Egemen Bagis the Ambassador Exposes Moral Rot in Turkey’s Diplomatic Service
The appointment of former EU Minister Egemen Bagis as Turkey’s ambassador to Prague generated impassioned debate over the state of diplomatic service. But the rot did not begin with Bagis.
When Turkey’s most controversial and wide-ranging corruption scandal broke out on Dec. 17, 2013, the entire country was shaken to its roots. Former EU Minister Egemen Bagis instantly became one of the leading figures of the soon-halted probe and his image was woven to the memory of journalists as one of the faces of the entire drama that has consumed the country since then. The probe, many argue persuasively, clinched Erdogan’s illiberal and authoritarian turn to save his political fortunes and to avoid jail.
Erdogan, having seen his political career on the chopping block, took a gamble of high stakes and went for an all-out war. It was like Cesare Borgia (one of the leading sources of inspiration for Machiavelli’s Prince) in the face of a make-or-break moment: either Caesar or nothing.
Cesare Borgia, who fell victim to his miscalculation, the lack of Fortuna (a key concept in ancient Roman wisdom and medieval Christian thought) and his self-defeating impetuousness, was certainly no Caesar of Renaissance Italy. He became no more than an insignificant footnote in the endless chapters of the corrupt Renaissance politics. While Cesare became, in the end, no more than a petty antagonist in modern-day “Borgias” TV series, Erdogan certainly has become a Caesar of his own kind and his times. Erdogan’s gambling worked and made him the most powerful political figure since Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic, in the domestic realm.
As the shocking details of the corruption rattled Turkey and eventually edged closer to Erdogan’s family, the prime minister initiated the first phases of a sweeping purge across the judiciary and police forces to curb the probe. The scandal, beyond any doubt, appeared to carry the seeds of Erdogan’s unmaking. His purge crusade saved his own future, but doomed the country’s, plunging the entire nation into an ever-spinning tailspin.
Egemen Bagis said: “If one of us goes down, then all of us do.” Erdogan took his minister’s blackmail, wrapped in the guise of a polite warning, seriously. He did not allow the downfall of any of his close associates. To put it simply, he did not let his henchmen and partners down. This stubborn perseverance, however, secured the decay of the country in all aspects; democracy, rule of law, media freedom, individual liberties, economy and etc. The price, collectively paid by Turkey, is beyond comprehension.
Yet, leaked audiotapes sealed Bagis’ image as a corrupt and self-deprecating man who appeared to have no regard or respect for religion, or for anything at all. He mocked the Quran and said how difficult it was to pretend as a pious guy among AKP Islamists. Admittedly, he was concealing his secular lifestyle behind the facade of a pious minister. Every Friday, he found a verse from the Quran on Google and shared it with his followers on Twitter. A man, who once owned nightclubs and bars in the U.S., had a perfect knack for public relations; he knew his audience well.
There was nothing wrong with his secular lifestyle and worldview. But what was questionable, as audiotapes conspicuously demonstrated, was his pretension of being a pious man with little respect for its actual practicing demands.
None of this image-furnishing, however, was enough to palliate a shaken AKP apparatus. Many demanded his head; the base called for his dismissal from the party. Some contemplated sacrificing him in order to salvage the image of the party whose title connotes cleanliness and purification from any tinge of corruption.
The minister increasingly became a thorn on the side of his party base which, no less than AKP’s opponents, despised him with severity. Yet, that Quran-mocking minister experienced a remarkable and mind-boggling comeback. He has recently been appointed to Prague as the Turkish ambassador to the Czech Republic. And on Monday, he was dispatched to his new post after a ceremonious farewell from taxi drivers in Istanbul.
The Implications of Bagis the Ambassador
The assignment has understandably ignited a firestorm.
Kadri Gursel, a respectable Kemalist democrat columnist, did not mask his disapproval in venomous terms. In Gursel’s reasoning, making Bagis an envoy would be a grotesque betrayal of the Ministry’s revered traditional values and its institutional integrity. He pointedly argued that the decision exposes the new moral standards for the selection of ambassadors. It, Gursel asserted, broadcast a new message that meritocracy was no longer the criteria applied when naming new ambassadors to foreign countries.
I can no more agree with this well-placed and pointed criticism. Still, some others’ depiction of a Foreign Ministry personnel in glowing terms runs counter to reality as this author, in his capacity and understanding, sought to depict a ministry in much more realistic fashion in a series of essays recently.
Both the appointment of Bagis to ambassadorial post in Prague and the reaction into it contain some errors. The secular outcry against Bagis is tinged with misplaced nostalgia, inaccurately clinging to the idea of a purified and well-respected Ministry before Bagis’ deployment presumably tainted its spirit and institutional coherence.
First of all, the Ministry was, unlike some secular discontents contend, never free of flaws. A set of shortcomings left a constant stain on several layers of Turkey’s diplomatic service, including the promotion of serving diplomats, the lax internal legal structure and the political influence. In the 2000s, there were some genuine attempts to mend structural deficiencies, a former diplomat told me this summer. All those corrections dramatically came undone by the scourge of the purge after the failed coup in 2016.
The second line of dissension rested on the idea that the Bagis’ appointment would be the harbinger of a breakdown in the usual channel of communication between the government and the ministry personnel.
But someone may hardly find this over-romanticizing of the Ministry’s current complexion much amenable, let alone palatable. Someone credulous enough would easily see that none of the current senior rank and file within the Ministry struck a moral stance against the purge, which brought Turkey’s diplomatic service to its knees, causing more than a shortage of qualified human resources. This is an issue less about losing some talented diplomats than the breakdown of the entire cohesion of the ministry, its idiosyncratic institutional culture and the essential pillars of diplomatic conduct. It is an entire ministry that has been put on the chopping block as an institution. The matter, in fact, is more systemic and structural than some elitist criticism suggests.
The selection of a figure as corrupted and debased as Bagis is only the symptom of a larger predicament that plagued the Foreign Ministry. Frankly speaking, the rot did not begin with Bagis’ appointment. There were some problems with the Ministry even before the AKP era. But what the purge inflicted upon the ministry had never been witnessed before in the entire republican history. The history of the ministry would well be periodized as before and after the purge. To ignore this and to celebrate the cleansing of the ministry of perceived political enemies in Machievallian pragmatism is to blind oneself to the painful truth — the destruction of Turkey’s diplomatic service.