‘What [Turkish President Erdogan] wants is a presidential system where he controls everything and everyone. I mean, you could say that he’s controlling everything and everyone right now — he is, basically,’ Duke University Prof. Bahar Leventoglu tells Michael Nevradakis.
ATHENS — In the past year, Turkey has increasingly become a battleground of divergent, conflicting, and often contradictory, geopolitical interests. Turkey is heavily embroiled in the ongoing war in Syria and a decades-long conflict with its Kurdish majority which has recently been rekindled, while facing instability and terror at home, with a series of terrorist attacks and the July 15 coup attempt against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
MintPress News had the opportunity to speak with Bahar Leventoglu, associate professor of political science at Duke University, about these developments and conditions on the ground in Turkey today. In this interview, which originally aired on Dialogos Radio in November, Leventoglu argues that Erdogan’s already strong grasp on power in Turkey was further bolstered following the coup, with the country essentially operating as an elected dictatorship. She analyzes developments in Turkish politics, Turkey’s role in Syria and its rapprochement with Russia and Israel, and the Turkish government’s harsh crackdowns against the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the Kurdish opposition political party known as HDP, and against opposition media outlets.
MintPress News (MPN): Has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged stronger as a result of the coup attempt?
Bahar Leventoglu (BL): The failed coup attempt has given Erdogan a unique opportunity to be even stronger than he used to be before the coup. Turkey is not a stranger to coups, we had a coup in 1960, and then in 1970 and 1980, then we had some half-coups, “postmodern” coups where, for example, the military posted something on its website intervening with the government’s business, etc. We’ve had a lot of experience with the military intervening with civilian government, but never did the military bomb the parliament, they never hunted to kill the president. So it was a really serious attempt to take over the democratically elected government. Even though the government is popular for half the population and is really, really not popular for the other half of the population. The whole country was shocked about what happened, and it really gave a unique opportunity to Erdogan to be even stronger than he used to be.
MPN: What do you believe are the factors which account for the failure of the coup attempt?
BL: I believe the plan was pretty good, it was very well designed. I was in Turkey at the time, and people were really scared. We turned on the TV because we didn’t know what was happening. It was around 10 p.m., and before midnight there was an announcement on the state-owned TV, a woman came up and she read a declaration by a military junta saying that they are taking over the government and that there will be a curfew. This is what the declaration said, but then close to midnight, President Erdogan came on CNN Turk and he used FaceTime on his iPhone to call people to go on the streets and protest against the coup. He was so smart and he used social media very effectively, and people, his supporters mainly, went on the streets. Some people died, the army shot at them, I think 40-plus people died that night, civilians.
When we saw that the coup was starting to fail, I have to admit the first thought that came to us was that it was staged by Erdogan. Everyone thought it was staged by Erdogan, just to have his position even stronger than it used to be. But then, of course, information came and what we learned was that there was an information leak at 4 p.m. that day, from the military to the national intelligence, saying that there will be a coup attempt at night, and I think that night was deliberately chosen because there would be a wedding of the daughter of one of the highest generals in the army, so most of the generals would be at that wedding. It was a Friday night and we thought nobody would attempt a coup at 10 p.m. Coups always happen at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., when everyone is sleeping, on a Saturday — that’s, like, a rule. This one happened at 10 p.m. and it failed quickly, so everyone thought at first that this could have been staged by Erdogan. But as the information came out that there was an information leak at 4 p.m., the factions of the military that were involved in the coup had to move earlier than they thought they would, and this was one reason that it failed.
MPN: What is the role of the Gülen Movement in Turkish politics, and what was its role in the coup attempt?
BL: There was an article in The New Yorker recently, explaining the Gülen Movement and its involvement in the coup, but what I loved the most was the title: “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup.” The Gülen Movement has been trying to take over the state, not just the government but the state, because they always sneaked into bureaucracy, the judiciary, to national intelligence, to education. They always sneaked into bureaucracy, not into elected offices.
Erdogan used to be the leader of the incumbent party, the Justice and Development Party, and then he became president, so he is not the head of the party anymore, but of course he is still controlling the party. This party, when it came to power in 2002, was a grassroots movement, but they didn’t have the human capital. Most of the support came from low-educated, low-income people, so they needed human capital, and this human capital was provided by the Gülen Movement, who invested in human capital for more than 30 years.
The Gülen Movement started in the early 1970s. When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, we knew which teachers belonged to that movement, and they recruited people in front of our very eyes, they took them to Friday prayers, etc. When I went to college, we knew all of the people who belonged to this organization. But we didn’t know, really, what they wanted. But these people always recruited bright young guys who would be opinion leaders or successful scholars, successful doctors, lawyers, so this is how they sneaked into state organizations and the military, of course, as one very important part of it.
Now that information is coming out, I’m also learning that they, for example, cheated on military entrance examinations. They had people in the group that organized the exams and they basically let people that wouldn’t be able to get into the military school, get into the military school. I mean, there was a point that only the Gülen people could get into the military school. When you look at the demographics of the military, it’s unbelievable the percentage of people that belong to the movement, and this movement, I don’t think there is one other movement that we could give as an example of a similar organization to the Gülen Movement. I think it is unique and it is real. I don’t think it is just the Gülen Movement that did the coup, but I think they were an important chunk of the failed coup attempt.
MPN: Who else do you believe was involved in the coup?
BL: I think some sections of the army that are against Erdogan, the secular factions. Until now, all the military coups were done by secular factions of the military, and until the 1990s, the military was always secular. In fact, the people that were believed to be religious were even kicked out of the army, with other excuses, by the secular establishment.
The military has always been a staunch supporter of Ataturk’s principles, who is the founding father of Turkey and who basically brought secularism as a fundamental principle of the republic, and whenever they see a threat to secularism in Turkey, they intervene. They always did that in the past. But this time, it was led by the Gülen Movement factions in the army, but I also believe some generals that are not part of the Gülen Movement but who disliked Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party because they see a big threat to secularism, also joined the failed coup.
I mentioned that at 4 p.m. there was a leak of information from the military to the national intelligence agency about a coup coming that night. We don’t know what happened between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. We have no idea, and nobody is saying anything. The president says that he didn’t know anything, that he heard about the coup from his brother-in-law, which is amazing and which is not really believable. What I believe is that between 4 and 10 p.m. there were negotiations, and I believe some of the generals turned and supported the constitutional government after all.
MPN: What is the status of all those who were detained after the failed coup attempt? Will they be at risk of facing the death penalty?
BL: Turkey removed the death penalty in the late 1990s, so there is no death penalty, and even though they are talking about bringing it back potentially, if you look at the law they cannot really apply the death penalty to these people if they follow the constitution, because the law which applies is that which was in force on the day of the crime. When they committed the crime and tried the coup against the government, there was no death penalty in the country. And even if they change the law and bring the death penalty back, it would not work retroactively. I think they only say that to provoke people. So I don’t think the death penalty will come back, or it’ll come back but I don’t think it will be applied against these people that are being detained. Or, of course, if [the government] doesn’t want to follow the constitution they can do anything, but I’m just talking within the framework of believing that the government will follow the constitutional system in the end.
About their status, they are being detained but it’s not over yet. The problem is, there is a systematic purge from the bureaucracy, the military, the judicial system, the education system. Thousands of people have been fired, some have been detained, so there is a systematic purge. What we don’t know is that if the government is really going after the people that they know or they have evidence that these people were part of the Gülen Movement and were involved in the coup, or if they’re basically using this as an excuse to fire anyone that they dislike. This failed coup attempt, as I said before, has given Erdogan the upper hand. He’s much stronger than he used to be, and he can use this as an excuse to purge anyone he dislikes by saying that they’re involved with the Gülen Movement. And the other thing is, is it enough to be a member of the organization, to be detained, to be imprisoned, to be put on trial if you’re not involved in the coup? These are all questions that are being discussed right now.
MPN: Recently, leaders and members of the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, which is one of Turkey’s main opposition parties, have been detained. Tell us about this government crackdown against the opposition.
BL: It started when the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey, were arrested with alleged links to the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, classified as a terror organization by the United States, European Union, and Turkey] and recently, the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish political party HDP were detained along with other members of parliament from the same party, held in custody for having links to the PKK, which the party denies. Erdogan made sure to lift the immunity of members of parliament, with help from two opposition parties, the People’s Republican Party and the Nationalist Action Party, earlier in 2016. His plan might be to put Kurdish members of parliament in jail, close down the Kurdish party, and then hold early elections. And remember that the AKP [Justice and Development Party] always came second in areas that HDP came first, so if they hold early elections with no HDP around or no Kurdish political party around, then they can get the number of seats they need for a supermajority in the parliament, to change the constitutional system to a presidential system, which Erdogan has wanted for a long time.
[Author’s note: It was reported on Jan. 17 that the prosecutor of Diyarbakir has recommended a 142-year prison sentence for HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş and an 83-year prison sentence for the HDP’s other co-chair, Figen Yüksekdağ. Both have been imprisoned since being detained in November 2016.]
MPN: There also seems to be a crackdown underway against certain media outlets in Turkey. What is the status of press and media freedom in Turkey at this time?
BL: The truth is that Turkey has had a press freedom problem for a long time, it’s not just this year or for a couple of years. A big chunk of the problem is that most of the big media outlets in Turkey are branches of huge corporations that are involved in other lines of business, like construction, and these corporations take huge government contracts, so there is always conflict of interest there.
Erdogan has been intervening with the press for a long time now, he basically called media bosses to fire journalists and they complied with them, but now there is only a handful of opposition media outlets. Most of them are online publications, and Erdogan is now taking his crackdown on media to the next step, and as you say, recently, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, one of the last remaining opposition dailies in the country was arrested, along with a number of managers, staff, journalists, and executives, and they are suspected of having connections to either Gülen or to the PKK, according to government officials. We all know that the president has held a grudge against Cumhuriyet for a long time, maybe two years, when they broke the news about some alleged arms smuggling to Syrian rebels. They broke the news about Syria-bound trucks carrying weapons to the Syrian opposition, and Erdogan has held a grudge against Cumhuriyet for a long, long time. And after this time, then it was followed by Turkish authorities shutting down Kurdish news outlets, including the only Kurdish-language newspaper in the country. So, everyone and everything against the government is now being shut down. There is no voice to oppose the government, and because of the state of emergency, the government rules by decree. They are shutting up anyone that they please.
MPN: How is Turkey presently involved in the war in Syria?
BL: The Turkish army has been involved in the conflict against the Islamic State. But Turkey has made clear that the goal is not just fighting ISIS, but also ensuring that Kurdish forces do not expand the territory under their control, and their involvement in the conflict has rekindled relations with Russia that were not great after the jet scandal, when Russia shot one of the Turkish jets over Syria.
Turkey is also toning down the rhetoric toward Assad. Erdogan, for years, has been staunchly against him being in power because Assad is supporting is supporting the Shiites in Syria and Erdogan is supporting the Sunnis, but now we’re seeing that Turkey is stepping down the rhetoric against Assad, they’re softening. If you ask why is Turkey is doing that, Turkey is freaking out about the possibility of a Kurdish state along the Turkish-Syrian border, and it’s a much bigger threat than Assad himself. In fact, the possibility of a Kurdish state in Syrian territory may push Ankara and Damascus to have better relations.
Erdogan acts right now on his belief that the biggest threat is the Iraqi or Syrian Kurdish militia coming together inside the border. Turkey has problems with its own Kurds, and what the government sees as the main threat is the reunification of Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish populations in Syria and Iraq and the possibility of an independent Kurdish state over there. So now they’re fighting ISIS. Turkey wasn’t fighting ISIS for a long time, now they’re fighting ISIS also to keep good relations with the U.S., but also keeping the Kurds at bay. Also, Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds to be the closest U.S. ally — the Syrian Kurds, especially — the most reliable opposition to Assad forces and ally to the U.S., and it is the only, maybe, secular opposition in Syria. It’s multiple nations’ interests and multiple sectarian groups in Syria, it’s a huge mess. Turkey is involved now in the fight against ISIS, but the goal is not just to fight ISIS but also to stop the possibility of an independent Kurdish state in the North Iraq-Syria region, basically the border between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.
MPN: What has been the history of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds?
BL: In the last couple of years, until the last parliamentary elections, Erdogan initiated a peace process with the Kurds for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic. Negotiations started with the PKK, but then seeing that it’s not popular, but also, it’s a bigger story than just Turks and Kurds having a conflict. Erdogan wants to change the constitutional system from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, so he needs votes in the parliament to vote for that. He needs 366 votes, because you need a supermajority to amend the constitutional system.
In the southeast of Turkey, it is the Kurdish political party — it is trying to be a nationwide political party but it is still more regional than national — that is the first party in every district in the southeast. Erdogan’s party comes second, and Erdogan wants all of these votes.
You could say that if [Erdogan] is more sympathetic to the cause he may get more votes, but he doesn’t choose to do that. He chooses to move more to the right, to the nationalist agenda, and what he did was to get the support of other parliamentary parties in Turkey to remove the immunity of members of parliament, which was done toward the Kurdish parliamentarians. He never talked about a plan, but most people believed that what he wanted to do is to remove the immunity of the Kurdish politicians, close the Kurdish party, have parliamentary elections again, and if there was no Kurdish party in the southeast region, the AKP [Justice and Development Party] will get all of the seats over there, will get 366 seats and will change the constitution. So it’s a sort of “conspiracy theory,” with people talking about potential plans by Erdogan, but it’s possible.
In domestic politics, as I said, [Erdogan] moved to the right, he basically said he’s done with the peace process altogether, so basically the armed struggle between the PKK and the Turkish army started again, and that is the status quo we have right now. We came far with the peace process for the last couple of years, and all of a sudden Erdogan said he’s not playing with [the Kurds] anymore and will try something else, and he did all of this.
[Author’s note: On January 21, the Turkish parliament approved a constitutional reform package which would grant unprecedented powers to the executive branch and eliminate the position of prime minister. With snap elections not having been held, the reform passed without a supermajority, but with enough votes to be sent to voters for a referendum, which will be held in April].
MPN: You mentioned the warming of relations between Turkey and Russia. What is the status of relations between Turkey and Israel, and also between Turkey and the United States presently?
BL: Turkey-Israel relations had gone bad after the “Blue Marmara” incident, where a ship was traveling from Turkey to Palestine for humanitarian aid [in 2010], but the Israeli armed forces got on the ship. Israel didn’t want the ship to come but the government sent the ship, and then Israeli armed forces came on the ship and someone died, and the relations got really, really bad. But now, a few months ago, Erdogan made peace with Israel, he even got angry with the people that brought the ship to Israel, saying that, “I was the prime minister at the time and nobody asked me about it,” so he denied that he was the one that sent the ship to Palestine. So relations with Israel are good right now.
With Russia, Turkey had tensions with the jet that was shot by Russians over Syria, for which Erdogan demanded an apology. He was very hawkish, but then, within the context of the Syrian conflict, the relations with Russia have been rekindled, where the Turkish army has been involved in the conflict with the Islamic State. Turkey, for a while now, has been getting closer to Russia and China. Turkey has been a U.S. ally forever, it’s a NATO ally, but I’m thinking they want to have more bargaining power, showing the U.S. that there are alternatives.
Now, a possible tension with the U.S. could also come from Fethullah Gülen himself. He’s living in the U.S., in Pennsylvania, and Turkey wants the U.S. to give him back, and sent the U.S. boxes of evidence about him being involved in this coup. We, of course, don’t know what kind of evidence Turkey is sending to the U.S. The U.S. authorities said that they would examine the evidence, but it could take not just months but years to go over the evidence and come to a conclusion. But Turkey is impatient to have Gülen back and to put him on trial, so it is another potential point of tension with the U.S. And another thing, of course, the relationship between the U.S. and the Kurds in Syria. As I said, the Syrian Kurds have been the most dependable, reliable opposition for the U.S. in the area, and Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds and the U.S. to have the best relations.
MPN: In the past year, there has been an increasing incidence of terrorist attacks in Turkey. Is the Erdogan government using these terrorist attacks as a pretext to rule by decree and to crack down on the media and the opposition?
BL: A state of emergency has been declared after the failed coup attempt on July 15, but of course, all of these attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, and other places, some of them PKK has said it has been responsible for, and for some of them it hasn’t, so we don’t know who is responsible for every attack because ISIS could also be responsible for some of the attacks around the country
[Author’s note: ISIS has, for instance, claimed responsibility for an attack on an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve].
Erdogan, at some point, started negotiations with the Kurds, but then he saw an opportunity in building a coalition with the nationalists in the country, the nationalist right, to reach his goal of this presidential system, and all of a sudden he’s started to say there is no Kurdish problem in this country, we only have a terrorism problem, so he denies even the existence of a Kurdish problem in the country, and this is how PKK responded, with the attacks.
Now that the HDP politicians are under arrest, Erdogan is leaving no way for Kurds to do politics within legitimate means or doing something for their calls for more rights for the Kurdish population in the southeast. I don’t know how things will unfold in the next days, weeks, or months. There could be more attacks.
MPN: How do you view the recent agreement between the EU and Turkey regarding the refugee-migrant issue?
BL: Erdogan is lucky, that’s what I would say. Turkey has more than 2 million refugees living in the country right now, and Europe is now paying Turkey not to send in refugees to European countries. There are negotiations, Erdogan is asking for more things, like no visa for Turks traveling in Europe. I don’t know if [the EU] will meet these demands by Erdogan, but the thing is that despite his very authoritarian ways, Europe has chosen to work with him because they also want to solve their own problems, they don’t want the refugees to come since the refugees have proven to be difficult to deal with in many places in Europe and they just want them to stay in Turkey, so they don’t really talk much about the authoritarian ways of Erdogan, which I believe is a bit of luck for him.
MPN: Recently, Erdogan has made a series of controversial statements regarding Greece and the territorial status of the Aegean Sea, disputing, for instance, the validity of the Treaty of Lausanne, in which most of the Aegean islands ended up as a part of Greece. What do you make of these remarks?
BL: I don’t really take it very seriously. I read an article recently in The New York Times, I think it was an opinion piece where the writer was concerned that Erdogan was saying that we don’t want to accept these borders that we had in the Treaty of Lausanne. I don’t think he’s talking about the western borders at all, I think it’s about the possibility of an independent Kurdish state in the south. I think what he’s trying to say is, if you push for an independent Kurdish state in the south, then we could also do something to change our borders. I don’t take it very seriously in the sense that the Turkish army would, full force, go into these places and do something, but I think he’s trying to make the point that Turkish borders that were decided by the Treaty of Lausanne could change in the south.
I think he feels a threat, and he’s saying that we would do something if there was a threat to our borders, so I think it’s more of a defensive remark that he made, but I understand that people were concerned about him, if he would have an interventionist foreign policy. But I would see it as more of a defensive threat.
MPN: Overall, what do you believe Erdogan’s vision is for Turkey and for his own legacy?
BL: With the arrest of the Kurdish politicians, for example, I don’t think they have anything to do with the failed coup or the PKK or anything. I think this was part of a long-term plan. Erdogan wants to have a supermajority in the parliament to be able to change the constitution to a presidential system and to be the president, and we know that he, for example, finds the American presidential system weak and he does not believe in separation of powers, either. What he wants is a presidential system where he controls everything and everyone. I mean, you could say that he’s controlling everything and everyone right now — he is, basically.
There was an article in The Guardian after the Kurdish MPs were detained, saying that Turkey is heading toward a dictatorship. I’m saying that Turkey is not heading toward a dictatorship, it is a dictatorship already, it’s functioning as a dictatorship. But Erdogan, by law, is in a position that should be neutral and doesn’t really have a lot of power, because it’s not a presidential system. So he really wants a presidential system where he will be the president and he will control everything and everyone in the country. And he’s smart, in the way that he knows that someday, one of his competitors from another party may get elected president. So to eliminate that possibility, he’s systematically trying to transform the country. He’s started, for example, with the educational system, by bringing in more religious classes. He’s trying to make sure that the capital has been changing hands from secular to conservative businessmen from big government contracts. And of course, strictly controlling the media so that no opposition can really voice its opinion. What I think is, he wants to make Turkey a country where his political views and his legacy will live, even after his time.