World·BACKGROUND

Turkey's Erdogan: Doing it his way, at home and abroad

Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands at the centre of several crises, a couple of his own making and a couple more that he is using for his own ends. They all centre on his manipulation of refugees, primarily Syrians.

President creates crises, manipulates refugees and is about to install his own No. 2 yes-man

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses inside the newly opened 1,000-room White Palace in Ankara, the nation's capital, in 2014. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

This story was originally published in May. For updates on the attempted coup in Turkey, read more here.

How to escape the hackneyed song, sung off-key by so many, "I did it my way"?

Try the new, political version: "You go your way, we'll go ours."

Today's geopolitical songwriter is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey.  

He stands at the centre of several crises, a couple of his own making and a couple more that he is using for his own ends. He's a powerful man, and he revels in his power to divide and conquer.

The international crisis that centres on Turkey is that of refugees, principally Syrians. There are more than three million refugees in Turkey, 2.75 million of them Syrians, fleeing from the bloody dismemberment of their country.
Turkey's former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was muscled out of his job this month by President Erdogan. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Turkey's opening of its borders to so many fleeing war and persecution is an extraordinary act of humanitarian generosity. It's also a monumental reproach to the countries of Europe, which have dragged their feet on accepting refugees. 

But the burden is great, as wars in Syria and Iraq stretch on. Some refugees have been camped in Turkey for years. In the coastal city of Izmir alone, where I was working recently with refugees, there are an estimated 200,000.

The strain is enormous, first on the almost 90 per cent of refugees not living in camps.  

For years they were legally barred from working. But they must live, which means many, including children, work illegally, or at jobs that barely pay.

We met Firaz in the street. He lost a forearm and three fingers on his other hand in industrial accidents as a boy. Then war and bombs flattened his house in Aleppo and he and his family fled to Turkey and Izmir.  

Now this disabled man, sometimes helped by his seven-year-old son, drags a trolley through the streets collecting cartons, plastic and aluminum cans. By the end of the day his load may weigh 100 kilograms as he drags it to the collection centre.  

He's paid a few dollars for his haul. It's all he can do to feed his large family of seven children.  

"This is my future, hard work to feed my kids," he says. This reality is my future."
Makeshift barricades fill the streets as left-wing protesters light a fire while trying to avoid tear gas used by police to disperse them in Istanbul on July 26, 2015. Police and protesters clashed over Turkey's attacks against Kurdish militants. (Cagdas Erdogan/AP)

Turkey has spent billions of dollars supporting refugees, principally the more than 300,000 in refugee camps. The others have existed in a sort of limbo.

Then last year the floodgates opened. Flotillas of rubber dinghies started carried refugee from Turkey to Greek islands. More than one million flowed into Europe, and several thousand lost their lives in the dangerous sea crossing. 

The old city of Izmir became a staging area, besieged by refugees, many sleeping rough. They streamed into several cafés where smugglers held court. They were ready to pay $1,000 US for the crossing and the smugglers were ready to take their money. Some smugglers were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. 

The Turkish government did little or nothing.

Billions of euros for Turkey

By the end of 2015 European leaders were panicking. Led by Germany's Angela Merkel, they hammered out a deal with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's No. 2. The Europeans would pay Turkey billions of euros to block the flow, and they would take one refugee for every economic migrant returned from Europe to Turkey.

But, above all, Europe would waive visa requirements in the so-called Schengen zone (which doesn't include Britain) for Turks wishing to travel to Europe.

After the accord, the smugglers and the dinghy flotilla disappeared. Turkish warships are now seen patrolling the waters where the refugees once crossed.

It seemed like a singular victory for Davutoglu and Turkey. Then Erdogan stepped in.  

In early May he abruptly muscled Davutoglu out of his job. One theory was that he was jealous of Davutoglu's success and worried that he was becoming too independent.

The next day, Erdogan announced a congress of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which called itself a moderate Islamic party when it came to power 15 years ago. At that congress on Sunday Erdogan will see a pliant yes-man chosen as prime minister.
Supporters of President Erdogan hold up mobile phones and wave Turkish flags ahead of his visit to Cologne, Germany on May 24, 2014. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Then he and his new yes-man will press ahead with his announced plan to turn Turkey into a French-style presidential republic. Erdogan will take on the mantle of a Muslim Charles de Gaulle. 

Having created one crisis, Erdogan then sparked another. He all but tore up the refugee-visa agreement with the EU. That's when he said, "You go your way, we'll go ours." 

Then came a real burst of anti-European fury. Erdogan accused European leaders of "hypocrisy" for demanding that Turkey amend its anti-terrorist laws to bring them into line with judgments by the European Court of Human Rights if it wanted visa-free access to Europe. 

In Erdogan's legal armoury, the anti-terrorist laws can be and have been used against many who oppose his government's policies. That includes academics and journalists, several dozen of whom languish in prison.

It's a crime to insult Erdogan

There's another potent legal weapon – a law making it a criminal offence to insult the president. More than 1,800 people have been charged under it.

His divisive approach, accompanied by the drumbeat of accusation and angry rhetoric, has left many fearful that he wishes to tear up the foundations of the non-religious republic created in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan's view, often stated, is that women should be modest and veiled.

Educated women, in particular, are angry. "I fear him and hate him. He acts like a sultan," several said to me.

He also acts like a warrior, unleashing his armed forces against not only ISIS in Syria but also the minority Kurds in Turkey and in Iraq and Syria. There have been murderous bomb attacks in retaliation in several Turkish cities. 

The atmosphere is panicky and unsettled. The group I was with, sent to profile refugees in Izmir, was stopped six times in three days and questioned by police, who had been called each time by suspicious residents.

In the midst of this, the refugees appear to be millions of pawns on a geopolitical chessboard.

One of Erdogan's advisers spelled it out in a recent tweet. If Europe doesn't knuckle under and agree to visa-free travel for Turks by the end of the year, if it makes what he called "a bad decision," then, in his words, "we send the refugees."

Erdogan is a man determined to do it his way.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.

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