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Interview with an activist of the anti-war and ecological movement in Turkey on the ongoing repressions of the Turkish government against the civil society


picture alliance / NurPhoto

The Interview has been anonymized. (Deutsche Version)

Question: What kind of civil society organizations are currently under threat or have already been shut down?

Answer: After the coup attempt, the government declared a state of emergency for three months on July, 20. According to that, the government gained right to make decrees in the power of law. Since then the government enforced several decrees in the power of law and shutdown hundreds of schools, 15 universities, tens of media institutions, laid off thousands of workers in the public sector and arrested tens of mayors and Members of the Parliament (all from the political party consist of the Kurdish liberation movement and its allies- HDP). The government prolonged the state of emergency for three more months on October, 19. Regarding the recent issue of civil society organizations, the Ministry of the Interior shutdown 370 NGOs temporarily relying on the article 11 of the state of emergency law. According to that these NGOs will be under the investigation of the government based on the «measures taken for violent actions» of article 11. It means that there will be an investigation for these NGOs in the next three months and during this period they will not be able to function. These NGOs will be investigated for having any sort relations with illegal organizations from completely different ideologies such as 190 NGOs in relation to PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), 153 to the so called FETÖ (Fettullahist Terror Organization), 19 to DHKP-C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front), and 8 to ISIS (Islamist State of Iraq and Syria). 47 of 370 NGOs are located in Diyarbakır (a major city in the Kurdish region). So far the full list of the NGOs has not announced for security reasons but we know some of them from the social media like Progressive Lawyers Association, Agenda Child Association, and several women’s association (based mostly in the Kurdish region).   

Right after the coup attempt the government announced that the state of emergency is not for civil society but for the state. During the first three months Fettullah Gülen’s schools and «supporters» in the public sector beginning from the police forces, were targeted. However, the government expanded its targets from Gülen’s organization (which is accused of organizing the coup) to HDP and other opposition movements in the name of fighting against terrorism.

What are the reasons for the regime's crackdown of civil society?

The main reason is the war that Turkish state has been waging against the Kurdish liberation movement both within its own borders and in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s aggressive interventionist foreign policy in Syria and Iraq has been reshaping the state institutions by forming a new coalition between the far right groups of the military and bureaucracy (which is called Ergenekon) and the governing party. The fascist party (Nationalist Movement Party- MHP) has been supporting all of the repressive measures of the government as well including the presidency of Erdoğan. This is a coalition of war and this war has appeared as a result of not only internal politics but also developments in Syria like emergence of autonomous Kurdish provinces in Rojava and current war in Mosul.

The coup attempt finds its meaning only within this context of Middle East. We should not forget that there are 4 sections in the Turkish Army Forces and only the Second Army Section joined the coup attempt with its top generals. The Second Army is located in Malatya (in the Eastern Region) and responsible for protecting the Southern borders of Turkey. It is also the Army responsible for fighting against «terrorism». Prior to the coup attempt this Army has been waging a war in Kurdish cities. In short, it is the most active section of military. Second biggest support to the coup attempt came from the Air Forces. It was also another active section of the Military. The Turkish Military has a long tradition in intervention to politics, but recent trials of Ergenekon and Balyoz had significantly reduced its political power. Without the war these sections would not feel strong enough to make a coup. The war paved the way for a foggy environment for the junta to topple the government.

A state in war cannot be a democratic state at the same time. Since the coup attempt the government did not turn back to peace talks with Öcalan (the leader of the Kurdish liberation movement) and did not stop its interventionist foreign policy in Syria and Iraq. By misusing the opportunity to fight against the junta in the military, it is attacking every anti-government sections of the society. This is a serious threat not only for opposition and civil society but also for the parliament as such, including the governing party. If Turkey’s war in the Middle East turns into a serious economic and political crisis, we may see a new coup in the country and this time no one would protect the government.    

Democracy and peace in the Middle East goes hand in hand. Unfortunately, silence of the Turkish civil society in the war in Kurdish regions paved the way for anti-democratic measures. Trade unions, NGOs, and the main opposition party (CHP) should have built a strong peace movement as soon as the war began. However, most of them criticized the government only for breaching the human rights during its war against «terrorism» but not because of the war as such. Waging a war by respecting human rights is not possible! And a democratic regime which wages a war is not possible either! 

 What does that mean for staff, boards, and volunteers of those organisations?

So far none of the boards and staff of these NGOs are arrested. Depending on the results of the investigations, some of these NGOs will be shut down permanently for «supporting terrorism» and of course then trials will begin for their board and staff.

How is the reaction / coping mechanism of the remaining associations?

Most of the remaining associations have the fear to face with the same measures if they increase their voice against the government. Except determined left wing – socialist tendencies in Turkish and Kurdish civil society, we see a deepening silence. Under the state of emergency, closure of an NGO would not be the biggest penalty. Turkish government already put recognition of European Human Rights Convention on hold, maximum detainment duration was increased to 30 days, torture became a normal treatment again in the police investigations and thousands of left wing activists were arrested even without letting them know what they are charged against. State of emergency means the destruction of democracy. Until Turkey respects and applies democracy again, it will always require a big courage to challenge AKP and Erdoğan for civil society organizations.

What is the impact of those closures for Turkish civil society?

Recent closures were primarily targeting to destroy the structures of democratic opposition and to disseminate fear. Turkish civil society was already quite weak and lately developed, mostly starting with the 1990s. After the closures it gets weaker. Many feel themselves in a similar situation like the 1980s where a junta was governing the country. At the moment, a very small fraction around Erdoğan has an unlimited, uncontrollable power.

AKP re-structured the media sector in the past years. With very few exceptions, all major media channels are now pro-government. It could be the case that AKP is about to do the same for NGO field. In the recent years decreasing number of organizations had the courage to challenge AKP openly. After the closures, the number will be even less. Heavy oppression and lack of democracy create other sorts of oppositional expressions than direct challenging. It is likely that we will see a much more implicit discourse from the civil society when it comes to criticize AKP and government politics.

On the other hand, left circles will feel the urgency of getting united against AKP’s «state of emergency». In the weekend, thousands of people from a very wide left spectrum came together in Istanbul to demonstrate against AKP. Women organizations took the streets with thousands in several cities against a new legislation on child abuse. Some minor strikes began such as railway workers’ strike in İzmir. It’s likely that we will see a protest wave against antidemocratic measures.

We should not forget the state is restructuring itself for an unpredictable future in the Middle East and waging a war in the region. Erdoğan is the symbolic leader of this «new order». He call it «national and domestic» coalition. It is a coalition in the top of the state between the far right sections of the army (Ergenekon), the fascist party (MHP), and the governing party (AKP). However, this coalition has not formed yet. It is still in process. We saw with the coup attempt that the government does not have the authority in the state apparatus, neither have it today. This weakness is forcing the government to make a new coalition where the tension in the Middle East requires a strong state. The «national and domestic» front sometimes wins CHP concerning the «war against terrorism» and the military operations in Syria and Iraq but sometimes cannot win it on the issues like the state of emergency, closures of NGOs and alike. Another difficulty is that thousands of experienced workers and bureaucrats in public sector were laid off and replacing such a big number with experienced ones, from the intelligence service to the high court, is not that easy.

On the other hand, the «national and domestic» front has not established in the base of the society. Economic downturn, war, increasing unemployment, and turning back to oppressive state regime are not welcomed by working class. Their silence does not mean they are convinced in the new coalition and state structure. It is possible to see the general unhappiness and rising discontent in the society. This is a period of retreat for social movements. The «new» has not established yet. It includes significant contradictions. War and economic downturn forces the government to apply rough developmentalist measures. Massive destruction of environment causes local resistances in many cities; most importantly these resistances come from AKP supporters such as in Artvin, Bursa, Soma, etc. The government’s new legislations on private employment offices, reductions from minimum wage, attacks to severance pay, and supporting flexible labor market leads to a discontent in the working class and even in the pro-government trade unions.

These contradictions are leading to an accumulation of social tension in the society instead of a strong hegemony of the «national and local» coalition. Instead of spreading fear, factions of the left should focus on these contradictions and look for strategies to organize this rising discontent in the base of the government.  

How international solidarity and support could look like?

We appeal to international community to put pressure on their governments for ending their collaboration with Erdoğan regime. Turkey is a NATO partner and it has the dirty deal on refugees with the EU. Unfortunately leaders of the west chose to negotiate for their short term interests at the expense of fundamental democratic rights in Turkey. Geopolitical and economic interests should not take precedence over the global values of democracy and human rights. Rather these values shall be defended. To make deals with an antidemocratic system cannot be accepted. If your governments decide to end their collaboration with Erdoğan regime, then Turkish bourgeoisie would think again about their support for AKP.

Apart from that, we expect all sorts of symbolic solidarity action. This could be over social media or in other means. Spread the message of democratic resistance in Turkey. There is oppression, but there is resistance as well. Expose the oppressive politics of Turkish ruling classes. Make your solidarity with HDP more visible. Unfortunately some influential international NGOs decided to pull back their programs recently because of the ongoing oppression. It was very sad to see this. In contrary, we need their involvement at the moment more than any other time.