unequivocally rule out EU membership.

But the Erdoğan Government appears determined to stay its course regardless, and it knows that the West will remain compelled to cooperate with it on a range of security and counterterrorism-related issues as a necessary part of addressing the current problems in the Middle East. However, the expansion of state power in Turkey and its insistence on pursuing a course increasingly incompatible with European values will challenge cooperation on a range of vital issues for the West.

The EU-Turkey refugee deal, agreed in March this year, is one such example. Under this deal—primarily designed to ensure the 2.7 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey do not move on to Europe—Turks were to be granted visa-free travel to the EU, although Ankara also had to revise its questionable counterterrorism legislation. But the deal—already questioned by President Erdoğan due to the counterterrorism component—is even more unlikely to pass in its current form given the Turkish Government’s use of such legislation in the post‑coup environment. Such a lack of compromise could bring the refugee deal undone and create a significant quandary for the EU.

As a NATO member, Turkey is also a key component of the Coalition’s counterterrorism operations against Islamic State. However, Turkey’s post-coup relationships with external militaries will undoubtedly now be more problematic. Turkey has also made it clear that the residence in the US of the Gülenist movement leader, Fethullah Gülen, will complicate the bilateral relationship as Turkey suspects Gülen masterminded the coup.

Australia and Turkey have a close relationship which has been strengthened over the last decade and characterised by dialogue across a broad range of issues, frequent high-level visits and expanding bilateral trade and investment. In the security sector, cooperation has extended into the policing and counterterrorism realm, as the Turkish Government helps identify, detain and repatriate Australians fighting for extremist groups in the Middle East. In June 2015, the Minister for Justice stated that Australian Federal Police officers were ‘working closely with local and regional law enforcement, building relationships to enhance abilities to share real-time intelligence and evidence in support of domestic and international disruption activities’.

The long-term implications of the recent coup for Turkey’s relationships, including with Australia, remain to be seen. But there is an increasing realisation among analysts that the relationship between Turkey and the West will be increasingly driven by transactional interests, rather than shared common values, and that the Turkish state has few restrictions on many of its questionable activities. Nevertheless, these interests—not least the fight against Islamic State—will see a need for continued cooperation despite Turkey’s authoritarian turn.