The Observer 22 January, 2017
Hard questions for democracies have piled up with a speed we have yet to take in. After the cold war, westerners asked how to stand up to autocrats. Should we intervene to stop genocide in Bosnia? Or demand sanctions and boycotts to protect the rights of Tibetans? The rise of communist China, Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey changed the terms of debate. The question was no longer should we intervene, but could we intervene against powers more than able to resist pressure?
Now that the Trump administration has slouched towards Washington to be born and strongmen have muscled their way into the chancelleries of eastern Europe, the question is more basic: how are supposed democracies different from actual dictatorships?
Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is rarely included in the list of countries that have sunk into corrupt and mendacious authoritarianism. The fact that Syriza is held to be a leftwing rather than a rightwing populist regime is thought to be a distinction of supreme importance by the kind of people who think Paul Mason is an intellectual. Yet the arrival in power of “the coalition of the radical left” did not stop the corruption scandals in Greek politics. Nor did it usher in a new age of freedom.
Instead, Syriza has shown that concepts of “left” and “right” cannot explain the brute realities of 21st-century power. They are almost an irrelevance now. If Donald Trump is right wing, for instance, why do free-market conservatives and national security Republicans fear him so? If Syriza is left wing, why is it in alliance with the ultra-nationalists and religious obscurantists of the Independent Greeks party?
As always, you must never let your eye be distracted from the constraints that bind the powerful and the violence with which they fight against them. This week, the Greek supreme court, the Areopagus, may, at its government’s behest, overturn a constraint that has bound European governments since the fall of the 20th-century tyrannies. The Greek novelist Apostolos Doxiadis tells me he has dropped his writing to campaign about a case that goes to the heart of what Europe thinks it is and what it is in danger of becoming.
Here is why. On 16 July 2016, the night of the doomed coup against Recep Erdoğan, three Turkish search-and-rescue crews were ordered by their commanding officer to pick up casualties from an “emergency situation in the centre of Istanbul”. Their helicopters met intense gunfire. They saved who they could and retreated back to base.
By their account, they had no foreknowledge of the coup. They could not raise their commanders on their return. But when they turned on the television and saw soldiers being lynched, eight of the airmen decided to flee to Greece. Their reason for thinking they would find sanctuary may soon leave a bitter taste: “because it is Europe”.
For them and millions of others, Europe was as much an idea as a continent. After the defeat of fascism and communism, and in Greece’s case the overthrow of the colonels’ junta in 1974, “Europe” stood for the rule of law and human rights. By definition, it opposed those familiar instruments from the age of the dictators: arbitrary arrest, show trials, torture and the death penalty.
Erdoğan has used the excuse of the coup to purge Turkish society of every potential centre of opposition. To check off the above list, Erdoğan’s forces have arrested Kurdish politicians for being Kurds. They have used the flimsiest of pretexts to put journalists on trial for “spreading terrorist propaganda”. To the surprise of no one, defence lawyers have made credible accusations of torture. Meanwhile, Turkey’s nationalist right is campaigning to restore the death penalty.
The eight officers were arrested within hours of landing. Far from respecting due process and the rule of law, Erdoğan was able to boast that Syriza’s leader and the luckless Greeks’ prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, had “assured me the officers will be extradited”. Tsipras did not contradict the implicit accusation that he was interfering with the Greek courts.
The only evidence offered by the Turkish state against the officers is the unanswered phone calls they made to their commander, who has since been arrested as a participant in the putsch. The officers say they were merely seeking further instructions from their superiors amid the confusion.
In a well-run country, the courts would ignore the prime minister. It’s not that simple in Greece. Doxiadis, who has the outrage of a Greek Zola, says: “In a true democracy, Mr Tsipras’s kowtowing to Mr Erdoğan would be merely contemptible, a blatant attempt to gain personal favour at the expense of human rights. But in today’s Greece they are cause for great alarm.” The president of the Greek supreme court is a government appointee. We will soon find out how far the independence of the Greek judiciary extends.
Greece’s degeneration into a baklava republic would be bad enough on its own. The story of that degeneration is also worth retelling as a warning to the political equivalent of sex tourists to stop getting their rocks off on fantasies about “socialist” governments far from home.
But the case of the airmen is wider than that. The whole of Europe has a Grecian feel now. The EU cut a deal with Erdoğan to keep out the refugees, whose presence on Europe’s streets has provoked a continent-wide backlash. Talk to him too harshly and he could tear it up. If Trump allies with Putin, the rest of Nato may not think they can stand up to Russia alone. As for isolated Britain, its leaders will find every excuse to sell arms to every dictatorship from Riyadh to Beijing. Any trade will soon be better than no trade.
The only argument against appeasement is the realistic argument that it will not work. Erdoğan has gone mad. He roams around his 1,000-room palace ranting against his opponents. Putin, likewise, has made it clear that the west is his enemy. Nothing we can do will make him change his mind.
As fate would have it, the Greek supreme court was named after the Areopagus of classical Athens, which heard the trials of antiquity. Aeschylus in the Oresteia sent Orestes there to seek protection from the Furies. Athena tells him:
O man unknown, make thou thy plea in turn.
Speak forth thy land, thy lineage, and thy woes;
Then, if thou canst, avert this bitter blame.
Whether eight Turkish airmen can find justice and avert the bitter blame is not just a question for them, but for a continent tormented by Furies of its own.