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“Erdogan is worse than Putin because he has an ideology.” Confessions of a journalist whom Turkey wants Sweden to trade for NATO membership

Bulent Kenes, a Turkish journalist who was editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman, was arrested in October 2015 for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison for criticizing the president on Twitter. In 2016, an arrest warrant released by Erdogan regime for Kenes along with 46 other prominent journalists and writers, who were caught in a wave of repressions when Erdogan arrested about 100,000 people (including hundreds of journalists) ostensibly linked to the military that had been plotting a coup. Turkey and President Erdogan personally seek Kenes’ extradition from Sweden, where he has been living for the past 6,5 years. In a meeting with the Swedish prime minister, Erdogan presented giving up the journalist as a condition for Ankara’s ratification of Sweden's NATO membership.
Kenes explained to The Insider how Erdogan's regime persecutes journalists, in what ways Erdogan's and Putin’s regimes are similar and different, and how he came to be a bargaining chip in the NATO negotiations between Turkey and Sweden.

  • How Erdogan became a dictator

  • Erdogan and Putin

  • Fighting in exile

  • A bargaining chip

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How Erdogan became a dictator

I’m just a journalist, but I stand for democratic values and human rights. I defend journalism, and I try to defend the rights of all segments of society – LGBT, Turks, non-Muslims, and so on. In 2011, I realized that Erdogan, the prime minister at the time, had gone back to his “factory settings”: to his original radical Islamist agenda.

Bulent Kenes in the middle
Bulent Kenes in the middle

He gave up the democratic process, tried to subvert the rule of law in Turkey, and gave up the reform process as part of the EU membership perspective. He also gave up the zero-problem-with-neighbors policy. Turkey had exported peace and stability during his first two terms in power. Turkey took on the role of a mediator or facilitator between Israel and Syria, Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and also between Georgia and Russia. After the 2011 election, he gave up this policy and started to export war, conflict, chaos, and instability to the neighboring countries and the broader region.

Erdogan uses radical Islamist groups, Islamist terror organizations, and jihadists to drive his political agenda

In the 2011 election, he got almost 50% of the votes and realized he could leverage the Arab uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East as an opportunity to make himself into a strongman kind of leader not only in Turkey but also in the entire Islamic world like a Khalifa, despite Turkey being a secular country and a democracy. In the absence of instruments or proxies to achieve that, he had to invent new instruments, nasty and dirty ones, — using radical Islamist groups, Islamist terror organizations, and jihadists to drive his political agenda. He used this tactic in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, among others.

To secure their cooperation, he needed money but couldn’t use legal public funds to finance illegal jihadist organizations around the world, so he created financial assets through corruption and money laundering to fund and support this sort of illicit activity. In early 2012, Turkey laundered the Iranian regime’s money, billions of dollars. Iran had been placed under international sanctions by the UN, the EU, and the US for violating the terms of its nuclear program.

As a journalist who supports liberal democracy with all of its values, norms and institutions, rule of law, human rights, and transparency, I realized that Erdogan had given up the idea of any positive reform in Turkey in favor of his own radical Islamist path. As he was departing from democracy and human rights further and further my criticism was growing harsher. My stance directly affected my paper’s editorial line. Late in 2011, I was already the target of frequent lynching on social media and mass media at the behest of Erdogan’s regime. After the corruption scandals of 2013 that exposed his family’s and his cabinet members’ illicit doings, he purged the judges, prosecutors, and police officers who had shed light on them. In 2014, he even invented a new so-called “legal” body, positioned as a court.

Taking control of the judiciary, Erdogan and his entourage started dozens of so-called legal investigations and opened tens of court cases against us, especially me and my editors. The regime detained me several times, even arrested me once, and put me in jail. Thanks to international pressure and the response of international press bodies and human rights organizations, the regime couldn’t keep me in prison for a long time and had to release me. Many of my prominent colleagues have been much less fortunate, and they’re still in prison for their journalism, for exposing Erdogan’s nasty relations with jihadist organizations, his corruption, and money laundering. However, being a journalist means working in the interest of the public, and a journalist must challenge this kind of corrupt relationship. It doesn’t matter who is corrupt: a bureaucrat, a prime minister, a president, or someone else.

The radical Islamist and jihadist groups supported by Erdogan’s regime came together, joined forces, and formed DAESH in 2014

Erdogan's regime supported those jihadist and terrorist groups by sending thousands of trucks full of ammunition, supplies, or weapons. Mind you, those groups were far from innocuous: it was them that subsequently formed ISIS. Back when Erdogan started supporting those jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, there was no ISIS – or DAESH, as we call it now. The radical Islamist and jihadist groups supported by Erdogan’s regime came together, joined forces, and formed DAESH in 2014. Therefore, I said Erdogan’s regime had been supporting elements of DAESH. It may be too long an explanation, but it’s just a summary.

Erdogan and Putin

Of course, there are some similarities and differences between Erdogan and Putin. They’re both autocrats and dictators on the edge of totalitarianism. I assess both regimes as authoritarian, at least for now. There is no freedom of expression or free press, no civil society organizations, no rule of law, no independent and impartial courts, no democratic institutions, and no fair competition between political parties. So the difference between them is not that big. The only real difference is that Erdogan doesn’t have as much power or internal resources to impose his tyranny as Putin in the international sphere. In this regard, Putin is much more powerful than Erdogan.

Does Erdogan have the same capacity as Putin? I don’t think so. However, from my perspective, Erdogan is in a way a much bigger evil than Putin because, while Putin may be a tyrant in general terms, Erdogan has a specific ideology that normalizes any inhumane activity. He is not shy to use terror to promote his political agenda as we saw a few weeks ago. He easily uses terror groups or methods to manipulate domestic politics, as we saw after June 2015.

Erdogan is a much bigger evil than Putin because he has a specific ideology that normalizes any inhumane activity

I’m a student of political science (with a Ph.D. degree) aside from my journalistic work. I know the definition of terrorism made by political science and it does not leave room for interpretation: terrorism means using violence and means of terror to intimidate people and manipulate them into promoting a certain political agenda. When I look at the situation in Turkey, I see the presence of many entities listed internationally as terror organizations, like Hezbollah, PKK, and others but if you ask people in the street: “Who are afraid of most in Turkey?” they won’t mention Hezbollah or PKK. They’ll say: “Erdogan”. Erdogan’s regime terrorizes not only its own population but also people in neighboring countries by using means of pure terror and all instruments of oppression, suppression, and intimidation, including so-called legal instruments to deal with its critics. Erdogan’s regime uses the police and gendarmes as partisan militia. Who terrorizes the Turkish nation the most? Erdogan’s government, which is a terrorist regime.

We had to flee the country; many of my friends were imprisoned without any legal grounds, and now the regime is even using their children in its political game. Around 700 kids younger than six are in prison with their mothers. Erdogan’s regime jails even pregnant women, and they have to deliver their babies in police custody. Most of these women are ordinary housewives who have nothing to do with politics, violence, or coups. Their only crime is to be a wife of an innocent teacher or engineer whom Erdogan labeled as a terrorist.

Many of my friends were imprisoned without any legal grounds, and now the regime is using their children in its political game

Fighting in exile

— On paper, the majority of laws and articles of the constitution remain unchanged, but in reality, Erdogan broke both domestic and international law that protects freedom of expression and fundamental human rights and freedoms. His regime accused me of being a member of a terror organization. They also charged me with an attempt of subverting the work of the Turkish parliament. My other “crime” was trying to topple the “democratically elected government”. Ostensibly, I was planning a coup against the Turkish government and democracy. So, I’m a terrorist who planned a coup and am also accused of being a separatist. I wonder how I could have managed all this having my hands full with journalist work.

Actually, Erdogan’s regime is the root cause of all my problems. Through my journalism, I serve the Turkish and international public. If anybody was interested in the developments in Turkey and the broader region, they had to follow my paper. Because it was a quality reference paper that covered all important domestic and regional events. In Washington, New York, Paris, Moscow, and many other cities, intellectuals, academics, and policymakers who had to follow Turkey and wanted to stay on top of things were reading my paper.

Accusations against me are groundless, stupid, and ridiculous, so they couldn’t find any evidence of my culpability. Whom does Turkey define as terrorists? Just look at the official statistics released by the Turkish Interior Ministry: more than 2 million Turkish citizens have been under terror investigations, and I am just one of them. Turkey has a population of 83 million people, and if you take these 2 million and add their family and relatives, you can imagine how many million people have been living in fear of becoming the subject of a terror investigation. This is crazy. Anybody whom Erdogan doesn’t like is easily labeled as a terrorist. Anyone who dares to criticize him is also branded as a terrorist. However, people are not foolish, as nobody’s buying it.

More than 2 million Turkish citizens have been under terror investigations, and I am just one of them

In the end, I lost everything in Turkey, despite having a good social status and a good life in general. Erdogan’s regime confiscated my media outlets and all my humble assets in Turkey. After the controversial coup attempt in July 2016, I had to cross the border between Turkey and Greece illegally because in 2015 Erdogan’s regime confiscated my passport, despite my being the editor-in-chief of the English-language daily newspaper Today’s Zaman. I used to get invitations from all over the world, visiting several countries a month to give lectures and speeches and attend conferences. But Erdogan’s regime put me in prison in 2015 and took my passport, thus imposing a ban on international travel and turning the entire country into a prison for me. In 2016, they confiscated my paper and the entire media group with which my paper was affiliated. After the coup attempt, he released a list of 47 prominent journalists who had to be detained immediately, and my name was second on the list. I’m actually proud of being on the same list as those prominent and prestigious intellectuals and top-notch journalists.

After the failed coup on the 15th of July, I knew Erdogan would use it as an instrument for further oppression. I went into hiding in İstanbul, changing three addresses in three weeks, and then with the help of some friends, I contacted human smugglers to get a passage to Greece. I had to apologize to them because as a journalist I had penned several stories painting them as real villains, so I told them jokingly “Now I can see that you’re indispensable.” *laughs*. They took it seriously and replied: “Yes, we’re doing this for the greater good of humanity.”

Having lost everything in Turkey, I didn’t have high expectations of the host country. I only looked for a country that would meet my survival needs. On the Maslow pyramid of needs, I only expected it to meet the bottom ones for myself.

And yet, when I came to Sweden, I knew I had to continue my fight: not just build a life for myself in Sweden but become a voice for the oppressed in Turkey. I didn’t start with looking for a job. Together with a few colleagues, we established a human rights organization called the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) to cover human rights violations in Turkey targeting various groups, including the Gulen movement. People sometimes forget about the Kurds, who were sieged for months in 2015-2016, had their 1000-year-old cities destroyed by shellfire, and lived under curfew for three or four months long without water, food, and electricity supply. Hundreds of civilians were killed, and Turkish liberal groups that supported the Kurds had their rights violated.

After they confiscated my paper in March 2016, we came together with some colleagues and tried to establish a human rights organization in Istanbul. Our efforts were thwarted by the coup attempt, so I transferred this initiative to Stockholm. At some point, we ran out of money, so I started learning Swedish and looking for a job in academia. All of my contacts with prospective employers started very positively but did not bear fruit. Erdogan’s regime has long hands that can reach even Sweden. All of the think tanks and NGOs had some ties to Turkey and didn’t want to pay a price for employing me, so they didn’t. They probably thought that showing me support would sour their good relations with Turkish institutions. After fifty or sixty failed attempts at becoming a part of Swedish academia, the think tank sector, or civil society organizations, I decided to launch a think tank to bring together a few researchers and academic colleagues. That was how the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) emerged. And so, in a way, if I had managed to find a job in academia, NGOs, or the private sector, the ECPS would never have come to be.

Erdogan’s regime has long hands that can reach even Sweden

Since the ECPS is a new research institution, its establishment process is taking a long time to complete. When we received confirmation from the Belgian authorities after a year’s wait, we started generating content and designing our website and registered a legal entity but couldn’t open bank accounts for it until recently.

In his effort to exert legal and political pressure on dissidents, Erdogan resorts to a wide range of instruments to persecute those in exile, such as journalists and entrepreneurs. This time, he tried to engage Interpol. A few days after the coup, he sent a list of almost 80,000 “terrorists” to Interpol. Surprised at how many people appeared to have become terrorists overnight, Interpol refused to cooperate. He then sent a deportation claim to European capitals, most of which categoriсally rejected this claim, without even putting it in the legal field. However, Erdogan’s regime evolves and is now using a financial instrument: he fabricates financial crime cases against those living in exile.

In December 2021, the official state newspaper published a list of people (including me) who had allegedly been financing terrorism. Some companies in Europe collect intelligence from open sources and submit it to banks. And if your name has been tarred with financing terrorism or money laundering, banks won’t open an account for you and will refuse service. So we couldn’t open a bank account for the ECPS to finalize its status as a legal entity. The problem starts with those fabricated cases, and then banks don’t feel obliged to listen to your explanations. They just refuse to work with you. We lost almost one year because of this and had to change the administrative architecture, taking me off the executive board just because of my conflict with Erdogan’s regime.

Once there is a fabricated case against you at home, banks simply refuse to work with you

Why did we establish the European Center for Populism Studies? As a political scientist and researcher, I realize who placed the authoritarian process in Turkey. If Erdogan hadn’t adopted a despotic way of administration, I wouldn’t be a refugee. We indeed had a terrible experience in Turkey, but when I look at Iran and Western and Eastern countries, I see that even the most democratic Western countries aren’t immune to this threat of populist radical right and authoritarian tendencies.

There are extreme-right and populist political parties everywhere: Belgium has such a party, and France has Le Pen. Recently she handed over her position to a young guy, and maybe he will be the next French president, or there is the example of the coalition government of Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi in Italy. Lech Kaczynski's brother, Jaroslaw, is standing strong against Putin’s aggression, but Poland has also lost its democratic credentials a lot under their reign. Our duty is to expose those terrible things to raise public awareness and at least try to support the resistance against such tendencies. There is a positive side to the story: academia, conventional media, intellectuals, and some politicians stand in opposition to these terrible trends that resemble the political tendencies between 1930 and 1945 in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, to name a few. These tendencies may turn into a tsunami if the world spirals into a crisis. First, there was COVID-19, and now the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and this could all become a tsunami that will shake international peace and stability and lead to total collapse. India also raises a few concerns because of its similarity to Erdogan’s regime. While Erdogan uses Islam and nationalism – a combination I call Islamofascism – in India, Modi exploits both the ethnic and religious aspects of Hinduism (Hindutva), which also makes him a populist. This dangerous mix of ultranationalism and religious populism is a threat to the world. All populists use the same methods and the same handbook. Even in Sweden, the government is under the influence of a far-right party that was founded on neo-Nazi ideology – and this is Sweden we’re talking about.

The accumulation of power in the extreme right encourages nationalistic or xenophobic attitudes in a certain part of society

When I look at the think tank landscape, I realize there are no institutions focused on these major issues. We established one and are trying to raise some funds to run projects. Dozens of academics from all over the world are affiliated with the ECPS, from Australia to Pakistan, from US and EU universities. We try to support these resistance lines. We still want to secure more financing and intellectual capital to do much better.

The accumulation of power in the extreme right encourages nationalistic or xenophobic attitudes in a certain part of society. However, I always separate politicians and parties from those who vote for them. Voters sometimes have logical, rational reasons to elect such parties. Some of their reasons are of course nasty, but most are grounded in logic. They’re not always aware of the outcomes those extreme-right politicians may produce.

I don’t want to see far-right extremist organizations come to power. If it happens, they will have plenty of opportunity for pursuing their agenda, but even as part of the opposition, they have a huge poisoning effect on politics. Today’s social democrats, centrists, or liberals are not the same as ten years ago. They’ve shifted more to the right, and right-wing parties have grown even more rightist. Social democrats are more rightist than former liberals. Although this poisoning effect is sometimes invisible, I think it's extremely dangerous because it makes extremist politics mainstream.

I have a joke about that. When I was trying to establish ECPS with my friends, I said: “Yes, this time also there’s a high probability that we’ll be on the losing side”. But still, even if we lose and the world succumbs to populism and tyranny, at least we can proudly say that we tried our best to stop it.

A bargaining chip

I did not ask for a place at the table of this game-changing bargaining process. This is not my preference or choice. Sweden was a neutral country for 200 years, but after Putin unleashed the war against Ukraine, Sweden had to take some measures to protect its security and decided to give up its neutrality. I’m a journalist and have nothing to do with high politics. Sadly, Erdogan’s regime puts my name on the table as a bargaining chip and an element to use in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The very idea seems stupid, even ridiculous – to put NATO membership negotiations and my extradition on the same level.

Erdogan’s regime puts my name on the table as a bargaining chip and an element to use in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary election

It’s an asymmetric situation from Sweden’s perspective, but I believe in the Swedish legal system and the supremacy of law in this country. I only wish I could say I have the same level of trust in the political authorities. Maybe in normal times, it would be easier to say so. I am judicious in my trust in Sweden, and I know they were ready to discuss my case last week. In two to four weeks, they should announce their decision. I don’t think that Swedish authorities will deport me because I have a document from the prosecutor’s office, which is on my side. I think Erdogan has no chance. If everything goes smoothly, they’ll have no chance to take me. But as we are going through an extraordinary period, I do not rule out the possibility that this process might result in an extraordinary result. With that possibility in mind, I still have trust in the Swedish legal authorities.

Some of the recently elected right-wing forces in the new government are sympathetic to Putin, but none to Erdogan. Two years ago, Erdogan used blackmail against European capital by instrumentalizing refugees: he attempted to send them on buses to Europe to exert pressure. During that crisis, far-right politician Jimmy Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, went to Turkey – only to be detained and deported. He tried to raise public awareness about Erdogan’s regime blackmailing Europe by using refugee waves but ultimately failed. So no, I don’t think they have any sympathy for Erdogan or Turkey. What they do have great sympathy for is the prospect of NATO membership, and they’re ready to sacrifice anything for it.

Recorded by Sofia Adamova and Andrei Smolyakov

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