February 16, 2015

Turkey ostracized: Cues from Latin America

Abdullah Bozkurt

Chatterbox President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's radical political beliefs -- deeply rooted in political Islamist ideology and a pro-Iranian perspective -- which have unfortunately manifested themselves not only in the official narrative but also in policy decisions, have led to Turkey being ostracized in international fora.

On his way to Turkey from a Latin American visit that covered Colombia, Cuba and Mexico last week, Erdoğan made clear that he does not care about being a pariah leader globally at all as long as he can survive the domestic politics back home. That is the clearest public admission yet by Erdoğan that his concerns no longer match the country's interests, as many reasonable voices in the country's foreign policy establishment, business community, intellectuals and opposition parties have expressed grave misgivings about the direction of Turkey, which is becoming indifferent and insensitive to growing regional and international concerns.

The Latin American tour should give observers of Turkish foreign policy a better sense of how Turkey entered into a turbulent era under Erdoğan's authoritarian leadership challenge for the country and how it has become difficult to gauge the veracity of official statements given the policy constraints set up at the highest level.

As if Erdoğan's track record with Latin American countries were not problematic already -- remember his assertion of Muslims' discovery of the Americas before Christopher Columbus, his desire to rebuild a nonexistent mosque on top of a hill in Cuba and abruptly gathering the Latin America Muslim Leaders' Summit without any advance consultation with Latin American countries last year -- he squandered a perfect opportunity to boost ties with leading economies in Latin America last week.

For one, he abused his state visit to Mexico to lash out at US President Barack Obama, with the US being Mexico's giant neighbor to the north with which it has significant trade and diaspora ties. At the Matias Romero Institute, which is affiliated with the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry, Erdoğan harshly criticized Obama for remaining silent about the killings of three Muslims on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina when the probe into the murders was still ongoing.

Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Press Freedom in Turkey
(Click to enlarge)
He continued his outbursts on the way home while speaking to embedded pro-government reporters. Erdoğan said he expects Obama to share details of the investigation into the murders with him just as he shared details of the probe into the suicide bomber attack in February 2013 at the US Embassy in Ankara with the Obama administration. The US Congress was not spared from Erdoğan's habitual scolding. He called the 88 members of Congress who sent a letter of concern to the Obama administration on human rights woes and the press crackdown in Turkey “hired guns” who were doing the bidding of Turkey's enemies in exchange for money.

As if that were not enough, Erdoğan also pulled Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto into the ongoing domestic debate on the presidential system in Turkey for which the Turkish president does not have strong public backing. He claimed that he talked about that at length with Nieto and authorized his spokesman to do some study on the experiences of the presidential system in Mexico.

In other words, Erdoğan, who desires to become an executive president by dropping the century-long parliamentary experience of Turkey in favor of a one-man regime dressed up as a presidential system without checks and balances, used his Mexico visit and a private conversation with President Nieto to shore up fledgling support for his domestic political ambitions.

His assertion of Nieto securing the presidency with the help of the US administration was no doubt a blatant interference into the domestic political affairs of Mexico and is set to trigger a backlash in Mexican domestic politics. It is mind-boggling: What was the point of making that claim to reporters without offering any evidence, and what purpose would it serve anyway? Nobody knows except that it is surely set to trigger a diplomatic crisis with Mexico unnecessarily, right in the aftermath of a state visit that was apparently valued very much by Mexico to improve ties.

His cutting short his visit by one day in Mexico without any reasonable explanation must have also raised eyebrows there. Erdoğan said the additional day was just a touristic schedule and it was senseless for him to stay any longer when everything was arranged in advance by the Mexican side. He even said he took a poll among the embedded reporters, and many wanted to cut the visit short. This is like a poke in the eye for our Mexican friends who had prepared everything in advance in cooperation and acceptance with their Turkish counterparts.

In Colombia, he also ruffled feathers when he said that Turkey should not be buying coal from Colombia, saying that it was valued at $700-800 million. His remarks came after he pitched a $5 billion trade volume target by 2023 from the current $1.4 billion in his speech delivered at the Turkey-Colombia business forum in Bogota.

His contradictory remarks on Colombia reflect his state of mind in which he communicates different messages depending on the audience just to benefit politically at home. The Colombian visit was simply a means to give a facelift to his troubled domestic perception amid corruption and other major wrongdoings.

Erdoğan also exploited his private talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon as well as with Mexican President Nieto by claiming that he had brought up the issue of the "parallel structure" in Turkey -- a great hoax he has instigated in Turkey to scapegoat his legal troubles with corruption that incriminated him and his family members. More than a year has passed since Erdoğan introduced that artificial term into the domestic political debate in Turkey, yet not a single piece of evidence has been presented to prove such a claim that opposition parties describe as simply a distraction and noise to take the focus away from Erdoğan's troubles.

The "parallel structure" is a derogatory term used by Erdoğan to refer to a non-political social movement called Hizmet that was inspired by Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who resides in the US. Since Gülen has been highly critical of corruption in the Turkish government and is strongly opposed to the use of Islam for political goals, he has been targeted by Erdoğan, the chief political Islamist, for some time.

Volunteers who are affiliated with Gülen have also been persecuted by the Erdoğan regime relentlessly as part of a witch-hunt in Turkey. That has extended to overseas as well when Erdoğan attacked the educational, intercultural and interfaith dialogue activities run by people who are affiliated with Gülen, a well-respected Muslim scholar who made it onto Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013 and was at the top of the list of "The World's Top 20 Public Intellectuals" put together by the magazines Foreign Policy and Prospect in 2008.

Erdoğan claimed that when he referred to Hizmet volunteers as "villains" to Calderon and Nieto, they were taken aback and said they would look into the matter. Erdoğan maintained both Calderon and Nieto were on the same page as him. I highly doubt Erdoğan's account of his conversations with foreign leaders on the Gülen issue as Erdoğan is notorious for distorting the content of his talks with world leaders. When he spoke on the phone with Obama on Feb.19, 2014, Erdoğan said he asked for Gülen to be extradited and claimed that Obama responded positively. In an unusual statement, for the first time in Turkish-US relations, the White House rebuked Erdoğan, denying that Obama had agreed with Erdoğan and accused him of misrepresenting the content of the phone conversation with the US president.

The same thing happened during his visit to Ethiopia last month when Erdoğan said he had talked to the Ethiopian leadership about his desire to see schools that are run by Gülen-affiliated volunteers shut down there. He claimed that the Ethiopian leaders looked favorably at his request. It later turned out that the Ethiopian government became rather disturbed about such an incursion into its domestic affairs by a foreign leader who wants to dictate terms as if they are a colonial power. The Ethiopian leaders said they are very happy with the performance of these schools in providing a quality education and creating a pool of human resources with an understanding of the cultures and languages of both countries and as such laying the building blocks for strong ties with people in Turkey.

By exporting his own troubles to other countries, Erdoğan hopes to boost political momentum, which he has been rapidly losing back at home. But in the meantime, he is stirring up more problems and provoking tension with Turkey's partners and allies unnecessarily. His insistence on building a mosque in Cuba is nothing more than a political ploy to feed his core political Islamist supporters at home. That is why he does not mind relegating the whole visit to Cuba to a missionary trip to pitch a mosque project with Cuban officials.

No wonder that Turkey has been so alienated and marginalized from the rest of the world even during the chair of the term presidency of the G-20 under Erdoğan's authoritarian leadership style by treating Turkey's bilateral ties with other countries as an advancement of his radical views. He demands unconditional respect and to be recognized as a self-declared protector and leader of political Islamist movements worldwide. Partly, he was also motivated to create conflicts and divisions to pump up his artificial conspiracy theories involving alleged domestic and foreign enemies in order to rally his political Islamists back at home. Therefore, engagement with such a leader will work no more.

Published on Today's Zaman, 16 February 2015, Monday