How democracy is being eroded in countries with close ties with the EU  

The current conflict in Ukraine has made clear once again how the European neighbourhood can affect the fate of the European Union and its member states. For years now, the EU has policies in place to interact with non-EU member states. 

While the situation in Russia is clear for everyone to see now, unfortunately, some worrying developments are also evident in other countries with close ties with the EU.

In Turkey, which is receiving billions from the European Union in exchange for controlling migration flows and in preparation of a supposed future membership of the EU, President Erdogan has been eroding the rule of law and democracy for years now. 

Human Rights Watch has summed it up as follows:

“Turkey has been experiencing a deepening human rights crisis over the past four years with a dramatic erosion of its rule of law and democracy framework. Executive control and political influence over the judiciary in Turkey has led to courts systematically accepting bogus indictments, detaining and convicting individuals and groups the Erdoğan government regards as political opponents, despite lack of evidence of criminal activity. Among these are journalists, opposition politicians, activists and human rights defenders.”

Still, it would be wrong to compare Turkey with Russia. For a start, the Mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, is an opponent of the President, which is not something conceivable in contemporary Russia. And there is some reason for hope. At the latest in 2023, Presidential elections need to be held in Turkey, and things are not looking rosy for Erdogan. For about half a year now, opinion polls suggest he would lose from Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the secular CHP. Last year, Turkish prosecutors were still seeking a prison sentence of up to four years for him, for bogus charges like “insulting election authorities”, indicating how nothing is guaranteed in Turkey. 

Then six Turkish opposition parties have now joined forces together in order to endorse a joint candidate. This may be longtime CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has opposed Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, something which caused a rift with the U.S., and who has also pledged to overhaul the Turkish central bank’s leadership if elected. 

The latter is important, given how the annual inflation rate in Turkey has surged to a 20-year high of about 50 percent, hitting Turkish savers hard. The economically illiterate Erdogan, who even claimed that hiking interest rates may worsen inflation, is the obvious culprit for this, as his policies to get the Central Bank to print money in order to finance his government’s spendthrift habits are at the core of Turkey’s inflation misery. It is very unlikely Turkish voters will overlook that.

Also in Kazakhstan, another country with close ties to the EU, the democratic state of affairs isn’t exactly top-notch. The EU is Kazakhstan’s biggest trade partner, accounting for 29.7% of the country’s total trade in goods in 2020, and it has recently also intensified trade ties, with the entry into force of an “Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement” with Kazakhstan two years ago. 

Kazakhstan was rocked by severe political turmoil in early January, as a result of rising fuel prices. The crisis has been named “Bloody January”, as more than 200 people were killed, according to the authorities, a number that may be much higher according to human right groups, who have lamented what they consider to be a brutal crackdown by the government, aided by Russian troops.  

The Financial Times reports that the street protests also “triggered a power struggle” between current President “Tokayev and his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s long-serving first post-Soviet president.” 

Noteworthy here is the arrest of Kazakhstan’s former intelligence chief and Prime Minister, Karim Massimov, seen as an ally of the former President. His arrest would be due to accusations of “treason”, but no details were given about what Masimov was alleged to have done that would constitute an attempted government overthrow. He currently remains in prison, together with hundreds of demonstrators. 

The crackdown in Kazakhstan led the European Parliament to adopt a resolution calling upon the country’s government “to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “to drop politically motivated charges and end all forms of arbitrary detention, reprisals and harassment”.

Even if the EP resolution contains a detailed list of everything that is wrong with the rule of law in Kazakhstan, it does mention some upsides, as it for example “welcomes Kazakhstan’s abolition of the death penalty for all crimes”, due to the country ratifying an international protocol on this on 2 January 2021. 

In Kazakhstan, human rights were always problematic, but at least its government, because of the efforts of the likes of Massimov, had been making quite a bit of progress in making the country a more attractive environment for investment, as evidenced by the fact that Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian country to secure an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. 

The question now is to what extent Kazakhstan’s crackdown will undermine the progress made in opening up trade with the West, which may over the longer term also strengthen the rule of law. The increased Russian influence does not bode well in this regard. At least the Russian troops did not stay in the country after putting down the protests, but this may not be due to resistance by the Kazakh government, but due to China’s opposition. 

Last but not least, some profound democratic shortcomings are also evident in the EU’s most important partner in Africa, Egypt. That country is home to more than 100 million people, and the military is still in charge after toppling a government composed of representatives of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. This government had been democratically elected, but its short reign was marked by a refusal to protect minorities, including the Christian, “Coptic” minority. General Sisi came to powerafter widespread street protests, involving millions of people taking to the street.

It is one thing for the army to resist a democratically elected government that was violating human rights. It is quite another to afterwards engage in human rights violations itself, as this is indeed what the current regime in Egypt has done, according to Amnesty International, which described the situation in 2020 as follows:

“The authorities (…) punish any public or perceived dissent, and severely repress the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression and association. Tens of journalists were detained arbitrarily solely in relation to their work or critical views. (..). The authorities continued to severely restrict human rights organizations’ and political parties’ freedom of association. Security forces used unlawful force to disperse rare protests, and arbitrarily detained hundreds of protesters and bystanders pending investigations into “terrorism” and protest-related charges. Thousands of people remained in prolonged pre-trial detention, including human rights defenders, journalists, politicians, lawyers and social media influencers (…) Fair trial guarantees were routinely flouted. Death sentences were handed down and executions were carried out.”

Interestingly, the new regime does not seem averse of going after minority groups itself, as Amnesty notes that “the authorities arrested and prosecuted Christians, Shi’a Muslims and others for blasphemy”.

Obviously, it is important for the EU to engage with important partners like Turkey, Kazakhstan and Egypt, but this should not mean providing them with EU taxpayer funds or looking the other way when unsavory practices persist. In fairness, the EU has limited sway over events in other countries, but the one thing it can do is to at least say the right things.