Monday, March 30, 2009

In Turkey, Local Elections with National Implications

Turkey held municipal elections yesterday, in a vote that was essentially a proxy for a national one. Voters hoping to talk about, say, the condition of their city’s sidewalks or the quality of its water were out of luck. Voting for a mayor in Turkey means, for the most part, voting for the party the candidate represents and along national fault lines, rather than based on local issues or concerns.

In that sense, the election results offer some interesting insights into Turkey’s national political picture. The most important result, of course, was that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered its first electoral setback since starting its meteoric rise seven years ago. The AKP’s share of the municipal vote around the country was 40 percent, compared to 42 percent in 2004 and, more significantly, down from the 47 percent of vote the party received in 2007’s national parliamentary elections. The AKP held on to the mayor’s office in Istanbul and Ankara and in a large number of other cities, but the competition managed to score important wins in highly contested places, such as Izmir, Antalya and throughout southeast Turkey. With unemployment at record high levels and Turkey seriously feeling the impact of the global economic crisis, AKP leaders might still be able to point to the results as a success, but clearly they failed to meet their own expectations. As Radikal’s headline put it, the public told the AKP and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “One Minute.”

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition, seemed to score big, increasing its share of the municipal vote by 10 points, going from 18 percent in 2004 to 28 percent. It also significantly improved on its 21 percent share of 2007’s national vote. This time around the party put up some very serious and qualified candidates, especially in Istanbul and Ankara, where it came close to unseating the AKP’s incumbent mayors. That said, the party still failed to offer much more in the way of policy than it’s standard knee jerk opposition to the AKP and remains in the iron grip of its antediluvian leader, Deniz Baykal. One can only wonder how much better the party would have fared if it had a more forward-looking leader and more pronounced policy proposals.

The hard-line Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also did well, getting almost 15 percent of the municipal vote, compared to 10 percent in 2004 (and equaling its share of the national vote in 2007). But perhaps the most surprising results came from the predominately-Kurdish southeast, where the AKP was hoping to build on the inroads it made during the 2007 elections, when it won 56 percent of the regional vote. This time around, though, voters there mostly shut the AKP out, handing some big victories to the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). This was particularly true in Diyarbakir, where the party’s incumbent won 65 percent of the vote, despite the AKP’s intensive campaigning in the city. The DTP also won back some cities that it had lost to the AKP in the 2004 municipal elections. The party even failed to win in Tunceli, where AKP-appointed officials gave out ovens, refrigerators and other appliances before the election. Clearly, there is still some life left in the DTP’s brand of “identity politics.”

“We will study why we dropped to this level,” Erdogan said in Ankara after the election results came. “We will extract our lessons from the election result and direct our work accordingly.” The question is what lessons will the AKP extract from the election? Some of the potential lessons might be troubling. The AKP now has a diminished mandate to move ahead with any bold reform efforts, such as changes to the constitution and any legislation related to the country’s stalled European Union membership drive. If the party was concerned about the political cost of making such moves after 2007’s election, where it won a whopping 47 percent of the vote, it’s hard to imagine it doing so now, considering that its main rivals (the now emboldened CHP and MHP) have been critical of the EU project and of the AKP’s efforts to liberalize or abolish some of Turkey’s statist and militarist laws and structures. The election results could very well lead the AKP to decide that the lesson learned is that it has to beef up its nationalist credentials (something it has already been doing to a certain extent) in order to fend off the CHP and MHP. The AKP government has said that it would return to the reform process after these municipal elections, but the results could very well mean that this will not be the case.

On the other hand, the results in the Southeast may show the AKP that, despite some of the positive moves it’s made on the Kurdish issue, it may have to go even further to meet the expectations of the local population. Launching a state-run Kurdish television channel was an important move, but it may not be enough, especially if Kurdish politicians are still jailed for campaigning in Kurdish or if private television and radio stations are punished for broadcasting in Kurdish. But it may be difficult for the AKP to both take significant steps to solve the Kurdish issue and strengthen its nationalist credentials. Clearly, tough choices – and the possibility of further political polarization – are ahead.

[UPDATE -- As Jenny White points out in a post on her Kamil Pasha blog, the one thing that remains unchanged in these recent local elections is the almost nonexistent number of women voted into office. According to Bianet's count, only 15 women managed to get elected to one of the more than 3,000 municipal offices that were in play in Sunday's poll. As Bianet points out, prior to these elections, the percentage of women serving as elected officials in Turkey's local governments was 0.56, a number which might even go down after the most recent vote.

For some background on the continuing struggle to get more women involved in Turkish politics, take a look at this article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor before the 2007 national election.]

(Photo: a voter in Istanbul casting his ballot during the 2007 national elections. By Yigal Schleifer)

Friday, March 27, 2009

One Minute!

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s now famous outburst in Davos appears to be the gift that keeps on giving. As Hurriyet reported the other day:
One minute! These two words uttered Jan. 29 by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against David Ignatius, who was moderating a panel on the Middle East in Davos, Switzerland became so famous that Turkish companies are rushing to buy their patents.

Abdullah Unakıtan, a young businessman and the son of Finance Minister Kemal Unakıtan, was the first who applied to the Turkish Patent Institute, or TPE, to register "One Minute" as a brand. But due to political controversy, the young Unakıtan withdrew his Feb. 5 application, by request from his father. Abdullah Unakıtan delegated his application to Mehmet Elmas, Hürriyet learned.

The "One Minute" brand currently has a dozen owners, including BİM Mağazaları, a retail chain, Star Ak, Akspor and Sahim Gıda, a food company.
And as CNN's Ivan Watson reports from the campaign trail, where he was tagging along with Erdogan during the lead up to Sunday's municipal elections:
At AKP rallies, "One minute!" -- which a red-faced Erdogan yelled at the moderator of the [Davos] debate in halting English -- has become a rallying cry for supporters who call him the "Conqueror of Davos."
There have also been other attempts to capitalize on Erdogan’s words, which have been Turkified into the single word "Vanminut." One designer has put up a website that sells t-shirts (for a mere 10 lira, or around $6)  with the word “Vanminut” and a hand with a pointed finger printed on it. Meanwhile, some of the vendors at an open-air fruit and vegetable bazaar where I shop have replaced their usual singsong sales chants with “Vanminut, tomatoes” and so on. It seems that in conquering Davos, Erdogan has also managed to conquer the bazaar, which, in political terms, may count for even more.

(Photo: Turkish PM Erdogan and moderator David Ignatius at the Jan. 29 panel in Davos, Switzerland)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Turkey's Sudan Problem, Continued

As noted in a previous post, Turkey is struggling to come up with a workable position on Sudan and the International Criminal Court's outstanding arrest warrant for the African country's president. As a temporary member of the United Nations' Security Council, which might vote on a motion to defer the ICC's warrant, Turkey may soon find itself having to take a definitive position on the issue. According to an article by Hurriyet's Barcin Yinanc, Ankara is leaning towards voting in favor of a deferral, something that could become a sticking point between it and Washington, which opposes putting off the warrant. From the article:
Despite winds of optimism on the future of Turkish-American relations, the first fissure between the two governments has emerged on the suspension of the International Criminal Court, or ICC’s, indictment of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. 

Turkey favors a deferral and looks set to vote in that direction if a vote takes place at the United Nations Security Council, despite requests to do the opposite from the Barack Obama administration. 

The ICC issued an arrest warrant March 4 for the Sudanese president on charges of crimes against humanity in the conflict-torn region of Darfur in Western Sudan. 

The Arab League and African Union, backed by China and Russia, have been lobbying for the UN Security Council to use its power to suspend the ICC indictment.

The United States, Britain and France have said they see no point in halting his prosecution. 

Washington has raised the issue at least three times through diplomatic channels, since Turkey joined the Security Council. While the Turkish Ambassador to Washington Nabi Şensoy was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, U.S. Ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey went twice to the Turkish Foreign Ministry to ask Turkey to vote against deferral of the indictment. 

As the United States failed to get a satisfactory answer, the issue was again raised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at talks in Ankara during her visit on March 7. Clinton asked this time for Turkey to abstain. Her counterparts have failed to give her such a commitment, saying the issue is still under consideration.

(Photo: Turkish PM Erdogan shaking hands with Sudanese president Bashir, during his Jan. 2008 visit to Ankara. Photo by AP)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Uttering the "K" Word

Making great strides in Turkish foreign policy is easy: all you have to do is say one word and a new reality is created. That, at least, seems to be the Turkish press’s take on president Abdullah Gul’s recent two-day visit to Iraq. The Iraq visit itself was fairly significant – it was the first one by a Turkish president in 33 years. (For an analysis of the visit's implications, take a look at this report by the Jamestown Foundation. This RFE/RL article also talks about some of the progress Gul's visit might herald in Turkey-Kurdish relations. ) But what made the headlines in Turkey was that, in sharp contrast to previous Turkish policy, Gul -- while talking to Turkish reporters on his plane -- referred to regional government in northern Iraq as the “Kurdistan Regional Administration.” It was the first time a top Turkish official had mentioned the “K” word.

Turkey does not recognize the administration in northern Iraq by its official name for fear that by doing so it will create a precedent for the use of the term “Kurdistan,” which could then be used in its own territory. In an article headlined “Yet another taboo dies in ’Kurdistan,’” Hurriyet reported:
While calling for stronger efforts to end terrorist activities by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish official to refer to northern Iraq as "Kurdistan." Speaking to Turkish journalists aboard his plane en route to Baghdad on Monday, Gül said the "Kurdistan Regional Administration" holds the primary responsibility for ending terrorist activities targeting Turkey. He also emphasized that an amnesty -- suggested by the prime minister of the regional administration in northern Iraq as a way to help resolve the PKK problem -- was a domestic concern for Turkey.

Asked by the press about his use of the term "Kurdistan," the president said it was the region’s official name, as articulated in the Iraqi constitution. "What shall I say? We do not refuse to say Macedonia because Greece refuses to do so," Gül said.
"This is written in the [Iraqi] constitution. It is a fact that those in northern Iraq should calculate the possible outcome of losing Turkey."
In a column in Today’s Zaman, Yavuz Baydar praises Gul’s move as the dawn of a new era in Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish issue:
The change has come to Turkey's 80-some-year-long denial of the Kurdish reality. The word "Kurdistan" was used for the first time, not just by any Turkish official, but by the highest authority, President Gül, while visiting Iraq….

….Finally the taboo of Kurds, undermined for years by the Turkish press, has finally collapsed. Now, both the Turks and Kurds can talk business -- with a real language, without beating around the bush. Surprises haunt us here.
Or maybe not. Unsurprisingly, reaction to Gul’s uttering of the “K” word was swift. "The Justice and Development Party government has caused a grave break in the fight against terrorism,” said one member of the right wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Members of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition group, also accused the government of selling Turkey out by recognizing the existence of “Kurdistan” without getting a firm commitment from the Iraqis about how they plan to root out PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Upon his return to Turkey, Gul was already backtracking, saying he had never mentioned the “K” word. "In fact, I did not use that term (Kurdistan) but as I said this is a reality. The country who attaches the biggest importance to Iraq's unity and integrity is Turkey. There is a regional Kurdish administration in the north of Iraq according to the Iraqi constitution. This is what I had said. I held a meeting with (the regional administration's) prime minister," Gul told reporters at a press conference in Ankara. (As another Hurriyet article makes clear, the now growing debate over whether Gul said "Kurdistan" or not is now reaching farcical levels.)

As is usually the case these days, the Turkish government seems to be making great strides abroad, only to return and find that the real problem is still in its own divided house.

(Photo: A sign at the Iraqi side of the Habur gate, a Turkey-Iraq border crossing. By Yigal Schleifer)

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Shirts' Disturbing Tale

Ha'aretz continues its look into the growing controversy over the IDF's recent behavior in Gaza, this time with a disturbing article that uncovers the subculture of soldiers having t-shirts custom made for their units. What seems to tie together many of these shirts (like the one in the photo above, which has a pregnant woman in the cross hairs of a sniper's rifle scope) is their joking, nonchalant approach to violence aimed at civilians. The shirts are not officially sanctioned by the IDF, which in a statement released to the press described them as  "not in accordance with IDF values and are simply tasteless. This type of humor is unbecoming and should be condemned."

What I found particularly disturbing in the article (beyond the content of the shirts themselves) was the analysis of this phenomenon by a Tel Aviv University sociologist and the IDF former head psychologist. From the article:
Sociologist Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, of Bar-Ilan University, author of "Identities in Uniform: Masculinities and Femininities in the Israeli Military," said that the phenomenon is "part of a radicalization process the entire country is undergoing, and the soldiers are at its forefront. I think that ever since the second intifada there has been a continual shift to the right. The pullout from Gaza and its outcome - the calm that never arrived - led to a further shift rightward.

"This tendency is most strikingly evident among soldiers who encounter various situations in the territories on a daily basis. There is less meticulousness than in the past, and increasing callousness. There is a perception that the Palestinian is not a person, a human being entitled to basic rights, and therefore anything may be done to him."

Could the printing of clothing be viewed also as a means of venting aggression?

Sasson-Levy: "No. I think it strengthens and stimulates aggression and legitimizes it. What disturbs me is that a shirt is something that has permanence. The soldiers later wear it in civilian life; their girlfriends wear it afterward. It is not a statement, but rather something physical that remains, that is out there in the world...."

....Col. (res.) Ron Levy began his military service in the Sayeret Matkal elite commando force before the Six-Day War. He was the IDF's chief psychologist, and headed the army's mental health department in the 1980s.

Levy: "I'm familiar with things of this sort going back 40, 50 years, and each time they take a different form. Psychologically speaking, this is one of the ways in which soldiers project their anger, frustration and violence. It is a certain expression of things, which I call 'below the belt.'"

Do you think this a good way to vent anger?

Levy: "It's safe. But there are also things here that deviate from the norm, and you could say that whoever is creating these things has reached some level of normality. He gives expression to the fact that what is considered abnormal today might no longer be so tomorrow.
(Photo: A t-shirt from an IDF sniper unit. From Ha'aretz) 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Struggling to Survive

My article about the ancient, but dwindling, Turkish Jewish communities of Bursa and Antakya is up on Hadassah Magazine's website. 

From the article:
At first blush, the tiny Jewish community of Bursa might seem like the living embodiment of the old joke about the shipwrecked Jew who, alone on a deserted island, builds two synagogues—in case he gets fed up with the services at one of them. Despite the occasional struggle to get a minyan together, the 55-member community in this Turkish city still maintains two gleaming synagogues, located just a few steps from each other on a small street in Bursa’s historic Jewish quarter.

But the Jews of Bursa—traders in the city’s bustling bazaar, where they have been living since they arrived as exiles from Spain 500 years ago—know what they are doing. The Turkish government has frequently confiscated unused property belonging to minority religious groups. To maintain its ownership of both synagogues, the community keeps both open, alternating Shabbat and holiday services between them.

For the small Jewish communities outside of Istanbul, which has the country’s largest Jewish population, acrobatics like this are part of everyday life. Canakkale, for example, a town near the World War I battlefields of Gallipoli and once a center of Jewish life in western Turkey, is today home to only a handful of Jews. Former residents make an annual pilgrimage in a convoy of buses from Istanbul to pray in the last functioning shul and help with upkeep.
You can read the article here.

(Photo -- Brothers Shaul and Azra Cenudi, part of the 35-member Jewish community of Antakya, Turkey, standing in front of the ark in the city's only synagogue. By Yigal Schleifer.)

A Moral Failure and Outrage

Ha'aretz follows up on yesterday's devastating report about the breakdown of the IDF's behavior during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza with more testimony from soldiers who were part of the fighting. Along with military, diplomatic and political, we can now clearly add "moral" to the list of the operation's various failures. The testimony given by these soldiers is a deeply disturbing indication of how the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians is quickly degrading the IDF as a just fighting force and rotting Israel's moral core from the inside.

If there are any bright spots in the soldiers' testimonies, it is from a few commanders who questioned some of the egregious orders they were given and lobbied successfully to have them changed. But one part of the testimony, from a soldier named Ram, jumped out at me and suggests another very dangerous systemic problem that the IDF will have to contend with if it doesn't want of keep sliding down further. 

From Ram's testimony:
"What I do remember in particular at the beginning is the feeling of almost a religious mission. My sergeant is a student at a hesder yeshiva [a program that combines religious study and military service]. Before we went in, he assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into battle. A brigade rabbi was there, who afterward came into Gaza and went around patting us on the shoulder and encouraging us, and praying with people. And also when we were inside they sent in those booklets, full of Psalms, a ton of Psalms. I think that at least in the house I was in for a week, we could have filled a room with the Psalms they sent us, and other booklets like that.

"There was a huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out. The Education Corps published a pamphlet for commanders - something about the history of Israel's fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present. The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and ... their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war. From my position as a commander and 'explainer,' I attempted to talk about the politics - the streams in Palestinian society, about how not everyone who is in Gaza is Hamas, and not every inhabitant wants to vanquish us. I wanted to explain to the soldiers that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Qassams."
This really should be a wake up call for Israel's military and political leadership. I hope somebody hears it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Looming Battle Over the Right to Water

Istanbul this week has been playing host to the 5th World Water Forum, a kind of masters of the water universe confab/trade show where global water policy is discussed, maybe determined (by who, exactly, is not clear), and big water deals are made (an estimated $400-$500 billion is invested annually in water-related projects).

The forum is organized by the World Water Council, a Marseilles-based organization that – even after spending a few days at the Forum – remains something of a mystery to me. Founded in 1996, the WWC describes itself as “An International Multi-Stakeholder Platform for a Water Secure World.” Critics of the group say it is nothing but a front for private sector interests who want to turn the world’s water resources into a market-based commodity. That might be an exaggeration, but the slickness and cool professionalism of the people working with the organization certainly don’t give it a warm and fuzzy NGO vibe.

Either way, the WWC – through the Water Forum, which is held every three years – seems to have become the main address for bringing together the major “stakeholders” dealing with water issues, from government ministers down to community activists (although they were mostly exiled to something called the “NGO Village,” located in a building that was a healthy walk from the conference’s main venue).

The debate over the privatization of water services and resources certainly hovered over the Forum, although the forces of privatization seem to have been diminished by the disastrous experience they have had in Latin America and other parts of the world over the last decade. The private water companies themselves seemed to go out of their way to present a new face at the event. I had a chance to speak at the Forum with the affable Alexandre Brailowsky, who holds the newly created position of “Social Empowerment Director” at Suez Environment (or the more ominous sounding “Social Engineering Director,” as one company press release referred to him), one of the largest private water and sanitation companies in the world. Brailowsky couldn’t tell me enough about how much the company has learned from its mistakes and how it is now interested in creating a process where “the people are involved.”

What struck me as the emerging defining debate regarding water is over the question of the right to water. To put it simply: is access to sufficient clean water a basic universal human right? Few would disagree with that notion (at least not in public), but the real question is what does enshrining a right to water mean in practical, legal and financial terms. This was clearly something that many of the “stakeholders” at the Forum were grappling with, considering that most agreed that fresh water resources are diminishing.

From my article about the issue in today’s Christian Science Monitor:
With fresh water resources becoming scarcer worldwide due to population growth and climate change, a growing movement is working to make access to clean water a basic universal human right.

But it's a contentious issue, experts say. Especially difficult is how to safely mesh public-sector interests with public ownership of resources – and determine the legal and economic ramifications of enshrining the right to water by law.

"It's an issue that is snowballing," says Tobias Schmitz, a water-resources expert with Both Ends, a Dutch environmental and development organization. Some 30 countries have a constitutional or legal provision ensuring individuals' access to water, up from a handful a few years ago, he says.

"Everybody is grappling with the issue, knowing that we need to secure this right. But the question now is over the practical application of this right," Dr. Schmitz says.

Government officials and leaders of numerous nongovernmental organizations and companies working on the water issue are meeting this week in Istanbul as part of the World Water Forum, which takes place every three years in a bid to shape global water policy.

One of the thorniest issues governmental officials at the forum have struggled with has been this question of the right to water. A declaration to be signed by the ministers of some 120 countries attending the forum is expected to refer to access to water as a "basic need," rather than a right….

…."This is not a semantic issue. If we can determine that water is a right, it gives citizens a tool they can use against their governments," says Maude Barlow, a senior adviser on water issues to the president of the UN General Assembly.

"If you believe it is a human right, then you believe that you can't refuse to give it to someone because they can't afford it," she says.
You can read the rest of the article here. For more information about the issue, visit this site, put up by a coalition of groups working on question of the right to water.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Miseducation of Turkey's Minority Children

A new report issued by the London-based Minority Rights Group International takes a look at the educational challenges faced by minority children in Turkey.

From a Reuters article about the report:
Nurcan Kaya, author of the report by Minority Rights Group International, said a failure to provide equal access to education for children from non-Turkish backgrounds could hamper the country's bid to join the European Union, which has called on Turkey to expand cultural rights for its ethnic minorities.

"The discrepancy between EU standards on education for minorities and those in Turkey will ultimately affect Turkey's efforts to join the EU," Kaya said at a news conference.

"The EU should give this issue greater priority during Turkey's accession process," she said.

Turkey only recognises Greeks, Armenians and Jews as minorities under a treaty that ended World War One and doesn't afford special rights to other ethnic or religious groups, including Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population, Roma, Syriac Christians, Alevi Muslims and others....
....Officially recognised minorities operate their own schools and are able to teach some classes in Greek or Armenian, but are given as little as $1 per student annually in financial assistance from the government, said Garo Paylan of the Armenian Foundation Schools at the news conference.

Minority schools are unable to find properly trained teachers and updated textbooks, he said. A Turkish assistant principal employed by the Education Ministry is the main authority at the schools.

Religious education that teaches the Sunni Hanafi creed of Islam remains mandatory in state schools and non-adherents can only opt out of classes if they disclose their faith, which violates Turkey's secular constitution, the report said.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that religion classes in Turkey's state schools violate pluralism in a case brought by an Alevi father.
The full report can be found here.
[UPDATE -- In a column in Today's Zaman, Andrew Finkel points out the report's "unflattering" conclusion: "Although the education system could be used as an effective tool to promote tolerance, multiculturalism and peace, it is deepening fears and hatred in its current state."]
On a related note, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), recently released a report looking at the legal and bureaucratic hurdles faced by non-Muslim minority foundations in Turkey. Today's Zaman writes about it here. For some more background on the issue, take a look at piece I wrote a few years back for JTA.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Turkey-Israel Water Deal Back on the Table?

Today's Jerusalem Post reports that a stalled plan for Israel to import water from Turkey may be revived. Turkey and Israel were in negotiations for several years over a plan that would have Israel buying water from the Manavgat river on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Ankara even went as far as to build a kind of water storage facility on the river. [For some interesting background on Turkey's Manavgat plans, read Scott Peterson's Christian Science Monitor article from 2000.] But the deal ultimately never materialized, mostly because of problems in finding an easy and affordable way to transport the water and because, in recent years, Israel has moved towards building desalination plants as the technology associated with them became less expensive. 

But according to Post's report, officials from the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund (JNF) recently told a government committee looking into Israel's growing water crisis about some possible future plans, among them going back to the Manavgat:
[Russell Robinson, the organization's chief executive officer] and several of the other JNF officials told the committee that an Israeli innovation could be worth looking into in conjunction with importing water from Turkey.

Inventor Roni Yafe has invented a cloth sleeve that he says can hold fresh water and transport it over long distances. Fresh water is lighter than salt water, so the sleeves float and can be towed by ships.

Yafe has tested a 60,000 cubic meter bag, but said he believed a load of 300,000 cu.m. could be towed. He also has said he could import 500 million cubic meters of water per year using this method, the equivalent of five large desalination plants.

The Water Authority has remained skeptical of Yafe's invention, awaiting further tests before seriously considering it. The government also prefers desalination over dependence on a foreign country, especially one whose relations with Israel occasionally resemble a roller coaster ride.

Foreign Ministry legal advisor Ehud Keinan told the water crisis committee Thursday that plans to import water from Turkey had not been implemented because of high costs, technical difficulties and internal Turkish issues. Keinan handled negotiations on the issue from 2000 to 2006.
Worth noting is that Turkey has, for the last few years, been experiencing water shortages of its own. In fact, following a drought two years ago, the famous water falls on the Manavgat river itself went dry after water managers were forced to restrict the river's flow.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Security and the Global Economic Crisis: The Turkish Angle

David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and a blogger on the Foreign Policy website, has an interesting post up about testimony he recently gave in front of the House Armed Services Committee. The subject of the hearing was "Security Consequences of the Global Economic Crisis."

Turkey is among the countries that Rothkopf warns could be dangerously destabilized by the global economic crisis. From his testimony [the full version can be downloaded from a link at the blog post]:
Beyond threats to stabilizing forces and the international system, individual countries and key regions are also likely to see decline and unrest brought on by the crisis. Some of this unrest is likely to take the form of regime changes or social instability. Other risks associated with the crisis will come as opportunists seek to use anger at the failures in a system that is closely associated with the U.S. to foment hatred, to fuel recruitment for extremist and anti-US organizations and to simply produce distractions from local problems via the time-tested means of identifying foreign or domestic scapegoats and lashing out against them.

In short, the international security environment is likely to deteriorate over the next several years both because of a great hollowing out and weakening of the stabilizing forces in the world as well as from the emergence of new, destabilizing factors....

....In the cases of Turkey, Egypt and Iran, economic vulnerability of the current regimes creates the possibility of major shifts in leadership or in the positioning of current leadership that might be problematic. A more fundamentalist government in Turkey, given that country’s strategic position, or a more aggressive stance from Turkey regarding either Israel (see the contretemps between the Prime Minister and Israel’s Shimon Peres in Davos) or the Kurds (to distract and stir up nationalist feeling) could shift the balance of power in the region in ways that would be most troubling for the U.S. and the West. Iran’s case is different. If oil continues to fall and the government is more strapped, it is possible that the current regime may see it as in its interest to stir regional confrontation for both populist reasons and because it may reflate the price of oil. (Alternatively, it may weaken the current regime creating the opportunity for a change and an opening for the U.S.) In Egypt, given the potential for volcanic unrest that could topple the comparatively moderate regime, the issues are similar to those in Turkey.

A Diminishing Role for Turkey?

Over at the World Politics Review blog, Judah Grunstein makes a very good point about how the Obama administration's rolling back of the Bush government's disengaged foreign policy might affect emerging regional interlocutors like Turkey. [Note: We're adding WPR's blog to our "Turkey Links" list. Although it's doesn't focus exclusively on Turkey, the blog devotes quite a bit of attention to Turkish affairs and is worth reading.]

Grunstein writes:
One of the things that will be interesting to watch as the Obama administration pursues its unwinding of Bush-era isolation policies is the degree to which it either supports or devalues the "influence inflation" the Bush policies allowed various middle powers to enjoy. I'm thinking in particular about Turkey, but I'd say France fits into this category as well.

The idea being that a policy of isolating countries and subnational actors that are inescapable interlocuters puts a premium on the ability of third-party countries to bridge the communication divide. What made Turkey such a valuable mediator between Israel and Syria was in part the fact that Israel and Syria refused to negotiate directly and in part Turkey's perceived (at the time) non-partiality. But it was also in large part due to the fact that the U.S. refused to engage in direct discussions with Syria, and therefore was unavailable to chaperone the talks.

The same goes even more for Turkey's potential to play a mediator role between the U.S. and Iran.
As mentioned in a previous post, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to have rejected Turkey's offer to act as a bridge between Tehran and Washington. Meanwhile, in an interview with Japan's Asahi Shimbun, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad said that the indirect talks with Israel that Turkey helped mediate could only become direct talks with the U.S. as an arbitrator. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Jail the Children

The Turkish legal system has come up with a powerful method to teach Kurdish children not to join protests -- jail them. 

From a report issued by International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a Canada-based watchdog group:
A 15-year-old boy will spend more than three years in prison for taking part in a protest organised by the Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkish court ruled last month. He's just one of the dozens of children who has been tried or sentenced under anti-terrorism laws, report IFEX members in Turkey the Initiative for Freedom of Expression (Antenna-TR) and IPS Communication Foundation (BIANET).

The teen was tried and convicted for committing a crime on behalf of an illegal organisation - PKK - for allegedly attending one of the group's street protests in Adana and throwing stones at police officers. He initially faced 7.5 years in jail, but the sentence was reduced because of his age and good conduct in court. The child was taken into custody on 1 November 2008, and has been in Pozantı prison since.

A 2006 Anti-Terrorism Law amendment allows Turkish courts to charge teenagers aged 15 to 18 years old as adults. Human rights activists have pointed out that the amendment was made after protests took place in Kurdish-majority Diyarbakır in the southeast of Turkey….

….Similarly, 10 children who participated in protests in Diyarbakır during the visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan last October are currently on trial in Diyarbakır - some of them as young as 13. They stand accused of membership of an illegal organisation, namely PKK, and some of them are charged with "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organisation". The prosecution has sought jail time of more than 20 years for some of the accused.
(You can read the full report here.)

Bianet, meanwhile, has a bit more on the issue and about the launch of a human rights campaign asking the Turkish government to change the law that allows for minors to be tried in criminal court.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Turkey Back in the Middle?

Is Turkey getting back into the Middle East mediation game after the Davos detour it took a few weeks ago? As the Los Angeles Times reports:
Turkey's foreign minister arrived in Tehran on Monday for a long-scheduled economic summit amid speculation that his government could help open diplomatic contacts between Iran and the United States.

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan arrived in the Iranian capital to attend the annual Economic Cooperation Organization summit just days after discussing Iran with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The term 'mediation' is used at times," Babacan told reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital, before departing for Iran, according to the Turkish newspaper Sabah. "This will only be realized if a concrete request is made by both sides. We could contribute to the furthering of relations between the two nations to a positive level."
Today’s Zaman adds a bit more:
Ankara is not currently involved in mediation per se, but Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Turkey would consider requests by the two sides to serve as a mediator. He was speaking before departing for Tehran to attend a regional meeting late on Sunday, a day after Clinton had talks in Ankara. In televised remarks on Saturday, Clinton said the United States would ask Turkey to help push forward President Obama's plan to engage Iran. Iran earlier said it had sought Turkey's assistance in talks with the United States.

Babacan was expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, in addition to other Iranian leaders in Tehran. Talks are expected to gain momentum when President Abdullah Gül visits Tehran today to attend a summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Turkish sources have confirmed that Gül will also meet with Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while in Tehran.
But a report by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, asks if Teheran – no slouch when it comes to diplomacy – is really interested in having Turkey serve as a meditator for any possible opening with the U.S.:
….requesting Turkish mediation would harm Iran's self-proclaimed role of being a regional power. If Turkey successfully convinced Iran and the United States to begin negotiations, it would make Ankara and Tehran competitors for the role of regional power. Such a peace agreement would make Turkey appear as an absolute regional power while Iran would seem to be jumping on the Turkish bandwagon. For this reason, Iran would not want Turkey to be the peace broker and the policy maker of the region, however necessary it might be. Tehran would want direct talks with the United States only if it would clearly serve Iran's national interests. If direct negotiations with the U.S. should ever take place, however, Iran might want Turkey to be "the plumber"; whenever the diplomatic "pipes" became clogged, Turkey could be there silently waiting to reopen the blocked channel but not to act as mediator.

If, however, Iran feels further isolated from the rest of the world, it might engage Turkey in a mediatory role. Another possibility would be for the Obama administration to ask Turkey to test the waters to determine whether Iran would want to open negotiations. In that case, Iran might accept Turkey's services.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan already offered the new Obama administration Turkey’s services as a mediator with Iran back in November. I wrote about the proposal at the time for Eurasianet, and found that many experts believed that bringing Turkey on board as a mediator would be a tough sell in both Washington and Tehran. From my article:
….even if the Obama administration does try to engage Iran, some experts believe that US officials would not be inclined to do so via a third-party. "Opening a dialogue is something the United States is going to do itself. It’s not going to look for an interlocutor, no matter how closely allied. This is a different beast. This isn’t Israel and Syria," said Ian Lesser, a Washington-based Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "I don’t think an Obama administration will be looking to Turkey as a vehicle for this."

Meanwhile, the signals coming out of Tehran -- about both the question of talking to the United States and Turkey’s role as a mediator -- have been mixed.

"People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous," Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, recently said, according to the country’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency.

"The power holders in the new American government are trying to regain their lost influence with a tactical change in their foreign diplomacy. They are shifting from a hard conflict to a soft attack," Taeb said.

Commenting recently about Erdogan’s mediation offer, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi didn’t exactly give the Turks an unqualified green light to go ahead. "We will certainly not raise any obstacles," the spokesman said during a news conference. "But the reality is that the issues and problems between Iran and the United states go beyond the usual political problems between two countries."
[UPDATE -- Reuters reports that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shot down the idea of Turkey serving as a bridge between his country and the U.S.:
"There is no need for mediation," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters after talks in Tehran with regional leaders including Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

"Our stances our clear: if there is justice and respect no issue would remain in the world," he said.]

Monday, March 9, 2009


"Public diplomacy" seems to be the new buzzword in Washington, which probably explains why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Turkey ended with her appearing on a popular television talk show, where she opened up about how she first fell in love and her challenged sense of fashion. Hosted by four women, the program, called "Haydi Gel Bizimle Ol" (Come and Join Us), is the Turkish version of the popular American talk show "The View." (Clinton also appeared on television during a recent visit to Indonesia, dropping in on a youth-oriented program called "Dahsyat" (Awesome.))

From my article about Hillary's public diplomacy mission in Turkey in today's Christian Science Monitor:
Stagecraft appears to have helped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton score a few points for America's battered reputation here.

In a departure from her busy agenda of traditional diplomacy, Secretary Clinton sat down for a Saturday interview on a popular television talk show, opening up on prime time about everything from how she fell in love to her challenged sense of fashion.

Asked by one of the hosts how she has dealt with life's difficulties – including much-publicized bumps in her marriage – Clinton answered: "You know, family, faith, friends are the core of my life and I don't know anybody whose life is smooth sailing."

Clinton and Turkish officials had significant issues to discuss during her one-day visit to the Turkish capital of Ankara, including the possible use of Turkish soil for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and her announcement that President Obama will make his own trip to Turkey in the next month.

But Clinton also had another mission: to resurrect America's shabby image in Turkey, where, according to a 2007 public opinion survey, only nine percent of the population held favorable views of the US, down from 52 percent in 2002....
....The past few years have been dismal for America's image in Turkey. Turks were strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, while many also felt that the US was not doing enough to deal with the presence of Kurdish guerillas who were using their bases in Northern Iraq to attack Turkey.

Meanwhile, public appearances by American officials over the past few years were limited. Former president George W. Bush's one visit to Istanbul, for a NATO summit, saw him confined to a large security zone that turned a large part of downtown Istanbul into a ghost town.
You can read the rest of article here.

(Photo: Clinton speaking with a Turkish businesswoman and talk show hosts after her recent television appearance in Turkey. By Reuters)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Turkey's Sudan Problem

The issuing by the International Criminal Court of an arrest warrant for Sudanese leader Omar al Bashir has put Turkey in a tight spot. As part of Ankara’s push for improved relations with Muslim nations, as well as with African countries, Turkish-Sudanese relations have warmed up significantly over the last few years. Turkey hosted Bashir, now an international outlaw, twice last year, giving him the red carpet treatment each time. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself visited Sudan in 2006, making a quickie, government-arranged visit to Darfur, after which he ordered more Turkish aid to the region, but also claimed he saw no indication of genocide being committed there.

More recently, Sudanese Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha made an official visit to Ankara in early Feb., meeting with Erdogan. On the agenda, according to Turkish reports, was Sudan’s request for Ankara’s help in keeping Bashir from being arrested by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Turkey is currently a rotating member of the United Nations’ Security Council, which might vote on a motion to delay the Sudanese president’s arrest.

From a report in Today’s Zaman:
Although officials are reserved in public comments, there are indications that Ankara leans towards demanding postponement of the charges against al-Bashir. The fact that al-Bashir has visited Turkey twice in the recent past amidst all the accusations of atrocities in Darfur is one clear sign that Ankara is not willing to toe the Western line and alienate the Sudanese leader. Turkey is also increasingly eager to expand business cooperation with Africa, which lures foreigners with its vast undeveloped resources, including agricultural areas and newly discovered oil reserves, and its hunger for infrastructure investment. In a sign of growing Turkish interest in Africa, Turkey declared 2005 "Africa Year" and an exchange of senior-level visits has followed since then, the most recent of which was President Abdullah Gül's tour of Tanzania and Kenya last month. Turkish trade with Africa rose from $9 billion in 2005 to $14 billion by end of 2007.

The African Union, whose members overwhelmingly voted for Turkey to win a seat on the UN Security Council in elections held last year, is lobbying for a one-year delay of the case against al-Bashir, saying African leaders appear to be the sole targets of the international court. During his Africa visit, Gül did not mention the warrant but promised that Turkey would be the "voice of Africa at the Security Council."
Critics of the Turkish government have accused it of being hypocritical and applying a double standard regarding Sudan. While Erdogan was outspoken in his criticism of Israel’s recent war in Gaza, to the point of bringing Turkish-Israeli relations to the brink, little has been said about the violence committed in Darfur, where an estimated 300,000 have died, another 2 million displaced, and state-sponsored militia groups have been accused of systematic rape.

In a column in Sunday’s Today’s Zaman, columnist Andrew Finkel asks:
….if you are Turkey, a country with aspirations as a regional peacemaker and one that has only recently insisted on utter moral probity in condemning an ally for an assault on Gaza in which 1,300 people died, what should be your attitude [regarding Bashir’s arrest warrant]? Do you use the carrot or the stick? Do you:

a) Lend your moral support to the court in hopes of bringing al-Bashir to justice?
b) Invite the Sudanese president for a photo opportunity in Ankara?
c) Use your influence as a temporary member of the UN Security Council to defer the actions of the court as the lesser of two evils in the hope that you can win time to maneuver the bloodstained president into a settlement?
d) And if the above (as seems to be the case), do you expect the world to take you seriously?
(For a particularly feeble defense of the AKP government’s position on Darfur, read columnist Abdulhamit Bilici’s recent column in Today’s Zaman, where he informs readers that: “Firsthand observations by the people who visited Darfur add fuel to suspicions about the facts of the incidents [in the region].”)

Turkey spent a lot of political capital to make sure it got its prestigious temporary seat on the Security Council. But playing a leading role in helping a leader accused of everything just short of genocide escape arrest may not be how Ankara envisioned itself making a mark on the council.

(Photo: Turkish PM Erdogan shaking hands with Sudanese president Bashir, during his Jan. 2008 visit to Ankara. Photo by AP)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A (Struggling) League of Their Own

Today’s New York Times has an article of mine about the challenges facing a new Turkish women’s football/soccer league. From the article:
On a recent cold, gray Sunday, two Turkish premier league soccer teams enthusiastically ran onto the field of a small stadium on the outskirts of Istanbul.
Turks are soccer mad, with games regularly attended by tens of thousands of boisterous fans. But at this game, between host Kartalspor and Ankara’s Gazi Universitesispor, the 22 players on the field outnumbered the people shivering in the stands.

The weather was probably not to blame for the poor attendance; it was more likely because of who was playing. The two teams are part of Turkey’s new women’s soccer league, and although Turks may be soccer fanatics, there is a deep ambivalence in this socially conservative, predominantly Muslim society about women playing the game.
Halfway through its 18-game inaugural season, the league has met a combination of indifference, curiosity and occasional hostility.

“Football is seen as a man’s game in Turkey,” said Nurper Ozbar, 30, the coach of Marmara Universitesispor, the top team in the second division of the league, which also has two youth divisions.

“We’ve had men come to watch our practices and yell at our players: ‘What are you doing here? You should be at home, cooking!’ ” said Ozbar, one of the few women accredited as a soccer coach in Turkey, and the only one in Istanbul. “It’s going to take time to change this.”
You can read the rest of the article here.

(photo: Members of Istanbul's Kartalspor, one of the teams in a new Turkish women's football league. By Yigal Schleifer)