Sunday, 17 July 2016

Erdogan’s Strength and Turkey’s Tragedy

Mark Almond writes:

The £400 million palace of Turkey’s President Erdogan is the biggest in the world. It is also a monstrosity. 

Thirty times the size of the White House, all the seats of government of Turkey’s Nato allies could be contained inside its vast marble halls and endless corridors. 

No wonder the sprawling modernist structure is compared to the People’s Palace built by Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. 

It actually looks more like a massive public lavatory. 

Saddam himself would blanch at the silk wallpaper in the bathrooms, the cabinets displaying gold inlaid glasses that cost £250 each, and the 63 lifts. 

The carpet bill was a staggering £7.8 million. 

It was here that blood was shed during the botched coup.

And it is in its absurd dimensions that we can learn so much about the overweening, ego-inflated ambitions of its prime resident – and, more critically, of the dangerous consequences of the failed putsch. 

The stakes could scarcely be higher. 

From his humble beginnings, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to the top ought to be a classic heart-warming story. 

But his taste in mega-architecture reflects a personality that has more in common with the most grandiose of Ottoman Sultans. 

The high-handed way in which he overrode normal rules and budgets to push through his gigantic living memorial is why critics call him an elected dictator. 

The coup may have fizzled out, showing Erdogan had support in the streets. 

But many reasons why the other half of Turks resent his way of ruling are still there. To them, he is a president who abuses office to benefit his family and cronies. 

He is seen as pushing Islamic fundamentalism on them through the back door. 

This matters to Britain because Turkey lies at the junction of the planet’s tectonic plates in so much more than simple geography. 

A civil war – even rumbling instability – is hugely dangerous for the rest of Turkey’s Nato allies. 

With Russia to the north, Syria and Iraq to the south and Iran in the east, Turkey has acted as Nato’s south-eastern bastion for decades. 

Just take last year’s refugee crisis to see what problems the West could face if Turkey goes off the rails. 

Add the country’s millions to those already funnelling into Europe from the Middle East to get an idea of the worst-case scenario. 

In recent decades, Turkey seemed to combine democracy with a strong military, adding to the West’s general security. 

That confidence was shattered even when the military coup fizzled out yesterday. Its aftershocks will disturb Turkey and us for the foreseeable future. 

At its worst, people fear Turkey could be entering the downward spiral that has engulfed Iraq and Syria in civil war and terrorism.

That is the last thing anyone in the West should want. Prayer mats are out everywhere for stability on Nato’s south-east flank.

The crowds opposing the coup should not lull us, or President Erdogan, into thinking national unity has won the day. Turkey is still bitterly polarised.

Yesterday’s triumphant return to office cannot silence widespread allegations of corruption and abuse of office against Erdogan.

Intolerant of even jokes at his expense, he has prosecuted the media which report allegations against him and his family.

But many ordinary Turks admire their Teflon president – even after pictures emerged of the bank-teller’s cash-counting machine found in his son’s home, along with shoe-boxes stuffed with dollars and euros.

The West used to accept Erdogan’s ability to mix his appeal to the Muslim majority with sensible economic policies.

It thought he was at heart a rational man rather than an Islamist playing at a Western-style politician.

As long as the economy grew, so did Erdogan’s popularity at home, while the West saw him as a model for states undergoing revolution in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.

But as the years went by, Erdogan became more autocratic and more religious.

Fourteen years in power have given him the patronage to reshape the civil service and military in his own image. The rebel officers hated that.

Like many authoritarians, he is both capricious and cynical. 

His response to the Arab Spring showed this when he suddenly denounced his ‘friend’ President Assad of Syria as a blood-soaked tyrant.

Similarly, he switched from dialogue to all-out war against the Kurdish minority. 

The same dirty game was going on when he switched from backing the jihadi rebels against Assad to supporting the US-led war on Islamic State. 

Having let Islamist radicals pour across the border with Syria, Erdogan suddenly declared himself their enemy. 

They have hit back inside Turkey, so now the country needs a strong man to defend it. 

Erdogan has tried Europe’s patience but its elites were too quick to think the coup was the solution. 

Like Turkey’s liberals, they are scornful of this self-made man’s mega-ego, but these criticisms wash over 50 per cent of Turks.

They voted for him. We didn’t. It is his trump card.

In all this chaos, Erdogan reigns supreme. That is his strength and Turkey’s tragedy. 

Terrorism and Friday night’s coup are body blows to the country’s economy.

This could push millions of Turks into joining migrants from the Middle East. It is a nightmare haunting Brussels and Berlin.

Now, Erdogan is out for revenge. Even opponents of the coup fear his purge will sweep them up too.

The West was losing influence in the run-up to the coup.

Now Erdogan’s price will be for Washington and Europe to sacrifice some of their principles and interests to recover his friendship.

Are we willing to go that far? What choice do we have?

And where will the fallout of the coup end?

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