New Cold War Bad News for Democracy in Turkey, Says PN Member Joost Lagendijk

Joost Lagendijk
March 18, 2014

The West needs Turkey as a partner in a volatile region and seems willing to step back from calling the Turkish government to account for its abysmal domestic record. "Bad news for democracy in Turkey", concludes PN Member Joost Lagendijk in his column for Todays' Zaman:

With Crimea under full Russian control and preparations for a possible annexation of other parts of Ukraine under way and after both the European Union and the United States have imposed a first round of punitive measures against Russian officials and members of Parliament, there is growing speculation in Europe and the US that the Cold War is back.

Reuters quoted German policymakers, claiming that what is happening in Ukraine is simply too big to ignore and that, if you are in Berlin, the current row feels like the start of a systematic competition between the West and Russia over the future of Eastern Europe. Former Newsweek editor Michael Hirsch has predicted a kind of "cool war" between the US and Russia, saying, "Clearly nothing yet like the great ideological struggle and arms race of the Cold War but US officials may soon need to consider a new strategy involving the containment of Russian counter-moves around the world."

Apart from the term to describe the new standoff, most strategists agree we are facing a prolonged East-West tug-of-war. Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institute in Washington, persuasively argued that the Crimean takeover is just another example of Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal of restoring and preserving Russia as a great power and world civilization. For Putin, Ukraine's intention to reach an Association Agreement with the EU is the greatest threat to Russia's political and economic interests in that part of the world. According to Hill, there should be no doubt about his message to the new Ukrainian leadership, Washington and Brussels: "Now Crimea is gone. Eastern and southern Ukraine could go too -- unless all of you start to take Russia's interests into consideration first and foremost. We will keep a grip on these territories to make sure this is crystal clear at all times."

For understandable reasons, Turkey has focused on what all of this means for Ankara's relations with Moscow. The strategic balance in the Black Sea has shifted against Turkey's interests; there is the danger of a new round of suppression of the Crimean Tatars to which Turkey can't remain indifferent and, obviously, there is Turkey's heavy reliance on Russian oil and natural gas. Conclusion: Turkey has to tread carefully because it can't afford an open confrontation with Russia.

Until now, the Turkish government has positioned itself firmly on the side of the EU and NATO, calling the Crimean referendum illegal and illegitimate and stressing Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ankara siding with Washington and Brussels is a positive move that should be welcomed. But there is a drawback to this strategic allegiance: With Turkey again gaining geostrategic significance in a second Cold War, one should not be surprised to see a total lack of willingness in the immediate future, both in Washington and in European capitals, to call the Turkish government to account for its abysmal domestic record.

For the US, Turkey has always been a strategic ally in a problematic neighborhood that, if necessary, should be criticized on its democratic shortcomings, but never too strongly or for too long. For the EU, since 2004 Turkey has been a candidate country that should be judged by EU standards on democracy and the rule of law. My fear is that the current emphasis on Turkey's strategic importance, also for Europe, will strengthen a split that one could see coming for some time.

In Brussels, the European Commission and the European Parliament keep looking at Turkey from an enlargement perspective. That explains their harsh words on Ankara's recent violations of core EU principles. On the other hand, EU member states have started to appreciate Turkey's crucial role in a volatile region -- first Syria, now Ukraine -- and for that reason have accepted that, at least for the time being, Turkey's internal deficiencies should not be denounced. To keep Turkey anchored in the West, Berlin, Paris and London are willing to look away from the present transgressions on human rights and will not pressure Ankara to change course.

That is bad news for Turkish democrats. Their struggle against rising authoritarianism will get rhetorical support from European officials and parliamentarians. But EU leaders will remain silent as long as they need Turkey as a loyal ally in the new clash with Russia.


Originally published on Today'

Photo by Haitham ali.


PN Member Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.