Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Where There's No Smoke, There's Fire

This past Sunday was a fairly historic day for Turkey. Despite centuries of being known as a land of smokers, Turkey is now officially smoke free, after a new law banning smoking inside restaurants, cafes and other public places went into effect. (Bianet has a good rundown of the new law's extent.) But how to view the new ban? A question of public health? An issue that touches on individual freedom? If only. With the political polarization in Turkey continuing to grow, the new smoking ban is clearly about something much more sinister, at least according to some of Turkey's newspaper columnists.

In the Hurriyet Daily News, Yusuf Kanli says the new smoking ban (a "pogrom," as he calls it) is yet another indication of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempt to fashion himself as a "neo-Sultan" and of his government's desire to create smoke- and drink-free "red zones" in Turkey's cities. From Kanli's piece:
Apparently, the “cloudless air space” pogrom of smokers was a “personal issue” for Prime Minister Erdoğan. After all it is an issue very much related to communal health. Yet, was it really a must to have such a strict and wholesome smoking ban? Could not Turkey follow the examples of Spain, Greece or Germany where smokers were given some rights, though very much restricted? But, the Sultan Recep the First wanted it so. Now, some allegiant media outlets are exploding in anger because the across the board smoking ban was likened in some Western media outlets as the success of Murat the Fourth, the Ottoman sultan who had banned alcohol, coffee and smoking as part of an effort to prevent people coming together and criticizing the edicts of his highness. Without thinking for one second why those Western media outlets were drawing such a comparison between Erdoğan and Murat the Fourth, the allegiant media has started complaining again of “Western hypocrisy....”

....What is indeed the intention of the government of Sultan Recep the First? Is it....aimed at confining Turks to their homes? Are we leaving through a process of advancing red zones in the cities? Or, is it as Le Monde or some other Western media outlets implied in their reports, an effort by the neo-sultan in the footprints of Murat the Fourth aimed at avoiding Turks coming together and criticizing his all benevolent and all capable government?
You can read the full column here.

Meanwhile, over at Today's Zaman, the HDN's pro-government rival, columnist Mumtazer Turkone sees through the smoke to find, I kid you not, the connection between those who defend the right to light up and the Ergenekon coup plot case. Writes Turkone:
There's no difference between the defense of the freedom to smoke cigarettes and the support of the Ergenekon terrorist organization in the name of the nation-state's interest. Neither of these are freedoms because both of them constitute major attacks upon the most basic right, the right to life. There is no such right as “the right to smoke....”

....There's no difference between saying that the acts committed by Ergenekon were for the good of the state and the people and listing the benefits of cigarettes. Both are harmful, very harmful....

....A society that has long been suffocated by cigarette smoke is finally being freed. It's akin to the freeing of a society unable to exhibit any of its talents under the military tutelage, imprisoned by a machine that's harmful to the intellect. The crises in Turkey's military-civilian relations are the forerunners of a freer and more diverse society -- just as the ban which began yesterday is the start of a healthier and more civilized society....

....This could be a good opportunity to try to see cigarettes in the same light as Ergenekon's weapons, and to get rid of them for good.
You can read the full (and strangely fascinating) column here.

It looks like even this new smoking ban will be another opportunity for Turkey's battling power centers to go at it. There may be less cigarette smoke floating around in Turkey now, but the air is certainly not any clearer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Turkey's Uighur Problem, Cont.

In a previous post, I talked about the challenges Turkey faces as it tries to take a stand on the violence in China's restive Xinjian province. On the one hand, Ankara needs to satisfy domestic demands that it say and do something about what's happening, as one Turkish columnist recently put it, "in our ancestral lands." On the other hand, the Turkish government's response could be limited by a desire to not harm its growing trade and political relations with China.

When I wrote that, I forgot to take into account the "Erdogan Factor." Speaking to reporters live on NTV television last Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who has a habit of doing away with diplomatic niceties -- said: "The incidents in China are, simply put, tantamount to genocide. There's no point in interpreting this otherwise." So much for a moderate response.

Now it appears the Chinese may be fighting back. According to Reuters, China is sending Turkey the message that Erdogan should take his words back. From the Reuters piece:
In an editorial headlined "Don't twist facts," the English-language China Daily said the fact that 137 of the 184 victims were Han Chinese "speaks volumes for the nature of the event."

The death toll included 46 Uighurs, a Turkic people who are largely Muslim and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Central Asia.

The newspaper urged Erdogan to "take back his remarks ... which constitute interference in China's internal affairs...."

....Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his Turkish counterpart by telephone on Sunday the Urumqi riots were a grave crime orchestrated by the "three evil forces," state news agency Xinhua said, referring to "extremism, separatism and terrorism."
It will be interesting to see where things go from here. The events in Xinjiang and the fate of the Uighurs there continue to be a major story in Turkey, so the domestic pressure on the Turkish government for a response will likely continue. At what point, though, does the Chinese response go beyond editorials in the China Daily?

Also, in a column in today's edition of Today's Zaman, Andrew Finkel takes a look at the Turkish response to the violence in Xinjiang and asks some interesting questions, particularly if Erdogan's use of the word "genocide" might come back to haunt him. You can read the column here.

[UPDATE -- I have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor website that takes a further look at Turkey's Uighur dilemma. You can read it here.]

Nabucco's New Start

I have a piece up on the Eurasianet website looking at the implications of the Nabucco pipeline agreement signed yesterday in Ankara. From the article:
The troubled Nabucco pipeline project -- designed to diversify Europe’s energy supply and loosen Russia’s grip on the continent’s natural gas market -- took a major step forward on July 13 with the signing of a transit agreement between Turkey and five European Union countries involved in the undertaking.

The 2,050-mile-long (3,300 kilometer) Nabucco pipeline is designed to bring gas from the Caspian Basin and the Middle East to European markets via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria. The $10-billion pipeline is scheduled to start operating in 2014. Nabucco’s primary objective is to lessen Europe’s overdependence on Russia for gas. Moscow currently supplies approximately 40 percent of Europe’s gas.

Although the signing is being hailed as an important statement of intent, experts caution that Nabucco still faces major hurdles, particularly regarding where the pipeline’s projected annual need of 31 billion cubic meters of gas will come from. "Now that the agreement is being signed, frankly an even more difficult process begins, as to what will fill the pipeline," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Signing the agreement was the easy part."

Despite the signing, there are still no concrete agreements covering Nabucco’s supply. Azerbaijan is currently the most likely supplier, but it can’t fill Nabucco on its own. Other possible sources include Egypt, Syria and Iraq, whose Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki, attended the signing ceremony in Ankara. Turkmenistan also has indicated that it wants to be a supplier.
Another possible, though contentious, supplier would be Iran, which has some of the world’s largest gas reserves. But European Union officials said that, for now, they are ruling out Teheran’s participation. "Iran has major gas reserves and will surely export them one day, but today it imports gas. On top of that, there are the political and legal issues," Andris Piebalgs, the European commissioner on energy issues, said in an interview with the Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, a Turkish English-language daily. "Until the outstanding questions are solved, Iran will remain a difficult option."

A similar message was given by Richard Morningstar, the United States special energy envoy, who also attended the signing ceremony. "With respect to Iran, our position is very clear. We do not think that Iran should participate at this point," Morningstar told reporters.
The question of supply for Nabucco may become a race against time, given that the route faces stiff competition from other projects, particularly South Stream, which would carry Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, from where it would continue to other parts of Europe….

…. With the signing of the transit agreement, which brings together Nabucco’s major stakeholders, it appears that the project’s planners are following the blueprint laid down by the successful Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which transports oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast via Georgia. Like Nabucco, BTC -- which started pumping oil in 2006 -- is designed to diversify the West’s energy supplies and provide a supply route that avoids Russia. Also like Nabucco, the BTC project faced massive obstacles and no shortage of skeptics who said it would never be built.

"If you look back to the BTC struggle, it’s clear that [the planners] are, to a certain extent, following the same path," says CSIS’s Aliriza. "Signing an inter-governmental agreement like this opens up the way to eventually finishing the project."

But Aliriza also warns that there is a difference this time around. When BTC was being planned, Russia was not the energy power that it is today. Russia’s political and commercial ties with some of the countries involved in Nabucco, particularly with Turkey, have also deepened in recent years. "Given all the leverage that Russia can bring to bear makes certain that the BTC analogy doesn’t really apply," he said.
You can read the full article here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Boost for Nabucco?

The troubled Nabucco gas pipeline project, the subject of several previous posts, is about to get what could be an important boost. On Monday, Turkey will host a signing ceremony for a series of agreements that are supposed to give more definition to what so-far has been a rather hazy proposition. The agreements will be signed by the five transit countries that the Nabucco pipeline will go through: Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria.

Although the signing ceremony is a giant step for Nabucco, critics point out that still left unresolved is the problematic question of Turkey's demand that 15 percent of the gas that will go through the pipeline be given to it for its domestic use or for re-export. The European Union has said the Turkish demand is unacceptable. Monday's ceremony, though, may be a sign that both sides foresee a resolution to that issue.

I'll have more about this next week. For now, take a look at this useful Q&A Reuters has put together about Monday's signing ceremony and what it means.

Turkey's Uighur Problem

Although the recent harsh government crackdown on protestors in next door Iran received a collective yawn from Turks, the violence in China’s Xinjiang province has the country up in arms. Of course, Iran maybe a neighbor, but faraway Xinjiang (or "East Turkistan," as some call it) is home to the Turkic Uighurs. A group of Turkish merchants in the town of Denizli, for example, recently set fire to Chinese-made products, while Turkey's Industry and Trade minister, Nihat Ergun, called for a boycott of Chinese goods (something his aides were quick to point out was his personal view and not government policy). Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, promised to bring the situation in western China to the attention of the United Nations' Security Council, where Turkey is currently a non-permanent member.

But responding to the violence in Xinjiang is also proving to be problematic for Turkey. China blames the events there on "separatists" and calls it an internal issue and one of territorial integrity. For Turkey, which has not been afraid to use strong measures in dealing with its own "separatist" problem and which has its own concerns about "territorial integrity," these should sound like very familiar words. (For example, a court in southeast Turkey (or what some refer to as "Kurdistan") recently jailed a man for "terrorist" activity. His crime? Carrying a coffin draped with the PKK flag.)

Turkey is also looking at China as an important trade partner, with President Abdullah Gul and a large group of businessmen having made a recent visit there (including to Urumqi, site of the recent violent events), so it's response could be limited by that. Hurriyet's Semih Idiz looks at Turkey's dilemma in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
Developments in China’s restive region of Xinjiang are causing a stir in Turkey, where pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan to do something about Beijing’s brutal suppression of the Uighurs; a close relative of the Turks who speak a language close to Turkish.

The pressure is understandable given that many Uighurs fleeing from Chinese oppression have taken refuge in Turkey over the years and that these refugees are in close touch with ultra-nationalist and Pan-Turkic groups capable of creating serious political unrest the country.

Already, demonstrators earlier this week scuffled with police outside the Chinese embassy, and such public outpourings of sympathy can be expected to continue in the coming days and weeks depending on how the situation unfolds….

….Many question just how far Ankara will go, given that there is an economic giant and a potential, if not actual, superpower at the other end of the dispute here, namely China. It is also interesting to note that Russia has come out in support of Beijing, accusing "separatists" -- meaning the Uighurs -- of sparking the events, and saying that this is "China’s domestic issue," a warning to outsiders not to interfere.

Moscow’s position is understandable, given the fact that it too has restive regions that are predominantly Islamic and therefore amenable to "outside interference." With Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council, it is unlikely that any Turkish initiative, if it embarks on one, will result in a condemnation of China. It is still unclear as to how the violence in Xinjiang started, despite a history of Chinese oppression in the region. Reports suggest that the ethnic violence left scores of innocent people dead on both sides, inflaming calls for vengeance the ethnic communities.

There is also the fact that China is using the terms "separatism" and "fundamentalism" as cornerstones for its explanation of the events in Xinjiang. If Turkey were to go beyond calls to respect human rights in the region, and appear to be supporting Uighur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound with China referring to the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country.

Then there is the growing Turkish-Chinese common interest, especially in the economics, and this was exemplified by President Gül’s high profile official visit to that country recently. Another factor affecting how much anger the government can inject into its rhetoric in support of the Uighurs.

It is noteworthy in this context that Ankara apparently recently twice refused to issue a visa to Uighur activistand US resident, Rabia Kader, who is seen by Beijing as the person behind all the trouble. Kader herself confirmed the view to broadcaster NTV.

Clearly Ankara was not prepared to upset China in the past and if Kader is, however, issued a visa now, China will likely see it as an act of defiance. The question is if Ankara is ready for such an act of defiance at this time.

Given the conditions, Turkey will likely remain in the "We are deeply concerned and call for restraint" mode, rather than embark on an all out diplomatic campaign against China.

The government, however, will have to ward off widespread domestic criticism given that opponents of the Justice and Development Part, or AKP, are already using the issue with great relish. Whatever happened to spark the start of the events in Xinjiang, it is clear that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party could have done without this crisis at an already difficult time in terms of domestic politics.
You can read the full column here.

Ultimately, it seems like Turkey's response will be more about placating domestic critics (and they have already started making their voices heard) than about making an impact on the international stage regarding the events in China. Taking on a superpower is not so simple. Ankara certainly feels it must say something about what's happening in Xinjiang, but how far does it want to push things with China?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Final Crack in the Ilisu Dam Project?

Back in December, I wrote about the problems faced by the controversial Ilisu dam project in southeast Turkey, especially after its main financial backers -- Germany, Austria and Switzerland -- suspended credit guarantees for the project. Now the countries have announced that they are pulling out of the dam project completely. From Reuters:
Three Western export credit insurers quit Turkey's planned Ilisu dam on the Tigris River on Tuesday because it is failing World Bank environmental and heritage standards, throwing the 1.2 billion euro ($1.68 billion) project into doubt.

The dam is due to provide 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year and help wean Turkey off reliance on energy imports. But it will also swallow up more than 80 villages and hamlets by the time of its planned completion in 2013.

Work on the project was halted in December when the three insurers -- Euler Hermes Kreditversicherung of Germany, Austria's Oesterreichische Kontrollbank and Swiss Schweizerische Exportrisikoversicherung -- ordered suppliers to stop working on the dam for 180 days.

"The agreed contractual conditions regarding the environment, cultural heritage and relocation could not be fulfilled," the insurers, which were providing credit guarantees for the German, Austrian and Swiss suppliers, said in a joint statement.
You can read the full article here.

Environment minister, Veysel Eroglu, said a few days ago that work on Ilisu would continue even without foreign backing, but it's not clear if Turkey has the financial or technical resources to build a dam like this. This latest news may not mean the end of the Ilisu project, but it certainly will delay its construction in a meaningful way.

For more background about the Ilisu dam project and the wider issue of water management in the southeast, take a look at this article I wrote last year for Eurasianet.

(Photo -- A view of the historic town of Hasankeyf, which would be flooded if the controversial Ilisu dam were to be built. By Yigal Schleifer)