As Turkey’s Relationship With West Sours, Russia Comes Calling

Putin and Erdogan at the G20 Summit in Antalya in November
Putin and Erdogan at the G20 Summit in Antalya in November
Ceyda Karan


ISTANBUL â€" Having survived the coup attempt is not enough to put our minds at ease in Turkey. Turkey is on a road that doesn’t lead to a pluralistic and democratic system. We wake up to a new nightmare every day about our nation’s direction. What’s happening on Turkish soil is worrisome. But it’s our changing foreign policy that warrants our attention.

The coup attempt happened during the weakest period of the Islamist regime that governs Turkey today. The government was tired of verbally battling the U.S. and the European Union: with the U.S. on free speech, with Europe on the cartoon crisis and the refugee deal. Beyond the U.S. and EU, Turkey was suffering from its involvement in the Syrian war through jihadist groups. It was also dealing with the fallout from shooting down a Russian warplane. A deal with Israel to normalize diplomatic relations grew messy and had the potential to cause an ideological break within the Turkish government. The prime minister at the time Ahmet Davutoglu was held responsible for these foreign policy decisions and forced to resign.

Today, after averting the coup attempt, there is a new crisis in our foreign relations. On the EU front, we are wrestling because of the death penalty issue and the matter of visa-free EU travel, a decision that has previously been postponed.

And that’s just the beginning. The real issue concerns the U.S., which is suspected of being involved in the coup plot. Turkey's demand for the extradition of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey accuses of orchestrating the coup, has already caused a minor crisis. But extradition appears unlikely as U.S. favors asylum for dissidents when it is in their political interest. That said, in response to Turkey's firm stand, deportation is still a possibility. Washington's decision will signal the fate of our future bilateral relations.

Moreover, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signaled the high stakes in our relationship with the U.S. when he implied that Turkey's actions could have consequences in terms of its membership in NATO. In fact, Kerry didn't say that Turkey's membership in the alliance was in jeopardy. He just underscored that there are requirements to be a member and "NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening in Turkey." Kerry emphasized the importance of "common values," "constitutional order" and "rule of law." Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary general, echoed these points in his statement.

It's been a long time since Turkey's relations with the West got so toxic. The time when Davutoglu and Hillary Clinton (as the former foreign minister and secretary of state respectively) were on the same page is far behind us.

Now, Erdogan's apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin could be a sign of change in the direction of Turkey's foreign policy. As a matter of fact, Putin was the first one to call Erdogan after the coup attempt. Turkey's decision to take a Eurasian position in response to the West is a development that increases Turkey's strategic value to Russia. Is it really possible for Turkey to side with Eurasia while the country is greatly integrated in the global economic system? What would this position cost us?

On Tuesday, Moody's announced that the corporation is considering downgrading Turkey's credit rating and Fitch said that Turkey's credit profile will be affected because of the political risks raised by the coup attempt and the government's harsh response. So how far can Turkey go with this change in foreign policy in terms of the economy?

The Russia and Turkey alignment also requires policy changes in Syria and the Middle East. In Turkey's increasingly religious environment, what will happen after these changes? How will these developments affect the fight against ISIS and the jihadist militia that is now a part of Turkey? Questions are endless but changes in Turkish foreign policy certainly paint a dark picture.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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