Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ready for Prime Time?

Along with the ever-insightful Hugh Pope, I was recently a guest on the Australian Radio program "RearVision," talking about the "new" Turkey and its role in the Middle East. The show (audio and a transcript) can be found here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Eastern Mediterranean's Bermuda Triangle

Turkey now finds itself managing rapidly escalating crises with three Eastern Mediterranean neighbors: Israel, Cyprus and Syria. The reasons for each crisis are different, but Milliyet's ever-sharp foreign affairs analyst Semih Idiz, finds a thread that connects them all and that leaves Ankara with some significant foreign policy challenges. From a recent column (in the Hurriyet Daily News):
Turkey is facing a difficult time in the eastern Mediterranean. It is almost as if we are heading for a hot confrontation in the region. It is not clear, however, how much international support Ankara has against Greek Cyprus and Israel. What is certain is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity on the Arab street will not be of much use here.

The irony is that any confrontation between Turkey and Greek Cyprus over offshore drilling rights, or between Turkey and Israel due to Ankara’s pledge to maintain safe passage in the eastern Mediterranean, will serve the interests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at this present juncture.

It is clear, especially since Prime Minister Erdoğan is not mincing his words about the regime in Damascus anymore, that Syria and Turkey are adversaries at this stage. That is why any development that draws Turkey’s attention away from Syria at the present time will be much appreciated by Assad who is fighting for his political survival....

....To sum up, it is clear that the waters of the eastern Mediterranean are heating up and that Turkey is facing a multi-problem environment in this region. This is quite a change from the days when Ankara was aiming for “zero problems” in its regional ties.
The rest of the column can be found here. Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank that's considered to have good connections to the White House, has just published a brief that suggests that Ankara's increasingly sharp rhetoric, particularly regarding Israel, could become self-defeating. From the brief, written by Michael Werz and Ken Sofer:
The confrontation between Turkey and Israel, two of America’s closest allies in the region, is threatening to reverse substantial gains in U.S. foreign policy. In addition, the AKP is trying to coerce the United States into a position closer to its own when it comes to the recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Of course, Turkey’s strategy is not smart vis-à-vis the White House or the Department of State, because they’ve broken the rules of democratic engagement. The current escalation creates unnecessary tensions; is based on unmediated, unilateral interests instead of searching for viable compromise; and has no longer-term perspective. And it goes beyond the question of whether or not Turkey’s government has a legitimate point in its criticism of Israel. The present oratory also undermines Turkey’s economic and security interests. This type of posture provides space for destabilizing actors in the region, ultimately endangering the country’s newly established political recognition in regions other than Europe.

Further, Turkey’s political and economic capital is largely dependent on its new role as pivot between the West and the Middle East. Besides its important geographic position between the two regions, it is the only country that has considerable leverage in both regions. This is what makes Turkey such an invaluable American ally and such an important voice for Middle Eastern nations. But if Turkey continues down its recent path and establishes a strong anti-Israeli posture, many in the United States and Europe will begin to review the level of trust and recognition that Turkey earned in the past year.

For the time being, the repercussions of these attacks won’t be as visible because of the Turkish prime minister’s wildly successful populism with its suggestive and simple interpretation of the world. But as a middle power in one of the most challenging political environments on the globe, Turkey has a limited amount of time to get away with this type of discourse....

....The current escalation has taken the Turkey-Israel relationship back four years. It needs to be rebuilt over time, accompanied by a more pragmatic and less selective Turkish foreign policy. But after picking up the pieces of a “zero problem policy” in shambles, Turkey has the option to develop a real neighborhood policy worthy of a democratic emerging power.

The U.S. administration needs to flank that process or risk losing a valuable ally in the Middle East to the type of shortsighted, populist foreign policy that limits the prospects for peace in the region. Turkey’s growth into a critical player on the international stage benefits not only Ankara, but Washington, Tel Aviv, and many capitals throughout Europe and the Middle East. The United States should continue to recognize and promote Turkish leadership but also make it clear that the current over-the-top rhetoric against a neighbor will diminish Turkey’s credibility in diplomatic circles.

In the short run, a breakdown in the Turkish-Israeli relationship may be politically beneficial for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among their hawkish constituents. But poking holes in the relationship will only lead to a sinking ship and will ultimately hurt Turkey, Israel, and the United States.
You can find the full piece here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reviving the "Kurdish Opening"

The International Crisis Group today released a superb report that examines Turkey's lingering Kurdish issue and the failure of recent efforts to solve, and that also offers some very clear and practical advice for how to move the issue forward. From the summary of the report, entitled "Turkey: Ending the PKK Insurgency":
A surge in violence has dashed plans for a negotiated end to the 27-year-old Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Kar­ke­rên Kurdistan, PKK) insurgency. Since Turkey’s elections in mid-June, clashes have killed more than 110 people, country-wide ethnic friction has hardened opinion, and the government has started bombing PKK bases and talking about an imminent ground offensive in northern Iraq. The PKK must immediately end its new wave of terrorist and insurgent attacks, and the Turkish authorities must control the escalation with the aim to halt all violence. A hot war and militaristic tactics did not solve the Kurdish problem in the 1990s and will not now. A solution can only lie in advancing the constitutional, language and legal reforms of the past decade that have gone part way to giving Tur­kish Kurds equal rights. Given the recent violence, returning to a positive dynamic requires a substantial strategic leap of imagination from both sides. Neither should allow itself to be swept away by armed conflict that has already killed more than 30,000 since 1984.

The Turkish Kurd nationalist movement must firmly commit to a legal, non-violent struggle within Turkey, and its elected representatives must take up their seats in parliament, the only place to shape the country-wide reforms that can give Turkish Kurds long-denied universal rights. The Turkish authorities must implement radical judicial, social and political measures that persuade all Turkish Kurds they are fully respected citizens. They should reach out to non-violent nationalists and not abandon long-standing negotiations on disarmament with the PKK, including its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Although justified in acting resolutely to block the PKK’s recent attacks, the authorities must avoid falling into the trap of tit-for-tat escalation. Many big Turkish strikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq solved nothing in the past. As the more powerful party, the authorities should instead take the lead in creating opportunities to end the fighting.

For all its gaps, flaws, and unravelling since late 2009, the promises of the Democratic Opening developed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) remain the best way forward. That initiative counts as Turkey’s most credible attempt to heal the open wounds of conflict between the state and its estimated 15-20 per cent Kurdish-speaking population. This report details more than a dozen concrete steps it has involved so far, including broadening access to Kurdish-language television, legislating the right to make political speeches in Kurdish and overseeing an end to almost all torture in Turkish jails. Others have led to a new sense of freedom in Kurdish cities, high-level talks with Öcalan and a greater readiness by mainstream commentators to discuss previously forbidden ideas, like a change in Öcalan’s jail conditions after a full peace deal or a federal disposition for the Kurdish-majority south east.

The outline of a deal to end the insurgency that was also under negotiation – an end to the fighting, major legal reforms, an amnesty and Turkish Kurd acceptance to work within the legal Turkish system – remains the best long-term outcome for both sides. But while making these reforms, the authorities have arrested hundreds of Turkish Kurd nationalists, including many elected municipal officials and other nationalist party members. More than 3,000 nationalist activists are behind bars, many punished as “terrorists” for the non-violent expression of opinions under laws for which the AKP is responsible. On the other hand, what should have been the centrepiece of the Democratic Opening – a ground-breaking PKK amnesty in October 2009 – foundered when Turkish Kurd nationalists exploited it for propaganda purposes.

AKP’s relatively open-minded approach has won it half the Turkish Kurds’ votes, but the government has to go further and fully engage the other half and its representatives, who are the decision-makers in the Kurdish nationalist movement. It should offer educational options that respect Kur­dish languages and culture and rewrite laws that unfairly jail nationalists as terrorists. It must also ensure its policies are fully implemented by all military, judicial and state bodies. Otherwise, as developments since the June 2011 elections show, the nationalists will feel unconvinced and threatened and be unready to reach a compromise deal.

AKP leaders must also speak out to convince mainstream Turkish public opinion that reform is essential to resolve the Kurdish problem; granting universal rights is not a concession; Turkish is not being undermined as the country’s official language; and almost all Turkish Kurds wish to continue living in a united Turkey. The government must order the security forces to try whenever possible to capture rather than kill PKK insurgents, and should engage the legal Kurdish nationalist party to the maximum extent.
The full report can be found here. Previous posts about the "Kurdish Opening" are here.

ICG's report comes out only a few days after the leaking to the Turkish press of a recording a previously secret meeting (held either in Europe or Northern Iraq) between Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's intelligence agency, and senior members of the PKK. Although opposition figures have criticized the government for meeting with the PKK, there are also suggestions that now that the fact that these meetings took place is out in the open it will help normalize the idea of the Turkish state and the PKK actually sitting down to negotiate. More on this development here (Hurriyet Daily News) and here (The National).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Out of Balance

I have a new piece in the Forward looking at the breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations and the two countries' failure to find a new balance for their relationship after its initial security-heavy focus and Israel's continuing failure to correctly read the changes taking place in Turkey and how to best manage them. From the piece:
When Israel and Turkey first forged their now shattered alliance in the late 1990s, there was much to bring together the two countries. The odd men out in the Middle East, both were non-Arab military powers who had either strained or outright hostile relations with their neighbors, a domestic terrorism problem and a strategic vision that looked westward, particularly toward Washington. It was a marriage that its architects, particularly in Israel, believed was going to last.
It turns out, breaking up is actually easy to do.
With the almost complete deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations following last year’s tragic Gaza flotilla incident in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists, it’s clear that the alliance was built on a less-than-solid foundation.
Despite the closeness the two countries once enjoyed, the relationship between Turkey and Israel was never balanced, skewing heavily toward military and security relations and a sense of shared threat in a hostile region.
Turkey’s efforts over the past few years to alter the relationship, particularly by de-emphasizing its security and strategic components, and to reintegrate itself into the Middle East — and Israel’s failure to properly read those moves and other political and social changes in Turkey — has now left relations between the two countries woefully out of balance once again. For Israel, which now must rebuild its ties with Turkey from the ground up, this imbalance and a continuing misreading of its causes will likely only lead to more problems down the road.
You can find the full article here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dead in the Water

I plan to post a bit more about the complete and troubling breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations, but for now I'm posting a bit from an article I recently wrote about the subject for Foreign Policy's website. From the article:
The world owes a debt of thanks to that anonymous diplomat who leaked the long-delayed U.N. report on the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident -- the ill-fated Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks -- to the New York Times, thus single-handedly ending months of endless speculation and finally putting the floundering Turkey-Israel relationship out of its misery.

The report was issued by a panel headed by Geoffrey Palmer, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who was aided by Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, along with one Turkish and one Israeli representative. While concluding that Israel's military takeover of the Mavi Marmara was "excessive and unreasonable," the report also decided that Israel's naval blockade of Gaza was legal and based on legitimate security concerns.

With the report's leak and Israel's continuing refusal to meet Turkey's demand for an apology, Ankara deployed its long-threatened "Plan B" on Friday, Sept. 2 -- expelling the Israeli ambassador and downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending military agreements, and promising to help the families of flotilla victims pursue Israel in international courts. In a Friday news conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned, somewhat ominously, that Turkey would "take whatever measures it deems necessary in order to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean."

Turkey's moves against Israel cap off what has been a steady deterioration between the two former allies -- one that started not with the Mavi Marmara affair but with Israel's attack on Gaza, which began in December 2008. The most recent steps taken by Ankara are therefore not a blip in Turkey-Israel relations, but represent what is likely to be a long-term freeze, one that could very well lead to further problems between the two countries in the near future.

At the heart of Friday's breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations -- and what makes any rapprochement between the two countries extremely unlikely at present -- is an increasingly divergent view of the Middle East and each country's role in the region. For Turkey, Israel's continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories (particularly Gaza) stand as the primary roadblock toward creating the kind of more harmonious regional order that Ankara envisions. For Israel, Turkey's outreach to Hamas in Gaza, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria (at least before his recent crackdown), and the Iranian regime are all proof that the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is quickly on its way to joining the regional "axis of resistance" against it.

The U.N. report on the Gaza-bound flotilla incident is just the latest example of how Turkey and Israel now fail to see eye to eye on the region's most important questions. While Israel holds that it is enforcing a legal naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, Turkey sees a country that treats the Mediterranean as "a lake of its own," as the Turkish ambassador to Washington tweeted on Friday. Where Turkey sees the Mavi Marmara as a ship rushing desperately needed aid to Gaza, Israel sees a craft filled with violent Hamas supporters.

The response to the report continued along these lines. "The report is a professional, serious, and extensive document," a senior source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office told the Israeli media. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, on the other hand, declared, "That report is actually null and void for Turkey."
The full article can be found here. Lots of previous posts tracking the failing of the Turkey-Israel relationship can be found here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Event: A Year after the First Gaza Flotilla

I will be part of a panel discussion this Friday in Washington that take a look at last year's Gaza flotilla and its impact on the region. Here are the details:
The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. presents

The New Middle East:
A Year after the First Flotilla

Friday, June 24, 2011
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Noura Erakat
Human Rights Attorney and Activist

Yigal Schleifer
Independent Journalist

Nuh Yilmaz
Director, The SETA Foundation

Moderator: Kilic Kanat, Syracuse University

More than a year after the first flotilla, a second humanitarian aid flotilla is scheduled to set sail for Gaza on June 25, 2011. As civilian initiatives, flotillas had political and diplomatic repercussions for the regional dynamics. What kind of an impact did the first flotilla have on the region as a whole? Given the new regional dynamics after the Arab Spring, in what ways is the second flotilla different? Does the limited opening of the Rafah border by Egypt have a bearing on the rationale of the second flotilla? What are the implications for the Palestinian problem? Our panelists will seek answers these questions and discuss the New Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring a year after the first flotilla.

For more details, click here. [UPDATE: You can find a video and photos of the event here.]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Democracy Agenda

I have a new policy briefing out for the Project on Middle East Democracy that looks at Turkey's recent elections and what the results mean for the country's ongoing democratization project. From the briefing:
Turkey’s free and fair parliamentary elections on June 12 were yet another important achievement for a country that over the decades has seen four military coups and various other interventions in its democratic process. The poll was also a historic milestone for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won its third straight election and which again managed to increase its share of the national vote, this time reaching close to 50 percent.
But the AKP may have little time to celebrate its victory. While the party has broken significant political and economic ground over its nine years in power, the upcoming period might prove to be the most difficult yet. In the coming weeks and months, the AKP will have to address an overheating economy, turmoil in next-door Syria, escalating tension over the Kurdish issue, as well as questions about how it intends to push ahead on its plans to introduce a new constitution and to revive the stalled European Union (EU) membership process. At the same time, the AKP and, in particular, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are likely to continue facing charges both at home and abroad that Erdogan’s leadership style has become increasingly autocratic and that some of the democratic gains made in Turkey—particularly regarding freedom of the press and freedom of expression—are under threat.
How Erdogan and the AKP respond to these issues will have profound implications for the continuing development of Turkey’s democracy and will also require close monitoring by the United States. While policymakers and pundits alike have focused almost exclusively on Turkey’s possible “drift away from the West,” it is the internal drift from the path of domestic reform that should be the major cause for concern. Washington should coordinate closely with Ankara on the international front—particularly regarding events in the Middle East—but it must also keep a close eye on domestic developments in Turkey and be prepared to put Ankara on notice for any backsliding on the democracy front.
You can read the full piece here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Turkish Elections 2011: The Post-Mortem

The results of today’s parliamentary elections in Turkey are a bit deceptive. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), of course, can claim to be the day’s big winner, but the three other parties that made it into parliament can also claim something of a victory. That said, the victory parties shouldn’t last that long. Each party – the AKP included – comes out of this election facing some significant questions about what the future holds for it.

Some thoughts regarding each party and its performance:

According to current results, the AKP won the election with nearly 50 percent of vote, an increase of some 3.5 points over the last election and the party’s third consecutive victory at the polls. At the same time, because of Turkey’s parliamentary arithmetic, the party’s seats dropped from 341 to 326. In that sense, the AKP’s victory should be tempered by the fact that it failed to achieve its goal of winning at least 330 seats in this election, something which would have then allowed the party to pass a new constitution and then send it off to a national referendum, which it would have likely won.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an effort to get above 330 seats, ran a blistering campaign that saw the AKP turn up the nationalist rhetoric in order to woo the voters of the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and keep that party from reaching the 10 percent threshold necessary to enter parliament. In the end, the MHP still managed to pass the threshold, the AKP didn’t get the 330 seats it so desperately wanted, and Turkey is left with a Kurdish population that feels like it was badly burned by the PM in this election (the AKP lost quite a bit of ground in the Kurdish southeast region in this election) and a MHP that believes it was the government that was behind the “sex tape” scandal that seemed designed to bring the party to its knees. Obviously, this is not a good recipe for creating the kind of atmosphere needed to get the different parties in parliament to work together on drafting a new constitution, which is what Erdogan promised he would try to do in his victory speech. With its win, does the AKP use the occasion to further consolidate their power, or does the party work towards uniting what has become an increasingly fractured nation? After his party’s decisive win in the 2007 elections, Erdogan also promised to lead a government that represents all of Turkey, but that sense of inclusiveness soon fell to the wayside.

The election also leaves the AKP with unanswered questions about Erdogan’s future. Heading into the elections, the party’s forward plan revolved around introducing a new constitution that created a strong presidential system, with Erdogan moving into the president’s office after what would be his last term as PM. But its not clear if the AKP can get the other parties to agree to a new constitution that has the presidential system change in it (many in the AKP, especially current President Abdullah Gul, are apparently also not fond of the system change idea). The question then is what does Erdogan do after this term as PM, which is supposed to be his last according to his party’s bylaws? Does he become president under the current system, taking over a less-powerful position that would require him to play the role of non-partisan national paterfamilias? Does the AKP, which could very well find itself adrift without Erdogan at the helm, revise its bylaws to allow him to run again?

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) saw its share of the vote increase from 20 percent in 2007 to just over 25 percent, while its number of seats in parliament rose from 112 to 135. Again, party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu can claim a kind of victory, but the party’s showing falls short of the 30 percent of the vote that it had hoped for. Despite barnstorming the country and riding on what seemed to be a wave of increased enthusiasm for the CHP, Kilicdaroglu still only managed to do well in Turkey’s western Aegean region, a long-time CHP stronghold, and in the eastern province of Tunceli, where he was born. In that sense, the CHP failed to break out in this election, and even fell back in some areas that had previously supported it.

For the CHP, the election raises questions about what are the natural limits of what a left-leaning, social democratic party can achieve in electoral terms in Turkey and just how the party can realistically manage to return to power some day. For Kilicdaroglu, today’s vote was also a referendum on his position as leader of the CHP. He can claim that he has led the party to its most successful showing since the early 1980’s, gaining some 3.5 million new voters. But there will be voices within the party that will accuse him of having failed to capitalize on an opportunity to gain even more votes and get close to the 30 percent mark and that will blame this failure on the party's departure from the the strict vision of Kemalism that it had espoused under its previous leadership. This will leave the party, which must find a way to update and modernize its Kemalist vision, again susceptible to the kind of infighting that Kilicdaroglu had to deal with when he first became party leader.

Since the MHP was in danger of being shut out of this parliament because of the “sex tapes” scandal that plagued it, by getting over the 10 percent threshold and winning 53 seats (as compared to 71 in 2007), the nationalist party can also claim victory. But the party comes out these elections an undeniably diminished one, failing to make a significant showing in any part of the country that counts and with mounting questions about its relevance and future direction. Just what does it mean to be a “nationalist” party in 2011 and does Turkey really need one? If the party wants to survive, does it do so by (dangerously) doubling down on the nationalism or by rebranding itself as a more traditional center-right party? Like the CHP, the MHP also has to come to terms with the built-in limits on how many votes it can obtain and what that means for its future viability on the national level. And, like the CHP, it is likely to see an internal leadership struggle emerge in the coming weeks or months.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), could be seen as one of Sunday’s big winners, gaining an expected 36 seats, up from 2007’s 22 (the party, in order to avoid the threshold question, runs all its candidates as independents). With its tight focus on the Kurdish issue and with its base of support mostly limited to the southeast region, the BDP will remain an identity-based party whose role in parliament is to advocate on behalf of a set of issues that have a limited ethnic and regional appeal, a kind of Turkish Bloq Quebecois. Clearly, the party has benefitted from Erdogan’s backsliding on the Kurdish issue, but getting that issue back on track will require the BDP to deal with the AKP, which is promising to get back to working on its “Kurdish opening” after the elections. Can the BDP and the AKP work together after this bruising campaign, or will Erdogan once again ignore it and render it ineffective? Can the party step back from the more provocative statements made by some of its more militant members and step out from under the shadow of the PKK, which would enable it to become a more “mainstream,” but possibly more effective, member of Turkish political life? Either way, it’s clear that any serious movement on the Kurdish issue will not be possible without the inclusion of the BDP and its parliamentary group.

Collectively, this election – which failed to give the AKP the ability to determine Turkey’s political future on its own terms – represents a potential “growing up” moment for the four parties that made it into parliament. Can they move beyond the political polarization that has increasingly characterized Turkish politics for the last decade and work together on drafting a new constitution and a new political climate that can take Turkey forward? Can the parties envision a shared sense of Turkish national identity that they can all work towards building and strengthening? If Erdogan can preside over and guide such a process, then his position in the pantheon of great Turkish leaders would be truly sealed. On the other hand, if he helps create an atmosphere that brings out the worst in his rivals, his legacy will be tainted.

(photo: Inside the AKP's Diyarbakir headquarters. By Yigal Schleifer)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Turkish Elections 2011: The Blog View

With the Turkish elections set for Sunday, I've asked Aengus Collins, the man behind the very intelligent and informative "Istanbul Notes" blog to answer some questions about the vote's significance. His answers are posted below. In return, he sent me a series of questions about the election, and has posted my answers over on his blog. You can find those answers here.

1. Although this election's results have been more or less preordained, how significant is this year's parliamentary election in Turkey? What's at stake?

One of the things that makes this election potentially very significant is the simple fact that we're able to talk about its result as if it were almost a foregone conclusion. Nine years since the AKP first came to power, the chances of it being replaced by an alternative government are basically nil. In part that reflects the ineffectiveness of the political opposition, but it's also a reflection of the AKP's ruthless efficiency at consolidating its grip on power during its period in office. The AKP is now the natural party of government in Turkey. That won't always be the case, and there are tentative signs of progress within the CHP, but for the moment the AKP is the only game in town when it comes to winning elections.

That kind of electoral dominance is always a worry, because a prerequisite of healthy democratic politics is the realistic prospect of power changing hands. But the AKP's predominance takes on new significance in Sunday's election because of what's likely to follow in subsequent months and years. The most obvious consideration is the promised drafting of a new constitution. Ideally this would be thrashed out between the various parties and groupings that make up Turkey's deeply polarised public sphere. Instead, depending on the election result it's possible that AKP will get to write the constitution unilaterally. In a country that's not known for its traditions of political self-restraint this would be an unambiguously negative development.

In more general terms, there's a growing sense that years of uninterrupted success have started to go to the head of the AKP and of the prime minister, Mr Erdogan, in particular. The party's second term in office has been characterised by a prime ministerial swagger that has become uglier as the years have ticked by. There is a risk that this will simply be exacerbated once the party wins its third term. Of particular concern are persistent suggestions that Mr Erdogan hankers after a presidential system. This would formalise his personal dominance of the political scene. Again, this would be an unambiguously negative development. Countries with patchy democratic histories fare better with parliamentary institutions. Presidential systems offer too much leeway to leaders who wish to centralise power and sidestep as many checks and balances as possible.

2. If you look back at the last few years of AKP rule, what do you think a victory in these elections means for the democratization process in Turkey and the AKP's future role in it?

I think it's important to clarify what we mean by Turkey's democratisation process, because in a sense there are two of them. First, there's the actual, objective evolution of the country's democratic institutions and practices. I'm not sure that an AKP victory would make a huge difference to that process. It is certainly true that the government has been playing increasingly fast and loose with some key democratic principles, notably the separation of powers and the freedom of the press. This is of real concern, and one has to worry that more of the same would ensue if the AKP wins again. But if we take a step back and look at the broader sweep of events, these current failings don't necessarily represent a massive break with Turkey's deeply imperfect democratic traditions. Unfortunately, democratic abuses are nothing new here.

What is new, however, is the context in which these abuses are occurring. And this is where we come to the second democratisation process. This is a different beast entirely, reflecting not what's actually happening on the ground, but the way in which what's happening is spun to the electorate. Since 2007/08, the AKP seems to have twigged that in a country with a history like Turkey's, the rhetoric of democracy is a potent electoral tool. Since then, the party has relentlessly positioned itself as a democratising force. Given the AKP failings mentioned above, this has been a breathtakingly cynical exercise. But it has worked. In last September's constitutional referendum, the government basically managed to recast the poll as a choice between AKP democracy and the coup-mongering of the party's opponents. This would be laughable in its crudeness if it hadn't succeeded in playing a part in rewriting elements of the constitution.

It's on this second democratisation process, the spin-heavy AKP one, that I'd be more worried following Sunday's election. Because there must be a strong likelihood that the strategy that worked in September's referendum will be rolled out again in defence of the new constitution that will be drafted in the months ahead. Which leaves us with the risk that the AKP will write a constitution that serves its own interests and then sell it to the electorate as a democratic watershed for the country. The unfortunate truth is that the Turkish electorate may not be sufficiently democratically engaged to see through that kind of ruse. And more worrying still is the fact that the AKP's political opponents don't appear to have realised yet that they need to start contesting the AKP's colonisation of democratic rhetoric. Until that happens, the AKP will remain the driving force in Turkey's ambiguous process of democratisation.

3. It has been frequently said that Turkey's main political problem has been the lack of a credible opposition. Did Turkey overcome that problem in this campaign? How would you rate the CHP's performance, in particular?

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but Turkish politics seems to have no such qualms -- it is truly remarkable that it has taken so long for signs of life to stir in the opposition. The lack of a credible opposition has had a debilitating effect on Turkish public life since the AKP came to power. Granted, there are institutional factors that tend to militate against change -- for example, the ten per cent electoral threshold is a major barrier to entry for new and smaller political parties. But there is really no excuse for the shamefully slow progress the CHP in particular has made.

It's difficult to know how to gauge the campaign performance of the CHP under Kemal Kilicdaroglu. If we compare Mr Kilicdaroglu's CHP to that of his predecessor, Deniz Baykal, then the party has at least lifted itself off the floor. Jettisoning the incapable Mr Baykal was always going to be a necessary condition for competing with the AKP. But it's not a sufficient condition, and the CHP has yet to produce an electoral platform that might form the basis of a really serious push for power. In that sense, the party continues to disappoint. It has not found a way to encourage enough semi-attached voters to peel away from the AKP and vote for a new government.

The process of rebuilding the CHP will take time. This election was always going to be too soon for Mr Kilicdaroglu to turn his party around. We should cut him some slack -- this campaign, like last September's referendum campaign, should give CHP supporters grounds for (very) cautious optimism. It is hard to conceive of Mr Kilicdaroglu ever becoming Turkey's leader, but he appears to grasp that the CHP needs to change very significantly. Despite a worrying lack of decisiveness, Mr Kilicadaroglu has made interesting noises on key litmus test issues like the Kurdish and headscarf questions. He has also wisely invested time and political capital trying to spread the CHP's reach into regions where it has traditionally been weak. These developments look like the long-overdue stirrings of a party that understands the need to broaden its appeal out to a potentially election-winning constituency rather than staying in the comfort zone of core-vote strategising.

4. At a time when Turkey is being vaunted by some as a model for democracy in the Middle East, but is simultaneously coming under increasing criticism for its failures vis a vis EU democratic norms, what does this election tell us about the quality of democracy in Turkey?

There's been an interesting shift recently in the backdrop against which Turkish democracy gets assessed, with the European Union fading and the nascent democratic movements of the Middle East moving to the fore. To a large extent this shift is down to analytical laziness, with commentators following the depressingly usual pattern of hitching Turkey to whatever bandwagon is flavour of the month. But there is some substance to it, and it has the potential to affect Turkey's democratic development in real ways.

To my mind, the diminution of the EU's soft power in relation to democracy in Turkey is significant and alarming. The EU bears much of the responsibility for the deterioration in relations -- through its strategic short-sightedness (for example, on Cyprus's accession), more recently through its much more understandable inward-looking focus on preventing a meltdown of the euro zone's monetary union.

But this stepping back by the EU has been greeted by something close to hubris on the Turkish side. All too often one hears the view trotted out that the EU needs Turkey more than vice versa, and that the country might be better off on its own. Frequently, this assessment rests on nothing more solid than a lazy comparison of current headline GDP growth rates. In terms of what Turkish democracy needs, this complacency in relation to the EU is wildly off the mark. For all the problems of the EU-Turkey relationship, it has been one that has constantly pushed Turkey to improve itself.

The same can't be said of this new 'democratic model' narrative that has arisen in response to the Arab spring. On the contrary, there's risk is that it will encourage a sense of complacency on the Turkish side by allowing the country to consider itself a democratic leader rather than a laggard as it has always been in the EU context. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

The reality is that Turkey's democracy remains deeply deficient by European standards. One can disagree strongly with many aspects of the EU's conduct towards Turkey, but it would be a real pity if the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. Being anchored in the European democratic mainstream should be of the highest strategic priority for Turkey's leaders. It would be a real worry if they take their eyes of that prize for any significant length of time.

5. Everyone agrees Turkey needs a new constitution, but is simply changing the constitution enough? What do you think needs to accompany the constitution writing process in order to improve the quality of democracy in Turkey?

No, a constitution alone isn't enough. Even the most democratic of constitutions can't sustain a healthy democracy alone. It's just one element in a constellation of factors that needs to be present. Unfortunately, Turkey has already fallen at the first hurdle by paying too little attention so far to the mechanics of drafting the new constitution. Ideally, a broad cross-section of society should be given this task, both to ensure that no significant interests are excluded from the deliberations, and, to lend society-wide legitimacy to the resulting document. In Turkey however, it's not yet clear how the new constitution will be drafted. It seems likely that the process will involve only the small subset of political parties that make it over the undemocratic ten per cent threshold into parliament. It is even possible that the process will only involve the AKP.

So even before it has begun, we can mark down this constitution-drafting process as a missed opportunity.

Not that a well-crafted and legitimate constitution would be enough either. Creating a healthy democracy means ensuring that the democratic principles set down in a constitution are faithfully, consistently and forcefully implemented and defended. At a minimum, that requires effective legislators as well as a commitment to uphold the rule of law. But neither of these can be relied upon in Turkey. My favourite example from the current constitution is its declaration of gender equality. To say that implementation of this provision hasn't had the full weight of the state behind it would be an understatement of the highest order.

So until Turkey's politicians internalise some key democratic norms, we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for major democratic step changes in the country, regardless of what ends up going in the new constitution. The country may have most of the electoral basics down, but there's a steep learning curve ahead in terms of trying to bed down a more sophisticated democratic culture. Ultimately, it will require real political vision and leadership to move Turkey's democracy forward. That kind of leadership doesn't appear to be on offer in Sunday's election.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Kurdish (Cultural) Opening

The New York Times (which seems to have discovered Turkey in recent days) has a good piece out about some of the interesting changes taking place on the Kurdish cultural front -- a move towards "cultural autonomy" as the article puts it. From the article:
A BALEFUL love song wafted from the Vizyon Muzik Market. Not so long ago playing Kurdish music over a loudspeaker into the streets here might have provoked the Turkish police. Just speaking the names of certain Kurdish singers at one time could have landed a Kurd in prison.

These days hundreds of CDs featuring Kurdish pop singers fill one of the long walls in the small, shoebox-shaped Vizyon Muzik. The discs face a few

dozen Turkish ones. Abdulvahap Ciftci, the 25-year-old Kurd who runs the place, told me one sunny morning not long ago that customers buy some 250 Kurdish albums a week. “And maybe I sell one Turkish album,” he calculated, wagging a single finger, slowly. “Maybe.”

Turkey is holding elections in a few days. For months pro-Kurdish activists have been staging rallies that during recent weeks have increasingly turned into violent confrontations with the police in this heavily Kurdish region of the southeast. Capitalizing on the Arab Spring and the general state of turmoil in that part of the world, as well as on Turkey’s vocal support for Egyptian reformers, the Kurds here have been looking toward elections to press longstanding claims for broader parliamentary representation and more freedoms, political and cultural.
(The full piece can be found here.)

The article hits upon an interesting paradox that I wrote about previously on this blog (see this post), which is that while on the political front Turkey's "Kurdish opening" has mostly fallen flat on its face, developments in the realm of culture have been much more encouraging. In terms of film, theater, music and books, Kurdish culture is becoming a much more visible and natural part the cultural landscape in Turkey, particularly in places like Istanbul, where this wasn't the case even a few years ago.

The question now, it would appear, is at what point does a move towards "cultural autonomy" start impacting or strengthening what is also a call in southeast Turkey for some kind of "political autonomy," mostly through the decentralization of the Turkish state, and how will the government respond to that?

(photo - poster for "Min Dit," a Kurdish-language film recently shown in Istanbul. By Yigal Schleifer)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Crisis? What Crisis?

Reuters (via Today's Zaman) has just put out a good piece tracking some of the concerns economists have about the financial picture in Turkey. From the article:
Turkey's yawning balance of payments deficit and an exodus of foreign investors suggest its unorthodox monetary policy experiment may have gone too far, threatening to make Ankara a new flashpoint for risk in global emerging markets.

The country's monthly foreign funding shortfall is running at almost $10 billion, latest data shows -- a tough position to be in when confidence in developing markets is shaky and Western powers are preparing to wind down easy-money policies.

Financing such a deficit in recent years hasn't been difficult, with Turkey's stock and bond markets pumped up by huge foreign portfolio flows, its 2001 financial crash a distant memory.

But that picture could be changing.

A Bank of America/Merrill Lynch poll last week showed equity fund managers are underweight in Turkey for the first time in more than three years. A separate JPMorgan survey showed foreigners cut Turkish debt and currency exposure in May and went significantly underweight on its bonds.

Non-residents had also pulled $325 million out of Turkish stocks by mid-May this year, central bank data shows.

"There are very few countries in the world that run such a large current account deficit or are as vulnerable as Turkey to the withdrawal of capital from emerging markets," said Julian Thompson, head of emerging markets at Axa Investment Managers.

"It's sufficiently worrying to have next to no exposure there," added Thompson, who now has less than 1 percent of the money he manages in Turkish stocks, versus 5 percent last year.
The full article can be found here.

The article reflects the sentiments of several analysts in Turkey I have spoken with who are concerned that Turkey might again be heading towards the unpleasant part of a boom-bust cycle and that current economic policies are being used to boost the government's chances at reelection, rather than to put the brakes on what might be an "overheating" economy.

Meanwhile, on the same pages of the government-friendly Today's Zaman, columnist Ibrahim Ozturk offers a different picture. "Turkey's 'overheating' problem is being excessively abused in an irresponsible manner by some experts in the foreign as well as domestic media," he writes in today's paper. "This perspective has already been turned into a campaign against Turkey," he adds, saying that he believes additional measures will introduced "after the election" to get the economic picture back in order. (Full column here.)

For those interested in drilling down into the data on this a bit more, an analysis piece issued last month by Roubini Global Economics has lots of figures and charts that look at the role external funding is playing in driving the Turkish economy. The piece (found here) concludes with this:
In RGE’s view, the financing of Turkey’s large and growing CAD with short-term and historically more volatile capital inflows is a major risk factor attached to Turkey’s impressive economic recovery.

Whether the recent surge in capital inflows reverses and proves destabilizing is an open question. Turkey’s rapid recovery from the 2008-09 slump has proved the economy is more resilient than in the past, and capital inflows may enhance its long-term growth prospects. On the other hand, Turkey’s own history, and that of other EMs, shows that capital flows can rapidly reverse, and suggests the need for caution.
[UPDATE - A short report by Christian Keller, a very good Turkey analyst at Barclays, arrived in my mailbox soon after I posted this. Looking at recent activities and statements by the Central Bank of Turkey (CBT), Keller says, ".....we fail to follow the CBT’s surprisingly benign and, in our view, somewhat selective interpretation of recent data." His report (quite technical, be warned) can be found here.]

[UPDATE II - A bit more on this story from the Financial Times' "Beyond BRICS" blog, here.]

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Caspian Intelligence"

That's the name of a new blog by Alex Jackson, a smart independent analyst of Caspian and Eurasian affairs. Based on his previous work, I'm sure his blog will become an essential read for anyone interested in the Caspian and nearby regions. Alex's blog can be found here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sex, Votes and Videotape

Turkey's upcoming parliamentary elections continue to take a turn towards the tawdry and downright bizarre, with the escalation of an ongoing scandal that's engulfing the right-wing, ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The party, the third largest in the parliament, has been hit with the release online of footage showing a number of its senior members in compromising situations with young women. Four MHP members have already resigned, but the mysterious website where the footage has been posted ( has issued a statement saying it will release footage implicating six more party members unless the MHP's embattled leader, Develt Bahceli resigns today.

Bahceli and the MHP, in response, have accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of orchestrating the campaign and even say they have proof that a member of the governing party is financing More details here (Hurriyet Daily News) and here (Today's Zaman).

As I wrote in a recent post on Eurasianet's Turko-file blog, sex scandals and hidden-camera footage are turning out to have quite an impact on the course of Turkish politics these days. The fact that the main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) is at all competitive in these upcoming elections has everything to do with the fact that the party was able to dump it's ineffective long-time leader, Deniz Baykal, after he himself was implicated last year in a secret-camera sex scandal.

In the case of the MHP, the sex tapes and how they may impact the party's fortunes are also very significant, since polls show the party is fighting to get enough votes to make it above Turkey's 10 percent threshold for getting into parliament. The MHP failing to pass the threshold could be very significant, as Henri Barkey explained in a recent analysis:
Should MHP fail to pass the barrier, the AKP—given Turkey’s electoral rules—would almost certainly receive a disproportionate share of seats that otherwise would have gone to MHP. This outcome is what Erdogan would love to see and has strived to ensure. After all, every seat his party wins brings him closer to the 367 seats needed to alter the constitution with relative ease.
As I mentioned in my Eurasianet post, the MHP affair again brings up serious questions about the pervasive use of illegally obtained material (phone taps, video, etc.) in Turkish politics and the lack of decent legal mechanisms for stopping it. For more on that, take a look at this story I filed last year from Istanbul's phone tappers' bazaar.

(photo: MHP leader Devlet Bahceli)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Archival Bloggage

This blog is honored to be included on Foreign Policy magazine's list of "must read" Middle East blogs. For those readers new to the blog, be sure to dig through the archive: its provides a helpful narrative arc for the last few years of the Turkey story.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Who's Muzzling the Turkish Press?

Journalist Andrew Finkel, who was fired a few weeks ago by Today's Zaman because of a critical column he wrote, has a powerful opinion piece in today's International Herald Tribune about some of the recent troubling trends in the Turkish press. From his column:
Sadly, the most effective censor in Turkey today is the press itself. To adopt a stance critical of current policies is to position oneself in opposition to the government — and editors only do so as a calculated risk. Columns exposing corruption or criticizing the government’s sprawl-inducing environmental policies are simply spiked.

When Turkish newspapers try to speak their mind, they often discover their advertisers dropping out, explaining apologetically that they have “come under pressure.”
The full piece can be found here. A previous post about Finkel's firing and it's implications is here.

[UPDATE -- CNN's Ivan Watson has a new piece out about press issues in Turkey, which can be viewed here.]

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rockin' the Kurdish Vote

A new Economist article points out why for Kurdish politicians in Turkey this summer's parliamentary elections might different than previous ones. As the article points out, this time around campaigning in Kurdish will be allowed, while the existence of a new Kurdish-language state-run television station and the arrival of several private Kurdish television and radio stations could also change the political landscape.

Credit for these changes should be given to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has done more than many of its predecessors to liberalize and reform the Kurdish issue (despite the fact that its much-heralded "Kurdish opening," announced in 2009, failed to get too far). So why is the AKP expected to take a big hit at the polls in the southeast, while the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party looks set to make big gains? The Economist explains:
There are several reasons for AK’s ailing fortunes among the country’s 14m Kurds. They are no longer swayed by free coal and talk of Islamic fraternity. AK’s “opening”, which was meant to lead to an amnesty for PKK rebels untainted by violence, has been shelved. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, blames the Kurds. He says the PKK provoked Turks in 2009 when fighters returning from Iraq started delivering “victory” speeches.

The government’s response was to lock up thousands of Kurdish politicians, including BDP mayors. Selahattin Demirtas, a BDP leader, reels off the figures. At least 2,300 Kurdish activists have been jailed since 2009. Sentences sought by prosecutors in an array of cases against the BDP’s 22 parliamentarians, including Mr Demirtas, add up to a staggering 2,350 years.

Egged on by Mr Ocalan, the BDP has raised the bar with a civil-disobedience campaign that has seen a Kurdish female parliamentarian slap a policeman. Kurds are spurning mosques staffed by state-appointed imams in favour of Kurdish-language prayers in fields. Their campaign will not end, they say, until BDP prisoners are released, an amnesty is given to PKK fighters, education in Kurdish is permitted and the 10% threshold is lowered.

The strategy is paying off. Analysts reckon the BDP could win some 30 seats in June’s election. AK’s case has not been helped by the lacklustre candidates it is fielding in the south-east. This may be a good thing. The more Kurds there are in Ankara, the more comprehensive will be the new constitution Mr Erdogan promises to deliver after the election.
A senior AKP official I recently spoke with told me that the government's two main post-election priorities are passing a new constitution and restarting the stalled Kurdish reform initiative. The big questions remain how well can the AKP and a stronger BDP work together in parliament (based on what we saw in the current parliament, not so well) and how much confidence will the AKP have to take the political risk of making significant reforms on the Kurdish front (again, based on what we have seen before, questionable). Another failed "Kurdish opening" could prove to be very dangerous.

(Today's Zaman takes a look at the BDP's clever list of candidates here. On a related note, for more on the rise of the southeast's pro-Kurdish imams, take a look at this Christian Science Monitor article of mine from a few years back, and at this more recent Today's Zaman story.)

(photo -- BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas campaigning near Diyarbakir, Turkey, in 2009. By Yigal Schleifer)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tied Up in Knots

Eurasianet's Nicholas Birch has a great piece up about an initiative in Turkey to get headscarved women on the ballot for the upcoming parliamentary elections. From his article:
A woman's group is stirring controversy in Turkey with a campaign to elect headscarf-wearing women to parliament. Some of the fiercest opposition to the initiative is coming not from secularists, but from religious conservatives.

With just over two months to go before Turkey’s parliamentary balloting, the country’s political leaders are starting to assemble party lists of candidates. The number of seats any given party wins is determined by the percentage of the vote it receives. The higher an individual candidate is on a party list, then, the better the odds of that person becoming a MP.

Turkish women's groups have been traditionally divided along ideological lines. But they are uniting behind the initiative, launched in March by a non-partisan group called Women Meet Halfway, to have women who wear headscarves placed high enough up on party lists so that they stand a decent chance of being elected.

"No headscarves, no vote," shouted sixty-odd women who gathered outside the parliament building in Ankara on April 8. "As it stands, our democracy is half-baked", said the group's spokeswoman, Nesrin Semiz. "Two-thirds of Turkish women cover their heads. Not one of them has a seat in parliament."

The campaign is generating an ambiguous reaction from an electoral constituency that, at least at first glance, would appear to be a natural ally: religiously conservative men.
The full article can be found here.

Turkey's political parties released their candidate lists today. Hurriyet takes a look at how women fared on the lists here. In the end, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) only nominated one headscarved candidate, placing her at the bottom of the candidates list, which means it's not very likely she'll get voted into parliament.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Inconvenient Truths

The recent firing by the Today's Zaman newspaper of one of its top columnists, Andrew Finkel, for doing his job -- which is to write smart, questioning pieces that push forward the conversation on important and difficult issues -- should be cause for great concern for anyone who cares about the development of an independent and democratic press in Turkey.

Finkel is one of the smartest observers of Turkish politics, reporting on Turkey long enough to have an insider's deep understanding of what makes the country tick, while at the same time maintaining his outsider's critical distance. It's a combination that provided for frequently memorable and essential columns during his his three-year stint at Today's Zaman -- and which also got him into trouble before. In 1999, Finkel was charged with "insulting state institutions" after writing about some inconvenient truths regarding the Turkish military, which then led to his being fired by his employer, the Sabah newspaper, at the insistence of the country's National Security Council (MGK) .

Although the military wasn't involved this time around, it's clear that Finkel again got canned for writing (or trying to write) about another inconvenient truth. Today's Zaman is supported by the Fethullah Gulen movement, which is currently in the middle of another press-related controversy in Turkey, having to do with the arrest of a journalist who was preparing to publish a book that accuses the movement of having infiltrated the country's security forces. Following the arrest of the journalist, Ahmet Sik, on charges that his book is connected to the Ergenekon coup plot, prosecutors went on an aggressive campaign to confiscate any unpublished versions of the book and even indicated it would be a crime for individuals to be in possession of the manuscript.

Finkel wrote a column in response to these developments, but Today's Zaman refused to run it and then let the columnist go. In the column, which was printed instead in yesterday's Hurriyet Daily News, Finkel takes his (now former) employer and the Gulen movement to task for their response to recent events. From his column:
It was a bit over three years ago that I was recruited to write this column for this newspaper (Today’s Zaman). I remember the conversation well. The editor-in-chief anticipated that I might be hesitant to associate myself with a press group whose prejudices and principles might not always coincide with my own. He explained what I knew already, that the Zaman Group supported and was supported by the Fetullah Gülen Community and that I would have to take that on board. However, he explained the paper's mission was to fight for the democratization of Turkish society – that Turkey was no longer a country which should be ruled by military fiat. He also impressed upon me that he was committed to liberal values and to free discussion. And then, of course, he flattered me by saying that mine was a voice which the target audience of Today’s Zaman would want to hear. What helped me to make up my mind was the presence of columnists whose reputations I respected and whose standard of integrity had got them into trouble in other “corners” of the Turkish media....

....I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods. This in turn has led to a polarization in Turkey. If your side loses power then the natural fear is that they will use your methods against you. In case this sounds like I am speaking in riddles, I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. These may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gülen community is not a crime.

It may be in bad taste, it might be off beam. It might every bit as nonsensical as the conspiracy theories that fill the shelves of Turkish book stores. But it might not. And until we actually read it we cannot know. More to the point, we can only question the motives of those who don’t want us to read it. It blackens the names of the censors, increases the credibility of a book which no one has even read. It’s also extremely foolish because in an age of Internet, you can’t actually stop people from whispering your backs. The point about the ostrich with its head in the sand is that it only fools itself.

However, I write this in the interests of defending the good name of this newspaper, with whom I have been associated since the first copy appeared on the stands. Having started the dialogue, it cannot stop.
(The full column can be found here. And some thoughts from Jenny White here.)

Finkel's firing strikes me as a very bad omen for which direction the political discussion in Turkey may be heading and for the health of the Turkish press. It's also a troubling development for Today's Zaman (and its Turkish-language sister paper, Zaman), which has become an increasingly blunt instrument in recent months, frequently resorting to the the same questionable journalistic tactics that it had long criticized its rivals for using. As one of two English-language papers in Turkey and because many of its writers represent a Gulen perspective, the newspaper remains a valuable resource and an important read. But after Finkel's firing, it is a much diminished publication. Finkel in many ways embodied Today's Zaman's mandate, and was then fired for fulfilling that mandate. The question, then, is: has the paper's mandate changed?

"I do not doubt that the current Turkish government, like those that preceded it, uses both carrot and baseball bat to get the media on its side," Finkel wrote in a September, 2009 column on press issues that seems particularly relevant today. "Yet even were the elected government to value a free and vital press (and there are days when this appears to be the case), the question remains whether the press itself is prepared for the role."

[UPDATE -- Today's Zaman editor-in-chief Bulent Kenes has penned a column explaining why his paper let Finkel go. While Finkel was one of the first journalists that he thought about hiring when he launched the paper, Kenes says that something (or, as he sees it, someone) has now "changed."

"So what is it that has changed?" he writes. "What has changed is that some of our writers have come under the influence of the strong and dark propaganda that is at play and have started to stagger. Unfortunately I feel the same way about Finkel, who I know does not have ill intentions in any way."

That certainly seems to clear things up, doesn't it?]

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eastern Dreams

Joshua Walker has a good piece up on the Huffington Post site that looks at the roots and trajectory of Turkey's current foreign policy and the role of historical memory in shaping that policy. From his piece:
Presenting Turkey as a "soft power"in the Middle East was made possible by Turkey's broader democratization since the end of the Cold War and in particular since September 11, 2001. There seems to be a relationship between greater democratization and Eastern oriented foreign policy initiatives throughout Turkish political history. The three longest serving prime ministers (Adnan Menderes, Türgüt Özal, and Recep Erdoğan) have all implemented at least one Eastern oriented initiative (Baghdad Pact 1955, Central Asian Initiative 1991, and "Strategic Depth" 2004) along with their domestic democratization efforts. These same prime ministers commanded the largest percentage of the parliament and were among the most responsive to public opinion, which led often to tenuous relationships with Turkey's traditional purveyors of foreign policy, the military. There is something electorally attractive about Eastern initiatives even if they are less institutional or formalized in the same way than Western initiatives have tended to be (NATO 1952, EC Application 1987, and EU candidate status 2004). Within the democratizing Turkey of the last decade civilian leaders cannot as easily ignore public opinion on critical foreign policy questions in the same way as military leaders who previously dominated Turkish foreign policy decision-making.

The role of history and imperial memories has further facilitated the transformation in Turkey's outlook on the Middle East. Turkey's "rediscovery" of the Middle East has been greatly initiated by the AKP's historical memory and ideas about Turkey's "rightful" place as the heir to the Ottoman Empire both in and outside the region. The rise of the AKP has subsequently meant a de-emphasis of the "othering" and "Islamic threat" in Turkey's view of the region. Closer Middle Eastern relations are not seen as being dichotomous or detrimental to Turkey's western orientation, at home or abroad, as they had been seen under military rule in the 1980s. Hence, a more "Islam-friendly" approach that focuses on economic opportunities and shared heritage has come to permeate Turkey's policy towards the region.
The full article can be found here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Libyan Rift

I have a briefing up on the World Politics Review website that looks further at the difficulties Turkey has faced in formulating its Libya policy, how that has affected relations with some of its allies and what lessons that might provide in other cases of regional instability. From the briefing:
Ankara has backed off from its initial opposition to NATO being involved in the Libya crisis and is now even expressing its willingness to take a leading role in the military operation there. But Turkey's initial position and its hard bargaining within NATO before finally agreeing to let the alliance take over military operations in Libya could reinforce a gathering impression that Ankara is acting as a spoiler and outlier within the organization. That impression first surfaced following Turkey's initial opposition to the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO's new secretary-general in 2009, and it was further established by the tough conditions Ankara initially set for joining the alliance's missile defense program. If not addressed, it could risk hardening into a dangerous split between Turkey and NATO.

Meanwhile, relations between Turkey and France, which were already strained before the Libyan crisis because of differences over Ankara's European Union membership bid, appear to be heading towards an even rougher patch. Turkey was noticeably among the countries not invited to the Paris meeting that led to the start of military action against Libya, with French officials suggesting that Ankara's stated opposition to an intervention there disqualified it from attending. Turkish leaders, in response, have obliquely accused Paris of being motivated by oil concerns and seem to have made a priority of reducing the French leadership role in the Libyan operation.

The fact that an ambitious middle power like France spearheaded the action in Libya highlights the ways in which the crisis represents a missed opportunity for Turkey to have assumed the kind of regional leadership role it aspires to play. While Erdogan, Davutoglu and other Turkish leaders have long talked about their desire to create a proactive Middle East foreign policy that respects regional sensitivities, Ankara's undefined and overly accommodating approach to the Libyan crisis, at least in the early stages, left the door open for other actors to step in and assert their vision for how the problem should be resolved.

Turkey, though, could look at Libya as a dress rehearsal. With unrest continuing in Yemen and especially in neighboring Syria -- two countries where Ankara has recently been investing heavily in both political and economic terms -- Turkey is likely to be faced with some of the same, if not more-complicated, policy problems it faced in Libya. How Ankara chooses to confront those challenges could very well be an indicator of the lessons it has drawn from the Libyan crisis.
You can find the full piece here, and a look at Turkey's Libya policy by the Economist's Amberin Zaman here.

For Ankara, of course, the biggest worry right now is probably what's taking place in next-door Syria. Writing in Today's Zaman, Omer Taspinar suggests that events there could provide another test for Turkey and its efforts to become a regional leaders. From his piece:
Ankara has had a love affair with Damascus under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government over the last eight years. The Syrian-Turkish bilateral relationship is a remarkable story of a journey from enmity to best friendship. This puts a lot responsibility and pressure on Turkey’s shoulders. The events in Syria will provide a crucial litmus test for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in terms of testing his commitment to democratization in the region.

Turkey is uniquely placed to apply some friendly advice and pressure on Syria for constitutional reforms. Over the weekend Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu delivered a lecture in which he emphasized the importance of striking the right balance in the Middle East between freedom and democracy. Damascus may be in no mood to listen, but this is the right time for Turkey to use its leverage with Syria to send a clear message that change is unavoidable. Syria’s balance between freedom and security will need to change with rapid political, social and economic reforms. The Assad regime needs to act now.
More here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Banned in Turkey - Again!

[UPDATE -- Despite reports that the ban on access to Blogger has been lifted, the block appears to still be in effect (as of March 31, 2011).]

[UPDATE II -- According to this article in Milliyet, the block is still on because the court order to restore service refers to something called "Blogsport," not "Blogspot." Sad, but true.]

This blog, along with every other one hosted on Google's Blogger service, is currently not accessible in Turkey by court order. As was the case the previous time this happened, it appears that some blogs on Blogger are showing clips of Turkish football/soccer matches that cable provider Digiturk has exclusive rights to, prompting the provider to ask the court to take Blogger down. Turkey's problematic (to put it mildly) internet laws allow for sites to be taken down wholesale, rather than simply blocking access to the offending pages. This was the case with YouTube, which was banned in Turkey for years because Google refused to remove a few videos that mocked Ataturk.

Take a look at this previous post for more information about Turkey's misguided internet laws, which not only allow the courts but also a government agency to block access to sites. Meanwhile, Today's Zaman's Andrew Finkel takes a look at the Blogger ban and the wider issue of freedom of expression in Turkey in a column that leaves not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Turkish officials have indicated that new internet-related legislation which should avoid bans like this is coming down the pike, but there is some concern among activists that it could in fact make things worse. According to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University and one of the leading Turkish authorities on internet issues, the new legislation will create four types of centrally-administered filtered profiles that every Turkish internet subscriber will have to sign up for (the default one being a "standard" profile which will also be filtered, although it's not yet clear what will be filtered out). "What they are building is NOT a child protection mechanism but Turkey's Internet Censorship Infrastructure. You can quote me on that," Akdeniz, who has taken a look at the proposed legislation, wrote me in a recent email.

For now, if were in Turkey and tried to find this blog (and are too honest to use proxies), this is what you would reach:

Bu siteye erişim mahkeme kararıyla engellenmiştir.

(Translation: "This site has been disabled by court order.")

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Libyan Roulette

I have a piece up on the Eurasianet website looking at the dilemma Turkey is facing in formulating its approach to the crisis in Libya, which has found Ankara, as one analyst put it, “torn between a kind of idealistic narrative of Turkish foreign policy and a more mercantilist realpolitik

From the piece:
Only a few weeks ago, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was in the vanguard of those calling for political change in Egypt. These days, Erdogan’s government in Ankara is taking a very different approach toward the uprising in Libya.

Turkey is opposing the imposition of sanctions against the regime of strongman Muammar Qaddafi, as well as resisting any NATO-led military intervention in the country. Erdogan also pointedly refused suggestions that he return a “human rights” prize awarded to him in 2009 in Tripoli by a Qaddafi family foundation.

While Erdogan’s position on the Egyptian crisis helped raise Turkey’s profile in the Middle East, experts say Ankara’s stance on Libya – a large part of it dictated by concerns over the fate of large-scale Turkish investments in the North African country – could prove problematic, possibly diminishing some of the country’s newfound regional prestige.

“The ongoing Libyan crisis, with no end in sight, has created a problem for the Turkish government,” says Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The contradiction here is that instead of being able to repeat what he said during the Egyptian crisis, Prime Minister Erdogan has clearly taken into account ... commercial interests which require maintaining ties with the embattled [Libyan] regime. That undercuts the role of Turkey as a potential model for countries in the Middle East.”

Ankara’s Libya policy, particularly its opposition to any sort of NATO-led intervention there, could also undermine some of the recent gains Turkey has made in repairing its ties with the United States, says Omer Taspinar, a Turkey expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

“I think it’s costing in terms of [U.S. President Barack] Obama’s patience and it’s costing in terms of relations with the Pentagon, which has been a strong supporter of Turkey. It’s being seen as a serious mistake by Turkey,” he said.
Turkey’s economic interests in Libya are extensive, particularly in the construction sector, where the country has secured some $15.5 billion in tenders over the last five years, representing 15 percent of its global contracting business. Trade between the two countries has also been growing steadily, increasing by 60 percent over the last two years.

When Turkey was forced to evacuate the estimated 25,000 of its citizens working in Libya in a massive rescue operation, Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Caglayan assured journalists, as one newspaper put it, “that Turkish contractors have no intention of pulling out from Libya but have simply paused operations for security reasons.”

“We have a huge stake, a lot of interest in that country. The situation for us is different than other countries, so we have to be very careful,” Selim Yenel, a deputy undersecretary at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a recent briefing in Washington. “When Qaddafi is killing his own people, you have to be careful about your own citizens. Nobody knows what is going to happen there, so we have to be more cautious.”
The full piece can be found here. Joshua Walker and Nader Habibi offer another critical look at Turkey's stance on Libya here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Test Driving the "Turkish Model"

There's been a lot written in recent days about how the Turkish experience might serve as a model for post-Mubarak Egypt (here's just one sample). Omer Taspinar and Steven Cook both do a good job at breaking this suggestion down and looking at some of the structural differences between Turkey and Egypt, as well as some of the areas where Turkey's experience might serve as an inspiration for Egypt. And this Foreign Policy piece, by Nuh Yilmaz and Burhanettin Duran, asks the important question of just which Turkish model Egypt could end up following: "The old authoritarian Turkey under military oversight or the new democratic Turkey with its dignified foreign policy?"

A lot of this "Turkey as a model" talk has struck me as somewhat shallow, failing especially to take a look at how Turkey got to where it is today, as if the Turkish miracle was immaculately conceived. None of the newspaper pieces I read on the subject, for example, mentioned Turkey's European Union bid and how so much of the country's successful political reforms (such as reducing the military's hold on the political process) have come as a result of Ankara's engagement with the EU. If we look under the hood, the Turkish model has some significant parts that were made in Europe, which poses interesting questions about how to export it.

But what I've found especially problematic about much of the "Turkey as a model" talk is that it has a premature, "mission accomplished" quality to it. Although Turkey has made historic and laudable strides on the reform front in recent years, it remains a work in progress, with the country still facing huge challenges. A long-promised civilian constitution still needs to drafted and passed (no small task). The Kurdish issue continues to loom dangerously large, as do the stalled initiatives regarding Cyprus and Armenia. Improving a troubled educational system and its outdated, nationalistic curriculum, decentralizing the Ankara-dominated government and finding a way past the country's deep political and social divisions are some of the other significant and thorny items on Turkey's reform to-do list. Failure on any of these issues could pose a serious setback for Turkey's ongoing democratization efforts.

Egypt's and the wider Middle East's Generation Facebook, meanwhile, might also want to take a look at Ankara's recent record on new media and freedom of expression issues. Although certainly not in the same league as some of its neighbors when it comes to controlling and patrolling the internet, Turkey has shown some disturbing tendencies in recent times (there was even at one point a veiled threat to shut down access to Facebook), last year joining Russia and Belarus as countries "under surveillance" by Reporters Without Borders. You can read more about Turkey's problematic internet laws in previous posts here. Likewise, lawsuits by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other government officials against protesters and critical journalists and politicians and the increasingly heavy hand being used by Turkey's state television watchdog have raised some important red flags on the freedom of expression front.

Turkey can certainly serve as a kind of inspiration for the Middle East, but wise shoppers may want to wait for next year's improved model before they commit.

(photo: A 1974 Anadol, the first Turkish mass-produced car. Via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Talking Turkey

(Note: This talk has been postponed to a later date, yet to be decided. Apologies to anyone who has already registered.)

I will be in New York next week to give a talk about current Turkish affairs at the Manhattan JCC. Along with the current developments in the Middle East and how Turkey fits into them, I will be speaking about Turkey's evolving foreign and domestic policy and the current and future state of Turkish-Israeli relations.

Here are the details:

Date: Thursday, Feb. 17
Time: 7pm
Location: 334 Amsterdam Ave. (@76th Street)
(For more information or to register, call 646-505-5708)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Turkey's Riddle of the Sphinx

The political crisis in Egypt is proving to be an interesting test for Turkey's desire to play a more influential role in the Middle East and -- like Ankara's still-born attempt to defuse the recent crisis in Lebanon -- is perhaps also showing the current limits and constraints of the country's influence in the region.

Ankara was effectively silent during the recent "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia and, until a speech in parliament today by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said nothing about the events in Egypt. Interestingly, the only stated action taken by Turkey up until now was to create a "crisis desk" for Egypt and Tunisia -- not at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mind you, but at the Ministry of Trade, in order to deal with any problems faced by Turkish investors doing business there. And as Today's Zaman reports, the Turkish MFA has been mostly busy coordinating the mobilization of one of Turkey's most powerful foreign policy tools -- aka Turkish Airlines -- to ferry its own citizens out of Egypt and even those of other countries (talk about building customer loyalty).

So where does Turkey fit into all of this? On the one hand, Ankara and PM Erdogan have increasingly spoken of Turkey's desire to see democracy flourish and justice prevail in the Middle East. Indeed, in his speech today, Erdogan continued with that line, telling embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to "listen to the shouting of the people, the extremely humane demands. Without hesitation, satisfy the people's desire for change." Added Erdogan: "If there is a problem, the place for solution is the ballot box."

But as my Eurasianet colleague Nicholas Birch points out in a very good analysis piece, Ankara's position on Egypt is undercut by its close support for some of the region's more autocratic regimes, especially Syria and Iran. From his piece:
Far from being a spokesman for the oppressed, [analyst Soli] Ozel argued, Erdogan has more often than not taken the side of regional leaders: Ankara, for example, defended Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s administration in Iran during election-related upheaval in 2009 and continues to maintain close relations with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

"Of course, Erdogan is not going to call for Mubarak's resignation, but a country which claims to be a moral leader does need to show some sort of principles," Ozel said.

A foreign affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet, Semih Idiz thinks the hesitation of Turkish leaders to take a stance on unrest in the region reflects the conservatism inherent in the policy of good neighborliness that has guided the AKP’s regional diplomacy. "Recent events risk capsizing [Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu's 'regional vision' because it was based on deepening relations with neighboring powers by getting along well with them," Idiz said.

He adds that there is little the AKP government can do with a Middle East shaken by popular rebellions, at least, not until the new representatives of regional order are in place.

Echoing Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan on February 1 repeatedly emphasized democracy's role as a stabilizing agent. The difficulty he faces today, argued Bulent Aliriza, an expert on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Relations in Washington, is that the regional road to democratic stability looks set to bring instability right to Turkey's borders....

...."If you are pursuing the end of a more democratic Middle East, that is laudable," said Aliriza. "But you get to a point where supporting that creates instability in countries you have close relations with. It is a dilemma Turkey is struggling with, and it explains why, beneath all the brave rhetoric, Erdogan trod a very careful line today."
(The full piece can be found here.)

The crisis in Egypt still presents Turkey with some opportunities. It's no secret that Mubarak is not a fan of Ankara's recent efforts to expand its influence in the region and had previously told the Turks to butt out of Egypt's traditional spheres of influence, particularly regarding Palestinian affairs. And before the Mavi Marmara, Turkey had another Gaza-related diplomatic crisis, this time with Egypt, when a land-based Gaza aid convoy that included several Turkish MP's and NGO's ended with a violent confrontation on the Egypt-Gaza border that left an Egyptian soldier dead and Turkish Islamists burning pictures of Mubarak in the streets of Istanbul. So, a diminished (if not gone) Mubarak could mean that Turkey will have more space to operate in the region.

The general turmoil in the Middle East could also give Ankara a chance to again put forward the new "Turkish model" -- democratic, Islamic, economically vibrant and rapidly shedding the influence of the military -- as one for other countries in the region to emulate. But for this to happen, Turkey has to overcome the obstacle put forward by it not being an Arab country. The best (and perhaps only) way to do this is to is to emphasize its Islamic identity, which may explain why in his parliament speech, Erdogan use a distinctly religious tone in his appeal for Mubarak to step down.

"Mr. Hosni Mubarak: I want to make a very sincere recommendation, a very candid warning... All of us will die and will be questioned over what we left behind," Erdogan said. "As Muslims, where we all go is a two cubic meter hole."

This may yield dividends in the Middle East, but at a time when Ankara is accusing European Union countries of stalling on Turkey's membership bid by turning the EU into a "Christian Club," attempts at expanding influence through overt calls for Islamic solidarity could create problems elsewhere.

[UPDATE -- I have uploaded an official translation of Erdogan's speech, which can be found here.]