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Why is Turkey going through radical change?

Kasaba and Barkey

January 3, 2017

“Turkey is going through a difficult and quite significant change,” said Henri Barkey, a public policy expert, former U.S. government official and director of the middle east program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in D.C. to over 150 students, faculty and members of the public on the evening of December 13 in Kane Hall.

Director Reşat Kasaba introduced Barkey, who spoke on “Turkey: A Troubled Country in a Troubled Region.”

Barkey was accused by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of helping plot the July 15, 2016 attempted coup in Turkey. Barkey wrote an opinion piece published by The New York Times in September called “Why is Turkey accusing me of a coup?


Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in D.C. Henri Barkey spoke at UW on Dec. 13 about the power struggle in Turkey today.

Turkey’s political system is shifting
Barkey opened the discussion referencing two big events that happened in Turkey on Saturday, Dec. 10: the downtown bombing in Istanbul that targeted and killed police officers, and the new constitution proposal sent to Parliament by two political parties for a vote.

The proposal, if passed, would bring a radical change to Turkey’s governance as it would shift the country from a parliamentary system to a presidential one that is tailored, he said, for the current President Erdoğan.

In referencing the origins of the Dec. 10 bombing, he named the Kurdish situation as one of the country’s greatest challenges.

He emphasized these two domestic challenges coupled with international challenges.

“Two men have dominated Turkish politics since 1923,” he said, referencing the founder of the Republic of Turkey and former President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and President Erdoğan.

In comparing similarities and differences between the nationalist and political and economic policies of the two political figures, Barkey noted the recent appearances of attacks by the Turkish press on former President Atatürk, such as calling him a “British agent.”

A power struggle between two former friends  
He noted the change in Erdoğan’s presidential reign during his tenure of the last nearly 15 years from one of openness and modernization to one of elimination of senior party members and surrounding himself with a cadre of few he trusts.

Today’s power struggle in Turkey, Barkey explained, is between President Erdoğan and the one he accuses as plotting a conspiracy against him, Pennsylvania-based Muhammet Fethullah Gülen, who was a former ally prior to 2013.

In 2013, Erdoğan accused Gülen of leading an investigation into corruption in Turkey.

“Since 2013 there has been a ferocious fight for power,” Barkey said about the two men. There is currently a “cleansing of the state” as a result, with the dismissal or imprisonment of over 110,000 bureaucrats, journalists, and academics among others.

President Erdoğan plans to remain in power to 2029, and there is no opposition able to topple him at this juncture, he said. Erdoğan sees himself as the leader of the Muslim world, Barkey emphasized, with the desire to transform Turkey into a regional power.

The role of Syria and Kurds in Turkey’s stability

Henri Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C. also met with Jackson School graduate students during his visit to UW.

Henri Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C. also met with Jackson School graduate students during his visit to UW.

“One of the biggest surprises of the Syrian crisis has been the emergence of the Syrian Kurds as a major fighting force,” said Barkey. “They turned out to be an offshoot of the PKK [Kurdistan Worker’s Party which comprises Turkish and Iraqi Kurds] and had been trained by — and also in turn helping — Turkish Kurds.”

The Kurdish struggle for independence in Turkey dates back to the 1920s.

President Erdoğan, he said, used to be focused on killing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He has since shifted that desire to eliminating the Kurds in Syria.

“The ongoing crisis in Syria has created a dangerous trend in Turkish politics,” Barkey said in conclusion. “If you [read] any pro-Erdoğan newspaper today it says the U.S. is arming the PKK [in the fight against ISIS]. The rhetoric is amazingly anti-American and amazingly anti-West.”