Friday, October 30, 2009

Ankara's Road to Damascus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Turkish Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

Whither Turkey-Israel Relations?

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

The highly-recommended roundtable can be read here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kurtlar Vadisi, Part Deux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Turkey and Armenia: The Rocky Road Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ties and Minarets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Last "Last Chance" for Cyprus?

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

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

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

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