Totalitarian regimes cannot reform, nor can they become democracies

Only naïve people and cynics believe in reform proposals by totalitarian regimes. The former in order to maintain unsubstantiated hope, the latter in order to manipulate and abuse the rhetoric for their vested interests.  

So once again, the latest talk in Turkey is of “reform”, both to the economy and judiciary (sic). It is as simple as that: reforming the economy and the judiciary! Anyway, this is what the regime’s mouthpieces announced a few weeks ago, just as the reality of the Biden/Harris victory in the U.S. elections sunk in among the powers that be in Ankara.

Don’t ask about the content of reforms - they say they are working on it. You can be pretty sure that these bombastic declarations won’t lead anywhere different than previous reform parleys. Because totalitarian regimes, like the one running Turkey, cannot be reformed. Accordingly, they never transform into democracies. Rather, they are destined to end, thus opening the way for political normalisation and democratisation in a country, if conditions allow.

Because, simply put, totalitarian regimes commit countless a-legal, illegal, anti-constitutional and hostile deeds for which they would never dare be held accountable and indictable, be it at home or abroad. Any reforms, if serious, would only disclose these deeds and are therefore, by definition, inapplicable.

Secondly, serious and in-depth reforms would reverse the state of affairs in a myriad of ways ranging from judicial verdicts to the functioning of major public institutions. There is no political will to allow for such a reversal. Quite the contrary, the tendency is to exacerbate the prevailing illiberal political, social and economic environment to remain in power. Actually, the condition for staying in power is to increase pressure, not to decrease it through reforms.

Thirdly, the regime is far from monolithic. It comprises various political factions who are all “more royalist than the king” and racing to escalate the level of social control to further their own ambitions. The word “reform” for these political actors is a sin.

Fourthly, the regime doesn’t have at its service skilled professionals to implement so-called reforms. This is partly the reason behind the empty rhetoric that lacks any substance.

In fact, the recent announcement of a new so-called reform process in Turkey has more to do with its "buyers" than with the reforms themselves.

There are few who will buy the promises at home, so the talk is largely directed at foreigners. Indeed, there is an urgent need for the regime in Turkey to kickstart a charm offensive directed at former political allies in the West, particularly at the United States and the incoming Biden/Harris administration. At the same time, the authorities are hell bent on preventing further declines in the value of the national currency to preserve their power.

In fact, a notorious bunch among the most enthusiastic foreign fans of Turkey's so-called reform process are the traders in financial markets. They were delighted to see that interest rates have risen to around 20 percent, a thrilling opportunity for speculative hot money during these “negative return” days across the globe. Thus they have cynically praised interest rate hikes as a possible harbinger of more good deeds to come. Meanwhile, the measures have been undertaken by authorities who, otherwise, were paying a very heavy price for the disastrous economic policies of recent years. 

On the politico-strategic front, it is yet to be seen whether the incoming U.S. administration is ready to buy in to Ankara’s empty rhetoric, for the sake of an increasingly illusory NATO partnership, and to disregard the tons of misdoings if not hostilities towards every single alliance that binds Turkey and the West. It looks highly unlikely.

Ankara’s officious statements about a “clean slate”, directed at Western policymakers, do have so-called believers in Europe, mainly among those who are forever ready to take the Turkish dictator at his word. There is a specific alliance of such policymakers led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who shows an irrepressible desire to interact with non-democratic Turkey. Bulgarian, Hungarian, Italian, Maltese, Polish and Spanish policymakers are part of this alliance, together with the appointed official in charge of the external relations of the European Union, Josep Borrell.

Borrell has been tasked by the European Council to propose by March another policy paper on how to deal with Turkey, including outlining a “positive agenda”. Actually the “reform talk” in Turkey and the “positive agenda talk” in Europe feed into each other.

I’ve been writing expansively about the five key sets of reasons why the Europeans are appeasing Ankara. They are afraid of losing “NATO partner Turkey” to Russia, of jeopardising their economic interests in Turkey, of risking the refugee policing deal with Ankara, of antagonising the Turkish diaspora in Western European countries and of accelerating the implosion of Turkey. Over many years, these fears have become the foundation of an unproductive and dangerous appeasement policy.

Alas, this appeasement policy with Turkey, just as with Hungary and Poland, doesn’t solve the problems. In fact, it exacerbates them and makes them unsolvable, as we witness every day. The largesse shown by Merkel to political leaders in Hungary and Poland made their agreement to EU decisions increasingly more conditional. I would like to recommend a recent article by Matthew Karnitschnig in Politico clearly exposing her misdeeds.

I’ve written several times and won’t refrain from repeating that the more the West led by Merkel appeases, the more Erdoğan abuses. The same goes for Putin and the like.

The problems the Ankara regime is generating cannot be resolved through reforms but with the end of the regime! And appeasing Erdoğan and other strongmen runs the risk of collusion and complicity with his regime, as we witness every other day.

Finally let me recommend a relatively recent book on the disastrous consequences of British appeasement policy towards Hitler, entitled “Appeasing Hitler” by Tim Bouverie.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.