Monday, January 25, 2010

Turkey Doth Protest Too Much?

Today's Zaman has an interview today with Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Armenian Center for National and International Studies, about the new tension between Turkey and Armenia over their recently signed normalization accords. Giragosian has some fairly tart things to say about Ankara's criticism of the language used in the Armenian Constitutional Court's recent decision to accept the accords.

From the interview:
"I find the Turkish reaction not only disingenuous but unfair, as there was never any doubt over the Armenian side’s commitment to ensure a speedy and full passage of the protocols,” he said and added that Turkey might be looking to create a new political “pretext” to withdraw from the protocols....

....Asked what will come next, Giragosian said the situation is not very promising.

“Turkey has so far only sought to enlarge this into an issue much more divisive than it should be,” he said. “Hopefully, both sides can recover and find a new way beyond this rather exaggerated crisis, but it now remains a test of Turkish political will much more than a challenge for the Armenian side.”
You can read the full article here.

Worth noting that one of the reasons Giragosian gives for why he thinks Turkey is overplaying things is that, considering the lack of independence found in Armenia's judicial system and the government's wish to have the accords approved, the Constitutional Court's (preordained) decision doesn't really amount to much. Not a great statement about the state of democratic affairs in Armenia.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Accords in Discord

It appears that both sides in the shotgun wedding that is the stalled Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process might be looking for a way out. Ankara has warned Yerevan, in fairly strong terms, that the conditions that the Armenian Constitutional Court has put on the historic accords are unacceptable and could jeopardize the process. Yerevan, meanwhile, is reminding Ankara that it is the one that put preconditions on the process, by linking it to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and by letting the accords languish in parliament.

Milliyet's Semih Idiz has a good column in today's Hurriyet Daily News looking at how each side in the matter is giving the other one the excuse it needs to get out of the forced arrangement. From his column:
It is clear, however, that these protocols are not moving. There is a tangible reluctance and reserve on both sides in this respect. The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government is not blameless either having effectively slapped a “Karabakh condition” on the ratification of the protocols by the Turkish Parliament.

Erdoğan boasts that “his government is one step ahead of the Armenian government,” having sent the protocols to Parliament for ratification. He argues that the rest is up to Parliament now.

In the meantime he keeps insisting that it is unlikely that Parliament will ratify the protocols, unless there is movement on the Karabakh front to Azerbaijan’s advantage.

This is completely disingenuous.

Erdoğan is playing to the political gallery because he knows there is serious opposition in Turkey to the protocols. If he wanted to show real leadership, however, he could guide his party, which has a majority in Parliament, to vote for the protocols without delay.

Some argue, of course, that many of Erdoğan’s own deputies would vote against the protocols given the sensitivity of all issues related to Armenia and Armenians. If so, that begs an even bigger question. Why did the Erdoğan government initiate this process in the first place then if it was not going to be able to complete it?

In the meantime, the confusing ruling of the Constitutional Court has given a fresh argument for those in Ankara who are reluctant about the Turkish-Armenian process.

Neither does there seem to be extreme enthusiasm in Yerevan over the issue.

The government there has said it will only endorse the protocols if the Turkish Parliament does and hence the current stalemate. It also appears to be doing little to support the protocols in public against harsh opposition and criticism.

Put openly, there is no will in Ankara or Yerevan at the present time to find a way to move forward in their ties. If there was, that way forward would be found regardless of the difficulties.
You can read the whole piece here. For some background on the accords and the hurdles facing them, take a look this previous post.

(Photo: the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers shaking hands after signing their October accords agreement in Zurich.)

An Unsettling Blast From the Past

I have a story up on the Eurasianet website about the release from prison of Mehmet Ali Agca, Pope John Paul II's failed assassin, and the dark memories his release is stirring up in Turkey. From my article:
When he shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 in St. Peter’s Square, would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca was, for most of the world, a mysterious and enigmatic figure, one who seemed to come out of nowhere.

In Turkey, though, Agca was already a known commodity, arrested in 1979 for the murder of Abdi Ipekci, a prominent left-leaning journalist, only to escape from jail while on trial and then resurface on that fateful day in Rome.

Ipekci’s killing took place during a time of extreme political turbulence in Turkey, marked by daily, violent clashes between leftist and rightist groups. The disorder ultimately led to a military coup in 1980.

Agca emerged a free man on January 18, after serving 19 years in an Italian jail for shooting the pope and then another 10 years in a Turkish prison for Ipekci’s murder. In Turkey, Agca’s release has been met with a certain sense of trepidation -- his reappearance a reminder of both the violent period he first emerged in, and of how much the shadow of that period still hangs over the country. "His release is a reminder of a dark time, one of the darkest of our history. It’s something that we dread," said Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran Turkish journalist who interviewed Agca while he was in prison in Italy.

As he exited prison, the 52-year-old Agca was met by a small group of relatives and well-wishers who greeted him with drums and pipes, a traditional way to celebrate a prisoner’s release in Turkey. The media was less welcoming, though. "Abdi Ipekci Murdered Again," was the headline on the front page of Milliyet, the newspaper that the slain journalist was the editor of at the time of his killing. "That Murderer Is Among Us Now," was the headline of Sabah, another daily.

Many commentators pointed out that Agca’s release came only a day before the third anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink, an outspoken Armenian journalist shot in front of his Istanbul office by a young man who, like Agca, was linked to ultranationalist forces. Like Agca’s release, Dink’s murder also stoked memories of the turbulent 70’s and 80’s, when journalists and intellectuals were frequently the victims of ideologically inspired violence.

The Dink murder trial has been going on for three years, but - as with Ipekci’s killing - many circumstances surrounding the case, particularly its links to the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment, remain untouched. "No distance has been covered regarding these murders. The tip of the iceberg has been broken, that is it. This is the dark face of Turkey," columnist Ali Bayramoglu wrote in the Turkish daily Yeni Safak following Agca’s release.
You can read the full piece here.

The fact that Ipekci's murderer was released the day before the anniversary of Dink's killing does seem like a very cruel twist of fate, considering that, though 30 years apart, there are so many disturbing parallels between the two murders.

I didn't get a chance to write about the Dink case, but a line from a column by Soli Ozel in the Haber Turk newspaper caught my attention and seems to sum up the case's significance. "This case is a test of what kind of society we are and what kind of society we would like to be," Ozel wrote. "Every day that passes without a resolution in the Dink case should embarrass the state and the government."

(photo -- Mehmet Ali Agca on the day of his release, in Ankara)

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Spat's Post-Mortem

My Jerusalem-based Christian Science Monitor colleague Ilene Prusher has a very good piece up about Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's new "national pride" foreign policy and how it factored into the recent "chair incident" between Israel and Turkey. From her piece:
Only a few weeks ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gathered together Israeli ambassadors from their postings around the world and announced a new style of Israeli diplomacy, says Alon Liel, former director-general of the foreign ministry. This new “national pride foreign policy” was, in his view, a direct precursor to Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s condescending behavior toward his Turkish counterpart this week.

“Already when we heard it, we were quite shocked. He said Israeli diplomacy is too soft and it has lost its pride. Many in the community of retired Israeli diplomats feel very ashamed at this, and in particular on what’s happened over the past week,” Dr. Liel says.
You can read Prusher's full piece here.

Yavuz Baydar, a columnist with Today's Zaman, has a piece that also ties the recent spat to larger changes within Israel's political culture, finding similarities with what took place in Turkey during the 1990's. From Baydar's column:
More and more it appears clear that we are now watching an Israel that is falling into self-repeating pity and worship of loneliness. In many ways, it reminds me of a Turkey which, falling into an arrogant delirium, made itself believe in the '90s that the only language for solving its violent domestic conflict was the language of asymmetric violence. The complete loss of reason under denial led it to react to every external critique as “We do not care if the entire world is against us.” The price of the experience proved to be much higher than it thought.
The full column is here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Diplomatic Shot in the Foot

The Jerusalem Post's Herb Keinon has a good column looking at what the recent spat with Turkey will cost Israel in diplomatic and political terms. From Keinon's colum:
The end result: Turkey comes out looking like the victim, and Israel is forced to apologize, something Erdogan never did - even after very undiplomatically upbraiding President Shimon Peres last year in Davos, and then storming off the stage.

In addition, and perhaps most damagingly, ammunition was given to those in Turkey who - like Erdogan - want to distance Ankara from Jerusalem.

Erdogan is not a Turkish King Louis XIV: He is not the state. There are many inside Turkey - in the courts, the military, the civil service bureaucracy - who would like to see Turkey's sharp tone toward Israel change. The problem now is that it will be more difficult for those people to raise their voices.

For instance, if the military says that - for its own interests - it wants to begin warming the ties with Jerusalem, those - like Erdogan - who want to distance the relationship, can answer, "After they humiliated us?"

So if Ayalon knows the rules, why did he violate them so and, in the process, shoot Israel in the foot?

Two reasons: Politics, and an informality - the lack of distance - that exists here between leaders and the media.

First to politics. Ayalon is not only deputy foreign minister, a diplomat, but he is also an ambitious politician. On Monday the political Ayalon got the best of the diplomatic one.

As a politician, Ayalon is trying to make his mark on his party, Israel Beiteinu.

With Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman under the cloud of a prolonged police investigation and possible indictment, both the leadership of the party and the position of foreign minister may soon be up for grabs. What better way to gain credit in their party then to puff out his chest and stick it to Turks, especially after all the bile they have thrown in Israel's direction over the last year?

It may make for bad diplomacy, but it makes for great Israel Beiteinu politics.

And then there is the coziness with the press. It is hard to believe that Ayalon meant things to go this way. He did, of course, violate the norm by inviting the press to the dressing down. Once he saw the media there he likely just got carried away, viewed the cameraman as part of the hevra, and began to choreograph the scene: put Celikkol on the sofa, no smiles, no handshakes, only the Israeli flag on the table.

Ayalon thought he was talking to friends, the hevra. He forgot that the microphone was on and the cameras were rolling.
You can read the rest of the column here. I think Keinon makes a good point regarding Erdogan. Imagine if an Israeli leader spoke to Erdogan the way the Turkish PM spoke to Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos? Over the past year, meanwhile, Erdogan's attitude towards Israel has become increasingly belligerent. As I have written before, Turkey is now taking a kind of "tough love" approach to Israel, keeping relations on a frosty level until there is some progress on the Palestinian front. But one gets the sense that with Erdogan this more a case of "soft hate" that is increasingly hardening. Despite its proximity to Turkey, Israel currently seems to be very much excluded from Ankara's vaunted "zero problems with neighbors" zone.

Today's Zaman's Andrew Finkel has an excellent (and quite funny) column in today's edition that touches on how Erdogan figures into the incident with the Turkish ambassador. From his column, entitled "Zero Problems with Furniture":
[The incident] was intended, too, as a thumbing of the nose to the Turkey’s prime minister. Mr. Erdoğan has been a stern opponent of Israeli militarism, and while his criticism is clearly heartfelt and a luxury which some Western leaders may be envious of, he sometimes appears to enjoy the role just a little too much. He takes off the gloves when dealing with Israel, but in front of world opinion seems unconcerned about the “mere rumors” of Iran’s nuclear capability or Sudan’s behavior in Darfur. He courts Turkish public opinion and the approval of the Arab street (and shopping malls). The Israeli Foreign Ministry is now in the hands of a party which is unashamedly populist and unembarrassed about playing to his own public opinion, and now it would seem not afraid publicly to call Turkey’s bluff.
You can read the whole column here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Apology Comes Up Short

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, inventor of the "high chair/low chair" school of (bad) diplomacy (see photo above), has now issued an apology to Turkish ambassador Oguz Celikkol. From Ha'aretz:
"My protest of the attacks against Israel in Turkey still stands," Ayalon said. "However, it is not my way to insult foreign ambassadors and in the future I will clarify my position by more acceptable diplomatic means."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday expressed satisfaction with Ayalon's apology. Netanyahu added that the deputy foreign minister's protest was justified, but that he should have used acceptable diplomatic means to express his outrage.
You can read the full article here.

The apology is a welcome move, but perhaps a futile one. The downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations was previously driven to a large extent by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's own anger with Israel's attack in Gaza last year and a sense that he was betrayed by then Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, who visited Ankara only a few days before the attack. But now we can add a sense of Turkish national outrage to the list of problems between Turkey and Israel. If Israel's public image in Turkey was suffering before the incident with the Turkish ambassador, one can only imagine where things will go from here. A tepid apology from Danny Ayalon will do little at the moment and will probably not be enough.

In the meantime, it might be time for the Israeli government to reconsider its diplomatic strategy -- or even its choice of Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister. The whole episode with Celikkol represents an almost unbelievable reading of how to deal with Turkey. On the most basic level, doing anything to hurt Turkey's national honor is clearly a losing strategy from the get go. But more significantly, Celikkol is one of Turkey's most senior and respected diplomats, with deep experience in the Middle East, and an important asset for any country where he is stationed (Ha'aretz has some more on him here). His posting to Israel was an indication that, despite the recent ups and downs, Ankara takes the relationship with Israel seriously and wants to make it work. Humiliating Celikkol and alienating him in the process is a major loss for Israel and, in turn, for Turkish-Israeli relations.

(The BBC, meanwhile, has a great article about the art and history of the diplomatic snub. It should become mandatory reading for Israeli diplomats. You can read it here.)

[UPDATE: Ayalon has now issued a second apology.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Decline of Turkish-Israeli Relations: As Seen on TV

Like the arrival of the full moon or utility bills, we can now come to safely expect a monthly flare-up in the relations between Turkey and Israel.

The latest one follows a familiar script. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lays into Israel for its actions in Gaza and berates the world for criticizing Iran over its nuclear program while saying nothing about Israel's. At the same time, a Turkish television show stirs the pot by airing an episode that portrays Israelis as bloodthirsty killers and dangerous meddlers in Turkey's affairs. This all leads to an angry Israeli response and the two sides again have to move into damage control mode. (You can get more details about latest spat here. Take a look at this previous post to see how this scenario played out back in October.)

Things played out a bit differently this time. Intent on showing its displeasure, Israel's Foreign Ministry invited the Turkish ambassador for a dressing down -- and took the undiplomatic step of inviting the press to film the ambassador waiting for his appointment in the hallway, like a naughty schoolboy outside the principal's office. Once in the meeting, Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, instructed the cameramen to "Pay attention that he is sitting in a
lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling."

Israel is clearly fed up with being Erdogan's punching bag but my guess is that the childish episode with the Turkish ambassador is going to backfire. Erdogan clearly is not going to change his ways. Meanwhile, the Turkish public -- whose hearts and minds Israel needs to somehow win, even if ever so slightly -- will certainly not look kindly upon one of its diplomats being publicly humiliated by another country. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already summoned Israel's envoy in Ankara over the matter and issued its own strongly worded statement in response to what happened.

The only winner here seems to be the odious "Kurtlar Vadisi" (whose latest season is subtitled, appropriately, "Ambush"), the show that helped spark this latest Turkish-Israeli flare up (more on it here). Initially a cultural and ratings juggernaut that in many ways helped drive and shape the political discussion in Turkey by creating a series that played to every nationalist sentiment and fear in the Turkish psyche, the show has lately been receding into the shadows. Now, thanks to the Israeli Foreign Ministry's own attempt at bad television, "Kurtlar Vadisi" is back where it like to be: in the middle of setting Turkey's political agenda.

For some background on the story and how it might affect the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, take a look at this Christian Science article of mine that was just posted online. Aluf Benn in Ha'aretz is also worth reading (although I find his last point off the mark).

[Update: The domestic reaction in Turkey to the events in Israel continues to intensify. Erdogan has said he will not meet with Barak during his visit. Hurriyet also adds:
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç blamed “Lieberman and his team” for the recent tension. “This is unpleasant behavior, but it is not unexpected. This, however, does not mean that we are forgiving Israel,” said Arınç, an influential figure in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Israel’s treatment of the Turkish ambassador drew reactions from the country’s opposition parties as well. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, described it as impudence and called on Israel to apologize. Onur Öymen, a former diplomat and deputy leader of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said no country had the right to behave in such a way to the representative of the Republic of Turkey.

“The word ‘scandal’ is not enough to describe this move,” Öymen said.
[Update II: It appears that Turkey's ambassador to Israel is heading back to Ankara for "consultations". The Jerusalem Post has the story.]

(photo: Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon meeting with Turkish ambassador Oguz Cellikol in Jerusalem. AP)