By: Amir Taheri; gatestoneinstitute.org
In May 1994, during a trip to Istanbul to address a conference of Turkish women, I asked colleagues whether there were any rising stars in the then obscure firmament of Turkish politics. Their almost unanimous answer was: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a 40-year-old politician who had won the mayoralty of Istanbul, the nation’s most populous city, against all odds.
However, their recommendation came with a caveat: Erdogan had a history of activism within several Islamist associations and political parties, a fact that, Turkish friends believed at the time, limited his prospects in a system founded on a peculiar understanding of secularism.
But, a few days later when we met Erdogan in his office, we found ourselves in the presence of an energetic reformer more interested in pragmatic concepts than ideological shibboleths.
Erdogan’s clean shaven face, apart from the almost mandatory Turkish moustache he sported, his well-cut suit and Cerruti necktie depicted him more like a European-style politician than an aspirant to sultandom in the ancient oriental tradition.
His diagnosis of what ailed Turkey had nothing to do with ideology.
He insisted that Turkey had to put its economy in order by taming inflation, and restore public faith in the government by uprooting the corruption that afflicted all parts of the system. More interestingly, Erdogan wanted to kick-start negotiations to join the European Union, ending the lethargic approach of Prime Ministers such as Tansu Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz.
Even more intriguing was Erdogan’s admission that Turkey would have to tackle its “Kurdish problem” with courage and realism rather than denial and repression.
At the time the cynic that lodges in every journalist’s brain murmured that Erdogan was sounding reasonable only to achieve enough power that would allow him to be unreasonable.
For the next decade or so, as Erdogan went on to win two general elections and serve as prime minister, however, the naughty little cynic proved wrong.
Much to our surprise, he did what he had said he would if he had the power.
His reforms, though at times brutal, did rescue the Turkish economy form the inflationary spiral, putting it back on the path of sustained growth for the first time since the 1950s. At the end of Erdogan’s first decade Turkey was the world’s 14th largest economy, 30% bigger than neighboring Iran with the same population and plenty of oil and gas.
On the issue of joining the European Union, too, Erdogan achieved significant progress in 20 of the 22 main topics on the so-called mise-a-jour agenda.
On fighting corruption, Erdogan’s performance was impressive, propelling Turkey away from the top of the list of the global index of corruption established by Transparency International.
By all standards, Erdogan was also a model of success in foreign policy; by the early years of the new century, Turkey was the only Middle Eastern nation without active enemies.
Erdogan’s realism in dealing with the thorny issue of Cyprus made it hard even for the most fanatical pan-Hellenists to nurse the ancient “hate the Turk” flames.
Even more astonishing was the patience and moderation with which Erdogan tackled the complex issue of Kurdish aspirations, a task made easier by the fact that his Justice and Development Party (AKP), owed part of its electoral success to support from constituencies where ethnic Kurds formed a majority.
Sadly, history is full of “and then-what” which put the narrative on a new, even opposite, trajectory.
It is difficult to know for sure when and how Erdogan’s “and then-what” came about. However, by around 2010 the moderate, pragmatic and reformist politician, about to be elevated to the status of statesman, had morphed into an intolerant, ideology-stricken, conservative politico devoid of vision and anxious about consolidation of his power.
What we see today is a rewinding of the film “The Decade of Success” under Erdogan.
The Turkish economy is back in the doldrums with inflation and unemployment again in double digits and direct foreign investment at its lowest since the early 2000s.
The gangrene of corruption is also back, gnawing at the bones of the state and, if a torrent of accusations is to be believed, affecting even the inner circles of power.
The historic reconciliation with the Kurdish minority is also at an end, as even elected members of parliament are punished for being Kurds.
The prospect of Turkey joining the European Union is all but abandoned by both sides as Erdogan adopts an anti-West posture while the EU flatters its resurrected populist demons.
Erdogan has achieved something else that is unique: leading Turkey into a war in which it finds itself fighting the side that is supported by its NATO allies, especially the United States and France.
That, in turn, has led to a bizarre situation in which Turkey is seen as part of a triangle with Russia and Iran, in a scheme to carve out what is left of war-torn Syria.
In just a decade Erdogan acquired the wherewithal to transform Turkey into a prosperous democracy. But when it came to assemble the parts into a coherent whole he lacked the vade mecum and/or the skill to do so.
In what seems to be a prolonged fit of anger with himself, with erstwhile Islamist allies, and even elements within his own party, Erdogan decided to break one by one the parts so patiently acquired, insisting that he alone must have the final word.
There is no doubt that under Erdogan, Turkey at first took the right turn but now is taking the wrong turn. The little cynic in a journalist’s head shakes its index finger with an “I-told-you-so” sneer. But the optimist who lodges in a journalist’s heart claims that Erdogan’s pyrotechnical rush to disaster will stop once he wins a second term as president next year with a massive election victory.
In the meantime, counting on Turkey as ally would be imprudent while treating it as foe would be foolish.
Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran’s premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.