Skip to main content

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech during the mukhtars (local town government heads) meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on March 16, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTANADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty ImagesADEM ALTAN/AFP / Getty Images

The tradeoff between the European Union and Turkey on refugees and visa-free travel for Turks in Europe isn't likely to blossom into full membership for Turkey – not as long as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government continues becoming ever more authoritarian.

The latest evidence: the shutdown of one of Turkey's largest newspapers, Zaman. After a long alliance, the bitter divorce between Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the religious movement of Fethullah Gulen is the result of a competition for much the same following. In 1999, Mr. Gulen went to the U.S. for medical treatment; he has lived in safety in Pennsylvania ever since. The Gulen movement is more or less a fraternal organization, to which many Turkish judges, prosecutors and police officers belong – or have belonged.

For a time, Mr. Erdogan's AKP seemed to be turning into the Muslim equivalent of Europe's Christian democratic parties, which have religious roots but are entirely democratic. But when Gulenist prosecutors charged some AKP members with corruption, things changed. The AKP is now making preposterous claims to justify its anti-democratic repression. The Gulenists are accused of being "the most dangerous terrorist organization of the past 1,000 years."

And Mr. Erdogan's fist is not just hitting the Gulen organization. The AKP had begun a rapprochement with Turkey's Kurds, with whose leading organizations the country has long been at war. But Turkish nationalism, and Mr. Erdogan's interest in stoking it for political gain, have now got in the way.

Mr. Erdogan and Turkey are increasingly alone in the region. The Kurds of Iraq now have a de facto state. The United States and Russia are both opposed to Islamic State, as is Turkey, but all these powers are at odds, especially since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane. And Mr. Erdogan hoped that the Assad regime in Syria would fall, but it still hangs on.

Mr. Erdogan aimed to make his country the core of a new Ottoman empire. Instead, he's isolating Turkey and returning it to the era of dictatorship – with no end in sight.