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How to approach the Turkish regime- Interview with Dr. Nikos Michailidis

21.01.2021
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Washington Kurdish Institute

Host: Matthiew Margala

January 21, 2021

The Washington Kurdish Institute hosted Dr. Nickos Michailidis, professor at Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Dr. Michaildis is an expert on Greco-Turkish relations. During the interview, Dr. Michailidis discussed the treatment of the minorities in Turkey, the relation between the West and Turkey, and Greece’s view on the Kurdish issue and Kurdistan.

How can opposition groups in Turkey effectively counter the Justice and Development (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) regime?

This is a tough question to answer, because the first thing we need to clarify is what do we mean by your position groups? For example, would we consider the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is an old mainstream Kemalists nationalist party? Would we consider this as an opposition party, for example? That’s a big question. I think that many of the groups and the political parties that described themselves as opposition in Turkey, to a certain degree, are controlled by the current Turkey’s regime. It’s interesting to see a kind of collaboration developing between the Islamists of Tayyip Erdogan and the Kemalists, not only that of the MHP, which is the extreme, radical, far-right-wing political party, but in some issues when it comes to the Kurdish problem, for example. We see that there is an extended agreement and collaboration among all the political parties in the parliament with the exception of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), of course, right?

So I would say that the only opposition party that we currently see in Turkey is the HDP. Its leader Mr. Demirtas, who is currently in prison as hundreds of members of that party and many MPs who are imprisoned. And of course by the term ‘opposition’, I also include various social activists and groups who operate outside of the mainstream political system. They have been, I would assume that most of them have been supporting the HDP, which is the only oppositional voice in the Turkish parliament. I’m really not sure how things will evolve, but so far the HDP has chosen to remain in the parliament, this is its strategy. I’m not sure how effective this strategy is. I think that this party should start utilizing more activist forms of political activity like public protests for example. I know this might sound a bit risky under the current situation and under the current regime, which does not hesitate to use violence. And on the other hand, I would also think that the HDP needs to develop a better international network in Europe and in the United States in order to attract various kinds of support from different political actors in various countries. I’m not very optimistic about, uh, the situation currently in Turkey and I’m afraid that violence may interrupt in the near future in major urban centers.

How should the EU pursue its relations with Turkey? 

There are many EU officials who believe that taking substantial measures against Turkey would feed the Islamist nationalist narrative, and which I think is really wrong. On the contrary, as I have argued together with my colleague Mehmet Efe Caman in a recent article that was published in the Jerusalem post, that the ongoing wait and see policy of the EU only strengthens the regime. And we should know that Turkey’s current economic crisis has been caused primarily by the regime’s mismanagement and unmaintainable nepotism and huge public construction projects with little economic return. And of course the devaluation of the Turkish currency cannot be stopped, continually driving prices higher in the country. The EU is a vital partner of Ankara in trade, in borrowing, and investment and Turkey desperately needs to improve the existing customs union and deepen its economic dialogue with Brussels more than ever before. 

So what I’m trying to say is that the EU still has important leverage over Turkey and for these reasons, I argue that instead of following an unproductive appeasement policy, the European Union should focus more on putting an end to the illegal and dangerous Turkey’s regime behavior. Brussels should not think of Anatolia as a kind of buffer zone as they have been doing for many years now. And also Europe should not think of the people of Anatolia as a kind of cheap labor force or consumers for European products. These are very shortsighted and poor strategies that undermine Europe security, and they use credibility as a value and norm-based community with democracy and the rule of law at its core. So instead of appeasement, that has been the main policy so far, I think that Brussels should develop a long-term policy for the real democratisation of Turkey by using multiple tools.

This means that the EU must take measures that will target the autocratic regime of Tayyip Erdogan. These measures could range from economic to political measures, such as freezing customs union with Turkey, blocking Ankara’s financial system, and other institutions from European funding, freezing all accounts of Turkish officials in Europe, for example, canceling Schengen visas of all Turkey’s bureaucrats, and officials, demanding the release of all political prisoners in Turkey, calling for democratic and constitutional amendments and for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue through dialogue and taking concrete steps in that direction. I think that all of these measures together would produce different outcomes and would obligate the Turkish regime to sit down and negotiate and start the process of democratization. I would also like to add that Germany, which is a core country in European Union should suspend its delivery of various kinds of weapons to the Turkish military in order to avoid igniting a war in the Eastern Mediterranean, and also in order to protect all the oppositional groups within Turkey that have been facing Turkish State violence and persecution. The EU as a whole, I think, should institutionalize an arms embargo against Turkey, and of course, against countries that disrespect the rule of law and threatted NATO member States.

The EU can help those who live in Turkey or abroad by creating various kinds of funding, educational, diplomatic, and journalistic tools. And this of course will be good for both the EU and of course, for the citizens of Turkey, regardless of their ethnic origin. The children of whom deserve to live in the geography of peace and democracy. So far, the appeasement policy that the European Union has been implementing towards Turkey, did not produce positive outcomes. This means that we need to change this policy immediately. 

How non-Turks perceived in the Turkish society?

This country was built on the Kemalist-nationalist ideology of assimilation, and of course, another element is radical nationalism as it was expressed by the MHP party and of course, Islam nationally. What I realized through my studies in Turkey and not simply by adding the literature, but also by talking to people and observing their daily routines and activities, Is that there are different ideas. Let me talk about Greeks first, there are people who have been citizens of Turkey, ordinary citizens of Turkey who have acquired positive attitudes and ideas about Greeks who consider them as neighbors. Of course, this is a quite romanticized approach because it relates to the idea that the Ottoman empire used to be a kind of in “a multicultural society” where people were living side by side, but I don’t think this is really true. This is a problematic rhetoric but that’s another topic. So there is this romantic ideology that you know, ‘Greeks are our neighbors and we’re living together, but then western nationalism and imperialism came into the picture and these beautiful coexistence was interrupted.’ This is basically the Kemalists narrative that describes the indigenous people of Anatolia, Greeks, and Armenians, and the Kurds, I would say, as an instrument of western imperialism. This is an extremely problematic approach and attitude that has spread into the Turkish political system and has influenced significant amounts of large segments, I would say, of the Turkish society. 

So despite the fact that many citizens might have a kind of romantic and positive idea about Greeks as an ex neighbors, et cetera, on the other hand, the Turkish state propaganda, cultivates hatred against not only Greeks, but also against Armenians and against the Kurds. So we need to realize that Greeks, Armenians, and the Kurds are seeing from Kemelist national ideology and of the current radical Islam or nationalist regime. And this is something that we need to work in order to change it. Let’s not forget that a genocide had been committed against Greeks and Armenians by the young Turks and the Kemelists in the beginning of the 20th century. And of course, mainstream Turkey’s nationalist ideology, not only does not acknowledge these events as a genocide, but on the contrary, the regime constantly acuse Greeks and Armenians for all the events that took place in the beginning of the 20th century. 

Now regarding the Kurds, the Kurds are seen as the non assimilated muscling groups of Anatolia or as “terrorists.” I’m afraid that we need to do a lot. We need to work a lot in order to undermine all these ideologies of hatred that have been cultivated by the Turkish state regime throughout the 20th century against the Greeks against the Armenians and of course, against the Kurds. I would say against the Alevis and other local ethnic groups of Anatolia Mesopotamia. 

How Greece views the Kurdish struggle across Kurdistan? 

It’s interesting. Let me tell you first about Greek citizens, the people of Greece, not the Greek state and the Greek government. So the Greek people have been very, very sympathetic to the Kurdish struggle for autonomy and for independence, because they can recognize themselves in the Kurdish struggle and what the Kurds are currently experiencing in the middle East, Greeks went through similar situations in the 19th century during their own struggle for independence. And I have to say that the Kurdish groups would benefit a lot if they study the Greek experience of revolution and the gaining of independence from the Ottoman empire, because they are going through similar experiences. I’m not saying it’s exactly the same because Greeks were Orthodox Christians, Kurds, majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. The dynamics are quite different, but there are many similarities as well that we need to study and understand. 

It is really important to state that not only the Greek citizens have been very supportive of the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, for human rights, for democracy and for independence, but also many people in Europe, many citizens of Europe. Now Greece is a country as a state has yet to develop a substantial policy for the Kurdish issue. I think that the country needs to build more bridges and more collaboration in order to help cure these voices to be heard in Europe and elsewhere. I think that Greece and then autonomous region of Kurdistan, for example, and other Kurdish groups in Rojava for example. There is great potential for developing better educational and trade relationships, first of all, and building these kinds of connections. And then these could possibly in the future expand into the future of security and maybe other things as well. 

What is important, I want to stress, is that Greeks in the past fought for independence, but they also struggled for democracy and for their own human rights and freedom, right? This is what the Kurds are currently doing. I truly believe that there is a bright future in the relationship between Greece and the various Kurdish regions and groups.But in order to achieve that, we need to work, especially those Kurds scholars who have knowledge of the region and they’re interested in the topic. We need to collaborate and create networks of collaboration and support in order to build an infrastructure that will facilitate the development of such a policy and the strengthening of bilateral relationships. But I truly believe that Greece and as a symbol of democracy because of its ancient past, and on the other hand, the Kurds whom I consider as the beacon of democracy in the middle East, can do a lot in order to work together and help people in the middle East live a more democratic space and political system in the region. 

US, EU, and NATO relationship with Turkey in the light of Erdogan’s anti- west policies 

Well, as we all know relations between Turkey and the United States gotta be out at the low point because of Turkey’s decision to laundry Iranian money and support Iran’s nuclear program, right? And of course, the decision of Turkey’s regime to buy the S 400 missile system from Russia, right? And this is a huge area of conflict with the United States and NATO. Of course the attempts of the Turkish regime to use foreign prisoners as bargaining chips under the cover of a remote controlled judiciary in the orbit of their regime. As we all know, there is no independent judiciary in Turkey. Now the heretic that Turkey is supposedly too important of an allyis highly disorienting and problematic. I do not think it’s true. These rhetorics that Turkey is supposedly very important for the West is a remnant of the cold war.It is a propaganda that is constantly reproduced by the Turkish influence networks in Europe and in the United States. I’m talking about journalists, think tank analysts, people who are actively involved in lobbying, et cetera. What is interesting to note is that while the TurkIish regime does its best to propagate itself as a Western bacon in the middle East, at the same time, it cultivates very strong ties and relationships with Russia, Iran, and China. We should not forget that. Turkey is doing its best to undermine US interests and presence in the middle East and recently in calf cashews with a war together with Azerbaijan against Armenia, right? 

No it’s not easy to predict what will happen in the near future regarding the relationships between the Turkish regime and various Western countries. When it comes to European Union, we need to keep in mind that Germany constitutes a serious problem here because Germany has developed very strong ties, very strong relationships with Turkey in the field of business and  of course, even education. And we should also keep in mind the demographics in Germany. We have significant immigrant groups from Turkey who currently live in Germany and they vote and they have an impact on the German political system. And we should also not forget the very close German-Otthman collaboration in the past in genocides, right? I spoke about genocide against Greeks and Armenians in the beginning of the 20th century. It was not only the Ottoman empire, but it was also Germany who participated in these processes. So there is a very strong German-Turkish state collaboration starting from the late 19th century. And that continues up until today. So Germany is one country that wouldn’t like to see the relationships between Turkey and the West breaking down.

I’m not sure about the United States. I do hope that the new administration president Joe Biden is going to follow a different path towards Turkey And of course, a different path towards the Kurds who have in the past have been somehow abandoned. They were left unprotected. I’m very optimistic that the new US government is going to support not only the Kurds but also all the groups in the middle East who are struggling for freedom, democracy and human rights in the various countries, like Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and of course Iran. So we will need to wait a bit more and see how things are going to evolve. But I don’t think that the relationship betweenTurkey and the West is going to be restored. very soon. I think we are going to experience really tough situations in the near future. I don’t believe many people in the West started realizing that Turkey is not part of the solution in the middle East. Turkey is part of the problem and they will sooner or later have to reshape, recalibrate their policies against this regime and decide whether they will fully support democratic forces or not. I am very optimistic that they will actually decide to support the Kurdish struggle, which is a struggle for pluralism, for democracy, for human rights and for freedom. 

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