Don’t lose the plot

Date posted: August 28, 2016

How to manage relations with NATO’s most awkward member

IT IS hard to dissuade people from believing conspiracy theories, especially when there really has been a conspiracy. The attempted coup in Turkey on July 15th involved thousands of members of the armed forces. Encouraged by their government, many Turks seem to believe that the West—in particular America—had a hand in it. Relations have soured and Turkey has taken to demanding that Western countries demonstrate they are on its side. Turkey is a NATO ally and, notwithstanding a spate of recent terrorist attacks, a bastion of relative stability in a region racked by war. Western countries want to keep it that way. This week America’s vice-president, Joe Biden, visited Ankara as a gesture of goodwill. Beyond his offer of soothing words (see article), what more should the West do?

Tone it down

Turkey’s attempted coup shocked an already tense society. At least 240 people were killed, and the country narrowly averted a disastrous military takeover. The plot was led in part by followers of the Gulen movement, a secretive Muslim sect that runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses and has infiltrated the Turkish state. It is only natural that Turks should be determined to identify and punish the conspirators.

Yet rather than focus on those directly involved, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a vast crackdown on anyone with Gulenist ties, as well as on other opponents of his governing Justice and Development (AK) party. Over 80,000 people, including judges, businesspeople, journalists and academics, have been purged. Mr Erdogan speaks darkly of a “higher mind” directing both the coup and the other threats Turkey faces, including an insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bombings carried out by Islamic State (IS). The purges have enormous support, even among secular Turks who oppose Mr Erdogan’s Islamist policies.

Mindful of Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian bent, Western leaders tempered condemnation of the mutiny with warnings against the ensuing crackdown even as Turks were celebrating the survival of civilian rule and voicing fear of the Gulenists. Stung by the criticism, Turkey’s pro-government media have claimed, preposterously, that America must have been behind the coup. Polls suggest that most Turks believe them.

Such paranoia is dangerous, and not only because it could accelerate Turkey’s drift into autocracy. Mr Erdogan has made overtures to Vladimir Putin and hinted at a realignment towards Russia and Iran. He is demanding that America extradite Fethullah Gulen, the inspiration behind the movement, who has been in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999 and whom he accuses of masterminding the plot against him. Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, says extradition is a political test: is America for Turkey or against it?

Turkey likewise wants European governments to help track down Gulenists among their Turkish populations. Turkey also wants progress on granting its citizens visa-free travel to the European Union’s Schengen zone, part of the deal the two sides struck in March to control the flow of Syrian refugees. But that requires Turkey to reform its laws on terrorism, tricky amid a security crackdown. Meanwhile, clashes have broken out in Europe between backers of Mr Gulen and of Mr Erdogan. Anti-Muslim populists have exploited the tensions. Austria’s chancellor has demanded that Turkey’s accession talks to the EU be halted; Turkey has recalled its ambassador to Vienna.

It is a mess, but two thoughts should guide the West. One is that, just as it wants Turkey to observe the law, so it must follow due process itself. Extradition is a matter for the judiciary, not for politicians or intelligence agencies. If Turkey can provide solid evidence against Mr Gulen that was not collected under duress, he should be extradited; if not, then he should remain in Pennsylvania. Similarly, Europe should honour its promises. If Turkey brings its terrorism laws into line with EU standards and meets the other conditions in the migrant deal, its people should be granted visa-free travel. Until it does, however, the EU should wait.

Second, the West should cleave to its principles, urging Mr Erdogan to seek pluralism and strong institutions rather than an all-powerful presidency. Instead of attempting to bolster his position with ethnic Turks by stirring up antipathy towards the Kurds, Mr Erdogan should return to the search for peace.

Turkey allied to Iran and Russia, rather than NATO, would be weaker. Even as Mr Biden was visiting Ankara, Turkish forces were entering Syria under NATO air cover to attack the jihadists of IS (see article). Russia could not provide the same support. The truth is, Turkey needs the West and the West needs Turkey, no matter how infuriating its leader.

Source: The Economist , Aug 27th 2016

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