On February 3rd, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a statement against the decision to refer philanthropist Osman Kavala’s case back to a European court, declaring that Turkey will not respect the Council of Europe if Turkish courts are not respected. Kavala is a high-profile detainee, one that has brought Turkey much international censure as he has been imprisoned for four years without any conviction . Two years ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) determined that Kavala should immediately be granted release and that his arrest was an act of suppression. Despite this ruling, Turkey has yet to release him. The Council of Europe had directed this case to the ECHR to see if Turkey had failed to comply with its commitment to execute the court’s decision in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. This referral to the ECHR is one stage in the “infringement proceedings” which could end with suspension from the Council of Europe for Turkey, a founding member of the council.
This proclamation from Erdogan comes as no surprise to those who have been sounding the alarm about his continued assaults against Turkey’s democratic institutions and practices. President Erdogan is leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has dominated Turkey for decades. Though it initially vowed to push for reform, this promise has instead given way to increasingly authoritarian aims. The early days of negotiations to gain membership to the European Union and stronger diplomatic ties stand in stark contrast to the current period of democratic erosion, economic downturn, and poor relations with neighboring countries.
A number of factors are thought to have led to democratic backsliding in Turkey. Researchers Kemal Kirisci and Amanda Sloan point to domestic sources such as a political culture primed for a more domineering approach and less of an affinity for characteristic liberal democratic values and instead increasingly conservative ones . It is also difficult for shared democratic values to take root as a result of Erdogan’s divisive policies and rhetoric which has exacerbated Turkish society’s polarization into conservative and progressive camps.
When asked about the Council of Europe at a news conference, Erdogan stated that Turkey will not recognize those who do not recognize its courts . He went on to say that “What the ECHR has said, what the Council of Europe says, this doesn’t concern us much because we expect our courts to be respected.” While on the surface this may read as a defense of Turkish courts and their decision, Erdogan was employing a mechanism of what Ozan Varol calls stealth authoritarianism . This is a means for autocrats to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option. Among the mechanisms Varol lists, Erdogan makes use of judicial review by avoiding accountability for the decision to detain Osman Kavala for four years without a conviction. In plain words he states that Turkey’s courts must be respected, but in actuality he is attempting to evade culpability by invoking the judiciary. In a domestic and international climate where more direct attempts to perpetuate and consolidate political power are brought to light and shamed, leaders like Erdogan make use of more subtle means to gain and maintain power by concealing authoritarian practices under the guise of the law. Within the context of his entire leadership, this statement can be understood easily under the auspices of stealth authoritarian practice. Kucukgocmen, Ali. “Erdogan Says Turkey Will Not Respect Council of Europe.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkeys-erdogan-says-will-not-respect-council-europe-after-kavala-move-2022-02-03/.  Kirişci, Kemal, and Amanda Sloat. “The Rise and Fall of Liberal Democracy in Turkey: Implications for the West.” Brookings, Brookings, 25 Nov. 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-rise-and-fall-of-liberal-democracy-in-turkey-implications-for-the-west/.  See 1  Varol, Ozan O., Stealth Authoritarianism (April 24, 2014). 100 Iowa Law Review 1673 (2015), Lewis & Clark Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-12, Available at https://ilr.law.uiowa.edu/print/volume-100-issue-4/stealth-authoritarianism/