Despite Growing Opposition, AKP Remains the Dominant Force in Turkish Politics
Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Cohen Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University
Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
In the past year, Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AKP party have faced mass protests in Istanbul and other major cities, a widely publicized corruption scandal with deep roots in the party leadership, and a backlash over attempts to censor Twitter and other media. Despite these scandals and growing dissatisfaction with his administration, the AKP managed to win a plurality in the most recent municipal elections. CFR's Steven A. Cook and Lehigh University's Henri J. Barkey join Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman to discuss recent events in Turkey and the country's future political trajectory. The panelists warn that Turkey appears to be reversing a two-decade-long trend of democratic reform and becoming increasingly authoritarian.
TEPPERMAN: Well, hello, everyone. And thank you for joining us. I'm Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. This is an on-the-record council meeting on Turkey.
I was going to make a joke about the fact that Twitter has just been unblocked in Turkey and now may have been unblocked to the Council on Foreign Relations as well. And I'm not sure which is the more momentous occasion, but since you have to turn off your phones I guess Turkey is still ahead of us there.
There's so much to talk about given recent events that I'm not going to waste any time setting things up myself. We couldn't have two smarter and more knowledgeable experts here to break down events, recent and less recent, in Turkey for us. So I'm going to introduce them and then dive into about 30 minutes of questions of my own and then open things up to the floor for members.
On my immediate left of course is Henri Barkey, Bernard and Bertha Cohen professor of International Relations at Lehigh. Henri previously served on the state's Department of Policy Planning staff. To his left is Steve Cook, who is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Both of them known to all of you I'm sure, directly or through their many books, op-eds and essays.
Gentlemen, let's start with last week when the AKP performed surprisingly well in these municipal elections in Turkey, holding onto Ankara and Istanbul, 45 percent of the overall vote. And this came despite what must've been the worst year in Erdogan's political life. From the Gezi protest to the corruption scandals to the crackdowns on social media, clamp down on judges, economic turmoil and a January poll that put his personal approval rating at 39 percent.
So the big question that I want to start with, and Henri, why don't you answer first is, how did he and how did the party do it?
BARKEY: Well, I mean the—shall we say the quick or the easy answer is it depends on who you're running against. And unfortunately in Turkey you really do not have much of an opposition. Opposition in the sense that an opposition that can actually generate new ideas, have a plan, suggest alternative policies. And unfortunately in Turkey the opposition is stuck.
The main opposition party, the center left, supposedly center left party, the Republican People's Party has been polling around 25 percent, 26 percent for the last two decades. And they haven't shifted. They haven't changed. In fact in this election if there's any party that did better than before it was neo-fascist the Nationalist Action Party.
In fact, I will dispute a little bit the numbers you gave about the AKP. Those numbers that you said, the 45 percent, 46 percent is actually a little bit inflated. It depends on how you look at the numbers. You can dissect them. But actually the AKP did worse.
AKP being Mr. Erdogan's party, is actually worse, considerably worse than has done before in national elections. There's a slight—there's a decline. They lost about two million votes and compared to the last general election.
So they won, but there's a serious asterirsk. They won. There's no question they won. But they won because the Turkish opposition-- I actually quipped once, I said there was a better opposition party in the Neolithic times probably than now in Turkey.
TEPPERMAN: Steve, would you go so far as to say that this was as much a vote against the opposition as it was for the AKP?
COOK: Well, first of all, thank you. Thank you all for coming this afternoon. I would say that the opposition, as Henri said, is essentially nowhere. They have no vision for Turkey's future. I think that that's part of Turkey's problem.
I also think that Erdogan, since the Gezi Park protest has framed the issue in a way that is extraordinarily cynical and extraordinarily politically effective. And that is that he has said through each one of these political challenges that he has encountered he has said this is the fault of foreign forces.
During the Gezi Park protest it was the interest rate lobby, the Zionists, the bankers lobby. The most recent—the corruption scandal that broke on Dec. 17 this was a dirty scandal that was conducted by a parallel state in cahoots with the United States and other Western powers. In fact, he fingered U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone as orchestrating all of this.
To a core constituency of the AKP, which is larger than most people had suspected, this makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense in the context of a Turkish educational system. It makes a lot of sense in the context of people who have a reason to be paranoid in Turkish society, in Turkish politics.
So that if all of these issues were framed in a way that no one who was going—already predisposed to vote for the AKP, as well as others, were going to accept any culpability on the part of Erdogan or any member of the AKP. It was all this foreign plot.
In addition to the fact...
TEPPERMAN: Hold on. Are you saying that everyone in his base accepted these claims?
COOK: There—in the lead up to the municipal elections that we just had, hundreds of thousands of people coming out to cheer for Prime Minister Erdogan where he gave these kinds of explanations for what happening received extraordinarily well.
Again going back to June when I was in Istanbul during the Gezi Park protest, I went to the big Istanbul rally in support of Erdogan. And this was the kind of stuff. And it has been framed that way ever since.
The last issue I think is important is that with all of these revelations about corruption there was this expectation on the part of outside observers that this would have a dramatic impact on Erdogan. But if you're an average Istanbuli and the AKP candidate is running against the Republican People's Party, the central left party that Henri mentioned who has a reputation for being extraordinarily corrupt.
But the AKP in the previous decade has given you running water, has put money in your pocket, transportation options and health care. There is such a thing called Erdogancare. That all things being equal, you're going to vote for those people rather than the people who didn't care about you or are just kind of sort of left of center elitists who never cared about you and who are just as corrupt.
And I think that's the reason why they tallied as much as they did.
TEPPERMAN: One of the big subplots in the—over the course of the last six months amidst all the controversy, was of course the increasing battle between Erdogan and his former allies in the Hizmet, in the Gulen movement. Has Erdogan won? Or is this battle still very much being waged?
BARKEY: He who laughs last laughs best they say. So I actually don't know yet. I mean if you were to bet at the moment you have to bet on Erdogan because he's a formidable politician. I mean let's face it.
And as Steve said, you know, Erdogancare actually works. And more importantly, the answer to the question are you better off today than you were four years ago, that's also the answer is an absolute positive. People are much, much better off today. It's not necessarily Erdogan's success.
When it comes to the Gulen movement, and just two seconds on the Gulen movement, Gulen—Fethullah Gulen is this religious cleric who happens to live now in Pennsylvania, not far from my work where Lehigh is. And...
TEPPERMAN: Have you had him come speak?
BARKEY: Well, I'll try. Next time...
TEPPERMAN: Henri stops to get instruction.
BARKEY: That's right. That's how people think. That's why I'm at Lehigh.
TEPPERMAN: Of course.
BARKEY: But no, the truth is he's supposed to be charismatic preacher. I don't get the charisma part. I met him once. But...
"But the AKP in the previous decade has given you running water, has put money in your pocket, transportation options and health care—there is such a thing called Erdogancare—that all things being equal, you're going to vote for those people rather than the people who didn't care about you."
TEPPERMAN: But it's not aimed at people like you.
BARKEY: That's true.
But—no, but look, he has a great deal of influence. It's a very smart organization that has business enterprises, newspapers, lots of schools all around, including the United States, including Texas, believe it or not.
But he—people assume that he would be able to carry or have his disciples vote en masse against Erdogan. The truth is we do not know how many followers he has, but it is substantial.
The movement and Erdogan broke with each other sometime over the course of the last couple of years. Those two were close allies. And they were close allies because both were fighting one enemy, and the enemy was the military. The military which in Turkey has, as Steve wrote about, which has interfered in politics all the time.
The military has been defeated. They've been defeated thoroughly. They're no longer a political factor today. Doesn't mean they won't come back. But at the moment they're not.
So once the military was defeated these two groups separated. I think people exaggerate the importance of the Gulen movement. But it was also for Erdogan a very easy foil to blame the corruption investigations and everything that went wrong with them.
So yes, there's been a split between the two. But in fact I think we're realizing that that split is significant. But not as significant as people would think it was.
TEPPERMAN: In part because Erdogan no longer needs the Gulenists the way that he once did when the military was still such a presence?
BARKEY: That's—yes. Well, he thinks he doesn't need the Gulenists.
BARKEY: Now, when you look at election results and you do the analysis of the election results you realize that Erdogan's party lost between the last national elections and now about two million votes.
Whether those two million are Gulenists, I don't know, but he lost two million votes. And when you think about Erdogan's, I'm sure we'll talk about later, ambitions about becoming president, those two million votes become very effective.
But he doesn't think he needs the Gulen movement and he can dispense with it. And I think he may be wrong about that. Not that Gulen movement is strong, but because it was a tent, it was a big coalition. The moment you start kicking people out of the coalition then I think you're in trouble.
TEPPERMAN: Well, you mentioned Erdogan's presidential ambition, so let's just get right to it. Let's fast-forward to August. I want you each to answer quickly or briefly what do you think will happen? And then we can pull back and talk about what the implications of that will be.
So, Steve, what's your prediction?
COOK: There is a lot of smoke going on about Erdogan's presidential ambitions. I will stick to my prediction that I made last spring after the Gezi Park protest that Erdogan remains the prime minister of Turkey.
It is easier to change the bylaws of the Justice and Development Party to allow him to remain in the prime ministry than it is for him to move up to the presidency and reconfigure the powers of the presidency that he'll want to have if he becomes the president. So I say he remains prime minister.
TEPPERMAN: You think he has time to do that, to change the bylaws between now and August?
COOK: He does. The question is whether he feels that time pressure because the presidential elections are coming up. But they can do that relatively quickly.
COOK: It's the easiest path for him and he retains his parliamentary immunity in the process.
TEPPERMAN: Henri, I've been told by people in Turkey that there would actually be quite a bit of opposition within the party to changing the bylaws. Do you think it's as easy as Steve does?
BARKEY: No. Changing the bylaws I think is very easy. That's not a problem. And it is also to the advantage of some people in the party because if the—what are the bylaws?
The bylaws say that you can run in three consecutive elections. Then you have to take one—shall I say one election off before you can become a candidate again.
So Erdogan, who's run three times, and a whole slew of the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party would all have to leave and sit it out for a year. All right, so that's the bylaw of the AKP, of the ruling Justice and Development Party.
But you can change that. I mean it's like Nasser resigning and the next day coming back to par (ph).
I will differ a little bit with Steve. I was—I thought that the presidency was exactly what he was going to go to. But after these elections it's a little bit more problematic. And I will kind of tell you what—I'll give you probabilities.
I think that—I think—I still think he wants to be the president. Now, in Turkey the presidency is more symbolic. The real power is in the prime minister's office.
But you have to understand that Erdogan is a person who not only fills up any vacuum, but every nook and cranny of Turkish politics. He has that kind of personality.
So even if the presidency is not as powerful as the prime ministership, I think the bully pulpit and his control over the party is so intense, immense, that he can still go and be the president without changing the constitution and still exercise an enormous amount of power.
But the thing I mentioned earlier, the fact that the AKP lost two million votes must make him rethink this, one.
Two, the opposition in the party is not – is—there are a number of people in the party who would like the current president, Abdullah Gul, to become the new prime minister. Kind of a Medvedev-Putin thing, except that Gul would have much more power than Medvedev does.
But Prime Minister Erdogan doesn't want Gul to be the new prime minister. But he may not have a choice on that. And that's what he's calculating at the moment.
So, if I were to say the chances are 40 percent he becomes president with Gul as a prime minister, 30 percent president with—I'm sorry, 30 percent Gul remains as president and he remains as prime minister. And a 20 percent chance that he remains—he becomes president and somebody else becomes the prime minister, somebody he can control.
Ideally that's what he wants. He wants to become the president and have some kind of a lackey because Gul would not be his lackey because Gul has his own base in the party. A lackey who will say yes sir and do exactly what the president...
I think those are the odds. So the odds are still in favor of him becoming president.
TEPPERMAN: Now, Gul has, of course, over the last couple of years worked very hard to establish himself—to separate himself from Erdogan and establish himself in the public eye as a more moderate, more market friendly version of an AKP leader, which suggests that he does have some ambition, although the level of his ambition seems unclear.
"I still think he wants to be the president. Now, in Turkey the presidency is more symbolic. The real power is in the prime minister's office. But you have to understand that Erdogan is a person who not only fills up any vacuum, but every nook and cranny of Turkish politics. He has that kind of personality."
What is your sense of his stomach for conflict at this point? Will he go along with whatever Erdogan decides to do?
BARKEY: Well, let me just quibble with your market-friendly description when you said Gul is more market friendly. I think actually Erdogan is very, very market friendly. Although all these markets work to his party's advantage.
The corruption in Turkey is actually—Erdogan's corruption is actually a very interesting type of corruption. We should be very careful.
I mean this is not a guy who wants to buy the biggest yacht, compete with (inaudible) and go to San Tropez and watch people on the beach. Erdogan wants to create an empire in Turkey and abroad.
And all that money that's coming in is used essentially to buy off NGOs, to buy off religious groups, to buy of individual newspapermen, newspaperwomen—newspapers. That's the kind of corruption. Yes there are the former minister of the E.U. (ph) (inaudible). So that's—it's different.
TEPPERMAN: When I speak of market friendliness I'm talking more about Erdogan's excoriation of the international financial community and of the interest rate lobby, and at a time when Turkey's economy is really struggling.
BARKEY: No. I would also disagree. The Turkish economy is not—compared to many other parts of the world, you'd rather be in Turkey than...
TEPPERMAN: What's the current forecast? A 1.3 percent growth rate for 2014?
TEPPERMAN: That's not great.
BARKEY: 4.4 percent for last year. That's not bad.
TEPPERMAN: But the trend line is negative.
BARKEY: No. Let's see. I don't want to (inaudible).
But anyway, the question about—I don't think—I think both of them are market friendly. I don't think excruciating the outside of the phono (ph) is a normal practice in Turkey. So I would not put much stock in that.
He's very—I mean these guys are businessmen, Erdogan especially. He's a businessman of the cause.
TEPPERMAN: So whatever their differences, do you think Gul has the stones to take on Erdogan?
COOK: No. I think that anybody who's met him and listened to what Gul has to say, I think it's fairly clear in that very statesman, diplomatic, Gulian kind of way that he disapproves of the way in which Erdogan has handled politics in Turkey over the course of the last three years, without a doubt.
And I think that there are many, many Turks that are, probably even people within the AKP, who want Gul to take it to Erdogan and take a stand. I don't think he has the guts to do it, to have the fight because Erdogan is one, an amazing, amazing politician. He is I think singular in Turkish politics in history. And we've seen that the Gulen movement has thrown everything it possibly can at the guy and he has won over and over again.
I think that Gul does have a base within the AKP. But everybody within the party who holds a position of—from ministers to parliamentary back benchers essentially owe their position to Erdogan at this point. So he may have people on the outside.
He may have people making that pilgrimage to Cankya Palace and saying please. . But he faces a range of constraints, including this who is going to be his support within the party. Who is going...
In addition, the AKP has been the vehicle for Gul's own success, for the transformation of Turkey. He may not approve of what has happened over the course of the last three years, but there is that fear that has to weigh in his mind that by splitting the AKP if he could that the AKP goes the way of the Motherland Party, and The True Path Party.
Does anybody remember those parties? Those were parties that dominated Turkish politics in the 1980s and 1990s and have drifted into oblivion.
Now, that's not necessarily what would happen to AKP or split AKP overnight. But it would leave this whole project, the Erdogan, Gul, Arinc, all of this vision of Turkey would be vulnerable to its opponents, primarily the Kemalists who have not gone anywhere.
So I think that Gul recognizes that Erdogan has made mistake after mistake after mistake, alienated what had been a broad constituency for the party. But he has no place to go.
BARKEY: And he's risk averse. Gul is very risk averse.
TEPPERMAN: So six months, eight months from now, whatever the particular details, Erdogan remains the man in charge. Where does he take Turkey in the next year or two? Do we see more of the same in terms of turmoil, clampdowns, a constriction of social and civic space? Or does he now relax once he feels his power has been reaffirmed?
BARKEY: I think he won't relax. The reason I say this is because something has changed in Turkey fundamentally in the last eight to nine months, starting with the Gezi protest, but especially after the corruption scandal and these elections. And what is that?
It used to be that you would talk to people, people who absolutely disliked, hated Erdogan and company, but said hey, a, he's legitimate, he won elections free and clear. And b, let's face it, he produces.
I remember talking to one of Turkey's largest, largest, largest businessmen. And we were talking and I said look out of the window. I said you know Istanbul, the Istanbul I remember of two million, 2.5 million people where every day you had water problems. To date Istanbul has 14 million people and there's never a water problem. Right. And he said let's face it, they do a good job.
Now most of the people who grudgingly acknowledged Erdogan now I think illegitimate. I mean there's been such an enormous break, I think in Turkish politics that each side sees the other as illegitimate.
When you read a pro Erdogan press, which is about 60 percent of the Turkish press these days, I mean the venom with which they attack the other side they really should not exist politically and vice versa to some extent.
There is this huge break in Turkey now which each side sees the other side as being illegitimate. Therefore I think you know maybe in that sense your economic prospect is correct. I mean you really need to fasten your seatbelt because it's going to be a rough ride.
COOK: Just a couple thoughts on that. One, I think that Turkey's a case study in the reversibility of democratic reforms. This is the same prime minister who oversaw nine constitutional packages that allowed Turkey to get a formal invitation to join the European Union.
Now, Europe is off the table now. But what they've done is essentially over the course of eight, nine months more, reversed many—and the writing was on the wall well before that, that they were reversing these kinds of strengthening of freedoms of the press and freedom of expression and so on and so forth.
So I think Turkey will be more authoritarian. I think it will—ironically for the party that really brought Turkey to the world, is going—they will look inward. We will return to a kind of prickly insular nationalist Turkey.
And then the other thing, Henri just said something that made me think about this. You know these guys really get things done. In this massive purge of the Turkish bureaucracy, who is going to take over and deliver?
I think you have a hollowing out of the Turkish government so that when it comes to big infrastructure projects, when it comes to law and order, when it comes to these kinds of things that we have come to expect in the AKP era, you have either inexperienced people who are going to be having to carry these things out, or no one.
So I think that the capacity of the Turkish government to deliver on things like transportation alternatives, Erdogancare, potable water and so and so forth is going to be severely compromised going forward.
TEPPERMAN: Let me ask a question on behalf of the Zionist interest group, foreign American lobby that's done so much to damage Turkey's chances over the last year and ask what...
COOK: According to the Turkish Twittersphere we are the two leaders of that.
TEPPERMAN: Well, then you're the perfect two people to ask...
TEPPERMAN: What—and if you have market tips for us we'll take those as well.
"What they've done is essentially over the course of eight, nine months, more, reversed many [of] these kinds of strengthening of freedoms of the press and freedom of expression and so on and so forth. So I think Turkey will be more authoritarian."
What does all of this mean for relations between Ankara and Washington, remembering that just a little while ago President Obama was still talking about Erdogan as one of his best friends internationally.
BARKEY: Look, on May 17 of last year, Prime Minister Erdogan was having dinner at the White House with his foreign minister and his intelligence chief. President Obama I don't think very often invites people to his house for these you know kind of—I mean it was a big honor.
Two weeks later the famous protest started in Istanbul and elsewhere. And the reaction from the pro Erdogan press, from the government, from Erdogan himself was all these conspiracy theories. And I think this did much more damage than the rough way in which the Turkish police handled the demonstrators and stuff like that.
People I think outside, especially in Europe and the administration here were kind of really shell-shocked by the rhetoric. By the way, we forgot to mention one major culprit, Lufthansa. You don't know how evil the company Lufthansa is because they are the ones who started this protest in last May.
But jokes aside, no the truth is I think people were taken aback. I mean two weeks after you're having dinner with the president who's been one of the biggest booster. You're blaming the United States and its allies for trying to mount a coup essentially.
So relations I think with Turkey and Europe are deteriorating. But you also have to remember another thing. And that is that Turkey is—if you were to make a list of all the countries with which the United States has daily interactions with, width of interactions and the depth of interactions, I think England, the U.K. I mean there are very few countries that are as important to the United States as Turkey.
It's not just NATO. It's Syria. It's Iran. It's Iraq. It's Russia now. Ukraine. This is foreign policy. But there's also economics. There're all kinds of trade issues, the terrorism cooperation.
On a daily basis thousands and thousands of interactions between American officials and Turkish officials, so Turkey's far too important, right. Even if the relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan go south, Turkey and the United States still have to work. They do not have a choice on this matter. But there's a very sour taste I think in Obama's mouth about Turkey.
But on Europe and that's where I think the relationship—where it's more problematic. It's true that Europeans were never gung ho about Turkey. But here you have a prime minister whose conversations have been released now, taped conversations where he's directly interfering in the press.
He's calling from Morocco. He's on a state visit to Morocco. He's calling from Morocco to a television chief and saying I don't like the—you know what that...
COOK (?): The crawl.
BARKEY: The crawl. I don't like what's on the crawl. Change the crawl on the television network.
This is the kind of micromanagement of the press that he's doing. He's firing journalists. I mean we've heard all these conversations and he has not denied them, by the way, those.
And so if you are a European leader how can you—or European politician, how can you accept a country where the prime minister essentially fires and hires journalists and interferes with—I mean this is illegal for us. It's the first amendment.
I think European-Turkish relationship are so broken now in terms of EU accession it's going to take more than a generation to fix.
COOK: Just quickly, up until about 2010, or actually well into 2011, the White House had three points in which was the basis for its relationship with Turkey. One of them was that Turkey was a model for the Arab world. They didn't in fact use that. They never uttered it publicly. But that was their internal talking points.
It's very, very hard to hold Turkey out as a model for the Arab world if Erdogan is using the tactics of recently deposed Arab dictators, and sometimes going further than them.
I think that there are a number of discrete issues with which the United States and Turkey must work together, Syria being one. I think Ukraine is going to become more important than that, especially given the waterway that runs through Istanbul.
But there has been a massive strategic erosion of Turkey's place in the Middle East, which was supposedly the big partnership that the United States was going to have in Turkey helping the Middle East with this soft landing.
Turkey has bad relations with every major country of the region. It's left with Erbil and Gaza. That's not a stellar list, no offense to the Kurds, not to lump them together. But that is different from a country that was going to lead the region, be an example to the region and so and so forth.
So I think that we are hanging onto certain things because the border with Syria's important. Iraq is obviously important. Crimea, Ukraine is important. But beyond that I don't see this big relationship, this big strategic—this model partnership that President Obama talked about in April 2009 when he went to Ankara.
TEPPERMAN: So I have a whole long list of additional questions. But it's not fair for me to hog the floor. So I'm going to open things up to questions from members and hope that we'll get to some more of these topics like Kurds, Syria, the economy, Russia in greater depth.
When I call on you please remember to wait for the microphone, stand, state your affiliation and keep yourself to a short question.
QUESTION: My name's David Phillips, Columbia University. I'm glad that you mentioned the Kurds in your list of things yet to talk about. What do you think about the PKK peace process?
Ocalan made statements from his Imrali prison urging the Kurds to cooperate with the AKP. Do you think that now there's an opportunity for Erdogan to deliver on the democracy opening and to do a serious negotiation with Ocalan and his representatives, which includes a DDR program and full democratization?
TEPPERMAN (?): Henri, you want to take that?
BARKEY: Well, just as a background to David's question I mean Turkey has this Kurdish problem, which is 20 percent of the population is of Kurdish origin, some of whom are actually quite nationalistic. There's been a guerilla war that started back in the 1980s which is now in a hiatus because there's a ceasefire. But it is a very serious problem.
When you look at the last election results you kind of see that AKP dominates in terms of by plurality winning many of the districts or provinces. But there's a Kurdish political party that won the traditionally Kurdish areas, the southeast of Turkey.
The Kurds are—think that history's with them. They want autonomy or a great deal of what they call democratic autonomy, not necessarily separation from Turkey. But there's also a peace process.
And to his credit I mean one of the things that Erdogan has done very well, he did a lot of things very well. One of the things he did was to completely reverse the strategy as to how to deal with this restive Kurdish minority in Turkey. And once the military was defeated in Turkey he could actually start a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party.
That peace process has been going on for a while, but has not really produced much other than the ceasefire. And the question is what happens next now that we've had these elections in Turkey?
My sense is that the Kurds don't have any other partner in Turkey. So in a way they're stuck with Erdogan. They have to continue the process with them because the other two parties either are—you know they're mainly Republican People's Party, who should have been much more social democratic, open to the Kurds, is in fact a quasi-nationalist party. And then the other main party in Turkey's a—I mean the best way to describe it is neo-fascist party whose only platform item is being anti-Kurdish.
So they don't have anybody to work with except Erdogan. But for Erdogan the peace process is important. There haven't been any body bags in the last year and a half now since the ceasefire started. That has helped him quite a bit.
But the Kurds are also wary that this Erdogan is now damaged. That this is a guy who is—can on a dime change policy, can make you an enemy. So they're very wary.
And from what I've been able to gather—I was in northern Iraq recently and I talked to a lot of people. And my sense is that the PKK, which is the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which was headquarters are now in northern Iraq but their leader is in jail in Turkey.
They're going to go along, but very, very warily. Not much is going to happen I suspect in the near future. I mean that's...
COOK: Let me add quickly. First let me just say that everything I know about the Kurds I've learned from Professor Henri Barkey. So it's—I'm at the risk of upsetting my professor.
But one thing that strikes me directly to get to your question, David, is can they go forward? Can they go forward?
And I wonder if you look at these election results where the Nationalist Movement Party, this neo-fascist party that Henri was talking about, has done relatively well. And that there is—the AKP does share a constituency with the MHP.
And to the extent that Erdogan, if he has in fact been weakened will have to worry about his nationalist flank, which is what has brought previous efforts to bring the conflict with the PKK to an end.
I wonder if he's going to continue to face those dynamics. And as promising as this peace process has been, especially since it's come out into the open, or at least the idea of it has been promising.
I wonder whether even now they'll be able to move forward given that slight electoral shift, and the idea that the MHP does share an important constituency, and Erdogan does always have to worry about his nationalist flank, however well he's done.
BARKEY: Let me just add, look I think it's in the interest of Erdogan and the country, I would argue, to go with the peace process because the alternative is war. The alternative is the Turkish economy will be really severely hurt by a restarting of the war.
The Kurds are fed up of fighting so they won't—so the logic is that the problem, the big problem at the moment is Erdogan himself because he's become erratic under these—under the pressure. So that's a big question that I think the Kurds have about him.
TEPPERMAN: Next question, please. The gentleman here.
QUESTION: Thank you for your comments. Averill Powers, Syzygy Therapeutics. I was hoping you could maybe comment on Ukraine a bit, particularly game out what might happen there and what Erdogan and Turkey's response would be.
COOK: Well, you know it's—the Turks are in I think a pretty tough spot with regard to Crimea and Ukraine. First, it's no secret that Erdogan has wanted to improve economic relations with Russia. There is an important energy relationship between the two countries.
Despite you know some statements on the part of the Turkish foreign minister about protecting the Tatar population in Crimea, in Ukraine. Turkey has put itself within the consensus on NATO, which is a good thing for Turkey that NATO's response so far has been relatively tepid.
I think that if things get worse in Ukraine and it requires a stronger NATO response, it's going to put the Turks in an extraordinarily awkward position. I don't imagine that they will, given the significance of this—this is different from Libya where they kind of put up a lot of resistance to the military operation in Libya.
I don't think, given how institutionalized Turkey is in NATO, that this will result in some sort of breach. I think the Turks ultimately fall in line with NATO. But they do have complications in looking at Russia and its desired economic relations, proximity that is I think certainly going to weigh on Turkish policymakers.
BARKEY: The thing I would add is I mean there is a Putin-Erdogan relationship which goes beyond the Turkish-Russian relationship. It is actually a very personal relationship.
COOK: They looked into each other's eyes.
BARKEY: They looked into each other's eyes, yes.
COOK: Or lack thereof.
BARKEY: You said that.
COOK: I'm so far gone anyway.
BARKEY: And that relationship is a personal relationship, and there may be other financial issues involved too, I don't know. So there's that level.
Secondly is the Tatars, the Crimean Tatars. There are more Tatars of Crimean origin in Turkey than there are in Crimea. So it's an important constituency in Turkey that hasn't said much yet, I mean surprisingly for Turkish ethnic constituencies tend to talk about really but they haven't yet.
But third, and actually this is very important. Crimea, OK you can make an argument that Crimea maybe was not part of Ukraine and that it was a gift by Khrushchev. So you can make—but if today's news of problems in eastern Ukraine is really, really problematic for Erdogan because-- borders. Because if you start playing around with borders anywhere, then you have to worry about Kurdistan, Kurdistan and Iraq, Kurdistan and Turkey.
TEPPERMAN: Next question. Here.
QUESTION: My name is Nuri Akhol (ph). I'm a Turkish citizen. My question would be with regard to peace process with Kurds in Turkey.
So it's been more than a year that there's not been any deaths news for soldiers or civilians killed. And that helps the AKP of course.
We just heard from Kurdish leadership that they want put that peace process on some kind of legal base or platform. But Erdogan rejected that cannot be on legal basis.
And then the U.S. ambassador, I think today's paper I read that he says we encourage Kurdish leaderships for peace process. So what does he mean? And Erdogan or AKP can be trusted on their process?
And what happens if PKK or Kurdish movement starts arms struggle and starts kind of unstable situation? Thank you.
BARKEY: First of all, we just had municipal elections. I mean we have to remember that these were municipal elections that became—that were exaggerated in terms of—usually municipal elections are not that important if you think about it, it became an issue of Erdogan's viability.
But there are two more elections coming in Turkey. There's a presidential election this summer. And then after that there should be national elections for the parliament. Both of which are far more determinant, essentially, of the country's future than simply municipal elections.
So I don't expect Erdogan to move significantly on the Kurdish issue before the conclusion of both sets of elections. Because he has to decide whether he's going to be president first, and then he has to run for national candidates.
So especially with the rise of the neo-nationalist party, he's going to have to think very careful. So I don't expect he's going to do much on that particular issue. And in some ways he has the luxury.
But fundamentally in Turkey when you ask Kurds what is it that you want, a list of three things. And I did this some years ago. I went to different types of Kurds, pro-AKP pro-government Kurds, pro-PKK Kurds, independents.
And the three things you always hear is constitution change, the constitution has to be changed to—change the nature of—the Turkish constitution is very nationalistic, very ethnic based. So it has to be changed.
They want—the Kurds also want complete cultural autonomy to be able to write—do whatever they want, say whatever they want. And three, devolution of powers to the regions.
These are three things that are interconnected and will require enormous amount of change. Nothing will happen in the near future because of these elections. Let's see how the election results—what happens, after. And then we'll be able to talk about this.
TEPPERMAN: Let's get to another subject. Warren in the back.
QUESTION: Warren Bass from the Wall Street Journal. Let me ask you three quick things about Turkey—about Turkey and Syria.
What is Erdogan's current objective in Syria? Is he resigned to Bashar al-Assad staying in power there? And how pissed is he with us?
TEPPERMAN: And let me just add one thing which is does the shooting down of the Syrian fighter jet last week or the week before signify anything? Or just a particular event driven by circumstance?
COOK: Let me start. Yes, they've been angry with the United States. Erdogan has spent the better part of—once he switched on us—I mean remember he used to go on beach vacations with us.
He has spent an enormous amount of energy trying to convince, encourage, cajole the United States to intervene in Syria, but just not from Turkish territory. Do it from Jordan.
I think that at least publicly his position has not changed on Assad. Assad must go. The question is how will Assad go?
And I think it doesn't strike me that they are at all resigned to Assad staying in power. And have used various and sundry ways, including the some would say turning a blind eye, others would say encouraging jihadist groups as a way of trying to weaken—trying to weaken Assad.
I don't really see a tremendous change in Turkish foreign policy. I think they've gotten some reality on jihadist groups. But that doesn't mean that the Turks aren't deeply, deeply involved in this on a continuing basis.
There was three. How mad are they at us, have they changed, has he resigned himself to—yes. I don't think—I don't think that that's the case. But I don't think, in answer to Jonathan's question, that the downing of the Syrian MiG is going to be a—is – augurs a fundamental change in policy.
I was struck in my conversations with Turks across the political spectrum about how so few actually want a more engaged active policy on Syria. This Ataturk maxim, peace at home and peace in the world, really has become embedded in the way in which Turks look at the world.
And with the Ruanda (ph) bombings last May and you know the enormous number of refugees in Turkey, and you have to give the Turks a lot of credit for the way in which they've handled this refugee flow, they still don't believe in the wisdom of getting involved in someone else's civil war. And this is a weakness. You heard among opposition in Gezi Park about this kind of foreign policy adventurism that a lot of Turks did not approve of.
TEPPERMAN: Next question. The lady here please.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) from New School (ph).
Since the Mavi Marmara settlement has been made or is about to be made, how do you foresee the Turkish-Israeli relations to be in the next year or so?
BARKEY: Mavi Marmara, the reference is to the ship that tried to break the blockade on Gaza that was boarded by Israeli commandos and resulted in the killing of nine activists, Turkish activists, which has been one of the main problems between Turkey and Israel.
There've been reports recently that the two sides are close to a deal. I'm finding very hard to believe that that's the case. What the deal would be—Erdogan has specific conditions that should be an apology by Bibi; two, compensation; and three, the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
Number three is completely unacceptable to the Israelis. They're not going to let the Turks decide their own security policy. Bibi has already apologized and dealing in compensation is a question of money.
But I think fundamentally when you look at the AKP and Erdogan, this is a party that is very, very hostile to Turkey...
TEPPERMAN (?): Israel.
BARKEY: If they're doing it—I'm sorry, to Israel.
TEPPERMAN (?): And Turkey.
BARKEY: And Turkey.
COOK (?): Those that don't vote for it.
BARKEY: But I find it very difficult that they would make a deal willingly. They're only doing a deal because they think the Obama administration wants it. The Obama administration has been pushing.
There's no real desire for it. The only reason there would be a deal in the near future is if Erdogan thinks that his stock in the United States and Europe has declined so much that he needs a few successes or a few achievements in foreign policy that the West would like. A better deal on Cypress, I mean there is—on Cypress there's much more movement actually than something with Israel and something with Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia.
Those are the three issues on which he uses foreign policy as a tool to improve his relationship with the West. But fundamentally I don't think there's a great deal of incentive to improve much.
Having said that, you have to realize that there are all things—many things are happening in—between Turkey and Israel that we don't know about. For instance, because of the war in Syria Turkish trade that used to go trucks that used to go from Syria to the gulf cannot cross. The problem is in Egypt.
The Turks in Egypt have power over the Suez Canal. So now you have Turkish ships unloading in Haifa, Palestinian drivers taking the stuff from Haifa, going from Palestinian territory into Jordan and into the gulf. So there is a lot of cooperation between the two countries and that's probably fine for both.
COOK: Just want to quickly underline two things that Henri said. And both actually related to Egypt. I remember a former Egyptian vice president under—during Sadat period named Ismail Sabri Abdullah said to me if you want to have good relations with Washington you have to spend the night in Tel Aviv.
And I think that the same calculation is going on right now in Turkey is how much pressure are they feeling from Washington? How much of an incentive is it to improve the relations with Washington that they would have to spend the night in Tel Aviv.
The other thing is this third demand of lifting the blockade on Gaza. The real address for that now is Cairo because this is what the Egyptian—this Egyptian policy is to keep Gaza locked down. And they've been harsher about it than even the Israelis at this point.
And then I think the third thing that militates against it, the Israeli public just hates Erdogan. They just hate Erdogan. I think that from a diplomatic perspective I think that it would be good for the Israelis to—and the Turks to come to some sort of you know agreement, some modus vivendi. But there is really—I think that the Israeli public is actually opposed right now.
BARKEY: There's one more factor here that I should've mentioned and that 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. So in a very Machiavellic way the Turks may want to rebuild the relationship with the Jewish lobby that controls the United States in order to be able to fend off what may be coming down the pike in Congress on the 100th anniversary because they're really afraid that something really big is coming down.
So they may—whatever happens, it's going to be because of other reasons. Not because they really want to have relations.
TEPPERMAN: Mike Moran?
QUESTION: Mike Moran from Control Risks. Hello you guys.
The—could you talk for a second about the relationship that Turkey now has with Egypt and how that has affected—has it caused naturally a cozying up to Saudi Arabia? You've mentioned possibly looking the other way on what's going on in Syria right now. But also, how has that affected its stance towards Iran and the talks that are ongoing there?
COOK: You know there was this real sense among Turks that they could bring the Egyptians in particular along. You had this—you know there are some similarities and I think the countries are rich with comparison, which is one of the reasons why I write about the two of them so often in comparison.
I think that the Turks really felt that they could play this role in Egypt. I'm not sure the Egyptians ever believed that that was the case.
I mean just by way of funny anecdote, I was in Cairo when Erdogan arrived on his big victory tour in September 2011. And he got a huge welcome from the Muslim Brotherhood, and others as well. And when he left it was like he was never there.
And I was talking to one of my good Egyptian friends and he said oh yes, the Turks misunderstood us. We were saying yeah, ottomans. We meant the furniture, not actually—not actually...
Which gives you something about Egyptian humor. But there was—the Egyptians actually wanted to hold the Turks at arm's length.
Three times Foreign Minister Davutoglu tabled a white paper for strategic cooperation between Egypt and Turkey. And the Egyptians said if you'd like to invest in Egypt, you're welcome to. We'll in that very kind of Egyptian way string out this discussion of a strategic partnership in a way that wouldn't ever really go anywhere.
And then of course you had coup d'état of July 3 of last year, which was very much a coup. And Prime Minister Erdogan for obvious reasons, given Turkey's history with coups d'état, given the fact that the AKP has this kind of vision of a Muslim solidarity and Muslim parties and the rise of Muslim parties in the region.
And that being at the center of it took great offense to what was happening in Egypt. And this has really wrecked the relationship between the two countries.
And Turkey simultaneously has encountered problems with other countries in the region, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, an ostensible ally in the fight against Assad. And once there was the breakthrough of the Iran nuclear agreement, suddenly the Turks who had been moving closer to the United States in terms of sanctions, although it was never foolproof.
You should read some of the stuff in terms of the gold trade, but had been moving closer to the United States over a period of many years kind of swung back to the Iranians in ways, and a way to kind of hedge their bets in the region.
I'm not convinced that Turkish-Iranian relationship is ever going to get beyond certain kind of instrumental areas, particularly in the energy arena. But nevertheless, Erdogan surveying the region and recognizing that you know zero problems and leadership in the region is—are essentially dead.
Where does he now have to go? Tehran seems somewhat promising given Turkey's, as I said before, massively eroded strategic situation in the region.
TEPPERMAN: We have time for just one or two more questions. The lady in the back and then this gentleman here. Let's take them together. First you and then you, please.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Contessa Bourbon from the New York Times. I'd like to ask how important is the U.S. and Turkey free trade agreement? Can this be a reality?
QUESTION: The Economist this week says that...
TEPPERMAN: Please identify yourself.
QUESTION: Roswell Perkins (ph), a retired lawyer. The Economist says that Erdogan has vastly increased the control over the courts. And I wondered to what extent you agree with this, and what are the implications?
TEPPERMAN: U.S.-Turkey free trade and Erdogan and the courts.
BARKEY: Let me start with that last question first. We have to be clear about one thing in terms of what's happening in Turkey. There is definitely an increase towards authoritarianism in Turkey, very significant one. And yes, Erdogan has increased his control over not just the court system, but also the press, as I mentioned earlier.
But we also have to be very careful that—and put things a little bit in context. And that is that look, Turkey was never a country where you had the rule of law. Not when Erdogan was there and not before.
And you know Turkey has a justice system, but the way I describe Turkey's justice system is Turkey—the justice system in Turkey is to justice what military music is to music.
So, but that has always been historical. You can go—two people can give you the same speech. One person can be hailed as a hero. The second person gets 30 years for the same speech.
So look what's happening today in Turkey. Erdogan who went to jail unjustly for four months, although it was much more of a summer camp type of a prison, but anyway, because he read a poem by a leading Turkish nationalist thinker, is now persecuting journalists or columnists who criticized him in one of their columns. And he's having—you know he's asking the courts to send them to jail.
But this has been the Turkish characteristic. It is an arbitrary system of arbitrary justice. So things haven't changed that much.
In fact, the sad thing about what happened with Erdogan is that essentially Turkey went two steps forward, one step backwards for a while. Now it's gone two steps forward and two steps backwards. So we are really, in terms of the justice system, the press, et cetera, where Erdogan started before.
Yes, the justice system is under his control. But before him it was in military control, the justice system. It was the military told judges how they should judge people and how they should persecute.
On the free trade, I don't think there's any Turkish-American free trade going any time soon. That's my guess.
COOK: On that issue, in fact during the deliberations of the independent task force on U.S-Turkey relations that the council sponsored, there was a significant amount of debate on whether the United States can legally have a free trade agreement with Turkey because of Turkey's relationship and aspiration to join the European Union, whether that was a legal problem or that was just a policy judgment.
But as the United States proceeds with a free trade agreement with Europe there has been some concern in Ankara about the United States looking after Turkish interests as those negotiations go forward, given of course Turkey has a customs union agreement with Europe. And some technicalities might leave Turkey on the outside in any kind of free trade agreement.
On this question of judiciary, I think you know exactly what Henri's saying. That what Erdogan and the AKP have done is instead of correcting a problem of politicized judiciary that was directed at the behest of the military, they tried to solve their problem with the judiciary by establishing political control over it and melding it in their own way.
So they've solved their own political problem without solving the problem of Turkey's judiciary. And I think you know probably appropriate to end on this. In Turkey, as a U.S. government official said to me recently, I'm on my way there, said remember, there are no rules in Turkey any longer. There was some semblance of rules.
But given the political environment, extraordinarily polarized political environment, and the intention on the part of the AKP to establish political control over an arena that is now unruly, they no longer adhere to at least the quasi-democratic institutions of the state, the institutions of the state. They leverage those things to advance an anti-democratic agenda.
TEPPERMAN: Well, we're out of time. Let's use this uplifting note to thank our two speakers for inspiring so much optimism about Turkey today and in the future.
Thank you all.