Friday October 24, 2014
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24.10.2014
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Ruthie Blum

Erdogan's true totalitarian colors

You have to hand it to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No matter what he does, the West continues to consider him an ally. The epitome of "Teflon" -- used to describe someone to whom nothing undesirable sticks -- the leader of the Islamist AKP-led government is at it again, with a vengeance.

On Monday, the Turkish courts, by now virtually under Erdogan's complete control, convicted scores of military officers, politicians, academics, lawyers and members of the media for their role in the "Ergenekon coup plot."

The trial, in which there were 275 defendants, was the culmination of an investigation that began in 2007, when explosives were found in the home of a former military officer. The investigation revealed a network involved in a "conspiracy" to topple Erdogan's government, and to restore the previous secular nature of Turkish society, safeguarded by the military.

This network was dubbed "Ergenekon," the mythical ancestral home of the Turks.

There is nothing new about Erdogan's exploitation of the Turkish legal system to crack down on and silence opposition. Since coming to power in 2002, his government has engaged in press censorship, even to the point of imprisoning journalists, and in curtailing the army's traditional role of protecting secular values.

This May, anti-government protesters began to take to the streets of Istanbul, to stage the first of what would become a series of demonstrations against Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian leadership. Though these have been relatively small in number, they have been met with violence on the part of the police. This is because Erdogan's policy is to instill fear about expressing dissent.

During one demonstration in June, the Divan Hotel in Istanbul gave refuge to demonstrators fleeing police brutality. Erdogan responded to the event by lodging a veiled threat at the Koc conglomerate that owns the hotel. "We know who sent [the protesters] 30,000 food packages, who sheltered them in their hotels," he said.

He then proceeded to make good on the threat by having tax inspectors raid three of the conglomerate's companies, causing an immediate 10 percent drop in their shares.

Nor does Erdogan stomach criticism from abroad. He is currently threatening to sue the British newspaper The Times for publishing an open letter, signed by celebrities and academics, condemning his excessive use of force against protesters and denouncing his "dictatorial rule." Turkey's European Union Affairs minister called the letter "a crime against humanity."

Comic relief aside, there is nothing funny about the outcome of the Ergenekon trial. Though 21 defendants were acquitted, scores of the others were given extremely harsh sentences. The former head of Turkey's military establishment, as well as 16 other retired generals, the leader of the nationalist Workers' Party, a journalist and a lawyer, were sentenced to life imprisonment. And three serving members of parliament from the secularist Republican People's Party were sentenced to between 12 and 35 years in jail.

Eminent Turkish scholar Ihsan Dagi, a former Erdogan enthusiast who has completely turned against the prime minister, told TIME Magazine that "the AKP government has become the state. It can design social life, regulate the economy and intimidate the opposition or political dissidents."

It thus made total sense when, in April, Mr. Teflon became a "Dialogue Partner" with the eastern-axis Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He assumed that it would not endanger his NATO membership. He was right. So far, it has barely raised an eyebrow.

What will it take for the West to see Turkey's true colors?

Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"

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