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Has Turkey's Europeanisation come to a halt?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: World Economic Forum
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: World Economic Forum

A widely shared view today is that just as the accession negotiations with the EU opened in 2005 Turkey stopped reforming.

Coming on the heels of the decision to award Turkey EU candidate status, the period between 2001 and 2005 has come to be known as "the golden years" of Turkey-EU relations. It was during that time that Turkey adopted a string of impressive democratic reforms, part and parcel of what experts have called the country's "silent revolution". The reform effort kicked into high gear after the 2002 elections, which saw the newly-formed AKP (Justice and Development Party) form Turkey's first single-party government in more than twenty years.

In 2005, however, just as the accession negotiations with the EU opened, the mood began to change. Talks with the EU began to sputter, and the torrent of legislation pushed through parliament in previous years turned to a trickle. At the same time, Turkey experienced a wave of attacks against minorities, numerous attempts by radical nationalist groups to silence critical writers through the use of the Penal Code (art. 301), a number of assassinations (including one carried out by members of the Turkish gendarmerie in 2005 in the majority-Kurdish town of Semdinli), and a return to violence in the country's southeast. (See ESI's 2008 Briefing: Turkey's Dark Side: Party closures, conspiracies and the future of democracy.)

Amanda Paul, Analyst at the
European Policy Centre in Brussels

This has fed the belief that Turkey's reform process has lost momentum. As Olli Rehn told the European Parliament in 2009, "We have unfortunately witnessed a certain slowdown of political reforms in Turkey in recent years." "The reality is Turkey hasn't done much more than deliver lip service to the EU for a considerable length of time," Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), told EurActiv in November 2008. Other than circumscribing the power of the military, "an institution which [it] has always regarded as its most formidable political opponent," wrote Istanbul-based British author Gareth Jenkins in 2009, "the AKP has made virtually no attempt to address any of the concerns listed in the [EU] Progress Report … Their main concern is no longer to move the accession process forward; it is simply to keep it alive."

Turkey's transformation has not stopped, however. While fewer reforms have been passed, the process of political change, rather than "slowing down" after 2005, has shifted from a phase of legislating to a phase of partisan struggle over the meaning of the earlier reforms.

The first phase had been relatively smooth and strikingly consensual, with the government, the parliamentary opposition and the military leadership largely in agreement as to the goal of opening EU accession talks. However, even then the reforms carried out were incomplete. As observers warned (rightly), limits on free speech had not been altered – it was only the penalties that were made less harsh.

ChurchofSaintGeorge.jpg Church of Saint George
St George's church in Istanbul, home to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate

The second phase, however, has been deeply political and everything but smooth. Here, civil society, political parties and independent media – all of them empowered by the first wave of reforms – have become ever more important, while the EU's direct influence has become less apparent. sationEuropeanisation has turned into a domestic affair, fought over by domestic interests. Any serious reform takes time to take root: it involves not merely new legislation but changes in popular (and elite) attitudes. The EU reforms in Turkey were supposed to bring an end to a decades-long tradition of military tutelage. They were designed to encourage Turkish governments to tackle the many outstanding taboo issues of Turkish politics, including policies towards its Christian and Kurdish citizens. They required real shifts in power. They were bound to generate friction.

After 2005, Turkey's previous legislative reforms were put to a stress test. It was one thing for the government to affirm that authority had moved from the military to the civilian authorities – or to legislate greater tolerance for the Kurdish language – and quite another to defend such far-reaching changes in the face of increasingly determined opposition. It was one thing to assert that the parliament should control and the auditors audit military spending, and another to actually do it in the face of determined opposition from the army. It was one thing to declare Turkey a European democracy, and another to persecute military authorities prepared to carry out new interventions. As the Independent Commission on Turkey noted in a recent report, "from 2007 onwards, the ruling AKP had to fight off multiple challenges from an ad hoc coalition of old guard opponents including the military, parts of the judiciary and the main opposition Republican People's Party."

And yet, on some of the most important structural problems of Turkish democracy it was in the period since 2005 that real breakthroughs occurred. Yasemin Congar, editor in chief of the daily Taraf, told ESI in 2008 how the EU process empowered Turkey's reformers, both in government and in society:

"If Turkey wants to keep changing, and wants to keep becoming a more liberal and democratic society, we need that symbol of the EU … The military is still a taboo, but now we are criticizing it, we are discussing it. We can tell the military to get out of politics and to do its job, and yes, we might be tried for it, but still we are doing it. And self-censorship on these issues is less and less powerful. That's very important."

The role and position of the armed forces is only one of the many taboo issues which have been tackled over the past few years. The fate of Turkey's Armenian minority, past and present, is another. In November 2008 a group of intellectuals launched a signature campaign apologizing for the mass killing of Armenians during the "Great Catastrophe" of 1915. More than 30,000 Turks signed the online petition. It is a sign of the times that several liberal journalists and academics have begun to defy state doctrine by referring to the events of 1915 as genocide. (See ESI's 2008 report: Noah's Dove Returns. Armenia, Turkey and the Debate on Genocide.)

In January 2009, Turkish state television (TRT) launched the country's first Kurdish-language TV channel – something unthinkable just a few years ago. The government lifted private radio and television restrictions on broadcasting in languages other than Turkish, allowing 24-hour programming in Kurdish, Arabic, Georgian or Circassian. (To date, 14 TV and radio stations have received a license to broadcast in Kurdish, Zaza and Arabic.) This academic year, the University of Mardin inaugurated a faculty of "living languages", under which Kurdish courses are given. The government also launched an institutional dialogue with representatives of the Alevi community, highlighted by President Abdullah Gul's visit to an Alevi prayer house (cemevi), the first by a Turkish president since Ataturk. 

In August 2010 Turkey allowed an Orthodox religious service to be held at the Sumela Monastery in Trabzon, the first in nearly a century. A month later, it cleared the way for Armenian Christians to hold a service at the historic Akhtamar Church near Van, in Eastern Turkey. The government also organised periodic high level meetings with non-Muslim communities to address the problems facing them.

Sumela Monasery. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

As the press officer of the Greek patriarchate, Father Dositeos, told ESI during a meeting in March 2010, no Turkish government had ever before solicited the advice of minority groups as regularly on their various concerns. In parliamentary debates there was open discussion about crimes committed by the Turkish state in the past, from the massacres against Alevi Kurds in Tunceli in the 1930s to the pressures against Istanbul Greeks in the 1950s. "They have chased members of various ethnicities out of this country," Prime Minister Erdogan said, referring to Turkey's Christians, during a speech in the Central Anatolian town of Duzce in May 2009. "What have we gained? This was a result of a fascistic mentality."

Last but not least, on 12 September 2010 – the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 military coup – an impressive 77 percent of Turks turned out to vote in a referendum on a government-sponsored package of constitutional amendments. With 58 percent of the vote, the "yes" side prevailed. In doing so, it has embraced changes that will allow civilian courts to try military personnel (and prevent military courts from trying civilians), give parliament a greater say in appointing judges, remove the immunity enjoyed by the leaders of the 1980 coup, establish the institution of ombudsman to deal with problems between state institutions and citizens, and allow civil servants to go on strike. (According to an EU official, the Turkish side is said to have consulted Brussels "systematically" during the drafting of the latest batch of judicial reforms.)

As far as the EU perspective is concerned, the significance of the referendum is manifest. Not only are the new changes among those that the EU has demanded from Turkey for years; not only do they pave the way for an entirely new democratic constitution to replace the one bequeathed to Turks by the military leadership in 1982; not only do they show that the pro-reform constituency in Turkey still reaches across party lines: just as importantly, they prove, just as the other examples cited above, that the Turkish reform process is far from running out of steam.

Much remains to be done; much could have happened earlier; and in some areas (particularly in the field of freedom of expression, as measured by the number of journalists in court) there are setbacks compared to 2005. Yet the sequence of events does not suggest a reform process that has stalled. Turkey's transformation did not stop in 2005; the process of political change, rather than slowing down, has shifted from a phase of legislating to a phase of intense struggle over the very meaning of earlier reforms.

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