Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Patriarch Speaks, Cont.

The recent "60 Minutes" interview with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (take a look at the previous post), the Istanbul-based leader of the Orthodox Church, is creating quite a stir in Turkey. In the segment, which took a look at the difficulties faced by the Orthodox Church in Turkey, the Patriarch said that at times he and the Church have felt "crucified" by the Turkish state.

The comment drew a sharp rebuke from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who said he hoped it was slip of the tongue since crucifixion was never part of Turkey's "tradition" (although, as Hurriyet columnist Ferai Tinc reminds readers, Patriarchs had previously been hanged.) At the same time, the Greek Foreign Ministry also got involved, with its spokesman telling Ankara it should pay heed to the Patriarch's words.

Meanwhile, in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News, Mehmet Ali Birand comes to the Patriarch's defense, saying:
I don’t agree with Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. The patriarch is right. The state, with its ignorance of a Turkish institution for 38 years, has not been able to keep its word and has crucified the patriarch.

No offense, but the culture and custom of crucifying exists in our state. It did not only apply it to the Patriarchate but also to its citizens and institutions, and it continues to do so.
(You can read the full column here.)

[UPDATE -- The patriarch has given an interview to Milliyet, where he elaborates on his "60 Minutes" remarks. You can read an English-language version here.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Patriarch Speaks

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based leader of the Orthodox Church, will be featured this Sunday on CBS News's "60 Minutes" show. The CBS News website has synopsis of the segment and a short viewable version of it here.

The Patriarchate has clearly decided to ramp up its public relations operation. In his interview, the Patriarch doesn't mince words. Asked by the show's Bob Simon why, despite the problems it faces and the constraints put upon it by the Turkish state, the Patriarchate stays in Istanbul, Bartholomew says:
"This is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us an equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes," says Bartholomew. Asked by Simon if he feels crucified, His All Holiness replies, "Yes, I do."
(For some more on the Orthodox community in Turkey, take a look this article of mine from the Christian Science Monitor, and at this Eurasianet photo essay about Gokceada (or Imroz), the Aegean island where the current Patriarch was born.)

(photo -- Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leading a service in a chapel on the island of Gokceada (Imroz), where he was born. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Decoding Erdogan's Washington Visit

The German Marshall Fund has a new briefing out looking at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent visit to Washington. Written by Ian Lesser, a very astute observer of Turkish affairs, the briefing suggests that, "Overall, the experience has produced more open questions than answers regarding the future of U.S.-Turkish relations."

From the report's summary:
Both sides are likely to have come away convinced that some potentially difficult issues have been managed. Yet, the visit did little to bridge substantial differences in perception and approach on key issues, above all, Iran, the Palestinian issue, and the complex of disputes in the Caucasus. Policymakers and observers on both sides are left with a list of unresolved open questions that could shape the course of the new model partnership in the near to medium term.
(You can read the full briefing here (pdf)).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Constitutional Crisis

The troubling closing of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party by Turkey's highest court can be blamed on a number of actors and factors. Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European Parliament who now writes a column for the Hurriyet Daily News, notes that the closure is not really a matter of Turks versus Kurds, but really part of a battle between "Turks and Kurds who are willing to find a political compromise on one side and Turks and Kurds who are not interested in finding a solution on the other side....The decision by the Constitutional Court to close down the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, is just the last domino that is falling over, set in motion by a perfidious coalition of Turks and Kurds who are willing to do everything to stop the process of reconciliation that was recently started by the government."

(You can read the whole column here.)

But also behind the closure case is the same problem that lies at the root of so many of the other roadblocks standing in the way of Turkey's democratization process: the need for a new constitution.

Turkey's current constitution, written after the 1980 military coup, is essentially designed to defend the state and its institutions. The rights of individuals or minority groups (especially those that are perceived to threaten the state and its integrity) take a back seat to preserving the statist status quo. In that sense, enacting major reforms in Turkey without first significantly changing the constitution could be very difficult. It's a bit like trying to run sophisticated software on a computer that's still running an old operating system -- the applications won't run and trying to run the machine with them could even lead to a crash.

Constitutional reform was actually a major part of the 2007 national election campaign in Turkey, with both the AKP and the DTP talking about it's importance. The AKP even gathered a group of legal experts who drafted a new constitution, but the issue was dropped soon after the elections. Disappointingly to many, the only thing the AKP did after the elections with regards to the constitution was pass an amendment (with the help of the ultra nationalist MHP) that removes the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities and public offices (Turkey's top court annulled the amendment, ruling that it violated Turkey's secular system). For many, the move seemed more like an opportunistic political effort, rather than a real attempt at constitutional reform.

Perhaps realizing that completely changing the constitution will require waging a major battle, the AKP government has decided to take an incremental approach for Turkey's reform project, frequently through administrative -- rather than legislative -- moves. But as Yavuz Baydar, a columnist with Today's Zaman, notes in a column in today's paper, the government may find serious constitutional reform unavoidable. From his column:
As I wrote recently, all roads inevitably lead to a new constitution and adoption of all major laws to that. Ever since the erratic pattern of partially changing the Constitution, the AKP seems determined to avoid a full challenge (a new leap for seeking consensus on a new constitution), and it also seems doomed to face enormous hardships that threaten to weaken it. It refuses, or is too afraid, to see that unless you replace the main denominator with a modern one, the judiciary will continue to base its decisions on the worn-out texts of law; its top court will continue to close parties; all the segments of society, whose demands for reform remain unchanged, will continue to feel suspicious, fearful or angry; the maximalist opposition will continue to seek ways, in law, to block all efforts for change; and politics, as it has always been, will be ruled by instability, raising hopes for the sworn enemies of democracy to consolidate for good the system of tutelage.
(You can read his full column here. His previous column on the same subject is here.)

(Photo -- members of Turkey's Constitutional Court, standing in front of Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Closing of the "Armenian Opening"?

While I'm at it, might as well look at another significant Turkish policy move that now seems to be in trouble: the rapprochement with Armenia.

Although Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement in October that paves the way for the two countries to restore relations and open up their borders, the document still needs to be ratified by both countries' parliaments. There has been little action on that front in either Ankara or Yerevan. Turkey has clearly been reluctant to move ahead with its "Armenian opening" without any movement on the stalled Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Armenia insists the two issues should not be linked.

Now it seems Yerevan is losing patience. From an AFP report:
"Armenia is prepared to honor its international commitments and we expect the same from Turkey," President Serge Sarkisian said during a press conference with his Latvian counterpart, Valdis Zatlers.

"If Turkey drags out the ratification process, Armenia will immediately make use of possibilities stemming from international law. I have instructed relevant state bodies to prepare amendments to our laws pertaining to the signing, ratification and abrogation of international agreements," Sarkisian said.
For more information on the hurdles facing Turkey and Armenia's rapprochement, take a look at this previous post.

The Closing of the "Kurdish Opening"?

The winds of political change in Turkey often tend to change direction quite abruptly. This seems to be the case with the government's recently announced "democratization initiative," popularly referred to as the "Kurdish opening." The initiative, which is being rolled out in small bits, consists of various reforms designed to give Turkey's Kurds increased political and cultural rights and put at end to the decades of bloody conflict that the Kurdish issue has resulted in. (For some more background on the initiative, take a look at this previous post. To get a sense of how Turkey's foreign policy ambitions are helping push Ankara's new approach to the Kurdish issue, take a look at this post.)

The government's reform plan certainly represents an important break from previous approaches to the Kurdish issue and has led to the discussion of topics that only a few years ago would have been off limits. But now there is some concern that the initiative could be in serious trouble. From a Eurasianet article of mine looking at recent developments regarding the Kurdish reforms:
Official rhetoric in recent months has fostered hope that Turkey can implement a civilian - rather than a military - solution to its decades-long Kurdish problem. Those hopes, however, remain fragile -- a fact underscored by the opening of a court case that could result in the banning of the country’s major pro-Kurdish political party.

Over the summer, Turkish Interior Minister, Besir Atalay, speaking during a nationally televised news conference, said that the government is actively working on a comprehensive plan, one based on democratization and expanded rights. "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps," he said. "This can be seen as a new stage."

On November 13, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government unveiled in a historic debate in parliament parts of this "democratization initiative," which include the easing of restrictions on private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well allowing towns and villages to use their original Kurdish names once again.

"Today is the beginning of a new timeline and a fresh start," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament. "We took a courageous step to resolve chronic issues that constitute an obstacle along Turkey’s development, progression and empowerment, and we are very sincere."

But now there are growing concerns that the government’s efforts could be undermined by renewed tensions in Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast.

Protests were held in several cities in the region this past weekend, including one where a 23-year-old university student was killed by a bullet to the back. The trigger for the protests were reports that conditions have worsened for jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan since he was moved into a new facility on the island prison that has been his home since 1999.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s highest court on December 8 started hearing a case which could lead to the closure of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the only pro-Kurdish party in parliament. Prosecutors contend that the party has violated Turkey’s constitution and has acted as a front for the outlawed PKK. An indictment seeks not only the party’s closure, but also the banning of some 220 of its members from participating in political activity.

The DTP is the latest incarnation of a string of pro-Kurdish parties that have been previously closed by court order, and observers worry that its closing could further stoke tensions among Turkey’s Kurds.

But there is also concern that the party itself is standing in the way of the government’s Kurdish reform program. Although party leaders initially supported the government’s initiative, members are now distancing themselves from it, with DTP chairman Ahmet Turk recently calling it "insufficient."

"For us, the ’democratic initiative’ is over," Emine Ayna, a top DTP official recently told the Radikal newspaper....

....Despite the recent hardening of the DTP’s rhetoric, observers say that shutting the party down would be a mistake. "I totally disapprove of their behavior but I oppose the party’s closure," said Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

"It was such a mistake to close down these Kurdish parties in the past," Alpay continued. "Had they not been closed down, they would have become much stronger than the armed wing of the Kurdish movement. But what we have here now is the opposite."
(You can read the full article here. Click here for an informative Human Rights Watch Q&A on the DTP closure case.)

The government's reform plan right now seems to endangered by both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. Turkish leaders, to their credit, have publicly stated their intention to continue with the reform process. But there are clear challenges ahead. The closing of the DTP (though flawed, the party is an important political force in the southeast) will leave the government once again searching for a Kurdish interlocutor and will be a major setback for the development of a mature Kurdish political movement in Turkey. Meanwhile, if the tension and violence surrounding the Kurdish continue to rise, Ankara may find that moving ahead on the Kurdish reform program might simply be too costly a move for the time being.

(Photo -- a Kurdish demonstrator clashing with police. AFP)

Friday, December 4, 2009

For the Ilisu Dam, a Lifeline Made in China?

Will the controversial Ilisu dam project in southeast Turkey, put on the shelf after European creditors withdrew their support due to a lack of environmental safeguards, be brought back to life with Chinese help?

From a blog post by Peter Bosshard, policy director for International Rivers:
Turkey is so indebted it cannot finance the dam from its own resources. Reliable sources have told us that the Turkish government is currently discussing support for the Ilisu Dam with China. For years, the Turkish and Chinese governments have strongly disagreed over the treatment of the Uighur population, which is ethnically Turkic, in China’s Xinjiang Province. Yet in June 2009, Turkey’s President visited China and signed several cooperation agreements, including in the energy sector.

Under a plan which is currently being discussed, Andritz Hydro, the main contractor for the Ilisu hydropower project, would manufacture the turbines for the project in China rather than in Austria. Sinosure, an insurance company set up and owned by the Chinese government, would insure the bank loans for the contract. In a new twist in its emerging role, China would thus not enable its own dam builders to go abroad, but would underwrite the exports of Western dam builders which have shifted part of their manufacturing base to China.

When Chinese companies and financiers started to go overseas around the turn of the century, they held that following social and environmental standards was up to their host governments. They consequently picked up several rogue projects that had been shunned by other financiers during this period. China Exim Bank provided more than $500 million in funding for the Merowe Dam in Sudan in 2003 after export credit agencies from Europe and Canada declined to get involved because of environmental and human rights concerns. Chinese companies are also building several dams in Burma which many other actors would not touch.

Projects like the Merowe Dam have created serious conflicts with the local populations, and have damaged the reputation of the involved Chinese companies. Starting in 2006, the Chinese government asked its companies to take environmental and community concerns more into account when investing abroad. In October 2007, China’s State Council for example stressed the importance of “paying attention to environmental resource protection, caring for and supporting the local community and people’s livelihood” in such projects. An integrated policy package with specific recommendations for Chinese foreign investors is currently under preparation. Such measures indicate that China is interested in being a responsible partner in international finance.

The Ilisu Project has become an international symbol of a substandard project. China is not bound by agreements of the OECD governments, but it helped establish the World Bank standards which the dam on the Tigris is violating. The independent panel of experts which documented the violation of these standards included a well-known Chinese resettlement specialist. So far, China has not yet received an official funding request from Turkey and has not yet had to take a decision on Ilisu. If Sinosure does approve support for the project, it will be a slap in the face of the European governments who have put the interests of the environment and local people before their own export interests. Chinese support for the Ilisu Dam would endanger the efforts of a coordinated approach among international funders on the environment, and could start a new environmental race to the bottom.
You can read his full post here. For more background on the Ilisu dam project, take a look these previous posts.

"What Obama Should Say to Erdogan"

Hugh Pope, the International Crisis Group's Turkey analyst -- who just returned from a two-month fellowship at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington -- has a new paper out ahead of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Monday visit to the White House. The paper, published by the Transatlantic Academy, takes a close look at two areas in which Washington has an interest in pushing Ankara along, its normalization process with Armenia and its European Union membership process, and also helpfully unpackages the debate over Turkey's perceived eastward "drift."

From Pope's paper:
On 7 December, U.S. President Barack Obama receives the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time of growing mutual suspicions, a face-to-face meeting will be of great importance between two men renowned for their straight-to-the-point frankness. There is arguably no other country in the world with so many areas of common interest with the United States, and yet Turkey both rashly overrates itself and is little understood and underrated in Washington.

A steadying hand should be the two leaders’ first order of business. Just as a surprising number of Turks expend their energy analyzing Washington’s supposedly nefarious plots to split up their country, a growing number of Americans interested in Turkey are just as busy analyzing Ankara’s latest supposed conspiracies against transatlantic and U.S. interests: is it abandoning the West in favour of a neo-Ottoman dominion in the East? Is it loosening its half-century-old security anchor in NATO? Where is Erdogan’s rough-tongued criticism of Israel leading? Is the innovating prime minister’s feud with the Kemalist establishment turning him into a dictator? Do grandiose Turkish stands alongside authoritarian anti-Western regimes in the Middle East make Turkey “Islamist”? And is Turkey turning away from its U.S.-backed ambition of membership of the European Union?

The answer to all this is short: none of the above. In fact, Obama and U.S. officials can start out with grateful recognition to the Turkish chief executive for the many areas in which the Turkish policy is closely aligned with the United States. Praise is deserved for Ankara’s role in what progress has been made in Iraq, itself largely due to an about-turn in U.S. attitudes to cooperating with Turkey in 2007. Turkey has been strongly supportive in Afghanistan and might to more; it is also helpful behind the scenes in Pakistan. The U.S. could go so far as to recognize that Turkey’s goals and achievements in the region -- freer travel between itself and several states, increasing intra-regional trade, joint Cabinet meetings, and projects to knit regional infrastructure together – offer a promising path towards greater stability, security, prosperity and better governance in a traumatized Middle East. Despite its exaggerated self-image as a critical regional dynamo – in fact, Turkey is better compared to a large car with an underpowered engine – its new track record compares positively to the West’s controversial actions in the Middle East in past decades.

The U.S. and Turkey should resist what will be a temptation on both sides to spend the short time they have on their differences over Iran, Sudan or Israel/Palestine. For sure, the U.S. side needs to impress diplomatically on Prime Minister Erdogan how much his populist rhetoric in support of anti-Western bugbears is damaging Turkey’s position with its key partners and pro-Turkey constituencies in Washington and Brussels. And the U.S. should listen for any new message Erdogan might be bringing from his recent visits to Iran and Syria, and hear out his likely argument that punitive sanctions against Iran’s nuclear ambitions will do little but consolidate yet another authoritarian Middle Eastern regime. But lengthy argument over these deeply-entrenched issues will prove a red herring and has little chance of changing either side, given that the two countries’ approaches to the region are dictated by fundamentally different domestic political imperatives.

Instead, acknowledging that the Middle East is only one of several areas of overlapping U.S. interests with Turkey, Obama and the U.S. team should focus on two matters that will really test Turkey’s intentions, need urgent attention, and, in the long term, have the most game-changing potential in the region.
You can read the full paper here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peace Abroad, Polarization at Home

I have an opinion piece in the new edition of The Majalla magazine looking at how's Turkey's mostly successful "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy stands in stark contrast to the country's deeply polarized domestic political scene. You can read the piece here. The article is part of a package that looks at Turkey after seven years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. You can take a look at the rest of the articles on the magazine's home page.

Monday, November 30, 2009

"Triumph of the Turks"

The new issue of Newsweek has an interesting article looking at how Turkey is filling the vacuum created by the United State's misadventure in Iraq. "....in terms of regional influence, Turkey has no rival," in the post-war environment, the magazine says. "The country's stern-faced prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is working to consolidate that strength as he asserts Turkey's independence in a part of the world long dominated by America." (You can read the full article here.)

The article also includes an interview with Turkey's influential foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu (read it here) and a slightly hagiographic backgrounder about him (here) taken from the Turkish-language version of Newsweek, which recently ran a long profile of the FM.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Kurds, Syria Bucking the Trend

Human Rights Watch has just issued an interesting and thorough report about the repression of Kurdish political and cultural life in Syria (Kurds make up about 10 percent of the population there). While Iraq's Kurds are getting closer and closer to something approaching statehood and Turkey is discussing significant changes in how to approach its Kurdish minority, Syria appears to be heading in the other direction. From the report, entitled "Group Denial":
In March 2004, Syria’s Kurds held large-scale demonstrations, some violent, in a number of towns and villages throughout northern Syria, to protest their treatment by the Syrian authorities—the first time they had held such massive demonstrations in the country. While the protests occurred as an immediate response to the shooting by security forces of Kurdish soccer fans engaged in a fight with Arab supporters of a rival team, they were driven by long-simmering Kurdish grievances about discrimination against their community and repression of their political and cultural rights. The scale of the mobilization alarmed the Syrian authorities, who reacted with lethal force to quell the protests. In the final tally, at least 36 people were killed, most of them Kurds, and over 160 people were injured. The security services detained more than 2,000 Kurds (many were later amnestied), with widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment of the detainees.

The March 2004 events constituted a major turning point in relations between Syria’s Kurds and the authorities. Long marginalized and discriminated against by successive Syrian governments that promoted Arab nationalism, Syria’s Kurds have traditionally been a divided and relatively quiescent group (especially compared to Kurds in Iraq and Turkey). Syria’s Kurds make up an estimated 10 percent of the population and live primarily in the northern and eastern regions of the country.

The protests in 2004, which many Syrian Kurds refer to as their intifada (uprising), as well as developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, gave them increased confidence to push for greater enjoyment of rights and greater autonomy in Syria. This newfound assertiveness worried Syria’s leadership, already nervous about Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and increasingly isolated internationally. The authorities responded by announcing that they would no longer tolerate any Kurdish gathering or political activity. Kurds nevertheless continued to assert themselves by organizing events celebrating their Kurdish identity and protesting anti-Kurdish policies of the government.

In the more than five years since March 2004, Syria has maintained a harsh policy of increased repression against its Kurdish minority. This repression is part of the Syrian government’s broader suppression of any form of political dissent by any of the country’s citizens, but it also presents certain distinguishing features such as the repression of cultural gatherings because the government perceives Kurdish identity as a threat, as well as the sheer number of Kurdish arrests. A September 2008 presidential decree that places stricter state regulation on selling and buying property in certain border areas mostly impacts Kurds and is perceived as directed against them.
(You can read the full report here.)

The situation of the Kurds in Syria (which I imagine is reflective of how political opposition in the country is treated in general) certainly has implications for Turkey. The success of Turkey's new "Kurdish Opening" -- a series of democratic reforms which could ultimately lead the disbanding of the PKK, which includes Syrian Kurds among its members -- depends, to a certain extent, on the other countries in the region with large Kurdish populations (Iraq, Iran and Syria) also taking conciliatory steps on the issue. The question for Ankara, it appears, is can it use its rapidly improving ties with Damascus to push the Syrian regime to start taking those steps?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey & Israel: Trouble Behind, Trouble Ahead?

Israel's Trade and Labor Minister, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, just finished a three-day trip to Turkey, the first visit by a top Israeli politician since the downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations that followed the war in Gaza earlier this year. On the most basic level, Ben-Eliezer's visit was a success. He met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Libya during Ben-Eliezer's visit) and managed to avoid the fate of Israel's ambassador to Turkey, who on a recent tour of the country's Black Sea region was pelted with eggs and upbraided by every second-rate elected official he met with.

Following his meeting with Ben-Eliezer, FM Davutoglu said "the crisis is behind us," while the Israeli minister told reporters that his visit helped stop the "snowballing" deterioration in the two countries' relations. Still, I think further problems loom on the horizon for Ankara and Jerusalem. To a large extent, Turkey is now pegging its relations with Israel to the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, which might not bode well, at least in the short- (or even medium-) term. Milliyet columnist Sami Kohen took a look at this development in his column (in Turkish) yesterday, writing:
Turkey does not have any direct mutual problems with Israel.

At the same time though, the whole Palestinian situation with Gaza at the forefront is beginning to become a defining aspect of Turkish-Israeli relations. It seems that Ankara is starting to form this strong correlation when it comes to relations with Israel. It could be asked just how much of an effect this policy is really going to have on the Netanyahu administration’s rigid stance when it comes to Gaza and Palestinian matters in general. It appears that “Bibi” has absolutely no intent (despite pressure from Barack Obama) to change his stance on these matters. If re-activating Turkish-Israeli relations is now tied literally to developments on the Palestinian front, this will help neither bilateral relations nor the disputes between the Arabs and the Israelis.
(An interview in the Nov. 25 edition of Today's Zaman with Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's chief foreign policy advisor, gives more background on how Turkey is approaching Israel and the Palestinian issue. You can read it here.)

During his meeting with Ben-Eliezer, president Gul politely rebuffed an invitation to visit Israel, reportedly indicating that he wouldn't be able to do so until the situation with Palestinians improves. It seems that for now Ankara is pursuing a kind of "tough love" policy with Israel, telling Jerusalem that a certain amount of frost will cover relations as long as there is little movement on the Palestinian front. The corollary to this, of course, is that if the (already poor) state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians starts to further deteriorate, Turkish-Israeli relations will find themselves once again being taken down with it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Syria & Israel: Two Rivals In Search of a Mediator

Lots of chatter these days revolving around the issue of reviving negotiations between Syria and Israel. In recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeated his desire to return to the negotiating table with Israel and even asking for European and American help to make this happen (although insisting that the negotiations be indirect and use Turkish mediation.) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has stated that he's ready to start talking with the Syrians (although insisting that the negotiations be direct and ruling out Turkey as a mediator, since he no longer considers it "fair.")

Hard to know where this might go. Both countries, in the past, have turned to negotiating with each other for a mix of reasons (some more sincere than others). For Israel, the Syrian track has always been a good one to fall back on -- even if it goes nowhere -- when things start falling apart on the Palestinian front. On the other hand, there are also Israeli decision makers who believe that making peace with Syria is essential for helping neutralize the Iranian threat. For the Syrians, getting back the Golan Heights has long been a priority. But negotiating with Israel (or even just talking about it) is also looked at as a way of repairing Damascus's strained ties with the west. In the mean time, both countries seem to be setting things up so that it appears like it's the other one that's not interested in getting the talks back on track.

The two countries, of course, held a round of secret indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey during 2007 and 2008. Although Ankara claims these talks were scuttled by Israel's invasion of Gaza earlier this year, there are observers who believe that the negotiations were already stalled before that (for some background on this, take a look at this previous post, which has links to related articles). Since Gaza, Turkish-Israeli relations have grown increasingly strained and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of Israel increasingly harsh, and it is very difficult for me to envision the current Israeli administration turning to Ankara as a mediator in talks with Damascus.

Meanwhile, in the absence of Turkish mediation, other countries have suggested their services as matchmakers for Syria and Israel. France has indicated it could bring the two together (Judah Grunstein offers the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that perhaps "France might mediate between Israel and Turkey, so that Turkey can mediate between Israel and Syria."). Even tiny Croatia and distant Brazil -- perhaps feeling flush after winning their Rio Olympics bid -- have recently volunteered their services as possible mediators. Who's next?

Where does all of this leave Turkey? Is there any future role for Ankara on the Syria-Israel front following the nose dive that relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have taken? Hard to see it, at least from the Israeli perspective. Turkish officials have said they will support any efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, but I also get the sense that there are some in Turkey who aren't quite ready to accept that it might not be Ankara that will be bringing Syria and Israel together. Following up on Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to set France up as a possible mediator, the English-language Today's Zaman (part of the pro-government Zaman group) reported on Nov. 17, in an article headlined "Sarkozy tried in vain to replace Turkey as peacemaker," that:
The Syrian president was in Paris on Friday, two days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the city and said he was ready to meet the Syrian president anywhere, at any time, without pre-established conditions, to re-launch talks over the Israeli-Syrian dimension of the broader Mideast peace process.

Sarkozy, who apparently wanted to steal the show in the Middle East process, tried to arrange the two leaders’ visits to Paris at the same time. This way, even if he could not succeed in gathering Assad and Netanyahu together, he would be able to introduce their simultaneous presence in Paris as “France’s great role in peace efforts.” However, Assad said he would not land in Paris until Netanyahu’s plane departed the city, spoiling Sarkozy’s plans.
Take that, Sarko! An article in the Turkish-language Zaman was even more explicit, (misleadingly) reporting that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had "warned" the French not to get involved. Considering the value that reviving Syrian-Israeli talks would have for the region, portraying any other country's efforts to mediate between the two enemies as "stealing" Turkey's show strikes me as profoundly unconstructive.

[UPDATE -- Erdogan has now spoken on the mediation issue, admitting that Israel no longer trusts Turkey to play the mediator role. From Reuters:
"Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert trusted Turkey, but Netanyahu doesn't trust us. That's his choice," he said in remarks which were televised in Turkey.

Relations between Turkey and Israel have soured since the latter launched an incursion into the Gaza Strip in December.

Erdogan, whose ruling party traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement, has repeatedly criticised the incursion, even having a public shouting match with Israeli President Shimon Peres in January.

Netanyahu and Assad met French President Nicolas Sarkozy separately last week, and Israel said it is ready for talks.

"Now France is trying to take up the role we had," Erdogan said. "I'm not sure what kind of stance Bashar Assad will take, but from what I've heard from him, they're not going to accept something like this."]

Monday, November 16, 2009

Iran's Nukes: The Turkish Option

Via the World Politics Review blog, comes an interesting post from the blog Arms Control Wonk that dissects the recent talk about the possibility of a deal to send Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey. The basic idea would be to send the uranium to Turkey in a kind of "escrow" account, to be held until Iran receives its shipment of nuclear fuel from Russia.

The option of bringing in a trusted third country into the mix is an interesting one. Turkey and Iran certainly have been improving their relations in recent years and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently returned from a very successful trip to Iran, where he met with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and even the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The question is, though, if Iran truly "trusts" Turkey, in the sense that both are, at the end of the day, regional rivals and Tehran might be hesitant to enter into an agreement that gives Ankara an added amount of leverage over it (for more background on this, take a look at this previous post). From Ankara's perspective, if the Turkish option is accepted, then it would certainly validate Turkey's recent push to reach out to Iran and improve relations, despite some of the criticism that has led to.

[UPDATE -- Reports from Iran say Tehran has rejected the proposal of sending its uranium out of the country.]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turkey & Armenia: Don't Hold Your Breath

Over at Eurasianet, Marianna Grigoryan gives a good update on how the recently-signed (though yet-to-be ratified) protocols to renew diplomatic relations between Ankara and Yerevan are progressing in Armenia. The bottom line? Very little progress is being made in getting the protocols even close to being ratified. From her piece:
Armenia’s stormy debate over reconciliation with Turkey has died down in the last two weeks as Armenian politicians circle their wagons, size up their opponents and wait for the Turkish parliament’s own decision on ratification of the October 10 protocols to reestablish diplomatic ties between the two states.

Armenia has not yet taken the first step for ratifying the documents - a review by the country’s Constitutional Court to ensure compliance with constitutional law. A Constitutional Court spokesperson told the PanArmenian.net news service on November 9 that President Serzh Sargsyan has not yet submitted the protocols to the court for review. No reason was given for the delay.

One political scientist cautions that observers should not expect rapid, daily progress on reconciliation with Turkey. "This [current] temporary silence anticipates an intensive [development of] events," Alexander Iskandarian, director of Yerevan’s Caucasus Institute, commented to reporters on November 11.

One opposition member who supports reconciliation with Turkey believes that the prevailing political calm on the issue is linked to parties attempting to consolidate their positions on the documents.

"I don’t think we have silence now," commented Suren Surenyants, a senior member of the Republic Party. "At this stage, each party is trying to reinforce its position before the next stormy cycle, each country is trying to demonstrate its superiority. This is a process that will intensify soon."

Part of that process includes watching Turkey’s own decision on ratification. As in Armenia, Turkish opposition parties have expressed strong misgivings about the reconciliation deal.

"Now everybody in Armenia is waiting for the decision of the Turkish parliament," said Tatul Hakobian, an analyst at the Civilitas Foundation. "This already shows that Armenia has almost no [unilateral] influence on the [future development of] Armenian-Turkish relations. It is waiting for Turkey’s steps."
(You can read the full article here.)

The problem with "everybody in Armenia" waiting for the decision of the Turkish parliament -- which must also first ratify the protocols for them to take effect -- is that it also has made very little progress on the issue. The protocols have yet to be introduced to the parliament in Ankara, and it seems unlikely that the body, which is currently locked in a heated debate over the government's plans to deal with the Kurdish issue, will tackle the Armenia issue any time soon, particularly since there seems to be little movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

The October signing of the protocols in Zurich was certainly a historic event and the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation train has definitely left the station. But it seems that, for the time being, it's stuck on the tracks and making little progress, with domestic politics in both Turkey and Armenia making it difficult for a foreign policy breakthrough to be achieved.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Ankara's Road to Damascus

I have a new piece up on the Christian Science Monitor about how Turkey's foreign policy ambitions are forcing it to confront some of the "domestic" problems that for decades have been no go areas for the country. Without solving these issues (Kurdish, Armenian and Cyprus problems, in particular), Ankara's ability to achieve many of its foreign policy goals in the region could be severely limited.

From the article:
Stymied by European resistance to its bid for EU membership, Turkey's government has forcefully realigned the country's foreign policy over the past few years. Led by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), it has sought to engage more with the surrounding region and to establish itself as a neighborhood soft-power broker.

But observers say that Ankara's foreign policy ambitions are tied up in first resolving what were, until recently, taboo issues – particularly the Armenian, Kurdish, and Cypriot problems – that have cast a heavy shadow over Turkey's domestic politics for the past few decades.

"Turkey wants to play internationally, and to play internationally it has to put [its] house in order," says Henri Barkey, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"With their strong military and economy, they have the hard power, but what they are trying to do now is build up their soft power. Turkey is lecturing other countries, like Israel and the Chinese, about human rights issues, and here you have a country where the Kurdish language is illegal. That is absurd," he says.

Ankara has been making moves on these issues. On Oct. 10, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signed a deal in Switzerland that paves the way for restoring diplomatic ties with Armenia and for the two countries to review their mutually contested history. Four days later, Turkey hosted Armenian President Serge Sarkizian for another round of "football diplomacy" – a World Cup qualifying match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams.

The same day, Mr. Davutoglu was in Syria, signing yet another important deal, this one abolishing visa requirements between two powers that only a decade ago were on the verge of war after Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Turkish leaders have also made clear their intent to soon introduce a broad democratization initiative to deal with the Kurdish issue. And Turkey has given its support to reunification talks between the Greek and Turkish governments of divided Cyprus.

The Turkish government's moves are being enabled, on the one hand, by a gradual change in society and political life that has made it easier to talk about these issues.

"Until very recently, the public had been conditioned to accept things from the perspective of statism, nationalism, and chauvinism," says Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University. "But the dominance of the state over issues and making them taboo and undebatable is fading."

Ankara also appears to be driven by a realization that these taboos were hurting Turkey's ability to make an impact abroad. "That position was limiting.... Until recently, Turkish foreign policy was mostly reactive, it didn't take any initiatives, and it didn't do things beyond its own borders," says Mr. Barkey.
You can read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Turkish Connection

There's a lot of talk these days about Turkey's growing influence and reputation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. One place where this can be seen very clearly is in Gokce, a dirt-poor village near Turkey's border with Syria. In the last year, the Arabic-speaking village's men -- many of whom still practice polygamy -- have started looking for second wives online, where, thanks to Turkey’s growing clout and visibility in the Middle East, Turkish bride surfers are suddenly seen as quite a catch by women in the region.

For a number of reasons, the villagers have had particular success in luring Moroccan women to Gokce. From a recent Eurasianet piece of mine about the village and its online bride hunters:
To get a sense of how modern technology can be put to use in the service of ancient tradition, one might want to consider a visit to the Yildirim internet cafe in Gokce, a small, poor and dusty village near Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

When Hasip Yildirim, a 34-year-old former truck driver, opened the cafe two years ago, he imagined it would be a place for local children to play video games and surf the web. Little did he know it would become Gokce’s lonely hearts’ club, although with a somewhat unsavory twist.

Many of the men in Gokce (pronounced "Gohk-che") practice polygamy, which, although officially outlawed in 1926, endures throughout Turkey’s impoverished and predominantly-rural southeast.

In the past, the village’s Arabic-speaking men used to hop across the border to find a second wife in Syria. But the arrival of the internet in the village has changed that. Since Yildirim opened his cafe two years ago, Gokce’s men have started looking for wives online, where -- thanks to Turkey’s growing clout and visibility in the Middle East -- Turkish bride surfers are suddenly seen as quite a catch by women in the region.

"Everyone’s coming to the internet cafe now to find a wife," said cafe-owner Yildirim, speaking inside his fluorescent-lit, one-room business, which has some 20 computer terminals. "Sometimes, there’s no space to sit down."

Locals have zeroed in on Morocco since its citizens can come to Turkey without a visa. In the last year, some 10 Moroccan brides -- all second wives, including a 45-year-old who married a man 30 years her senior -- have come to Gokce, population 3,200. More than a dozen more are expected to arrive in the coming year.

"Everybody wants a Moroccan bride now," said Yildirim. He now acts as a kind of virtual matchmaker, scouting out potential Moroccan wives on an Arabic chat website called Habibti.com ("habibti" is the feminine version of "my dear" in Arabic).

"The Moroccans think Turkey has prestige, that it’s a strong country. They also trust Turkey -- they know it’s a Muslim country and that we pray and read the Koran," Yildirim said. "They don’t ask if we are rich or poor, or what we eat. The first question they ask is if we are Muslim or not."

Issam Moussaoui, executive director of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, a women’s rights organization based in Casablanca, says a poor economy and little access to jobs have forced many Moroccan women to look to marriage abroad -- particularly in Europe -- as a way out of enduring poverty.

For some Moroccan women, being a second wife might not sound so strange. Polygamy in Morocco was banned only in 2004.

Meanwhile, after decades of not being involved in the Middle East, Turkey’s stock in the region is rising. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza earlier this year endeared Turkey to many in the Arab world, while, in recent years, several Turkish soap operas -- dubbed into Arabic -- have become hits across the Middle East, further reintroducing the country to the region.

"Moroccans know a lot more about Turkey now," said Moussaoui, speaking by telephone from Casablanca. "Especially now with the television shows, people know Turkey a lot more. A lot of women watch these shows daily. They know a lot about Turkish culture and that Turkish men [seem] more romantic than other ones."
You can read the whole article here.

(photo -- Hasip Yildirim, owner of an internet cafe in Gokce, a village in Turkey where local men are going online to find Arabic-speaking second wives. Photo by Yigal Schleifer.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Whither Turkey-Israel Relations?

Bitter Lemons, an online roundtable on the Middle East, this week covers the current turbulent state of Turkey-Israel relations. The discussion gathers four different experts (Two in Washington, one in Turkey and in Israel), who have some fairly contrasting views on the subject.

The highly-recommended roundtable can be read here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kurtlar Vadisi, Part Deux

A few years ago it was “Kurtlar Vadisi,” a television series that read the national mood in Turkey and served up a highly combustible cultural product that catered to that mood and, to a certain extent, help further shape it.

The ongoing “Kurtlar Vadisi,” which tells the story of Polat Alemdar, a patriotic undercover intelligence officer who infiltrates the mafia but starts operating in the murky zone where the interests of unsavory elements of the state and of organized crime meet, brilliantly tapped into the growing nationalism of the last few years. A 2006 spin-off movie, Turkey's highest-grossing movie ever, fed on the anti-Americanism of the Bush period, sending the show's hero to Iraq to do battle with the US military (while also helping bust up a Jewish-run organ harvesting plot).

A few years ago, the show’s second season was to have started with a scene showing a group of Kurdish guerillas stopping a bus full of civilians – including a little girl – and systematically mowing them down with machine guns. Fearing thing were going too far, Turkey’s broadcast authority actually stepped in, forcing the show off the air for a season. (You can read more in this Christian Science Monitor article I wrote at the time.)

Now Turkish television viewers can move on to the Israel-Palestine conflict, with a show called “Ayrilik” (separation). The show’s opening sequence shows a group of Israeli soldiers – hey, this sounds familiar –mowing down civilians, including a little girl, who is shot point blank by a stalking, zombie-like soldier. The Israeli government has condemned the show, which is being shown on a state-run channel, in very strong terms. Despite having yanked “Kurtlar Vadisi” off the air a few years ago, this time Turkish officials are saying “Ayrilik” will stay on the air. “Turkey does not have censorship,” Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters.

The background to this, on the one hand, is the current sorry state of relations between Turkey and Israel, which have been deteriorating since Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Turkey, of course, was one of Israel’s harshest critics during the invasion. And, needless to say, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s now legendary performance in a panel discussion in Davos, where he stuck to it to Israeli president Shimon Peres and then stormed off the stage, helped usher a new frosty period for Turkish-Israeli relations. (For background on this, take a look at this recent analysis piece I wrote for JTA.)

Relations took a further dive recently, after Turkey indefinitely postponed a multinational air force exercise that was to also include Israel. Turkey’s foreign ministry originally released a statement cautioning Israel to use “common sense” and not read any political meaning into the postponement. But Erdogan soon contradicted that statement, saying in an interview that Turkey had to “listen to the voice of the people” and not allow Israel to participate. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, architect of the “zero problems” policy, in recent statements also indicated that hosting Israeli jets in the current atmosphere would not be appropriate.

Turkey, of course, has the right to strongly criticize Israeli policy and actions and can play an important role in doing that. Ankara also seem intent on showing the Israeli government that it won't be business as usual until things start moving on the peace process. But the current atmosphere in Turkey regarding Israel – one that Turkish PM Erdogan seems to be stoking with his relentless and highly emotional attacks on Israel – seems to be veering towards demonization (hence, the arrival of a show like “Ayrilik”). That’s bad for Turkey-Israel relations, but also damaging for the region. Ultimately, a rupture between Ankara and Jerusalem leaves Israel further isolated in the area, something that would inevitably damage the already faltering peace process.

This also ultimately damages Turkey. Obviously, Ankara’s wish to play mediator between Israel and its neighbors is now almost laughable, since it’s very hard to imagine Israel trusting Turkey with that role. But it goes further than that. Turkey is frequently touted as having the advantage of being one of the countries welcomed “both in Jerusalem and Tehran.” If Turkey stops being welcomed in Jerusalem, then it becomes just another Middle Eastern country with a dysfunctional relationship with Israel, something that makes it less of strategic and foreign policy asset in the eyes of the United States, the European Union and other Middle Eastern countries.

Turkish officials like to talk about the country’s “strategic depth” in the Middle East, based on its rich history in the region and its advantageous geographic location. In the case of its relationship with Israel, Turkey’s “strategic depth” is currently being undermined by an intellectual and diplomatic shallowness.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Turkey and Armenia: The Rocky Road Ahead

I have a briefing up on the World Politics Review website looking at the protocols recently signed by Turkey and Armenia to restore diplomatic relations and some of the hurdles these protocols might face in being implemented. From the briefing:
Yesterday's signing of protocols by Turkey and Armenia that pave the way for restoring relations between the two countries was, without a doubt, a historic moment. But it's still too early to break out the champagne.

The protocols -- signed in Zurich in the presence of the American, French and Russian foreign ministers -- spell out in the clearest terms to date what needs to happen in order for diplomatic ties to be restored and for the two countries' borders to be reopened. But significant hurdles, some of which involve actors outside of Turkey and Armenia themselves, still stand in the way of that actually happening.

Ankara and Yerevan broke off relations in 1993, when Turkey closed its border with Armenia. The move followed Armenia's invasion of the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the animosity between the two countries goes backs decades further, to what Armenia alleges was the genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Turkey admits that Armenians were killed, but claims in significantly lower numbers, and fiercely rejects suggestions that the killings were genocide. Ankara argues instead that the deaths were a result of a civil uprising, when Armenians joined forces with invading Russians.

The protocols -- signed with the help of Swiss mediation and American and European arm twisting -- call for the renewal of diplomatic ties, opening of the common border and the establishment of a host of intergovernmental sub-commissions. The most significant of the latter will include experts who will take a look at the "historical dimension" of the Turkish-Armenian relationship.

The only catch -- and a potentially deal-breaking one -- is that the protocols will only go into effect once the parliaments in both countries ratify them. And in both Turkey and Armenia, domestic opposition could stand in the way of that happening....

....Still, restoring ties promises to pay significant dividends for both Turkey and Armenia.

For Turkey, restoring relations with Armenia is critical, both for its European Union candidacy and for its regional ambitions. Ankara hopes to play a larger political and diplomatic role in the surrounding region, and to establish itself as an important energy transit route. The closed border with Armenia remains one of the glaring exceptions to Turkey's new foreign policy, which it describes as "zero problems with neighbors." It also leaves Turkey -- and the West -- dependent on volatile Georgia as the main transit route for Caspian oil and gas.

For Armenia, restoring relations with Turkey would end its isolation in the region and could provide the cash-strapped country with new economic opportunities.

The question for both countries, as well as for some of their neighbors in the region, is whether they can find a way to create a new reality in the Caucasus, or if instead they will remain hostages to history and enmity.
(You can read the full briefing here.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ties and Minarets

There are two interesting news items in the Turkish press that strike me as connected and instructive regarding some of the domestic challenges facing Turkey.

First up, from the town of Cizre, in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast, where a local principal and shopkeeper were detained after they were accused of distributing school ties with the likeness of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan on them, rather than that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From a Hurriyet Daily News report:
According to reports, a police officer saw the tie given to his daughter and lodged a complaint. The local prosecutor’s office was told the figure on the tie “looked like PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.”

An investigation was launched and an expert appointed by the prosecutor’s office supported the claims.

Both the school principal and the shopkeeper who sold the ties were detained by police Tuesday and questioned while the school collected the ties.

The shopkeeper said he had asked a company in Istanbul to produce 115 ties and had placed Atatürk’s silhouette on them as per the school’s order.

He said he and the principal were questioned a day before being released pending trial. “The Atatürk silhouette on the tie doesn’t look anything like Öcalan anyway.I can’t imagine how they came to that conclusion,” he said.
(You can see a shot of the offending tie here. To my eye (and Kamil Pasha's), it looks a lot like Ataturk, but go figure. As the article reminds readers, this is only the latest phantom Ocalan sighting that has led to legal action. In July, an Ankara lawyer found himself in trouble after authorities charged him with having a photo of Ocalan up on his office wall. Turns out the man with the bushy mustache in the photo was the lawyer's deceased father.

Next, from Istanbul, a very interesting story about the blurring of the boundaries between mosque and state. As several papers have reported, the minarets of five historic mosques were recently strung up with lights that spelled out nationalist slogans. The lights, known as "mahyas," are usually hung during Ramadan and deliver blessings and religious sayings. This time, the messages included the famous slogan "How happy is he who says he is a Turk," as well as "The country comes first," and "We owe our gratitude to the army."

The messages drew the indignation of civil groups, which held demonstrations in the streets of İstanbul yesterday. Rıdvan Kaya, the chairman of the Freedom Association (Özgür-Der), termed the nationalist messages in mahyas a source of “ugliness” and “provocation."

“We want authorities to reveal who led to such ugliness. Are they still not aware that such moves aim to drag Turkey into an atmosphere of war? While the government is exerting efforts to settle the Kurdish issue, some are attempting to provoke the people,” Kaya said....

....No body or institution has yet claimed responsibility for the controversial mahyas. Today's Zaman asked the Directorate of Religious Affairs about the move, but directorate officials denied responsibility. “We are in control of the mosques, but they are owned by the General Directorate of Foundations. The Directorate of Religious Affairs is fully outside of this mahya issue,” they said.

The General Directorate of Foundations, however, pointed to the Regional Directorate of Foundations in İstanbul and the İstanbul Governor's Office as responsible bodies in the determination of messages spelled out on mahyas.

The director of press and public relations of İstanbul Governor's Office, Nazır Şentürk, said İstanbul Governor Muammer Güler would call a press conference on the mahya controversy. No press conference was called by the time Today's Zaman went to print. The mahyas were spelled out on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of İstanbul from occupation by foreign powers following the War of Independence.
(As a side note, Turkey watchers may recall that prior to taking office, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent time in jail, accused of inciting religious hatred by reciting a poem that said: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers..." In light of that, it's interesting to see messages in support of the military being strung from minarets.)

Both these stories strike me as having a lot to do with Turkey's struggle to define it's post-Ataturkist identity. School ties and minarets now seem to be yet another battleground in this continuing fight.

(Photo -- an Istanbul mosque with the message "How happy is he who says he is a Turk" strung up in lights between its minarets. From Today's Zaman.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Last "Last Chance" for Cyprus?

The International Crisis Group and its Turkey analyst, Hugh Pope, have had in recent years the thankless task of reminding the world (and the European Union, in particular) about the importance of solving the decades-old Cyprus problem. In a new report, ICG warns that time is really running out for a solution and that the island may be heading towards a permanent split. From the executive summary:
Three decades of efforts to reunify Cyprus are about to end, leaving a stark choice ahead between a hostile, de facto partition of the island and a collaborative federation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities living in two constituent states. Most actors agree that the window of opportunity for this bicommunal, bizonal settlement will close by April 2010, the date of the next Turkish Cypriot elections, when the pro-settlement leader risks losing his office to a more hardline candidate. If no accord is reached by then, it will be the fourth major set of UN-facilitated peace talks to fail, and there is a widespread feeling that if the current like-minded, pro-solution Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders cannot compromise on a federal solution, nobody can….

….In the absence of a Cyprus settlement, both communities on the island and Turkey will experience slower economic progress, greater defence spending and reduced international credibility.
You can find the summary and the full report here.

It's easy to dismiss the Cyprus issue, but it's one that matters -- not only for the divided island, but also for Turkey, the EU and NATO. The Cyprus problem not only has the potential to derail Turkey's EU bid, but it has already worked its way into the EU, where Cyprus uses the issue to punish Turkey, and NATO, where Turkey uses it to punish Cyprus. (For more background, take a look at a piece I wrote last year for Eurasianet). One imagines that a permanent division would only see that dynamic intensify, to the detriment of both organizations' ability to function properly.

As the report mentions, some in Turkey and Northern Cyprus believe that even if there is a permanent division, the island's tiny Turkish republic could achieve a kind of "Taiwanisation" -- de facto international recognition that leads to viability as a state. That belief, the report makes clear, is mistaken:
But north Cyprus and Taiwan can hardly be compared. Less than 300,000 Turkish Cypriots cannot measure against a large, self-governing modern industrial power with 23 million people. The EU is the most powerful actor in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Greek Cypriots are probably able to block any attempt by a member state to work in any way with the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state. Even sympathetic Turkic states like Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan have failed to lay on direct flights to the main Turkish Cypriot airport, primarily because of Greek Cypriot influence in the EU.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Turkey and the Nuclear Issue

As part of a series looking at how different countries might contribute to the elimination of nuclear weapons, Washington's Henry L. Stimson Center has just published a report that includes a chapter on Turkey's complicated calculus with regards to its own possible development of a nuclear weapons program (there are also chapters about Brazil and Japan). Written by Turkey expert Henri Barkey, the chapter makes for very interesting reading.

Barkey argues that if Iran does develop its own nuclear weapons, sparking off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, then Turkey will not be able to resist the domestic and foreign pressures pushing it towards obtaining nuclear weapons of its own. The report can be downloaded here (pdf).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Patriot Games, Pt. II

A bit more to follow up my previous post about Turkey's plans to purchase it's first missile defense system (possibly American-made Patriots), a story which I think is going to develop in interesting ways, particularly in light of Iran's recent missile tests and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's upcoming visit to Tehran.

First, from a new Eurasianet analysis piece of mine:
Speculation is building in Turkey over whether Ankara will play a part in a revamped US missile-defense network, one designed mainly to contain Iran. Conjecture is being fueled by two recent developments: the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the construction of an anti-missile shield in Central Europe, and Turkey’s own announcement that it intends to purchase its first missile-defense system.

Although it’s not clear if Ankara’s plan to buy a missile defense system is being coordinated with the United States, experts say the purchase is an indication that -- despite its warming relations between Turkey and Iran, and Turkish officials’ promotion of a diplomatic solution to the question of Iran’s nuclear program -- Turkey is not taking any chances regarding its neighbor’s intentions.

"There is an unstated rivalry [between Turkey and Iran]. They are two powerful states in the region and each one has its own strategy and Turkey now has one of playing an active role in the region," says Sami Kohen, a columnist with the daily Milliyet and a veteran observer of Turkish foreign policy.

"Turkey thinks that there are a lot of common interests with Iran. There are improving trade, economic, and energy ties. There has been a period of normalization, which has now been followed by a period of closer ties," Kohen continued. "Nevertheless, people in responsible positions who want to see Turkey grow as a key regional player believe there is a rivalry with Iran."

If it wants to play the part of regional power-broker, added Kohen, "Turkey can’t lag [militarily] behind other countries in the neighborhood - Iran on the one hand and Greece on the other…."

….Although Turkish officials to date have kept their distance from American plans to introduce a more fluid European-based missile defense plan, experts say Ankara could benefit by being involved.

Even though the Obama administration has abandoned plans to place an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, US officials have made it clear that they intend to deploy such a system elsewhere, in a location better able to cope with the rapidly escalating Iranian threat.

"The whole plan is going on, but in a different version, and it gets more interesting now with countries like Turkey possibly [getting] involved. It seems like the scope of the system is being increased," said Lt Col Marcel de Haas, a senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

"The question is if [placing Patriot missiles in Turkey is] going to be part of a theater missile defense?" he adds.

"If that is the case for Turkey -- in this whole expanded scheme of missile defense -- it is quite interesting. I say it strengthens the Turkish position in NATO, and you can also consider it part of European defense, which could possibly bring Turkey closer to the European Union."

Other observers have suggested that placing Patriots in Turkey could also bolster Turkish-US relations, which have gone through several strained periods in recent years.

"Poland’s loss may be Turkey’s and America’s gain: Turkey is the only NATO country that borders Iran, and US-Turkish cooperation on Tehran is key to Washington’s success in tackling Iran’s nuclearization," Washington-based analyst Soner Cagaptay recently wrote in an online forum hosted by the New York Times.
The German Marshall Fund, meanwhile, has just published a piece on the subject, by Ian Lesser, one of the sharpest Turkey analysts out there. From Lesser's analysis:
The Turkish public remains relatively relaxed about Iran’s nuclear program. But Turkey’s defense planners cannot be so sanguine about the implications of proliferation around the region. Turkey has much to lose from the prospect of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran, not to mention the potential for multiple new nuclear arsenals. Turkey is vulnerable to the cascading effects of nuclear and missile proliferation over the wider neighborhood, from the Aegean to South Asia, including effects on conventional military balances and doctrine. More dramatically, Turkey, with its Western security ties, is exposed to the retaliatory consequences of American, European, or Israeli action against Iran or other proliferators on Turkey’s borders. The physical vulnerability of Turkish cities, as well as Incirlik airbase and oil terminals on the Mediterranean, coupled with growing Turkish unease about the credibility of NATO guarantees, give Ankara a strong interest in strategic reassurance alongside enhanced defenses….

…. In theory, the new U.S. approach to missile defense in Europe offers Turkey the prospect of improved relations with Russia, greater consensus on containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a more effective response to immediate threats to Turkish territory, and renewed reassurance from NATO allies. But capturing these theoretical gains and avoiding perceived threats to Turkish sovereignty will require much closer coordination between Ankara and its allies.
Lesser's entire piece (pdf) is worth reading.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dances With the AKP

Just what is it about Turkey and Kevin Costner? He may be remembered in the United States for “Dances With Wolves” and several other hit films (as well as for “Waterworld” and “The Postman,” two of the most spectacular cinematic duds ever), but he’s certainly no longer the star he once was.

Not so in Turkey, where the Costner magic still seems to be at work. It all started two years ago when Costner and his “rock” band, Modern West (don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them!), came to play a benefit concert in Istanbul for a children’s aid group. During the visit, it was even suggested that perhaps Costner could play the role of Ataturk in a proposed biopic about the secularizing founder of the modern Turkish state. High praise, indeed!

Earlier this year, meanwhile, Turkish Airlines deemed Costner’s star bright enough to recruit him for a massive (and strangely ineffective) ad campaign promoting the airline’s new and improved first class service. Soon his face was plastered on billboards all over Turkey, telling Turks that now they, too, can “feel like a star.” (You can watch the English-language television commercial, where Costner works his charm on a lithe flight attendant, here.)

But now things are getting even more serious. According to reports in the local press, Costner is now getting involved in Turkish politics. In a Friday report in the English language Today’s Zaman, we are told “American actor and director Kevin Costner [has] joined the ranks of celebrities supporting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's democratic initiative aimed at addressing various problems, including the Kurdish issue.” According to the article, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had actually invited Costner to attend the party’s upcoming congress, but wasn’t able to make it. Still, according to a statement released by party deputy chairwoman Edibe Sozen (a former professor of “communications,” it should be noted), Costner “conveyed his support for the democratic initiative because it shows the value Turkey attaches to human rights.” (A brief about this in the semi-official Anatolian Agency news service makes it sound like the invite was only issued after Costner himself contacted the AKP to give his unprompted support for the government’s new initiative.)

The Turkish government has been busy laying the groundwork for the unveiling of its highly-anticipated “democratic initiative,” which is mostly aimed at dealing with the long-standing Kurdish problem. A big part of laying that groundwork has involved meeting with civil society groups and other political parties. But now it looks like the government is pulling out the big guns by unveiling “celebrity” endorsements for the initiative. Of course, the ultimate endorsement of the initiative would be the one given by the Turkish people (Kurds, in particular), but having Kevin Costner on board certainly doesn’t hurt.

(UPDATE -- Speaking of celebrity endorsements, the Turkish papers have been running front page headlines about U2's decision to add an Istanbul leg to their current world tour. According to Hurriyet, Egemen Bagis, the government minister who is handling Turkey's European Union membership process, even promised the band that if they come to the country, he will arrange for them to play a gig on one of the bridges crossing the Bosphorus, which would allow them to play at the spot where Europe and Asia "meet." The last ones to try this bi-continental stunt were a pair of top-ranked Chinese and Austrian ping pong players, who played a 30-minute match earlier this summer in the middle of one of the Bosphorus bridges. Motorists in the city of 18 million were not amused.)

(UPDATE II -- The Costner story keeps heating up. Now Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) is crying foul over Costner's purported support for the government's democratization initiative. According to news reports, CHP leader Deniz Baykal, speaking at a "grape festival" in Antalya, had this to say: “Who on earth are you? What is it that you know and speak? If they put a map in front of you, you wouldn't be able to locate Şırnak [a city in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast]. You mind your own business."

Baykal even suggested that the government is using Costner's "endorsement" in a deceptive manner. “The prime minister is hiding the truths from the public regarding the opening. He has a project on his mind and plans to make it accepted slowly in the face of possible reactions from the nation. Is it the prime minister’s job to deceive people?” he said.)

(photo -- Kevin Costner and Turkish president Abdullah Gul during a 2007 meeting in Ankara.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy Birthday

This blog was launched on this day one year ago (with this post). Thank you to all the other Turkey bloggers who were very supportive at the start and to all you regular readers out there for your comments and interest.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Patriot Games

There's a certain feeling of Cold War déjà vu in Turkey these days. Back then, NATO ally Turkey was seen as a front line state in the standoff against a dangerous nuclear power and was even home to American missiles (the intermediate range Jupiters, quietly removed as part of the deal made to end the Cuban missile crisis). Cut to 2009, when western ally Turkey is again being viewed by some as a front-line defense against a (potential) nuclear power -- this time around Iran -- and might soon be home to an American-made long-range missile defense system.

The story has been developing in a very interesting way. It started with a report a few weeks ago in a Polish publication that claimed that the U.S. is scrapping its controversial European-based missile defense plan (true), to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, and was going to place the system in Turkey instead (still not clear). Turkish officials quickly denied the Polish report, but soon after it emerged that the Pentagon had recently informed Congress that it plans to sell to Turkey the Patriot missile defense system. To clear things up, the Turkish military than announced that it is considering spending up to $1 billion for its first long-range missile defense system, but that it is also looking at Russian and Chinese weapons.

The question being asked in Turkey, of course, is in which direction will those defensive missiles be aimed? Iran might be the most obvious answer, but Turkish diplomats have gone out of their way to say this isn't so. "It is wrong to draw links between the Patriot and Iran," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN Turk last week. "We neither have a perception of threat from any of the neighboring countries, nor have any military or security related preparation against them."

So is Turkey planning to spend $1 billion to defend itself against a non-existent threat? I doubt that's the case. What seems to be happening here is another expression of the difficult line Ankara has to take when it comes to its relations with Iran. On the one hand, Turkey has significantly improved its relationship with Iran in recent years, something that is reflected in the two countries' growing trade relations and in the fact that Turkish leaders were among the first (and only) to congratulate Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on his recent controversial reelection. On the other hand, despite the smiling faces and the warm language being used in both capitals, Ankara and Tehran are regional rivals and Iran's nuclear program is as worrying for Turkey as it is for other countries in the region.

"There is an understanding between the United States and Israel and Turkey on the perception that Iran may become a threat if it develops nuclear weapons. There is also a common understanding with the rest of the world that [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad is becoming a dangerous leader with his very provocative and aggressive statements," said political analyst Sami Kohen.

"As far as that is concerned, there is common ground," Kohen added. "But the question is how do you deal with the problems, and that’s where the differences are...."

....Turkey and Iran share a 310-mile (499 kilometer) border, and both Turkish and Iranian diplomats like to point out that the two Muslim neighbors have been a peace for centuries. But Turkish analysts say that peace is based on a delicate balance of military power -- one that would be upset if Iran obtained nuclear weapons.

"The bottom line is that Turkey can’t accept an Iran with nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons-capable Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran is not in the interest of Turkey," says Mustafa Kibaroglu, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation issues at Bilkent University in Ankara.

The increasing international pressure on Iran comes at a time when the Turkish government has been working hard to improve relations with its neighbors, especially Iran. The last few years have seen Turkish-Iranian trade grow dramatically, reaching $4 billion in 2005. In 2000, bilateral trade turnover stood at roughly $1 billion.

The government’s emphasis on trade, says Kibaroglu, has helped create a division among Turkish policymakers on how to tackle the Iran question. "I don’t think officials agree among themselves what to do," he says. "The perception of the government, as far as I can see, doesn’t fit the perception of the military. The military is more skeptical of Iran’s intentions when compared to the politicians who run the country."
(Hurriyet Daily News's Barcin Yinanc covers this dilemma in a recent column, which you can read here.)

Turkey is clearly trying to strike a very delicate pose here, working to defend itself against an "unspecified" regional threat while maintaining that it doesn't feel threatened by any of its neighbors. An interesting political stew is being cooked up -- what's not clear is just who is stirring the pot.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Death By Taxes

Is the Turkish government trying to break the back of the media group that has served as its most vocal opposition by slapping it with a whopping $2.5 billion tax penalty? I’m not an accountant, but there certainly seems to be something suspicious about the record-breaking fine levied on the Dogan Media Group, which publishes several powerful newspapers (Hurriyet, Milliyet and Radikal among them) and owns CNN-Turk, the Turkish-language version of CNN, among other channels. The penalty (which equals the entire value of the company) comes on the heels of a $500 million tax fine issued against Dogan a few months ago. According to Turkish tax officials, Dogan has engaged in deceptive practices and has failed to pay tax on income earned through the sale of a company and through the transfer of shares between companies within the group itself. According to the Dogan Group, everything has been above board and the government, through its taxmen, is out to get it by twisting the country’s financial rules to suit its purposes.

First, the background: Over the last few years, the Dogan group’s media outlets have emerged as perhaps the most vocal critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). At one point, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even called for his supporters to boycott the group’s publications. Interestingly, relations between the AKP and the media group turned especially sour after some of the Dogan publications aggressively reported on the gross financial misdeeds committed by the German branch of a Turkish Islamic charity with close ties to the AKP leadership.

So, is the Turkish government involved in a Putin-esque attempt to silence one of its critics, as part of a larger plan to create compliant media? That’s certainly the view of the people working for the Dogan Group. In a column in Milliyet, Fikret Bila, the newspapers’s Ankara representative and one of Turkey’s leading veteran journalists, says this:
This never, ever seen arbitrary tax penalty is beyond imagination. Without any legal ground, such a practice could not be welcomed anywhere in the world. It was not even seen during the Ottoman Sultanate. Even sultans did not exploit state authority so much.
These two consecutive tax levies are nothing but “tax terror” against the company owner, Aydın Doğan. Motives are not only picking up back-taxes. This is obvious. They are not only additional income for the Treasury. That’s for sure. But it is rather confiscation of Doğan companies. These two fines clearly show that the purpose is Mr. Doğan’s bankruptcy.

What is saddening here is that tax officials committed misconduct. Unfortunately tax officials vulnerable to such temptations are casting shadows over this well-respected duty.

The Doğan Group will soon be asked to return all its assets to the state due to such astronomically high tax fines levied by the said tax officials. This is obviously a confiscation process, not just tax penalties.
The government, in its defense, says the massive fine is simply the result of tax inspectors doing their job.

There really are no clear-cut heroes or villains in this affair. Aydin Dogan, chairman of the Dogan organization, is not a scrappy newspaperman fighting for his life, but rather a media baron and business magnate who is a kind of Turkish Rupert Murdoch, controlling a very large slice of the Turkish media scene. As Andrew Finkel points out in an excellent recent column in Today’s Zaman:
As Turkey's press baron extraordinaire, [Dogan] openly promoted his allies and intimidated his foes to carve out a world favorable to himself. He confessed as much in an interview I once did for TIME magazine in which he defended his papers' support for a press law which actually restricted freedoms of expression but which allowed his media holding to be more aggressive in expanding his share of the television market. Why, he asked me, should he cut off his nose to spite his face?
Mr. Doğan was used to cultivating governments, and in the days of weak coalitions, his support mattered. Many regard the 1995 general election in Turkey as a proxy fight between the Doğan Group and Sabah rather than the parties on the ballot paper. Before entering a (failed) coalition with Tansu Çiller, Mesut Yılmaz went to consult with Doğan and the two remained allies. This in itself was not a crime (Tony Blair paid similar sorts of homage to Rupert Murdoch). However, the Doğan Group was persistently criticized for rendering paper thin the firewall between editorial independence and financial self-interest. Ertuğrul Özkök, the editor of the flagship Hürriyet newspaper, proudly wore two hats -- that of a journalist and that of a member of the board who could happily negotiate incentives from the government for factories his parent company was trying to build.
That said, the recent developments are troubling. I would be more comfortable with the possibility of the government taking the Dogan Group down if there existed a truly independent press in Turkey that could step in and fill the vacuum that would be created. That, unfortunately, is not the case. As I have written before, Turkey’s deeply domestic political polarization has worked its way into the country’s media. Whatever the sins of the Dogan Group’s outlets, the pro-government press (Zaman and it’s English-language affiliate Today’s Zaman, in particular) have not distinguished themselves in recent years, showing a disturbing willingness to be used as tools for spreading disinformation. (You can check out previous media-related posts here.)

Tax officials and Dogan are apparently entering negotiations that might lead to a settlement of some kind, although it’s hard to imagine the government backing down too far on this. Whatever happens, it certainly could cost Turkey, both domestically and abroad, raising questions of press freedoms in the country. The European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, has already expressed its concern, with a spokesman in Brussels saying the other day: "When the sanction is of such magnitude that it threatens the very existence of an entire press group, like in this case, then freedom of the press is at stake.”