The EU, NATO and Russia: Erdogan’s Show of Force

The Austrian chancellor says he will block the opening of new chapters on the issue of Turkish accession to the European Union. Berlin insists “coup plotters be punished within the rule of law.” Turkish head of state is en route to Russia.

The expected came to pass: A massive Turkish demonstration, throughout the afternoon and evening, made up of members of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and non-Kurdish opposition—three million participants, according to pro-government news outlets, or, as others have it, more than one million—joined together at a mass “Democracy and Martyrs” rally in Istanbul. With the Turkish people at his feet and the crowds united under the same banner, Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized the moment to repeat “if the Turkish public want the death penalty… then political parties will follow their will.”

His rhetoric is expected to go no further than this, initially. For the moment, at least, the Turkish president is riding the wave of nationalism rippling throughout the entire country. This wave, he hopes, will both spread and strengthen. Whenever he can, Erdogan now speaks of reinstating the death penalty in order to hang those suspected of involvement in the attempted coup d’état that took place on July 15. Yet, while justice may be coming under fire in Turkey, coup participants can never be condemned to death, as the death penalty was not in force at the time of the crime.

Even as Erdogan rides this post-coup wave, the European Union has reiterated that the death penalty, abolished in 2004, is incompatible with Turkey’s aim to accede to the EU. This ascension process, it should be remembered, had been dying until Brussels decided it needed Ankara to slow down the flow of millions of refugees arriving along the Greek Coast and to take back millions already in Greece. Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said on Monday that Turkey “is moving away from Europe,” adding that “what is happening there is not compatible with European fundamental values.”

“I have a seat and a vote in the (EU) foreign ministers’ council. There the question is whether new negotiation chapters will be opened with Turkey, and I am against it,” said Kern.

Hours after the massive rally in Istanbul on Sunday, other European leaders commented on President Erdogan’s pronouncements, someone who is also the ex-Turkish prime minister and strongman of the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, in power since 2002. Following a visit to the parliament in Ankara, which had been bombed by coup plotters, Markus Ederer, the secretary of state to the German Federal Ministry for European Affairs in Berlin, insisted that “coup plotters be punished within the rule of law.” Sunday’s rally, it should also be mentioned, should have marked the end of appeals by Erdogan to mobilize the public, following three weeks of demonstrations, but no—Erdogan is hoping for yet another such climatic event to occur on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, where many of the loudest voices critical of Erdogan’s post-coup reaction have emerged, Ederer acknowledged, “If this attempt had been successful, that would have been a disaster for Turkey, Germany and the region.” Erdogan, it is interesting to note, had been banned from addressing a Turkish demonstration via video in Cologne on Aug. 1. Ederer elaborated further that what is essential “is that criminal investigations be conducted in accordance with European Union, Council of Europe and OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] standards.”

The Turkish people, the party in power, the opposition, analysts and academics are pointing their finger at the movement associated with Imam Fethullah Gülen, a moderate preacher living in the United States that was an important ally to AKP during the years when the party was consolidating its power. In the time since the failed coup, 60,000 Turkish have been removed from public office, including bureaucrats, doctors, judges and professors, for alleged sympathies toward Gülen. More than 10,000 people have also been detained, including dozens of journalists, who face severe allegations.

Organizations like Amnesty International, meanwhile, have remained resolute that detainees are being subjected to torture and are being left in want of food and drink. Many detainees don’t even know what they have been accused of until they arrive at their tribunal, which can last 30 days, according to the declared state of emergency. Almost none are able to elect legal counsel of their own choosing, as access to defense is being limited. Calculations made, Erdogan and the AKP have seized upon the chance to silence remaining critics, while also taking advantage of the nationalistic, warmongering rhetoric, which has been exacerbated by the 239 deaths that occurred on July 15, the majority of whom were civilians that came out to face down the tanks and the military. This has had a polarizing effect on society and has given rise to vigilante groups, which have attacked suspects, suspects’ family members and lawyers, or even, more simply, those that are different.

Making Choices

In the face of this scenario, many within the EU now believe that Turkey should be most certainly excluded from the union. Yet, there are also those who maintain that such blusterous pronouncements, on the part of Erdogan, are merely the product of a fearful authoritarian leader, who had seen that he was about to be ousted from power, and are therefore only temporary.

It doesn’t help matters that Gülen is currently in Pennsylvania or that Brussels has been negotiating over the fate of refugees with Erdogan. The United States will have to choose at some point whether it will extradite the religious leader or risk souring relations even further with its ally, which is considered by Washington to be fundamental in the fight against terrorism, primarily in Syria. Europeans, too, are giving in further in order to ensure that fewer people make their way to Europe via the deadly Aegean Sea crossing.

What is clear is that Erdogan wasted no time in expressing his gratitude to Russia for its swift condemnation of the attempted coup. Nor did he waste time in extending this gratitude directly to Vladimir Putin himself via a telephone call in which the two expressed solidarity. This call comes after months of tense relations since November, when the Turkish military destroyed a Russian combat plane along the Turkish-Syrian border. On Tuesday, his Russian counterpart will receive Erdogan, whose country has the second largest military in NATO, in St. Petersburg.

Erdogan affirms that he will be visiting “a friend” and inaugurating “a new page” in relations between the two countries, which have been habitual rivals in dispute over influence in the Black Sea and in the Middle East. As a sign of Turkish goodwill, even at a time when newspapers are being closed nearly on a daily basis, Ankara unblocked the Russian website Sputnik, which had been censored in April.

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