Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Hot Turkish Autumn

Robert Ellis

Since the Taksim events, Erdogan's behavior has seemed closer to that of an old-style Arab military ruler who considers any opposition or disagreement with his opinion a conspiracy." — Jihad al-Zein, former AKP supporter.
Mustafa Balbay, a Turkish journalist who has been sentenced to 34 years and 8 months imprisonment for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, has predicted a politically hot autumn. [1]
The Gezi Park protests, which spread to 79 out of Turkey's 81 provinces, represent to date the most serious threat to Prime Minister Erdoğan's rule. A report by the Eurasia Global Research Centre (AGAM), a Turkish think tank, concludes that the handling of the crisis was "a strategic mistake" and that the lack of dialogue caused the protests to escalate. [2]
In contrast to President Abdullah Gül, who said that the protesters' message had been received, Erdoğan embarked on a series of mass rallies and vilified the demonstrators as marauders, terrorists and pitiful rodents in language reminiscent of Der Stürmer. This only served to reinforce his image as a Kasımpaşalı kabadayı (tough guy from the Istanbul district of Kasımpaşa) among the masses, and increase the polarization that already existed in Turkey.
Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Davos, 2009. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)
Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek has stated there is no culture of compromise in Turkey's intellectual and political circles; according to one Turkish commentator, it is not in Erdoğan's character to back off and admit he has made a mistake. On the contrary, the aftermath of Gezi Park has been marked by various reprisals, in which the Prime Minister has demonstrated what the Financial Times has called "paranoid intolerance." [3]

There has been a roundup of protesters all over Turkey – by late July, 715 were already detained – and the crackdown continues. In the same period, the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) claims that at least 22 journalists have been fired and 37 forced to quit because of their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. Consequently, it is no wonder that Turkey's ranking has fallen to number 154 out of 179 on the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom index for 2013, where Turkey is currently "the world's biggest prison for journalists." [4]
In addition, Prime Minister Erdoğan has called on his supporters to inform on their neighbours who bang pots and pans in protest against his rule; the police will install "informant boxes" in neighbourhoods, so that complaints can be made anonymously.
Mehmet Ali Şahin, deputy chairman of the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party, has said that demonstrators should be punished with life imprisonment, according to Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, for attempting to overthrow the government.
Furthermore, no education loans will be granted to students who engage in resistance, stage boycotts or chant slogans, and the chanting of political slogans has been banned at football matches.
The Interior Ministry has also increased security measures on university campuses; in answer to a question about the prospect of a "hot" autumn, the Prime Minister replied: "Those who want to try will be met with the necessary response from all the security forces of this country, so that those who do not know their limits will be put in their place." [5]
The Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB), which has been both critical of the government and supportive of the Gezi Park protests, has in another late-night move by the AKP government, been removed from any involvement in city planning, and their authority to approve plans has been removed as well.
Turkey's state-run television channel, TRT, has decided to stop broadcasting a popular comedy series after the leading actors joined the Gezi Park demonstrations and, in a video, made fun of the government. This move, however, could have unfortunate consequences for Turkish Airlines, Europe's fourth largest carrier, if these sanctions were extended to their employees, who performed a public in-flight safety briefing in support of the demonstrators.
This collective paranoia is self-reinforcing and has reached unimaginable heights. A senior AKP deputy, Burhan Kuzu, has claimed that Germany was behind the Gezi protests, as it feared the competition Frankfurt Airport would face from the third airport planned for Istanbul. The Prime Minister has already claimed it is "the interest rate lobby" that is behind everything; and his deputy, Beşir Atalay, has blamed "the Jewish diaspora."
When Erdoğan's recently appointed chief advisor, Yiğit Bulut, claimed that dark forces have conspired to kill the prime minister with telekinesis, any sane person would react with derision, but sadly such conspiracy theories gain currency not only in government circles but also in the wider population.
When such thinking applies to foreign policy, the results can be unfortunate. Erdoğan has already claimed he has "evidence" that Israel was behind the uprising against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but this statement was strongly condemned by White House spokesman Josh Earnest as being "offensive, unsubstantiated and wrong." [6] Nevertheless, Erdoğan persists; in a recent speech in Bursa he warned, "Today Egypt, perhaps tomorrow Turkey."

Turkish foreign policy

Turkish foreign policy under the AKP government is likewise predicated on an illusion: Turkey's leadership of the Arab world in a renaissance of the Ottoman Empire. With one eye on the British Commonwealth, Turkey has set out to rebuild its leadership in former Ottoman lands in the Balkans, Middle East and Central Asia. This policy, popularly termed "zero problems with neighbors," was formulated by Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, first as foreign policy advisor to Erdoğan and later as foreign minister. This policy of "strategic depth" rests on Turkey's geographical and historical engagement with countries with which it shares a common past and geography; in Davutoğlu's words, "a sense of regional ownership based on shared interests and common ideals." [7]
Nuray Mert, professor of political science at Istanbul University and an outspoken critic of the AKP government's policies, has a different view. "The curious mixture of neo-Ottomanism and Islamism or Islamist neo-Ottomanism was based on dreams of the glorious past, overestimation of Turkey's present power and underestimation of the complexity of regional and international politics." [8]
A study of what Foreign Minister Davutoğlu actually says to the party faithful reveals the same strain of what Nuray Mert calls "irredentist nationalism." Last year in Konya he unfolded a vision of a new Islamic world order (nizam-i âlem) and Turkey's role as a world power. "This is the centenary of our exit from the Middle East. Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, from 2011 to 2023 we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands. This is our bounden historical duty." [9]
This vision, of creating a Sunni axis together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar and effecting a regime change in Syria, has suffered defeat together with the collapse of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Saudi Arabia's support for the coup. Moreover, it is not only Turkey's relations with Syria that have deteriorated but also those with its neighbours: Iraq, Iran, Israel, Armenia and Cyprus.
Another of Erdoğan's senior advisors, Ibrahim Kalın, defined in a Twitter Turkey's gradual isolation as "precious loneliness," but the Lebanese commentator, Jihad al-Zein, believes that Turkey's unique Muslim model has been threatened and harmed by the AKP government's "wrongheaded foreign policies." [10]
Davutoğlu's megalomania has only encouraged the Prime Minister, who makes constant reference to Turkey's Ottoman past -- not only at last September's AKP congress, where Erdoğan declared that the government was following the path of the Ottoman sultans Mehmet II and Selim I, but also by naming the new bridge over the Bosphorus after Selim I, who was responsible for the expansion of the Ottoman empire.
Jihad al-Zein, who was once a warm AKP supporter, now holds that Erdoğan has become a burden on Turkey's progress, a threat to Turkish gains and maybe even harmful to them. In short, "since the Taksim events, Erdogan's behavior has seemed closer to that of an old-style Arab military ruler who considers any opposition or disagreement with his opinion as a conspiracy."

Domestic opposition

Apart from a now-politicized youth, there are a number of other threats facing Erdoğan on the home front, including the withdrawal of support from the cemaat (Gülen movement). It was this convergence of interests that brought Erdoğan to power.
In addition, the movement's control of the police and judiciary made it possible through two high-profile show trials (Sledgehammer and Ergenekon) to bring the military to heel and imprison the AKP government's opponents.
Particularly after the 2011 elections, when Gülenists, liberals and centrists were removed from the list of AKP candidates, this relationship has deteriorated to the extent of open hostility. The leader of the movement, Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish imam residing in Pennsylvania, in June 2010 criticized the government's covert support for the Gaza flotilla, which destroyed Turkey's relations with Israel: "I hear that some people in the United States consider Turkey as sitting at the epicenter of radicalism." [11]
A direct challenge to Erdoğan's authority came in February 2012, when arrest warrants were issued for Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), who had been hand-picked by Erdoğan, and two other MIT officials, because of back-channel contacts with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). Parliament, without the prime minister's consent, immediately passed a law to protect MIT officials from prosecution, and there was a purge of police officers suspected of belonging to the cemaat.
Specially authorized courts, which have proven effective in the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases, were abolished, as Erdoğan feared they were becoming "a different power within the state." [12] The government also plans to close the 4,000 schools (dershane), which prepare students for the university and public service entrance exams, as 60% of these are believed to be controlled by the Gülen movement.
The conflict has now come into the open, with criticism of Erdoğan in the Gülenist daily, Zaman, and a recent response by the Journalist and Writers Foundation (GYV) to allegations against the cemaat. [13]

The Kurdish question

Another major threat to Erdoğan's authority is the possible collapse of the Kurdish peace process, which has been facilitated by contacts between Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader imprisoned on Imralı island for his leadership of a terrorist organization, the BDP (the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party) deputies, and the PKK. Only about 20% of the PKK's militants are believed to have left Turkey; and if the reform package, which is expected to be put forward in September, falls short of the Kurds' expectations, this could have serious consequences. Cemal Bayık, leader of the PKK's military wing, has said that the settlement process launched by the Turkish government is on the brink of collapse and warned that the PKK is ready to launch a new war. [14]
Altan Tan, a BDP deputy, has claimed that the government has secretly promised the Kurds a general amnesty, which would also mean the release of Abdullah Öcalan. In view of the fact that former chief of the general staff, Ilker Başbug, has received a life sentence for "leading a terrorist organization," this amnesty would be completely unacceptable to the majority of Turks, even if it were coupled with an amnesty for those convicted in the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials.
Again according to Tan, Prime Minister Erdoğan has promised a general amnesty in return for the Kurds' support in the local elections in March 2014, the presidential elections in August 2014 and the general elections in June 2015.
Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Authority), has called for a pan-Kurdish National Conference in Erbil in northern Iraq from September 15-17, which will be attended by Kurdish representatives from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. If what the Turkish ultranationalist daily Yeniçag (New Age) wrote recently is true, that the borders of a Greater Kurdistan will be determined at the conference, such a decision is guaranteed to upset the already fragile situation in the region. [15]
Turkey's plans to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria have seriously backfired. Turkey has acted as a conduit for the passage of jihadists from Europe, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and North Africa -- as well as giving what Prime Minister Erdoğan calls "logistical support" to the opposition. Fighting, however, has broken out between Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), a political offshoot of the PKK in Syria. The town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border has been captured by Kurdish forces.
With support from Massoud Barzani and the KRG, the PYD's ultimate goal -- like that of the PKK in Turkey -- is Kurdish autonomy, to which Turkey is adamantly opposed, Although Turkey has modified its position to accept a decision made by parliament, representing the nation's will, this is hardly likely in view of Syria's impending collapse.
Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has repeatedly urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene in Syria, but even "a limited and tailored response" from the U.S. will fall short of the expectations of Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has called for a Kosovo-like intervention. President Gül's call for a political strategy, on the other hand, is more that of a statesman, and underlines the difference between the two Turkish leaders.
Kemal Atatürk's dictum, "peace at home, peace in the world", has been upended by the dyad Davutoğlu and Erdoğan, but the open question now is who is going to restore Turkey's role as a centre of stability in a troubled Middle East.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.



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