As Ahmet Davutoglu mentioned, the Gezi Park protests have an impact on Turkish reputation in the international arena (link in Turkish). But as the debunked urban legend goes, the Chinese word for crisis includes two characters: one for danger, another for opportunity. This post argues that the Turkish state has failed to use the Gezi Park protests to boost its image. Yet, it is not too late. Turkey can still use these protests as a way to increase its reputation as a strong modern capable state.
Today marks day 19th of protests that started out with a small group of less than 100 people trying to protect a park in downtown Istanbul. Due to the excessive use of police force, and subsequent mishandling of the situation by the political and bureaucratic authorities, the protests have grown in size and spread to other cities in Turkey.
Turkey has used various channels to explain its side of the story from the very early days of the protests. Yet, there have been two unfortunate mistakes in Turkish communication attempts. First, Turkey played its version of the “race card” instead of analyzing the situation. Turkey has been blaming, for instance EU, for having double standards for Turkey for the last decade or so. The initial state reaction was the same – foreign powers were exaggerating the severity of the protests. This time, international media was being unjust. Turkish PM even accused CNN, BBC, and Reuters of fabricating news.
Second, Turkey failed to differentiate between the “government” and the “state” once again in its external communication activities. The current governing party and its ideology became the “state”. Even the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, wrote an op-ed defending his “party” for the Guardian.
In short, we need to answer two questions before we focus on projecting a “Turkish image”:
1- Is the aim to project the image of
- a sensitive country that accepts criticism regardless of its source or
- a strong country that is ready to defend itself against foreign interference regardless of its method?
Will Turkey give up some of its “sovereignty” for the sake of human rights and democracy or expect its citizens to give up certain human rights to protect its state sovereignty?
2- Is the aim to protect the reputation of
- Turkey with AKP rule or
- Turkey under AKP rule?
So, is the main objective of image projection to ensure that AKP’s reforms in terms of individual rights and freedoms stay, or is it to ensure that AKP stays in power?
Turkish communication attempts thus far focused on projecting an image of a powerful country that will protect its sovereignty at any cost. With the blurring lines between the state and the government, these attempts also chose to side with Turkey under AKP rule.
What went wrong?
I argued elsewhere before; Turkish image (as well as soft power) highly depends on PM Erdogan. Erdogan saw these protests as organized by foreign powers, accused international media, and organized support rallies for him and his party. Various high level politicians echoed his views, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu and Minister of EU Affairs Egemen
Bagisci . Bagis. Putting AKP supporters against the protesters made the protests look like anti-government protests. Moreover, the police reaction was justified as the protesters were marginal groups that were prone to violence. Even though this was a good strategy on the surface, the use of excessive force by the police raised questions about the government’s motives. Gezi Park protests then show that Turkey is willing to crack down anti-government protests if there is a risk of violence. This message is very unlikely to resonate with the Western audiences. Moreover, Turkey might have problems with the Middle Eastern audiences as well, especially after the uprisings in the region and North Africa.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and foreign representations were quiet, maybe too quiet. We did not hear from bureaucrats or diplomats (except for politically appointed high ranking technocrats, such as the Chief Advisor for the PM and the Governor of Istanbul). Therefore, the messages sent to international media had political objectives (i.e. supporting AKP) in the short term, rather than focusing on Turkish image in the longer term. This creates question marks about Turkey in the long term. If we equate Turkish image to AKP and Erdogan, what will happen to the reputation of the country in the face of a government change?
What went right?
Social media! Despite Erdogan’s dismissal of the platform, there was a high level of activity by pro-protest and anti-protest groups, as well as certain government agencies, including the Office of Public Diplomacy’s English twitter feed.
References to democracy! Despite the fact that such references usually conceptualized democracy as rule of majority, it was great to hear that democracy became such a central part of public debates in Turkey.
Military! From day one, protesters declared that they did not want the help of the military. Similarly, military did not comment on the developments. We saw that Turkey is capable of having a highly heated civilian debate.
What is next?
Gezi Protests mark an important point in understanding how Turkey (and Turkish brand) is positioned in the world. It is time for Turkey to make certain choices and disseminate messages explaining these choices.
- Turkey should choose between democracy and sovereignty and treat the protesters accordingly.
- Especially for the Middle Eastern audiences, it is important to differentiate how the Turkish protests (or the Turkish reaction to the protests) are different from the case of Libya, Egypt, or Syria.
- For the European audiences, it is important to show why the Turkish reaction to the protests should be acceptable within the framework of Western democracies (without hypothetical scenarios and weak analogies).
- AKP, after over a decade in power, needs to think about the image and reputation of Turkish state in the absence of AKP.
- Foreign diplomatic representations should be more active in explaining the situation to local population in a language that they can understand.
- Turkish politicians should start working on their international media relations skills.