In the European capitals a decade ago, Turkey’s now-paramount leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held promise as a potential beacon of democracy for a region rife with religious conflict.
Turkey was a stalwart NATO ally bridging Europe and the volatile Middle East. As Mr. Erdogan sought to secure a place for his country in the ranks of the European Union, he presented himself as a moderate and modernizing Muslim leader for the post-9/11 age. He catered to perceptions that Turkey was becoming a liberal society governed by tolerance and the rule of law.
But that was before Mr. Erdogan began amassing supreme powers, and before his brutal crackdown on dissent following an attempted coup two years ago. It was before Turkey descended into a financial crisis delivered in no small measure by his authoritarian proclivities and unorthodox stewardship of the economy. Whatever was left of the notion that Mr. Erdogan was a liberalizing force has been wholly extinguished.
Regional experts contend that visions of Turkey’s leader as an agent of liberal progress were always fantastical. Mr. Erdogan — who served as Turkey’s prime minister for 11 years before becoming its president in 2014 — forged his political career as an Islamist intent on challenging the strictures of Turkey’s state-imposed secularism. His early democratic reforms and assertion of civilian control over the military were largely about winning the welcome of the European bloc while enabling Turkey’s Muslim populace to practice its religion free of state interference.
“For us, democracy is a means to an end,” Mr. Erdogan once declared.
History is full of examples of Western nations — especially the United States — projecting their aspirations and values onto foreign leaders with their own objectives.
In its effort to prevent China from falling under the control of Communists, Washington backed the Chinese Nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek, celebrating him as a courageous hero even as he brutalized opponents and profited on the spoils of American support. In Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the United States cast flawed figures as veritable George Washingtons before writing them off as corrupt tyrants.
“As much as we might fantasize about things changing and there being liberal progress, we probably got overly carried away with those sorts of visions for Turkey,” said Philip Robins, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Oxford.
Yet even inside Turkey, the European Union exerted a powerful pull as a means of elevating society. It aligned commercial interests — access to a vast European marketplace — with the imperative to democratize. To win European favor, Turkey abolished notorious state security courts, elevated human rights and scrapped the death penalty.
“This is a process that is going to change the perception of life in Turkish society,” the then-president of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, Murat Yalcintas, said in 2005. “It’s a mechanism that will integrate us into the freethinking, modern world.”
If that was ever really so, it now looks like a lost opportunity.
Europe never got comfortable with admitting an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that is home to more than 70 million people. Repeated rebuffs laced with anti-Muslim sentiments proved galling for Turkey, especially as Bulgaria and Romania managed to join the European bloc despite reputations for rampant corruption.
In recent years, Mr. Erdogan has broken from the reformist path while forging new alliances, especially with Russia and its strongman leader Vladimir Putin. He has jailed journalists, seized the assets of political opponents and crushed dissent while amassing complete control over the levers of Turkish power. He has run the economy like a patronage network, lavishing credit on companies controlled by cronies, while yielding growth through debt.
His spending spree has bettered life for the working class Turks who make up Mr. Erdogan’s political base, erecting hospitals, schools, roads and other infrastructure. But he has fueled the construction boom by supplying government credits and guarantees that have encouraged private companies to take on alarming debts.