ANKARA, TURKEY — With most of the Turkish media controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), it is hard for many people to fully understand the internal politics of Turkey. One way to break through this is by listening to Turkey’s exiled journalists like Abdullah Bozkurt.
In 2016, Turkey was shaken in the late hours of the night of July 15th by a coup attempt against President Erdoğan. While the coup — allegedly carried out by elements in the military and police loyal to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen — failed to remove Erdoğan, even after the alleged perpetrators were caught, Ankara embarked on a mission to rout any remaining elements of resistance.
Following the coup, Erdoğan issued a state-of-emergency decree that lasted for just over two years and finally ended just last month. During this period, over 170,000 alleged members of the newly-criminalized Gulen organization lost their jobs, and at least 80,000 Turkish citizens spent time in police custody.
Beyond the police and military officials directly involved in the coup attempt, Erdoğan and the ruling AKP also targeted other groups of ideological enemies, including Turkish citizens holding positions ranging from judges and prosecutors to school administrators and teachers.
There was one other target of Erdoğan, a target common among all leaders who seek total control of their countries: the press.
Erdoğan began moving against the press even before the coup, and one man who knows this all too well is Abdullah Bozkurt, an early target of AKP censorship who spoke to MintPress to explain how Erdoğan’s imperial presidency came to be and what may come next.
Abdullah Bozkurt’s escape from Turkey
To better understand what makes Bozkurt a unique source for information on the political situation in Turkey, it is important to know his history as a veteran journalist who worked for over 20 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and publisher in various media outlets.
Although Bozkurt’s history spans decades, his personal story first began to intertwine with that of Erdoğan in early 2016 when Today’s Zaman — the English language outlet of the Zaman media group — was “unlawfully seized” on March 4 and an AKP-appointed administrator was put in charge. Following the takeover by state censors, Bozkurt was the first one fired from the office in Ankara by government caretakers who took over both the corporate and editorial management and unashamedly turned it into a mouthpiece for the government.
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) March 4, 2016
But this didn’t stop Bozkurt, who says that “although the takeover was a setback for journalism in Turkey, I did not give up.” Bozkurt went on to set up his own news outlet, Muhabir (Reporter), in Ankara in May of 2016 with about a dozen of his colleagues, and continued to keep writing and publishing.
Unfortunately for Bozkurt, his experience running his own media outlet was short-lived when less than two later, everything would change following the failed coup.
The coup was a pivotal moment in Turkish politics, a fact Bozkurt realized immediately, although he admits he may not have grasped how far Erdoğan’s retaliation would go, saying:
I was vacationing in my hometown Bandirma, a seaside city on the west of Istanbul, during the failed coup bid and actually fixing the shed, a project long overdue, in the backyard of my mother’s house when my wife told me about the news she saw on TV. I immediately called my reporters in Ankara to understand what is going on and told them to continue to report what was unfolding as best as they can under the circumstances. I came back to my office in Ankara several days later to assess the situation with my colleagues. Even at that point, I was not thinking of leaving my beloved country.”
Things began to change shortly after Bozkurt returned to Ankara, however, when, according to Bozkurt, “the AKP issued a list of some 180 media outlets that were summarily shut down by the government decree in July 2016 under the pretext of battling against the coup,” including his own Muhabir. It was after this that it became clear to Bozkurt that things were going from bad to worse in Turkey — confirmed, according to Bozkurt, “when the government issued arrest warrants for over 40 journalists on a single day in late July” — which led to the journalist making one of the hardest choices of his life:
I decided that it is no longer safe for me to stay in Turkey. Some of these names in the police custody I knew personally and some from the by-lines of breaking stories I read in the newspapers. It was a rush decision to shift out of Turkey. I just got to the airport in Istanbul and managed to get a plane on Lufthansa en route to Stockholm with a connection flight in Germany. I was not sure I would clear the immigration and checkpoint at the airport, as some of my colleagues were detained there on the spot as they try to get out. I guess I was lucky and got out in the nick of time. The day after I left the country, my office in Ankara was raided and now I’m facing outstanding arrest warrant against me for my critical writings [concerning] the Erdoğan government.”
While Bozkurt is lucky to have escaped arrest in Turkey, he says, “things dramatically went from bad to worse, as the number of jailed journalists has increased as well as the shuttered media outlets,” which now number in the hundreds.
Bozkurt believes this was very intentional on the part of the AKP, he speculates that “the failed coup bid was a false flag operation by Erdoğan in coordination with his intel and defense chiefs.” While he does acknowledge there was “growing resentment in the military” at the time “that could have very well morphed into a real coup,” he doesn’t believe the official story for a few reasons:
The limited mobilization and the number of generals involved in actions suggest it was not a real coup at all and definitely not one in the command chain unlike previous successful coups. The timing, like doing it in prime time, blocking traffic one-way on the bridge, and attacking the Parliament had no operational purposes other than inflaming the public fury against the military. Erdoğan gave four conflicting accounts on when he learned first about the attempt. The government immediately got a gag order on the media coverage of coup probes when some damaging testimonies from suspects made it to the press. It also prevented key witnesses from appearing and testifying before the parliamentary commission set up to investigate events.”
Following his flight from Turkey, Bozkurt ended up in Stockholm, where he thought he could “hunker down” temporarily until he could return to Turkey “when all the noise settles down, chaos fades away and things calm down.”
But the noise and chaos never did die down and Bozkurt ended up setting up shop in Sweden where he now leads the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an NGO where, as Bozkurt puts it, “journalist colleagues and [himself] set up to track rights violations in Turkey, monitor court cases of journalists and document wrongdoings with a view of creating a record for a future accountability when the rule of law hopefully comes back to Turkey one day.”
Until then, Bozkurt has pledged to keep up his mission in exile, which poses dangers of its own when one’s opponent is Erdoğan.
The long arm of the AKP
While the “Erdoğan government silences critical, independent and opposition journalists by jailing them at home,” there is a separate set of dangers for critics of Turkey who flee to Europe.
As many Turkish expats can attest, once you have been accused of being an enemy of the AKP, the government will attempt to bring you back to Turkey. These extraditions range anywhere from legitimate legal processes, through Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, to kidnappings in even the most remote corners of the world — such as the most recent attempt in Mongolia. Turkey has even taken to sending intelligence agents to allied countries where Turks commonly seek asylum, such as Germany, to infiltrate local immigration systems.
Luckily for Bozkurt, he has remained safe from these brazen tactics, but that doesn’t mean he has been exempt from “various other forms” of intimidation by the Erdoğan government, as he described:
One is with threats of doing harm to relatives back in Turkey. In my case, the police detained my 80-year-old mother who lives alone in Turkey and ransacked her place on my account. She was released after a day-long interrogation, but threats still persist.”
Beyond harassing his family, Bozkurt said, he is also subject to “routine threats from Erdoğan’s thugs all the time” including “from pro-Erdoğan people in the Turkish diaspora community in Sweden.”
Bozkurt is also publicly demonized by “the government propagandists” who replaced the real journalists in Turkey, who “openly call [for Bozkurt’s] assassination by Turkish intelligence on public TV programs,” which Bozkurt says is a result of his reporting that has “been exposing the clandestine and unlawful activities of the Turkish intelligence.” This assault by the media even includes “official government news agencies,” which “float [Bozkurt’s] picture in a wanted poster … Wild West style … on [their] homepage and social media accounts from time to time, calling me a terrorist and fugitive.”
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) July 15, 2017
“The goal” of all this, according to Bozkurt “is to silence you, even in exile,” because it is the only place the AKP doesn’t control the media. Bozkurt said of the current media situation in Turkey:
There is effectively no independent media left in Turkey. Many were taken over by the government and some bought off by Erdoğan family and business associates. Most were forced to toe the line with the government narrative and you can easily see almost identical headlines in most of them every day that often feature Erdoğan’s remarks from a day earlier. The coverage, angle, narrative and even the words they use are quite similar to each other.
None would dare writing on issues the government finds sensitive, such as corruption or the government’s aiding and abetting of Jihadist groups.
There are still a few media outlets left in Turkey that can be deemed as opposition print and broadcast media, but they have very limited reach to the public. They also suffer from a selective approach, going along with the government narrative on many issues but diverging on others. They do not represent any serious threat to the rule of Erdoğan and in fact their existence, one might argue, plays into the ruling party [AKP] hands in terms of creating a fear factor for AKP’s own supporters who may be willing to defect but [instead are made to fear] the opposition.
From time to time, we see legal actions against these outlets and journalists working there to sort of tame them and keep them in line.”
Yet Bozkurt refused to quit, because, as he says, “if you do, then they will win. I don’t want that” — which is why he has continued to report on the intrigue and corruption of post-coup Turkey.
Turkey after the coup
Bozkurt believes there were multiple motivations behind the false-flag coup operation, but high on the list was the excuse it provided Erdoğan to step up purges that did not start with the coup but began after Erdoğan’s 2011 landslide election victory, during which Erdoğan received almost 50 percent of votes … “and felt confident enough that he had harnessed enough power to make his move in turning Turkey into Islamist/neo-nationalist authoritarian regime,” Bozkurt says.
The purges were meant to vacate key positions in the government and have “taken a toll on the civil service, law enforcement agencies and military, with the positions later filled by AKP loyalists or just left empty.”
One branch of the government to be hit especially hard was the Turkish Air Force, “which is the backbone of the Turkish defense doctrine,” according to Bozkurt. This was detrimental to the Turkish military in the opinion of many experts, including Bozkurt, who explained that the Air Force “was decimated when experienced pilots were purged summarily.”
The purges went so far that, according to Bozkurt, “even the F-16 plots who provided wing protection for Erdoğan’s presidential plane on the night of the coup … as well as those F-16 plots who crippled the Akinci air base where putschists allegedly set up … were all declared as terrorists and purged as well,” which Bozkurt says “reinforces the belief that this was not a real coup attempt at all.”
This internal restructuring was repeated in almost every area of the public sector which had any influence over the government and is why the military was so crucial. Since Turkey has a history of the military deep-state staging multiple real coups when a civilian government goes too far left or right, it was important to not just replace specialists like pilots, but also to nix the top brass.
For all of the history of modern Turkey until Erdoğan, the top positions in the military were occupied by the secular Kemalist establishment, which has existed in the military since it was founded. Kemalists — followers of the military leader and founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — long kept civilian governments in check whenever they got too radical, and especially when they began to question Turkey’s membership of NATO and cooperation with the Atlanticist community.
All of these military leaders are now gone, however, and, while Erdoğan has done more than any previous Turkish president to limit the military’s control over politics, Bozkurt worries that the new generals pose their own dangers.
Among these, according to Bozkurt, is the possibility that the new Turkish military could move away from Turkey’s Atlanticist tradition as many of the new leadership “came mainly from a neo-nationalist group that is closely affiliated with the pro-Russian, pro-Iran gang led by Dogu Perincek.” Perincek is the leader of the Patriotic Party, a Eurasianist left-nationalist party that “is staunchly anti-NATO and anti-West.”
While Bozkurt’s argument that NATO — the organization that toppled legitimate governments of countries including Libya, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, — is actually somehow democratically superior to the Eastern powers is up for debate, there are still problems for Erdoğan as he attempts to move his alliances east.
One such problem is that the AKP and Patriotic Party don’t actually represent enough of Turkish society to fully staff the state, which means the AKP has also had to seek out other Turks on the political fringe to fill lower positions.
The lower ranks in the officer corps are coming from Islamists who have not enough seniority to climb the ranks yet. Some are Kemalists and others are simply loyalists who go along with whatever the government sets forth in terms of policy. As for the other branches of the government, both Islamists, ultra-nationalists and neo-nationalists work together in filling the spots.
The bond among these groups is shared interest in getting a piece of pie in the power as well as the overriding ideological similarity in opposing the Transatlantic alliance that provided a security for Turkey in the last 60 years. They also feel weak individually for taking on such a huge transformation in Turkey, so they feel compelled to act in a coalition to challenge the establishment and pro-Western forces in Turkey.”
Another problem that springs from this patchwork coalition backing the AKP is that some segments of the Islamists mentioned by Bozkurt oppose countries like Iran and Russia.
The AKP under Erdoğan arguably seeks to be the leading branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political wing of Salafi extremism, which is why Ankara’s proxies in Syria primarily consist of members of groups like Al Qaeda. While the U.S. backs the Brotherhood or AQ in some instances, as they have in Syria, sometimes this can backfire as Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels accused of attacking NATO troops in northern Syria can attest. These forces also oppose Shi’a Islam and Russian intervention in the Middle East, which will cause complications for Erdoğan, since a large part of his political strategy is religious pandering.
There are also sections of the ultra-nationalists in Turkey that have historic distrust of Russia stemming from the days of the Ottoman Empire. While these groups, like Erdoğan’s electoral coalition partners in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), don’t like the U.S. ordering Turkey around, they’re also wary of Moscow and could impede Erdoğan’s attempts to shift east.
These various factions present a huge problem for the West, which depended on the old Turkish military establishment to defend the NATO alliance and is now seeing that establishment disappear. In their place are new anti-Western military leaders who now reflect the majority opinion of Turks, causing concern for leaders from Brussels to Washington. It was already extraordinarily difficult for Washington to plan policy around Turkey before the most recent diplomatic spats, but with multiple factions vying for influence with conflicting aims, the challenges for the U.S. are likely to grow.
Some analysts like those at the Atlantic Council argue the new surge in anti-American opinion is mostly just political theater. Bozkurt, however, isn’t so sure. While he agrees that bashing the West “works wonders for Erdoğan” politically, he says also that “Erdoğan is committed to act against NATO.”
Bozkurt says that even though some analysts may be unsure of the extent to which Erdoğan may be willing to go, he chalks this up to Erdoğan “knowing he has limitations in [confronting NATO] so openly and bluntly.” Yet Bozkurt argues there is still evidence that this is Erdoğan’s endgame, an assertion he bases on “a 2010 confidential investigation into Iran’s clandestine activities in Turkey that revealed “that [Erdoğan] was bent on taking on NATO when he feels confident and gains enough power to do so.” At the time, Erdoğan was telling his associates that he went along with a new NATO radar base in Turkey’s Malatya (Kurecik) unwillingly and would reverse the decision when he packs enough power. Bozkurt summed up:
Both Erdoğan and AKP’s distrust of the West has deep historical and ideological dimensions and I believe he is waiting for the right moment to break away from close Transatlantic alliance. The only question is when and how he
Unfortunately for Erdoğan, he can no longer lie in wait for his moment to pounce on NATO, as he has now managed to draw the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump, who is already straining the alliance.
Turkey and the U.S.
Turkey recently drew the ire of President Trump following a demand by Washington to release imprisoned U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson. Brunson, who was detained in the months following the 2016 coup, has been the recent focus of heightening tensions between Ankara and Washington. Bozkurt agrees with most analysts in Turkey that “Brunson’s affair is only a symptom of deeper troubles that have been mushrooming between the two allies for years,” and are likely to continue as long as the AKP is in charge:
Erdoğan has proved to be an unwilling partner who often drags his feet when the U.S. needs a solid ally on issues such as increased pressure on Iran, sanctions against Russia, normalized ties with other allies like Israel. Erdoğan’s pet project of empowering Islamists — including radical and violent factions such as al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front — during Arab revolutions, runs contrary to the U.S. interests.
By the way, these policies represented a major national security threat to Turkey first and foremost, considering how Turkey is a predominantly Sunni nation and may very well expose its youth to Salafist violent ideologies. Erdoğan simply did not care about the boomerang factor of endorsing Jihadist groups as long as his own fanatics get to play what they want in Turkey and in the region.”
Another source of tension brewing since well before the 2016 coup was the status of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides on a compound in rural Pennsylvania. Gulen is alleged to be behind the coup and has been said to be associated with most of the targets of the post-coup purges.
At one point Erdoğan allegedly offered to trade the U.S. Brunson for Gulen, but Bozkurt doesn’t think Erdoğan really wants Gulen back in Turkey. On top of this, Bozkurt says, is the fact that the ‘evidence’ against Gulen provided by Erdoğan basically amounted to “a collection of conspiracies and political statements that accused not only Gulen but also U.S., Mexican and Brazil officials of an international plot that targeted Erdoğan.”
Rather than Gulen being a priority, Bozkurt says he is really just a “usual scapegoat” who likely became a target of the AKP because his organization’s missions ran counter to Erdoğan’s project:
Gulen has been advocating corruption-free societies, which is the key for rebuilding most Islamist nations. He has been consistently and historically opposed to the use of violence, and there has been no record of any group members engaging in any kind of violence since the 1960s when he started forming his group. Gulen is also opposed to abuse of religion for political purposes and as such has kept his distance from political Islamists in Turkey, such as Necmettin Erbakan, the founding father of political Islam in Turkey, of whom Gulen came out as one of the chief critics.”
Bozkurt also sees Gulen as a method for Erdoğan to take the focus off other legal matters he would like to see go away.
One case in particular that has been a source of conflict between the U.S. and Turkey is that of Reza Zarrab, who exposed “Erdoğan’s secret deal with Iran in circumventing sanctions…in December 2013.” The deal was revealed in Turkish courts, prompting the AKP to respond with a purge of the police force and judiciary in late 2013.
Zarrab exposed a scheme to trade Turkish gold for Iranian oil through shell companies managed by Halkbank, a majority state-owned bank. The case never panned out in Turkey — as Erdoğan pardoned all parties involved, including Zarrab — but was later picked up in the U.S., where Zarrab was arrested. Zarrab turned state’s witness for the U.S. and further exposed the extent of the sanctions-busting scheme, which directly implicated Erdoğan.
The Halkbank case caused problems for Washington, especially with President Trump in charge, as he wages his campaign against Iran. Thanks to Zarrab, the U.S. now knows Turkey was doing business with Iran before former President Barack Obama even began to negotiate the Iran Nuclear Deal and rapprochement had begun between Washington and Tehran. This causes concern for the new administration in Washington that Ankara can’t be trusted to help enforce new sanctions as Trump seeks to re-apply pressure on Iran.
Another matter causing Washington to question Turkey’s loyalty when it comes to Iran and Russia is Turkey’s recent attempts to purchase the Russian S-400 missile-defense systems. The systems are incompatible with NATO systems, and the U.S. claims they could leave the new F-35 stealth fighter vulnerable to Russian intelligence. Turkey was set to receive several of these F-35s as a member of the 11-nation group project that built them, but the delivery was recently blocked by Congress.
This has all played into recent escalations, which have resulted in U.S. sanctions on Turkey and Erdoğan accusing Washington of waging an ‘economic war.’ Bozkurt conceded that the “sanctions threats by the Trump administration might have played a catalyst role in worsening the economic outlook of Turkey, but did not start [the economic problems] in the first place.”
The war of words does concern Bozkurt, who believes that “there is no alternative to the NATO alliance for Turkey’s national security needs,” but that, “the problem is that Erdoğan’s personal interests do not overlap with the interest of Turkey.”
This means that to a large extent, the future of Turkey is deeply intertwined with the future of Erdoğan. Nobody can be sure of what that may entail tomorrow, let alone in the next few years. Especially as Erdoğan recently made a major leap in capacity to pursue his agenda in recent elections where he was granted new powers as president. Bozkurt says the new powers have “essentially side-lined the Parliament.”
By Bozkurt’s estimation, with his new powers:
Erdoğan’s next move is to consolidate his gains, create a tamed opposition for the sake of appearance, try to strike deals with regional and global powers to ensure the legitimacy of his rule, and realign Turkey’s orbit to a pro-Russian and pro-Iranian axis.”
Bozkurt believes the largest impediment to Erdoğan’s agenda “is the economy, which is mainly dependent on the EU market both in terms of investment and export market,” for which Erdoğan is already trying to compensate:
I think he will try to create a sui generis relationship with the West, through which he will continue getting economic and financial benefits without giving anything on political reforms and fundamental rights and freedoms. The fact that he still holds mass rallies in the aftermath of June 24 election is nothing but a message to the Western allies that he is the only man they need to deal with if they want to engage and work with Turkey.
At the same time, he will continue to try to bully the Western alliance with a range of policy choices from hostage-taking to mobilization of diaspora Turkish and Muslim groups in host countries. He will play a spoiler role to disrupt policies of the West in the region. He will cling to power with any and every available means at his disposal as he knows very well that he and his family members will go to jail if he gets ousted from that power.”
While all of this is a big gamble on Erdoğan’s part, Bozkurt left me with a final word of warning, saying that he believed that if “push comes to the shove, Erdoğan is even willing to torch the country with a provocation of civil war in order to weather the approaching storm.” It is to be hoped things don’t come to that but, for Turkish citizens who oppose the AKP, electoral options are basically off the table and the idea of a civil war is horrifying in a state controlled by one man.
Top Photo | Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, who was forced to leave Turkey. Kjell Vowles | ETC
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in Middle East and Asian affairs.