Monday, May 24, 2010

The Kurdish Shabab

Nicholas Birch has an interesting article up on the Eurasianet website about the breakdown of discipline and the chain of command in Turkey's Kurdish movement, much of it fueled by angry youths in Turkey's southeast. It's a trend that should certainly raise alarm bells among both officials in the Turkish government and the Kurdish movement. From Birch's article:
....Many observers see the rise in urban violence as a sign both of the growing vacuum at the heart of the Kurdish nationalist movement, and the changing dynamics of the PKK's support base.

"In the old days, there was a clear chain of command," says one Yuksekova politician. "The PKK would tell the politicians 'the shops will be closed today' and the politicians would pass that on to the shopkeepers. Today, they both say 'don't close the shops down', but then some 18 year old claiming to be the right-hand man of a PKK commander comes along and countermands their orders."

Locals say the break-up in the PKK hierarchy began in 2005, when three separate PKK groups began to set up civilian support organizations in Hakkari Province. The PKK has always used civil 'militias' to spread its message and ensure a steady influx of provisions and money. After 2005, however, the rapid growth of militias, and the lack of a clear chain of command, led some members to use the PKK trademark to enrich themselves.

In 2008, two Yuksekova men were found dead, allegedly murdered by the PKK for running a protection racket under the guise of collecting for militias. Some locals say the group has since moved to professionalize what were once volunteer militia units, to avoid a repeat of the same problem.

"In the old days, rhetoric about the Kurdish struggle was enough to bring people onside," says Irfan Aktan, a Yuksekova-born reporter who writes widely about the Kurdish issue. "But war has left a whole generation in poverty. They have nothing to lose. Money is infinitely more important to these people than ideology."

A journalist based in Diyarbakir, Ahmet Sumbul sees no evidence that the PKK is professionalizing itself to ensure the loyalty of its supporters. But he agrees that urban violence is on the rise, and changing too. In the past, he says, protestors used to stone police stations and state offices. "Over the past five years, they have started throwing stones at everybody and everything. Small shopkeepers get the worst of it."

"The PKK can use these people, but they can't control them. It's just unfocussed anger. Kids no longer listen to their fathers. Kurds no longer listen to the mountains," Sumbul added.
You can read the full piece here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Turkey's Iran Gamble

I have an analysis piece up on the World Politics Review website looking at Turkey's role in brokering the recently signed nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran and what the agreement says about Turkey's relationship with Iran and with its traditional allies. From the piece:
Although its future is shrouded in doubt, the deal announced on Monday by the Turkish and Brazilian presidents that would allow Iran to ship half of its enriched uranium across the border to Turkey will very likely also serve as an important milestone in the development of a new Turkish foreign policy that is increasingly independent, assertive and engaged in regional -- and even global -- affairs.

For Turkey, the deal represents a major achievement in its effort to engage Iran and to promote a diplomatic solution to the ongoing debate over Tehran's nuclear program -- while in the process burnishing its credentials as a regional mediator and diplomatic heavyweight. But the agreement could also end up driving a wedge in Ankara's relations with Washington and some its European allies....

....The contrasting reactions to the fuel swap agreement stems from a significant difference of opinion between Ankara and its Western allies about how to best approach the question of Iran.

Turkey and its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, appear to be taking a longer-term view on the issue, hoping to manage Iran, rather than confront it. The hope is that confidence-building measures might slowly change the Iranian leadership's mentality. Turkish diplomats speak of changing Iran's "psychology," and, indeed, Davutoglu's comments after the agreement was signed echoed that very clearly. The agreement represents "an important psychological threshold" of trust with Iran, he said after it was signed, adding that it also requires Tehran to make "psychological sacrifices."
You can read the full piece here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Framing Ataturk

Continuing with the movie theme of the previous post, I have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor website that takes a look at some recent films about Ataturk and the controversy surrounding them. The debate over how to define Ataturk's legacy goes to the core of the current ideological battles currently raging in Turkey, it appears to me. From my article:
It's easy to mistake Muratoglu Kirtasiye, a tidy Istanbul stationery store, for perhaps a small museum dedicated to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder.

Located in a bustling district filled with print shops near the heart of Istanbul's Old City, Muratoglu specializes in providing schools with Ataturk paraphernalia and is stocked floor to ceiling with items bearing his image. There are gold-colored busts, clocks with his picture on them, and framed photographs and paintings that seem suited for every conceivable setting: Ataturk riding victoriously in uniform on horseback, gazing pensively skyward, surrounded by children with a kind smile on his face, looking gentlemanly while sitting in a wicker chair and dressed in a smoking jacket.

"He's the world's biggest man. There's no one else like him," says Fadil Karali, the store's manager, scanning the numerous pictures of Ataturk, who died in 1938, lining the walls.

"He was the kind of person that, unfortunately, only comes once every 100 years," Mr. Karali adds. "He died a long time ago, but we haven't forgotten him."

But the question that seems to be increasingly facing Turks is which Ataturk to remember? Like the multitude of images in Karali's store, there now appear to be competing, if not conflicting, takes on just who Ataturk was.

One place where the battle over how to define Ataturk and his legacy can be clearly seen these days is on the big screen in Turkey. In the past two years, three new films about the legendary leader have been released: a controversial documentary that, despite its efforts to humanize Ataturk, was criticized for insulting his memory, and two biopics that were in turn criticized for glossing over certain difficult details and for overly romanticizing the life of a complicated figure.

Turkey is currently going through a period of deep political polarization, much of it over two unresolved issues left over since the time of Ataturk: What role should religion play in the public square, and what role should the powerful state play in private life? In many ways, it appears that the battle over how to portray Ataturk is very much at the heart of Turkey's ongoing struggle over how to define itself.
You can read the full piece here.

(photo by Yigal Schleifer)

Friday, May 7, 2010

The "Kurdish Initiative": Now in Theaters!

Although, on a political level, the government's "Kurdish initiative" -- a democratization program announced last summer that's designed to tackle the decades-old Kurdish problem -- seems stuck in the muck (see this previous post) of Turkey's political polarization, interesting things are happening on the cultural front.

Case in point, the recent opening in Istanbul of "Min Dît," the first Kurdish-language film to get a full theatrical release in Turkey. The film tells the story of three Kurdish children in Diyarbakir who witness the murder of their parents by a paramilitary group. I took the photo above, of a marquee advertising the film (the title is roughly translated as "I witnessed"), while walking down Istanbul's Istiklal boulevard the other day. Considering the restrictions that were in place up until only a few years ago on the public use of Kurdish, the fact that a billboard in Kurdish could be put up in the heart of downtown Istanbul without much fanfare or reaction struck me as significant. (That said, it should be noted that there are still politicians on trial in Turkey for campaigning in Kurdish and that a court in Diyarbakir recently sentenced the former editor-in-chief of a Kurdish newspaper to 166 years in prison for having "disseminated the propaganda of a terrorist organization." Read about it here.)

Today's Zaman recently interviewed the film's director, Miraz bezar, who won the "best director" award at last month's Istanbul Film Festival. You can read the interview here.

Kurdish-language cinema has come far in Turkey. A few years ago, when the restrictions on Kurdish language in Turkey were starting to ease up, I went down to Diyarbakir to profile what was then a budding homegrown movie making scene. At the time, it was an extremely low-budget, though highly resourceful scene that was strictly serving the local market. You can read the story, in Canada's Walrus magazine, here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cyprus Blues Again

Following the recent presidential elections in Northern Cyprus, there seems to be a fresh breeze of pessimism blowing out of the little island that couldn't.

The April 18 elections brought into power Dervis Eroglu, a hardline nationalist who has made clear his disenchantment with the current peace negotiations being held on the island. Eroglu has committed himself to returning to the negotiation table, but the concern is that he might employ a kind of rope-a-dope strategy, revisiting previous agreements and slowing things down to the point that the negotiations could very well run out of time. In an analysis released a few days after the election, the International Crisis Group's Hugh Pope makes clear why resolving the Cyprus issue matters. Pope writes:
[If the talks stagnate], everyone loses: the Greek Cypriots will suffer Turkish troops on the island indefinitely, lose the hope of winning back territory and see compensation for property made much harder; the Turkish Cypriot zone will be absorbed further into Turkey and its original inhabitants will scatter even farther; Turkey will see its EU process freeze up completely; Greece will suffer continued indefinite, expensive tensions in the Aegean; and Europe will lose any chance of normalizing EU-NATO relations.
The full piece, which offers Pope's prescription for keeping the talks on track, can be found here.

Turkish analyst Soli Ozel also takes a look at the Cyprus situation in a piece written for the German Marshall Fund. Like Pope, Ozel sees the clock in Cyprus ticking and suggests the international community step up its involvement. From his piece:
Although nobody feels any pressure for a deadline, the end of 2010 is actually a critical threshold. In 2011, Turkey will have entered its electoral campaign season and Erdoğan will be under pressure from nationalist forces for his Cyprus policies as well. Then, at the beginning of 2012, the Greek Cypriots will have their election, usually not a good season for peace seeking
in the South.

The window of opportunity is narrow. Missing this final chance will likely stall the process. Such an eventuality will further deteriorate Turkey-EU relations. Not to mention the blockage that Cyprus presents for EU-NATO relations and European security architecture in general.

Therefore it is high time for a paralyzed, ineffectual and unimaginative European Union and the equally lethargic UN to internationalize the negotiating process and bring all the relevant parties to a Dayton style conference. The leadership for such an initiative can come from the United States as well. Although Washington has its hands full in Iraq, AfPAk, Iran, and elsewhere, tipping the scales in favor of a settlement in what is an overripe situation would be worth the trouble.
The full analysis (pdf) is here.

For some background on the election and why Eroglu won, take a look at this day after piece that I filed for the Christian Science Monitor. One interesting point that I wasn't able to get into my article was how much things have turned around in the relationship between Ankara, which very much would like to see the Cyprus issue resolved, and Northern Cyprus. As Turkish Cypriot analyst Mete Hatay put it, "It’s a very ironic situation now. The left and the yes sayers are waiting for Turkish intervention and the nationalists are opposing Turkey." The question now is how much can the Turkish government push for a solution in Cyprus before having to fend off its own nationalists?

(photo: A man sitting at the Ledra crossing in Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus. By Yigal Schleifer)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Thick Glass Ceiling

Turkey's State Personnel Department has just released figures detailing the participation (or lack thereof) of women in the country's bureaucracy. It's not a pretty picture. From a report in Today's Zaman:
All undersecretaries in Turkish ministries are male. Out of 79 deputy undersecretaries, only 2 are female. Out of 96 director generals in Turkish ministries, 91 are male. All of the 175 governors in Turkey are male. Out of 450 deputy governors, 12 are female. Out of 8,284 high level bureaucrats, 7,713 are male while only 571 seats are taken by female public servants.

Out of 989 district governors, 19 are female.
The full article -- which, true to the paper's ideological leanings, blames the imbalance on Turkey's ongoing headscarf ban -- is here. Turkey, in recent years, has consistently ranked very low in various indexes that measure the level of female participation in political and economic life. Last year's World Economic Forum Gender Gap report gave Turkey a dismal review, ranking the country 129th out of 134 countries (read Turkey's profile here (pdf)).

And while the European Union's most recent progress report on Turkey was seen as mild compared to previous years, it was very forceful in its criticism of the country's recent record on gender equality (you can read it here (pdf -- go to page 22 for the relevant section)).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Turkey's "Bloodless Civil War"

The Wall Street Journal's Istanbul correspondent, Marc Champion, has a terrific piece in today's paper about an ongoing court case that really goes to the heart of the current political battles that are raging in Turkey.

The case has to do with Ilhan Cihaner, until recently the respected chief prosecutor in the eastern Turkish city of Erzincan and currently under arrest and on trial for working to destabilize and perhaps overthrow Turkey's government. The case is deeply intertwined with all the big issues of day in Turkey -- Ergenekon, judicial and constitutional reform, the role of Islamic groups in political life -- with each side in the country's political divide seeing the case of proof of the correctness of their position. Ironically, from opposing perspectives both supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its secularist critics see the Cihaner case as one rife with judicial interference, prosecutorial zealotry and illegal doings.

The case is a complicated one, with -- like other Ergenekon-related cases -- many bizarre twists and turns and plenty of alleged intrigue and skullduggery. Champion does a great job in unpacking some of what's behind the case. You can find the article here -- highly recommended reading.

Nuclear Test

Alexander Jackson, senior editor at CRIA, an online journal covering the Caucasus and the surrounding region, has an interesting analysis piece looking at how the Iran nuclear issue might test Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy. From his piece (which includes some of my analysis):
Maintaining good commercial links with its neighbours is one of the central pillars of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” approach. Widely lauded when it was developed by [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu in the early 2000s, this policy is now coming under serious strain. Turkey is attempting to utilise its regional links, and [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan seems to think that by publicly supporting Iran, he can benefit the West by maintaining a channel of communication which no other country has.

As [Yigal] Schleifer points out, “this is a risky approach”. Playing a double game cannot be sustained forever, and neither Iran nor the West will be pleased if Turkey appears to be misleading them. At some point Ankara will have to choose between harming its commercial interests in Iran and damaging its relationship with Brussels and Washington (not to mention Israel).

This point looks to be arriving soon, as the Security Council moves towards a vote on a new round of economic sanctions. Voting “no” would cause disappointment if not anger in the Obama Administration, and could also – as Lesser observes – be a further blow to Turkey’s EU membership ambitions. Voting “yes” would cause a rupture with Tehran, with all the related political and economic implications. Abstention, the most likely course, would be a diplomatic fudge.

It would raise the question of whether the ‘zero problems’ approach can survive in moments of crisis, when hard choices have to be made. It also tests the limitations of that policy. Does Ankara even have the leverage to persuade Iran to accept a deal?

Foreign Minister Davutoglu seems assured – in recent weeks he has confidently stated that concrete progress has been made on the topic, presumably regarding a proposal to enrich uranium outside of Iran (Today’s Zaman, April 21). However to date he has offered no concrete indicators of success.

In addition, Tehran has responded politely to Turkey’s offers of mediation, but it may simply be stalling for time. No other friendly states – including Russia and China – have been able to negotiate a deal. Ankara’s enthusiasm and confidence may be seriously misplaced, especially if Mr Gul’s comments are seen in Iran as proof that Turkey’s public and private positions are different.

The issue goes to the heart of Turkey’s foreign policy vision. If Ankara cannot persuade its neighbour, with whom it has “very special” relations, to change its behaviour, then its claims to regional influence will look decidedly weaker to the West, as well as neighbouring states. Its economic, political, and cultural links with Iran will come to be seen not as assets, but as liabilities. By proclaiming its support of Iran so loudly, and by insisting on its unique ability to mediate in the dispute, Turkey may be setting itself up for a fall.
You can read the full analysis here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Protocols on the Rocks, Cont.

I didn't get a chance to post this earlier, but I have a piece up on the (redesigned!) Eurasianet website that looks at the impact Turkey's domestic politics are having on the troubled Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process. From the piece:
Publicly, Turkish officials express their continued support for a rapprochement process with Armenia, despite Yerevan having recently suspended the ratification process for peace protocols signed with Ankara last October. But observers say that political considerations are making it very difficult for Turkey to move forward on the issue.

"Unfortunately, everything has been frozen," says Noyan Soyak, the Istanbul-based Vice-Chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council.

"There isn’t an agreement now on even basic points. We don’t see any minimum agreement to move forward, which is unfortunate, because we believed that this?. was a unique period," Soyak continued. "It was a very important chance that was given to both countries by the international community, but both countries couldn’t use the chance to solve the problems, or even talk about the problems...."

....Turkish officials say that from their perspective, the protocols are still alive. "The protocols are waiting in my drawer to be overseen by the committee. They are not frozen," says Murat Mercan, a member of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and chairman of the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Speaking before parliament in late April, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that Turkey remains committed to improving its relations with Armenia.

"We can opt for preserving the status quo and we can live happily and comfortably for a while as a result. But we will end up leaving a troubled Caucasus to our grandchildren," Davutoglu said. "The status quo in the Caucasus is not in the interests of Turkey or Azerbaijan or Armenia or Russia, but so far no brave step has been taken to change it. Now, what we want is to change it."

"Our parliaments will ratify the protocols when political conditions are ripe," he added.

But Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University says he believes there will be little progress on the Armenian issue until after the next Turkish general elections, which are scheduled for 2011. "The parliamentary opposition is dead set against these protocols and they want the protocols to be withdrawn from where they are in the [foreign affairs] commission," Aktar says. "The government cannot take the risk of another battlefront with the opposition, in addition to the other things they have going on. That is the position."
You can read the full piece here.