Regional Diffusion, Rentierism, and Authoritarianism in Turkey

By Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes,” held on June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany

In a recent article, I explained disproportionate authoritarianism in 49 Muslim-majority countries with the combined effect of regional diffusion and oil-rich rentier states (Kuru, 2014). The recent de-democratization in Turkey has constituted a challenge for my argument, as it is both a candidate to world’s most democratic regional organization (European Union) and an oil-poor country. This essay argues that regional diffusion and rentierism help us understand Turkey’s puzzling political transformation.

Regional Diffusion and Rentier States

Rentier states are financially dependent on rents, such as oil and minerals and state control of these rents maintains the rulers’ incentive and power to reject people’s participation in governance. Rentier states have relatively limited need for taxation; instead, using rent revenues, they allocate money, jobs, and services to the people. This minimizes the people’s power to keep their rulers accountable. The patron-client relationship between the rentier state and the people hinders the emergence of independent political, economic, and civil society. Instead, rents provide authoritarian regimes the financial capacity to use state-owned media and other propaganda instruments and to expand despotic security apparatuses.

My index of rentier states reveals that 25 out of 28 rentier states in the world are authoritarian. Muslim-majority countries constitute about three quarters (20/28) of all rentier states, although they are only a quarter (49/174) of all countries (Kuru, 2014: 415).

Other scholars have explained the impact of the oil rents on authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and worldwide (Beblawi and Luciani, 1987; Ross, 2001). Some recent publications, however, criticize the rentier state model by emphasizing that oil-poor countries in MENA and Central Asia are also authoritarian. A regional diffusion perspective can fix this shortcoming of the rentier state model. Such a perspective takes rentierism as a region‐wide phenomenon and explicates why even oil‐poor countries in MENA and Central Asia are authoritarian. Rentier states promote authoritarianism in their non‐rentier neighbors, especially if the former are numerically, economically, and politically dominant over the latter.

In other parts of the world, authoritarianism and democracy are also regional phenomena rather than isolated phenomena in separate countries. Political regimes in a region affect each other through military and diplomatic relations, financial interactions, and socio-cultural exchanges. Given these effects, the transitions to and consolidation of authoritarianism or democracy are largely regional processes, as seen in the following examples: a) the rise of fascism before World War II and democratization in its aftermath in Western Europe; b) the rise (1970s) and fall (1980s-1990s) of the military regimes in Latin America; and c) the dominance of communism following World War II and its collapse in 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe.

While analyzing transnational influences, Thomas Richter and André Bank elaborate on the difference between (relatively fuzzier) diffusion and (actor-based) cooperation (Richter and Bank, 2016). The rise of the Arab uprisings is an example of diffusion, primarily through transnational learning and emulation, whereas their downfall could be explained by interstate cooperation within two regional blocs. The two blocks are led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, two rentier autocracies. Saudi Arabia has led a Sunni monarchical bloc that includes the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Jordan. This bloc has perceived the regional mood toward democratization as a threat and tried to stop it. Their cooperation included intervention through coercion. Saudi Arabia and the UAE deployed 1,000 troops and 500 policemen, respectively, to Bahrain to support the kingdom against the popular protests. Their cooperation also included patronage. These countries provided an approximately $12 billion loan to the military regime in Egypt after the coup d’état ousted former President Muhammad Morsi. The rival bloc has been led by Iran and included the Maliki government in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This bloc has sustained the Assad regime in Syria by providing military and financial support (Kuru, 2015: 107-108).

While the Arab uprisings have mostly reproduced authoritarianism, Turkey has also experienced de-democratization and the establishment of a neo-patrimonial Tayyip Erdoğan regime.

Turkey: Regional Diffusion and Rentierism

In its first and second terms (2002-2011), the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Erdoğan promised to create a truly competitive market economy. Following the 2011 elections, however, Erdoğan unapologetically moved to establish a rentier system. He centralized key economic decisions, by requiring his personal signature on such issues as mining permits and the selling of expensive public lands in Istanbul. The AKP redesigned legal requirements for government tenders in order to freely distribute them to its cronies. Using these crony capitalists, Erdoğan has strictly controlled the majority of Turkish TV channels and newspapers. Meanwhile, employing the justification of the constitutional principle of “social state,” the AKP provided financial aid to over 13 million citizens, turning most of them into loyal voters. Due to the heavy party propaganda, these voters perceived governmental aid as a result of AKP generosity (Özgür, 2014). In short, rentierism and patron-client relationship have become pivotal characteristics of the Erdoğan regime (Yildirim, 2015).

The surprising aspect of Erdoğan’s rentier regime is that it is oil-poor. To solve this problem, Erdoğan has employed three strageies. First, he has taken advantage of the global conditions (e.g., the U.S. Central Bank’s low-interest policy) to receive a substantial amount of loans. Turkey’s total international debt (both public and private) increased from $130 billion in 2002 to $408 billion in 2014 (World Bank, 2016). Erdoğan also made the biggest privatization campaign of Turkish history by selling public properties for more than $50 billion. Second, Erdoğan has used lands, especially in Istanbul, as a source of rent. The popular reaction to Erdoğan’s passion to turn Istanbul’s green places into rent led to the Gezi protests in Summer 2013.

Last but not least, Erdoğan has confiscated and sold the properties of the businesspeople who did not pledge loyalty to him. In order to cover up the corruption probe that occurred in late 2013, Erdoğan has demonized an old ally, the Gülen (aka Hizmet) movement. Erdoğan confiscated the movement’s bank, Bank Asya, and media outlets. He declared the movement a “terrorist” organization and seized the properties of several businesspeople affiliated with it. One such businessperson, Akın İpek, had a multi-billion dollar holding..

Erdoğan’s establishment of an authoritarian rentier system has been associated with the decline of Western linkages to and leverage on Turkey.[1] Following their elections as the leaders of Germany and France, respectively, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy reversed their predecessors’ favorable policies on Turkey’s EU membership bid, weakening EU’s linkages there. Moreover, the recent refugee crisis created by civil wars in Syria and Iraq, has weakened the EU’s leverage on Turkey. Thus, EU leaders have remained mostly silent while Erdoğan pursued authoritarian policies. The US policy was no different given the American need to Turkey’s partnership in fight against ISIS.

During 2002-2011, the AKP was trying to make Turkey an EU member and EU norms of democratization and liberalization were diffusing into Turkey. Yet after 2011, given the impacts of his expanding power in Turkey and the euphoria of the “Arab Spring,” Erdoğan’s aspirations shifted to become the leader of Arab countries, if not the entire “Muslim world.” Thus Erdoğan took some initiatives to weaken Western leverages on his new regime. He tried to integrate with Russia and China as alternatives to the West. He asked Putin twice to accept Turkey in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). He also showed preference to China in a multi-billion dollar anti-missile system tender. Although Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane created tension between the two countries and Erdoğan ultimately did not buy the Chinese anti-missile system, these maneuvers still damaged Turkey’s relations with the West.

Erdoğan’s attempts to weaken Turkey’s ties with Western countries have had strategic as well as ideological roots. Strategically, Erdoğan wanted to minimize both intervention and diffusion of Western countries in terms of promoting democracy and human rights. The marginal reaction from American and European politicians to Erdoğan’s crack down on dissenting politicians, businesspeople, and the media indicate that his strategy worked. Erdoğan has also worked hard to minimize Western diffusion to Turkish society via democratic learning and emulation. The TV channels and newspapers controlled and orchestrated by Erdoğan have pursued an unprecedented anti-Western campaign, by presenting such Western actors as German President Joachim Gauck, U.S. Prosecutor Preet Bharara, and U.S. think tank the Brookings Institute as enemies of and conspirators against Turkey. This successful campaign has deepened anti-Western sentiment and disseminated a fantasy that Erdoğan’s Turkey has become an enormously successful Muslim country, making the West jealous and increasing its enmity toward Turkey (Tas, 2014). The Erdoğan media depicted every critical report in the Western media about the problems of human right abuses and authoritarianism in Turkey as Western conspiracy.

Ideologically, Erdoğan’s Islamism is the genuine reason for his anti-Westernism. Although he had claimed to give up the Islamist ideology in 2002-2011 due to pressure by the assertive secularist military, once he consolidated power, Erdoğan returned to his Islamist roots. At home, he Islamicized public discourse, marginalized Alevis, focused public education on the Islamic Imam-Hatip schools, and channeled public resources to crony Islamic foundations in order to train a “pious generation.” Abroad, he established close partnerships with such Islamist countries as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Erdoğan’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar has two main dimensions. First, Erdoğan has received substantial financial support from these two countries through foreign loans, direct investment, and property selling. Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s support for Erdoğan is “the subject of speculation regarding the huge mysterious inflow of unidentified foreign currency to Turkey during the years of AKP rule. The sum has reached an unprecedented $36 billion in total, with the monthly inflows increasing especially during election time” (Doğan, 2015).

Second, Erdoğan has established military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These three armed several opposition groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliate El Nusra Front, against the Assad regime in Syrian Civil War. More recently, Turkey joined to Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian “Islamic Army,” and built a military base in Qatar.

In addition to cooperation, Erdoğan has emulated some characteristics of his new Arab partners. His palace built from scratch in the middle of Atatürk Forest Farm in Ankara symbolizes the combination of Erdoğan’s rentier attitude toward parks and his emulation of Saudi-like luxury. Erdoğan has also made the National Intelligence Organization the central institution of his regime, similar to Arab mukhabarat (intelligence) states.

In short, recent political decisions have made Turkey more distant from democratic Europe and closer to authoritarian MENA. The closer Turkey becomes to the MENA states, the more authoritarian it becomes, and vice-versa. Similarly, a mutual causal relationship seems to exist between Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Western countries and its fading democracy.

This essay has explained the recent authoritarianism in Turkey by the combined effects of regional diffusion and rentierism. Although Turkey is an oil-poor country, Erdoğan has established a rentier system using foreign debt, privatization revenues, Istanbul’s lands, and properties of opposition businesspeople. In this rentier system, Erdoğan’s role models are his authoritarian neighbors. Turkey’s recent transformation from democracy to authoritarianism has been associated with its moving away from Western countries and closer relations with MENA. The future democratization of Turkey requires it to turn the rentier economic system into a competitive, free market system, and to reestablish close relations with Western countries. These two requirements are mutually supportive and jointly necessary for Turkey to become democratic again.


[1] For the impacts of Western linkages and leverages on non-Western democratization, see Levitsky and Way, 2010.

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