In Post-Coup Turkey, Diplomacy Suffers Decay: Purged Diplomats (I)
The conduct of diplomacy suffers a decline on a global scale. Turkey is no exception. But Ankara is in a far worse position as two purged diplomats reveal the unraveling of Turkish diplomacy.
The Decline of Global Diplomacy
All around the world, the decline of diplomacy and its institutions’ influence in policymaking has emerged as an alarming pattern, prompting soul-searching among scholars and former denizens of foreign policy to determine what went wrong.
The feebleness of diplomacy coincides with the general demise of truth in political conduct, the contemptuous treatment of facts, disdain for science and climate warming, the ascendancy of right-wing populism and a palpable decadence in politics across the globe.
And it should be borne in mind that this emerging situation is not only limited to authoritarian regimes and like-minded governments, but it also takes places in the West, especially in the U.S., as well. The U.S. administration, after Donald J. Trump’s unexpected ascent to the White House, has yet to assign new ambassadors to empty posts in dozens of embassies abroad, including the countries vital to the U.S. geopolitical interests in Asia and the Middle East.
The predicament that engulfs Washington is certainly more complicated and multifaceted than a bulk of vacant ambassadorial posts. The problem is rooted in the mindset of the new president who despises the conduct of diplomacy itself and who views foreign policy as a mere given-and-take business affair where the U.S. is, given its superpower status, destined to take more. With the zero-sum war-like business approach, Trump’s transactional foreign policy was more like a roller coaster that upended decades-old conventions and practices than a deliberate policy course shaped by rational planning, realistic assessment and minutely detailed (real-time) intelligence information, something that is unique to the U.S. when considering its vast pool of intelligence sources.
In Russia, it is mostly spooks who guide Vladimir Putin’s decisions in foreign policy. The critical moves of Russian diplomacy over the past decade were mostly driven by Putin’s most trusted intelligence chiefs rather than diplomats and its foreign ministry. And, not surprisingly, as a Foreign Policy article lucidly demonstrates, many of the moves, be it in Crimea or eastern Ukraine, were ill-judged, costly and were nothing less than follies.
When it comes to Turkey, the situation was certainly no less gloomy. It was, considering the recent turn of events, even more challenging for traditional Turkish diplomacy, which is enfeebled by a sweeping purge in the aftermath of a fateful coup in 2016.
Turkey’s recent foreign policy is being shaped as much by chaotic and daunting regional challenges as by its ever-evolving domestic politics beset by a violent coup, a subsequent debilitating purge, the breakdown of the institutional integrity of many government departments and the collapse of rule of law.
Nothing could better illustrate the near-complete decay of Turkey’s once-revered statist tradition and its normally venerated diplomatic elite culture than the brutal treatment of purged diplomats in police custody in late May. The credible allegations of torture in Ankara Police Department, as one dismissed diplomat succinctly puts, represents a new low in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown. It points to a level where reason and logic dwindle into insignificance, where all common sense stops to exist.
In early May, prosecutors in Ankara secured arrest warrants from courts for 249 former Foreign Ministry personnel on spurious legal grounds. At least 78 of them were detained by police. What they endured in police custody was well documented by the Ankara Bar Association. The aftermath was as much disheartening as the mistreatment itself during detention. Three months after the outbreak of the scandal, however, no legislative or judicial action has been taken to thoroughly investigate torture claims.
If torture is a stain on public conscience, the official stance to dodge the public demand for a comprehensive probe is no less so. To make matters worse, Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched a new probe into the Ankara Bar Association for releasing a report on the claims of torture in police custody, but not into the police officers who allegedly involved in torturing diplomats.
Separately, neither former EU Minister Volkan Bozkir nor former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu came out to defend their former personnel. They did not even bother to feign a modicum of care for their former colleagues. Their silence still ensues.
The Purge and Tragedy of Diplomats
Two former diplomats, in extensive emailed statements, offer a bleak but sober analysis of a crumbling ministry. Their personal tragedies represent a tiny fraction of a larger drama that transcends all layers of Turkey’s public service and civil society following a riddling coup attempt in 2016. Numbers are mind-numbing. Just to put the story into a perspective, it is worth remembering that more than 150,000 public workers have been sacked without any semblance of due process.
The scourge of the purge did not, as expectedly, leave Foreign Ministry untouched and unscathed. More than 550 career diplomats and staff members were dismissed on dubious grounds. Who replaced them gives a clear idea about the government’s personnel policies as authorities increasingly came to prefer loyalty rather than meritocracy and professionalism.
Beneath the institutional fray of Turkey’s Foreign Ministry lies real-life stories of tragedy and drama.
The personal account of A.B., a career diplomat who spoke for this article on the condition of anonymity, illuminates the depth of the purge and its first-hand impact on someone’s life. He worked in the Foreign Ministry for three years. After the usual training, he worked as a clerk and career diplomat mostly in the Bilateral Diplomatic Relations Directorate where career diplomats are entrusted with preparing memos, short notes, briefings and reports analyzing political affairs of a specific country. This enabled him to assemble pointed and clear-eyed reports over the inner workings of a country.
As part of his job, he took part in high-level diplomatic meetings and worked as a coordinator and organizer on part of Ankara to arrange the details of high-profile visits by foreign diplomatic delegations to Turkey. During his brief stint at the Ministry, he never saw an overseas deployment. Before the purge, he was assigned to an insignificant post, an indication of the change of mood toward certain diplomats.
A.B., married only a year ago before the purge, struggled to forecast the future ahead, but there was little he could do in Turkey, especially in the post-coup social climate. Social ostracization, mobbing, denial of jobs, the ever-present threat of imprisonment on legally bogus charges, profiling and naming names have been woven to the social fabric of the country in the aftermath of the coup attempt, breaking down centuries-old pillars of Turkey’s social structure.
“The social hysteria, public lynching and the fear atmosphere directly influenced our life. In the post-coup climate, simply sitting idly and stoically resigning to your fate by surrendering to the forces of lawlessness was something beyond what a reasonable man could (and should) do. Being a KHK man [someone who is dismissed in the post-coup purge by emergency rule decrees] is akin to the situation of people with leprosy during Medieval Ages when lepers were banished from society.”
Even the most mundane and trivial jobs were denied to them as the society tended to treat KHK people in the same way the Medieval societies treated lepers. As he painfully recalls, he had received no positive response to his countless job applications.
In this political context, A. B. asserted, there was no future for him and for his wife. He came to a breaking point when he saw people being sent to jail in droves. But his decision to leave the country was shaped more by reports of torture and mistreatment in prison than anything else.
“In an environment where we were sacked without any shred of evidence over any wrongdoing, where we lost our social and health benefits and where the ever-present threat of unannounced imprisonment hovered around our heads, all the while the majority of our neighbors, friends and relatives ceased communication with us, I told my wife: It seems that there is no prospect for maintaining a decent living for the foreseeable future in this country.”
“We are under 30 and fairly young,” he told his anguished wife as he announced the most critical decision of their shared lives: “It is time to rebuild our lives from the beginning in another country.”
It was in this context, he made his decision. The way how he fled the country along with his wife is a testimony to the new grip of unpleasant realities of Turkey. Like Afghan and Syrian refugees did before him, he, in December 2016, rented a makeshift, dinghy boat bound for the Greek islands in a bid to start a new life elsewhere.
Germany has become, as for many others, his new home where he found a gainful job. His chance was that he still possessed his diplomatic passport which had not expired then. After a brief stay in Greece, the Greek authorities, already overwhelmed by refugees, facilitated his move to Germany without much impediment. He now looks after his newborn baby and prays for the salvation of his persecuted colleagues and other innocent citizens back in Turkey.
A Promising Career First Upended, Later Salvaged
Prompted by a sense of urgency upon receiving the news of the torture of his colleagues, Yasir Gokce, another diplomat who had been dismissed in late 2016, ended his reclusive life abroad to open a social media account, the only platform left to protest the reprehensible treatment of diplomats.
After a brief deliberation and pondering, he came out to share his story with me.
Gokce’s personal odyssey with his family after a risky border-crossing through Evrosa (Meritsa, or Meric in Turkish) River reveals how Turkey’s most talented workforce take the risk of death in their quest for freedom and employment abroad.
Gokce, a lawyer by education and an expert on international law by training, chose Foreign Ministry as a career path rather than proceeding to become, if everything went as planned, a prosecutor, a judge in the judiciary or a corporate counsel and attorney. This path he chose and without any regret, even after he was dismissed from the department he longed to work for.
Months after the coup, Gokce found himself dismissed by a government decree. The blanket dismissals — more than 50,000 in a single wave in September 2016 — swept through the many layers of bureaucracy, fracturing established norms and the institutional culture of many departments.
After sacking, Gokce returned to his previous profession as a lawyer and took care of the legal works for his family members who were swept up as well by the post-coup crackdown. But as time went, the pressure for him to leave the country began to build up in the face of ever-widening persecution and repression.
To Be or Not To Be: Between Life and Death While Crossing Evrosa River
By the time Gokce decided to leave the country in February 2017, there were not many palatable options. His passport was revoked and the exit from an airport or a border gate was out of the question. Either, as the other diplomats and millions of Middle Eastern refugees did, he would hedge his bet through the Greek islands or cross the Evrosa River in a risky endeavor. He followed the second path with a much more perilous and arduous journey than he normally envisaged. It was punishingly cold in February and the risk of boat collapse was higher than the other times of the year given the formidable weather conditions.
As he offered his account, it was not difficult to spot how he vividly relived the moments of border-crossing again as his voice became hoarse and intermittent during a phone conversation. He and his wife, along with two little children, were rain-soaked, utterly cold and trembling as they were striving to make their way to the Greek side after smugglers left them at the middle of nowhere. It was, like in a famous Shakespearean idiom, to be or not to be, as the rugged and muddied territory not only demarcated the porous borders between two not-too-friendly neighbors, but also delineated the thin line between their future and their past, between the promise of freedom and the prospect of imprisonment, if their bid crumbles. To put in much simpler words, it was a make-or-break moment. First, they changed their wet and rain-soaked clothes with dry ones. Second, they hoped, and prayed, for the best among the worst possible options as their future hanged in limbo in the most crucial moment of their audacious endeavor. A Greek police officer briefly stood between freedom and the lack of it, between Greece and Turkey, and between future and the eternally long present. Moved by their dismal shape and her weeping little daughter, the police’s stubborn resolve was loosened to let them in, heralding a new chapter in his life for the better thereafter.
Thankfully, everything then progressed as smoothly as possible, and he brought his family to Germany where his Ph.D. study was already underway. He acquired an academic visa in a relatively short time and settled in one of the bustling metropolises of Germany. He now works for an international company.
The Stain of Petty Charges and May Crackdown
One of the most striking and defining aspects of the May crackdown was the prosecution’s charges of incompetence against the former personnel of the Foreign Ministry. The accusations prominently figured during interrogations by prosecutors and stirred up, for understandable reasons, a fierce backlash from the elite community of former purged diplomats.
Like others, Gokce was no less appalled by the petty charges. It was this attempted character assassination, more than the purge itself, what stuck in his mind and still features as a searing experience ever since.
“Would not all those senior diplomats and deputy ministers [who were directing job interviews] be able to capture any indication of incompetence in those long interviews?” he asked in disbelief.
“All of them know that the charges were groundless, but still play the dumb and remain silent.”
Even two months after the headline-grabbing investigation, Gokce makes little effort to mask his sense of betrayal and disappointment by the senior rank and file of the ministry.
Inadvertently though it was, this episode prompted purged diplomats, who somehow managed to break free of the country’s ever-deepening repression in order to settle in a foreign country, to display their qualifications on social media in an act of defiance and rebuke. It was an act of self-defense against the prosecution, something that is not smacked of elitism but rather born out of necessity and urgency.
Gokce, who has a master’s degree from Harvard University, also displayed his diploma on Twitter.
What amplified the magnitude of their anguish was the credible reports of torture, confirmed by a lawmaker, a bar association and by families themselves. Things veered off the path so chaotically and dangerously than they could have ever imagined. Turkey arrived at a point where torturing diplomats and devouring its most talented human resources have become something of a new normal smoothly digested and obediently internalized by an increasingly unperturbed population.
(THE END OF FIRST PART)