A Turkish turnaround?

Most reasonable people would agree that the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been heading, alarmingly, towards authoritarianism. Erdoğan has been accused of imprisoning journalists, censoring the media, attempting to exert political influence over the courts, and using the security services for his own purposes. He has pushed through revisions to the country’s constitution, arguably in his favor. He served as Turkey’s prime minister for more than a decade before becoming president. But there is one fact that is difficult to reconcile with this chain of events. Included as part of Turkey’s recent agreement with the EU on Syrian refugees was a little-noticed, and even less-discussed, provision: resumption of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. On the face of it, it is a paradox. If Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian, why on earth is Erdoğan attempting to re-open accession negotiations? After all, part and parcel of EU accession negotiations is an intrusive and meticulously verified set of requirements for democratic reforms. Is Erdoğan schizophrenic? Was the measure adopted by the Turkish government despite Erdoğan’s opposition? Or, just possibly, is Erdoğan misunderstood? I would argue the latter – and that there is a distinct possibility of a Turkish turnaround. It is undeniable that Erdoğan has shown authoritarian tendencies. But he has also been misunderstood, for two reasons. First, his rhetoric is worse than the reality; and second, he has been pushed by circumstances into his authoritarian role. On the topic of Erdoğan’s rhetoric, he suffers the problem of any politician who relies on pious supporters: he’s scary when playing to his base. Of course, it is not only Erdoğan who...

Why a federal Ukraine is a worst-case scenario

Ahead of US-EU-Russia talks on the future of Ukraine on Thursday, pro-Russian protesters – possibly assisted by Russian special forces – have escalated their disruptions in Eastern Ukraine beyond Crimea. While media coverage is understandably alarmist, these disruptions are not necessarily worrying signs. Ahead of negotiations there is always a rush by the negotiating parties to establish facts on the ground to support their positions. This is why Israel inevitably pushes forward with building settlements just ahead of negotiations with Palestine; is why both sides in Sudan’s conflict ramp up hostilities each time peace talks are scheduled. It does not mean the talks are falling apart before they have started. It’s just good strategy. The fact on the ground that Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to establish prior to talks is the destabilization of more of Eastern Ukraine. This way he will have something to give up, in exchange for what he wants: a federal Ukraine. This is what Russia has been proposing as an acceptable compromise for Ukraine even before it invaded and annexed Crimea. Is also very worrying, as a federal solution is a worst-case scenario for Ukraine. Some may feel that it is a small price to pay in exchange for peace. Russia, the EU, and the US can play their games of influence in a federal Ukraine, jockeying for the sympathies of individual provinces, rather than playing the higher-stakes games of sanctions and energy threats, which have the potential to disrupt the fragile recoveries now emerging in the EU and underway in the US. The problem with the federal solution is that it undermines the...

Intervention in Ukraine reflects Russia’s weakness, not strength

Following Russia’s de facto ‘invasion’ of Crimea there has been a great deal of navel-gazing commentary regarding the “weakness” of the West. Some say the EU is impotent; others say the US lost Ukraine; others that the Obama administration is weak. These comments reflect an astonishing lack of even short-term memory. The most obvious point first: it is not the US or EU that has lost Ukraine, it is Russia. Until protesters toppled Ukraine’s government, the contest for Ukraine was in the main a soft-power contest. The EU offered Ukraine a trade agreement (a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, DCFTA, in the jargon); Russia offered a Customs Union as an alternative. (Admittedly, Russia’s approach was not 100% soft, as the Customs Union offer was coupled with threats of goods embargoes and energy price hikes.) Until recently, it appeared that Russia had won. The Customs Union was indeed an attractive package. Signing it would probably have been economically beneficial for Ukraine (although, over the long term, the EU deal would have been much better). Yet Ukrainian premier Yanukovych, after a good deal of wavering, announced that he would sign the Russian deal. Perhaps his oligarch backers (reportedly including men such as Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash, and Andriy Klyuyev) feared the legal and governance reforms that would accompany the EU deal. Perhaps Russia’s economic threats and bailout offer were persuasive given Ukraine’s precarious economic position. That moment, in early 2014, when Yanukovych sided with Russia, was the high point of Putin’s success. But then Ukraine’s (relatively small) middle-class rose up in the “Euromaidan” people power protest movement that toppled the...

Ukraine crisis reveals Europe’s strengths

Things in Europe do not seem to be going so well these days. The Eurozone crisis is a recent memory. European politicians bicker over bailouts or make reckless threats. Unemployment is high. The Swiss are voting out the immigrants and in many European countries right-wing parties are on the rise. But the European model remains appealing. So appealing, in fact, that people in Ukraine are willing to risk their lives for it. Demonstrators in Kiev, picking a moment when the world’s eyes are on the region, have marched on their government, resulting in harrowing scenes of violence. Admittedly, there are many different factions involved in the protests now. But the starting point, about three months ago, was the Ukrainian government’s debate over a trade agreement with the EU. And the protests escalated dramatically when the government instead accepted a deal with Russia. Make no mistake: the violence is not just about trade agreements. Or rather, much of it is, but these are no ordinary trade agreements. As the intensity of the protesters’ commitment suggests, this is one of the most important struggles taking place in the world today. It is, in the phrase promoted by the European Union and taken up by numerous Ukrainian politicians, a “civilizational choice”. The trade agreement Ukraine signs will shape the country’s destiny. To see why this is so, take a look at the below graph. This shows the incomes of countries joining the EU compared to one of the EU’s richest members (Denmark). What is striking is that the rising lines of incomes in Eastern Europe are almost parallel – despite great differences...

In the Ukraine, Democracy Promotion Done Right

Promoting democracy in authoritarian regimes is now a central goal of US foreign policy. Yet Iraq, the test case, is not going well. Which is not a reason to abandon hope – democracy can be nurtured in even the most difficult places. First in Georgia, and now the Ukraine, Europe is demonstrating democracy promotion done right. “This young century will be liberty’s century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world.” – US President George W. Bush Something quite unusual happened when, following the November 2003 uprising known as the “Rose Revolution,” Georgia’s new president ascended the steps of parliament to deliver his inaugural address. He raised the European flag, twelve stars on a blue field, above his country’s parliament, declaring, “This, too, is the Georgian flag.” It is a rare thing indeed when a liberated country raises any flag but its own. But this was not the first time that European ideals had inspired a movement for democracy. Nor would it be the last. In the mid-1990s, Slovakia was drifting towards authoritarianism. President Vladimir Meciar had allied with the quasi-fascist Slovak National Party and passed laws weakening the power of parliament and the constitutional court. He then turned the secret service on opponents in the media, labor unions, and local government. The European Union (EU) responded by announcing that Slovakia was the only one of the ten Eastern European applicants that was failing to meet the political criteria to join the union. With their European dream slipping away, Slovakia’s divided opposition rallied together. The 70 percent of Slovaks that favored EU membership lent genuine popular support....