Daniel Dombey of the London Financial Times on March 24 recounted a curious detail of the recent offensive against Twitter, the online mini-blogging service, by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Dombey wrote that Erdoğan "accused Twitter of fomenting unrest in Ukraine." Russian president Vladimir Putin and his supporters in the seizure of Crimea, both uniformed and in civilian disguise, have not been known for using social media to coordinate their activities, while Ukrainian revolutionaries are adept at employment of Twitter and similar media. One might therefore conclude that Erdoğan feels an affinity with Putin in opposing the Ukrainian protestors.
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2004 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
In such a context, Erdoğan would disclose yet another confusing aspect of his recent conduct. Erdoğan has attacked Twitter because it is a means for members of the public to transmit news of corruption investigations touching the Islamist leader and his family. According to the London Independent of March 22, "Links to leaked recordings have been popping up on two Turkish Twitter accounts, including one in which a voice resembling Erdoğan's instructs his son to dispose of large amounts of cash from a residence amid a police graft investigation. Erdoğan, who denies corruption, said the recording was fabricated."
In reaction to the controversy, Erdoğan has engaged in embarrassing public tirades. The Daily Telegraph in London reported on March 21 his declaration to supporters in the city of Bursa the day before, that in a shutdown of Twitter, "Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic." In the opinion of Diana Moukalled of the authoritative Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat [The Middle East], whose March 26 column was posted in English by the Dubai-based Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya, Erdoğan behaves "like a man possessed... He threatened to 'wipe out' Twitter and declared that he would not pay attention to any domestic or Western reaction. He went ahead and implemented a court order, and blocked Twitter from the Turkish public. He then followed up his war on Twitter by threatening two other websites, Facebook and YouTube, warning of what he called 'Turkish anger.' "
Erdoğan's anti-Twitter campaign has failed to elicit unanimous approval among his peers in the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP]. Turkish president Abdullah Gül tweeted his disagreement with such actions, affirming, according to the same Daily Telegraph article of March 21, "The shutdown of an entire social platform is unacceptable. Besides, as I have said many times before, it is technically impossible to close down communication technologies like Twitter entirely. I hope this measure will not last long."
On March 26, the Telegraph announced, "A court in Turkey has ordered the lifting of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Twitter ban last week. The move comes six days after Ankara's telecommunication authority blocked access to the social network site."
But how may we interpret Erdoğan's "slip" about Twitter and Ukraine? Turkish media, especially the state broadcaster TRT, have dedicated considerable attention to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. As TRT pointed out on March 1, Erdoğan's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, travelled to Ukraine to express official concern about the condition of the Crimean Tatar minority, the oldest community living in Crimea, which supports the new Ukrainian government against Russia's occupation.
Erdoğan has spoken by telephone with Putin, and Russian media, reported by the leading Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News, has alleged that "Both sides expressed certainty that, despite the aggressive actions of radical and extremist forces of the Maidan, there would be success in providing for inter-ethnic and interfaith peace and calm in Crimea." If this is true, Erdoğan would appear to have lined up with Putin in condemning the Ukrainians. It may not be coincidental that, as The Washington Post observed in an editorial on March 25, Erdoğan has indulged in a binge of political abuses "that even Russia's autocrat might find impressive."
From his background as a poor street-food vendor to his position as Turkey's new "sultan," Erdoğan, who is now 60, has had an impressive career. He has become, after the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country's defining personality. Many see in him an authoritarian bias along with his populist ideology, personal self-regard, and charisma. But he appears, with the approach of elections, to be fighting for his political life.
That would not be a new motif in his biography. Erdoğan has always had to fight for survival. He sold tasty snacks and lemonade as a boy in the slums of Istanbul. Ambitious to become an Islamic cleric, he was sent for training as an imam by his father, a sailor. He was said to be a talented soccer player scouted by the leading Istanbul team, Fenerbahçe. But his father opposed a sports career, and Erdoğan turned to politics.
Today, criticism of the "sultan" is risky. He has no opponents inside the country serious or powerful enough to balance his ambitions. Turkey continues to imprison dozens of journalists. Erdoğan dealt harshly, last year, with protestors against the Gezi Park construction project. With his leadership in crisis, he blames obscure forces abroad for alleged "coup attempts," drawing the ranks of the AKP closer to him. On giant billboards around Turkey his face is omnipresent.
In his assault on Twitter, he claimed that the recorded conversations portraying him and his family as corrupt were "immoral montages" produced in a "dirty operation" against him. But contradictorily, he has admitted, as stated by a column in Hürriyet Daily News on March 6, that two of the recordings are authentic. These deal with illegal influence over a court proceeding involving the Doğan Group in media, and interference with a bid for construction of a warship. The conversations reveal him discussing such actions as a proposed removal of the head of the Fenerbahçe soccer club, whose fans have turned against him, his determination to crush the media entrepreneur Aydın Doğan, and, again and again, Erdoğan's interest in money.
He shut down the judicial inquiry into accusations of personal malfeasance, as recalled in the previously-mentioned editorial in The Washington Post on March 25.
In the recorded exchanges, as published in the March 6 Hürriyet Daily News column, Erdoğan has expressed a need to strike against Mustafa and Ali Koç, owners of Turkey's largest industrial entity, the Koç Group. The alleged sins of the Koç family, in the eyes of Erdoğan, are many. He claims they are servants of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist cleric, formerly an AKP ally, but with whom Erdoğan now fights for influence. Mustafa Koç denies the charge. A Koç-owned hotel allowed demonstrators shelter during the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013, after police attacked participants with tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets. In the March 3 Hürriyet Daily News, Mustafa Koç said, "We need clean politics... We should defend, continuously and consistently, democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, universal values, individual rights and freedoms."
The municipal elections held yesterday will show whether the Turkish people want to punish Erdoğan or continue to believe in him.