The World According To Erdogan

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There is hardly a day when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Islamist prime minister, is not doing something that grabs the attention of the media worldwide. He preaches democracy to the Egyptians, threatens Israel with naval action, promises the Palestinians to recognize their as yet non-existent state and declares publicly that he is no longer on speaking terms with Syria's not-so-strong-man Bashar al-Assad. In a recent interview with Time Magazine, the Turkish prime minister mentioned his country's longstanding official bid to join the European Union only by passing. He hinted that by the time the Europeans are ready to accept Turkey as one of their own, it might well become a much less accommodating and more demanding partner.

Erdogan and his team possess a vision for Turkey that, although still a work in progress, is much more coherent, inspired and whole than anything the current European Union leaders, uniform, dull and indecisive as one, could ever suggest to their own people. This is a prospect of a country that sincerely espouses Islam and is at the same time comfortable with other faiths, opinions and mores. Erdogan's agenda is values-based - and this makes it infinitely more interesting and exciting than anything the E.U. has to offer, even if you disagree with the values themselves. If you were a young Turk (no pun intended), which vision would you espouse for your country, in all earnestness? Would you support the spread of influence, political and economic, in the Mediterranean, with Turkey making its own decisions about the future? Or would you prefer to join a large club of disparate nations trying in vain to bail out a state with the population the size of Istanbul, and at the same time feed a sprawling Brussels bureaucracy aspiring to dictate the shape of eggs to the farmers of Denmark and regulate alcohol sales to the indigenous peoples of Lappland in Finland? The answer is somewhat obvious.

That Turkey's strict secularist system, guaranteed and upheld by the military was out of step with the changing times, was clear even before the former mayor of Istanbul burst onto the national political scene in the 1990s. But it is also obvious that the old secular, Ataturk-worshipping elite missed this point. And now Erdogan's center-right Justice and Development Party has ceased momentum. In the words of a friend of mine, a professor of political science at one of Turkey's leading private universities, "the prime minister is using democratic slogans to change the system so as to enshrine the Islamists' leading position in Turkish politics for years, if not decades to come." Erdogan conducts an unrelenting witch-hunt against the military - and gets applause from the E.U. for removing the "peaked caps" from politics. At times nasty, the generals kept the radicals of all hues out of politics. Will the radicals continue to be kept on the fringes? There is a legitimate doubt about this. Erdogan calls for direct elections of the president, preparing to slip into the head of state chair in order to continue his political career well into the future. But what should worry everyone most is his persecution of journalists (several dozen are in jail, frequently on flimsy or obviously constructed charges). He also stuffs the judiciary with Justice and Development Party sympathizers. All this makes Erdogan's proclamations of his commitment to democracy less than convincing.

His foreign policy seems erratic and prone to sloganeering at best, reckless at worst. Looking at the footage of his triumphant tour of the Middle East, I could not help but compare it to the documentary reels of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's second president, working the crowds into a frenzy with his fiery appeals to "drive Israel into the sea." Of course, Erdogan says no such thing. He knows that there are lines one should not cross as long as one wants to be taken seriously by the West.

Still, the Turkish prime minister's taste for populism and popular adulation is a cause for worry. At the same time, one has to hand it to him - he knows where and when to stop. Erdogan broke his own promise to visit the Hamas-run Gaza strip in solidarity with the Palestinians, although the Egyptian authorities were ready to open the border for him. He recently duly deployed U.S. radars on Turkish soil in compliance with NATO obligations. So the jury on the maverick Turkish leader's future is still out. He could yet become a reformer, who would influence not only his native country but also Muslim societies around the world. He may also turn out to be a power-hungry despot who would ruin Turkish democracy and destabilize the Mediterranean. 

Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. He was a diplomatic correspondent for Izvestia and later BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau editor-in-chief. He was also once vice president of ExxonMobil Russia. 
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