Thursday, March 18, 2010

The "Erdogan Factor" Returns

The great wild card in Turkish politics continues to be Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his shoot-from-the-hip take on things. From Darfur to Xinjiang, the "Erdogan Factor" (as previously discussed in this post) has frequently left Turkey watchers scratching their heads and Turkish policy makers picking up the pieces.

Erdogan's straight-talk express recently arrived in London, where the PM gave an interview to the BBC's Turkish-language service. In the interview (here, in Turkish) Erdogan suggested that one of the results of the recent Armenian genocide resolutions passed in Sweden and the United States could be the mass expulsion from Turkey of the thousands of Armenians working illegally in the country. "There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country,” Erdogan told the BBC . “Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.”

This is disturbing stuff on so many levels. Turkey is clearly not gearing up to do what Erdogan is suggesting might happen, but dragging the illegal Armenian workers into the dispute as a way of threatening Armenia and its politically active diaspora has ominous and unfortunate connotations. Analyst Mehmet Ali Birand makes the obvious point that merely invoking the possibility of a mass deportations in this case makes for truly bad politics. From his column in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
Now a smear campaign in the lines of “Turkey as a perpetrator of genocide did not want the poor Armenians to earn a few bucks” will start and people talk in purple prose saying, “In the past they killed millions of people and now they will condemn 100,000 Armenians to death by starving....”

....They’d say, “See, again the Turks are casting out the Armenians.”

And this action would be labeled “second deportation.”
You can read his full column here.

Today's Zaman, meanwhile, steps out of the Ergenekon/Balyoz thicket that it seems to have gotten lost in these days and, in today's paper, comes up with a journalistically solid piece, one that takes the PM to task for what he said and gets down to answering the important question of just how many Armenian illegals are actually working in Turkey? From the article:
Öztürk Türkdoğan, the chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD), said Erdoğan’s remarks could easily be considered a “threat” and as discrimination. “These remarks could lead some people to think that to expel people is a 2010 version of forced migration. This mentality is far from human rights-oriented thinking. People have the right to work, and this is universal. There are many Turkish workers all over the world; does it mean that Turkey will accept their expulsion when there is an international problem? Secondly, these remarks are discriminatory; there are many workers in Turkey of different nationalities,” he said....

....The İHD’s Türkdoğan was also critical of Erdoğan’s remarks regarding ethnically Armenian Turkish citizens: “We can see that the classic republican understanding based on ethnic Turkism is still valid. Minorities cannot be the subject of bargaining in international relations. This is racist discourse and only proves how far we are from a human rights-oriented perspective,” Türkdoğan said.
You can read the full piece here.

Based on its reporting, Today's Zaman estimates that there are probably 12,000 to 13,000 Armenians working illegally in Turkey, rather than 100,000 (94 percent of them are women, most likely doing domestic work). (A report on the issue from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia can be found here.) It appears that the number has been inflated over the years, perhaps so that it can be used as a political bargaining chip with Armenia and as an instrument for trumpeting Turkish tolerance.

Certainly, some of the damage control that members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have tried to do in the wake of Erdogan's comments has smacked of this.

“As has been known for many years, there are Armenians illegally living and working in Turkey, and as a reflection of our goodwill and efforts toward normalization which started in 2005, we do not really touch them," AKP member of parliament Suat Kiniklioglu told Today's Zaman.

"We tolerate them and take their difficult circumstances into consideration. In particular, we are not questioning their status due to the acceleration of the normalization process in Turkish-Armenian relations. The prime minister needed to draw this fact to people’s attention, especially now, when resolutions have been accepted which damage normalization. I think Turkey’s magnanimity is being ignored.”

Erdogan's comment about the illegal Armenians also ended up obscuring some of the more important and to-the-point comments that he made in the BBC interview. One of these comments was about the need for Armenia to break free from the hold of its diaspora, but his remarks about the illegals were a gift-wrapped present for the diaspora and its political lobby, which is intent on portraying Turkey as unrepentant country that has learned little from the past.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beyond Ataturk

Two interesting recent article looking at the current political battles raging in Turkey and how they are connected to the country's struggle to define a kind of post-Kemalist identity for itself.

In the Financial Times, David Gardner examines the growing political divide in Turkey and sees it as a result of:
....a clash between two rival establishments jostling for supremacy: the traditional metropolitan elites who see themselves as the guardians of the secular, republican heritage of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey; and the new AKP establishment that combines the conservative and religiously observant traditions of Anatolia with a huge constituency in Turkey’s modern but Muslim middle class....

....What [Turkey] desperately needs is a regrouping of secular, liberal and social democratic forces into an electable party (something an EU re-engagement with Turkey would help).

Banging on about secularism is therapeutic but ultimately futile. A viable centre-left needs to abandon the fragmented, pre-modern to Jurassic, and episodically putschist secular parties. Instead of worshipping at Ataturk’s shrine they should follow his example. The founder of Turkey built the republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Even Mr Erdogan looked far beyond the wreckage of Turkish Islamism to create the AKP. Turkey’s centre-left should emulate him and start again.
You can read his full piece here (registration required).

Meanwhile, in a piece in Newsweek, Turkish liberal Islamic columnist Mustafa Akyol writes that the recent developments and changes in Turkey are an indication of a "new, post-Kemalist" era. From his piece:
The passing of Kemalism as an official doctrine is a good thing, for the age of ideological regimes is long past. Some critics fear that the new elite, the religious conservatives, will prove just as intolerant as the generals before them. But that is an exaggerated fear, for what is really eroding Kemalism—the expanding pluralism of Turkish society—will defy any new attempt at authoritarianism. The AKP is hardly a party of Jeffersonian democrats—like other Turkish parties, it is hierarchical, intolerant of criticism, and eager to manipulate the media—but it has proven pragmatic enough to learn from its mistakes. And its leaders remain more liberal than the old guard on many issues, including the rights of Kurds and Christians.

Still, to consolidate Turkey's democratic gains the country needs a new Constitution that guarantees all rights and liberties with checks and balances. This new charter should limit the power of the central state and increase that of local administrations, while creating a nonpartisan judiciary, autonomous universities, and enforcing accountability both for politicians and bureaucrats. Most fundamentally, unlike the previous constitutions forged by the Kemalists, whose motto read, "For the people, despite the people," this new one should be made for the people and by them.
You can read Akyol's full article here.

To a certain extent, I think Akyol's celebration of the arrival of a new, "post-Kemalist" age is a bit premature. For sure, Turkey is moving away from the rigidity imposed upon it by the strict Kemalism that was practiced in the country, particularly following the 1980 coup. But I don't believe the country has yet to fully figure out how to deal and work with the legacy of Ataturk. It's a work in progress, and one that -- depending on the circumstances -- could very well swing back in the direction of a regressive neo-Kemalism, rather than something more progressive.

I wrote about Turkey's search for a "post-Ottoman" and "post-Kemalist" identity -- and the difficulty of doing that in the midst of deep political turmoil -- for The Majalla magazine last November. From that article:
While Ankara has achieved notable success in the foreign policy field, Turkey today faces deep and potentially destabilizing domestic political divisions and a political system that sometimes flirts with dysfunctionality. With a political culture that emphasizes confrontation over cooperation and a political opposition that seems unable to develop a forward-looking vision for the country, Turkey may find its efforts at democratization and at burnishing its foreign policy credentials defeated by its political divisions at home.

At the heart of Turkey’s domestic trouble lies the country’s ongoing effort to define its post-Ottoman identity. The Kemalist vision laid out by Ataturk – that of a secular, western-oriented Turkey that emphasized a uniform sense of Turkish identity – was successful in helping the country rise out of the rubble after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But the rise of the AKP, which represents an emerging Islamic elite that is less connected to the Kemalist approach, has put that vision to the test. In many ways, the AKP is trying to formulate a post-Kemalist identity for Turkey, one that provides greater room for religious identity and ethnic diversity....

....What’s the way forward for Turkey? To really step out from under the shadow of its domestic divisions, Turkey needs to have a frank and wide-ranging discussion about what Turkish identity means today and what kind of country it would like to become. Having that conversation when nobody will listen to each other will be difficult.
You can read the full piece here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Roma Initiative

The AKP government organized a historic event yesterday, bringing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together with some 10,000 Turkish Roma. From a report about the meeting in Today's Zaman:
Addressing thousands of Roma who came to İstanbul to attend a meeting organized as part of a government initiative to find solutions to problems faced by the ethnic minority, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he sees the Roma's problems as his own.

Erdoğan met with nearly 10,000 Roma yesterday in a meeting with a festive atmosphere, a move that came as a part of the government's democratic initiative, which is intended to expand the rights of previously disadvantaged groups and communities such as the Kurds, the Alevis and the Roma. “As the state, we have shouldered the responsibility on this [Roma] issue. From now on, your problems are my problems. Nobody in this country can be treated as ‘half' a person."

"We cannot tolerate this,” the prime minister said during the speech he delivered at the Roma meeting at İstanbul’s Abdi İpekçi Sports Hall yesterday.
You can read the full article here. From some background on Turkey's Roma community, take a look at this Eurasianet article of mine.

The Roma in Turkey have long faced discrimination in terms of access to housing, employment and education, which makes this very public gesture by the Erdogan government a very welcome and important one. But, as Jenny White points out, one can't help but think about what the relocated residents of Sulukule -- a historical Roma neighborhood in Istanbul's
city that was recently demolished to make way for "luxury villas" -- think about the government's initiative.

For more on Sulukule, take a look at this audio slideshow I made for Eurasianet in the summer of 2008, when the demolition of the neighborhood -- done by the AKP-controlled local municipality -- began.

(photo: A child in Istanbul's Sulukule neighborhood during demolition in 2008. By Yigal Schleifer)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Turkey's Internet Laws "Under Surveillance"

Reporters Without Borders has just issued its latest list of "Internet Enemies," looking at countries where online activity is monitored, restricted or punished. This year, RSF has designated Turkey as a country "Under Surveillance" -- joining Russia and Belarus, among others. As mentioned in these previous posts here, here and here, Turkey has some very strong -- and misguided -- internet censorship laws, which allow both the courts and the government to block access to websites (the ongoing ban on YouTube in the country the most famous example).

You can read RSF's report on Turkey here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

General Malaise

Ilter Turan, a respected professor of International Relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University, has written a briefing for the German Marshall Fund looking at the recent arrest of dozens of high-ranking Turkish military officers – among them the former heads of the Navy and Air Force – as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to overthrow Turkey’s AKP government.

The arrests in the investigation into the Balyoz ("Sledgehammer") plot have been rightly hailed as a milestone in Turkey's continuing struggle to increase civilian oversight over the powerful and historically meddlesome military. The arrests have also been described as an important step in Turkey's democratization. Turan makes the point that the deep political divisions in Turkey and some of the AKP's (or, more specifically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's) illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies pose a challenge for Ankara to turn the Balyoz developments into an opportunity for consolidating democracy. From Turan's piece:
It is clear that the military has lost its political clout while the probability of a military intervention has all but disappeared. The courts, on the other hand, are no longer as uniformed on what defending the interests of the state means. Such changes do not, however, confirm that Turkish democracy is deepening. Checks on the government’s exercise of power have been weakening. The prime minister has been growing more authoritarian in word and deed, while the government has began to behave increasingly partisan in its daily conduct of business. The country is deeply polarized and faces an impasse. An election 18 months away may or may not offer a way out. Turkish politics is in need of a grand compromise to consolidate democracy. Political will, however, seems currently to be sorely lacking.
Turan's briefing also gives some interesting background about the political atmosphere that surrounded Turkey's previous coups. You can read it here (pdf).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting to Boring

I have a short analysis piece up in the new issue of the online magazine The Majalla. The question I was asked to answer was "Why Turkey Should Join the EU?" (from the Turkish perspective). The combination of Turkey's growing self-confidence on the world stage, the lack of political ambition being projected from Brussels and the economic turmoil in Greece certainly make it harder to make the case for Europe these days. Here's my take on why Turkey should still be keeping its eyes on the EU membership prize:
....many of Ankara’s long-term foreign policy objectives would get an important boost from a meaningful partnership with the EU. Turkey’s plan to turn itself into a major transit hub for oil and gas would be handicapped if the country were not fully integrated into Europe’s common energy policy and pipeline network. Meanwhile, Ankara’s plans to turn itself into a regional soft power broker, particularly in the Middle East, are tied up in being able to present Turkey as a “bridge” to Europe. Making that bridge easier to cross, something EU membership would do, would further enhance Turkey’s claim to being a country that spans East and West.

More significantly, EU membership will help Turkey overcome its domestic differences, which stand as the largest hurdle towards Ankara realizing the ambitious goals it has set out for itself. Ultimately, joining the EU—or at least meaningfully engaging in a process that would lead towards membership—offers Turkey the best chance at developing a political system that can successfully manage those dangerous divisions and blunt their impact.

Indeed, it’s important not to underestimate what a difference simply being engaged in the EU process over the last decade has made for Turkey in terms of developing civil society, strengthening institutions and the rule of law, and forming a polity that is learning to recognize and accept differences. The opening of EU-funded small business support centers in some of Turkey’s most impoverished areas and the training of lawyers and judges by European counterparts are not the kinds of trends that make headlines. Yet, they are the kind of low-profile projects that have helped make an impact on how the country operates.

Meanwhile, considering Turkey’s limited experience with true democracy—with its history of military coups, powerful nationalism and intense division based along ethnic lines—the promise of joining the EU has created am impetus for enacting reforms that the country might not have otherwise been implemented.

Joining the EU, as one analyst recently put it, is an essential part of Turkey becoming a member in good standing of the “rules and regulations community.” It sounds boring and it is boring. But after four coups and decades of bitter infighting, perhaps what Turkey needs is a bit less political turmoil and excitement, and a bit more of the boring stuff.
You can read the full piece here. Also, be sure to read Nicholas Birch's excellent Al Majalla cover story, which looks at the interplay between Turkey's growing trade and political involvement in the Middle East. The magazine also has two more takes on the Turkey-EU question, one by Huseyin Bagci, a professor at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, and Erdgal Guven, a columnist at Radikal. You can find their pieces here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Like Déjà vu All Over Again

There are moments in a nation’s history when the threats are so great that all political divisions and disagreements need to be thrown aside in an effort to defend the motherland. For Turkey, that moment comes almost once every year, when it’s time for the country to fight yet another attempt to pass a bill in Washington recognizing the Armenian genocide.

A House of Representatives committee is set to vote on a “genocide” resolution tomorrow and teams of Turkish politicians from both sides of the deep political divide in Ankara have been dispatched to Washington to lobby against the effort getting any farther (while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already warned that Turkish-American relations could be harmed if Congress passes a resolution).

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its main rival, the Republican Peoples Party (CHP) can’t see eye-to-eye on some of the most critical issues facing Turkey – the country’s EU bid or revising the problematic constitution, for example – but the bitter political rivals have agreed to work together on fighting the genocide claim. I almost choked on my coffee this morning when I saw a photo in the paper of AKP parliamentarian Murat Mercan sitting together in Washington with the CHP’s Sukru Elekdag, an old school (if not retrograde) Kemalist who has been at the forefront of fighting the genocide claim for decades. Back in Ankara these two have very little to say to each other, but there they were making Turkey’s case together. In the American context, try imagining rookie Democratic Senator Al Franken hitting the road to lobby on behalf of American policy with late Republican Senator Jesse Helms. It’s something like that.

This year, of course, was supposed to be different. The historic accords that Turkey and Armenia signed this past October to restore diplomatic relations and put in motion a process to examine the past, were supposed to take the legs out from under any effort to tar Turkey with the “genocide” label. But, because of domestic and regional pressures, neither Ankara nor Yerevan has ratified the accords, leaving Turkey once again exposed on the issue.

The problem is that it’s not only Turkey that’s exposed – it’s also Washington. As it has before, the administration will ultimately get dragged into Ankara’s battle on Capital Hill against the “genocide” bill. Previous administrations, worried about a rupture with Turkey, have stepped in and asked Congress to shelve such bills. And although during his presidential campaign Barack Obama promised to recognize the genocide, in his statement released during last year’s April 24 commemoration of the event, the President – careful not to upset the delicate negotiations that were taking place at the time between Ankara and Yerevan – took the Solomonic approach of calling it by its Armenian name, medz yeghern (or “great catastrophe”). But after going out on a limb for Turkey last year on the genocide issue because of not wanting to harm the Armenia talks, will Obama and others in Washington do the same thing again this time around, especially considering that Ankara has played a decisive role in the freezing of the accords process?

The picture does not look good, certainly for those who were hoping that the deal signed between Ankara and Yerevan would get all the countries involved out of this lose-lose cycle. At the same time, a recent 60 Minutes episode (or the “provocation,” as one Turkish paper called it in its front-page headline) on the genocide issue was a good reminder of just why Turkey will continue to fight the claim so hard. The word “genocide” obviously brings up the image of the Nazis and the Holocaust, things no country wants to have associated with it, but the 60 Minutes episode charges the Ottoman Turks with actually creating the blueprint for the kind of mass killing that the Third Reich ultimately perfected. That’s a charge that's even harder for Ankara to swallow, particularly on an issue that cuts to the core of Turkish national pride. You can watch the episode here.

Meanwhile, for a good look at just how much political cynicism surrounds the Armenian genocide issue, take a look at this op-ed by Turkey expert Henri Barkey in today’s Washington Post. Previous post on the Armenian issue can be found here.

Turkey's Nuclear Iran Problem

The German Marshall Fund has just posted a new briefing by its astute Turkey analyst, Ian Lesser, about the difficult choices Ankara will have to make regarding the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons. From his piece:
Within the next few weeks, and in the absence of visible progress on the diplomatic front, the UN Security Council is likely to take up the question of new economic sanctions against Iran. This will pose serious dilemmas for Turkey’s leadership. Ankara has understandably opposed the idea of economic sanctions that would harm Turkish economic interests and, it argues, are unlikely to change Iranian behavior (they may well be right about this). A negotiated solution, perhaps with a Turkish role in nuclear storage and enrichment arrangements, would certainly be the best outcome for Ankara. But the prospects for a solution of this kind are not good, and Ankara may now confront some very uncomfortable decisions. The government’s choices can have far reaching implications.

If Turkey votes “no” or opts to abstain in a Security Coun¬cil vote, it will bolster unnecessarily the view of those who argue that Ankara is drifting toward closer alignment with Middle Eastern and Eurasian partners. It will fuel the sterile debate about “losing Turkey” and complicate Turkish-West¬ern relations across the board. Far more importantly, the absence of consensus with Turkey may actually hasten the use of force to deal with the problem—the worst develop¬ment from the perspective of Turkish interests. In Wash¬ington, the looming Iran sanctions question is emerging as the leading test for U.S.-Turkish relations under the Obama administration. The challenge of a nuclear Iran is one of the inescapable foreign policy issues facing an administra¬tion hard pressed on several fronts. Iran policy can reinforce or seriously erode the bilateral goodwill established over the past year. If Turkey cannot support a sanctions package in the Security Council—and this may turn critically on what the package contains—then at least it should be seen to take much tougher messages to Tehran on the nuclear question.

Western observers are increasingly concerned that Turkish-Iranian discussions do not have this quality. Turkish public, and even elite opinion may encourage Turkey’s leaders to talk about the desirability of a nuclear free Middle East, and to favor arguments about the equivalence of Israeli and Iranian nuclear weapons. In terms of Turkey’s own strategic interests, there is no equivalence at all. A nuclear Iran will spell trouble for Turkish security and undermine Turkey’s political objectives across multiple regions.
The whole briefing, which gives a good overview of Turkey's nuclear policy past and present and which is well worth reading, can be found here(pdf).

Previous posts about Turkey's nuclear iran dilemma can be found here.