Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Roadmap for Turkey and Armenia, but Hazards Ahead

I have an article up on the Eurasianet website looking at some of the challenges facing Turkey and Armenia in their bid to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their border. From the article:
Turkey and Armenia have announced they are close to reaching an agreement to restore ties and reopen their borders. But observers caution that getting to a final deal will require both Turkey and Armenia to navigate through difficult domestic and external challenges.

"There’s no going back now, that’s for sure. Everybody wants to solve this problem now. Both countries are very committed and being very careful," said Noyan Soyak, the Istanbul-based vice-chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council, referring to the April 22 joint announcement that Ankara and Yerevan had agreed on a "road map" to normalize relations.

"Now it’s a question of timing and the implementation and how it’s going to be presented to the public. That’s very important," Soyak added….

….Sorting out the differences between Turkey and Armenia might be the easy part, experts say. It’s the other actors involved in the issue that may prove to be difficult, says Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist with Milliyet, a Turkish daily. "There are more factors that are lining up to spoil this than to bolster this. These factors have to play themselves out in the coming weeks and months and we’ll see where we go," said Idiz.

One significant hurdle to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is Azerbaijan, which insists that the Nagorno-Karabakh problem must be resolved before Ankara restores its ties with Yerevan. The Azeris have reacted angrily to the April 22 announcement, signaling that if Turkey proceeds unilaterally, then Baku may respond by strengthening ties with Moscow. The clear implication is that Azerbaijan may be willing to reorient its energy focus, and make Russia, not Turkey its main energy-export option.

"I don’t think Turkey expected the strong Azeri reaction. At the moment there is anger on both sides," Idiz says. "Turkey is not going to lose Azerbaijan -- there are pipelines and trade that connect the countries, whether they like it or not -- but it will cool relations for a while."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials have tried to placate Baku by saying no final deal with be signed with Armenia until there is an agreement on Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in slow moving negotiations over the territory’s fate as part of the Minsk Group process, which is overseen by the United States, Russia and France.

Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says linking the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border with the fate of the Karabakh issue is a mistake. "Ankara would be ill-advised to hold up rapprochement with Yerevan because of protests from its ally, Azerbaijan," Pope said. "In fact, normalizing relations with Armenia is the best way for Turkey to help its ethnic and linguistic Azerbaijani cousins. It would make Armenia feel more secure, making it perhaps also more open to a compromise over Nagorno-Karabakh."

"The way the Azeris are dealing with it now is that they are telling their people that they didn’t lose the war and they are talking about military reconquest and that’s completely unrealistic," Pope continued. "Turkey obviously has a lot of work to do to convince the Azeris that their current concept is not working and that your only way to get their land back is through the Minsk Group process."

Turkish and Armenian leaders, meanwhile, are also facing rising domestic anger about the possibility of a deal. In Armenia, the hard-line nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party on April 27 quit the country’s governing coalition. In Turkey, the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) have criticized the government for its overtures to Armenia, claiming it has sold out Azerbaijan.

"This demonstrates the fragility of the agreement, in that neither Turkey, nor Armenia nor Azerbaijan has done anything to prepare their societies or shape public opinion to prepare for an agreement," said Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a Yerevan-based think tank.

"The same can be said for Nagorno-Karabakh, where neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has done anything to prepare society for an agreement," Giragosian added. "I would also stress that right now we are only talking about normalization. Normalization infers open borders and even historical commissions. But the second step is reconciliation and for that to happen we need civil society and public opinion involved, especially for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, because that means dealing with the genocide issue."

"If the public isn’t on board, we can’t sustain normalization or transform it into a deeper reconciliation," Giragosian emphasized.

Monday, April 27, 2009

In Central Asia, Gulen Schools Under Increasing Fire

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a very interesting story about the increasing pressure being put on schools opened up by the Turkish Gulen movement in Central Asia. Named after scholar Fethullah Gulen, the highly successful movement has been active in opening Turkish schools in Central Asia since the mid-1990's and has also been opening up schools in other parts of the world, including the United States. In Turkey, the movement is a powerful - and controversial - force in politics and media (Zaman, Today's Zaman and several other print and tv outlets are affiliated with it). 

From the RFE/RL article:
Throughout Central Asia, Turkish schools are known for their strict educational methods and discipline and are highly regarded by students and parents.

The majority of national and regional education contests are won by Turkish lyceum students. Easily passing English-language tests, many graduates win scholarships to Western universities.

Parents go to great lengths to enroll their children in Turkish schools, hoping such education will guarantee bright futures for them.

Yet, Turkish educational institutions have come under increasing scrutiny in Central Asia. Governments as well as many scholars and journalists suspect that the schools have more than just education on their agendas.

In Turkmenistan, education authorities have ordered Turkish lyceums to scrap the history of religion from curriculums.

In the only Persian-speaking country in the region, Tajikstan, the government, as well as academics, are wary of the possible spread of pan-Turkic ideas. They fear that these schools promote Turkish influence and the Turkish language in their country.

However, it is Uzbekistan that has taken the toughest stance toward Turkish schools. In 1999, Tashkent closed all Turkish lyceums after its relationship with Ankara turned sour.

This year, the authoritarian Uzbek government headed by President Islam Karimov took things a step further by arresting at least eight journalists who were graduates of Turkish schools. The journalists were found guilty of setting up an illegal religious group and of involvement in an extremist organization….

….Uzbek officials have expressed suspicions that Turkish-school graduates in government offices and other key institutions use their positions to weaken the secular government. They charge that graduates of Turkish schools promote an aggressive form of Islam and even a role for Islam in political life.
You can read the rest of the article here. For more on the Gulen movement, take a look at this analysis piece (pdf) from Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst.

(Photo: A sign at Dushanbe's Haji Kemal Joint Tajik-Turkish Boarding School. By RFE/RL)

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24

April 24 commemorates the Armenian genocide of 1915-1918. The tragedy of the event itself has become subsumed and obscured by the politics surrounding the issue. It seems like every year more attention is paid to the “will he, or won’t he?” guessing game of whether the American president will utter the word “genocide” in his annual commemoration of the event, than is actually given to remembering what happened.

There is another opportunity missed on April 24, and that is the chance for Turkey to take stock of its policy on the genocide issue is. Ankara spends an enormous amount of political capital (and cold hard cash for lobbyists) in fighting the genocide claim, particularly in the United States, on what I believe is ultimately a self-defeating battle. A good example would be Turkey’s relations with Canada, which have not fully recovered from a breach that occurred in 2006, after Canadian PM Stephen Harper referred to the events of 1915 as a “genocide” and Turkey briefly recalled its ambassador to Ottawa in protest. This past week, Turkey again recalled its ambassador after Canadian officials reportedly attended a genocide commemoration event.

My own modest theory regarding international affairs is that whenever a country has a problem with Canada, it’s time for that country to take a good look at its own policies to see where they might be coming up short. Having a diplomatic spat with Canada is, at the end of the day, really more about you than Canada.

Needless to say, there are much bigger and more critical issues that require Ankara’s attention than the annual fight to extinguish the Armenian genocide flame in Washington (and other capitals). Imagine if the money and effort spent on lobbying on the issue in Washington was put into action in Brussels and other European capitals on behalf of Turkey’s EU bid? That said, there is something different this year, and that is because of yesterday’s joint announcement by Turkey and Armenia that they have worked out a “roadmap” for restoring their severed relations. If the two countries succeed to move along the road they are mapping, this could very well lead to a new Turkish approach regarding the genocide issue.

The details of the “roadmap” are still vague, but what is clear is that, for now, the Turkish-Armenian announcement had less to do with repairing the two countries’ relations and more to do with protecting Turkish-American relations. During his recent visit to Turkey, president Barack Obama signaled that he would back away from his campaign promise to refer to the 1915 events as a “genocide” because of fears that doing so might harm the progress being made in the talks between Turkey and Armenia. Making the American president look like a chump by failing to come up with something concrete before April 24 would not have been the best way to start the new “golden age” in Turkish-American relations that some in Ankara have been predicting.

Reaching a compromise solution with Armenia on how to deal with the genocide issue will only be part of the battle for Turkey. What may be even harder for the country is to get the Turkish public to reach some kind of new understanding about what happened in the early part of the 20th century. After decades of an official line that said there was no genocide and that it was the Armenians who were the aggressors, the genocide and its denial have become a touchstone of Turkish nationalism, an important element in a national narrative that blames external forces for trying to undermine Turkey, sometimes using the country’s minorities to achieve that goal. Some progress has been made in creating a more open environment in Turkey for discussing the genocide question (although there are severe limits to that, as the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink showed) and the subject is not the taboo that it once was, but it still remains a potentially explosive issue.

Opening borders is going to be one thing. Opening minds will be something else entirely.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Ottoman Revival, Cont.

Worldfocus, a global affairs news program and website that's put out by WNET, a public TV station in New York, has a new feature about the rising popularity of Turkish soap operas in the Middle East. You can watch the segment here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Ottoman Revival

I have a piece in the new issue of Foreign Policy about Turkey's reengagement with the Middle East and the favorable reception Ankara is getting in the region. From the article:
One clear day in February, when Ali Babacan visited Yemen, his hosts brought him to a centuries-old, mud-brick building outside Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. There, about a dozen tribal leaders were waiting for the Turkish foreign minister with curved daggers drawn. If Babacan was at first startled, he soon realized that he was being greeted in a way once reserved for newly arrived Ottoman governors—complete with drums and a traditional dance that had probably not been performed for a Turkish official in almost a century.

Not so long ago, top Turkish officials didn’t bother to visit Yemen, or for that matter most other countries in the Middle East. In the nearly 90 years since the founding of the modern Turkish Republic, its leaders have tended to equate the East with backwardness, and the West with modernity—and so focused their gaze primarily on Europe. Meanwhile, Arab countries, once ruled by sultans from Istanbul, looked upon Turkey with a mixture of suspicion and defensive resentment.

Today that’s changing. Not only is Turkey sending emissaries throughout the region, but a new vogue for all things Turkish has emerged in neighboring countries. The Turkish soap opera Noor, picked up by the Saudi-owned MBC satellite network and dubbed in Arabic, became a runaway hit, reaching some 85 million viewers across the Middle East. Many of the growing number of tourists from Arab countries visiting Istanbul are making pilgrimages to locations featured in the show. In February, Asharq Alawsat, a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, took note of changing attitudes in a widely circulated column, “The Return of the Ottoman Empire?”

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Setback in Cyprus

The results from Sunday’s parliamentary elections in northern Cyprus might spell trouble for the divided island’s ongoing peace negotiations, which started in 2008. The talks are supposed to lead to the creation of a single state with two zones – one Greek and one Turkish – united in a federal system. But the party that won the election, the right wing National Unity Party (UBP), has previously opposed a federal solution and has called for the island – divided since the Turkish invasion in 1974 – to be permanently split into two states.

The peace talks are currently being led, on the Turkish Cypriot side, by Mehmet Ali Talat, president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state currently only recognized by Turkey. Talat’s Republican Turkish Party (CTP) received 29 percent of the vote, compared to the UBP’s 44 percent. Talat, elected in 2005, has been instrumental in moving northern Cyprus closer towards ending the political stalemate with the Greek-speaking side of the island. He remains in office until 2010, but he may find himself with less room to maneuver now.

"We will continue to support negotiations," UBP leader Dervish Eroglu said after the election. "No one should say we are against them. We will put forward our views and discuss them within the framework of Turkey’s foreign policy on Cyprus." Those are positive words, but in interviews in the Turkish press, Eroglu had made clear his opposition to a single state solution and his desire to maintain northern Cyprus’s close links to Turkey.

The election results might prove to be yet another headache for Turkish policymakers, who have been trying to come up over the last few years with a new approach to the Cyprus issue, since the island’s problems are also Turkey’s problems. From a Eurasianet piece I wrote last year, at the start of the peace negotiations:
While the Cyprus conflict sometimes expresses itself in petty arguments -- such as whether baklava is a Greek or Turkish invention, and whether the gooey confection known around the world as Turkish delight should in fact be called Cypriot delight -- the problem also has a larger geopolitical element. For example, when the Greek Cypriot government recently wanted to grant international companies the right to search for oil and gas in the sea around the island, Turkey protested forcefully, saying the search area was in disputed waters.

"It appears to be a stable situation, but it is really an unstable one," says Niyazi Kizilyurek, a Turkish Cypriot who is chairman of the Turkish Studies department at the Greek Cypriot University of Cyprus. "This is not only about solving the Cyprus problem."

Turkey’s troubled EU-membership drive is also inextricably tied up in the Cyprus issue. The Greek-speaking south part of the island joined the bloc in 2004, and has since used its position in Brussels to occasionally stymie Ankara’s EU bid. Turkey, meanwhile, is using its NATO membership to strike back, blocking enhanced cooperation between the EU and the defense alliance in protest of what it sees as Brussels’ being held captive to the Cypriot agenda. This has hampered EU policing projects in Kosovo and Afghanistan from getting off the ground.

"Cyprus is using the EU to punish Turkey and Turkey is using NATO to punish Cyprus. All these things are going to come up as major issues if this current round of negotiations fails. The result is that the Cyprus issue, which has always been a wedge between Turkey and the EU, will go deeper," says the [International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope, an analyst based in Turkey]….

….Turkey’s EU bid is due for a review by Brussels in 2009 and a lack of progress on the Cyprus issue could be a major negative. Still, the last three or four years have seen Ankara take a more conciliatory approach on the issue, in the hopes of getting it resolved. "The sense is that is Turkey does this, it will be easier for it to get into the EU and accepted in international forums," says Sami Kohen, a leading columnist on Turkish foreign policy in the Milliyet newspaper.

"But the feeling in Ankara in the last few months is that if there is no agreement soon, then that’s the end of it. This is the last chance." Adds Kohen: "If Turkey sees that there is no way of convincing its friends in the EU to change the minds of the Greek Cypriots, then it will say that we will no longer continue [its EU bid] because of tiny Cyprus imposing its own policies on the EU. If it comes to that point, we might see a dramatic shift in Turkish foreign policy."
You can read the whole piece here.

A New Link

I've added a blog called "Jim Meyer's Borderlands" to the "Turkey Links" section of this blog. Jim Meyer is a historian who studies the interaction between the Ottoman and Russian empires and is currently doing post-doc work in Turkey, Georgia and Russia. His interesting blog covers more contemporary subjects and is a good source for some alternative views on developments in the region. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More on the possible Turkish-Armenian Thaw

The International Crisis Group has a new report out about Turkey and Armenia and the possibility of their renewing diplomatic relations. From the report's executive summary:
Turkey and Armenia are close to settling a dispute that has long roiled Caucasus politics, isolated Armenia and cast a shadow over Turkey’s European Union (EU) ambition. For a decade and a half, relations have been poisoned by disagreement about issues including how to address a common past and compensate for crimes, territorial disputes, distrust bred in Soviet times and Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani land. But recently, progressively intense official engagement, civil society interaction and public opinion change have transformed the relationship, bringing both sides to the brink of an historic agreement to open borders, establish diplomatic ties and begin joint work on reconciliation. They should seize this opportunity to no rmalise. The politicised debate whether to recognise as genocide the destruction of much of the Ottoman Armenian population and the stalemated Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh should not halt momentum. The U.S., EU, Russia and others should maintain support for reconciliation and avoid harming it with statements about history at a critical and promising time.

Turks’ and Armenians’ once uncompromising, bipolar views of history are significantly converging, showing that the deep traumas can be healed. Most importantly, the advance in bilateral relations demonstrates that a desire for reconciliation can overcome old enmities and closed borders. Given the heritage and culture shared by Armenians and Turks, there is every reason to hope that normalisation of relations between the two countries can be achieved and sustained.
You can download the full report here.

Turkey's Kurdish TV Gamble: an Update

According to Radikal, Kurdish singer Rojin -- one of the biggest stars of TRT Ses, Turkish state television's newly launched Kurdish channel -- has just quit the network. "Imagine a program where the host does not know who is invited and cannot decide on her own guests," the singer said in a released statement, claiming that some of the things she wanted to say on her show were censored. "The program is treated as a potential crime and the host as a potential criminal," she said.

As noted in a previous post, the launching of TRT Ses was an important move, but the network could only succeed if it does things without the presence of a heavy state hand. If Rojin's departure is really because of what she says (some of the big names appearing on the network have come under strong pressure from hardline Kurds to quit, so that could also be a reason) then TRT Ses might be in trouble.

The Turkish-Armenian Thaw: 
Implications for the South Caucasus

The Caucasian Review of International Affairs, on online journal, has a good rundown of all the developments on the Turkish-Armenian front (or should we say the Turkish-Armenian-Azeri-Russian-American front). As the piece makes clear, there are several players in the chess game being played out right now in the South Caucasus. 

From the CRIA's article:
Turkey’s recent and ongoing rapprochement with Armenia, addressed in last week’s Caucasus Update from the Turkish angle, has implications that could reverberate throughout the South Caucasus and beyond. Arguably, the normalisation of ties between Armenia and Turkey would be an event of equivalent regional significance as the Russo-Georgian war of last August.

Details remain unclear. This diplomatic murkiness testifies to just how explosive the issue has become for the Turkish, Azerbaijani and Armenian governments. The outlines, however, are apparent – that Turkey and Armenia are expected to begin opening their mutual border and establishing diplomatic relations probably sooner than later. The Turkish overtures are contingent on two things: firstly, that US President Barack Obama does not openly acknowledge the Armenian ‘genocide’, and secondly (and much less publicly) that Armenia renounces or at least quietly suspends its own push for genocide recognition and its long-dormant claims to Turkey’s eastern provinces as part of its “Greater Armenia” concept.

A third condition – that any formal moves are also conditional on Armenian progress towards removing its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories around it – is unconfirmed. The very idea that Turkey would go through with the border talks without attaching any conditions on Karabakh has provoked fury in Azerbaijan, especially since Turkey sealed the border in 1993 in response to the Armenian occupation of the regions, a reality which has clearly not changed. In Baku, the issue has created a rare patch of common ground for the government and the opposition (APA, April 7).

Essentially, what has developed appears to be an enormous three-way game. Firstly, Turkey’s determination to go ahead with the thaw – including the establishment of an alleged framework for talks in the areas of border openings, diplomatic representations, and dispute commissions (Wall Street Journal, April 2) – has been curbed by its recognition of the obvious, and urgent, need to keep their ethnic and linguistic brethren in Azerbaijan on side. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on April 7 that "The Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute should be resolved first. Then, problems between Turkey and Armenia can be solved, too”. According to Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s bluff may be to limit the thaw to occasional border openings and limited diplomatic contact until October, when a World Cup qualifying match between Armenia and Turkey (the return leg of the fixture which began the whole process last September with Turkish President’s visit to Yerevan) is due to take place in Istanbul (Today’s Zaman, April 9). This would give Ankara time to push Azerbaijan and Armenia into a compromise over Karabakh, probably under the auspices of Turkey’s much-discussed Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.
You can read the rest of the article here. Also, Hurriyet's English-language edition has an interview with Turkish culture minister Ertugrul Gunay and his ideas for how Turkey and Armenia can cooperate in the cultural sphere.

(Photo: An out of commission Armenian artillery piece on the border with Turkey. By Yigal Schleifer)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Obama's Turkish Delight

In case you didn't get enough Obama in Turkey coverage, I have a dispatch up on the Foreign Policy website about the president's successful effort to woo the Turkish public, known, in recent years, for its strong anti-American sentiments. From the FP piece: 
If there was a golden age in U.S.-Turkey relations, it was probably the several-day visit that then U.S. President Bill Clinton made to Turkey in 1999. Clinton is still fondly remembered for visiting an area outside Istanbul that had been hit by a devastating earthquake only a few months before and for delivering a rousing speech in parliament. Pictures of a smiling Clinton are still easy to find in the small shops in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, where the former president's image is often displayed as shorthand for "We like Americans."

It's likely that Obama pictures will soon be on display in the bazaar. On a visit there during Obama's first day in Turkey, I spoke with Ismail Aksahin, a kilim rug merchant who has been working the Grand Bazaar since 1992. "We are feeling good about Obama. Bush was a bad option for us for eight years. We feel about Obama the way we feel about Clinton."

"If you had asked most of us here a year ago if we were ready to embrace America, everybody would have said, 'No,'" he added, waving his hand dismissively.

"Now the wind is blowing in a different direction."
You can read the rest of the piece here.

Banned in Turkey, Pt. III

As previously mentioned in this blog here, and here, Turkey has some very strong -- and misguided -- internet censorship law. Google's YouTube and several other prominent websites are currently blocked in Turkey, mostly for carrying material that insults Ataturk, but also for other offenses, such as showing pornography. Turkish law allows the web to be attacked from all sides: individuals and organizations can petition almost any court to have a particular website shut down if they feel it insults them or the Turkish nation in some way, while the government has an agency that monitors websites and that can shut them down without going through the courts.

Now, according to recent reports, the nationalist Atatürkist Thought Association (ADD) has asked prosecutors to look into shutting down Google Sites, a free service run by the search engine giant that allows for the creation of websites. Apparently someone over at the ADD found some websites powered by Google Sites that contain material that insults Ataturk or "Turkishness." “For this reason, we request that an investigation be launched into the issue and necessary precautions be taken,” the organization's petition to the Ankara Public Prosecutor's Office says. If the prosecutor decides to go ahead and take the case to court, the Google service could very well be blocked.

Although there might be a place for some controls over the internet and what it contains, it's clear that Turkey's law, as it is currently constructed, is allowing for the country to be cut off from useful internet tools. That could ultimately affect the country's development, which certainly doesn't seem to be in line with Ataturk's vision for Turkey.

[UPDATE -- You can check out a new Freedom House report on Turkey's internet laws here.]

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Taking it to the Kids

I had the chance yesterday to attend Barack Obama's town hall meeting with some 100 Turkish university students. The event was broadcast live on Turkish television and seemed to me like another successful public diplomacy effort, particularly in a country where America's image (or at least that of the American government) had sunk very low. Obama clearly has star power -- "I love him!" one young woman told me -- but listened carefully to the students' questions and delivered serious, but down to earth, answers.

From my piece about the event in today's Christian Science Monitor:
President Barack Obama capped off his well-received visit to Turkey with a public diplomacy gesture, meeting with a group of 100 Turkish university students for an unscripted town hall meeting that was broadcast live on television. Like his speech yesterday in the Turkish Parliament, the event was part of Mr. Obama's effort to reinvigorate the Turkey-US relationship, which has been battered by policy disagreements and by what observers say was a lack of American outreach to Turkey.

"In some ways, the foundation has been weakened," Obama told the students, who had gathered in a cultural center housed inside a 17th-century Ottoman building that was once a canon factory. "In some ways, both countries have lost the sense that we are in this together. So I have come to help rebuild that foundation."

"I am personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement," Obama added. "We can't afford to talk past one another, to focus only on our differences, or to let the walls of mistrust go up around us...."

....Shortly before leaving, he referenced his opposition to the Iraq war, but reminded his audience that it would be unwise to act hastily in changing course. "Moving the ship of state takes time," he said. "Now that we're there," the US troop withdrawal has to be done "in a careful enough way that we don't see a collapse into violence."

One student asked about America's policy regarding the possibility of an independent Kurdish state being established in Northern Iraq. Ankara worries that such a move would set a dangerous precedent for its own Kurdish population.

"We are very clear about the territorial integrity of Turkey," the president answered. "We would be opposed to anything that would start to cut off parts of Turkey."

The Turkish public's opinion of the US has reached a record low in recent years, something that was reflected in films, television, and books. Turks and Americans fighting it out in Northern Iraq was the theme of both a 2005 Turkish bestseller called "Metal Storm," and "Valley of the Wolves," a 2006 film that became one of Turkey's best-grossing films ever.

In his opening statements to the students, Obama set out to counter what he said was a false message being delivered about the US.

"Sometimes it suggests that America has become selfish or crass and doesn't care about the world beyond its borders," Obama told the students. "I'm here to tell you that's not the America I know.

"We are still a place where anyone who tries can still make it. If that wasn't true, then someone named Barack Hussein Obama could not become president," the president added.

Obama held a similar, if larger, town hall meeting with French and German students during last week's NATO summit in Strasbourg, France. His attempt to reach out to the Turkish public comes after a well received effort by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, during an early March visit to Turkey, went on a popular television chat show to talk about her work and personal life.

"It's a different style, but I think it's effective," says Berna Ozkale, a senior studying chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University who was among the students at the town-hall meeting.

"All these students are here because they have hope in the new American president," she said. "I wouldn't have come if it was George Bush. I don't think it would have improved me."

Walking around with a wireless microphone, Obama took questions covering America's position on climate change, its support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and how his policies might be different from those of the Bush years.

In one of his answers, Obama talked about his hopes for peace in the Middle East and the difficulties of "unspooling centuries of hate."

"Learning to stand in someone else's shoes, to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins," the president told the student who posed the question. "And it's up to you to make that happen."
(Photo: Barack Obama during his April 7, 2009 town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul. By Yigal Schleifer)

Obama's Turkey Visit - A Good First Step

I have an analysis of Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey and the challenges that await the U.S.-Turkey relationship up on the World Politics Review website.

From my piece:
President Barack Obama ended his recent European tour in Turkey with perhaps his most challenging mission: to repair and reinvigorate the frayed U.S.-Turkish strategic alliance. He left the country with what appears to be a solid new foundation on which to do so, but significant challenges remain ahead….

….The visit, though, is clearly only a start. The two countries' relationship -- a pragmatic alliance born out of mutual needs and threats faced during the Cold War -- has been struggling to find new meaning since the fall of the Soviet Union. "It's a work in progress," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington. "It's a good thing that the president is coming so early in his term, because it underlines Turkey's abiding importance in American foreign policy," he says. But Aliriza adds, "There isn't yet a thought-through blueprint for the U.S.-Turkish relationship."

Indeed, many of the mutual concerns that bring the two countries together -- how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, for instance, or the status of the Kurdish administration in Northern Iraq -- could also drive the two allies apart should they fail to agree on a unified approach.

And while Obama's visit was designed to emphasize that Turkey is part of Europe, an increasingly assertive Ankara has at times fallen outside of the Western consensus on certain issues. Erdogan's exceedingly harsh criticism of Israel during the recent Gaza operation and his support for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir are two recent examples.

Another challenge for the U.S. could be how to deal with the irascible Erdogan, who is popular at home but highly unpredictable abroad. Recent appearances at international events, such as in Davos or the recent NATO summit in Strasbourg, have seen Erdogan display a kind of bullying brinksmanship, which may ultimately distance Turkey from Europe, and thus from the trans-Atlantic alliance.

For U.S.-Turkey relations to truly enter a new "golden era" requires good chemistry and not the alchemy of wishful thinking. This means clearly defining areas of mutual interest, and creating durable mechanisms both for working together on those interests and for resolving any disagreements that might arise. In that sense, Obama's visit to Turkey is an important first step in what is an overdue, but necessary, process.
You can read the full analysis here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Obama to Turkey: "Evet" We Can

After charming his way through Europe, President Barack Obama has now worked his magic on Turkey. He smartly started his day in Ankara with the traditional visit to Ataturk’s mausoleum, followed by an all smiles meeting with president Abdullah Gul and a visit to parliament. There he met with leaders of opposition parties – including, significantly, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), somebody Turkey’s prime minister refuses to sit down with – and gave a very good speech.

The speech, either directly or indirectly, touched on almost every important point and every difficult issue imaginable and clearly stated America's desire to patch things up with Turkey. Obama even gave a shout out to Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, two Turks who are making their mark in the NBA. He also used the speech to again remind the west – and his hosts – that Turkey is part of Europe and should become a member of the European Union.

From my Christian Science Monitor article about the speech:
As part of his effort to repair the strained Turkey-US strategic relationship, President Barack Obama today delivered a wide-ranging speech to Parliament, stressing the country's importance as one rooted in both Europe and the Muslim world and encouraging its leaders to continue on the path of democratic reform.

Obama also used his speech to reach out to the Muslim world, telling the applauding parliamentarians, "The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."
"In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a violent ideology that people of all faiths reject. But I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect," the president said.

The two countries have clashed over the last several years, particularly regarding the 2003 American invasion of Iraq (Turkey refused to allow US troops to enter Iraqi territory via Turkey). During the Bush administration, Turks grew increasingly antagonistic, with only 9 percent holding a favorable view of the US according to polls in 2007 – down from 52 percent in 2002.

But Obama used his speech to reaffirm the Turkish-US relationship.

"Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together – and work together – to overcome the challenges of our time," the president said, listing a number of issues that concern both countries, among them terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy security.
Obama also tackled the one issue that again could derail Turkish-US relations: how to deal with the 1915 massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. In his election campaign, Obama said he'd call the killings of the Armenians genocide. A resolution to do so was introduced in the US House of Representatives last month. Turkey and Armenia have recently been making progress on a deal that would restore diplomatic relations between them, open up their borders once again and – most importantly – provide Obama with a good excuse for going back on his campaign promise to call the killings genocide.

Here’s how Obama dealt with the issue in his speech:
Another issue that confronts all democracies as they move to the future is how we deal with the past. The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history. Facing the Washington Monument that I spoke of is a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed those who were enslaved even after Washington led our Revolution. Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans.

Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.

We've already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. So I want you to know that the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. It is a cause worth working towards.
Tomorrow Obama visits the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, followed by a town hall meeting with Turkish university students. Stay tuned.

(Photo: Barack Obama speaking in the Turkish parliament in Ankara on April 6, 2009. By AP)

He's Here

American president Barack Obama arrived in Turkey last night, and perhaps not a minute too soon. The last eight years have not been kind to the Turkey-U.S. relationship, and Obama's mission is an important one: to help repair this important, though frayed, strategic alliance. 

From my Christian Science Monitor article previewing Obama's Turkey visit:
The last eight years have seen Turkey and the United States butt heads on a number of occasions. Turkey opposed the US invasion of Iraq and its parliament refused to pass a 2003 motion that would have allowed American troops to enter Iraq through Turkish soil. Some in Washington, meanwhile, had at times been uncomfortable with Turkey's active reengagement with the Middle East, particularly its growing relations with Syria and Iran.

And during the years of President Bush's administration, the Turkish public's opinion of America reached new lows, with a 2007 survey finding that only nine percent of Turks held a favorable view of their NATO ally, down from 52 percent in 2002.

"I would say that we have had a very rough eight years – rough at the policy level, but also rough at the level of public opinion. And in modern times, public opinion has an impact on policy," says Ian Lesser, an expert on Turkey at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.

During his visit, Obama is scheduled to address the Turkish parliament – the last American president to do so was Bill Clinton in 1999 – and hold a town hall meeting with Turkish youth.
"I think Obama's visit can be quite transformative, depending on what he says to the Turkish parliament and what he says to Turkish society. People will be watching that very closely," Mr. Lesser says.

"Because the relationship has not been one of trust for the last eight years, at least now there is a possibility to get to a much better climate for discussing substance."

There is certainly a lot of substance to talk about. The US is looking to Turkey for help in its planned withdrawal from Iraq and for its buildup of troops in Afghanistan. Ankara's improved relations with Syria and Iran, meanwhile, could be helpful for the Obama administration's plans to establish a dialogue with those two countries. Energy security and the development of new routes for delivering oil and gas to Western markets are issues that could also benefit from Turkish-American cooperation, experts say....

....During a March visit to the US, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister's chief foreign policy advisor, predicted that Obama's visit and the alignment of shared interests between Washington and Ankara could herald the arrival of a "golden age" in Turkish-American relations.

Although there are many positive signs, analysts warn that Obama's visit to Turkey is only the first step in a necessary process of rebuilding a frayed alliance.

"A golden age would be terrific and who can argue with that as a goal," says GMF's Lesser.
"But for those of us who watch this stuff, we'll be satisfied with a partnership where there is less mutual suspicion and a lot more cooperation on key issues."
[You can read the whole article here.]

(Photo: President Obama arriving in Ankara on April 5, 2009. By AP)

Friday, April 3, 2009

For Turkey - and perhaps NATO - something Rotten in Denmark

NATO may choose a new secretary-general during its two-day summit that starts today in Strasbourg, France. The leading candidate is Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a choice that has been strongly criticized by Turkey, NATO’s only predominantly Muslim member. Although Ankara has yet to say if it would veto the choice of Rasmussen, it has made its concerns about him very clear in recent weeks.

Turkey’s main worry appears to be about the Danish PM’s role in the Muhammad cartoon episode, where he refused to apologize for the actions of the Danish paper that ran the caricatures, citing his support of its freedom of expression, and his refusal to meet after the cartoons’ publication with a group of ambassadors representing Muslim countries. "NATO as a whole should think about their image in the Muslim world," a senior Turkish diplomat told Reuters.

The questions surrounding Rasmussen’s suitability to lead NATO at a time when it is expanding its operations outside of Europe give Turkey a chance to again highlight its role as the west’s bridge to the Islamic World and the Middle East. But the case of the Danish PM also has domestic implications for the Turkish government, which has accused the Danes of ignoring its requests to shut down Roj TV, a Kurdish satellite network broadcasting out of Denmark that Ankara accuses of being a PKK mouthpiece. (Before his now famous Davos outburst, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made headlines when he walked out of a 2005 press conference with Rasmussen in Denmark because of reporter from Roj TV was in the room, leaving the Danish PM to awkwardly field questions on his own.) [For some background on the Roj controversy, take a look at this article of mine from the Christian Science Monitor.]

[UPDATE I -- Maybe it really is more about Roj than than the cartoons. According to a report on Hurriyet's website, during a speech Erdogan gave today in London, the Turkish PM said: 
"How can those who have failed to contribute to peace, contribute to peace in the future? We have doubts...," he told during a speech delivered on "Global Economic Crisis and Turkey" at Chatham House Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs in London, where he attended the G-20 Summit.

He said "NATO is an organization whose duties are to ensure peace," adding his country is absolutely opposed to the 28-nation alliance losing strength.

"But the mouthpiece of the terror organization in my country is broadcasting from Denmark," he said. "How can someone who did not stop this safeguard the peace?" Erdogan added.

"This is my personal opinion: I look at it (his candidacy) negatively," the Turkish prime minister said.]
Still, although Turkey has been the only NATO to publicly express reservations about Rasmussen’s candidacy, it appears that other countries may now be having second thoughts about him. And in a recent column in the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer, formerly the New York Times’ Istanbul bureau chief, makes a strong case for why NATO should not choose the Dane:
Was the publication of these cartoons in Denmark an abuse of press freedom? Was it responsible? Were the cartoons racist? These questions are of the past. Nato need not worry about them. But if Nato decides that the figure most directly associated with this scandal should be its new secretary general, how can it expect to win the public support in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is crucial to the success of its vital mission?

This choice would not be simply tone-deaf. It would do more to alienate Muslims from Nato than almost any other step the alliance could take. What can Nato be thinking? Proceeding with this appointment would suggest that it has lost all contact with reality. Rasmussen's qualifications are not the issue – what matters is the way his appointment would be perceived in the world's most explosive region.
Yavuz Baydar and Sahin Alpay, columnists in Today’s Zaman and two of Turkey’s leading liberal commentators, also give Rasmussen the thumbs down. Baydar:
Turkey's reluctance to give the go-ahead to Rasmussen is entirely understandable. In its perhaps most critical watershed since the end of the Cold War, NATO needs a secretary-general who will take issues further ahead, not cause mental blocks because of what he symbolizes.
But it is not only an issue for Turkey. The other NATO members have to think twice, perhaps more. There are certainly more trustworthy candidates out there.
And Alpay:
To say the least, Rasmussen is not at all a respected European politician among Muslims. He has also opposed the accession of Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, to the European Union. His government, again in the name of freedom of expression, has allowed a television station affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regarded by both the US and the EU as a terrorist organization, to broadcast from Denmark despite Ankara's continued protests.
According to reports from Strasbourg, the Danish PM has officially thrown his hat into the ring. But it may make sense for NATO to listen to some of the critical voices and find another candidate.

[UPDATE II -- Judy Dempsey has a good rundown on NATO's internal divisions and how that is impacting the process of selecting a new leader for the organization.]

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Bloomberg has a timely article about a troubling trend in Turkey: the growing use of wiretaps, both legal and illegal. From the article:
A proliferation in wiretapping and bugging, bolstered by official investigations into people suspected of plotting against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, is generating waves of anxiety in Turkey. Retired generals and executives have found private conversations showing up in prosecutors’ indictments or the media.

In response, sales of anti-bugging devices have more than doubled this year, according to DijitalTakip Electronics, an online retailer.

About 70,000 phones in the nation of 72 million people are being tapped by court order, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said in a TV interview on March 17. There’s also illegal recording, and that’s making the public “nervous and insecure,” he said. Turkey has about 85 million phone lines.

“Everyday, stories based on these recordings appear on some Internet site, and then find their way into the rest of the press,” Sahin, 58, told NTV television. “I don’t believe any court ordered these people to be bugged.”

Authorities don’t know who’s behind the unlawful surveillance, said Mevlut Aktas, a spokesman at police headquarters in Ankara. Law enforcement officials are aware of the public’s concerns and are investigating, he said....

....Bugging equipment is getting more sophisticated and laws to stop illegal recording can’t always keep pace, Justice Minister Sahin said. That makes it hard for authorities to act, he said.

So Turks are buying anti-bugging devices. Osman Kacmaz, a judge at Sincan criminal court in Ankara, has one on his desk.

“We hear about our verdicts from the press even before we sign them,” Kacmaz told Kanal D television in an interview. “This is the most essential device for us now, as we all know everyone is being bugged, though we don’t know by whom.”

Demand for such equipment has more than doubled in the last few months, said Kerem Kaya, whose company DijitalTakip Electronics sells jamming machines over the Internet. They cost between $300 and $700 apiece, and many of the customers are government officials and businessmen, he said in a phone interview. The jammers block wireless bugging of rooms.
Court ordered wiretaps have been crucial for the prosecution in the ongoing Ergenekon coup plot case. But illegal wiretaps have also played a major role in how the case is playing out in the court of public opinion, with surreptitious recordings of phone conversations of the accused or their relatives making their way to various websites and from there into the pages of pro-government newspapers. So far, there has been little discussion in the Turkish press -- particularly among those papers that have been on the listening end of the wiretaps -- about the civil liberties implications of what's going on.

For now, nobody seems to be safe. On a recent television interview, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was asked if he's concerned about his phone being tapped. "What do you think? Of course. Therefore I watch what i say over the phone. I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone," Erdogan told his interviewer on Turkey's NTV news network.

"I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me. And against monitoring, I watch where I am." Good advice.

Turkey's Evolving Dynamics and Its Relations with the U.S.

Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies has just issued a new report on the state and future of Turkish-American relations. The report, titled "Turkey's Evolving Dynamics: Strategic Choices for U.S.-Turkey Relations," covers the subject from a variety of angles and is worth reading, especially in light of Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Turkey. 

The report's synopsis:
Relations between the United States and Turkey stand at a critical juncture. Turkey is a key ally in the advancement of U.S. interests vis-à-vis the Middle East, Eurasia, and global energy diversification. Turkey still sees the United States as its closest ally and wants to be a partner in advancing mutual interests, particularly in its immediate environs. This confluence of interests gives revitalization of bilateral ties greater urgency. Yet the relationship remains somewhat strained and lacks the strategic character it once enjoyed. The two governments have made steady progress during the past few years to repair the damage done by differences over the Iraq War and the handling of its turbulent consequences. The visits by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the first few months of the administration suggest a commitment to further strengthening relations. However, much remains to be done.

Turkey has been buffeted in recent years by turmoil in its neighborhood, beginning with the consequences of the Iraq war, then again with the Russian invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008. Turkish leaders will continue to pursue policies that seek to avoid such regional instability, and they expect understanding from Washington on this score. Washington, too, has the right to expect that Ankara will behave as a loyal ally when mutual interests are threatened.
The full report (pdf) can be downloaded here.