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Politics bite back: Turkish space ambitions on hold after attempted coup

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Credits: Wikipedia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Credits: Wikipedia.

The attempted coup by elements of the Turkish military on 15 July 2016 has more than just interrupted the daily rhythms of Turkish politics – it has completely upended the political order as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) consolidate power by ruthlessly pursuing their political enemies.

Among other things this political turmoil has indefinitely delayed the creation of the Turkish Space Agency as key government institutions and departments are purged of alleged members of the Gülen Movement, named after the preacher and spiritual leader Muhammed Fethullah Gülen and whom President Erdoğan accuses of plotting the July 2016 coup attempt.

In particular, the Turkish Air Force has been especially targeted in the post-coup attempt dragnet as a disproportionate number of its officers (compared to the Turkish Army) have been arrested by Turkish authorities. The Turkish Air Force has responsibility for Turkey’s military space programme, including the Göktürk series of reconnaissance satellites. Further, the political reckoning underway has impacted every government department and agency that has a stake in the nascent Turkish space programme.

All pre-coup attempt political priorities have been put on hold in President Erdoğan’s attempt to purge all areas of Turkish society of Gülenist influences. This purge has even extended to foreign citizens of Turkish descent who happened to be in Turkey during the coup attempt. For example, Serkan Golge, a U.S. citizen and a physicist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. space agency, was arrested and detained by Turkish authorities on suspicion of supporting the Gülen Movement while staying with relatives in Ankara. A neighbor of Dr. Golge’s relatives apparently made accusations that he worked for U.S. intelligence.

In this febrile political atmosphere, Turkey’s space programme and other public policy priorities, are hardly priorities for the government. Yet even once President Erdoğan’s political consolidation by purge is completed, there will likely be a detrimental impact on Turkey’s space ambitions as key technical and policy expertise is expunged in the name of political purity.

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