Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Patriarch Speaks, Cont.

The recent "60 Minutes" interview with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (take a look at the previous post), the Istanbul-based leader of the Orthodox Church, is creating quite a stir in Turkey. In the segment, which took a look at the difficulties faced by the Orthodox Church in Turkey, the Patriarch said that at times he and the Church have felt "crucified" by the Turkish state.

The comment drew a sharp rebuke from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who said he hoped it was slip of the tongue since crucifixion was never part of Turkey's "tradition" (although, as Hurriyet columnist Ferai Tinc reminds readers, Patriarchs had previously been hanged.) At the same time, the Greek Foreign Ministry also got involved, with its spokesman telling Ankara it should pay heed to the Patriarch's words.

Meanwhile, in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News, Mehmet Ali Birand comes to the Patriarch's defense, saying:
I don’t agree with Foreign Minister Davuto─člu. The patriarch is right. The state, with its ignorance of a Turkish institution for 38 years, has not been able to keep its word and has crucified the patriarch.

No offense, but the culture and custom of crucifying exists in our state. It did not only apply it to the Patriarchate but also to its citizens and institutions, and it continues to do so.
(You can read the full column here.)

[UPDATE -- The patriarch has given an interview to Milliyet, where he elaborates on his "60 Minutes" remarks. You can read an English-language version here.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Patriarch Speaks


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based leader of the Orthodox Church, will be featured this Sunday on CBS News's "60 Minutes" show. The CBS News website has synopsis of the segment and a short viewable version of it here.

The Patriarchate has clearly decided to ramp up its public relations operation. In his interview, the Patriarch doesn't mince words. Asked by the show's Bob Simon why, despite the problems it faces and the constraints put upon it by the Turkish state, the Patriarchate stays in Istanbul, Bartholomew says:
"This is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us an equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes," says Bartholomew. Asked by Simon if he feels crucified, His All Holiness replies, "Yes, I do."
(For some more on the Orthodox community in Turkey, take a look this article of mine from the Christian Science Monitor, and at this Eurasianet photo essay about Gokceada (or Imroz), the Aegean island where the current Patriarch was born.)

(photo -- Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leading a service in a chapel on the island of Gokceada (Imroz), where he was born. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Decoding Erdogan's Washington Visit


The German Marshall Fund has a new briefing out looking at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent visit to Washington. Written by Ian Lesser, a very astute observer of Turkish affairs, the briefing suggests that, "Overall, the experience has produced more open questions than answers regarding the future of U.S.-Turkish relations."

From the report's summary:
Both sides are likely to have come away convinced that some potentially difficult issues have been managed. Yet, the visit did little to bridge substantial differences in perception and approach on key issues, above all, Iran, the Palestinian issue, and the complex of disputes in the Caucasus. Policymakers and observers on both sides are left with a list of unresolved open questions that could shape the course of the new model partnership in the near to medium term.
(You can read the full briefing here (pdf)).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Constitutional Crisis


The troubling closing of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party by Turkey's highest court can be blamed on a number of actors and factors. Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European Parliament who now writes a column for the Hurriyet Daily News, notes that the closure is not really a matter of Turks versus Kurds, but really part of a battle between "Turks and Kurds who are willing to find a political compromise on one side and Turks and Kurds who are not interested in finding a solution on the other side....The decision by the Constitutional Court to close down the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, is just the last domino that is falling over, set in motion by a perfidious coalition of Turks and Kurds who are willing to do everything to stop the process of reconciliation that was recently started by the government."

(You can read the whole column here.)

But also behind the closure case is the same problem that lies at the root of so many of the other roadblocks standing in the way of Turkey's democratization process: the need for a new constitution.

Turkey's current constitution, written after the 1980 military coup, is essentially designed to defend the state and its institutions. The rights of individuals or minority groups (especially those that are perceived to threaten the state and its integrity) take a back seat to preserving the statist status quo. In that sense, enacting major reforms in Turkey without first significantly changing the constitution could be very difficult. It's a bit like trying to run sophisticated software on a computer that's still running an old operating system -- the applications won't run and trying to run the machine with them could even lead to a crash.

Constitutional reform was actually a major part of the 2007 national election campaign in Turkey, with both the AKP and the DTP talking about it's importance. The AKP even gathered a group of legal experts who drafted a new constitution, but the issue was dropped soon after the elections. Disappointingly to many, the only thing the AKP did after the elections with regards to the constitution was pass an amendment (with the help of the ultra nationalist MHP) that removes the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities and public offices (Turkey's top court annulled the amendment, ruling that it violated Turkey's secular system). For many, the move seemed more like an opportunistic political effort, rather than a real attempt at constitutional reform.

Perhaps realizing that completely changing the constitution will require waging a major battle, the AKP government has decided to take an incremental approach for Turkey's reform project, frequently through administrative -- rather than legislative -- moves. But as Yavuz Baydar, a columnist with Today's Zaman, notes in a column in today's paper, the government may find serious constitutional reform unavoidable. From his column:
As I wrote recently, all roads inevitably lead to a new constitution and adoption of all major laws to that. Ever since the erratic pattern of partially changing the Constitution, the AKP seems determined to avoid a full challenge (a new leap for seeking consensus on a new constitution), and it also seems doomed to face enormous hardships that threaten to weaken it. It refuses, or is too afraid, to see that unless you replace the main denominator with a modern one, the judiciary will continue to base its decisions on the worn-out texts of law; its top court will continue to close parties; all the segments of society, whose demands for reform remain unchanged, will continue to feel suspicious, fearful or angry; the maximalist opposition will continue to seek ways, in law, to block all efforts for change; and politics, as it has always been, will be ruled by instability, raising hopes for the sworn enemies of democracy to consolidate for good the system of tutelage.
(You can read his full column here. His previous column on the same subject is here.)

(Photo -- members of Turkey's Constitutional Court, standing in front of Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Closing of the "Armenian Opening"?


While I'm at it, might as well look at another significant Turkish policy move that now seems to be in trouble: the rapprochement with Armenia.

Although Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement in October that paves the way for the two countries to restore relations and open up their borders, the document still needs to be ratified by both countries' parliaments. There has been little action on that front in either Ankara or Yerevan. Turkey has clearly been reluctant to move ahead with its "Armenian opening" without any movement on the stalled Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Armenia insists the two issues should not be linked.

Now it seems Yerevan is losing patience. From an AFP report:
"Armenia is prepared to honor its international commitments and we expect the same from Turkey," President Serge Sarkisian said during a press conference with his Latvian counterpart, Valdis Zatlers.

"If Turkey drags out the ratification process, Armenia will immediately make use of possibilities stemming from international law. I have instructed relevant state bodies to prepare amendments to our laws pertaining to the signing, ratification and abrogation of international agreements," Sarkisian said.
For more information on the hurdles facing Turkey and Armenia's rapprochement, take a look at this previous post.

The Closing of the "Kurdish Opening"?


The winds of political change in Turkey often tend to change direction quite abruptly. This seems to be the case with the government's recently announced "democratization initiative," popularly referred to as the "Kurdish opening." The initiative, which is being rolled out in small bits, consists of various reforms designed to give Turkey's Kurds increased political and cultural rights and put at end to the decades of bloody conflict that the Kurdish issue has resulted in. (For some more background on the initiative, take a look at this previous post. To get a sense of how Turkey's foreign policy ambitions are helping push Ankara's new approach to the Kurdish issue, take a look at this post.)

The government's reform plan certainly represents an important break from previous approaches to the Kurdish issue and has led to the discussion of topics that only a few years ago would have been off limits. But now there is some concern that the initiative could be in serious trouble. From a Eurasianet article of mine looking at recent developments regarding the Kurdish reforms:
Official rhetoric in recent months has fostered hope that Turkey can implement a civilian - rather than a military - solution to its decades-long Kurdish problem. Those hopes, however, remain fragile -- a fact underscored by the opening of a court case that could result in the banning of the country’s major pro-Kurdish political party.

Over the summer, Turkish Interior Minister, Besir Atalay, speaking during a nationally televised news conference, said that the government is actively working on a comprehensive plan, one based on democratization and expanded rights. "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps," he said. "This can be seen as a new stage."

On November 13, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government unveiled in a historic debate in parliament parts of this "democratization initiative," which include the easing of restrictions on private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well allowing towns and villages to use their original Kurdish names once again.

"Today is the beginning of a new timeline and a fresh start," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament. "We took a courageous step to resolve chronic issues that constitute an obstacle along Turkey’s development, progression and empowerment, and we are very sincere."

But now there are growing concerns that the government’s efforts could be undermined by renewed tensions in Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast.

Protests were held in several cities in the region this past weekend, including one where a 23-year-old university student was killed by a bullet to the back. The trigger for the protests were reports that conditions have worsened for jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan since he was moved into a new facility on the island prison that has been his home since 1999.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s highest court on December 8 started hearing a case which could lead to the closure of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the only pro-Kurdish party in parliament. Prosecutors contend that the party has violated Turkey’s constitution and has acted as a front for the outlawed PKK. An indictment seeks not only the party’s closure, but also the banning of some 220 of its members from participating in political activity.

The DTP is the latest incarnation of a string of pro-Kurdish parties that have been previously closed by court order, and observers worry that its closing could further stoke tensions among Turkey’s Kurds.

But there is also concern that the party itself is standing in the way of the government’s Kurdish reform program. Although party leaders initially supported the government’s initiative, members are now distancing themselves from it, with DTP chairman Ahmet Turk recently calling it "insufficient."

"For us, the ’democratic initiative’ is over," Emine Ayna, a top DTP official recently told the Radikal newspaper....

....Despite the recent hardening of the DTP’s rhetoric, observers say that shutting the party down would be a mistake. "I totally disapprove of their behavior but I oppose the party’s closure," said Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

"It was such a mistake to close down these Kurdish parties in the past," Alpay continued. "Had they not been closed down, they would have become much stronger than the armed wing of the Kurdish movement. But what we have here now is the opposite."
(You can read the full article here. Click here for an informative Human Rights Watch Q&A on the DTP closure case.)

The government's reform plan right now seems to endangered by both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. Turkish leaders, to their credit, have publicly stated their intention to continue with the reform process. But there are clear challenges ahead. The closing of the DTP (though flawed, the party is an important political force in the southeast) will leave the government once again searching for a Kurdish interlocutor and will be a major setback for the development of a mature Kurdish political movement in Turkey. Meanwhile, if the tension and violence surrounding the Kurdish continue to rise, Ankara may find that moving ahead on the Kurdish reform program might simply be too costly a move for the time being.

(Photo -- a Kurdish demonstrator clashing with police. AFP)

Friday, December 4, 2009

For the Ilisu Dam, a Lifeline Made in China?


Will the controversial Ilisu dam project in southeast Turkey, put on the shelf after European creditors withdrew their support due to a lack of environmental safeguards, be brought back to life with Chinese help?

From a blog post by Peter Bosshard, policy director for International Rivers:
Turkey is so indebted it cannot finance the dam from its own resources. Reliable sources have told us that the Turkish government is currently discussing support for the Ilisu Dam with China. For years, the Turkish and Chinese governments have strongly disagreed over the treatment of the Uighur population, which is ethnically Turkic, in China’s Xinjiang Province. Yet in June 2009, Turkey’s President visited China and signed several cooperation agreements, including in the energy sector.

Under a plan which is currently being discussed, Andritz Hydro, the main contractor for the Ilisu hydropower project, would manufacture the turbines for the project in China rather than in Austria. Sinosure, an insurance company set up and owned by the Chinese government, would insure the bank loans for the contract. In a new twist in its emerging role, China would thus not enable its own dam builders to go abroad, but would underwrite the exports of Western dam builders which have shifted part of their manufacturing base to China.

When Chinese companies and financiers started to go overseas around the turn of the century, they held that following social and environmental standards was up to their host governments. They consequently picked up several rogue projects that had been shunned by other financiers during this period. China Exim Bank provided more than $500 million in funding for the Merowe Dam in Sudan in 2003 after export credit agencies from Europe and Canada declined to get involved because of environmental and human rights concerns. Chinese companies are also building several dams in Burma which many other actors would not touch.

Projects like the Merowe Dam have created serious conflicts with the local populations, and have damaged the reputation of the involved Chinese companies. Starting in 2006, the Chinese government asked its companies to take environmental and community concerns more into account when investing abroad. In October 2007, China’s State Council for example stressed the importance of “paying attention to environmental resource protection, caring for and supporting the local community and people’s livelihood” in such projects. An integrated policy package with specific recommendations for Chinese foreign investors is currently under preparation. Such measures indicate that China is interested in being a responsible partner in international finance.

The Ilisu Project has become an international symbol of a substandard project. China is not bound by agreements of the OECD governments, but it helped establish the World Bank standards which the dam on the Tigris is violating. The independent panel of experts which documented the violation of these standards included a well-known Chinese resettlement specialist. So far, China has not yet received an official funding request from Turkey and has not yet had to take a decision on Ilisu. If Sinosure does approve support for the project, it will be a slap in the face of the European governments who have put the interests of the environment and local people before their own export interests. Chinese support for the Ilisu Dam would endanger the efforts of a coordinated approach among international funders on the environment, and could start a new environmental race to the bottom.
You can read his full post here. For more background on the Ilisu dam project, take a look these previous posts.

"What Obama Should Say to Erdogan"

Hugh Pope, the International Crisis Group's Turkey analyst -- who just returned from a two-month fellowship at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington -- has a new paper out ahead of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Monday visit to the White House. The paper, published by the Transatlantic Academy, takes a close look at two areas in which Washington has an interest in pushing Ankara along, its normalization process with Armenia and its European Union membership process, and also helpfully unpackages the debate over Turkey's perceived eastward "drift."

From Pope's paper:
On 7 December, U.S. President Barack Obama receives the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time of growing mutual suspicions, a face-to-face meeting will be of great importance between two men renowned for their straight-to-the-point frankness. There is arguably no other country in the world with so many areas of common interest with the United States, and yet Turkey both rashly overrates itself and is little understood and underrated in Washington.

A steadying hand should be the two leaders’ first order of business. Just as a surprising number of Turks expend their energy analyzing Washington’s supposedly nefarious plots to split up their country, a growing number of Americans interested in Turkey are just as busy analyzing Ankara’s latest supposed conspiracies against transatlantic and U.S. interests: is it abandoning the West in favour of a neo-Ottoman dominion in the East? Is it loosening its half-century-old security anchor in NATO? Where is Erdogan’s rough-tongued criticism of Israel leading? Is the innovating prime minister’s feud with the Kemalist establishment turning him into a dictator? Do grandiose Turkish stands alongside authoritarian anti-Western regimes in the Middle East make Turkey “Islamist”? And is Turkey turning away from its U.S.-backed ambition of membership of the European Union?

The answer to all this is short: none of the above. In fact, Obama and U.S. officials can start out with grateful recognition to the Turkish chief executive for the many areas in which the Turkish policy is closely aligned with the United States. Praise is deserved for Ankara’s role in what progress has been made in Iraq, itself largely due to an about-turn in U.S. attitudes to cooperating with Turkey in 2007. Turkey has been strongly supportive in Afghanistan and might to more; it is also helpful behind the scenes in Pakistan. The U.S. could go so far as to recognize that Turkey’s goals and achievements in the region -- freer travel between itself and several states, increasing intra-regional trade, joint Cabinet meetings, and projects to knit regional infrastructure together – offer a promising path towards greater stability, security, prosperity and better governance in a traumatized Middle East. Despite its exaggerated self-image as a critical regional dynamo – in fact, Turkey is better compared to a large car with an underpowered engine – its new track record compares positively to the West’s controversial actions in the Middle East in past decades.

The U.S. and Turkey should resist what will be a temptation on both sides to spend the short time they have on their differences over Iran, Sudan or Israel/Palestine. For sure, the U.S. side needs to impress diplomatically on Prime Minister Erdogan how much his populist rhetoric in support of anti-Western bugbears is damaging Turkey’s position with its key partners and pro-Turkey constituencies in Washington and Brussels. And the U.S. should listen for any new message Erdogan might be bringing from his recent visits to Iran and Syria, and hear out his likely argument that punitive sanctions against Iran’s nuclear ambitions will do little but consolidate yet another authoritarian Middle Eastern regime. But lengthy argument over these deeply-entrenched issues will prove a red herring and has little chance of changing either side, given that the two countries’ approaches to the region are dictated by fundamentally different domestic political imperatives.

Instead, acknowledging that the Middle East is only one of several areas of overlapping U.S. interests with Turkey, Obama and the U.S. team should focus on two matters that will really test Turkey’s intentions, need urgent attention, and, in the long term, have the most game-changing potential in the region.
You can read the full paper here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peace Abroad, Polarization at Home


I have an opinion piece in the new edition of The Majalla magazine looking at how's Turkey's mostly successful "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy stands in stark contrast to the country's deeply polarized domestic political scene. You can read the piece here. The article is part of a package that looks at Turkey after seven years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. You can take a look at the rest of the articles on the magazine's home page.