February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.
Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.
Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.
There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.
February 4, 2013 § 8 Comments
Following Israel’s strike last week on a Syrian convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles that were presumed to be headed for Hizballah, my friend Aaron Stein pointed out the dilemma facing the Turkish government in formulating a response. On the one hand, Israel and Turkey have incentive to cooperate on Syria, but on the other hand an Israeli strike always has the potential to rally Assad’s forces or empower the most radical elements of the Syrian rebellion such as Jubhat al-Nusra. As Aaron laid out, the question facing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu was whether to keep quiet in recognition of this first dynamic or blast Israel in light of the second. Had I written about this last week, I would have added in another piece to this equation, which is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu simply cannot help themselves from pouring gasoline on the fire when it comes to Israel and are incapable of acting prudently even when it is in their interest to do so. This is why my very first reaction to the news of the Israeli strike on the convoy was to wonder whether Erdoğan would manage to let this pass without comment. In this situation, the Israeli strike was contrary to the Turkish government’s oft-stated desire for a multilateral rather than unilateral solution in Syria, but the prospects of Assad being able to use an Israeli strike to win over the opposition to his side and contend that a united front is necessary to face the looming Zionist threat were always slim given how far down the rabbit hole Assad has gone. Furthermore, Israel’s strike was aimed at stopping the spread of weapons to Hizballah, which Turkey does not want to see happen either, so if there was any instance in which it made sense for Turkey to stay quiet, this was it.
Much like with Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza in November, Turkey initially had no response to the Israeli operation. Also much like with Operation Pillar of Cloud, this silence was short-lived. Over the weekend, Davutoğlu taunted Bashar al-Assad for not responding militarily to the Israeli raid, alleged that the reason for Syria’s lack of response must be because there is a secret agreement between Israel and Syria, and maintained that Turkey herself will stand up for Syria since it cannot stay quiet in the face of an Israeli attack on a Muslim country. Not to be left on the sidelines, Erdoğan called the strike an example of Israeli state terror, dubbed Israel a spoiled child, and tried to tie the raid to Israel’s conquering of the Golan Heights. So for those of you keeping score at home, Turkey wants to see Assad gone and has been trying for over a year to organize a U.S. or NATO-led attack on Syria in the form of a no-fly zone and furthermore has deployed Patriot missile batteries along its border with Syria in recognition of the military threat that exists, but it also is going to defend its friend Bashar from Israeli aggression and will not abide an attack on Syria and doesn’t really see why Israel has anything to worry about when it comes to Syrian military threats. The Turkish stance on this would be funny if it weren’t so downright absurd. For all of Davutoğlu’s reputation as a serious and deep thinker, when it comes to the subject of Israel he turns into a caricature.
There is another dynamic at work here, which is that Israel’s foray into Syrian airspace untouched is deeply embarrassing to Turkey. After Syria shot down Turkey’s F-4 last year, Turkey blustered and threatened and ultimately did nothing. Until the Patriot batteries arrived, Ankara was unable to prevent Syria from shelling over the border into Turkey. All the while the Turkish government played up Syrian air defense capabilities and the difficulty in deterring Syria from attacks. Yet Israel was able to fly jets into Syria, bomb a convoy, and fly back out untouched, either because the planes were undetected or because Syria is afraid of messing with Israel in a way that it is not when it comes to Turkey. This entire episode makes the political leadership in Ankara look skittish and overly cautious in comparison and illuminates the gaping chasm between the Israeli military and intelligence and the Turkish military and intelligence in terms of capabilities. Furthermore, Israel conducted the raid with the knowledge and likely complicity of the U.S., whereas Turkey’s repeated requests for action on Syria have fallen on mostly deaf American ears. By blasting Israel, Turkey is trying to overcome its own insecurities, but is instead serving to highlight them even further.
The Turkish government for whatever reason is incapable of rational and level-headed behavior when it comes to Israel. Instead, it reverts to all sorts of childish tactics; empty threats, bullying, ridiculous attempts at shaming, name calling, etc. when it could do a much better job by calmly assessing the situation, realizing that the Israeli raid benefits Turkey as well, and stop with the empty boasts of coming to Syria’s defense. Not only does nobody buy the act for a second, it makes Turkey’s own Syria policy more complicated and makes Erdoğan and Davutoğlu look small rather than like serious statesmen with aspirations of turning Turkey into a dominant regional power. Not to mention that by Davutoğlu’s standards, Turkey’s non-military response to Syria shooting down its plane means that Ankara and Damascus must have a secret deal in place, which is an issue fraught with danger for a government whose prime minister just a few short years ago was vacationing with the Assads and calling Bashar a brother.
January 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Nick Danforth. Nick is a fellow Georgetowner and is a Ph.D. candidate in history currently spending his time in Turkey’s archives and writing his dissertation on national identity, democratization and U.S. foreign policy in Turkey in the 1940s and 1950s. Nick also occasionally writes about current Turkish politics, and is the proprietor of a geekily awesome new blog about Ottoman/Turkish/Middle East cartography called The Afternoon Map. If you have any interest at all in maps, go check it out. Nick’s post details the ways in which ideological polarization and using undemocratic means to pursue allegedly democratic ends has made for a hollow sense of justice in Turkey, and I think it is particularly timely given that these are the very same two issues currently tearing Egypt apart. Given the problems that Turkey faces on these fronts, it does not instill a sense of optimism for what lies ahead for the Arab world’s most populous country. But now for the topic at hand, which is Turkey, the AKP, and the courts:
Standing outside in the cold Istanbul rain on the 19th to commemorate Hrant Dink’s death – with a sign saying “For Hrant, For Justice” in Kurdish – it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to meditate on the frustrating contradictions of Turkish democracy.
For the uninitiated, Hrant Dink was a Turkish-Armenian journalist and champion of Armenian rights who was assassinated in 2007. After originally being content to charge Dink’s 17-year old shooter with acting alone, prosecutors recently decided that there was enough evidence to link Dink’s murder to a broader conspiracy. As with so much else related even peripherally to the sprawling Ergenokon case, the substance of the charge is perfectly plausible, even long overdue, but much else about it is suspect. That the shadowy people behind the killing had some shadowy ties to some of the other shadowy Ergenekon figures is all too likely, but it also fits nicely with the AKP’s ongoing efforts to blame every crime Turkey on its political enemies. The government continues to insist, to take only one of the most striking examples, that the brutal murder of three Christian missionaries in southeastern Turkey some years ago was not the work of radical Islamists, but a false flag operation, designed to look like just the sort of crime radical Islamists might have committed.
More broadly, while a number of people have documented the increasing mess the Ergenokon investigation has become, one of the things that makes these prosecutions both insidious and effective is that every round of arrests has included at least several figures who were almost certainly involved in plotting to topple a democratically elected government – alongside all the others whose only crime was being a little too critical. Tellingly, it was in one of the last and most suspect rounds of Ergenekon-related arrests that the government finally nabbed former Admiral Özden Örnek, whose “coup diary” remained one of the soundest pieces of evidence in the whole case.
The recent Paris murders were yet another example of the fact that, for far too many people like Dink who have been killed for being the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong political orientation, no court’s verdict will ever convince more than half the population in this politicized climate. While many Kurds blame the government and the government blames rival Kurdish factions, the French police have gone so far as to speculate that it might have been nothing more than a crime of passion. Over the years, columnist Ismet Berkan has been fond of pointing out that when any incriminating evidence against one’s ideological allies can be dismissed – often rightly – as propaganda or disinformation, everyone will continue to believe their own version of the truth whatever facts emerge. On Saturday it was striking how many people were waving signs accusing the AKP of complicity in covering up the murder. When Muammer Güler , Istanbul’s mayor at the time of Dink’s death, was recently appointed Interior Minister, Dink’s lawyer called it another drop in a sea of shame.
The problem is not that people are overly susceptible to conspiracy theories (though that doesn’t help). The problem is that with the Dink case, as with the PKK murders and Ergenekon, there clearly was a conspiracy of some sort, but the Turkish political system in its current form cannot satisfactorily unravel it. Until the government gives its citizens reason to have faith in the independence if the judiciary and the independence of the press, its investigations, no matter how sincere or successful they are in any particular case, won’t convince anyone.
There are moments in conversations with AKP supporters where it seems like they are troubled by the undemocratic means their party has adopted in handling the Ergenekon case and the way this has politicized the country. Yet at the same time, many suggest that these means are justified by the historic magnitude of the problems they are trying to resolve. That is to say, some false arrests are a small price to pay for finally freeing Turkey from the grip of military authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it seems a similar – understandable but ultimately self-defeating – rationale is likely to justify the government’s heavy handed approach to resolving the Kurdish issue.
Negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan already have already produced one striking example of questionable means directed at admirable ends. After a prosecutor called the legality of these negotiations into question and demanded that Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan testify about them in court, the parliament speedily passed a law, recently upheld by the Constitutional Court, saying that the Intelligence Chief could only be forced to testify with the express approval of the Prime Minister.
The whole issue offers the depressing sight of arbitrary executive power pitted against arbitrary prosecutorial power, with the intelligence service a little bit closer to regaining the immunity it enjoyed in the heyday of the deep state. Where we once all hoped the AKP would steer Turkey toward a more democratic future in something resembling a straight line, Turkey now seems at best to be tacking towards that destination like a sailboat, moving closer to it in one direction and further away in another.
More depressing is the growing realization that in the coming year, the AKP will use the power it has amassed by bullying and censoring the press in order to win support for a policy of ending official intolerance and forced assimilation of Kurds. And those challenging the government by highlighting these undemocratic means will likely not be progressive liberals but the MHP, alongside the more nationalist wing of the CHP. With tolerance and minority rights ranged against against press freedom and rule of law, justice for Dink and his fellow citizens seems more elusive than ever.
January 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There were a couple of extremely consequential stories out of Turkey toward the end of last week that I didn’t get a chance to write about with the Israeli elections going on, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity now to highlight them and comment. First was the Turkish cabinet shuffle, with the big move being the replacement of Interior Minister Idris Şahin with Muammer Güler. Şahin is about as hardline on the Kurdish issue as any Turkish government official – he referred in May to the civilians killed in December 2011′s Uludere air strike as “PKK extras” – and his sacking is important for two reasons. First, it signals that the Ocalan talks and Imralı process might actually be a real reorientation of the government’s policy and not just a ploy at running out of the clock or buying more time. Getting rid of the minister overseeing the terrorism fight who was absolutely despised by Kurdish politicians and ordinary Turkish Kurds and replacing him with someone who is likely to be a little more open to Kurdish sensitivities is an important step, and while there are concerns about Güler given his actions while governor of Istanbul, literally anyone will be an improvement over Şahin.
Furthermore, replacing Şahin with a new face in the Interior Ministry is important inasmuch as it signals a tacit admission on the government’s part that its strategy of pounding the PKK without making a real effort on the political front has been a mistake. The Imralı process also fits into this idea as well, and a new interior minister communicates a fresh start and that the old approach was not working. Prime Minister Erdoğan rarely if ever publicly admits that he was wrong, but this is as close to a public admission as you’ll see. The optics of this are important by themselves divorced from what ever actual policy emerges. By the same token, putting Ömer Çelik in the cabinet as Culture and Tourism Minister is important too as he is one of Erdoğan’s two or three closest advisers and has advocated a much more conciliatory approach than the government has adopted in the past. I expect him to be influential in the new Kurdish policy as well despite his portfolio, and his elevation to a cabinet position now is also a signal that the government has erred and that it needs to find a different formula if it wants to be successful.
The other noteworthy development last week was Erdoğan’s full about-face on the government’s assault on the military as embodied by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) prosecutions and widespread imprisonment of officers. After crowing for years about the defanging of the armed forces and how Turkey is now coup-proof, Erdoğan acknowledged over the weekend that things have gotten out of hand and said that the detention of generals is negatively impacting the fight against terrorism. As an example of just how dire the situation is, the Turkish navy now has no full admirals left after the resignation of Admiral Nusret Güner in protest over the fact that the officers under his command have mostly been arrested. There is literally nobody to fill the positions of Navy chief and fleet commander, since all that remain are vice-admirals, and there is never any way of knowing when those officers will be arrested either. While the situation is the worst in the navy, the other services are not in great shape either and have been decimated by arrests. Erdoğan now seems to realize just how out of control things have gotten, but the damage has already been done and there is no quick fix for the low army morale or the military’s readiness level. Like with the Kurdish issue, however, this is a very public admission that policy needs to change, and like the moves on the Kurdish front, this should be applauded.
While both of these developments were undoubtedly positive ones, there is some political maneuvering involved as well. As I wrote last week, the backtrack on the Kurdish policy has to be seen in context of Erdoğan’s desire to get his new constitution through the Grand National Assembly, and it seems even more clear now that he is going to turn to the BDP for support. The cabinet shuffle is all part of this longer view, and so the nakedly political angle to all of this should not be ignored. On the military issue, it’s difficult for me not to view it partially as a broadside against the Gülenists, who have lately turned on Erdoğan and the AKP. The military prosecutions have been driven by Gülenist prosecutors and judges, and when Erdoğan calls on the courts to either hand down verdicts or release the imprisoned officers, and even casts doubts on whether the accused were ever part of a conspiracy at all, you have to consider why he has suddenly decided that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations are a net negative rather than a net positive. There is little doubt in my mind that Erdoğan’s new position is the correct one as a matter of policy, since the government cannot be in the business of holding people on trumped up charges indefinitely – not to mention the side effect of making it far more difficult for the Turkish military to operate – but there is also an element of score settling here, with Erdoğan laying the groundwork for a possible public push against the Gülenists and the cemaat down the road. Whatever the case, it looks like from a policy perspective, 2013 is going to look a lot different than 2012 did in Turkey.
January 21, 2013 § 3 Comments
The always excellent Dov Friedman needs no further introduction at this point to O&Z readers (his previous guest posts are here, here, and here), and he weighs in again today to look at the foreign policy angle to the talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and to point out that we have seen a similar dynamic before under the AKP.
On Wednesday, Michael discussed the underlying political reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sudden about-face on the Kurdish Issue. In short, Erdoğan can count votes. Both the nationalist MHP and some members of Erdoğan’s own AK Party oppose his desired expansion of presidential power in a new constitution. A settlement of the Kurdish Issue that rewrites the constitution’s definition of citizenship and codifies primary language education rights would likely draw support from the heavily Kurdish BDP. The same revised constitution could also include provisions for a stronger presidency—or such is the Prime Minister’s hope. It may be a long shot, but it may also be Erdoğan’s only shot.
Though domestic politics may have spurred Erdoğan to act, we should not overlook the foreign policy impetus for a new Kurdish Opening. It will affect Turkey’s relationship with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and Maliki’s Baghdad regime. It may also have deep implications for Turkey’s regional stature.
After years of hostility between Turkey and the KRG, Turkey wisely corrected course and fostered closer relations with the self-governing enclave. Meanwhile, Maliki’s government and the KRG have become increasingly oppositional, with the rich oil deposits in the disputed Mosul and Kirkuk regions a key point of contention. Despite stipulations that oil revenues are a national issue under Baghdad’s purview, Turkey has facilitated the KRG’s nascent efforts to open an independent revenue stream from fossil fuels. Naturally, Baghdad is livid, and tensions between Turkey and Maliki’s government have understandably risen. The Ankara-Baghdad divergence on the Syrian conflict certainly has not helped matters.
Turkey assists the KRG because it stands to gain tremendously from the development of Kurdish Iraq into an energy power. The KRG is landlocked; Turkey presents its most natural geostrategic outlet to world markets. The infrastructure already exists in the form of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. In 2012, the KRG inched toward energy—and some would argue political—independence by signing independent exploration contracts with some of the world’s largest oil companies. By transporting KRG oil and gas from its port in Ceyhan, Turkey would transform itself into a major energy hub—with huge economic ramifications for Turkey’s underdeveloped southeast and political implications for the country as a whole.
That the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is a tremendous political asset doubles as the reason it has become a particularly appealing target for Turkey’s militant Kurdish insurgency, the PKK. In 2010, despite relative calm, PKK operatives bombed the pipeline. The same thing happened in July of last year. In October 2012, rebels bombed a pipeline bringing natural gas from Iran. In absence of a government initiative to solve the Kurdish Issue, these periodic attacks would likely persist. Turkey knows—as does anyone engaged in commerce—that volatility and uncertainty are bad for business.
In light of the dual domestic and foreign policy ramifications, Erdoğan’s abrupt shift toward finding a solution to the Kurdish Issue makes sense. The question becomes: will Erdoğan strike a deal with the Kurdish opposition?
Remarkably, the opening of EU accession talks in AK Party’s early years bears similarities to the present Kurdish Opening. After AK Party took power in 2002, it still faced a secular establishment suspicious of its intentions and a military that had unseated the previous Islamist government in 1997 and banned it from politics. AK Party made opening EU accession talks its first major policy initiative, and Turkey earned a December 2004 date to formally commence the process. At the time, the foreign policy ramifications were massive. Turkey had kept one foot in Europe for decades without being permitted all the way in. This was Turkey’s opportunity to permanently reinforce its unique geopolitical identity.
However, benefits to foreign policy were not Turkey’s only—or even primary—concern. First, the AK Party’s EU stance was a political winner. Kemalists, Kurds, and liberals all supported the process, each for different reasons. Second, in order to open accession talks, the EU required Turkey to implement political reforms that weakened the military’s role in politics. The National Security Council transitioned from foreign policy arbiter into an advisory role.
In 2002, Erdoğan pursued a foreign policy of EU accession that doubled as stealth domestic policy. AK Party shored up its liberal credentials while the military zealously agreed to its own subtly diminished power.
Perhaps 2013’s Kurdish Opening is the mirror image. Undoubtedly, Erdoğan wants to be president with vastly increased power. That is the obvious way to read his sudden shift on the Kurdish Issue. Focusing merely on the constitutional implications yields pessimism—who can trust progress hinging on Erdoğan’s cynical calculus about how to retain power.
That is why ignoring the potential foreign policy benefits of the Kurdish Opening would be a major mistake. In 2002, Erdoğan demonstrated that policies with tangible potential gains in both the foreign and domestic spheres intrigued him and garnered his strong support. It is far too soon to predict whether the Kurdish Issue will be solved; however, early AK Party history may provide reason for a small measure of hope.
January 16, 2013 § 8 Comments
The worst kept secret in all of Turkish politics is that Prime Minister Erdoğan wants to revamp Turkey’s political system in order to create a strong presidency and make himself the first newly empowered president. Turkey’s constitutional commission had been meeting for the greater part of 2012, and it was expected to recommend that Turkey adopt a presidential system. The idea was for all four of the parties in the Grand National Assembly – AKP, CHP, MHP, and BDP – to come to a consensus, but because this was always going to be extremely unlikely, Erdoğan had plotted out an alternate path toward achieving his goal. He repeatedly warned that if there was no unanimous agreement on what the next constitution should look like, he would drop the consensus requirement and simply advance a draft constitution written by the AKP. In order to do this though, he was going to have to band together with another party, as the AKP is three seats short of the number it needs to have an automatic referendum on the constitution. The assumption that many people – myself very much included – made was that Erdoğan had cut a deal with the nationalist MHP, in which it would provide the votes to give Erdoğan his presidential system and in return Erdoğan would sell out the Kurds and not make any real moves toward recognizing Kurdish rights or Kurdish identity.
For awhile, this appeared to be exactly what was transpiring. Arrests of lawyers, journalists, and politicians sympathetic to the Kurdish cause were up, the government was not making any moves to revive its Kurdish Opening of a few years ago, and the AKP in collaboration with the MHP was refusing to even hold a parliamentary debate on the military operation against the PKK in the southeast of the country. All signs pointed to a new constitution rammed through with MHP votes that would maintain the fiction of one overarching Turkish identity as a reward to the MHP for supporting Erdoğan’s invigorated presidency.
Yet, the constitutional commission’s December 31 deadline came and went, and there has been no move on Erdoğan’s part to follow through on his public threats of abandoning the process and imposing his own vision of what the new constitution should look like. Instead, there has been little talk of what comes next, and haggling over the AKP’s proposed presidential system is delaying agreement on other proposed constitutional articles. More interestingly, the government has begun negotiating with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which has infuriated the MHP to no end. This is not quite a renewed Kurdish Opening, but in some ways it is even more surprising and remarkable given the view of many Turks that Ocalan is an unrepentant terrorist who should not be lent any credibility through negotiations with the government.
Reading between the lines of all this, it is fairly obvious that Erdoğan’s plan to remake Turkey’s political system and give himself more power in the process has so far failed. I speculated in September that Erdoğan was facing some internal AKP discontent for the first time in his decade as PM, and my strong hunch now is that he does not have the support within his own party that he needs in order to create a strong presidency and force out Abdullah Gül so that he can take over the position. He also clearly does not have the MHP on board, since if he did he would never risk alienating them in the way that he has through the Ocalan negotiations. His dream of creating an imperial presidency is on the ropes, and it might even be entirely gone for good at this point. The only chance he has of rescuing it is trading MHP support for BDP support, and hence the out of the blue approach to Ocalan and the PKK. The AKP has always attempted to compete for Kurdish votes, and in this way it has a more natural partner in the BDP than the MHP since its approach to Kurdish issues is not the hardline one expressed by Turkish nationalists. Faced with the defeat of his ultimate political ambition, Erdoğan has done a complete 180 turnaround and decided that the road to a new Turkish constitution and presidential system is one that embraces Kurdish rights and identity rather than one that flouts them.
This is a good outcome for two reasons. First, any productive move on resolving Kurdish rights and recognizing Kurdish identity is one in which everyone wins and Turkey becomes internally stronger and more cohesive, rather than less so. The Kurdish issue has been dragging Turkey down for decades, and Turkish Kurds have a fundamental right to be able to speak their language and promote their rich cultural heritage free of restriction and discrimination. Second, it shows that Erdoğan is not quite as powerful as we though, which is a victory for Turkish democracy. As his prime ministry has progressed, Erdoğan has demonstrated an increasingly authoritarian side and has not been faced with any real challenges to his power. That he cannot just ram through a new presidential system at will is hopefully a harbinger of things to come and a sign of some greater checks on his power, and this too will ultimately make for a stronger, more prosperous, and more successful Turkey.
January 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There is some very strange stuff going on in Turkey and I don’t quite know what to make of it just yet, so I thought I’d do some speculative musing out loud in the hopes of sparking a discussion. In September, Prime Minister Erdoğan completely out of the blue fired his head of security and many of his bodyguards en masse and replaced them with new people. In October, his office went through a complete root and branch renovation. These moves led to speculation that Erdoğan was concerned that he’d been spied on, since they seemed like unusual steps to take absent some evidence of outside parties listening in and monitoring the prime minister’s private communications. Then in December, Erdoğan revealed that his home office had been bugged, and more bugs were found in his parliamentary office and his car. Erdoğan initially blamed the deep state, and then later essentially said he wanted to just put the whole thing behind him, although the MIT (Turkish intelligence) is investigating. Erdoğan also issued special “crypto phones” to all Turkish ministers in order to prevent their communications from being intercepted as well.
A couple of things here are particularly odd to me. First, why did Erdoğan decide in December to publicly reveal that he’d been spied on? The rumors were flying for months, but it seems like a very strange thing to confirm since the benefit of doing so is not readily appreciable. It relays a sense of governmental incompetence, particularly given the scope of devices that were allegedly found, and does not inspire confidence in Erdoğan and his team. The announcement was also not made in an effort to be as transparent and informative as possible, since neither of these things are exactly hallmarks of the current Turkish government. Erdoğan is also a guy who almost never admits he was wrong about anything, and while having your office bugged and phones tapped is not an error on Erdoğan’s part, his letting everyone know that it happened is an unusual admission that something went wrong somewhere.
Second, why did Erdoğan rush to blame the usual suspects in the deep state and then offer to drop the subject entirely? It’s almost as if he geared up for another fight with the military and other deep state actors, and then was somehow frightened off. Certainly it is very much out of character for Erdoğan to publicly back down on anything, and even more out of character to offer not to pursue someone who has spied on him. It leaves the impression that either something or someone spooked him, or that his initial conjecture about the responsible parties was wrong. I can’t recall another instance of Erdoğan giving off the impression that he is ready for battle and then bowing out.
Here are some completely unfounded ideas as to what may be going on here. Taking all of this together, I think that things in Turkey are about to get a lot more unpleasant, with a new round of arrests, prosecutions, and trials. If Erdoğan did not intend to go after someone or something, there would have been no reason for him to announce that his office was bugged. Letting the public know is an effort to get on the right side of public opinion before whatever comes next, much like exposing coup plots, whether real or imagined, was necessary before prosecuting hundreds of military officers. Erdoğan revealing that he is being spied on signaled to me the beginning of a renewed campaign of Ergenekon redux.
The weird part then is his backtracking, and I still don’t know what to make of it. Does whoever bugged his office have information being used to blackmail Erdoğan? Is this whole thing an exercise in paranoid delusion? I have no clue at all. The other question is, who was Erdoğan preparing to go after? It could be the military, which would make sense given his initial blaming the deep state. On the other hand, there are rumors that the party responsible for the bugs is the Gülenists. To my mind, if Erdoğan is preparing to go after someone, it is Gülenists rather than the military, since the growing split between the prime minister and his former cheerleaders has been a long time coming. There is irony in Gülenists banding together with Erdoğan in using shadowy tactics and accusations to bring down the military, to now have Erdoğan turn around and use the same playbook on the Gülen movement. As I said, this is complete conjecture on my part, but something is definitely going on behind the scenes and I think it’s about to get messy. If anyone can shed any more light on this whole strange affair, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
December 21, 2012 § 1 Comment
As has been happening with increasing frequency, President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan are having a passive aggressive public disagreement, this time over whether separation of powers is a necessary element for democracy or a hindrance to democratic development. It began with Erdoğan’s comments on Monday fingering separation of powers as the biggest obstacle facing Turkey’s government. According to the PM, there is a bureaucratic oligarchy that hinders efficient provision of services, and projects are unnecessarily stalled due to judicial objections. Erdoğan’s preference would be for the executive, legislature, and judiciary to all work together in order to eliminate “errors within the system” that he feels slow things down. In response today, Gül said that separation of powers is absolutely fundamental to the success of Turkish democracy and said that Erdoğan must have misspoken. This is of course a proxy fight for the larger argument that is taking place over whether the AKP is going to revise the constitution in a way that creates a powerful presidency in a presidential system, and whether Erdoğan is then going to become Turkey’s first directly elected and newly empowered president or whether Gül is going to remain in his post and finish out his term.
The debate over separation of powers is an interesting one historically. Most people – including the folks at Wikipedia – ascribe the principle to Baron de Montesquieu, but this is actually incorrect. As my former professor Jack Rakove lays out in his excellent book Original Meanings, the idea behind separation of powers arose during the 17th century in Britain out of the upheaval caused by the English Civil War and the battle between the monarchy and the parliament. Parliamentary supporters in the 1640s came up with the principle of separation of powers as a way of distinguishing it from the concept of mixed government, which advocated for having representatives of the monarchy, aristocracy, and the people in the legislature as a way of avoiding tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. Separation of powers was an effort to draw lines between the different functions of government so that one particular branch of government would not overwhelm the others, as opposed to being concerned with one branch of society becoming dominant. Supporters of the monarchy under Charles I advocated mixed government since it allowed the king to dominate the parliament, and thus his opponents began to emphasize separation of powers as a way of leveling the playing field and eliminating the king’s power to govern without Parliament and abrogate legislation. Once Charles was beheaded and the monarchy was suspended, the separation of powers crowd turned on Parliament, as it was now Parliament under Oliver Cromwell that had enormous and unchecked powers.
This debate was picked up in the American colonies not as a response to the government in Britain but because of the constant feuding between colonial legislatures and colonial governors, who were battling over parliamentary rights and executive power and what the proper balance would be between the two. Colonial governors were actually viewed as a bigger problem than the British Parliament, and that led to the Congress eventually being granted something of a privileged position, as seen by the fact that Article I is about Congress rather than the president or the courts. As Gordon Wood has written, the reason separation of powers was given such a prominent place in the Constitution was not because the framers wanted to check Congress, but because they wanted to protect Congress and the judiciary from the president.
I bring this up because the Turkish debate over separation of powers is playing out in reverse, demonstrating just how extreme Erdoğan’s complaints are. Whereas the British and American concept of separation of powers arose out of a desire to check and limit a powerful executive and give the legislature more of a free reign, Erdoğan is bringing up separation of powers because he believes that the executive does not currently have enough power and that it is the judiciary that is hindering the proper functioning of government. The English-speaking men of the 17th and 18th centuries immersed in the philosophy of government would have found this situation absurd, since nobody really contemplated that separation of powers would create a situation of judicial or bureaucratic tyranny, as Erdoğan is alleging, or buy into the idea that separation of powers should be eliminated in order to empower an executive even further. Despite controlling a near super majority in the Grand National Assembly and operating under a system in which real power is vested in the prime minister rather than the president, Erdoğan is still claiming that it is not enough and that separation of powers has to go, when in fact he is vested with a huge degree of autonomy despite separation of powers. This is precisely why separation of powers is so important, and Gül is correct to point out that it is the foundation of Turkish democracy. Eliminating it in the name of efficiency will lead very quickly to a complete erosion of Turkish democracy, since democracy is not about efficiency but about the ability for a diverse set of parties and interests to contest power while allowing the people to participate in civic life. As I’ve said before and will keep on saying, if you are focused on Erdoğan’s Islamist background rather than on his familiar Turkish authoritarian tendencies, you are missing what is actually going on in Turkey right now.
December 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It looks like the attention being paid to Turkey’s abysmal record on speech issues has finally created enough noise to get the government to sit up and take notice. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç said on Saturday that there is a draft law in the works that will change the Anti-Terror Law, which criminalizes making “propaganda” on behalf of a terrorist organization, to have “propaganda” be interpreted more loosely. According to Arınç, he does not want to see any journalists in jail, and he claimed that this issue has been discussed in cabinet meetings and should be resolved soon, although he did not hesitate to add that no parties save the BDP want to see the Anti-Terrorism Law scrapped entirely.
The good news here is that it appears that the efforts of NGOs to highlight the detestable state of press freedom in Turkey are having an effect. Arınç cited the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, both of whom recently have called out Ankara for jailing journalists. When the CPJ issued its report in October, I was critical of the organization for not calling attention to this issue sooner and for actually providing cover to Turkey in the past by downplaying the scope of the problem. Thankfully Ankara is sufficiently worried about the CPJ report to feel the need to address it publicly, which is why Arınç was trotted out there to talk about how terrible it is for even one journalist to be wrongly imprisoned. If the Turkish government didn’t feel some heat over this issue, it would still be doing what it did when the report was released in October, which is try to sweep the whole thing under the table.
Nevertheless, I am highly skeptical that Arınç’s public relations offensive represents a genuine move to ameliorate Turkey’s draconian treatment of the press. It is difficult to imagine that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his cabinet are seriously considering amending the Anti-Terrorism Law to make it easier for journalists to report on Kurdish issues and to criticize the government at the same time that Erdoğan is calling for the creators of a soap opera to be prosecuted because he doesn’t like the way they are portraying Ottomans sultans, or when members of his government are introducing bills to not only ban the show but to educate Turkish filmmakers on proper Turkish values and morals. On the one hand, the AKP wants to shut down any speech that it finds objectionable in any way at all, and the on the other hand it wants you to believe that it is going to loosen restrictions on speech that it has long claimed to be a security threat that is equivalent to terrorism. It also beggars belief that Erdoğan is considering any real amendments to Articles 6 and 7 of the terrorism law at the same time that dozens of Kurdish politicians are being arrested under these very same provisions and the prime minister is trying to strip BDP deputies of their parliamentary immunity. That Arınç can even say with a straight face that he has a draft of a revised law on his desk and that he hopes it can be passed soon when the campaign to sweep up even more people under these very same articles he claims to want to revise is being prosecuted with even greater ferocity is outrageous. It’s as if the government thinks people have no capacity to independently judge what is taking place, and that everyone should just trust that they will do the right thing despite having no track record worthy of garnering trust.
Furthermore, Arınç’s claim that the law is going to be reinterpreted is a specious one even if you set aside the government’s recent actions. As noted above, after saying that the government was going to relax the law, he made it very clear that the law is here to stay, that all parties other than the Kurdish BDP support it, and that propaganda is going to remain a crime if it lauds terrorism or violence. So, based on Arınç’s interpretation of things, right now Turkey has a law on the books which it uses to throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism, and after these alleged revisions that the government is debating, Turkey will still have a law on the books that will allow it throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism. I fail to see what Arınç claims is going to be tangibly changed aside from a loose promise to reinterpret the word propaganda, which is a meaningless and empty promise if the law as it is currently written is not significantly altered or done away with. In short, given the government’s continuing assault on free speech of all varieties and arrests of Kurdish journalists and politicians, there is little reason for anyone to trust that Arınç means what he says. Until the Erdoğan government takes some actual steps toward relaxing its restrictions on speech, its rhetoric and promises on this issue will remain hollow and meaningless.