Turkey's Rise Under Enigmatic Erdogan's Rule

A NATO ally with close ties to the West, Turkey's economy has grown significantly, and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken active roles in several international crises. But reporter Dexter Filkins paints a complicated picture of Erdogan under threats of coup and paranoia.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Turkey is a linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East, a NATO partner, an ally in the effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a bridge to Iran, a prosperous Islamic democracy that might be a model for the new governments that emerge from the Arab Spring. But a piece by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker paints in the darker side of the Turkish success story: Large-scale arrests , political prosecutions, suppression of dissent and a thin-skinned prime minister with ambitions to perpetuate his power. Dexter Filkins' piece "The Deep State" appears in the current issue of The New Yorker, I think the March 12th issue of The New Yorker. Its author joins us here in Studio 3A. Dexter, nice to see you in person.

DEXTER FILKINS: Hey, nice to see you too. Thank you.

CONAN: And we have to begin by acknowledging that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has delivered astonishing results in his nine years in power.

FILKINS: He has. He absolutely has. And, I mean, if you just take just the really basic measure, GDP, depending on what statistics you're looking at, it's either doubled or tripled, and you can really see it. I mean, when you're in a city like Istanbul, which is just a fabulous place, you feel like you're in Paris. It's kind of Paris with mosques. You know, the waiting list for BMWs is four months long, and people are making money. And it's amazing. He's transformed the country in 10 years. But there is, as you say, there's a darker side.

CONAN: And that is where we get to the deep state. What does that expression mean?

FILKINS: Well, it sounds like a spy novel.

CONAN: It does, yes.

FILKINS: And this is what they call it. They call it the deep state. The deep state was and is a kind of clandestine network of military officers and intelligence officers, former and current. And I think probably the best analogy would be like, say, Latin America in the 1980s. The, you know, the political history of Turkey is really quite dark and very violent, which I didn't really — I'd read a lot about Turkey before I went, but I never really kind of felt it in that way. The military and the deep state acted as kind of a guardian, self-appointed, of course.

We will sort of - we will allow this democracy to kind of unfold. But if we don't like who comes to power, we'll get rid of them. Or if we don't like the people who are demonstrating in the streets today or tomorrow or the next day, we'll get rid of them too. So again, very much like, you know, if you think of, say, Argentina in the 1980s, something like that, death squads, disappearances, things like that.

CONAN: And there's an analogy, a dirty war, and there was certainly a dirty war in Turkey as well.

FILKINS: Absolutely, incredibly dirty. I mean, just incredibly violent. And again, this is just one of these things that kind of came and went, and it doesn't loom very large. It just doesn't loom very large anymore in the West, the war against the Kurds in the southeast. And you're talking, you know, somewhere between 20 and 30,000 dead, thousands of villages burned to the ground, depopulated, disappearances, political prisoners, torture, the whole thing. I mean, it's really, really creepy when you start looking close at the details. I mean, that's the history that sort of Erdogan inherited and confronted when he came to power in 2002 when he was elected.

CONAN: And he challenges this shadow government. Another way Turks talk about it is to talk about white Turks and black Turks.

FILKINS: White Turks and black Turks. And Erdogan is definitely very much a black Turk, and that's really kind of the setting for modern Turkey and for the deep state to kind of understand it. The deep state was very much the protector for a minority, the white Turks, the kind of very secular, the inheritors of Ataturk Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, 1923. They - the white Turks were the kind of the secular elite that governed the country and have governed the country from about 1923 all the way until the election in 2002. And Erdogan is very much kind of - I went to his neighborhood. It's a tough lower class - lower middle class neighborhood. Those are the black Turks. That's everybody else, you know? That's 75 percent of Turkey. And so he confronted the deep state. I mean, for the first time he felt - and this is - Turkey has changed. It's a different country. He felt like he could take them on. It took him many years and he has done it. But, you know, as my piece kind of details, he just kept going.

CONAN: You paint this shadow - world of shadow government where these people, as one of the people you cite in your piece say, they were living in a Kemalist museum. They hadn't realized the world had changed.

FILKINS: Yes. And again, the - just as a kind of easy point of reference, it sounds like you're talking about Latin America in the 1980s. It was a bunch of generals who sit around and plan coups. Do you like this government? Do you not like this government? Do you want to get rid of these guys? What do you think? And that's the world they lived in. And that world, you know, that world was alive and well not 20 years ago, but it's different now. The world has changed.

CONAN: And there is any number of ongoing prosecutions of elements of this shadow state, the deep state, yet the brush seems to have spread pretty wide.

FILKINS: Yes. And that's kind of what my piece is about. I mean, it kind of starts by telling people what the deep state is, as we've just talked about. And Erdogan in - who's a remarkable guy. He's just one of the - he's a charismatic leader. I mean, really, if you went to that in a dictionary, there'd be a picture of him next to it. He just kind of walks into the room and lights it up, very much a populist, kind of, you know, he's like a Turkish Huey Long, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: You know, he wins in a landslide and says, you know, they're out to get me.

CONAN: A goat(ph) in every pot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: Yeah. And he - so essentially the story of - the story that I wrote is kind of Erdogan's campaign against the deep state and then what has become over the past 10 years not just the campaign against the deep state but sort of using the deep state as a pretext to go after everyone who sort of the current government and the current establishment doesn't like. And that includes, I mean I think you're talking about 700 people now arrested in the last five years. You're talking members of parliament, generals, heads of universities, heads of aid organizations, newspaper editors, owners of televisions - television stations. More than 100 journalists are in prison now. So it's a remarkable story. It's really complicated because there were a bunch of bad guys, which everybody kind of acknowledged.

CONAN: Really bad guys.

FILKINS: Really bad guys. Really bad. Yeah, the guys who ran death squads, you know, and who presided over disappearances and that sort of thing. And, you know, so when these prosecutors - prosecutions and these arrests started in the mid-1990s - sorry, sorry - in the middle part of the last decade, 2006, 2007, when these arrests started, everybody cheered pretty much, but it just kept going. And so now you have, again, you have journalists, members of parliament. And so it has become, I mean I think this is the really troubling aspect of Turkey today and whether it is in fact the, you know, the model democracy for the Islamic world.

It's a spooky place now. It's certainly a spooky place to be a reporter, and I had a really, really hard time. Reporting piece nearly killed me, I have to say, not in a literal sense. But Turkey is a police state now very much, or it has very many aspects of a police state. And that's really hard to work in because people are afraid.

CONAN: One aspect of this is the speculation - and it's fair to label it that - that the prime minister may revise the constitution to increase the powers of the presidency and then run for president.

FILKINS: Yes, yes. You know, now, he's been in power now for, you know, going on 10 years and incredibly popular still. I mean, this is a very polarized society. I shouldn't say - so the people that love him, love him, you know, the people that hate him, hate him. I think the best model and one that was suggested to me quite a lot when I was there is Russia or China, which is kind of free-market economics, growing economy, but a kind of one-party democracy, you know, if you want to call it that. You know, authoritarian politics. Don't get in our way. Get with the program. You can even get rich, but don't raise your voice.

CONAN: There's a quote very early in your piece from Erdogan that he says the first priority should be to eliminate those who do not want Turkey to grow, develop and advance. Everyone should be at ease. We will not let anyone disturb this harmony.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: Yeah, yeah, that's a classic. Somebody said to me, you know, when you watch Erdogan give these speeches, you know, he's almost physical, you know, when he speaks, and he's really fun to watch. And he's on television like two hours a day, like...

CONAN: (Unintelligible) Chavez...

FILKINS: ...talking about everything. It's a cult of personality. It really is. And somebody said to me, a former senior American diplomat said to me you don't even need to understand Turkish to know what Erdogan is saying. Just watch him. And it's true. He's barking into the microphone. You know, he's practically assaulting the microphone. He's waving his hand. He's angry. You know, he's angry. And you can really feel that. And the picture that emerges, I think, is, you know, it's this kid from this pretty rough neighborhood that - and he rose on his own by his bootstraps, and he felt like a lot of people are trying to hold him back. And now he's in charge.

CONAN: And a dissident jailed for his dissent who now cannot tolerate dissent.

FILKINS: Yes. And that is the irony, of course. I mean, there's multiple ironies. It's all irony there. It's just remarkable. There's so many paradoxes in modern Turkey. But here you have, in 1997, Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul and a very technocratic, non-ideological, not terribly Islamist - I mean he is sort of known to be an Islamist but did not govern that way and was a very sort of technocratic mayor, and stood up one day in front of a crowd and recited a poem written by a Turkish nationalist, and it's pretty tame stuff.

I mean, it talks about, you know, the mosques are our barracks and the minarets or our weapons or something. They put him in jail for that and for doing nothing more than reading a poem. And so, you know, Erdogan eventually got out, ran for prime minister and won, and now there's 100 journalists in prison in Turkey.

CONAN: We're talking with Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker. His piece, "The Deep State," appeared in the March 12 edition of the magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get David on line. David with us from Scottsdale.

DAVID: Hi there. I have a quick question for your guest. Do you think Turkey will ever get into the EU? I know they've been trying for a number of years, but I was just curious about that. Personally, I don't know where this is going to go, but it's a bit negative conversation. I've actually been to (unintelligible) my wife, she's a Greek Cypriot. She's from the south of Cyprus. Her family fled from the 1974 war when Turkey invaded the north of Cyprus, so her family are in the south now. And I've been to the north of Cyprus, and it's just basically a bombed out shelter. It was a beautiful place. I actually saw family photos and video, when video first came out. I think (unintelligible) in the '70s of the houses and a little hotel they owned up there.

CONAN: Northern Cyprus, of course, the sort of state, that it was created by Turkey and recognized by nobody else. But what about the EU, Dexter Filkins?

FILKINS: I think it was 49 years ago, Turkey first applied to get into the EU, and they've been waiting for 49 years, and, you know, 70 million Turks have been waiting to get into the EU. I think, again, the - one of the great ironies of the past decade has been, you know, Turkey and Erdogan undertook a whole array of reforms and basically remade the Turkish state, the judicial system, the education system. Any number of laws...

CONAN: To meet those...

FILKINS: ...so that they can get into the EU. And now, of course, the EU is all but crumbling. And I think - with Turkey, I think the better question now is would Turkey even want to get into the EU now. I think the answer is probably no. At this point who would want to join the EU? And in the beginning of my piece there's a - Erdogan giving a speech in front of his party, and he's just triumphant. He's all but beating his chest, and he's saying look at the EU, you know, they were - they kept us outside their gates for years, and look at them, they're crumbling. They're crumbling, and he's all but celebrating.

CONAN: All right. Irony, he comes into office after that horrible, dirty war with the PKK, the Kurdish Revolutionary Party, and reaches out to the Kurds. There's many reforms, important reforms. That's turned around too.

FILKINS: Yes, absolutely. And there really have been - I mean been a number of reforms that he undertook, and I don't want to overlook that. I mean, I'm just thinking myself. I lived in Istanbul in the early part of the decade, and I remember, for instance, going to Southeastern Turkey and doing a story about a woman who had been killed in an honor killing. She'd been stoned to death by the men in her village because she'd been accused of adultery or something. But against the Kurds, it's been a remarkable switch. Erdogan came in. He said I'm a friend of the Kurds. I want to bring you into the Turkish state. For the first time, I want to make you full citizens. I'm going to give you language rights. I'm going to do all these things that the Turkish state has never done for you. And a lot of them he did.

But just in the past couple of years, as he has consolidated his power, and as his kind of character in power has changed, he's turned against the Kurds. And so I think in the past two years, I'd say, there's been 4,000 arrests of Kurds. I think 26 mayors, journalists, political leaders, lawyers who defend terrorist defendants. I mean big sweeps. Big sweeps. I mean, just recently, they went into a Kurdish newspaper office and just arrested everyone, you know, just grabbed everybody. I mean, it was, you know, 35 or 40 people. And so it's all changed. I mean it started going - in the early part of the decade it was all going in one direction. And now, in a very curious way, it's turned around and that is true of, you know, whether you're talking about the deep state or the Kurds.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, thanks very much for your time as always.

FILKINS: Thank you, sir. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, "The Deep State," from The New Yorker. An update on the Trayvon Martin story. We mentioned earlier, Bill Lee, the police chief in Sanford, Florida, says he is temporarily stepping down. He made that announcement at a news conference just a few moments ago, saying he had become a distraction, and of course stay tuned to NPR News for a little bit more on that story. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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