Turkey’s fiery, if thin-skinned, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a love-hate relationship with the press. He loves the organizations that show appreciation of his policies and seems to hate those that don’t. Heis prone to threaten the offending publications with lawsuits, while urging their boycott by advertisers and readers alike.
Little surprise then that Erdogan should bristle at many of the stories emanating from the Wikileaks disclosure of diplomatic cables over the past few weeks. The notoriously hard-working premier wanted to sue a former United States ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, for claiming, according to some of the press reports, that he had secret bank accounts in Switzerland.
If any such accounts could be found, he proclaimed to the media, he would donate the total deposits to the main political opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). In addition to Edelman, he also wanted to sue the US State Department for uttering such a calumny. The excitable Turkish press debated for days the practicalities of putting such a threat into practice, seeking opinions from senior members of the legal establishment.
While the threat of legal action made for lurid headlines, it somewhat misses the point. The content of the cable was not that he had Swiss bank accounts but that the ambassador had been told by two sources that they existed. The cable did not include an opinion about the likely truth of the claims. It was also a confidential document — essentially a private conversation — between the envoy and his bosses in Washington. Edelman also described Erdogan as having “unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God had anointed him to lead Turkey” and an “overweening desire to stay in power.”The latter comment, of course, is less an insightful piece of news for the home base than a glimpse of the blindingly obvious regarding any political leader.
In any case, a more likely target for lawsuits than the State Department would have been either Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, or the myriad media outlets that published the cables. In a political environment as beset with gossip, rumour and mendacity as Turkey’s, the prime minister’s tetchiness understandable, even if the tendency to use some of his boundless energies in pursuing the authors of published criticism is perhaps as wasteful as it is unrewarding.
More significant than the tittle-tattle tales of tabloid headlines is the general picture that the US diplomatic service, overall, rejects the notion that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is hell-bent on turning Turkey into an Islamic state similar to Iran or Sudan, or even that it is unreasonably turning its back on the West and switching its allegiance eastwards. What the cables do suggest is that Turkey has been redefining its place in the world ever since it realised that its importance as the eastern flank of NATO diminished after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Especially since 2002, when the AKP came to power, the country’s security policy has been integrated with its economic transition and growth. Turkey’s strength is better illustrated by the size of its economy than the number of soldiers in its army. The cables may be tiresome and embarrassing but are not even news for the most part.
If Erdogan wants an example of real toughness in the face of adversity, maybe his aides could show him one leaked cable that doesn’t even mention him or the AKP. In January of last year, a 75-year-old American, Hossein Ghanbarzadeh Vahedi, walked into the consular section of the US Embassy in Ankara after a dramatic escape from Iran, where he had been held for seven months. Vahedi, according to the cable, had travelled to the country to visit the grave of his parents when, for reasons he never discovered, the authorities confiscated his passport. Vahedi rejected the offer of handing over $150,000for its return and opted instead to pay people to smuggle him out of Iran. After three days of furtive flight, including a nightmare 14 hours on horseback over a freezing mountainous trail, Vahedi reached Turkish soil where he took a bus for Ankara. That’s real fortitude in the face of adversity.
Peter Grimsditch is Executive’s Istanbul correspondent