Here is the translation of an incisive reflection -the kind we always like- on the current state of Turkey by Hamit Bozarslan.
Interview led by Serpil İlgün, published on October 3 2020 on Evrensel
“This is not an episode of the current order, but the reinforcement of the regime”
During the preceding week, one of the headline topics of discussion was the taking into custody of 20 women and men politicians from the HDP Party [Peoples’ Democratic Party]. Some of the politicians being interrogated while this interview is about to be published are people who played a role in the “resolution process”.1
We spoke with Hamit Bozarslan, political historian, director of studies at the EHESS, about the different aspects of this operation in current news. According to Bozarslan, the liquidation of the HDP is one of the most important objectives of those in power, but this objective must be understood in a historical perspective. Bozarslan says that in Turkey nowadays, there exists a cartel phenomenon [oligopoly] that has taken on hegemonic proportions and he underlines the necessary reinforcement and deepening of the zones of resistance in Turkey, and of the indispensable interconnections between them.
The operation targeting HDP politicians was interpreted as the break-up of the “Nation’s Alliance” 2, a signal of intimidation, through the HDP, for all opposition forces, in response to a call by this same HDP to “peace and an anti-capitalist front”, or again as “the sound of boots announcing an early election” and “a change in the present times”.
We will talk about the diversion of current affairs later, but let’s begin with your interpretation of the fact an operation targeting HDP politicians is being conducted once again, 6 years after the events of 5-8 October 2014. 3
The current debate revolves around the question of determining if we are witnessing a change in the agenda [allowing those in power to distract public opinion from economic or sanitary questions onto other topics] or a change in the “regime”. But in fact, it is rather the regime gaining strength. This is about the consolidation of a regime that is not only that of the years 2010, nor that of 2020, but of the 90s, or even of the 60s and 70s. In Turkey one sees a loss of memory which explains the forgetting of major scandals, such as the Susurluk affair 4 One must not forget the problem of uniformed gangs formed in the 90S, the problem of the JİTEM5. In the 90s in Turkey, one already witnesses a process of paramilitarization evident in the formation of new security units, tribal units of the ultra-nationalist mafia. The 90s inevitably lead us back to the 60s and 70s, meaning to the counter-guerilla, to the “commando” camps, the ultra-nationalism that was armed and transformed into militia… When looked at in this perspective, it is impossible to claim that the regime has changed in Turkey, quite the opposite, it is a matter of reinforcement of this regime which, in a historical process, shows this same instance of extreme levels of paramilitarization.
What is the difference?
The difference is the following: currently, Turkey has become something like a disoriented torpedo. The actual hegemonic block did not exist in the Turkey of the 60s, 70s, 90s. Today in Turkey, there exists a cartel phenomenon and, at the same time, there is a leader. Let’s say that this leader is both the fundamental source of legitimacy and its highest authority. But around this leader, there exist at the same time paramilitary forces having each their own dynamics. This ‘para-nationalization’ is clearly visible not only in the domain of security but also in the economy and articulates itself into the phenomenon of an hegemonic cartel. The fact this cartel attains hegemonic dimensions is a novelty. But in order to observe what is going on, we must look beyond the HDP, and return to the 60s and 70s.
Could you develop on the effects of this paramilitary training on the leader’s regime, as it affects the impossibility of a resolution of the Kurdish question?
Despite all the persecutions, arrests, massacres and electoral frauds, the current Kurdish movement is still powerful. Its electoral potential never dips below 10%. But what is at stake is not only the intimidation of the Kurdish movement, nor Erdoğan’s maintaining power through the liquidation of the HDP. This dynamic contains a social-darwinist historical dimension. It consists of a system of perception that considers Kurdicity as an almost biological enemy or again, reduces it to the sole dimension of security and sees it as a dynamic problem threatening the Turkish Nation. It’s a system of thought that starts with “Mîsâk-ı Millî” 6, setting as its objective the conquest of the entirety of Kurdistan. In fact, all these dimensions are present, and not only the question of the HDP. I think the liquidation of the HDP is currently one of the regime’s most important objectives, but they do not know how to proceed. They have seen clearly that the HDP could not be beaten electorally. It is extremely difficult for the AKP to manage presenting itself as an alternative to the HDP in the region 7. Perhaps this was feasible twenty years ago, but it is hard to imagine that the Kurdish electorate would return to the AKP, after all that has happened. It would also be difficult to imagine that the Kurdish electorate might go spontaneously toward “The Nation’s Alliance”. Which means that, yes, the HDP’s liquidation is one of the most important objectives, but it must always be examined in a historical perspective.
In one of your interviews in 2018, you said: “Turkey wants to impose itself as a regional force and weaken the Kurdish movement. Moreover, it repeats that the war is not only against the Kurds but against the West, particularly against the United States. Turkey is experiencing a powerful nostalgic pull toward Empire and needs to respond to it violently.” Lybia, the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece… If one recalls, there were steps backward in these regions, what else could you add to this observation? Of course, we must also bear in mind that in the current Azerbaïdjan-Armenia conflict, Turkey is providing all manner of support to Azerbaïdjan…
In Turkey, one can no longer even speak of a State. As I said, we can talk of a cartel, a front, a paramilitary block, but the classical profile of a State is non-existent, and its disappearance requires at the same time the disappearance of the rationality that allows for the existence of a State, including authoritarian ones. This is the reason why the regime in Turkey absolutely resembles a leaderless torpedo. Where this torpedo will strike is unknown. Opportunisms is the fundamental factor moving this drunken ship along (as German sociologist Karl Mannheim had suggested for the conditions prevailing in the 1920s). From which tactics replace strategy and the logic of “whatever works” replaces the strategic reasoning in a State. It consists in the brutal use of nuisance as a force. The States can also normally conduct diplomatic and military affairs in parallel, along with the economy, etc. But some States consider the transformation of the capacity to be a nuisance as the only worthwhile democracy. We saw this already in Mussolini’s Italy, and then in Nazi Germany… And this capacity to do harm, in the context of Erdoğanism, has been relatively successful in Turkey, at least up to this day.
In the latest observations, even if it has encountered certain limits, it has occupied a part of Syria, transformed a part of Syrian Kurdistan into a jihadistan; in Lybia, it was stopped, but has nonetheless played a role in the evolution of the war; in the Eastern Mediterranean, it was also stopped, but then immediately turned toward Azerbaïdjan, as part of the current crisis with Armenia. Which means that the regime cannot maintain itself if it is not provoking crises. It is a regime which, as an integral part of its radicalization, continually needs domestic or external crises. Crisis with Germany, crisis with the United States, crisis with Russia, with Greece… One gets lost in the chronology. One no longer can follow the number of crises, of all the episodes where a conflict was presented as involving the life or death of the nation, none remain in our memories. But also, these crises inevitably weaken the regime. We see this in the diplomatic area, and also in the economy. This is why I speak of the disappearance of State rationality.
The desire for vengeance offered as a replacement for democracy and justice
Erdoğan has called this governance system of managing crises through further crises, the “Turkish Model”. During the enlarged meeting of provincial presidents he said: “Even if Europe and the United States collapse completely in matters of democracy and economy, we here, we will continue development for our Nation. We are determined to lead this fight, for ourselves but also for our friends, be they historical or new relationships. That is the Turkish Model. Nowhere else will you find such a fair objective, an ideal of right and justice so deeply rooted, a democracy as sincerely built on human values”. What do you think of this definition?
Yes, I read the text of this speech. But already if we look at Erdoğan’s speeches during the months of February, March, April, he often says: “Turkey will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic reinforced!” Why will it emerge reinforced? Because all the others will be weakened. It is a question of the world’s transformation into a ruin, and the fact that Turkey will appear as the lord and master of the world, even if it is weakened itself. That is nothing new either. The Islamists were saying the same thing in the 1910s: “Europe will destroy itself some day in such a way that we will have our revenge for Turcity and Islam”. And of course, what is interesting in these speeches, is the fact Erdoğan presents this desire for revenge as a synonym of democracy and justice. Those Erdoğan describes as friends are, most probably, the Syrian militia à la Tripoli and those in Idlib.
We are faced with a “regime in motion” abolishing time
At the moment in particular, the main opposition is interpreting the operation against the HDP as “an effort to distract attention”. In fact, the framework you have drawn includes this topic also, but how do you see this discussion? If this operation is meant to distract from facts, what then are the current facts?
Personally, I do not use the notion of “distracting attention from current news”, in other words from important stakes such as the economic crises or the management of COVID-19. In my opinion, there are two important issues here. First, when in difficulty, those in power insure their existence, whether they want to or not, by fabricating enemies. Fabricating enemies is also an important way to remedy internal blockages. There is a second point: Hannah Arendt often mentioned it: certain regimes are ” regimes in motion” as were also those of Mussolini and Hitler. Regimes that cannot stop, cannot find stability, that are obliged to act constantly and modify their daily agendas. Which means that we are faced with a regime that constantly changes its daily agenda and, consequently, can no longer afford to take more than three to five days in order to manage the priority it has imposed on itself, and which transforms everything into a tactic. The aim of the blow against the HDP is its liquidation, depriving it of all space for legal action. But we must bear in mind the “perpetual motion” aspect without which the regime cannot survive.
Additionally in Turkey, certain institutions are selected as targets, reforms are undertaken. For example, the system of multiple Bars is applied. Hagia Sophia is transformed into a mosque…
The question is not only about Hagia Sophia. It has already been forgotten. Same for the multiple Bars. We must examine this: for example in Turkey, laws pertaining to mining have changed 200, 300 times over 18 years. The same holds true for the building of housing. Proposing “bulk laws”, in other words, fifty bills on as many separate topics and adopting them as a single law is also part of a government in motion. And beyond the movement, we witness the annihilation of all institutional structures… In motion regimes, the leader remains as the sole reference point. I think this is a fact in Turkey: the destruction of institutions, the transfer of legitimacy, concretely, on the leader who is a real person, and, abstractedly, to a historical mission which is an abstract fact.
The historical mission of Turcity which begins in Malazgirt 8 and which will last until eternity – yet will be re-initiated in 2017 – refers back to this abstract aspect.
Erdoğan is both extremely powerful and extremely weak at the same time
What approach do you take to the strength and weakness equation? Because according to some, Erdoğan is conducting heavy offensives, according to others this would come from his weakness…
In my reading of Turkey today, Erdoğan is weaker than he was in 2013. In the years 2000, he was a leader who had a legitimacy, despite everything. He could address himself to the different social strata and, at least in his own party, he had not destroyed the mechanisms insuring balance and control. Whereas now, Erdoğan’s word is the ultimate and concrete source of his legitimacy. At the same time, in order for this source to act, he needs components of the cartel which include the MHP [The Nationalist Action Party], the sovereignists, also Süleyman Soylu [Minister of the Interior] which perpetuate the tradition of Susurluk. Mehmet Agar [Minister of the Interior in the days of the Susurluk affair] is another component of this cartel. Each of these components considerably widen their respective window of operations. This is why, in final analysis, Erdoğan is both extremely powerful and extremely weak.
He can surprise the Parliament
What would you like to say about the oppositions’s comment: “Power is very blocked domestically and externally. With the approach of the voting urns, they will vanish”?
It is impossible to express a prediction on this. Ultimately, Maduro did not leave. Ultimately, there may be electoral fraud, changes to the law… In the United States, if there are five candidates, the one obtaining the most votes, wins. The same would be possible in Turkey also because, in fact, the regime has no need for parliamentary representation. It can just as officially tower over the Parliament. By transforming it into an open parliament, in its form, but emptied of all prerogatives; and indeed, this is already the case. We can see this in how the problem of health is handled, or with the answers Berat Albayrak [Minister of Treasury and Finances, Erdoğan’s son-in-law] provides parliamentarians’ questions, how he can put an end to the matter, just by providing a link to the internet. 9
The phenomenon of unpredictability must absolutely be worked into the equation
Early elections are a constant topic in the parliamentary opposition. The most widely accepted vision is that there can be no talk of early elections as long as Devlet Bahçeli [General secretary of the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party] has not brought it up. Would the main factor that would define Erdoğan’s steps, be they concerning early elections or other topics, be the positions adopted by those actors which you have mentioned, or the conflict of interests between them?
I cannot make a prediction on this topic; I run the risk of being proven wrong by history. But I can give you the following answer by returning to Hannah Arendt once again, but also to Karl Kraus: motion regimes are unpredictable.
I think any prediction we might express concerning the AKP and Erdoğanism may be proven wrong tomorrow. The reason for this is not that the prediction is illogical or irrational in the current conditions, but the fact of not taking into account the unpredictability in our equations. For example, after 2015-2016, some people said there was a convergence between the AKP and the MHP but, I think no one could have guessed that in such a brief period of time, the passage to a Presidential system would be realized thanks to the MHP. When speaking of unpredictability, this is partly what I am talking about. This is why in analyzing the regime, rather than asking when will the elections be held, if there will be early elections, one must bear in mind the phenomenon of unpredictablity. But once you factor it in, the equation becomes simply impossible to resolve.
Furthermore, the interests of the cartel’s components may also change. But this is impossible to predict in advance. Because, in speaking of paramilitazation, we are talking about forces in possession of serious means of violence, both legal or illegal. The PÖH 10 is an armed force, the JÖH 11 is another, SADAT 12 is also an armed force, and the militia in Syria are armed forces… In these conditions we cannot claim, as we could in the past, that “in Turkey, there is an army, and it can control everything”. Moreoever, this paramilitarization was already observed in the 70s and in the Susurluk affair in the 90s.
Currently, the number of actors with the potential for violence, and who could become independent from one another, is more important than it was in the past. It is truly impossible to predict today if tomorrow the interests of these components will merge with Erdoğan’s interests. And this also holds true for the MHP which is very powerful in its paramilitary structures. Will the MHP’s interests intersect with those of the AKP tomorrow, no one can guess. But we can say that by entering such a process of paramilitarization, and by accelerating it, Erdoğan has indeed taken huge risks.
Fortifying zones of resistance is necessary
You say: “The danger of facing tyrannical regimes whose sole legitimacy rests in their survival must be ruled out by politics. The fact that world wide, societies are entering a post-political period is a catastrophic scenario and could put an end to World History.” Is Turkey moving further and further away from the possibility of resolving its problems through politics?
In fact, I had said those words thinking rather of Europe. In that context, local elections in Italy allowed for some hope; the radical right and the rightist coalition did not success. Currently in Turkey, with a policy reduced to Party patriotism, in my opinion, it is very difficult to emerge from the crisis. But, In Turkey there is a phenomenon: spaces of resistance exist. Their reinforcement, their deepening and their interlinking are necessary. This also holds true for the Kurdish movement, for the women’s movement and also for the spaces and mechanisms for socializing youth, which are considered apolitical, but who are filled with serious expectations. In my opinion, it would be a huge mistake to ascribe solely to the elections the emergence from the crisis and the development of the image of a democratic society.
At the moment, one of the most urgent expectations is the safeguard of mental faculties, giving meaning to the world and to what is going on in Turkey.
When you examine the history of France in the period after 1958, you can identity 15, 20 historical milestones. When we look at Turkey, at least after 2013, there are hundreds of events those in power define each time as being “historical breaks” and this generates a serious loss of memory, and the destruction of mental faculties. The zones of resistance must, at the same time, allow for the rehabilitation of these cognitive faculties. These spaces of resistance can be individual, collective, take the form of theater, of reading centers, but it is mandatory that they render acceptable the notion of the legitimacy of resistance at the social level. Resistance must be defined as a legitimate right that establishes citizenship.
Photo: Hamit Bozarslan / Photo MA