Friday 28 October 2016

European history is speeding up as Turkish coup follows Brexit

Turkey is one of Europe's great powers. Events over the past 48 hours bode ill for the entire continent, writes Dan O'Brien

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

THE CIVILIAN AUTHORITY: Turkish soldiers who were involved in the coup are beaten by a civilian on Bosphorus Bridge. REUTERS
THE CIVILIAN AUTHORITY: Turkish soldiers who were involved in the coup are beaten by a civilian on Bosphorus Bridge. REUTERS

There are five geopolitically important powers in Europe - Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Turkey.

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Within a few short weeks, events of real, long-term significance have taken place in two. At one end of the continent, Brexit has changed the UK's historical trajectory; at the other end, last Friday night's failed military coup in Turkey will change that huge country, one way or another.

What happens in Turkey matters for all of Europe in multiple ways. Most immediately, it has been the buffer state in the fight against Isil and the containment of the migration crisis, as millions of refugees have spilt across its 600km border with Syria and its 200km border with Iraq.

The deal the EU did with Turkey earlier this year, though controversial, has slowed the numbers of migrants arriving into the bloc via that country and neighbouring Greece.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has survived a coup which could have ended his 14-year reign, extracted a high price from the EU for the deal, not least in cash terms.

With his position strengthened further following what appears, as of yesterday afternoon, to have been a routing of the plotters, Erdogan may push for a better deal and more money, which, among other things, is needed to shore up Turkey's weakening currency and international balance of payments position.

Another reason Turkey matters is the size of its military and its membership of Nato. Its armed forces are half-a-million strong - the largest in the alliance after the US, and more than twice the size of the armies of France and Germany combined.

Not only is the Turkish military involved in fighting Isil, but it has clashed with its huge neighbour, Russia - Turkey's shooting down of a Russian fighter jet late last year caused profound tensions between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Although they have patched up the relationship since, Russia's siding with the Assad regime in Syria is a continuing source of tension - Erdogan broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus four years ago and openly backs forces seeking Assad's exit.

There is, to complicate matters further, the country's Kurdish secessionist movement which has been waging war on and off against the Turkish state for decades in the south east of the county.

Such a large and militarily active army has functioned as a state within a state, overthrowing government in previous decades and intervening decisively in politics as recently as 20 years ago.

Although the military has become less uniformly secularist since, if the events of this weekend mark a return of its long history of acting against governments, which most observers of the country had thought was a thing of the past, then it will be a very significant change in the country's politics, and can only be destabilising.

If, as seems more likely, the coup allows Erdogan to purge his opponents in the military and in other state institutions, it will consolidate his personal hold on power, accelerating a well-established authoritarian drift under his leadership. It would also probably propel the country in a more religious/theocratic direction.

Another reason Turkey matters is its sheer size. It has recently overtaken Germany to become the continent's second most populous country after Russia. Moreover, its demographics are also unusual in Europe - a still-high birth rate is expected to push its population towards the 100 million threshold by the middle of the century as many other countries are facing population decline.

But Turkey's 80 million people are deeply divided, even if there appears to be very broad opposition to Friday's military intervention.

Although a Muslim country, for many, particularly among the urban middle classes, European identity is more important than religious identity.

For a large chunk of the secularist middle class, religion is a force that drags the country backwards. They have little in common, and sometimes show contempt for the tens of millions of poorer, less well educated and more devout of their fellow citizens, mostly on the Asian side of the Bosporus.

The size and depth of this divide in Turkish society was one reason why, at moments last Friday night and into yesterday morning as people took to the streets, that the worst-case scenario - of a full-scale civil war - loomed into view.

Although it seems very unlikely, if Erdogan's reprisals target all his opponents, and not just those responsible for the attempted coup, the country could polarise. If that were to happen and sustained instability were to set in, the already huge vortex of violence in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, whose combined population is around 50 million, could become vastly bigger.

What is happening in Turkey is primarily driven by politics. But there is also an economic dimension.

Turkey has also experienced something of a growth miracle in the 21st Century. Under Erdogan it has enjoyed rapid economic expansion, even if there have been fragilities, such as the aforementioned currency weakness.

Since he came to power in 2002, the country has enjoyed rates of economic growth of almost 5pc a year on average - five times that of the eurozone. Although still a poor country by western European standards, per capita incomes are now higher than some EU countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania.

The huge increases in taxes flowing into Ankara's coffers has further bolstered Erdogan. The resources have been used for many good things, including building out the country's pretty decent infrastructure and a very significant increase in social spending, particularly on pensions. The capacity to dispense largesse has done him little harm among his core constituency.

There is, finally, the broader global significance of Turkey. In an age of Islamist hyper terrorism, which was tragically evident yet again in Nice last Thursday night, a political model for Muslim countries which incorporates democratic values has never been more needed.

For some years after Erdogan came to power, Turkey was the great hope. For countries in the arc of Islam - from Morocco to Indonesia - very few polities have ever succeeded in sustainably establishing well-functioning, prosperous democracies. The chances of Turkey becoming the model have receded a great deal over the past 48 hours.

Sunday Independent

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