Turkey’s Journey to Europe: the Problem of a Plane with a Single Wing

Fortunately, this plane has its two wings. But where is the « Turkish  plane » going?
Picture by Nergiz
A lot has already been said in « L »Europe en débat » about Turkey »s political upheaval in the path towards EU accession. Today Evren ÇEL0K WILTSE provides us with a very necessary analysis on how these internal difficulties arise from alternative preferences among modernizing elites. Evren ÇEL0K WILTSE received BA and MA degrees from Bogazici University. Currently she is an advanced PhD student at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research topics include comparative development and democratization in Turkey and Latin America (Mexico in particular). She teaches at Hacettepe University, Ankara.
Her latest article is E.C.Wiltse. « The Gordian Knot of Turkish Politics: Regulating Headscarf Use in Public » published in South European Society and Politics, Vol: 13, Issue 2, July 2008.
Evren ÇEL0K WILTSE
There are stark differences in one »s perception of the Turkish political landscape, when the point of reference is Ankara, rather than Istanbul. Looking from Ankara, Turkey »s prospects for EU accession, and its harmonization with the global democratic community looks rather grim.
 
In order to analyze Turkish politics, one of the most popular tools in social scientists » box is Serif Mardin »s center-periphery model. In very simple terms, the model argues that since the late Ottoman era, the most important political cleavage in Turkey has been between a modernizing elite and conservative masses. As the name implies, the modernizers were the reformist sectors trying to bring the nation on a par with its more advanced neighbors, namely Europe. Historically, the modernizers were the bureaucratic and military classes who controlled the state apparatus, whereas the masses traditionally dragged their feet in this top-down social engineering project.
 
This model has been successful in explaining some of the critical junctures in Turkish democratic history. Yet, I believe, since the 1980s, and particularly after the 1990s, the latest wave of globalization made a major impact on these relatively ossified sectors of Turkish polity. Both the Center and the Periphery had become much more diversified.
 
Looking from Ankara, one can identify a widening division within the Center, which seems to have splintered into at least two camps since the 1990s. Both camps are evoking the « modernization » ethos, but while the first group associates it with globalization and seeks to strengthen Turkey »s ties with the global community, the second group trumpets the etatist ideals from almost a century ago, and is jealously guarding Turkey »s « independence » at the expense of marginalizing the country in the international arena.
 
The first faction of the modernizing elites, which I »d like to call the cosmopolitan center, perceives Turkey »s Europeanization as a natural step towards the overall modernization goal of the nation. Contrary to the popular beliefs, this group is not merely TUSIAD (Turkish Industrialist »s and Businessmen »s Association) and a handful of capitalists. The cosmopolitan modernizers are much larger than that. As articulated in this blog and in many other venues, there is a vibrant intellectual community, numerous civil society organizations, human rights organizations, universities, media outlets, and even a strong middle class that aspires to first world standards in their political, economic and social lives. The common tread that binds this group is probably their exposure to globalization. Their professional and personal connections, economic ties, consumption patterns, political alliances, or merely the universities that their children attend, create a dense web of connections with the rest of the world. Needless to say, the cosmopolitan faction of the Center is largely concentrated in Istanbul, -a city known for being an ancient and modern global hub.
 
Contrary to this cosmopolitan center, the parochial and etatist center maintains limited exposure to an increasingly globalized world. What the cosmopolitans perceive as a brave new world, looks like the slipping away of power, status and stability for the etatist faction. This second group shows a defensive reflex while the cosmopolitans are welcoming the expansion of their horizons. Just a comparison of international flights to Istanbul Atatürk Airport and Ankara Esenboa Airport would reveal the vast difference in terms of global connectedness, but maybe this would be too simplistic…
 
While most studies on Turkish-EU relations categorize the etatist faction of the Center as « staunch Kemalists » who stand in the way of Turkey »s accession to the EU, I believe the situation has less to do with an ideological commitment to Kemal Ataturk »s ideals, and more with class and power dynamics.
 
The so-called « Kemalist » faction of the Center is predominantly the military and bureaucratic elites of Turkey. Their perceived interests -both economic and political- lie in the old, etatist model. For the longest time, they have enjoyed enormous discretionary powers as the sole masters of Turkish state »s political clout and economic power. As late as the 1980s, bureaucrats were at the driver »s seat of Turkish economy either as the directors of a large public sector, or as the decision makers of tariffs, quotas, exchange rates, etc., which kept the bourgeoisie on its toes. 
 
The military, on the other hand, enjoyed an even more privileged status. It managed to carve itself a special role in the political system as the « guardian » of the nation. This special situation functioned almost like a « carte blanche » in the hands of the military. It determined the boundaries of acceptable political discourse in the country by creating certain « red lines ». Thus, the military became the first and foremost actor in shaping Turkey »s position in most important political issues, both domestic and international. Simultaneously, the military managed to avoid any public scrutiny of its own affairs behind this veil of guardianship.
 
More than anything, the Europeanization project is about transparency and accountability of the state to its citizens. I believe, it is this aspect of EU accession that is making the military and bureaucratic elites rather nervous. Behind all the rhetoric about protecting Turkey »s independence against the imperialistic project of Europe is this fear of losing vested interests and impunity. Because of this, the etatist elites are trying to put the brakes on the accession process by all possible means, including the formation of a negative public opinion against the EU.
 
The etatist faction of the Center, largely located in Ankara, is very skeptical of the growing interdependence among the nations. As articulated in his recent speech, the new Joint Chiefs of Staff perceives the growing interdependence among nations and the emergence of supra-national structures as existential threats against the Turkish nation-state. This view is not confined to the armed forces either. Upon their retirement, many top level bureaucrats, even from the most Europeanized ministry (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), rush to extreme right wing and Euroskeptic parties for political office. When nearly half of the elites in the country are adamantly against it, it becomes very difficult to ground Turkey solidly on the Europeanization track.
 
If there is not a basic minimum consensus among both factions of the elites (cosmopolitan and military-bureaucratic), I believe the Turkish accession to the EU will continue to stall for decades. As it is, the situation in Turkey resembles a plane with a single wing. The one-step-forward-two-steps-back moves of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government on pro-EU reforms are great examples of this elite splinter. In order to « take off », the pro-EU groups and the European actors aspiring for Turkish membership need to find creative ways to engage with the etatist elites. Without devising a different set of incentives and interest structures for this group, it would be futile to expect a change in their staunchly anti-EU, anti-globalization positions. And since this group is so strongly embedded in the Turkish state, it would be extremely difficult to change the direction of the country without at least a tacit approval from them.
 
Evren ÇEL0K WILTSE

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