Turkey’s failed coup and the ensuing repression have brought to the surface a difference in perspectives between Western elites and their western-oriented counterparts in Turkey – perhaps even a fundamental difference in mindsets. Recent years had seen voices on both sides that seemed to find common ground, sharing concerns about both Turkey’s troubled foreign relations and the growing polarization and majoritarian tendencies of its domestic politics. These developments call for a sober reevaluation of the conventional wisdom that Turkish and Western perspectives were in fact drawing closer.
Embattled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s stances since the coup have been largely predictable and consistent with his past behavior. During the protests in 2013, for example, the President alleged the involvement or complicity of external actors. After the coup the President and his entourage has once again blamed foreign agencies and even international think tanks. Conspiracy theories like these – and even more so the harsh countermeasures the government has enacted to restore domestic order - have undoubtedly reinforced the increasingly widespread opinion in Europe and America that Turkey is currently ruled by a populist party with limited affinity for the West. The recent rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin feeds the same narrative.
However, to the surprise of their European and transatlantic counterparts, scores of respected and independent Turkish representatives are now arguing that the Turkish government’s massive retaliation was justified in light of the major breach the coup represented to Turkish democracy and security. Moreover, although some from the Turkish opposition’s ranks have branded the broad-based repression as a “counter-coup,” virtually no Turkish observer has questioned, at least openly, that the failed putsch was real. Many influential international observers, by contrast, remain skeptical of a putsch executed in such an amateurish manner.
Commentary from Turkish critics of the ruling AK Party has not focused on the repression that followed the coup. Instead, they have largely emphasized that the coup’s aftermath has been characterized by the attempt on the part of Turkey’s ruling leaders to adopt a more inclusive style of government. Noting that all major opposition parties were united and quick in condemning the coup, many Turkish representatives have argued that the country might have the opportunity to move from trauma to catharsis by building on the sentiments of solidarity and indignation the Turkish people at large felt when they resisted the military intervention by taking to the streets. A less polarized Turkey could emerge from a new “national compromise.”
For the vast majority of external observers, the outlook is instead markedly bleaker. Many have already concluded that Turkey is doomed to years of authoritarian normalization and that the country’s relationship with the West, from Turkish-U.S. cooperation to the EU accession process, has been gravely damaged. Some would be ready to write off an increasingly intractable Turkey as mainly a liability, no longer an asset, for the West.
Exploring these divergences reveals troubling fault lines. Without giving in to unhelpful generalizations, it is seems fair to suggest that the “rally-around-the-flag” attitude of most Turks is based on underlying nationalist sentiment that clearly crosses party lines. This sentiment has been underappreciated by Western observers, who have sometimes been too complacent in their belief that those Turkish elites who shared similar concerns about the country’s course under the AKP had also genuinely embraced a European/Western identity. Turkish nationalism is certainly not new, yet it is too often neglected when considering Turkey’s recent history. What is interesting in the current context is that nationalist sentiment seems to now be divorced from traditional reverence towards the military. Even if only a small minority within the military was implicated in the coup, the Turkish military is doomed to lose much of its historical appeal and Turkish generals may never again be seen again as the guardians of the Turkish Republic, even by what remains of the Kemalist-secular establishment.
While Turkish nationalism is riding high, a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards democracy is on display. The people’s spontaneous and brave reaction against the putschists deserves recognition as a sign of democratic strength, once again confirming the vibrancy of Turkish society. Yet, the milder condemnation of government excesses since the coup invites questions about the depth of Turkish commitment to human rights and rule of law, exposing a seeming gap with Western countries in political culture and posing the dilemma of whether Turkish nationalism and democracy are fully compatible.
As far as Western observers (and Western governments) are concerned, few were as outraged by the coup as they were by the following repression. This poses questions about the solidity of Turkish-Western relations; the Turkish government is well-justified in its complaints regarding the West’s tardy condemnation of what was undeniably a serious breach in the internal security of a NATO ally. This also seems to substantiate long-held concerns among Turks that ultimately Europe and the U.S. look at Turkey as a country in a different, if not lower, league. One in which changes of government by force remain thinkable, perhaps even acceptable, and towards which the same democratic expectations of Western countries need not to be applied necessarily.
Until the West stops treating Turkey as an object of its designs rather than a partner in common endeavors, it will be hard to talk of genuine friendship, even between circles sharing similar concerns about the country’s political trajectory. On the other hand, if Turkish nationalism remains a growing force and trumps democratic standards, it is hard to imagine a fully European future for Turkey. These narratives will have to ultimately find some common ground if Europeans and Americans want to care for, not just about, Turkey — and vice-versa. Facing and addressing some of the uncomfortable differences in respective perceptions is only the first step to be taken in the months to come — but it is one that is absolutely crucial right now.