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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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Untangling the Turkish-Kurdish-IS Debacle

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The Islamic State is advancing on the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria.  Turkish Kurds and Kurdish refugees still huddled around the boarder are rioting.  The take away of most international media observers can be paraphrased as “the Kurds are unhappy because Turkey is purposely letting Kobane fall.”  As with most Turkish politics, the truth is much more complex.

Turkey is genuinely stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Kobane.  Both the Syrian Kurdish leadership and the Assad government have flatly said that they would consider a Turkish military incursion into Syria a hostile act (although the position of the Kurdish regional government may be changing). About half of Turkish citizens are opposed to intervening against IS.  Erdogan and Davutoglu are absolutely right when they insist that a half-hearted air campaign will never succeed in fully defeating IS and that a multi-lateral strategy is need.  None of these issues of course excuses Erdogan’s equating the PKK (which the Turkish government has been in peace talks with for the year and half) with IS (which kidnapped dozens of Turkish citizens and has called Erdogan in infidel).  Nor does it justify tear gassing Syrian Kurds trying to cross back into the Kobane region to help defend the city. However, it does explain why Turkey has knowingly given the US and the Syrian Kurds an impossible to fulfill set of demands that would need to be met before it would agree military cooperation against IS.  This is also why Turkey will continue to urge the US to use airstrikes on IS and lash out against the US for not doing enough to stop IS, while simultaneously blocking the usage of the US airbase in Turkey for such a purpose.

Kurds are indeed frustrated with both the US and Turkey for what they believe is the former’s unwillingness to provide sufficient air support for Kobane and the later’s all but open support of IS.  Both of these accusations are oversimplifications, but the tense situation right now means perception matters more than the truth.  The political dynamics between Turkey, its Kurdish citizens, its Kurdish Syrian refugees and the Syrian Kurdish regional government complicates issues further.  The Syrian Kurdish government does not want its previous autonomy disrupted by a partnership with or military intervention by Turkey.  As Harold Doornbos, a reporter currently on the Turkish-Syrian border tweeted yesterday “There are some misconceptions, especially among Western audiences, regarding Turkey ‘doing nothing’ and ‘just watching how Kobane dies’ [sic]… Kurds [are] angry at Turkey NOT b[ecause] Turkish army does not intervene in Kobane, but b[ecause] Turkey blocks weapons, fighters from reaching Kobane.”  Kurds in both Turkey and Syria are upset at what they perceive, accurately, as Turkey’s double standard when it comes to Syrian fighters.  After letting Islamists cross the border essentially unimpeded for years, Turkey is now denying this same privilege to Kurds.  Granted the greater border security has much to do with the rise of IS, but Turkey’s decision to prevent unarmed young Kurds, both Syrian and Turkish, from traveling to Kobane since this battle started has led many Kurds to perceive Turkey’s new border security as more anti-Kurdish than anti-IS.

Kurds began protesting in cities around Turkey and around the world Monday and on Tuesday night in Turkey these protests morphed into riots.  Kobane is the spark, but frustration has been building for some time among Turkey’s Kurds.  The Turkish-Kurdish peace talks have been stalled longer than they have been productive.  The AKP government gave Turkey’s Kurds hope that they would finally enjoy equal cultural rights with Turks, only to have these hopes met halfway at best and indefinitely delayed at worst.  Turkey was forewarned multiple times by Kurdish leaders that an IS victory in Kobane would lead to renewed Kurdish violence.  Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the situation should have been able to see these riots coming.  The Turkish government should have also been able to predict that Kurdish protests, peaceful or not, would be met be counter-protesters from Turkey’s ultra-nationalist and extreme fundamentalist groups, all of which are known for their involvement in past violence.  Whether out of malicious intent or simple stupidity (and again, Kurds will perceive it as malicious) the Turkish government seems not to have taken any steps to prevent or assuage the violence.  Many police were off duty due to the holiday over the weekend and were only recalled once the violence peaked.  Once again, citizens have reportedly been killed and seriously injured by police actions.  Perhaps more disturbingly, the police failed to prevent multiple deadly clashes between Kurdish citizen and political groups and one or more extremest political groups.  Reports indicate at least 14 dead (update: 18) most the victims of the inter-group clashes.

Some Turkey watchers have raised concerns that we may be seeing a return to the bad old days in Turkey- armed clashes between rival political groups, renewed PKK insurgency and government emergency rule.  It is too early to make any solid predictions, but the events of the last few days have put the gains that Turkey has made during the AKP decade under serious threat, even more so than its recent slip toward authoritarianism.  A return to unpredictable violence does not just threaten Turkey’s democratic institutions, but its economic and growth and social stability, the foundation on which the AKP has built its power.  It is the best interest of all groups involved, the Kurds, the AKP and the Turkish nation at large for the Turkish government to find a way to deescalate this explosive situation.  The first step is to address it’s pro-IS reputation.  The Turkish government must stop simply saying that it does not support IS and find ways to demonstrate this stance, such as providing non-military aid and allowing Kurds to cross into Kobane to help defend  the city.  The government must also clarify its position on the PKK.  As long as the PKK is engaging in military actions against the Turkish government, it makes no sense for the government to maintain that it is equivalent to IS.  If the PKK and its members have no chance of being rehabilitated, what motivation do they have to hold the ceasefire?  Of course, an Erdogan apology for this statement is out of the question, but Davutoglu or other government officials need to find a way to modify or qualify this comparison.  Only if Turkey’s Kurds stop perceiving the Turkish government as the enemy, and vice versa, will there be any hope for a return to peace and stability.

Kurds, Occupy Gezi and the Peace Process

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Despite their concurrence with the Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey, the Occupy Gezi protests initially took little interest in the struggle of Kurdish Turks.  Though there were signs of a Kurdish presence in Taksim and Gezi, the vast majority of Kurds have chosen to watch from the sidelines.  However, as the Gezi movement has moved forward it has begun to make some historic connections with the Kurdish movement, even as the Turkish government has begun to retreat from the peace process.

Despite the turmoil in Turkey’s major cities over the past month, steps in the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK have continued on schedule. The “Wise People” commission finished their tour of Turkey and reported back to PM Erdogan with suggestions on how to continue the detente with the Kurds.  The PKK has been busy with step 1 in the process, moving its guerrillas out of Turkey and into the Kadil mountains of Iraq; the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) claims that 80% of PKK fighters have already left Turkey.  As a result the PKK has begun demanding that Ankara institute promised reforms such as the right to Kurdish-language education and lowering the 10% electoral threshold for parties to be included in the parliament.

Despite the unprecedented initiative on the part of Erdogan and the Turkish government to begin this peace process, the past week produced some worrying developments.  In contrast to the BDP, Erdogan claims that only 15% of PKK fighters have left Turkish territory, the implication of course being that the PKK has not fulfilled their end of the bargain.  In addition, he seems to be full out refusing to even consider implementing promised reforms, step 2 in the outlined process.  In a speech last Wednesday, he claimed that the government has “no plans” to lower the 10% election threshold or to provide “mother tongue” education for minorities.  His related pronouncement that “the only official language is Turkish” hearkened back to the Kemalist nationalism that was instrumental in creating the Kurdish resistance and the PKK in the first place.

On Friday, protests over a perceived government violation of the peace agreement turned deadly.  In the largely Kurdish Lice district in the province of Diyarbakir, protesters clashed with the Turkish army over the building of a new gendarme outpost.  One young man was killed and a number of other seriously injured when members of the military opened fire on the hostile crowd. *(eyewitness reports suggest that the government’s version of events exaggerated the violence of the protestors)

This incident is extremely worrying but so far the PKK seems hesitant to retaliate.  Currently the PKK appears to more eager to see the peace process succeed than the Turkish government.  Indeed Turkey’s Kurdish population has much more to lose from the failure of the peace than the Turkish government or average Turkish citizens.  While Turks of all stripes protested in cities across the country over the past month, the Kurdish south-east has remained almost eerily quiet.  Many have interpreted the lack of protests in Kurdish-majority areas as stemming from a desire to avoid giving the government any excuse to back out of the peace process.  There are likely other factors at play as well.  The Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink who is based in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, argues that the Kurds do not feel a need to participate in  the Occupy Gezi movement, even if they sympathize with the protesters.  Their “protest” started with the founding of the PKK and has been ongoing ever since.

In contrast, as the protests have gone on those involved have begun to take more and more of an interest in the Kurdish struggle.  The protests have brought together Turks of all different lifestyles, political affiliations and ethnicities and created an arena for them to not only interact but forge bonds in a struggle against mutual enemies.  The hugely important fieldwork conducted by Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in the midst of the protests in Gezi and Taksim has documented this culture of pluralism and tolerance.  One of the outcomes of Gezi’s nurturing of plurality is the first time large numbers of Turks are fully comprehending the grievances of the country’s Kurds.  After the incident in Lice, crowds gathered in various locals in Istanbul on Friday night in a solidarity protest.  They applied the same terminology to the Lice (diren Lice) as has been utilized in the Gezi protests and chanted pro Kurdish slogans.  As Tukekci observes “This would have been hard to imagine a month ago.”

A great number, if not a majority of Turks have a negative and even hostile view of Kurds.  They have been raised to believe in the centrality of Turkish ethnic identity to the survival of the Turkish nation-state.  Though Kurds make up the majority of the victims of the Turkish government’s war against the PKK, thousands of Turkish soldiers have also been killed.  Turkey still requires all its young men to complete mandatory military service.  Their military training and experience in the field has served to reinforce the idea that Kurds are the enemy to a generation of young men (and their families).   However, Occupy Gezi has introduced the “other 50%” to the grievances of the Kurds in a very personal way.  It is too early to make any predictions as to how Occupy Gezi will affect the outcome of the Kurdish peace process and vice versa.   The Kurdish cause could very well give the Gezi movement the legs it needs to keep going now that its initial, Weberian “charismatic” stage seems to be coming to an end.  No matter if the Lice protests in Istanbul end up being an isolated incident or not, I am optimistic that the pro-Kurdish protests by Turks is a sign of a cultural shift among at least some elements of Turkish society.  After experiencing a month of insults, violence, and pro-government media coverage, I suspect that the “resistors” and their supporters will have trouble believing the official government line on aspirations of the Kurds and the inherent evil of the PKK.

Written by ataturksrepublic

July 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm