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.
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.
April 11, 2012 § 3 Comments
Turkey’s heralded “Kurdish Opening” in 2009, in which the Erdoğan government took concrete steps to better integrate Turkey’s Kurds into political and civic life by relaxing restrictions on Kurdish language and culture and even offering an amnesty to PKK members, ended badly. PKK members returning to Turkey openly exhorted Kurds to fight against the government, Kurdish politicians began calling for Kurdish autonomy, and the AKP quickly backed away from its less restrictive policies. I have pointed out before – particularly during last month’s Nevruz unrest – how crucial it is that Turkey resolve its Kurdish issue, since if it does not it will continue to create a drag on Turkey’s political development and embroil the army in a constant low grade war against PKK separatists. As big of a headache that Syria is now causing for Turkey, there exists an opportunity to use the conflict in Syria as a spur to reinvigorate the Kurdish opening and drive a wedge between Turkey’s Kurdish population and the PKK.
As Gonul Tol notes in Foreign Policy, the idea of a Syria-PKK alliance keeps Turkish leaders up at night, and separatist radicalization among Syrian Kurds will spill over into Turkey’s Kurds as well. In addition, the growing refugee crisis and mass migration into Turkey is bound to contain PKK members no matter how hard Turkey tries to keep them out, and the PKK has demonstrated its capacity to rile up Kurds in Diyarkabır province and other areas of southeastern Turkey. Tol’s takeaway from this is that Turkey needs to work especially hard to bring an end to the fighting in Syria, but any regular readers of this blog (to the extent that there are any) know that I don’t think Turkey will ever go so far as to send in its own military, and it has a very limited capacity to force an international response. I think that given the dangerous implications for Turkey with regard to its Kurdish population the longer that Syria’s descent into chaos continues, Turkey needs to be proactive and immediately take concrete steps to mollify the concerns of its Kurds. The only way to blunt the influence of the PKK is to make it clear that Turkey’s Kurds have plenty to gain through the political process and that violent separatists do the Kurdish population no favors.
There are some easy concrete steps that Ankara can take immediately. First, rather than continue to stonewall the parliamentary investigation into the Uludere airstrike that killed 35 civilians in December, the Justice Ministry should cooperate quickly and comprehensively to demonstrate that the government’s fight against the PKK will not adversely affect the Kurdish population in general.
Second, the constant demonization and harassment of the BDP and Kurdish journalists should end and Erdoğan must make clear that the BDP is a legitimate political party like every other party with seats in the parliament. Whether the BDP is the equivalent of Sinn Fein or legitimately a separate entity from the PKK, the bottom line is that the only way to isolate PKK terrorists is to prioritize a political, rather than a military, solution. Erdoğan last week declared that he would be willing to talk with Kurdish politicians who “can stand on their own feet,” but he needs to go further. Once the AKP normalizes its relationship with the BDP, the tensions between the BDP and PKK will quickly come to the surface in a public way, and which way the BDP turns will give the government a good indication of whether or not there is a serious actor willing to go the political route when speaking on behalf of Turkey’s Kurds. Relatedly, imprisoning scores of journalists for “advocating” on behalf of Kurdish autonomy is entirely self-defeating. It turns legitimate activity into criminal activity, and it sullies Turkey’s international reputation while radicalizing Kurdish civilians. Ending what is a poorly considered policy will go a long way toward building good will.
Third, Erdoğan must make sure that the new constitution gives Turkish Kurds full freedom to speak their language, celebrate their culture, and be secure in their Kurdish identity while remaining full Turkish citizens. A sense of comfort and stability in Turkey will stand in stark contrast to what is taking place right across the border in Syria, and the process of writing a new Turkish constitution is a golden opportunity to drive this point home. If Turkey’s Kurds feel that decades of official discrimination are coming to an end, they will be far less likely to sympathize with a violent separatist movement that feeds on Kurdish resentment.
Turkey is gearing up for its fighting season against the PKK, and it should pursue the PKK with all military means at its disposal. If Ankara wants to avoid a larger problem and contain Syrian blowback among its civilian Kurds, however, it needs to pair the military offensive with a goodwill offensive. This is both the ideal time to do so and an absolutely necessary time to do so with Syria quickly exploding. Bringing back and further extending the short-lived Kurdish opening of 2009 is the only way to deal with the problem at its root, and doing so will stabilize Turkish society and begin to roll back support for the PKK by presenting a real alternative to Kurdish separatism.
March 18, 2012 § 3 Comments
Nevruz, which is the Turkish name for the Persian New Year (traditionally celebrated the first day of spring) has caused all sorts of headaches for successive Turkish governments. It is a day that is celebrated by Kurds, leading to increased Kurdish nationalism and sometimes to PKK violence, both of which the Turkish government wants to avoid. In fact, Nevruz has been so controversial in the past that its celebration was actually banned in the mid-90s following demonstrations and police shooting and killing civilians in 1992. This year, controversy swirled again after the pro-Kurdish BDP announced that it would be celebrating Nevruz this year on March 18 rather than March 21 since Sunday festivities would get more people into the streets, and Turkish provincial governors responded by ordering celebrations to take place on March 21 as usual.
The reasoning behind forbidding Nevruz celebrations today was to minimize excessive shows of Kurdish nationalism, but as was entirely predictable, the move backfired terribly. The BDP refused to back down, police in Diyarbakır and Istanbul ended up using tear gas and water cannons on crowds that gathered to celebrate/protest, and BDP member in Istanbul was killed during the clashes (rumored to be a Kurdish politician).
Two quick thoughts on this, one specific to today’s events and one more general. First, having state officials attempt to dictate when a non-state holiday is to be celebrated is nothing more than foolish and guaranteed to lead to trouble. Ankara is understandably wary of PKK violence on Nevruz and of louder calls for Kurdish autonomy, but attempting to designate an official day on which festivities can be held is always going to be a losing proposition. There was no doubt that Kurds were going to fill the streets, and that police equipped with crowd control devices trying to stop them would lead to injuries and possibly fatalities. What was the potential upside to doing things this way? Now pro-Kurdish politicians get to loudly proclaim that Turkey’s actions make it a “fascist state” and Kurdish nationalism gets a larger boost than it otherwise would, obviating the very purpose of trying to eliminate a Sunday Nevruz observance.
Second, this type of stuff is going to keep on happening until Turkey finds a genuine solution to its Kurdish problem. Kurdish nationalism is not going to disappear, and the 15-20% of Turkey’s population that is ethnically Kurdish is not going to all of a sudden embrace the Kemalist narrative of “we are all Turks.” Erdoğan’s brief Kurdish opening was a start, but he quickly reversed himself and now again has gone back to trying to sweep the issue of Kurdish nationalism and identity under the rug. Until the government has an open and honest conversation about what to do with its Kurdish population in the long term, Nevruz is going to continue to be a day of violence rather than an innocuous festival heralding the end of winter.