Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known for his spontaneous and unpredictable character. In several occasions, he has behaved in ways which have surprised even his closest advisors. The recent “Davos crisis” with Israel is the prime example of this. On 23 May, Erdogan relapsed. He succeeded in stirring domestic and international attention with an unexpected statement touching upon one of Turkey’s most sensitive and taboo issues: its record of minority treatment.
All started when the government announced its plans to clear large minefields on Turkey’s borders in accordance with the country’s international obligations. Unlike what one would expect, it wouldn’t be the Turkish military but foreign private companies which would undertake this task. In fact, the tender for the clearing of the vast minefield along the Turkish-Syrian border would be awarded to an Israeli company. Few doubted that the Israeli company would be best suited to deliver the task at the most competitive price. However, the discussion focused immediately on Turkey’s national security. How could foreign companies gain access to sensitive information like the location of minefields? How could this compromise Turkish sovereignty? How could an Israeli company be positioned on the border with Israel’s archenemy Syria?
Erdogan responded to that criticism In a Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi- AKP) party meeting in Duzce, a small town slightly east of the Istanbul-Ankara highway in the following words:
Some said that “Turkey is lost to foreigners” because some of the foreign entrepreneurs who invest here belong to a different religion. Is it so easy? They did such things in this country for years. Those who had different ethnic identities were chased from this country. Have we won from this? We need to think about this. However, this has never been thought about. In fact, this was the result of a fascist-leaning approach. Occasionally we also made the same mistakes.
This statement caused shock and further reaction in the ranks of Turkish opposition. Erdogan was accused of vilifying Turkey and vindicating long-standing Greek, Armenian and Jewish claims about the discriminatory policies of the Turkish Republic. They also pointed at the positive response of Greek, Armenian and Jewish media to the unexpected statement. The leader of the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi-MHP) Devlet Bahceli was the most virulent of all. He argued that Erdogan’s statement was evidence of psychological imbalance and added that it was a great and indelible shame for Turkey that the Prime Minister “took sides together with the Greeks and the Armenians.”
What were the events which Erdogan referred to as evidence of a “fascist-leaning approach?” One could indicatively list here in chronological order the anti-Jewish events and the Settlement Law (Iskan Kanunu) of 1934, the 1942 Property Tax (Varlik Vergisi) which severely hit Istanbul’s Greeks, Armenians and Jews, the 1955 6-7 September events which again hit the Greek minority and the 1964 deportations of Istanbul Greeks who had dual or Greek nationality. The common thread behind all these events was a perception of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities as “non-assimilable.” Unlike the Kurds, the Arabs, the Laz, the Circassians and the other Muslim ethnic groups who were given a chance to enjoy full citizenship rights by voluntarily assimilating to the republican Turkish national identity, Turkey’s non-Muslims were viewed as essentially different and therefore unsuitable for assimilation. Given that the presence of any minority was seen as a severe compromise of national sovereignty and a potential threat for territorial integrity, a panoply of discriminatory and oppressive measures was employed with the aim to increase pressure and eventually lead to their marginalisation and numerical decimation through emigration.
The reaction to Erdogan’s statement shows that this mentality is still quite strong. Yet it is no more “the only game in town.” Increasing interest in Turkey’s multiethnic, multi-religious past has been manifested in Turkey’s recent literary and cinematographic production. Movies like Yesim Ustaoglu’s “Bulutlari Beklerken,” which dealt with the deportations of Pontic Greeks, Tomris Giritlioglu’s “Salkım Hanım’ın Taneleri” which focused on the 1942 Property Tax and Giritlioglu’s most recent “Guz Sancisi” dealing with the September 1955 events, highlighted the emergence of a new, critical look upon some of the most traumatic pages of recent Turkish history. The very issue which Erdogan raised, the loss which anti-minority policies entailed for Turkey’s economy, society and identity, is one of the main features of these works.
On the other hand, it should be noted that discriminatory policies are still largely in place. The legal obstacles which non-Muslim pious foundations still find in their operation, the lack of any serious progress regarding their restitution to their confiscated properties over the decades, the serious problems which the Ecumenical Patriarchate still faces in its operation, not least of which is the closure of the Halki Seminary provide evidence that this mentality still appears to be a defining principle of Turkish national interest for the Turkish state.
One could reasonably react here: How could Turkey’s Prime Minister take distance and severely criticise the policies of a state he has been leading for almost seven years? This paradox can only be understood in the context of Turkish political history. Erdogan represents a party with roots in the periphery of Turkish politics and society which was until 2002 excluded from any access to political and bureaucratic power. This remained the privilege of Turkey’s republican elite, which undertook the task to consolidate the reform of Kemal Ataturk and complete the process of Turkish nation-building through assimilation and discrimination. Despite the fact that the AKP has been in power since 2002, this elite has maintained considerable power, as the closure case against the AKP manifested last year. The fact that Erdogan touched such a taboo issue by using so harsh words showed that he did not hold his party or his voters accountable for the past wrong-doings of the bureaucratic elite. On the contrary, his business pragmatism allowed him to see the mutual benefits of economic cooperation with foreign companies and question the wisdom of policies which deprived Istanbul of its most vibrant economic elite. Would this statement mean that a real change in discriminatory policies against Turkey’s minorities may be imminent? One cannot tell for sure. Erdogan’s past statements have not always guaranteed future actions. Unpredictability can work both ways….