Monday, 01 May 2017 00:00

Turkey’s Authoritarian Legacy Featured

Article, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, May 1, 2017

Halil Karaveli, Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy

It's tempting to blame the country's recent slide into repression on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's thirst for personal power. But did the ruling Islamist party ever really abandon the country's long tradition of state authoritarianism?

Karaveli

 

For years, explaining Turkey's democratic travails seemed an easy task. There was the persistence of an authoritarian tradition, whose source was identified as Kemalism—the secularist-nationalist founding ideology of the Turkish republic—and which the military embodied. According to the conventional narrative on Turkey, with which anyone who has only casually followed international politics during the last decades will be familiar, the Turkish military had a mission—to "protect secularism"—which explained, so we were taught, its habit of overthrowing governments. All that was needed for Turkish democracy to flourish was the emergence of a force strong enough to end the tutelage of the military.

For several years, the rise of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seemed to be the answer. The general consensus among international observers was that Erdoğan was on a mission to make Turkey fully democratic. Disappointment and bewilderment have increasingly replaced that hope, particularly after an April referendum engineered by Erdoğan expanded the executive power of the president. There's a scramble for explanations and definitions that will make sense of and conceptualize Turkey's authoritarian drift under Erdoğan, the presumed liberal-turned-authoritarian.

The problem at the heart of the matter is that Turkey lends itself all too easily to simplistic dichotomies and to exoticism. The currency of these dichotomies, in turn, reveals an unmistakable, residual orientalism, as in Edward W. Said's framing. Turkey is, invariably, a place where "East meets West," where "secularism" and "Westernization" fatefully collide with "Islam." Western scholarship has long since abandoned the modernization paradigm of the 1950s and 1960s that was applied to the Middle East by orientalists—of whom Bernard Lewis was a leading exponent—and into which Turkey was fitted as a model example of a "modernizing" Muslim country. The judgment of Patrick Kinross, the biographer of Kemal Atatürk, that the founding father of Turkey "dragged his country from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century," couldn't sound more anachronistic—and unacceptably orientalist—today. Yet orientalism nonetheless continues to hold sway. Turkish politics is still understood in essentialist terms, within a framework that pits "Western" against "Islamic."

The only thing that changed when the moderate Islamists came to power was that the role that had traditionally been ascribed to the Turkish actors was reversed: now it was the former Islamists, who had recast themselves as "conservative democrats," that were assigned the role of the modernizers, while the former heroes of the modernization paradigm, the secularists, were redefined as reactionaries who impeded democratization. In practice, nothing changed.

Alain Rouquié, a French political scientist, advances the definition "hegemonic democracy" to describe regimes like Erdoğan's Turkey (and Vladimir Putin's Russia): they are not liberal democracies, because the rights of the minority and the rule of law are not respected; but neither are they dictatorships, because elections are held, and political alternation thus remains possible. Yet, this is increasingly so only in theory. Turkey may not be a dictatorship—elections are held, and President Erdoğan and his party continue to enjoy broad popular support—but the rule of law and freedom of expression remain as elusive as ever.

Last November, Turkish authorities arrested Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the co-chairmen of the pro-Kurdish and moderately leftist People's Democratic Party (HDP)—the country's third-largest party in terms of voters and representation in parliament. Other party lawmakers, as well as the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city of Turkey, were also detained. The prosecution called for what would amount to life imprisonment of the leaders of the Kurdish party. Meanwhile, Turkey has come to hold the dishonorable world record for imprisoning journalists, by far distancing China and Iran. They include editors and board members of Cumhuriyet, the oldest daily of Turkey. Journalists are routinely accused of abetting the cause of either the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)—the separatist Kurdish organization that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984—or the cause of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's erstwhile ally, effectively exiled in Pennsylvania with whom the Turkish president has been locked in a violent power struggle since 2012. The editors of Cumhuriyet stand accused of having supported both PKK and the "Fethullah Gülen terror organization."

Halil Karaveli is senior fellow in the Silk Road Studies Program of the Central Asia- Caucasus Institute where he heads the Turkey Initiative and is editor of Turkey Analyst. From 1991 to 2007, he was an editorial writer at Östgöta Correspondenten, a Swedish daily. He has contributed to the New York TimesForeign Affairs, and National Interest.

Image attribution: www.thecairoreview.com  accessed on May 1, 2017

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  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
     
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
     
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    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
     
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
     
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
     
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
     
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
     
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
     
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
     
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
     
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
     
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
     
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
     
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
     
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 
     

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
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    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

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    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

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    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

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    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

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    Click to continue reading...