October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs, arguing that the true threat to Turkey from ISIS is not a military one, but is rather the spillover effects that are going to impact Turkish domestic stability as a result of ISIS’ rise.
To listen to officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and read Turkey’s pro-government press is to dive into a happy place in which Turkey has never been better. It is a democratic beacon shining its light on the rest of the Middle East, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is leading the charge to consolidate Turkish democracy and create a new regional order, the Turkish economy is humming along despite villainous credit rating agencies’ efforts to destroy it, and Turks of all stripes are united behind their government’s various initiatives. The official view from Ankara is sunny indeed — yet the clouds massing on the country’s border presage a hurricane.
AKP rule has brought a measure of stability previously unknown to Turkey. Here, a growing economy and concerted efforts to address Kurdish grievances have contributed. On a more disturbing note, so have the gradual reining in of the free press and open dissent. For better or worse, the country has become safely predictable and the AKP has been able to govern without seriously being challenged. Even those not in the AKP camp acknowledge that today’s Turkey seems eons removed from the days of terrorism and assassinations in the streets, military coups, and runaway inflation.
But the chaos on Turkey’s border with Syria threatens to upend all of this. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has threatened Turkey’s internal balance in a number of ways. But the danger does not come from ISIS itself. Although the group has proved its military bona fides during its rampage through Iraq and Syria, it does not present a serious territorial challenge to Turkey, which has a large NATO-backed army, a modern air force, and the resources to hit back at ISIS should it choose. Rather, it is the follow-on effects of ISIS’ march through the region that may herald a return to the bad old days.
To read the rest, including my analysis of Turkey’s economic problems, burgeoning issues with the Kurds, and the rise of nationalism, please head over here to Foreign Affairs.
October 10, 2013 § 3 Comments
Ten days ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP released the details of their long-promised and long-awaited democratization package, which had been hyped for months as a major initiative aimed at correcting imbalances righting wrongs in the Turkish political system. Since I am late to the game here, I am not going to do a deep dive into everything it entails – a summary can be found here – but most commentary, as typified by this column by Amanda Paul, has focused on the fact that the new proposals are good in some ways and fall short in others. In other words, a decent start but not far enough.
This is definitely one way to view the package. Another way is to think about it through the prism of how the AKP views democracy. In June 2012, Steven Cook and I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which we contended that the AKP was expanding Turkish democracy when you look at measures of participation – meaning the extent to which citizens are able to participate in democracy – but limiting Turkish democracy when you look at measures of contestation – meaning the ability to contest the government’s power. The democratization package appears to break down along this dichotomy, which is unsurprising. Much of the package makes life a little easier for Kurds by allowing Kurdish-language education in public schools; allowing the use of the letters q, w, and x, which are found in Kurdish but not in Turkish; allowing Kurdish and other languages to be used in election campaigns; restoring former Kurdish names of majority-Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. These measures allow Kurds to participate in Turkey’s political and civic life to a larger extent. Other measures that affect the general population do the same, such as allowing government employees to wear headscarves ( which is unabashedly a good thing, no matter how many scary columns you read about the “Islamization of Turkey”).
When it comes to contestation though, there is nothing to cheer about. The proposal to lower Turkey’s electoral threshold to enter the Grand National Assembly from 10% to 5% is not actually being proposed as a law, but is being proposed simply as a topic for debate. Furthermore, the proposal to create single-member districts (rather than keep a system of proportional representation) or to keep a system of partial representation and create districts of 5 or so members would almost certainly benefit the AKP and maintain or increase its percentage of parliamentary seats. In addition, hoped-for proposals on reforming the anti-terror law – which is increasingly used as a cudgel against journalists and government critics – were absent. If it wasn’t clear to everyone that the AKP cannot stand to be challenged in any way even after this summer’s events, it should certainly be clear now. When this government talks about expanding democracy, it only means it in a very narrow sense (and even then, it apparently doesn’t mean it if you happen to be Alevi rather than Sunni).
There is still another way to view this democratization package, which is that it actually intends to do the precise opposite of what it claims. There is a proposal to establish a hate crimes law that would impose three year prison sentences on anyone who commits a crime based on someone’s or some group’s language, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, gender, disability condition, political views, philosophical beliefs, religion, or sect. In theory this sounds like an effort to protect minorities, but given the Turkish government’s track record of prosecuting students who protest against Erdoğan or pianists who insult Islam, I would bet nearly anything that the hate crimes law will be used to go after AKP opponents and critics. Nearly any speech can be criminalized and punished at the government’s behest under this legislation, and Erdoğan has unfortunately demonstrated that he has no qualms about cracking down on things he simply doesn’t like or finds offensive. There is a good chance that the most far-reaching and significant part of this “democratization” package will be an element that does not enhance Turkish democracy but instead greatly weakens it. So yes, there are ways in which the government’s efforts to improve Turkish democracy may be a good start, but there are also ways in which “this doesn’t go far enough” is not quite the criticism that should be leveled. It’s not the absence of certain elements in this proposal that worries me so much as the inclusion of others.
July 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
Dov Friedman – who is depriving the world of his prodigious knowledge by not starting his own regular blog – is resuming his spot today as O&Z guest poster par excellence to write about whether or not the Gezi protests necessitate a political shift from Prime Minister Erdoğan. In particular, Dov thinks that Erdoğan is not thinking strategically when it comes to the Kurdish peace process, which is in many ways the most important issue facing Turkey in both the short and long term.
We’re one month past the outbreak of spontaneous protests connected to the redevelopment of Gezi Park, and by now, the events have been analyzed pretty robustly. There are essentially two narratives—one forwarded by protesters, their supporters, and most journalists, and another advanced by the government and its supporters. Respectively excellent examples of those narratives may be found here and here.
But as the protests have subsided, observers are beginning to ask what comes next. Their answers can vary considerably based on their own political preferences. However, what happens next still depends overwhelmingly on the actions of Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Which leads me to make two different, seemingly oppositional claims. First, that politically speaking, Erdoğan need not diverge from the playbook he was following before the Taksim protests. Second, that based on some very early indicators, Erdoğan himself seems to believe otherwise. Allow me to explain.
It may be hard to remember now, but even before Gezi, the prospects for a new constitution establishing a strong presidential system were diminished. Erdoğan had already begun to intimate this publicly, deploying the soft sell and professing satisfaction with whatever the outcome might be. Not two weeks before Gezi Park became international news, Erdoğan deputized Sabah—a newspaper with close ties to the government—to explain how AK Party would proceed if a strong presidential system were rejected.
These subtle moves stemmed less from magnanimity toward the opposition than from Erdoğan’s finely calibrated response to shifting political dynamics. The Kurdish gambit—which Erdoğan hoped would alter the Grand National Assembly’s legislative math in favor of constitutional overhaul—only partially delivered. The BDP—which gives political voice to Turkey’s ethnic Kurds—stated its desire to work toward a new constitution, but declined to support a presidency with increased authority. Despite an obvious setback to Erdoğan’s expressed preferences, it seemed the Prime Minister might content himself with being the figure to transform Turkey’s Kurdish Issue while enabling the ancillary benefits to accrue to AK Party.
Erdoğan still had options, which Sabah did an excellent job of laying out. He could rewrite party rules to allow him another term as prime minister. He could accept a simple constitutional change allowing the president to sit as the head of a political party as well. In Erdoğan’s best-case scenario, the president could assume executive control, appointing both the prime minister and the cabinet members as well.
The Taksim protests mostly enlivened an essential conversation about authoritarianism in Turkey; however, they also gave rise to the false narrative that now the prime minister’s plans were really dead. Perhaps Erdoğan bought into the coverage. As the AK Party has unveiled its post-Gezi political strategy, the early indicators dishearten. In a speech addressing the Wise Persons commission on June 27th, Erdoğan said that AK Party had plans neither to support a lowering of the election threshold nor to prepare for native language education. Perhaps thinking he had not done enough to upset Kurds, Erdoğan also opined that only 15 percent of the PKK fighters in Turkey had crossed the border with Iraq—subtly suggesting that the government need not take any action at present to advance the precarious opening.
These distressing moves typify a party seeking to burnish its nationalist credentials more than advance a tenuous peace process. Is that Erdoğan’s intent and goal? There is no definitive answer. What we do know is that the Prime Minister has embarked on a monumental speaking tour to galvanize the base. He has used divisive language—even by his estimable standards—and deployed increasingly religiously tinged talking points. We know that to an unprecedented degree, AK Party scrutinizes poll numbers. We also know that before Erdoğan was the overnight champion of a historic deal with Turkey’s Kurds, he had been just as vociferous in his nationalist message and tone. Is AK Party’s analytics team gleaning information about skepticism to the Kurdish opening within the party faithful? Is this merely Erdoğan’s shopworn political crisis management strategy of hunkering down, playing to the base, and using divisive issues to divert attention? Again, we do not know. But we should never forget that Erdoğan’s political juggling puts Franklin Roosevelt to shame.
Erdoğan’s crisis management skills are proven, but it’s not clear to me why he has signified another directional shift. The nationalist strategy is inherently a defensive one. It appeals to the most conservative, reactionary elements in Turkish society. In response to protests centered on Erdoğan’s—and the AK Party’s—high-handed politics, how is retrograde divisiveness the smartest play? The point becomes all the more salient when we consider nationalist party MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli’s pointed critique of the Prime Minister post-Gezi:
“He rebuked the teachers. He scolded the students. He tried to become a Twitter police. This is the final stage of hubris. It’s been revealed that our country being an example is a lie. The party that does not accept democracy has nothing more to offer.”
Does that sound like someone who sees profit in joining forces politically? For Erdoğan, the nationalist strategy is regressive. For Bahçeli, partnership with Erdoğan—at least for the foreseeable future—is politically toxic. At the risk of repetitiveness, what led Erdoğan to believe this was his dominant strategy?
What made the Kurdish opening so surprising was its daring—it sought to rejigger Turkey politics in search of a new, more robust coalition and vision. Post-Gezi, Erdoğan could have modeled consistency by expressing acceptance of modest tweaks to the political system and continuing his full-throated advocacy for a Kurdish peace. This would not have satisfied the protestors—I leave discussions about the wisdom of Erdoğan’s response to that conflict aside—but at least it would have revealed a gritty, principled leader maintaining his vision in a political storm.
Instead, in addition to the ongoing low intensity conflict with the protest movement and the fragile economy, Erdoğan adds tension with political forces representing Kurdish interests. The fissures have already begun to show: the BDP has organized rallies in the southeast to pressure the government to take the next step in the peace process, and Party Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş is agitating for the government to take action in response to soldiers killing one protestor, and injuring 10, who demonstrated against the rebuilding of a gendarmerie facility.
It is too early to say the peace process is broken. But anyone who tells you everyone has come too far should be met with skepticism. Erdoğan has borne intense criticism for his handling of the Taksim protests. His political signaling in the protests’ aftermath is more dangerous still.
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 § 9 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.