April 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a 10 month suspended jail sentence by a Turkish court for the crime of insulting religious beliefs. Say’s sentence was based on a series of tweets he wrote a year ago quoting the famed medieval poet Omar Khayyam and voicing the belief that thieves and stupid people are always religious believers. In order to stay out of prison, Say has to avoid a relapse of his alleged crime for the next five years. Say is actually fortunate to be a famous and high profile person, as were he an ordinary Turkish citizen, he would already be serving time in prison and would not have had his sentence suspended, as the case of Abdulkerim U. – who was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook – vividly demonstrates. In a move that perfectly encapsulates in one short moment the essence of Prime Minister Erdoğan and what makes him both a successful and infuriating politician, he responded to reporters’ questions about Say by smiling and saying, “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” Unsurprisingly, other government officials followed Erdoğan’s lead in dismissing concerns about the verdict and even justifying it, such as EU Affairs Minister Egeman Bağış who declared the need for people to learn to respect that which is sacred to others, which will no doubt come as great consolation to, say, Turkey’s Alevi community, which is used to having its beliefs and rituals routinely mocked by the prime minister.
On the other hand, observers who are not AKP members were not quite as non-plussed as Erdoğan and his coterie of followers. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not pass up the opportunity to hammer away at the government and questioned whether Turkey actually has a justice system and declared that democracy in Turkey is at stake, and a variety of columnists including Yavuz Baydar and Murat Yetkin have both criticized the substance of the verdict and noted the damage to Turkey’s image abroad. Amnesty International also weighed in, calling the verdict a “flagrant violation of his [Say's] freedom of expression,” and the EU expressed its concern and called on Turkey to take care in respecting freedom of speech. As is apparent, everyone outside of the AKP is taking the Say case very seriously and recognizes it as a stain on Turkish democratic aspirations.
Everyone outside of the AKP, that is, with one notable exception. U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s comments on the subject of Say’s sentence were that his brother David Ricciardone, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, remarked to him that “a very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” Yes, you read that correctly: our government’s official representative in Turkey not only declined to condemn what is clearly a gross miscarriage of justice and a blatant violation of democratic values and practice, but tacitly endorsed the court’s decision and joked about it with reporters. I suppose that the good people of Massachusetts are fortunate that Judge Ricciardone is a state judge rather than a federal judge, since his understanding of the First Amendment seems to be on par with that of my 10 month old son. Moving onto the bigger culprit here, it is inconceivable that Ambassador Ricciardone’s initial reaction is one of anything other than outrage. Yes, we don’t want to be meddling in another country’s internal affairs and we want to respect laws abroad that are different from our own, and we also want to maintain a good relationship with the Turkish government, but none of that applies here. Plenty of Turks, both individually and institutionally, are criticizing the Say verdict to the high heavens, and so this does not fall into the category of respecting another culture. This is an instance where if we have any respect for our own democratic values, we are compelled to make it crystal clear that what has taken place with regard to Say and to Abdulkerim U. and to the other hundreds of Turkish citizens who get prosecuted on similar charges is completely unacceptable in our view. Ricciardone instead has chosen to act as a lackey for the Turkish government and turn a blind eye to behavior that we routinely call out on other occasions, and it is evident to me that this is becoming a chronic problem in our relationship with Turkey.
Both publicly and privately, U.S. diplomats who are in charge of our Turkey policy talk about the country as being more democratic now than it has ever been, and while acknowledging some problems with freedom of speech, the overarching and worrisome issues are generally swept under the rug in a disturbing fashion. As I noted a year ago, the U.S. needs Turkey on a host of regional issues, and so it studiously ignores Turkish bad behavior and sticks to the party line about the strength of Turkish democracy. It is one thing, however, to pretend that a problem does not exist, and quite another to contribute to that problem worsening. I am going to assume that the U.S. will express its displeasure with Turkey over the Say verdict behind the scenes, but backing up the government in such a public way like Ricciardone did is enormously damaging irrespective of what goes on later behind closed doors. Ricciardone has been criticized in the past, including just a couple of months ago, by the Turkish government for perceived interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government, but it appears as if his response has been to go way too far in the opposite direction in an effort to curry favor with Ankara. If that is the case, his completely out of line and inappropriate response to the Say verdict should be the impetus for him to take a major course correction immediately.
The embassy says that Ambassador Ricciardone’s quote was taken out of context; please read my follow-up post - http://ottomansandzionists.com/2013/04/18/more-on-ambassador-ricciardone-and-fazil-say/
April 5, 2013 § 2 Comments
While the large number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is getting increasing attention in the Western media and from press NGOs, an even more widespread – and in some ways more insidious – problem is press intimidation. Journalists in Turkey are under all sorts of pressure not to criticize the government, and end up engaging in self-censorship or are forced to limit what they write by their editors, who are themselves squeezed by the government. This pressure comes in the form of overt intimidation, such as when Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly attacks the press collectively or even singles out individuals for criticism, and comes in the form of de facto bills of attainder, such as when the Doğan Group was fined nearly $3.8 billion in taxes following an investigation into charity fraud that implicated government officials. Reporters and columnists are afraid to write anything about the government, the AKP, or Erdoğan that will be perceived as too harsh, and so much goes unsaid.
In this week’s Economist, Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman details how this process works by relaying how advisers to the prime minister will call an editor to complain about a columnist’s work, that columnist will be asked to tone things down, and will be then fired if he or she does not comply. Zaman notes that anything that has a whiff of scandal about the government gets buried, as do stories about Turkish support for Syrian rebels and Turkey’s role in transferring arms shipments to Syrian groups from the Gulf. None of this is new ground, but Zaman’s piece is especially notable for its timing: after starting to write her essay but before it was published, she was fired from her job as a columnist at Turkish newspaper HaberTürk for – you guessed it – being overly critical of the government. It will be interesting to see if the issue of journalist intimidation gets more traction now outside of Turkey given that Zaman is the Economist’s Turkey correspondent and frequently writes for other American and British publications. In any event, this type of behavior is enormously damaging to Turkey and is bound to backfire. By doing everything it can to protect its reputation at home by staunching criticism, the government is only ensuring that its reputation abroad takes a hit, and government officials’ loud proclamations about Turkish democracy ring hollow as long as reporters and editorialists do not feel free to speak their minds because they are constantly worrying about their job security.
On the flip side, Israel this week provided a good example of why sometimes journalists who are free to write whatever pops into their heads might sometimes want to think before putting down something particularly egregious. Amira Hass, a columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote an ode to Palestinian stone throwing on Wednesday, opening her column with, “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.” In advising that some guidelines be developed, she wrote that limitations “could include” – rather than should include – throwing rocks at civilians or at children, although Hass naturally does not want to dictate to Palestinian stone throwers who their targets should be. She went on to make some actually positive and useful suggestions on how Palestinians might implement classes on civil non-violent disobedience and better educate themselves to document Israeli military abuses, but when that stuff comes after you have laid out the divine right of violent stone throwing, it tends to get lost in the ensuing maelstrom. The Yesha Council has accused Hass of inciting violence and filed a police complaint and lodged another complaint with the attorney-general, which will undoubtedly lead to Hass being seen in some quarters as a martyr for press freedom and journalistic integrity.
Hass’s column is largely reprehensible. Not to disturb the righteous indignation of Hass and her supporters, but throwing stones at civilians is inexcusable violence under any guise, and Israel’s military and settler presence in the West Bank does not justify using potentially deadly force against Israeli civilians. Lest you think this is hyperbole, stones thrown at cars in the West Bank in the last two years have killed Asher and Yonatan Palmer – the latter an 11 month old infant – and put 2 year old Adele Bitton in critical condition, in addition to causing numerous other civilian injuries. Calling out stone throwing does not mean that I condone abusive Israeli military behavior in the West Bank, of which there is plenty, since anyone who reads me knows that I do not. But aren’t most of us taught at a very early age the simple maxim that two wrongs does not make a right? In what world is serious violence a “birthright” or a “duty” except to a seriously fevered mind? Just as the attempted lynching of Jamal Joulani for no other reason than his being an Arab hanging out in West Jerusalem was odiously inexcusable, so is throwing rocks at Israelis for no other reason than them being Jews daring to set foot in the West Bank. It would be great if Palestinians lit upon a successful strategy for non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, and a mass movement along those lines would force the Israeli government to actually change course. In contrast, continuing to advocate violence against Israelis based on the logic that stone throwing is a pittance compared to Israeli machine gun fire is guaranteed to be a losing strategy that perpetuates Israeli control of the West Bank forever. It is wonderful that Hass is free to say whatever she pleases, and it is one of the ways in which Israel’s system of government is far more advanced than Turkey’s, but let’s not pretend that Hass’s abuse of her freedom of speech is a courageous act when it is nothing more than advocacy of violence hiding behind a morally superior attitude and haughty anti-imperialist mask.
March 25, 2013 § 6 Comments
As everyone knows by now, on Friday Bibi Netanyahu talked to Tayyip Erdoğan (for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in 2009!) after being handed the phone by President Obama and apologized for operational mistakes causing the deaths of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Netanyahu also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the deceased, and both men somewhat fudged the issue of the Gaza blockade by noting that Israel has already lifted some restrictions and pledging to work together going forward to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This formula should not be surprising; in November I wrote the following:
All this aside, there seems to me to be an obvious out here. As I mentioned above, the real long term sticking point here is the demand that Israel end the Gaza blockade, but the imprecise language makes this a point that can easily be massaged. Israel is not going to end its naval blockade, particularly given the renewed focus on Iranian missiles that are being shipped to Sudan rather than directly to Gaza in an effort to avoid the Israeli navy. There is also, however, the land blockade that is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, and if Israel and Egypt jointly loosen restrictions on the land crossings to allow more goods in and out of Gaza, then Israel and Turkey can both reasonably claim victory, and it might pave the way for the countries to make up. Unless something changes though, feel free to ignore any and all news reports about secret talks and back channel negotiations between Ankara and Jerusalem.
As readers of this blog know, I have maintained for awhile that Israel was ready and willing to apologize to Turkey but that I did not think Turkey was prepared to accept an apology given the domestic political benefits for Erdoğan and the AKP of feuding with Israel. Indeed, over the past few months there have been reports of Ahmet Davutoğlu and other Turkish officials rebuffing Israeli attempts to meet and lay the groundwork for a rapprochement. That the apology was suddenly offered and accepted took me by surprise, and got me thinking about what would make Turkey change its calculus. I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs identifying Turkey’s suddenly more pressing need for better intelligence in Syria given the chemical weapons angle and Ankara’s desire to meet its energy demands through channels other than Russian natural gas as the primary reasons, and noting that the timing here is also related to the successful talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Here’s the core of the argument:
For Ankara, the Syrian crisis has been a major headache. Turkey has suffered a loss in trade, been forced to rely on NATO for Patriot missiles to defend against border threats, and accepted just under half a million Syrian refugees. Ankara’s demands for Assad to step down have fallen on deaf ears, and its requests for NATO intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and heavy arms for the Syrian rebels have also been brushed aside.
All this has been unfortunate for Turkey’s leaders, but it was the recent introduction of Syrian chemical weapons into the equation that really changed Turkey’s calculus; now more than ever, the country needs better intelligence and allies to bring an end to the civil war or at least prevent it from spilling over. Turkey cannot afford to have chemical weapons used anywhere near its border with Syria, and the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chances of a chemical weapons strike gone awry. Israel simply has better intelligence on regional developments than Turkey does, and Turkey can use that help to monitor Assad’s weapons stores and troop movements on both sides. In addition, whereas the United States and other NATO countries have been reluctant to support the Syrian rebels in any meaningful way, Israel has a greater incentive to make sure that the moderate Sunni groups prevail over the more radical jihadist elements of the opposition. As the situation in Syria heats up, Turkey and Israel will be thankful that they can talk to each other and coordinate.
Another area in which Turkey needs Israel’s assistance is energy. Turkey’s current account deficit, which stood at $48.8 billion in 2012, is almost entirely a result of the country’s reliance on oil and natural gas imports; Turkey has no natural resources of its own. Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and Iranian natural gas, due to onerous price contracts. Earlier this month, I talked with a number of people in Turkey — government ministers, opposition politicians, business tycoons, and trade group leaders — and they all mentioned Turkey’s growing energy needs and lamented the country’s overreliance on Russian and Iranian natural gas. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey has no hope of smoothing over ties with Cyprus, its longtime adversary, which has been the other main beneficiary of the Mediterranean gas boom, it will likely turn to Israel as a natural gas supplier. With Turkey’s economic growth slowing, Israel’s potential as a partner makes reconciliation more attractive now than at any point in recent years.
Because it is – in my view – Turkey that changed its mind on reconciling, I focused on the Turkish side of things in the FA piece, so I thought I’d now write a little bit about the Israeli side. From Israel’s perspective, making up with Turkey has made sense for awhile now, and the reasons to do so only grew stronger with each passing day. First, there is the regional dynamic in the Middle East, which is hardly trending in Israel’s favor post-Arab Spring. While I do not think that Israel has anything to fear from new governments in the region, the upheaval has opened up power vacuums in the Sinai and Syria that allow hostile non-state actors to operate with impunity. Add to this the existing threats from Hamas and Hizballah and the distinct possibility that the Jordanian government falls, and Israel desperately needs any friend who will have her. Making up with Turkey means that at least Israel is not entirely alone in the region, and being able to coordinate with Turkey and with Jordan (so long as King Abdullah remains in power) will be extremely helpful in containing the spillover threat from Syria. While I highlighted the urgency for Turkey in my FA piece, Israel’s biggest concern with regard to the Syrian civil war has always been the transfer of chemical weapons to hostile non-state actors, and now that the chatter around chemical weapons has increased, apologizing to Turkey took on an urgency for Jerusalem that was absent before.
Second, Turkey has successfully blocked Israel from NATO military activities and summits, and the ability to get back in the game has always been important to the Israeli government. While the Noble Dina naval exercises with Greece and the U.S. that Israel began doing in 2011 are nice, they are a poor substitute for Israel being able to use the vast Turkish airspace for aerial training or being able to participate in NATO military exercises. Israel has attempted to ramp up its military relations with Greece and Cyprus in response to the freeze in relations with Turkey but this has always been a suboptimal solution, and Israel has felt this acutely as the government has become increasingly preoccupied with possible threats from Iran. Furthermore, Israel’s defense industry has had billions of dollars in contracts with Turkey suspended by Ankara, and being able to resume sales to Turkey should provide a nice jolt to the Israeli economy.
Nobody should expect Israel and Turkey to go back to where they once were. Turkey does not feel as alone in the region as it once did, there is still a benefit from having cool relations with Israel, and too much has taken place between the two, from Davos to the Mavi Marmara to the “Zionism is equal to fascism” kerfuffle of a month ago. It is unfortunately not surprising to already see Erdoğan backing away from his commitment to normalize relations, although it will happen sooner rather than later since this is only Erdoğan playing politics in response to some hardline domestic criticism over the deal with Israel. Exchanging ambassadors and resuming limited military and intelligence cooperation does not negate the fact that bashing Israel will remain a potent element in Erdoğan’s box of tricks, and I expect to see issues big and small arise between the two countries, particularly as things remain static on the Israeli-Palestinian front and settlement building in the West Bank continues. Nevertheless, this restoring of formal ties is good for both sides, and I hope that both countries can get over their past issues and begin work on developing a healthier relationship.
March 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
I am back from two weeks in Turkey, and it was easily two of the best weeks that I have spent anywhere. The meetings were nearly all informative, the speakers engaging, and it was wonderful to spend so much intense time with a great group of friends. Not to mention that Turkish cuisine is my favorite type of food, spring in Istanbul cannot be beat, and I barely had to pay a dime for anything. There was so much to digest that one blog post is never going to cover all of it, but there were some larger themes that repeatedly emerged, however, and some big picture thoughts that crossed my mind, so here goes.
I have written before about the corrosive and long lasting effects of military intervention on political institutions, and I have of course spent countless hours of my life thinking about this issue with regard to Turkey, but in the context of conversations over the past couple of weeks, it occurred to me that Turkish groups and institutions are still subconsciously operating under the shadow of this history despite the widespread belief that military coups are a thing of the past. I noted last week at how open and straightforward individual Turkish politicians were when speaking with us, but there was a stark contrast between individual forthrightness and general organizational or institutional forthrightness. The institutions that govern Turkey or that are influential in Turkish society are unusually opaque, with uncertainty over their true goals and motives. For instance, I spent a lot of time debating with my Turkish friends about the AKP and whether it is an Islamist party or not. As readers of this blog are well aware by now, I don’t think that the AKP is an Islamist political party, but rather is a political party run by Islamists, and that the focus should be on the AKP’s authoritarianism rather than its alleged Islamism. One particularly smart Turk and I argued over this point repeatedly, with my challenging her to point to any policy that the AKP has put forth in over a decade of rule that can be deemed Islamist, and her just as adamant that the AKP only does not advance Islamist policies because it doesn’t have the backing for it, but that once it transforms society it will rule as openly Islamist. We went back and forth, but the heart of the problem is that nobody can satisfactorily answer this question because we just have no way of knowing. Given AKP leaders’ past statements and history, they might be playing a long game, or they might actually be what they seem, which is a pro-growth socially conservative party with authoritarian tendencies but not harboring ambitions of Islamist rule. Because the AKP keeps things deliberately ambiguous, there is simply no way to say one way or the other.
Similarly, I had lots of conversations with trip participants, journalists, outside friends, and acquaintances about the Gülen movement and what precisely the Gülenists are up to. It is evident that the movement’s activities in Turkey are different from its activities elsewhere, with my best guess being that in Turkey it is engaged in revenge against its former antagonists and in the U.S. it is trying to bring Turks into the country on work visas and make as much money as possible. Nevertheless, I can’t say for sure, and neither can anyone else. The Gülen movement cages its intentions and motivations so that it can be difficult, if not actually impossible, to ascertain what it really wants or what the end game is. One organization we met with while in Turkey seemed to have the hallmarks of a Gülenist group in some ways, but then one of its representatives was railing against religion and the Gülen movement in a side conversation, all of which made for a great guessing game later on that day. Another group we met with portrayed itself as a straightforward economic and trade organization, and then over the course of an hour of questioning made it clear that it actually had a seriously political and religious agenda, which you would never know from the group’s official website, pamphlets, or statements. I should also point out that none of these organizations can be deemed underground, and in fact are all very close to the corridors of official power in Turkey, and yet they feel the need to hide the ball.
All of this got me reflecting on why this might be, and I think the answer has to lie in Turkey’s history of military interventions in civilian politics. Irrespective of how eviscerated the army might now be, when it has a history of executing and jailing politicians, activists, journalists, and anyone else who ran afoul of its prerogatives, that is an extremely difficult thing for any of its potential opponents to overcome. The AKP now rules the country virtually unopposed, but its members have a history with the military. The same goes for the Gülenists, and many other religious groups. Organizations have an incentive to hide their true motives in order to give themselves plausible deniability since the specter of military rule still haunts Turkey, even if the possibility of a coup has been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is a remarkable thing to see powerful groups feel the need to stay closed to the outside world, and it is yet another reminder of how political patterns are incredibly resistant to change and how institutions can remain affected by past events long into the future.
Next, the one issue that was brought up time and time again by politicians and business leaders was Turkey’s energy consumption and the difficulty of meeting the country’s energy needs. Turkey’s current account deficit can almost entirely be attributed to its imports of natural gas from Russian and Iran, and it is not in a position to do anything about it because it has no natural resources with which to create domestic energy supply of its own and is locked into extremely onerous contracts with its foreign suppliers. Nobody we spoke to had a good solution for fixing this problem, and while nuclear power might do the trick, my friend Aaron Stein has convincingly demonstrated that this is not in the cards any time soon. I don’t know what the answer is, but there is a lot of money to be made in figuring out a way for Turkey to meet its explosive energy demands while reducing its reliance on Russian natural gas.
Finally, let me make a plea on behalf of the Young Turkey Young America program. Because of the sequester, the State Department is unlikely to fund YTYA next year, which will be a huge loss. The U.S. and Turkey need each other for a host of reasons, and this program forges bonds and relationships between future leaders in both countries that will withstand the test of time. It is also a force multiplier, because everyone in the program is now engaged in promoting the bilateral relationship in one way or another, whether it be through civil society projects, op-ed writing, educational initiatives, or cultural events, and in so doing spreads the message of the importance of ties between the U.S. and Turkey and a greater understanding of each other’s politics, society, and culture. If this enormously valuable and important program is to continue past this year with a new crop of participants, some other source of funding has to be located. So if you are reading this and you have any interest at all in ensuring that U.S.-Turkey ties remain strong going forward and you work for an organization that has the means to help out in sponsoring the program in the future, please get in touch with me.
P.S. For those of you who have asked for my thoughts on the new Israeli government, I may get to it later this week or next, but do not feel an overwhelming need to write about it given that everyone seems to think that the new coalition will not last long, which I predicted on election day two months ago. As things have turned out as I expected (including the makeup of the coalition) I don’t feel the need to rehash things. As for President Obama’s visit, the market for analysis on this is so oversaturated with predictions, advice for the president, advice for Israelis, and general peace process commentary that there’s nothing left to be said about a visit that is not going to have much of an effect on anything. The executive summary is, don’t expect any big pronouncements from either side, and count on Obama and Netanyahu pretending to have smoothed over any differences between them.
March 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Apologies for not doing a better job of blogging while in Turkey, but last week was a very busy one. Now that we have left Ankara and moved on to Istanbul, it seems like a good time to set down some brief thoughts on what I found particularly interesting in our meetings with Turkish politicians of all stripes and what it means for the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. When I say politicians of all stripes, I mean it: so far we have spoken with, among others, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, AKP co-founder and MP Reha Denemeç, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Volkan Bozkir, CHP vice chairman and MP Faruk Loğoğlu, and MHP deputy chairman Tuğrul Türkeş. This is a very influential group but also a fascinating one, and taking the sum total of what they said has made for a good overview of the state of things here. All of these meetings were off the record and so I cannot go into particulars, but there have been some general themes running throughout conversations with nearly everyone we have spoken with that I can talk about in a broader context.
First, I must note that compared to U.S. politicians – and this includes private and off the record meetings I have been in with them – the Turkish politicians on this trip have been unusually open, honest, and forthright. They have defended their positions without trying to hedge or sugarcoat some of the rougher edges, and have rarely tailored their messages to what they think the audience in front of them wants to hear. Conversations with politicians from the AKP, CHP, and MHP have at times begun to approach being heated, and everyone we have spoken with has handled anything thrown their way. I myself have not shied away from asking tough questions about issues such as Israel, Patriot missiles, positions on Syria, realistic chances of joining the EU, differences between the PKK and Hamas, and others, and nearly every question has been answered in a straightforward way. Whether I agree with the answers or not, I greatly appreciate the engagement with the questions. I tend to think that politicians are the same everywhere in terms of being slippery and evasive, and that has been the case here too in some instances, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far particularly when comparing the people we have met to politicians back home.
Second, before leaving on this trip last week I observed that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is very much based on mutual interests rather than a sense of shared values or culture, as is the case with the U.S. and other countries in Europe or the U.S.-Israeli relationship. So far relations between the two countries have been framed exactly in the language of common interests, and while one official we spoke with talked about the importance of shared values, he failed to provide any concrete examples and went on to talk about shared interests instead. I happen to think that there are indeed values that bind the U.S. and Turkey together, whether it be democracy, secular government with fairly religious societies, etc. but on an official level the relationship is rooted in realpolitik, and everyone on both sides appears to realize that. As I noted before, what this means is that Turkey needs to be particularly careful about continuing to demonstrate its value as an ally, as it does not have a large base of support within the U.S. domestically upon which to fall back should there be a perception that Turkey is not as helpful as it could be. This is what happened following the Grand National Assembly’s decision not to allow the U.S. to use Turkey as a staging ground before the Iraq War, and another situation like that could easily crop up in the future.
Finally, the U.S. embassy staff in Ankara has an extremely clear-eyed and realistic view of the political situation in Turkey and the challenges that might crop up between the two countries, and it was extremely encouraging to be able to talk frankly with such a smart and talented group. Whether it be a keen grasp of the inherent political constraints on the Turkish government (and we all know that I can’t resist a good domestic political explanation for foreign policy moves) or an exposition of Turkey’s options for dealing with Syria, I cannot express enough how impressive I found our diplomats in Ankara. They gave me a lot to think about, including one historical angle on the U.S.-Turkey relationship from a standout State Department officer that I have been pondering all week, and I have no doubt at all that whatever issues or problems arise in the future, our embassy folks in Turkey are beyond well-equipped to handle them.
Many more meetings this week with politicians, think tankers, business people, and civil society groups, so hopefully more thoughts to come. And as always, there is nothing like being in Istanbul…
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.