In a corner of Istanbul’s famous Istiklal avenue one cold January evening, a small café slowly filled up with smoke from the shisha water pipes and the excited shouting of smokers watching the Real Madrid game one Saturday night. Signs nearby were in Arabic instead of Turkish while conversations were in Turkish intermingled with Arabic.
Many of those in the café drinking and serving Turkish tea were Syrian, some refugees and some who had moved to Istanbul prior to the civil war. The scene was an example of how hundreds of thousands of Syrians had settled in Turkey and found a welcome home in the country. But nearby in Taksim Square were hungry Syrian women and children desperate for money, waiting in the cold for the kindness of strangers.
Turkey is home to more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees with government officials putting the figure as high as 2.7 million. Many have left the country searching for a better life in Europe but now as Macedonia shuts its border with Greece, thousands are stuck in cold and damp conditions described by charities as inhumane.
Last year, 1.2 million migrants came to Europe including more than 362,000 Syrians who fled the Assad regime or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Despite the welcome Turkey has given to Syrians, it is a country in the middle of its own conflict, at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist rebel group created more than three decades ago seeking Kurdish autonomy from Turkey.
At the weekend, 37 people were killed during a terror attack blamed on PKK members but claimed by another Kurdish militant group. The car bomb exploded at a bus stop in the heart of Ankara and was the second bombing in the city within a month.
Meanwhile, the renewed conflict in the south-east between the PKK and state rages on with no end in sight and hundreds killed after the collapse of the two-year ceasefire.
The country is more polarised than ever and civil society is under attack. Critical voices in the media have been shut down in recent weeks as newspaper and media organisations’ offices are raided by riot police using water cannon and tear gas. Some academics find themselves criminalised for signing a letter calling for state violence against Kurds to end and accused of supporting terrorism.
Once admired and adored in the West, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, is now accused of moving Turkey away from liberal democracy towards authoritarianism as he tries to create an executive presidency with him at the helm. He has been described as an Islamist autocrat having upset many of Turkey’s liberals and Kurds with his heavy-handed actions including curfews and sending military forces into areas in the south-east.
Turkey is moving towards a more restrictive environment in terms of press freedom, human rights and democracy
-Fadi Hakura, Chatham House
In the West, Mr Erdogan has been accused for months of ignoring the Isil threat and allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria more easily than they should have been. Faced with such criticism, Turkey urged other governments at the time to share intelligence on foreign fighters to tackle the problem.
Despite this, the European Union could agree on Thursday to give Mr Erdogan and his government €6 billion (£4.7 billion) for Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as allowing 75 million Turks to travel to Schengen area countries visa free as early as June. In the outlines of a deal agreed last week, Brussels also said it would open five chapters into Turkey’s long neglected EU accession process.
But misgivings over Mr Erdogan and Turkey’s human rights record persist and whether the EU should forge a deal with a demagogue who this week said he wanted to redefine terrorism to include supporters, such as journalists, politicians or activists. Exactly who is the EU dealing with?
Sultan Erdogan: Neo-Islamist dictator or strong leader?
An oft-quoted remark by Mr Erdogan was one from 2003, more than a year after the party he co-founded first came to power: “Democracy is like a train: We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.” Many of his critics cite this as an example of Mr Erdogan’s early autocratic tendencies hidden until now.
Elected in 2001 after co-founding the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in August of that year, Mr Erdogan became prime minister in early 2002. In the first few years of his rule, he was hailed as the politician to bring Turkey’s more conservative central heartlands to the front politically.
But a storm was brewing against the moderate Islamist party when in May 2013, environmental protests against construction on a park in Istanbul led to mass anti-government demonstrations for months. The crisis was long simmering as many liberals, conservatives and secularists were concerned by the government’s plans for abortion changes which campaigners argued would make it harder to access while tougher alcohol laws were passed.
For example, shops could no longer sell alcohol between 10pm and 6am or display it in windows.
But it would be wrong to characterise the protests as Islamists against secularists because many Muslims and conservative individuals came out in support of stopping the Gezi development in Taksim, Istanbul, and government.
When asked what the government thought of Mr Erdogan’s description as a sultan in Western media often, a senior Turkish official said: “There are a lot of people in the United States who would like to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim socialist.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands inside the new Ak Saray presidential palace
Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands inside the new Ak Saray presidential palace (White Palace) on the outskirts of Ankara, Turkey Photo: AFP/Getty
Still a vote-winner
Yet despite this criticism, Mr Erdogan managed to win 52 per cent of the vote in August 2014 to become the country’s first directly-elected president. For some in Turkey, his time as prime minister saw Turkey develop at speed economically with greater opportunities for higher education across the country.
But corruption investigations into three government ministers – later dropped – and a falling out with a very powerful Islamic preacher wounded Mr Erdogan further, but it did not destroy popular support.
After the recent development of the 1,000-room palace where he has welcomed guests with warriors, there was an increase in Ottoman sultan comparisons. More than 1,800 cases have been opened against people accused of insulting the president and he has been more partisan than the role allows.
The president should be “above politics” but ahead of the general election in June last year, Mr Erdogan overtly campaigned at rallies for the AKP.
‘Erdogan miscalculated in Syria’
Turkey has suffered several terror attacks in the last nine months across the country in southern Turkey and in the country’s most significant cities: Ankara and Istanbul. In October last year, 103 people were killed in the country’s worst terror attack in modern history. Isil-linked bombers were blamed.
Fadi Hakura, Chatham House associate fellow, blamed Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy stance for Turkey’s current instability.
“There is no doubt that Turkey’s becoming increasingly less stable and more insecure compared to just a few years ago. It is fair to say that unfortunately these incidents [attacks] will happen again.
“President Erdogan’s ideological and uncompromising stance on foreign policy has placed Turkey at the centre of the sectarian and ethnic chasms that are tearing the region apart.”
Mr Hakura added that the president miscalculated events in Syria. “He jettisoned Turkey’s traditional balanced and flexible foreign policy in favour of a much more ideological stance, picking sides in a very, very complex conflict.”
In 2011, then-foreign minister and current prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, said that Turkey would endeavour to have “zero problems with neighbours” forging closer political and economic ties in the region.
Turkey would re-engage with the Middle East but this was a short-lived policy post the Arab Spring when Turkey fell out with Egypt’s military regime after the coup during which Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood president, was removed in June 2013. Since then, Turkey’s “zero problems” policy has shattered with Mr Erdogan clearly taking a side against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
But his bold approach to picking friends and enemies has won plenty of plaudits in the Middle East. The latest country to feel Erdogan’s ire is Russia. Relations with the Kremlin have soured dramatically after Ankara shot down a warplane that it claims violated its airspace in November last year.
Soon after, Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of stabbing him in the back over the shooting down and sanctions have since been placed on Turkish goods.
Journalists and academics under attack
Within the space of only a few weeks, two media companies linked to an ally-turned-foe were seized by the courts and appointed administrators.
The headquarters of both Koza Ipek and Feza were then stormed by police officers as protesters were outside demonstrating against the authorities’ actions.
Feza Gazetecilik media, the parent company of the popular bestselling daily Zaman, was seized only a few days before the first EU summit earlier this month. Water cannon and tear gas were used against the supporters outside and within hours, court-appointed trustees had sacked the editor-in-chief and the chief columnist.
These actions are part of Turkey’s adoption of “more restrictions on media freedoms”, Mr Hakura said, adding that the pressure on the media has been there for the last five years.
“Turkey is moving towards a more restrictive environment in terms of press freedom, human rights and democracy,” the associate fellow said as he claimed that Turkey has never enjoyed a truly democratic system of governance.
An official denied that press freedom was an issue in Turkey. “In many cases, the Turkish authorities are taking measures akin to those taken by the British government against The Guardian and others. Getting paid by a media organisation does not grant one with immunity from the law.
“The vast majority of Turkish media organisations are critical of many government policies. But press freedom isn’t freedom to condone acts of terrorism like the suicide attack in Ankara.”
And for many, the authorities’ actions against Feza and Koza are part of the fight against a “parallel state” they claim is run by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher in self-exile in the US. He was once allies with Mr Erdogan’s AKP but after the Gezi protests, the two men disagreed on the state’s reaction.
Demonstrators use fireworks against riot police during an anti-government protest in central Istanbul
Demonstrators use fireworks against riot police during an anti-government protest in central Istanbul in December 2013
Mr Gulen is the head of the Hizmet “Service” Movement which promotes a “softer”, more tolerant variant of spiritual Islam and the media organisations are linked to the movement.
Mr Erdogan and other government figures accuse Mr Gulen of plotting to overthrow the current administration. Mr Gulen denies this and his supporters deny running a parallel state.
Turkey’s relationship with the EU: It’s complicated
In the 2000s, Turkey and the EU’s warm embrace grew stronger as chapters for Ankara entering the union were opened and discussions continued. But Turkish citizens have a mixed view of the EU. On the whole, in the early noughties, many wanted to join the EU but by July 2006, polls showed support for the EU was as low as 43 per cent. In January of that year, it was as high as 60 per cent.
Now, after more than two years, a new chapter in Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession negotiations were opened in December last year after Mehmet Simsek visited Brussels. The Turkish deputy prime minister’s visit came weeks after the first EU-Turkey deal was agreed in which the latter would receive €3 billion (£2.3 billion) to stop refugees fleeing its western borders.
Although its current conflict and record on human rights mean that accession is a long, long way off, Mr Simsek told the Telegraph in January that Turkey needed Europe “to complete our economic, political and social transformation”.
“EU needs Turkey because Turkey is such a vibrant, dynamic economy but EU could easily be a source of inspiration in addressing most problems in that [Middle East] neighbourhood.”
He insisted that Turkey was trying to work towards more democracy and the rule of law.
“We’re trying to solve our problems, whether it’s ethnic or economic, through more democracy, more fundamental rights and freedoms within the rule of law which is not easy but we have tried and we continue to see things along that line,” the former finance minister said in an interview in Ankara.
Many now hope that continued talks between Ankara and Brussels could help Turkish democracy remain on track.
The conflict in the south-east
According to the Turkish government, the two threats that Turkey faces are Isil and the Kurdish militant group, the PKK who have perpetrated attacks on Turkish soil.
Turkey has 15 million Kurds and their human rights have been frequently trampled upon by previous Turkish governments. For many, it is often lamented that the AKP’s good work on the Kurdish issue has been ruined by the collapse of the ceasefire and the descent into conflict in the south-east.
For example, in September 2013, Mr Erdogan said towns could use their Kurdish names rather than their Turkish as well as encouraging education in Kurdish. Although they were criticised as not going far enough, after three decades of civil war and up to 40,000, it was a welcome move forward.
However, after the Suruc attack in southern Turkey by an Isil-linked suicide bomber killed 33 Kurdish majority activists, the ceasefire between the PKK and the state collapsed. Two policeman were killed while sleeping by the group and in retaliation, Ankara launched air strikes at PKK’s base in Qandil. The violence worsened last year with curfews in south-eastern cities such as Sur and Sirnak.
In mid-December, the armed forces launched a military operation against young Kurdish fighters in urban areas, some of whom declared the areas autonomous areas. Hundreds of militants and civilians as well as military personnel and police officers have been killed.
Despite government claims that it is fighting terrorists, Amnesty International said curfews imposed amounted to “collective punishment”.
“Cuts to water and electricity supplies combined with the dangers of accessing food and medical care while under fire are having a devastating effect on residents, and the situation is likely to get worse, fast, if this isn’t addressed,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia earlier this year.
But a senior official insisted that the Turkish government was attacking the PKK and not the Kurdish community as a whole. “There is no Kurdish terrorism or Kurdish threat in Turkey. PKK’s return to violence was received very negatively by Turkey’s Kurds.”
The official added: “Over the past 15 years, when the Turkish economy performed extremely well, the PKK were targeting civilians and the security forces. The two-year ceasefire (from 2013) resulted from President Erdogan’s initiative and ended with the organisation’s decision to return to violence.”
On the precipice
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said on Wednesday that a deal had to be done with Turkey to solve the refugee crisis. The situation on the ground proves that the German leader is right. It is a country which has a border with Europe, the Syrians that wash ashore on Greek beaches come from Turkey and the EU has a duty to support Ankara and the refugees in need of safe shelter, education and much more.
But as Europe continues to negotiate into the night on Thursday over the new proposals, Brussels should remember that it is asking a lot of Turkey. Ankara may be blackmailing Europe, according to Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, but Brussels is asking Turkey to keep millions inside its borders despite its own domestic issues and a flagging economy.
Turkey needs Europe and Europe needs Turkey, says Mr Simsek
Nonetheless, fears grow over the heavy handed actions against critical media organisations and academics who find themselves arrested, accused of supporting terrorism because they signed a letter calling for an end to the violence in the south-east.
In the shisha café that cold Saturday night, most conversations turned to Istanbul’s never-ending construction boom and the relief that the snow had disappeared. But the excited atmosphere was a fragile one.
Just a couple of hours after the game ended, a fight broke out between a group of young Turkish and Syrian men. It was easily resolved but a reminder that even in the popular parts of town, the tension that persists in the rest of the country and region is never far away.