Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What Prevents Democracy in Turkey?

Hans-Lukas Kieser

The Conference of Lausanne in 1922-23 offers invaluable insights into the state of the world, Europe, and the Middle East at a crossroads after World War I. This Near East Peace Conference resulted in the Lausanne Treaty, the international “birth certificate” of the Republic of Turkey, founded in October 1923.

The Treaty of Lausanne belatedly concluded the post-Great War Paris treaty system whose first cornerstone had been the 1919 Treaty of Versailles for Germany. Closely followed by international press and radio, the Lausanne Conference totally revised the 1920 Sèvres Treaty, the hitherto last treaty of the Paris system. Only victors sat at the negotiating table in Lausanne: representatives of the Great War victors and of the Ankara government that had won the subsequent wars in Anatolia. Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Iranians, Syrians and many others were excluded.

During the protracted negotiations in Lausanne, the delegates from Ankara promised progress, civilization, secularism, rule of law, and democracy. They abruptly replaced late-Ottoman Islamic nationalism with a new, exclusively ethno-racial nationalism, thus creating a religious-secular rift in nascent “new Turkey” right from the start. Despite remarkable opportunities, democracy in republican Turkey has never taken hold permanently since 1923, as proven by the current mass imprisonment of dissidents and journalists, and the ongoing low-intensity war against Kurdish rights and demands.

The Islamists with Recep T. Erdogan, who came to power in Ankara eighty years after the Lausanne Treaty, have no less missed the democratic challenge than the Kemalists before them. Why? In an analysis that includes contemporary Europe and the Middle East, When Democracy Died finds answers in the pivotal moment of Lausanne. There, not only Ankara’s radical nationalists, who sought above all their sole and unitary reign in Anatolia, but also their Soviet ally at the time and the national empires Britain and France with their mandates in Anatolia’s neighborhood did not focus on democracy. Later, the superficial and exploitative American attempts at democratization in Turkey and the Middle East did little to ever promote sound social contracts. Observers only at the Conference, the US had adopted the Lausanne regulations by the 1930s.

Democracy, the main pillar of true societal and international peace, thus remained left out for a century to come. Although it successfully remade international relations with the West, the Treaty of Lausanne could not lay the foundation for a balanced and lasting domestic peace in the core lands of the defunct late-Ottoman Empire. Not only do current developments in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and the South Caucasus prompt this conclusion in retrospect of a century, but, even more, a sober historical inquiry into the genesis, making, and immediate aftermath of the Peace of Lausanne itself sheds light on the conditions of an international peace that right from the start remained domestically peaceless. A main reason is the deliberate repression of an immediate past marked by war, genocide, and mutual trauma.

In all its vibrancy, drama, and lofty vocabulary, the Lausanne Conference amounted to a deal-making of Western Europe’s ageing imperialists with post-Ottoman autocracies whose cadre, in the case of Ankara, included leading genocide perpetrators. “World peace” was at stake in Lausanne, as repeatedly invoked at the negotiating table, referring to principles of Geneva’s League of Nations. But in contrast to all other Paris treaties, the League’s Covenant did no longer head the Lausanne Treaty. Endorsing ultranationalism, leader cult, ethnic cleansing, and disfranchisement of whole ethno-religious groups, Lausanne finished off the League’s democratizing ambition and the League’s global political project. It rubber-stamped wide-ranging political, societal, and genocidal violence in the late-Ottoman core area of Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Syria. It even accomplished former ethno-religious cleansing by an official, compulsory, so-called population exchange. At the same time, it buried previous attempts to come to terms with the past and to build up constitutional, accountable polities, namely regarding the Armenians.

Understandably, the utopian challenge of global peace remained out of reach in Lausanne, but the Conference also gave up on the more concrete ambitions of the time: to offer a minimum of protection for minorities; justice for war crimes; restitution for dispossession; and safe self-determination for small nations in Anatolia and beyond. The Western parties thus gave Ankara what it wanted in return for getting what they wanted: reasserted national-imperial power, an exploitable Arab Middle East, working relations with potentates, and a politically sidelined Soviet Russia. The window of opportunity for more democratic futures, which the new League of Nations had opened up to include late-Ottoman core lands, definitively closed down in Lausanne. Western actors henceforth involved in the Middle East cared little or not at all about constitutionality. Democracy including human rights, became a value that again counted, at best, only in their own country for their own voters.

Therefore, unsafe futures loomed for Europe and the Middle East after Lausanne and – as humankind has only decades later become more generally aware – catastrophic ecological consequences globally from excessive dependence on fossil fuel. Lausanne definitively let down existing democratic-minded forces who, though less strong and vocal than nationalists and Islamists, sought internationally supported constitutional rule. In the long term, the Lausanne sort of peace settlement manifestly did not promote viable polities. Practices destructive of democracy, politics of violence, and recurrent conflicts abounded, together with the art of manipulating, not solving, crises. As a consequence, bereft of functioning social contracts, parts of the population had to leave their home countries for better futures. Millions voted with their feet, leaving Turkey and other post-Ottoman countries during the decades to come.

Successful violence paid off in Lausanne and deployed precedential force. It transformed the League of Nations. Other contemporary ultranationalists like the later star Nazi lawyer Carl Schmitt came to see “contemporary Turkey, with its radical expulsion of the Greeks and its reckless Turkish nationalization of the country” as a role model. Ankara proved to other would-be revisionists in Europe and Asia how to triumphantly defy the Paris-Geneva settlement (the Paris peace treaties including the League Covenant). It demonstrated how to deal with Western parliamentary democracies and how to get one’s own way with, and benefit from, liberal-capitalist leaders on the own autocratic path into the future.

A powerful anti-liberal road begun at the end of the Great War with the Kemalists’ and Bolsheviks’ denigration, rejection, and division of Armenia. Illiberalism simultaneously showed up, though less brutally, in mandate-related deals and the rise of Ibn Saud in Arabia. From the triumphalist revision of the Sèvres Treaty in Lausanne, where the Armenians were definitively sidelined, this fatal road led to the revilement of Poland as an “ugly, grotesque bastard of the Versailles Treaty” by National Socialists and Soviets during the interwar period. Self-declared revolutionaries from the right and the left regarded Armenia as a weak and contemptible project engendered by the victors in Paris, backed only by the Geneva-based League of Nations, a militarily impotent internationalist institution.

If today we consider democratic peace as a decisive issue globally and for the modern Middle East, we cannot help coming critically back to those universal hopes and notions after the Great War, carefully reconsidering them. Lausanne’s new realpolitik made the Western powers strike deals with post-Ottoman strongmen in Ankara, Riyadh, and later Tehran, all of whom were able enough to play the then-international game. They had violently secured dominance in their national domain; adapted, in time, then-current weapons of diplomacy besides brute force; and they could offer crucial commodities and geostrategic advantages.

By considering the Republic of Turkey as “by far the most stable political unit in the Near East,” or as “a rare and on the whole unusually successful example of a nationalism at once intransigent, enlightened, and reasonable,” a formative generation of Western scholars and diplomats almost entirely overlooked hard facts of trauma, genocide, and forestalled democracy. Most well perceived Turkey as illiberal and “highly nationalistic.” But they cared little about antidemocracy and continued internal repression there, including the Dersim genocide of Kurdish Alevis that the League of Nations deliberately ignored in the late 1930s. Since the 2010s, the mainstream that for decades praised the Lausanne-based stability of Turkey, has for good reasons fallen silent. However, the findings of When Democracy Died are aimed at more democracy. They do by no means support nostalgists of the Ottoman Empire and the antidemocratic Islamist and pan-Turkish detractors of the Lausanne Treaty.

When Democracy Died by Hans-Lukas Kieser

About The Author

Hans-Lukas Kieser

Hans-Lukas Kieser is Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Zurich. His books include Talât Pasha (2018), Neares...

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