The “West,” precisely the European Union and NATO, but many “non-aligned” western countries as well, are currently in a war-like situation. Putin’s Russia appears as an aggressor in Ukraine and even as a threat to Europe since he hints that he may make use of weapons beyond the conventional ones “in case Russia is threatened.”
In this conjecture, Turkey’s position is welcomed, appreciated, and even praised. Turkey supported the United Nations General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia immediately ends its military operations in Ukraine.
Lately, Turkey has also made a 180-degree turn trying to improve its relations with France, the USA, and many neighboring countries, which have harmonious relations with the “Western world”– Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey hosted the meetings of the Ukraine and Russia delegations that intended to agree on a ceasefire and even peace in Ukraine.
It is understandable that in this tense period in Europe, these choices of Turkey are preferable to the ones made only a few months ago: A country in close collaboration with Russia and in controversy with many Western countries and/or with the “friends” of the West.
A closer look, however, sheds some shadows on this appreciation of Turkey. Russia is not so much concerned about what the world would say but rather about what the countries involved would do. The economic sanctions are what worries Russia. And on this matter, Turkey is on the side of Russia. Not only does it not participate in this campaign of conducting sanctions, but on the contrary, it supports Russia by establishing an outlet for its products. Turkey also hosts and saves the yachts and the deposits of the “oligarchs.” Turkey has turned into a sanctuary for the supporters of Putin.
This service is accompanied with close economic relations with Russia. There was no sign of wavering on this issue. Turkey is obliged to obey Russia, which is building a nuclear power center in Turkey. It also bought the Russian S-400 missile system and insists on keeping it despite the stern reaction of the USA.
Still, Turkey could have been considered as complying with some “Western” principles had the contradictions been limited to its choices in its international relations. However, the regime itself is in direct contrast with the Western world.
According to the Freedom House report of 2022, “On Balance, anti-democratic forces appeared to have the upper hand in Turkey, which once again ranked as the least free country in the region.” [FIW_2022_PDF_Booklet_Digital_Final_Web.pdf (freedomhouse.org)]
The Human Rights Watch report is of similar nature. “The authoritarian and highly centralized presidential government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has set back Turkey’s human rights record by decades, targeting perceived government critics and political opponents, profoundly undermining the independence of the judiciary, and hollowing out democratic institutions.” [World Report 2022: Turkey | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)]
The USA Department of State’s 2022 report, too, drew a negative picture of Turkey: “Arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and continued detention of tens of thousands of persons, including opposition politicians and former members of the parliament, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and employees of the US Mission, for purported ties to ‘terrorist’ groups or peaceful legitimate speech; political prisoners, including elected officials; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country, including kidnappings and transfers without due process of alleged members of the Gulen movement; significant problems with judicial independence; support for Syrian opposition groups that perpetrated serious abuses in conflict, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement, including overly restrictive laws regarding government oversight of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; some cases of refoulement of refugees; serious government harassment of domestic human rights organizations; gender-based violence; crimes involving violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons.” [https://www.state.gov/countries-areas/turkey/]
It becomes apparent that Turkey needs to be evaluated on two different scales: in the short term and during this Russia-West conflict, efforts should be made to keep Turkey at least at a “neutral” position. Turkey is not in tune with the “West” in coping with Putin, but at least, in theory, is not on the side of Russia. Officially, Turkey is a NATO member even though it uses a Russian defense system. NATO at present cannot risk losing Turkey to Putin, and therefore it closes its eyes to what is going on.
In the long term, however, the situation bears another meaning. To ignore what is happening in Turkey with respect to anti-democratic practices, human rights violations, and general autocratic policies bears two negative results. First, a NATO member and normal ally that behaves in this negative manner vis-à-vis its citizens and is still being handled as if nothing deplorable is happening impairs the image and the credibility of NATO, the EU, the US, and the West in general.
Secondly, a cynical approach of abiding with the undemocratic practices of Turkey would alienate the Turkish citizens from the western world. In the long run, toleration of this kind will weaken the faith in the ideals of the western world in Turkey, but also in Europe.
Turkey needs to be evaluated from a different perspective, too. It is not enough to judge Turkey-based only on its choices. The logic and the ideological background that cause the frequent zigzag shifts of decisions should be analyzed in order to get a complete understanding of Turkey.
This analysis will lead to two sources: a) the beliefs and needs of the strong man of the country, Erdogan, whose urge to stay in power, even with a heavy cost to his credibility, enforces the hectic decisions; and b) to its close ally and partner, Devlet Bahceli, the head of the nationalist party MHP, who further extorts extremist actions. Overall, these tendencies, in practice, are not in harmony with western priorities.
All these put together give a more holistic picture of Turkey and its dynamics.