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The Sick Man of Europe

Turkish people wave flags of their country as they take part in a Democracy and Martyrs' Rally in Istanbul, August. 7, 2016. (Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service via AP)

John Russell in 1853 coined the term ‘Sick man of Europe’ for the fragile Ottoman Empire. Successive Ottoman emperors failed to devise a political, economic and social system compatible with the enlightened Europe. The Tsarist Russia and other European powers expanded their territory at the expense of the Ottomans. Constant mutinies and wars with European powers took their toll on the weakening empire and it lost all its territories on the European continent. The First World War proved to be a nail in the coffin for the once magnificent empire. The defeat in this war summoned the end of the Ottoman era. On November 1, 1922, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and the modern Turkish republic came into being.

The first President of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk initiated the process of secularization by abandoning the Islamic system prevailing under Ottoman Empire. Revolutionary reforms were made; a secular constitution was adopted, women were given political rights, and the Ottoman Turkish alphabet was replaced with the new Latin alphabet. This brought temporary stability in a period of ‘great depression’. In the post-Kemalist era, Turkey witnessed a number of military coups. Political instability triumphed and the civil-military relations were at their lowest ebb.

The Turkish romance with liberalism and secularism ended when the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul became the Prime Minister of a country which was in political and economic turmoil. Mr. Erdogan spent 11 years as the Prime Minister and was later elected as the President in August 2014. He brought massive economic and political reforms in the country. The threat from the PKK was also countered to a great extent in the early years of his office which resulted in peace and stability. Turkey saw an economic boom during Erdogan’s premiership. Between 2002 and 2007, Turkey’s economy expanded by an average 6.8% a year. Turkey has taken great economic strides in the past 15 years. It became the eighth biggest food producer and sixth most popular tourist destination. Its textile and arms industries also saw a boom during this period.

Mr. Erdogan also checked the intervention of the military in the political affairs of the state. Since Mr. Erdogan took office, many former Turkish Generals have been tried for violation of the constitution. He strengthened the Turkish police which played a vital role in countering the failed military coup in July 2016. However, Turkey seems to have lost the impulse for progress which it enjoyed during the early years of President Erdogan. A number of political, social, economic and security issues have surfaced since 2011 which seem to have plunged Turkey into chaos.

President Erdogan is criticized for Islamizing the secular Turkey. His political opponents especially the ‘Gulenists’ accuse him of reverting to the old Islamist traditions of the Ottoman era. The Gazi Park Protests which began in the summer of 2013 involving hundreds of thousands of protestors, exposed deep divisions within the country i.e. between the Turkish conservative Muslims and the secularists. The forceful dispersal of these protests in which eleven people were killed and more than eight thousand were injured attracted huge criticism from across the world. It also hindered the Turkish desire of becoming a member of the European Union.

These protests were immediately followed by the third phase of Kurdish-Turkish conflict beginning in July 2015 after the failure of a two and a half year-long peace process. The war in Syria saw an influx of Kurdish refugees into Turkey. The attack of Islamic State forces on the Kurdish majority in the northern Syrian town of Kobane exacerbated the conflict between the Kurds and Turkish security forces when the former accused the latter of supporting IS. Parts of southern and eastern Turkey were overtaken by PKK and the Turkish army is still busy in rooting out insurgents from these areas. The July military coup in Turkey increased pressure on the Turkish government which is already reeling from the terrorist attacks by the PKK and IS.

The civil war in Syria provoked Turkey’s interference; partly due to its own desire and partly due to the necessity. Since the start of civil war in Syria, Turkey started supporting the Free Syrian Army which was established under the supervision of Turkish intelligence agencies. The fighters from the Free Syrian Army captured large swaths of territory. However, their gains were reversed by the Syrian regime forces and Islamist groups mainly the Islamic State with whom the FSA is now engaged in a war of attrition. The rapid gains clinched by the Kurds in northern Syria along the Turkish border posed an existential threat to the national security of Turkey. It sent its forces into northern Syria to conduct ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’.

The security situation inside Turkey is worsening every passing day. Since the start of 2016, almost five major attacks have taken place in Istanbul in which almost a hundred and thirty civilians and security forces personnel have been killed. These attacks have been attributed to PKK and the IS. The security situation coupled with the political uncertainty in Turkey has raised many questions on the Turkish government’s involvement in Syria and its crackdown on the Kurds inside Turkey.

The recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a police official deputed for the security of the same has tarnished the image of Turkey worldwide. The relations between the two states worsened after the shooting down of a Russian bomber by the Turkish Air Force. However, the two states made rapprochement and their relations ameliorated considerably after the failed coup attempt in Turkey. Prima facie, this assassination seems to have caused no damage to the Russo-Turkish relations but it will have implications in the near future and has aggravated a sense of insecurity in Turkey.

Turkey is now embroiled in multifaceted problems. From the political opposition to the rule of Mr. Erdogan’s AK Party to the attempted military coup against it and from the military operations inside Turkey against PKK to the Turkish intervention in Syria, it can be inferred that Turkey’s quandary will only compound.

The Ottoman Empire began to descend from its zenith after the battle of Vienna in 1683. It exhausted to such a level that it was labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’. The modern day Turkey, a transcontinental country desires to be a member of the European Union. However, it is now marred by political precariousness and its security forces and military are over-stretched. The economic boom which it witnessed in the first decade of the twenty first century has now waned. A leap into history makes one realise that the Ottoman Empire was labelled a sick man due to these very reasons. Modern day Turkey might not have abased to that degree, but if it continues on the same path, it might again be the Sick Man of Europe and the Middle East soon.

Zeeshan Munir

has done LLM in International Law from the International Islamic University, Islamabad

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