Nomenklatura: Turkey’s real challenge

Under pressure from its allies and partners abroad and with growing resentment at home, the Turkish government may launch a series of reform packages in Parliament next year to placate mounting concerns about the Turkey’s direction. However, many consider the reforms to be nothing more than a political face-saving measure for Turkish leaders. The EU could open new chapters in accession talks but as long as the political culture and posturing by decision-makers remain the same, the proposed changes will not be able to reorient Turkey in a progressive direction.

Considering that the government does not even implement existing laws, violates articles of the Constitution and overlooks significant violations in due process and fair trial procedures, it is unrealistic to expect the political leadership to engage in a serious reform endeavor to reverse the regress. There are so many cases in the last two years that even judges and prosecutors who exercise latitude and authority in favor of freedoms in judicial proceedings have been arbitrarily punished, abruptly reassigned, purged and in some cases even arrested because they rendered judgments that were not to the liking of the government.

Moreover, the window of opportunity to make an impact on the Turkish government and encourage reform is simply not there, at least for now. Unless regional crises such as troubled ties with Russia and spillovers from the Syrian and Iraqi upheavals turn into full-blown domestic disputes in Turkey, there is no incentive for the Islamist rulers to return to the fundamental values of Turkish society. In fact, it seems the opposite happened when Turkey’s Islamist rulers skillfully exploited the refugee crisis to curtail the pressure from the EU and gave concessions to the US in terms of broader access to key bases in the country in exchange for political support and toned-down criticism.

Then the question becomes what to do and how one should go about prodding the government in the right direction in order to realign it with the existing commitments Ankara has already made with respect to the values and norms of the EU and the Council of Europe. I think the first order of business is to disrupt and dismantle the newly emerged nomenklatura system that the Islamists have been trying hard to establish in the political and economic system of Turkey to sustain their grip on power. The system, somewhat similar to the ones seen in former communist regimes, is based on an all-powerful governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) that is controlled by the strongman Erdogan.

Through the AKP, the Islamists are able to appoint partisans to key positions not only in the government but also in the judiciary, the economy, the media, civil society and other influential positions throughout Turkish society. It does not matter whether they are run by the government or private entities because even major companies are compelled to retain influential partisans and ideologues on their boards to protect their interests and investments against the wrath of the AKP government.

This nomenklatura is the key to controlling the levers of power in Turkey. It also helps the political Islamists consolidate power, pursue ideological proxy battles in Turkey’s neighborhood and beyond and enrich themselves through graft and embezzlement in the meantime. Therefore as long as this system remains in place, any reform package that is aimed at ensuring an impartial judiciary, the rule of law, a free market, rights and freedoms is bound to be meaningless. In fact, by inserting carefully orchestrated amendments to the reform bills at the eleventh hour in parliamentary deliberations, the situation can be made worse than already it is.

There are several tactical maneuvers that can be put in place to shake down the nomenklatura tree. Naming and shaming notorious figures in this network and putting them under the spotlight for their clandestine business deals could very well help dissuade others from engaging in similar illicit behavior that has no place in democratic regimes in the first place. Those who are involved in criminal activity could also be targeted with harsher measures such as specific sanctions and lawsuits in order to send a stronger message that they cannot go on and live their lives as usual with impunity.

Germany may have done so recently when it dragged a close aide of Erdogan to court on espionage charges in an unprecedented case that revealed massive profiling and conspiracies by Turkish intelligence operatives to stir tensions among some 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany. Berlin made it clear it would not allow Erdogan’s pet projects rooted on political Islamist ideology to disrupt German society. When the message was heard loud and clear by Erdogan and his associates, the case achieved its political objective and was discontinued.

Another move would be to offer recognition and rewards to those who show some backbone in adopting genuine reforms in Turkey. That could help weaken the hostile posturing among the circle of senior officials that makes Turkey less conducive to reforms. In other words, a carrot-and-stick approach could encourage divisions within the nomenklatura and make it difficult for the leadership to stifle dissent in the face of less willingness for complacency in its midst.

Let’s remember that one of the bases for this nomenklatura stems from the interpretation of a special blend of hardline political Islamist ideology that is projected to a larger audience in Turkey and abroad. That is why Erdogan, his key advisers and his associates in the government love to brag about the so called “Islamic cause” in political rally speeches and mention landmark places like Gaza, Sarajevo, Kosovo, Myanmar, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and others as special places that need Turkey’s protection. The underlying theme is that without them in power, the plight of Muslims worldwide will worsen to a great degree. This counterproductive partisan ideology must be exposed in the sense that what the Islamists have been doing is producing the opposite and doing a huge disservice to Muslims because ideological zealotry and dwelling on meddlesome policies provokes confrontation, stirs a backlash and invites the wrath of other governments that are uneasy about blatant interference in domestic affairs.

There is no strong fraternity that supports this nomenklatura even though they often espouse it during internal discussions among close supporters. The term “fraternity,” which perhaps used to mean a common bond at one time in the past, is now being exploited to silence mutinies and stifle dissent among the rank and file. In fact, it was replaced by an absolute allegiance to the leadership. Anybody who opposes Erdogan or does not behave the way he wanted would be marginalized, demoted and discredited. Some may even be purged and jailed. This represents the weakest link in the survival of the nomenklatura.

Just looking at the names in the government and in the ruling party, one cannot help but notice that effectively all of them are Erdogan loyalists who have done dirty work on behalf of the leadership at one point of time or another and are ready to do his bidding in the future. None of them secured their positions based on merit or qualifications but were rather rewarded for the blind allegiance to the leadership. Hence, they are bound to make more mistakes in governance and fail in containment and damage control during times of crisis. The fragmentation of the civil service along ideological and partisan lines will aggravate this governance crisis because it will likely paralyze the bureaucracy and set the stage for bureaucratic infighting.

In any case, the chance for the Turkish nomenclature to survive challenges in the medium and longer run seems highly unlikely given that there is no traditional and historical base for it. Unlike in Romania where former communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu had his own demise following the abrupt breakdown in his own nomenklatura system, Turkey has never endured such a tradition in its recent republican history. That shows we have a lot to be hopeful about.