If New Zealand continues to call out the human rights abuses of Turkey’s increasingly autocratic and paranoid leader, it faces the threat of being banned from staging official Anzac commemorations in Gallipoli. By Pete McKenzie.
In 2017, Ian McGibbon retraced the footsteps of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Gallipoli by following the dusty road up to Chunuk Bair, where more than 800 New Zealanders died in an ill-fated attempt to seize and hold the summit against Ottoman troops in World War I.
McGibbon, who is this country's foremost military historian, had risen early that morning to attend an annual service remembering those soldiers' dismal sacrifice. Two other academics joined him. But this time, as McGibbon and his colleagues made the slow trek up, a column of young Turkish boys flowed downhill beside them.
Waving vibrant red flags and adorned with imitation kabalaks (the light cap worn by Ottoman troops), the boys chanted nationalistic slogans and directed Turkish barbs towards the clearly Western academics. McGibbon leaned over to his group's guide to ask what they were saying. "You don't want to know," responded the sheepish local.
Gallipoli has become a casualty of the increasingly autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and it's possible that political fractures and growing paranoia in Turkey may sabotage New Zealand diplomats' ability to maintain Turkish support for Anzac commemorations. It could also force us to choose between protecting access to Gallipoli and championing liberal ideals in the country.
Determined to break down the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Ottoman commander who later transformed his country from a dictatorial empire to a secular republic, Erdoğan has recently encouraged a more religio-nationalistic understanding of the Ottoman Empire's Gallipoli campaign.
"A sort of unpleasant political tinge has appeared. Twenty years ago, there was no, 'We beat you," or, 'You beat us.' It was commemorating the event," says McGibbon. "Every Anzac Day now, four or five thousand Turkish youths come and march to Chunuk Bair, because they're following in the footsteps of Atatürk's division to where they stopped Australians and New Zealanders." These days, he says, "there's an element of, 'This is where the Muslims threw back the Crusaders.'"
McGibbon emphasises that "most of the people in western Turkey are very friendly and not like that". Instead, he says, it's "a reflection of the Turkish government's movement away from the secular state that Atatürk created".
That changing understanding of Gallipoli is one of many profound consequences that Erdoğan's political rise has had on the diplomatic relationship between New Zealand and Turkey.
First elected president in 2014 on a conservative Islamist platform, Erdoğan has since then been busy jailing activists, censoring journalists and paying off cronies in a bid to solidify power. As he approaches an election next year fraught with political danger, many experts expect him to become even more paranoid and aggressive.
Successive New Zealand governments have built a diplomatic relationship with Turkey almost entirely around the goal of preserving and expanding New Zealanders' access to Gallipoli. But Erdoğan's autocratic and illiberal tendencies are anathema to a Labour government which, under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, has been more vocal on human rights and democratic issues around the world. The result is an increasingly tense political situation, which has left New Zealand's diplomats stuck. Any attempt to address Turkey's democratic backsliding could profoundly jeopardise the two countries' diplomatic relationship and sabotage New Zealand's ability to maintain Turkish support for Anzac commemorations.
As a result, New Zealand may have to choose: will we prioritise protecting our Gallipoli myth or championing our liberal ideals?
The best indication of the potential consequences of criticising Erdoğan's human rights and democratic record came late last year.
For four years, Osman Kavala – a high-profile liberal Turkish philanthropist – has been imprisoned by the Turkish government, first on charges relating to his support for 2013 pro-democracy protests (which were dismissed in 2020) and then on charges relating to a 2016 coup attempt. Despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that Kavala's imprisonment is unjustified and intense criticism from European partners, Erdoğan has refused to either bring Kavala's case to trial or release him from jail.
Nareg Seferian, a doctoral student in international relations at American university Virginia Tech, says that Kavala's case "is a sham trial by any indication … [It shows that] liberal ideas are being dismissed at the highest levels in [Turkey's capital] Ankara."
On the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment, in October 2021, a coalition of 10 outraged Western ambassadors – including New Zealand's Wendy Hinton – released a statement criticising Erdoğan's government. They declared: "The continuing delays in [Kavala's] trial, including by merging different cases and creating new ones after a previous acquittal, cast a shadow over respect for democracy, the rule of law and transparency in the Turkish judiciary system."
Turkey's response was swift. All 10 ambassadors were summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry and lambasted for what it called an "impertinent statement". It went on to insist that "Turkey is a democratic country governed by the rule of law that respects human rights, and [the ambassadors were] reminded that the Turkish judiciary will not be influenced by such irresponsible statements."
Almost a week later, Erdoğan went further. Standing in front of a crowd at the official opening of a public garden in the city of Eskisehir, he announced he had ordered his foreign minister to declare the 10 "impudent" ambassadors personae non gratae – a diplomatic designation that requires foreign ambassadors to immediately leave a country.
It was an extreme response. Declaring an ambassador persona non grata is a step usually reserved for the most egregious diplomatic disputes. The move threatened a major rupture between Turkey and its Western partners, with enormous implications for the Nato military alliance (of which Turkey is a member), Turkey's economy (which depends heavily on trade with the West) and New Zealand's ability to effectively work with Turkey to plan for and support a return to Gallipoli commemorations once pandemic disruptions eased.
After days of furious negotiation, the ambassadors and Erdoğan arranged a careful diplomatic dance, which allowed him to step back from his threat. The 10 ambassadors simultaneously released statements confirming their compliance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which Erdoğan accepted and characterised as a backdown.
"Our will is never to cause a crisis, but to protect the rights and law, honour, interests and sovereign rights of our country. Thus, today the same ambassadors with a new statement turned back from their defamation of our judiciary and of our country," declared Erdoğan. "I believe from now on they will be more careful about their statements regarding sovereign rights."
It was a taste, for New Zealand, of the outsized potential risks of criticising Erdoğan's government – barely avoided this time through intense diplomatic manoeuvring.
These kinds of diplomatic difficulties may become more common and severe over the coming year.
In the aftermath of the coup attempt in 2016, Erdoğan's political position was significantly strengthened as more secular nationalist Turks swung in behind his traditional base of religious conservatives. But according to Seferian, who previously lived in Turkey, "in recent years, that has been eroding. There have been too many issues that have come up. The economy is in a shambles and there are scandals [over corruption]. And so, nowadays, you see threats to his rule." In 2019, widespread unrest resulted in significant electoral victories for Turkish opposition parties in Ankara and Istanbul.
Next year, the country will go to the polls in a general election – timed to coincide with the Turkish republic's centenary – which will define the nation's direction for another half decade. "This is actually a pretty crucial moment. It's the centennial of the republic. It's a big deal for Erdoğan," says Seferian.
But Erdoğan's position has grown even more precarious in recent months, after his unorthodox economic policies caused a collapse in the value of Turkey's currency. Its annual inflation jumped to a two-decade high of 54 per cent last month. That has prompted Erdoğan and his supporters to grow more paranoid. "If you look at the rhetoric of the elites in recent years, you see more room being given to this kind of conspiratorial thinking," says Seferian. "Suspicion is one element and another is self-assertion – one which is militant and violent."
Okan Tan, a doctoral student at the University of Otago who researches Turkish politics, is more optimistic than Seferian about Turkey's democratic situation. But he also says that political weakness is likely to prompt Erdoğan to become more confrontational in his interactions with Western countries in an attempt to shore up popular support. "Before the election period, [the government] becomes really aggressive."
That combination of paranoia and aggression could be diplomatically explosive.
A spokesperson for New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says "Aotearoa New Zealand maintains a warm relationship with Turkey, based on mutual respect … Our relationship allows the New Zealand government to engage in dialogue, including when we disagree on issues."
But as Tan notes, "the current Turkish government is treating countries who intervene in human rights matters as [intervening] in domestic affairs. The 'foreign enemy' discourse is quickly deployed in those situations." He says the recent diplomatic spat between New Zealand and Turkey would likely be quickly forgotten. But he warns that "if that involvement keeps going – if New Zealand continues to voice support for those people whose rights are violated in Turkey – the tension may increase".
In other words, so long as Erdoğan remains in power, criticism without diplomatic consequences will be impossible. At the same time, his increasingly illiberal use of that power makes it almost impossible for New Zealand not to be critical.
Consequently, New Zealand's diplomatic relationship with Turkey is at a crossroads. If Erdoğan loses power at the 2023 elections, which seems possible given the dire economic situation, there is a chance a more liberal government will come to power and New Zealand's relationship with Turkey will return to its decades-long default.
But if he wins, legitimately or not, the diplomatic situation might become untenable. In that case, New Zealand might have to choose: does it go quiet on human rights and democracy in order to guarantee access to Gallipoli and Turkish support for commemorations there, or does it jeopardise that access and support in order to more vocally defend the principles at the heart of its foreign policy vision?
Nobody can know for sure whether that choice will become necessary. It’s an unpredictable moment, says Seferian. Turkey “does not exude stability. It never has, in a hundred years.”