In an interview with Balkanalysis.com that had escaped my attention until now, Egemen Bağiş, Turkey’s minister for European Union Affairs and its chief negotiator with the European Union, said Turkey is “determined to continue reforms on freedom of expression and press, which are not only crucial for our path towards European Union accession, but also for deepening democracy.”
Bağiş highlights the danger of taking Turkish officials at their word. During the past few years, press freedom in Turkey has plummeted. Turkey now rates among the worst countries in the world in terms of press freedom.
The richness of Bağiş’s quote, however, is that he is actively involved in suing anyone who criticizes him, either in Turkey or the United States. When in a 2008 interview with a Turkish publication, I reported Bağiş had a reputation among American officials for, let’s say, being a little less than transparent on some financial issues, he tried unsuccessfully to serve me, apparently with the assistance of Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States. Wikileaks, however, subsequently came to the rescue. A 2004 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara fully supported the description of his reputation, not only among American officials, but also among his colleagues:
With regard to Islamist influences on Erdoğan, DefMin Gonul, who is a conservative but worldly Muslim, recently described Gul associate Davutoglu to us as “exceptionally dangerous.” Erdogan’s other foreign policy advisors (Cuneyd Zapsu, Egemen Bagis, Omer Celik, along with Mucahit Arslan and chef de cabinet Hikmet Bulduk) are despised as inadequate, out of touch and corrupt by all our AKP contacts from ministers to MPs and party intellectuals.
That Turkish officials continue to harass journalists and analysts, and have grown so cocky as to try to chill discourse in other countries, suggests just how deep-rooted antipathy to basic freedoms are under the current government and how insincere Turkish officials from Erdoğan to Bağiş to Tan are, no matter how they talk to Western liberals. It was Bağiş’ threats and behavior which convinced me of the AKP’s and Tan’s insincerity on fundamental rights: Turkish officials simply do not throw around lawsuits without approval.
The Bağiş example is crucial as some American analysts look at Turkey as a model for the Arab spring, and the AKP as an example of the confluence of Islamism and democracy. The rhetoric of democracy, however, is not the same as democracy itself, in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, or anywhere else. Unless Washington judges Turkey on defined metrics: press freedom, the safety of women, and the right to free speech and association, and holds it accountable for its actions, both Turkish and Arab officials will conclude that talking the talk is enough, even as they backslide into illiberalism.