The Unraveling of Turkey: A View from Ankara
The country continues to descend into uncertainty following the assassination of the Russian ambassador.
ANKARA—For weeks, the main shopping areas of Turkey’s capital city have been eerily vacant. On October 29, the U.S. government advised family members of embassy staff to leave the country, while other nations sent out warnings, recommending their citizens avoid streets with high foot traffic throughout the month of December, in response to intelligence indicating a likely attack by the Islamic State. With two bombings and one assassination over the past ten days, everyone expected an attack of some sort in Ankara. But few would have predicted the form it would take, when, on Monday night, a 22-year-old police officer named Melvut Mert Altintas gunned down Andrey Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. “God is great!” he shouted in Arabic, and “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” in Turkish, as he stood over Karlov’s motionless body.
For months, Turkey has been unraveling. Shortly after the attempted coup of July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government announced a state of emergency to remove any lingering threats from supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled religious and political leader who the state blames for orchestrating the failed putsch, as well as people affiliated with the Kurdish movement. Mass purges touched nearly all job sectors, with education and the state judicial system taking the biggest hits. Anyone suspected of a crime could be held for 30 days without charge in detention centers where inmates are reportedly being tortured.
Even the most mundane rituals changed. An extra security check was installed in airports, just after the second set of x-ray machines, where Turkish citizens—as opposed to foreigners—are closely monitored. In the corners of once-bustling restaurants, the prospect of civil war with the Kurds is a common topic of discussion; the slowing economy is another, as the Turkish lira breaks its own record lows against the U.S. dollar from one week to the next. A vacuum salesman told me he no longer made a profit at the current exchange rate; a wine seller said he’s on the verge of closing his shop.
Erdogan’s intervention in Syria, meanwhile, brought Turkey to the front lines in the war against ISIS, whose militants benefited from Turkey's loose border controls. And the Turkish state remains a target for several guerilla networks operating within its borders.
Yet amid the instability, Erdogan’s approval ratings have soared. Erdogan’s combative statements against Europe have a contagious, sometimes euphoric effect on his followers, who tend to blame the continent for the Ottoman Empire’s downfall. The opposition, meanwhile, fell silent following the failed coup—to doubt or critique Erdogan’s government, after all, is to make oneself a target for persecution in a country where 125,000 have been dismissed from their jobs, 40,000 have been arrested, and 177 media outlets have been shuttered, all due to their alleged links Gulen. Those who disagree with the path being taken are allowed only to play the role of spectators.
While the full impact of Karlov’s assassination remains to be seen, the fact that Altintas was a police officer may suggest that the state can no longer contain the many groups swirling amid the chaos. Altintas was a staunch supporter of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and a graduate of Erdogan’s restructured school system, which put more emphasis on Islam in a move away from secular Kemalist tradition. Following the assassination, state media reported Altintas had links to Gulen; some accounts on social media alleged he had ties to the Kurds.
When I asked Turkish officials how the security situation might change after the assassination, few could come up with an answer. The state of emergency has already given the government the power to search and detain suspects without evidence. Despite the widespread use of traffic stops and road-side car searches, suicide bombers still managed to slip through checkpoints, making their way to what was thought to be one of the most secure parts of Istanbul, just outside the Besiktas soccer stadium. In addition, the police detained 290 members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in connection with a bombing in Istanbul on December 10, even though the attack was claimed by an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. It is difficult to imagine how much further the state could expand its crackdown.
Few expect Monday’s events to result in a conflict with Russia. The two countries have begun to patch up their relationship following the November 2015 downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces after it flew into the country’s airspace, and have vowed to work together to end the war in Syria and to conduct a joint investigation into Karlov’s death.
On the way back from the scene of the assassination, my driver and I discussed the night’s events. He boasted about Turkey’s 80 million citizens, the strength of the military, and how everyone was united under the Erdogan’s leadership. As the country enters an uncertain new year, some, it seems, do not lack for confidence. “Russia is not a great country like Turkey,” he said. “We can win a war against them. We can win a war against anyone.”