Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via Wiki Commons


Turkish democratic reforms? Europe and the Biden Administration should stop kidding themselves. There will never be democratic reforms in Turkey so long as Erdoğan is in power.

Recently, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan installed a former politician from his own party as the rector of Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious educational institutions. Previously, rectors had been elected from the ranks of academia. But a 2018 presidential decree gave Erdoğan the power to appoint them directly, and that is just what he did, even though the candidate manifestly lacked the appropriate academic qualifications. It was an obvious bid to end the university’s academic independence—and a profound embarrassment to the university.

Dismayed students and faculty protested the appointment. They did so peacefully. The police locked the main gates to the campus, then tear-gassed and beat the protesters. The following morning, anti-terrorism special forces launched pre-dawn raids on the protesters’ homes, smashing down their doors and taking 22 into custody—on terrorism charges. They were strip searched, beaten, and swiftly denounced as terrorist agitators by the pro-government media.

The assault on academic freedom was unprecedented, but neither a new nor a surprising development, given the steady erosion of democratic rights in Turkey. Yet to judge from expressions of outrage abroad, observers were sincerely surprised. It was as if a spell had been broken. Why? Because they’d genuinely believed in the Reiset.

Turkey analyst Nicholas Danforth came up with that joke; the pun merges the word Reis, as Erdoğan is known to his most ardent devotees—the leader, the chief, from the Arabic رئيس , raʾīs—with “reset,” as in, “a democratic reset.”

The idea that Turkey might at last be reforming took hold of observers’ imaginations because it seemed as if it should be reforming. In early November, things looked bleak in Turkey. The international media had praised Turkey for its management of the pandemic, which they gauged by the government’s statistics. Then foreign observers began to realize the truth: What Turkey had managed to contain was not the virus, but the flow of information about infections and deaths.

Restoring the independence of the Central Bank is what Erdoğan would do if he’d concluded economic realities and global investors could no longer be ignored. Thus did the myth begin to take shape.

The lira was plunging. Since 2016, Turkey’s economy had been in the custody of Minister of Finances and Treasury Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, who has boasted that he “doesn’t look” at exchange rates. Journalists and academics openly charged TurkStat, the state agency that produces official statistics, with manipulating—or wildly misunderstanding—inflation and unemployment data.

Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy in Libya and Azerbaijan had been successful and domestically popular. But it profoundly alarmed Turkey’s neighbors and allies, who drew unpleasant conclusions from Erdoğan’s willingness to ignore diplomatic protocol and twist international law. Turkey relentlessly pursued its seabed exploration in disputed waters, even as Germany tried to go the extra mile to mediate between Turkey and Greece. The brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean was a step too far for the European Council, which in December approved sanctions against Turkish officials.

Turkey’s posture succeeded in uniting an unprecedented and unlikely coalition to balance it. In late November, France, Italy, Egypt, and even Turkey’s nemesis, the UAE, conducted joint drills with Greece and Cyprus in the Mediterranean. At a confidential NATO foreign ministers’ conference, Turkey found itself isolated and ostracized. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the occasion of his last NATO meeting to rebuke Turkey for purchasing the Russian S400 missile system. He lambasted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu. According to Reuters, Pompeo criticized Turkey for dispatching Syrian mercenaries to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Allies at the meeting, including France, Greece and even Luxembourg, ganged up on the Turkish foreign minister. This was the context of the Reiset: It would be logical for a criticized and isolated Turkey to take steps to placate its allies.


In November, Erdoğan fired the governor of the Central Bank and replaced him with a well-regarded economist, Naci Ağbal. Immediately thereafter, his son-in-law Berat resigned, on Instagram. Markets celebrated. The lira surged. A few days later, over Erdoğan’s vociferous objections, Ağbal raised interest rates. Observers decided this must mean the Central Bank was independent again. It would be a crucial step toward winning back investors’ confidence. It would be rational, too: Inflation was straining the country to its limits; restoring the independence of the Central Bank is what Erdoğan would do if he’d concluded economic realities and global investors could no longer be ignored. Thus did the myth begin to take shape.

Erdoğan then gave a speech at a provincial party congress: “We are launching a new reform era in the economy and law,” he said. “I call on local and international investors to trust our country and to make new investments.” A chorus of praise ensued: This was it: Khrushchev’s secret speech, perestroika, and glasnost all at once.

It was a one-sided game. Soner Çağaptay of the Washington Institute notes that Erdoğan has always been a Rorschach test for his counterparts. He lets them see what they want to see.

A few cautious (and experienced) voices demurred, but they were dismissed as irrational malcontents with an axe to grind against Erdoğan. These sourpusses apart, economists, pundits, and politicians across a multi-party spectrum heralded the speech not only as a reset, but as an inevitable reset: the perennial prophecy of Erdoğan’s moderation was at last fulfilled, his metamorphosis from headache to Turkey’s neighbors and international markets to authoritarian stability-maker complete.

The excited speculation multiplied. Quickly, the myth became conventional wisdom. What democratic reforms would follow? How would Erdoğan proceed to announce the restoration of rule of law? What was the best way to welcome a newly-democratized Turkey back to the fold of NATO allies? None of this was presented as speculation: Many articles, in multiple languages, assumed as given that Turkey’s democratic future was just around the corner. It was the fulfillment of destiny. Why? Because it would be logical. It’s what any rational country would do. What’s more, it would be good, and the alternative was unthinkable.

It was a one-sided game. Soner Çağaptay of the Washington Institute notes that Erdoğan has always been a Rorschach test for his counterparts. He lets them see what they want to see. 

As Danforth notes, “Erdoğan has always preferred to rule democratically when possible.” He would undoubtedly be happy to introduce reforms that would restore the electoral majorities he had a decade ago. Unfortunately, that’s not possible. “By now, even far-reaching reforms would be unlikely to boost his popularity enough to ensure he would win elections fairly, and they would come at the expense of his ability to win them unfairly.” The result is the Reiset: “He promises investors, foreign governments, and erstwhile domestic allies a return to the rule of law—while retaining the ability to crackdown on his enemies.”

Erdoğan promptly exercised this ability to crush any delusions among people who thought this meant he might tolerate dissent. He began with his own party. When Bülent Arınç, a co-founder of the AKP and former prime minister, called for the release of Turkey’s two most prominent political prisoners, philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, Erdoğan denounced Arınç as a splitter, forcing him to resign.

Pro-government newspapers rushed to clarify what Erdoğan meant by reform before anyone else got insane ideas. “The government’s commitment to economic, legal and democratic change,” the newspaper Sabah explained, “is not about accepting the opposition’s harsh criticism.”

In other words, there is no new peace process [with the PKK], no return to parliamentarism and no easing on counterterrorism measures, including the release of convicts, in the works.

Turkish government mouthpieces continued to hail the reforms as a great new democratic achievement, but clearly this wasn’t going to go the way hopeful foreign observers expected. This is hardly the first time Turkey announced plans to address its deficits in rule of law and freedom of expression. The last such announcement—which wasn’t long ago—was received with the same rapturous applause. The situation is no better; if anything, the judiciary is on track to become even less independent.

Reestablishing the rule of law and insulating Turkey’s economic management from politics are critical to restoring foreign investors’ confidence. Investors are perennially keen to see Erdoğan return to more rational financial policies. They are perpetually optimistic that he will.

Erdoğan has done a bit more to humor investors than he has in the past. Allowing his new Central Bank chief to substantially raise interest rates in November was a major concession. But that was it.


As Erdoğan has repeatedly shown, he’s willing to offer strategic concessions when he’s under pressure. But never is this a sign of a deeper transformation. Every time he allows interest rates to rise, generating excitement among investors—at last, he’s following the economics textbook!—he follows this with cuts.

In principle, Erdoğan is opposed to interest, on religious grounds. But his insistence upon low rates is deeply political and very practical. In the 2000s, during the era of cheap loans to emerging markets, the newly-industrialized districts of Anatolia developed at a frantic clip. These are the religious-conservative entrepreneurs from cities in central and southern Turkey, the heartland of his Justice and Development Party. His electoral and economic success rests upon them. The Tigers are now ailing, caught in a trap between high interest rates and the crushing burden of the exchange rate on foreign currency loans and limited ability to raise capacity.

Erdoğan’s determination to dictate a low-rate policy to the Central Bank won’t help them, of course—not in the long run. It just undermines the bank’s independence and investors’ confidence, sending the currency and the economy into a dangerous spiral. Nor has his desire to salvage the economy ever amounted to an impulse to improve human rights. This too harms the economy; it is embarrassing to invest in countries with lousy democratic credentials.


Beginning with the rebuke to Arınç, the weeks following the putative Reiset were— predictably to the sourpusses—marked by one after another affront to democratic rights. The philanthropist Osman Kavala is now in his third year of pre-trial detention Erdoğan accuses Kavala of sponsoring of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and being a coup-plotter. The European Court of Human Rights dismissed Turkish appeals “Kavala’s arrest and pre-trial detention,” the court ruled, “pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to silence him and dissuade other human rights defenders.” At the end of December, Turkey’s top court demurred, ignoring the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and declaring that no, Kavala’s detention didn’t violate his right to liberty and security. Kavala remained behind bars.

Erdoğan then exhorted judges to investigate any political opponent who criticized his practice of imprisoning opponents. They were, he said, “interfering with the judiciary.” A notorious mafia boss associated with the ultranationalist MHP—the crucial junior member of Erdoğan’s ruling coalition—threatened the head of the CHP, the main opposition party. Erdoğan remained silent. A Turkish citizen who criticized this mafia boss on social media was promptly detained. A deputy leader of the MHP called members of the Kurdish-oriented HDP “a flock of insects that need to be killed.” The exiled journalist Can Dündar received a 27-year sentence in absentia for reporting that weapons were being smuggled across the border to Syria. At least 40 journalists were prosecuted in November alone. Not very reformist.

Parliament approved a new bill to prevent money laundering. It allows the Interior Ministry to seize NGOs with “links to terrorism,” a term so broadly defined under Turkish law that it can and has been used to arrest journalists, students, and politicians en masse, in some cases for reciting a poem. The Turkish cyber patrols that comb the web for violations of Turkish law filed charges against a citizen for calling the Interior Minister “bald.”

Turkey’s new social media law went into effect. It compels tech giants to open a local office to enforce Turkish court decisions, irrespective of the companies’ terms of service or views of freedom of expression. Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram were immediately fined ten million lira. Even though many Turkish journalists have escaped censorship by building audiences on YouTube, the companies promptly caved in the face of financial pressure and began deleting the objectionable content.

The European Court of Human Rights ordered the immediate release of the former head of the HDP, the opposition Kurdish party. Selahattin Demirtaş’ imprisonment, ruled the court, was incompatible with “the very core of a democratic society.” Erdoğan declared that the European Court’s rulings were not binding for Turkish ones; the Interior Minister declared its verdicts “meaningless,” leaving human rights campaigners sputtering. These prominent cases are just the tip of the iceberg: Turkey is holding thousands of political prisoners in punitive pre-trial detention.

At last, in mid-January, Erdoğan once again railed against high interest rates. Investors suddenly began to doubt the new Central Bank governor’s will or ability to resist Erdoğan’s pressure. The lira plummeted. The dream of the Reiset was over.

Europe needs Turkey to be politically stable, consistent and economically buoyant. But “needing” isn’t the same as “receiving.” Global power is rapidly shifting away from the West and reorganizing itself. Turkey is crucial to newly-emerging power configurations. Myths and wishful thinking do not help.

Europe and the Biden Administration should not kid themselves. There will never be democratic reforms in Turkey so long as Erdoğan is in power.

The Author of this article wishes to stay anonymous. He is being harassed by the country’s authorities for speaking out.


  1. Claire, I read the beginning of the story, then clicked over to the Twitter video, and was thinking, “Yeah but does Erdogan really care about or respect peaceful protest?” Then I came back and read that the police locked the gates and beat the protestors. So you answered my question.

    I’m not big on violence myself, but at some point don’t you have to punch to bully in the nose? Where does the line get drawn? I don’t know…

  2. Very shrewd and well done. May I offer a small edit? Instead of “But a 2018 presidential decree GAVE Erdoğan the power to appoint them directly …” would it not be more accurateto say “But IN a 2018 presidential decree Erdoğan TOOK the power to appoint them directly …?”.

    How long before Erdoğan changes his title to “Caliph?”

  3. “Eager believers looked at the coffee grounds and saw—mirabile dictu!—Turkish democratic reforms. Why?“

    We see what’s convenient.

    • Claire Berlinski | January 30, 2021 at 7:14 am | Reply

      Yes. The thought that Turkey will be a threat to its neighbors’ and its citizens’ security for a long time to come is inconvenient. Therefore it can’t be true. It would be convenient to invest in Turkey. Therefore Turkey is safe for investors. The moral of this story is that the power of self-deception in politics, and in geopolitics, is extraordinary. This is a case study in the nature of wishful thinking.

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