Thursday, May 28, 2009

Borderline Nationalism, Cont.

The question of who will clear the hundreds of thousands of mines along Turkey's border with Syria continues to roil the country, with several newspapers running front page stories on the issue in the last few days. 

First, some clarification regarding my previous post on the issue. My problem with the debate on the demining issue is not that the opposition is questioning the details of the legislation that the Turkish government is trying to pass in parliament, which would allow foreign companies to bid on a contract that would allow them to clear the mines and then get a 44-year lease on the cleared area and use it for agricultural purposes (organic farming, supposedly). I wish they were questioning the specifics of the legislation, since -- like so many other bills that have been approved by parliament in recent years -- it contains some serious flaws. 

[UPDATE -- Hurriyet is now reporting that bill has been withdrawn from debate and sent back to commission.]

What disturbs about the way the issue is being discussed, both by opposition politicians and in the parts of the press, is the nationalist tone that's being used. Here's what Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) had to say in parliament the other day: "It does not suit Turkey to allow a foreign company to clear its mines." Similar stuff comes from Devlet Bahceli, head of the hardline Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who had this to say recently: “We don't object to clearing borders of mines or opening demined territories to agriculture. What we are objecting to is the government's insistence on granting foreign companies the right to open these territories to agriculture.”

Lurking beneath what both are saying is the fact that Israeli companies are expected to bid on the tender to clear the mines (and stand a good chance of winning the job). Writing in the daily Aksam, columnist Husnu Mahalli had this to say on the Israeli angle:
No matter what kind of precautions Turkey takes, Israelis who are equipped with the latest technological means may share all the information regarding Turkey's security during the time they work in the region and they may engage in dangerous acts. The Israelis, who will possibly come from a military background, will collect information for Mossad and perform special studies not only on Turkey, but also Syria, Iran, Iraq and the Kurds. We should not forget the fact that the Israeli state commissions nearly all of its citizens who go abroad, including Israeli tourists, with special tasks. So the Israelis who will be working along the Turkish-Syrian border will first lead to damage in Turkish-Syrian relations.
As far as I can tell, the "special tasks" the Israeli state commissions its citizens with doing while abroad is to shop like crazy, but it seems like Mahalli is worried about other, more nefarious things. That a column like this appears in a mainstream, mass-circulation daily certainly raises a host of troubling questions.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has certainly done his part to stir up anti-Israel sentiment in Turkey, is now playing the role of fireman, telling the opposition to cool it. "It is easy to say 'you are selling our land to Israel', but do not forget that it is Turkish people who will be working for the company responsible for the project," he said a few days ago. President Abdullah Gul has also stepped into the debate, warning against "taking the issue to extreme points." It might be too late for that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jail the Children, Pt. II

In a previous post, I linked to a report that talked about the problem of minors being jailed as part of strict new anti-terrorism laws passed by the Turkish parliament in 2006. I recently went down to southeast Turkey to do some reporting on this issue and filed a story which was just posted on the Christian Science Monitor's website. From my article:
Hebun is one of hundreds of minors, some as young as 13, who have been arrested and jailed in Turkey over the past few years under strict new antiterrorism laws that allow for juveniles to be tried as adults and even be accused of "committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organization" for participating in demonstrations. Critics and rights defenders say the amended antiterrorism laws are deeply flawed and also violate international conventions on the detention of children.

"There is a lack of proportionality between the crime and the sentence," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch. "Counting what these children do, such as throwing stones or damaging property, as a terrorism offense is a problem."

"You are subject to a court system that doesn't see you as a child," adds Ms. Sinclair-Webb.

As part of its European Union membership drive, Turkey has updated its penal code to more closely reflect European and international standards. But observers say the country took a step backward with a 2006 amendment to the country's antiterror law that made it possible to try minors between the ages of 15 and 18 as adults when the crime is deemed to involve terrorism.

That same year, Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that children taking part in demonstrations supported by the PKK could be charged with aiding or acting in the name of the organization.

According to Turkish officials, 1,572 minors were prosecuted under the antiterror law and 174 of them were convicted during 2006 and 2007. Hundreds more court cases against minors have been launched since then.

"The court's decision is very dangerous for the rule of law and for individual freedoms," says Tahir Elci, a Diyarbakir lawyer who is defending several of the jailed children. "According to the high court's decision, prosecutors don't need evidence to claim that somebody committed crimes on behalf of the PKK. Just participating in a demonstration is evidence enough.

"We accept that these kids may have thrown stones, but they didn't do it in the name of the PKK," he adds. "They are children...."

....Turkish prosecutors have defended the heavy sentences given to the children arrested in protests, saying they are a response to an effort by the PKK to mobilize Kurdish youth against the state.

But Sinclair-Webb, of Human Rights Watch, says that sending children off to jail could backfire.

"It's a very hardening process for children and psychologically very damaging," she says. "If you go in as a child who was just having a lark throwing some stones, you may come out as a full-fledged militant.

"If you are trying to win hearts and minds and get people to not join the PKK, this is not the way to do it," she adds.

One teenager, imprisoned for 13 months after participating in a demonstration and now out on bail while he awaits trial, says he was "changed" by his experience in jail.

"I became more aware," says the 16-year-old boy, who asked not to be named because of his upcoming court case, where he could face seven years in prison if convicted.

"The things I learned in prison about myself, about the Kurds, about the PKK, it was like an awakening."
You can read the full article here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Borderline Nationalism

A proposal to clear the multitude of mines along the Turkey-Syria border has become a political minefield for the Turkish government and has given its opponents a chance to flex their nationalist muscles. 

Turkey has a serious mine problem; there are an estimated 600,000 anti-personnel mines buried along the border with Syria, and another 300,000 in other areas. After signing the 2003 Ottawa Convention on the destruction of anti-personnel mines (APM's), Turkey pledged to destroy its mines by 2014. Although the Turkish military had initially started doing some of this work already before 2003, it was determined that it lacks the equipment and expertise to finish the job. One solution, proposed by the government, was to subcontract the work to a private company that specializes in mine clearing. The proposal has a kind of beating mines into plowshares angle, with the subcontractor also getting a 44-year lease on the land to use it for organic farming.

But the possible involvement of foreign companies -- particularly Israeli ones -- in the project has complicated things. From a new report by the Jamestown Foundation:
The plan to sub-contract the clean-up project to private companies has long been featured on the government's agenda. The MHP and CHP opposition parties expressed concern that foreign companies, especially Israeli firms, might become involved in the project. An earlier tender was canceled by the council of state owing to such objections. The government has delayed parliamentary discussions on a revised bill, which is intended to provide a more solid legal framework to conduct the project (, March 17, 2008). Since it has also come under increasing pressure to meet the deadline set by the Ottawa Convention, the bill was finally presented to parliament last week, prompting heated discussion.

The opposition parties raised several objections. They claimed that allowing foreign companies to operate on Turkey's borders might pose a threat to its national security. Consequently, they demanded that the TSK should be given the sole responsibility for mine-clearing. Moreover, they alleged that the TSK also harbored reservations over the bill. In their defense, government officials referred to "classified" correspondence with the TSK in which the latter expressed a preference for sub-contracting to private companies. Equally, they noted the military's concerns had been incorporated into the draft bill. According to the government, land required for ensuring border security will not be leased to the contractor (Anadolu Ajansi, May 14). However, those statements failed to satisfy the opposition, who argued that the government had misled the public. One CHP representative invited the TSK to issue a statement clarifying its stance on the bill. He also called for its withdrawal, saying that if approved in parliament, the party will refer the issue to the constitutional court (Anadolu Ajansi, May 18).

Moreover, some opposition deputies claimed that the wording within the bill indicates it was drafted to favor awarding the tender to Israeli companies. They alleged that this proved the hypocrisy of the AKP's foreign policy, given Erdogan's earlier anti-Israeli rhetoric (ANKA, May 16)....

....Moreover, given the continued controversy over the possible involvement of Israeli firms, the conservative press favoring the AKP has also joined the rising criticism of the bill (Yeni Safak, May 20). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a hastily convened closed door meeting to allay the concerns of the AKP deputies. In a bid to reassure them that bill adequately protected Turkish national interests, Erdogan allegedly claimed that "the controversy was a product of the opposition parties, trying to wear us down through their unfair accusations" (Hurriyet Daily News, May 20).
You can read the full report here. Speaking to Today's Zaman, Mehmet Günal, a MHP MP from Antalya had this to say on the subject:
"Awarding the contract to a foreign company will threaten our national security. Demining is a matter of national security, not of agriculture," he said. Günal underlined that the problem was that the tenders for demining and for agriculture were to be simultaneously held.

"We suggest that agricultural use of such a big and strategic stretch of land should not be merged with the mine-clearing tender. If such merging is made, we see that Israeli companies are being described. It would be a big thing for the Turkish-Syrian border to be controlled by Israel for a period of 44 years. We have identified that out of 14 applicants, seven have ties with Israel. Three more have indirect connections with Israel. If demining is merged with agriculture, there is no other company to do this besides the Israel companies," he said. 
You can read the rest of the Today's Zaman article, which has some very good background on this story, here.

Ultimately, it seems like the demining issue has become hostage to a combination of nationalist reflexes and the ongoing power struggle between the AKP government and its opponents. "It’s turned into a mess, simply because of a kind of anachronistic, nationalistic approach," one Ankara-based analyst I spoke with told me. "They are diverting attention from the real problem of mines in the southeast."

(Photo from Today's Zaman)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

For Nabucco, Is It Kurdistan to the Rescue?

I have a piece up on Eurasianet looking at the possibility of supply from gas fields in northern Iraq breathing new life into the troubled Nabucco pipeline project (for some background, take a look at this previous post, as well as this one). The "Kurdish" gas option adds an interesting twist to the Nabucco story, although it's clear nobody checked with Baghdad before they announced that Iraqi gas would save the struggling pipeline project. From my article:
Could supplies from gas fields in northern Iraq breath new life into the troubled Nabucco pipeline, a project designed to free the European Union from Russia’s virtual gas supply monopoly?

That was certainly the hope created by the May 17 announcement that a consortium of European and Middle Eastern energy companies completed a deal to develop gas resources in Northern Iraq, part of which would be used to kick start the flow of energy via the long-stalled Nabucco route.

"It’s an important and promising development for the acquisition of a huge volume of natural gas for Turkey and for Europe via Nabucco," the pipeline project’s managing director, Reinhard Mitschek, said of the $8 billion deal between Austria’s OMV AG and Hungary’s MOL, and the United Arab Emirates’ Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum, which currently operate a gas site in northern Iraq.

Representatives of the UAE companies said they believe the Iraqi fields could supply up to 3 billion cubic feet of gas per day, which is what Nabucco is being designed to carry. Crescent’s executive director, Badr Jafar, said the projected volume was sufficient to justify the construction of Nabucco.

But experts are warning that Iraq’s internal political squabbles may make it difficult for gas from the country’s north to make it to Europe. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) controls Northern Iraq, but the central government in Baghdad has rejected the KRG’s attempts to make independent energy deals.

On May 18, a day after the deal between the European and UAE firms was announced, Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani slammed the proposal. "We will not allow any side to export gas from the region without the approval of the central government and the Iraqi Oil Ministry," he said. Baghdad has previously blacklisted companies that have made independent deals with the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

"I don’t think there will be permission for both the development and the export of that gas before the problems between the central government and the KRG are solved," says Necdet Pamir, an energy analyst based in Ankara.

"There is a strong reaction from the Iraqi government to the announced deal and there may be some restrictions put in place. I don’t think in the short term such a development will be fulfilled. This is just wishful thinking right now," he added.

Nabucco’s proposed northern Iraq connection came to light just two days after Russia signed deals with Bulgarian, Greek, Italian and Serbian energy companies to facilitate the construction of a rival pipeline, dubbed South Stream. Those pacts seemed to signal the death-knell for Nabucco, which has been plagued for years by questions about profitability.

Announcing the Iraqi connection may have been a way for Nabucco supporters to make a statement that they won’t be going away anytime soon. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. A few years ago, the Iraqi supply would have been further down the list, but now it’s seen as more of a possibility," said Amanda Akcakoca, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank....

....The failure of the Iraqi connection to materialize for Nabucco would mark just the latest in a series of setbacks for the pipeline project. Two problems that continue to hover over Nabucco are a lack of reliable suppliers and disagreements between the European Union and Turkey over transit fees. According to recent reports, a May 8 meeting in Prague between the EU and countries involved in the pipeline project may have achieved a breakthrough in disputes between Brussels and Ankara, but Nabucco is still very much in danger, experts say.

"Within EU circles everyone is still talking about Nabucco positively, but if you talk to experts, most of them say it is dead," says Akcakoca.

"Perhaps they [analysts] re being too pessimistic, since Nabucco is still on the table and if enough of the right political and financial support were put behind it, it would still have a chance," Akcakoca continued. "The situation in Iraq itself makes it unlikely as a primary source for Nabucco. The main sources still remain in Azerbaijan and Central Asia."
You can read the full article here.

(Photo - A gas extraction plant in northern Iraq)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Energy Security vs. Strategic Insecurity

A followup to the other day's post about the Nabucco pipeline project. At the heart of the project lies the increasingly important policy question of “energy security” – how countries can secure diverse sources, particularly of oil and natural gas, and diverse supply routes. One of my concerns is how to keep the search for energy security from becoming an adversarial and short-sighted one that will only lead towards greater insecurity.

As the Associated Press reports, a new Kremlin "National Security Strategy" paper puts battles over energy resources as one of the major challenges facing Russia. From the report:
A Kremlin policy paper says international relations will be shaped by battles over energy resources, which may trigger military conflicts on Russia's borders....

"....The international policy in the long run will be focused on getting hold of energy sources, including in the Middle East, the Barents Sea shelf and other Arctic regions, the Caspian and Central Asia," said the strategy paper that was posted on the presidential Security Council's Web site.

"Amid competitive struggle for resources, attempts to use military force to solve emerging problems can't be excluded," it added. "The existing balance of forces near the borders of the Russian Federation and its allies can be violated."
The Kremlin's thinking certainly seems in line with what's being considered in the United States and Europe. I recently came across a 2008 article entitled “The Militarization of Energy Security,” which appeared in an online journal published by the  Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and was written James A. Russell and Daniel Moran, lecturers at the school. “It is in the energy sector that strategic planners now find it easiest to imagine major states reconsidering their reluctance to use force against each other," the authors wrote.

"‘Energy security’ is now deemed so central to ‘national security’ that threats to the former are liable to be reflexively interpreted as threats to the latter. In a world in which territorial disputes, ideological competition, ethnic irredentism, and even nuclear proliferation all seem capable of being normalized in ways that constrain the actual use of military force, a crisis in global energy supply stands out as the last all-weather casus belli when the moment comes to hypothesize worst-case scenarios.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Dreck

This is a bit off this blog's normal beat, but since the new version of "Star Trek" has just opened in Turkish cinemas, it may have some "news" value. Either way, it's too much fun to ignore.

An article (in Turkish) in yesterday's Sabah brought to my attention a lost gem of 1970's Turkish kitsch cinema, "Turist Omer Uzay Yolunda" (or, in English, "Tourist Omer in Star Trek"). The film -- from which the image above was taken -- was part of a series starring a character called "Turist Omer," an urban hick who creates havoc everywhere he goes, mostly just by showing up. In this case, he somehow gets beamed up to the deck of a Turkified Starship Enterprise, where he meets "Kaptan Kirk" and a pointy-eared fellow named "Mr. Spak." Hilarity -- or what is supposed to be hilarity -- ensues, mostly as Omer chases miniskirted crew members around the bridge of the Enterprise. Some of the action takes place on another "planet," shot among the ruins in Ephesus and set to music from Pink Floyd's "Meddle" album.

A website called "Something Awful" has a great review and synopsis of the film, describing it like this:
Conceptually it is quite possibly one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. It has obvious comedy elements - namely the Turist Omer character and everything he does - yet it is a totally non-ironic duplication of Star Trek. Whenever Turist Omer is off screen, and sometimes even when he isn't, the plot and acting are deadly serious albeit unbelievably terrible. That makes this film either one of the most underappreciated works of genius of our time or one of the worst movies ever made.
The website describes the Omer character as a "surreal sadsack." He reminded of the Ernest P. Worrell character (star of "Ernest Goes to Camp" and other classics) crossed with the desperate and sinister lecherousness of Jerry Lewis. All told, not a particularly appealing or sympathetic character.

For the world's viewing pleasure, some good soul out there has distilled "Tourist Omer in Star Trek" down to an essential ten minutes on YouTube. Take a look (if watching in Turkey, you will need to use a proxy like ktunnel or vtunnel):

One other thing worth noting about the Turist Omer series is that the character comes from Istanbul's low-income and notoriously rough Kasimpasa neighborhood. In 1970's Turkey (and in the following decades), just the idea of putting someone from Kasimpasa in improbable situations (which, back then, really meant anywhere outside the neighborhood) was enough to generate big laughs. Today, Kasimpasa is better known as the place where Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up. Who's laughing now?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Life for Nabucco?

The Guardian is reporting on what may be a major breakthrough for the troubled Nabucco pipeline project (which was previously discussed in this post). Designed to break Russia's almost monopolistic control over Europe's energy supply, the pipeline would bring natural gas from the Caspian region and the Middle East to European markets via Turkey. Up until now, Nabucco has been dogged by questions over who will be part of providing its supply and by Turkish haggling over transit fees. 

Following a recent summit in Prague that brought together the project's key players, it appears that Nabucco is being given a new lease on life. From the Guardian's report:
The European Union and Turkey have struck a ground-breaking gas pipeline deal unlocking a potential energy bonanza in the Caspian basin after more than a year of deadlock, according to senior EU officials.

The agreement, to be signed in Ankara on 25 June, represents a major boost to the EU's ill-starred Nabucco pipeline project, which is intended to transport natural gas to Europe from central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East, and is the key to breaking the Kremlin's stranglehold over Europe's gas imports. "This is a complete breakthrough," said a senior EU official involved in the tough negotiations with Turkey. "The Turks have accepted our terms. There is no conditionality."

The €9bn Nabucco project is at the centre of a contest pitting Russia against the EU and involving Turkey, Germany, Austria, Azerbaijan and the authoritarian regimes of central Asia in the effort to secure Europe's gas needs while curbing the hold Moscow and the gas monopoly Gazprom have over the supply lines. The case for Nabucco is debated, but was reinforced by Russia's gas war with Ukraine in January, which caused havoc with Gazprom supplies to eastern and central Europe. There had been similar disputes in 2006 and 2007.

Nabucco, stretching more than 2,000 miles from Turkey's eastern border to Europe's main gas hub outside Vienna, would be the main route for pumping gas to Europe not controlled by Gazprom. But the plan had faltered over deadlock between the EU and Turkey over the pipeline transit agreement. More than half the pipeline is to be located in Turkey, making it the gatekeeper of Europe's energy supplies.

Ankara has been driving a hard bargain, insisting on collecting a "tax" on the gas being pumped and demanding 15% of the transit gas at discounted prices. This, say EU officials and the six-company consortium that is to build and run the pipeline, would render Nabucco financially unviable.

The stalemate was broken at a summit in Prague last Friday between the EU and the countries involved. "The 15% demand has gone," Andris Piebalgs, the EU commissioner for energy, told the Guardian. "We've agreed on cost-based transit. We're very close to a conclusion." A senior Czech official organising the summit likened the negotiations to "bargaining in an Istanbul souk", while an EU envoy to the region worried that "nothing is done until it's done".

But the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, said President Abdullah Gül of Turkey assured him the deal would be signed within weeks. "That's what President Gül told me," he said....

....As well as Nabucco, the Europeans spoke specifically for the first time about supporting the building of a pipeline under the Caspian Sea connecting Turkmenistan and central Asia to Azerbaijan. The central Asian gas was up for grabs, said the senior EU official, and if Europe did not get there first, it would go to Russia or China.

If Nabucco is to happen, it will initially need the gas from Azerbaijan's BP-run Shah Deniz-2 field. But officials in Brussels view Turkmenistan, with its vast gas deposits, as the key to its longer-term viability.

The Russians are pressing the central Asians and Azerbaijan hard to try to put a stop to Nabucco and retain control of all the supply routes to the west. The Turkmens attended the Prague summit, but declined to commit, apparently deciding to try to play the Russians off against the Europeans.
You can read the full article here.

Getting Nabucco off the ground would be a major triumph for the EU and a good sign that the bloc is starting to formulate a more cohesive energy policy. What should be remembered, though, is that once built, the Nabucco pipeline will supply only a fraction of Europe's gas supply. Creating an energy supply that is truly secure -- in terms of diverse sources and supply routes -- will require more long-term thinking and planning.

After Massacre, Village Guards Under Fire

The fallout continues from last week's massacre in southeast Turkey, in which 44 people were killed at an engagement ceremony in a small village near the city of Mardin. Perhaps the most significant debate about the the event has revolved around the involvement of "village guards" -- members of govnernment-sponsored, paramilitary force created to fight the PKK -- in the attack. As mentioned in the previous post, the village guard system has long been criticized by human rights groups, who say it has created a violent division in Kurdish society and has allowed militia members to use their power to settle scores, expropriate land and engage in criminal behavior. Both sanctioned by law and above the law, the village guards -- armed and funded by the state -- operate with little supervision or accountability.

In the wake of the attack, there has been call for reforming or even eliminating the village guard system. Both will be difficult to do. According to government figures, there are more than 50,000 village guards on the state's payroll. In a certain respect, the system is a kind of public works project in the impoverished southeast. Meanwhile, decommissioning a force this large -- as well as then protecting them from revenge attacks -- seems like an almost impossible task, although one that will have to be part of any comprehensive solution to Turkey's ongoing Kurdish problem.

The Jamestown Foundation has a good roundup about the new debate over the village guard issue. From the report:
Village guards, numbering around 90,000 at the height of the PKK's campaign, are currently around 58,000-strong. Although the system began as a temporary measure, it has become an integral part of Turkey's security apparatus. The guards, however, have frequently been criticized for their alleged involvement in criminal activities or human rights abuses. According to Interior Ministry records, village guards were the target of over 5,200 criminal investigations and as a result 853 guards were arrested for various crimes (Cihan Haber Ajansi, May 8). A recent report released by the Human Rights Association revealed that between January 1992 and March 2009 village guards committed various human rights violations, including forced evacuation, burning villages, kidnapping and rape. In the last seven years guards have killed 51 people and wounded 83 (ANKA, May 9)....

....A spokesman for the Turkish military, Brigadier-General Metin Gurak defended the village guards during his weekly press briefing. He said that it would be unwise to hold the entire institution responsible (Milliyet, May 8). Interior Minister Atalay supported this view and defended the village guards. Though noting that the government will take into account the criticism of the guards, Atalay added that the dissolution of this institution was not on the agenda (, May 9).

The deputy prime minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek, also supported the system, arguing that it had emerged out of necessity and these conditions remained. Cicek added: "It is necessary to avoid hasty conclusions. If some of them are involved in wrongdoing, then necessary action will be undertaken... It is wrong to attack the entire institution, because of the recent incident" (, May 10).

The debate on the village guard system is likely to continue and the opponents of Turkey's anti-terrorism policy will repeat their demands for its dissolution. However, many security experts regard it as a necessary counter-terrorist tool and argue that Turkey will need this institution as long as the PKK remains active. Since the government and the Turkish military appear to share this view, and PKK terrorism is unlikely to end soon, a partial reform of this system may be more realistic rather than its complete dissolution.
You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Behind a Massacre, Ancient Traditions and Volatile Politics

I filed a report today from the small Kurdish village that was the scene of a massacre Monday where 44 people were killed. In the massacre, a group of masked gunmen raided a home where an engagement party was taking place. The horrifying attack, although blamed on a decades-long family feud, is also very much connected to the southeast region's troubled politics. From my report:

An attack by masked gunmen on an engagement party in a small village in southeast Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of 44 people, is being seen as a reflection of both the troubled region's ancient traditions and volatile modern politics.

According to locals in Bilge, a village that sits on a small hilltop about 12 miles from the city of Mardin, there was a decades-long dispute between the attackers' family and the family of the would-be groom. The semi-official Anatolia news agency reported that the masked attackers had wanted the bride-to-be to marry one among their own group of friends or relatives, but that her family would not allow it….

"….Honor is very important in this region, and it's very difficult to change the traditions that deal with honor. They are a very strong part of this society," says Mazhar Bagli, a professor of sociology at Dicle University in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Experts believe dozens are killed each year in "blood feuds" in rural Turkey. Efforts to stop the feuds' violence have been limited, mostly left to individuals such as Sait Sanli, a former butcher in Diyarbakir who helps broker peace treaties between warring families.

But Professor Bagli says the fact that the families involved were part of the "Village Guards," a well-armed militia set up by the Turkish government in the 1980s to fight the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), meant something more than tradition was to blame for the massacre.

Observers have long criticized the "Village Guard" program, saying it created a violent division in Kurdish society and allowed militia members to use their power to settle scores and even expropriate land.

"[The village guard system] has changed the balance of the society here," Bagli says.

"The problems created by the political situation and the traditions – I think both of them are part of this crime…."

….In Bilge, tractors were busy digging graves in the small cemetery near the entrance to the village. Inside the village, relatives of the murdered individuals and residents of nearby villages gathered near the one-storey house where the killings took. Inside the house, bullet holes riddled the walls.

"This comes from ignorance, nothing else. What's the reason for coming to this point and killing so many people?" said one relative who lives in a neighboring village and who asked not to be named. "How can life come back to normal here?"

You can read the whole article here. Also, take a look at this article from last year if you want to read more about Sait Sanli, the Diyarbakir-based peacemaker.

(Photo - Graves being dug at the cemetery at the entrance to Bilge village, the day after a massacre of 44 people in the village. By Yigal Schleifer)

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Deep State's Deep Roots

The Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, has a lengthy new report out about Ergenekon, the sensational coup plot case that has been dominating Turkish politics and headlines for the last few years. (For some quick background on the case, take a look at this article of mine from the Christian Science Monitor.) The report, written by H. Akin Unver, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, takes a close look at the Ergenekon case and its ties to Turkey's "Deep State," the name given to a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military, and the security establishment.

What I found interesting about the report was some of the background Unver gives about the Ottoman and Cold War roots of the Deep State in Turkey. From the report:
The bipolar system of the Cold War was seemingly simple. On the one hand, there was the Iron Curtain, which covered a massive area stretching across Asia and Eastern Europe, and on the other hand there was NATO, which represented the “free world.” Along clearly defined borders and possible flashpoints, both sides remained on alert and ready for a major field war, in addition to building and stocking a nuclear arsenal that would act as a deterrent or means of retaliation. Yet, there was also a less visible preparation in the NATO countries: the establishment and organization of secret paramilitary networks — what Daniele Ganser had dubbed “NATO’s Secret Armies”15 — which would act the same way against the Soviet occupation, as the Allied Resistance had acted against the Nazi invasions during the Second World War. Throughout much of the Cold War, “special units” from NATO countries participated in a silent mobilization and organization directed by the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service against possible invasions by the Soviet Union. They were trained to be ready to perform espionage, sabotage, and assassination missions. Such operations were generally termed as “stay behind operations” and included sub-operations or regional agencies….

…. Turkey was one of the first of the countries to join NATO’s stay-behind networks, as an initial recipient of the Marshall Fund in 1950, and remained the only country where this network remained unpurged until very recently. The first institutional extension of the Turkish branch of the European stay-behind operations was Seferberlik Taktik Kurulu [Tactical Mobilization Committee]. It was founded in 1952 and later tied to the Office of Special Operations [Özel Harp Dairesi] under the General Staff. Similar to Gladio’s extra-judicial mass killings that took place in Italy, there have been numerous such acts in Turkey attributed to the Counter-guerrilla Branch and the Ergenekon.
You can read the whole Ergenkon report (pdf) at the MEI's website.