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Last Week in Turkey

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The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles.  During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.

The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014.  Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.

On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction).  Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.

On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.

Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond.  However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water.  Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media.  The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.

On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court.  It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.

On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad.  She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.

On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.

On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.

Environmental Degradation
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014.  The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land.  Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.

A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.

On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development.  The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

Gender Equality
2014 was the year of President Erdogan and the AKP making decidedly illiberal and downright silly statements about relations between the sexes.

The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.

The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014.  A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK.  Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools.  Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State.  While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid.  The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State.  The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas.  Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested.  There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.

On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.”  According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear.  It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament.  Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.

On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.

International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014.  Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where.  True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.

After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia.  Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.

Terrorism
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014.  The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.  However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.

On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.  The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack.  However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.

On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode.  It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.

What’s Missing
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.

What’s in Store for 2015 
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix.  Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well.  There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.

The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul.  It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber.  There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack.  This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying.  Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility.   These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly.  Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.

The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling.  The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS.  If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey.  IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey.  Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border.  If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them.  Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border.  Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey.  As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.

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What Lies Ahead for Turkey

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The massive storm of scandal that has enveloped Turkey for the last several weeks has finally begun to ebb.  In its wake it has left three ministerial resignations, a handful of defections from the AKP, a massively reshuffled cabinet and over a thousand dismissed or reassigned law enforcement officials.  Analysts seeking to predict what lies in store for Turkey in the months ahead have focused primarily on two questions: Will Erdogan ultimately survive this scandal? (see here and here) and Will this incident end up strengthening or weakening Turkish Democracy? (see here here here and here)

It is indisputable that in the short term, Erdogan isn’t going anywhere.  He has utilized the same defensive strategy with which he rode out the Gezi Park protests; namely blaming foreign conspirators and agitators for sparking the incident while viciously clamping down on any public protests.  However Erdogan has not been successful in convincing all party members to echo his talking points.  One former minister who was not implicated in the scandal but who recently resigned from the AKP out of protest harshly criticized the Prime Minister’s interference in construction projects, saying that ” he never really quit the Istanbul mayor’s office.”  The Minister for Environment and Urban Planning, who was forced to resign as part of the scandal, went so far as to directly implicate Erdogan and call for his resignation.

Despite these damning words from former allies, not to mention the fact that his son has been caught up in the inquiries as well, Erdogan has loudly maintained his strategy and refused to quit.  We shouldn’t expect anything less.  Erdogan is nothing if not tenacious and stubborn.  He remains convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he has a precedent to rule and he is acting in the best interests of the Turkish people.  Even if evidence is uncovered that directly implicates him in construction bribery and graft, Erdogan will simply remain consistent in his blame of foreign plots and deep state actors.

The million dollar question is how will the events of the last several weeks affect the health of Turkish democracy.   Though undoubtedly the rampant corruption and collusion between the AKP and the Turkish construction industry needs to be addressed, some have expressed concern about the fact that the Gulen Movement is likely driving the current probe.  The Gulen Movement is believed to count among its members a significant proportion of the Turkish police and judiciary.  The firing and reassignment of hundreds of police officers involved in the scandal investigation is just the latest effort of the current government to purge the Movement from positions of power.  Though the Gulen Movement’s penetration into the Turkish government is hard to accurately ascertain, the fact that the government has been able to punish with impunity so many law enforcement officials for pursuing this corruption investigation leads me to believe that Gulen’s power has been over estimated.  It is certainly a poor sign for Turkish democracy that this investigation was at least partly motivated by revenge against the government by a shady private organization.  However, at this point I believe that it is even more concerning that every attempt to further the corruption investigation is immediately shut down.

Unless we see another dramatic twist in this saga, for better or worse the Gulen Movement probably will not serve as an outside check on the AKP government.  However, like many Turks, the Movement may be putting their faith in the upcoming election cycle to do the job for them.  Turkey has held free and fair elections for decades and over the next year and a half or so there will be 3 important votes.  The first, coming up in March, is for local governments and is widely expected to act as a much needed gauge of the AKP’s current popularity.  This summer the first popular election for the important but largely ceremonial office of President will take place followed by parliamentary elections next summer.

Though much to Erdogan’s chagrin the presidency still does not wield significant power, the race for this office will in some ways be a crucial junction for the AKP administration.  According to AKP party rules, Erdogan cannot serve another term as Prime Minister.  However, it is eminently clear that he does not want to give up power and go quietly into the night.  Since his plan to become an “American Style” president has failed, Erdogan has two options if he wants to stay in power: he can run for President or change the party rules and serve another term as Prime Minister. Health of Turkish democracy will be able to be gauged by the challenges or lack thereof that Erdogan will face when embarking on either of these paths.  Current President Gul, who more popular among the Turkish citizenry than Erdogan, has not given any clear indication as to what his future political plans are.  If both run for President or Prime Minister another nasty intra-AKP war is likely to break out.  However, given that the lack of current significant challengers to the AKP, this kind of fight could ultimately serve to break the AKP’s current hegemony.  The highly respected scholar of Turkey Erik Zurcher recently wrote a convincing piece arguing that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the AKP.  A Gul challenge to Erdogan could facilitate this and, in a best case scenario, lead to a new conservative party purged of many of the more extreme elements that have poisoned the party’s once admirable platform in recent years.  Even if it does not come from Gul, a challenge to Erdogan must come.  There is no need to elaborate on the fact that allowing Erdogan to change the AKP party rules and continue to remain Prime Minister would be a very bad blow to Turkish Democracy.

The possible retrial of those convicted in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases* adds a wild card to this already complex mix.  Erdogan is trying to poison the reputation of the Gulen Movement by placing blame for all the shady elements of the trials on them.  He is also using the possibility of a new set of trials as a public demonstration that the AKP no longer needs the help of the Gulen Movement in order to keep the secular establishment at bay. However it is anyone’s guess as to whether the retrials will happen and, given the recently proposed law which would effectively muzzle the  judiciary, what the outcome will be.  I worry that Erdogan may under the illusion that he can convince the military that Gulen Movement acted without the knowledge of the government.  I think the possibility of a fully reinvigorated military remains remote, but it would be dangerous to assume that the leash on the military could be loosened without it attempting to reestablish at least some of their former power.

An investigation into the unholy relationship between the AKP government and the Turkish construction sector has been a long time in coming.  Any savvy Turk or Turkey watcher will tell you construction graft and bribery have been an open secret for years now.  The government reaction to the scandal has seriously undermined the independence of the police and the judiciary, and in following the at least temporarily tightened the AKP’s hold on power.  However, Turkey has faced far worse challenges in much more fragile periods of its democracy and yet has continued to slowly but surely progress in its political development.  2014 is going to be a tough year for Turkey but the demonstrated resilience of the Turkish people and their commitment to democracy should make even the most hardened cynic pause before diagnosing a mortal wound to Turkish democracy.

*The AKP and Gulen movement are generally believed to have worked together during these cases in order to neuter the secular-military establishment.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 8, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Don’t Panic

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The AKP has been making some insane policy threats lately.  These statements have (justifiably) caused an uproar from many Turks and Turkey watchers.  However, I think we all need to take a step back and consider the possibility, or probability, that despite their current vice-like grip on Turkish politics, the neither Erdoğan nor the AKP in general have the power or mandate to carry through with many of these proposed “reforms.”  It is too early to predict the long-term consequences, but Erdoğan’s antics seem to be backfiring and causing even some former supporters to question his leadership.

The first piece of good news is that Erdoğan is not going to get his wish to become the first American-style President of Turkey anytime soon.  The commission tasked with reforming the current constitution, which was created by the generals in the wake of 1980 military coup, has fallen apart.  The AKP had already agreed in August not to push for a presidential system to be included in the new constitution.  Turkey still desperately needs a more liberal constitution but the AKP does not seem to be ready to make the concessions needed to make this happen.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric over the past year has necessitated almost non-stop damage control from the other high-ranking members of the current administration, namely President Gül, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç .  It appears that at least Arınç is getting sick of being the PM’s apologist.  He publicly made statements both during the Gezi protests and the recent co-ed housing controversy that clearly articulated his opposition to the Erdoğan’s position.  In an act of censorship shocking even in Turkey, critical statements Arınç made regarding PM Erdoğan were censored by the state TV network, which Arınç himself is tasked with overseeing. There were even rumors that Arınç would be quitting politics after both controversies but it seems he will be staying in government at least until the 2015 elections.  Gül, who in some polls rivals Erdoğan’s popularity, has not been as confrontational in his opposition.  However, many of his speeches as of late has notably contradicted Erdoğan on the same talking points.  Gül very well may be trying to distance himself from Erdoğan in anticipation of the 2015 elections.  There has been much speculation as whether Gül will run for Prime Minister or continue to occupy the position of President, but it is too early to tell.  What is clear is that Gül wishes to maintain his reputation as a moderate figure amongst the increasingly polarizing voices coming out of the AKP.

Erdoğan’s antagonism isn’t just limited to within in the party.  For reasons that are not quite clear to even experts on the subject, Erdoğan has begun a campaign to close down the private extra-curricular “cram” schools that have become a fixture of the Turkish educational landscape.  This proposal is clearly directed at the Gülen movement, who control about a quarter of these institutions.  The Gülen Movement’s followers generally fall within the AKP’s core demographic.  However, since the Gezi protests the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gülen, has made some official statements that could be interpreted as critical of the current government’s increasingly conservative bent.  The announcement of Erdoğan’s intention to close down study centers has started a war of words between Gülen and Erdoğan.  The impact of this rupture between arguably the two most powerful figures in Turkey is hard to predict, if for no other reason than the secretive nature of the Gülen Movement has left its scale largely unknown.

The fight against the closure of privately owned schools has already been taken up by groups outside of the Gülen Movement.  These “cram” school have become an indispensable stop-gap in the inadequate Turkish educational system.  Though the constitutional court is expected to overturn any law that would ban them, the damage has already been done.  Erdoğan once again has stubbornly continued to insist that these schools need to be closed, despite widespread public outcry and protests against such a measure.  The issue of education touches all segments of Turkish society, thus this issue may have a greater impact on the AKP base than the Gezi protests.  The opposition within the AKP has already been apparent.  One AKP minister who opposed the proposed prep school closures quit the party on Saturday after being actively marginalized and threatened with an internal disciplinary measures.

Loudly and publicly declaring the intention to implement politically or legally impossible reforms is par for the course for the AKP.  The direction of the latest round of the perennial threats to reconvert the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque illustrates this trend nicely.  At a speech marking the occasion of a new carpet museum on the premises November 16, Bülent Arınç stated that “we currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque … we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  Then last week it was reported that former monastery turned mosque turned ruin  in another part of the old city would in fact be soon renovated and opened as a mosque.  This property just happened to be administered by the Hagia Sophia Museum.  As I have stated previously, any real attempt to turn the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be an international and domestic political disaster.  However, this latest announcement regarding the monastery seems to be part of a quiet campaign to turn lesser known Byzantine churches into mosques, often without the knowledge or support of the local community.  Similarly, Erdoğan and the AKP may talk of instituting extremely conservative social policies, but the best they can do now is chip away at laws affecting only the very secular population (such as those associated with the sale of alcohol).

Significantly, the latest controversies, mostly sparked by Erdoğan, have begun to touch the pious majority.  No political party has yet emerged that could rival the AKP’s currently numbers.  However, if a combination of the opposition parties could together take a chunk out of the AKP’s 50%, the hegemony of the AKP could be greatly diminished.  The regional elections in March 2014 will give us a better sense of how the social and political unrest has affect the AKP’s popularity.  In the meantime we should take the AKP’s policy threats with a grain of salt, but continue to watch for attempts to institute conservative social policies in small but significant ways.

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

The Prime Minister’s Speech

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Two speeches to be exact.  On Sunday PM Erdogan spoke for two hours at a rally for his supporters, which may have drawn a crowd as large as 295,000.  His rhetoric was nothing new for anyone who has been following protests- reminders that he has the backing of the majority interspersed with accusations against a wide range of conspirators (more on this speech below).

A few hours later he was at the annual Turkish [Language] Olympics, an event sponsored by the Gulen Movement.  Here Erdogan sought to rally supporters of the Movement to his cause, referring to peace. brotherhood and unity- Gulen buzzwords.  Though supporters of the Gulen Movement are generally conservative Muslims, a demographic that makes up much of the AKP’s base of support, Erdogan knows he can’t take their support for granted.  Even before the protests broke out, the head of the Movement, Fethullah Gulen, was making some very poignant sermons warning about the evils of hubris.  During the last two weeks, Gulen has also made statements urging dialogue and reconciliation- of course, the precise opposite of what Erdogan is doing.  However, Erdogan’s reception at the Turkish Olympics was reported to be extremely positive.  It will be interesting to see if Gulen makes any statements in the near future in response to this weekend’s crackdown.

The wild card of the Gulen movement aside, Erdogan’s message is undoubtedly still convincing to a significant portion of Turkish society.  In contrast to embattled dictators, Erdogan most likely did not have to bribe or threaten supporters into attending his rally (although free and easy transportation certainly did not hurt).  Despite his increasing image problem abroad, Erdogan is still able to hold his base by controlling the reality they experience.  While protesters elsewhere were being gassed by the police, the atmosphere at the AKP rally was relaxed. The free transportation ensured participants would not have to encounter any unpleasantness on the trip to the rally.  During his speech, Erdogan repeated his main talking points, telling the crowds that they represented the “real” Turkey and that protesters represented marginal groups.  The actions of the police were praised and those police in attendance were as relaxed as the crowds around them.  Partnered with the Turkish media’s pandering to the State, it is not hard to imagine that many of the PM’s supporters simply cannot fathom what the other “50%” has been seeing and/or personally experiencing for the last two weeks.  The AKP’s supporters are spoon fed a version of reality that they want to believe for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the PM is “one of them.”  I can’t personally attest to this, but I suspect that if you are a working-class Turk living far from the centers of protest, even on the outskirts of Istanbul, it would be all too easy to believe Erdogan’s propaganda.

I refer to Erdogan’s talking points as “propaganda” because aside from his (former) 50% electoral success, many of the claims Erdogan has made and continues to make in his speeches have been proven false.  I will not review the evidence for these claims, as many have already done so, but discuss one in particular which touches on the crux of the issue.  Erdogan continues to accuse protesters of drinking, fornicating and walking around with shoes on inside the Dolmabahce mosque, which served as a makeshift shelter and triage point during some of the clashes.  As Louis Fishman discusses in his excellent article, Erdogan is acting as if the country is still as deeply divided along religious and secular lines as it was once was.  Those Turks who have gathered in Gezi and Taksim over the past weeks have been nothing if not eminently respectful of the pious Muslims in their midst.  Erdogan seems either unable or unwilling to believe that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and respectful of religion.  This mindset reflects a Turkey that is fading away.  Young men and women, which make up the majority of those protesting in Istanbul, exhibit a classically liberal mindset that was largely unknown in previous generations.  The fight in Turkey is not about the trees, it is not religious versus secular or even AKP verses supporters of other parties.  It is a struggle of classic liberalism against the last vestiges of the democratic but decidedly illiberal Statist Turkey that has existed since its founding.

As I argued previously, Erdogan believes that he can strong-arm the protesters into submission, but he may very well be letting his anger blind him to the damage he is doing to his own position.  I still believe that Erdogan may have no end game, aside crushing the protests and then smoothly sailing into the next election cycle.  However, the chances of this protest movement being summarily crushed without a fight are increasingly thin.   If a true dialogue is not quickly established between the protestors and the government, the situation will inevitably continue to deteriorate.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm