By Abraham Thicke
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s all powerful president, is taking his nation on a journey.
That, at least, is what the pro-government media endlessly proclaims. What is less clearly articulated is that the route, expected arrival date, mode of transport and even the destination are constantly changing.
In the early years of AK party rule, Turkey’s goal appeared to be closer integration with the West, in particular with the EU. More recently, this aim has been replaced with aspirations of restoring Turkey’s status to that it enjoyed in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.
The expected arrival date has also been amended. It used to be 2023. But 2023 marks the centenary of the founding of the modxern Turkish Republic, hardly propitious for those yearning to revive imperial glories. Consequently, 2053 and 2071 are increasingly mentioned. These dates are distant, thereby requiring little immediate progress to be made. They are also conveniently auspicious, commemorating important events in Selçuk and Ottoman history.
The vehicle has also changed. Democratic and liberal reforms that once characterized government policy have been erased, replaced by an increasingly totalitarian system. Opposition has effectively been criminalized. No-one believes elections are free and fair anymore. The concept of ‘deviant’ art, notably associated with Nazi Germany, has made a comeback. To liberals, Turkey is hurtling towards profound darkness.
Turkey’s foreign policy is inconsistent and fractious. A programme of zero problems with neighbours has been replaced by problems with all neighbours. The volatility is such that lists of Turkey’s friends and enemies have to be updated on a weekly basis. The only thing that may be said with certainty is that at any given time Turkey will be engaged in a diplomatic crisis with one country or another.
But, for all its haphazardness, there is a pattern to Turkey’s progress. Deciphering it requires understanding both that Turkey is shacked to its leader and that the journey is more Erdoğan’s than Turkey’s.
Many have interpreted the shifting courses Erdoğan has set for Turkey as indicative of a carefully choreographed plan. According to this account, the first stage involved drawing closer to the EU, the aim being to defang the military. Subsequently the real goal, namely turning Turkey into a Sunni equivalent of Iran, could be embarked upon.
But such an analysis still places Turkey at the centre of the journey. An alternative is to assume that Turkey is merely baggage hauled along by a determined owner.
Erdoğan appears, in fact, to be driven more by predatory opportunism than ideological zeal. He is, naturally, fond of proclaiming that everything he does is for his country. Carefully choreographed instances of him picking up fallen Turkish flags, folding them lovely and putting them in his breast pocket are staples of Turkish media. Neither is he shy of revealing his religious devotion. But such acts come at little personal cost. An alternative understanding of his intentions can be gauged by such indicators as the immense wealth his family have accumulated, the steady destruction of institutions he views as personally threatening and his fixation with establishing a presidential system devoid of checks and balances. None of these things benefit Turkey.
It therefore seems Erdoğan is motivated by the accumulation of power for its own sake, rather than to achieve any particular goal.
Furthermore, Erdoğan’s journey appears best understood as nomadic in character. When plotted on a map, nomadic people’s movements appear random, much like the constantly shifting policies that have characterized Turkey’s journey to date. Actually, nomads’ movements are dictated by the availability of unpredictable resources. For desert nomads the critical resource is rain. Long term plans and strategies have no place in a nomad’s life. Everything depends on the rain.
For Erdoğan, the critical resource is power. In an uncertain corner of an increasingly uncertain world, opportunities to consolidate and increase power are as fickle as desert rains. Turkey’s apparently erratic movements may therefore represent the implementation of a series of short term plans, each of which has the same basic aim ― maintaining or increasing Erdoğan’s power.
So what the Turkish media describes as a long march to a particular, though vaguely defined, destination is actually a series of journeys. For Erdoğan, crises are the rain that feeds his power. Spats with nations like Russia, Israel and, more recently, The Netherlands, each of which begins, reaches an apogee and then fades away, simply represent the stages of each separate journey. Under Erdogan, Turkey is condemned to a continual groundhog day, repeating the same journey again and again, disguised by changing landscapes.
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A nomadic existence is essentially precarious. Nomads never know where the next rains will fall. They are always one decision from disaster. The difficulties of the journey can be such that less vital baggage must be discarded along the way. Democratic values are one example. Perhaps, one day Turkey will cross an old path and find them half-buried in the sand. If provisions run short a choice must be made as to which mouths to feed. Liberals, Gülenists and many other groups know what this entails. Given these uncertainties, it is unsurprising that Erdoğan’s outlook is characterized by insecurity, paranoia and superstition. That too is the lot of a nomad.
For a nomad the journey only ends in death. For Turkey, there are several possible endings. Erdoğan may die whilst still in power. Or he may miscalculate. One of his many treks may lead not to rain but to an arid wilderness. In creating one of his endless crises, he may start a fire he cannot put out, one that consumes whatever baggage has not previously been jettisoned. A third ending is also possible, namely that the Turkish electorate see through the headlines and come to believe that the long march is not going anywhere.