Atatürk's Republic

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Posts Tagged ‘Kurds

Reaching a Real Settlement

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In an article yesterday, Claire Berlinski commented on the eerie and depressing similarities between the Gezi protests last year in Turkey and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, MO.  Indeed,  there is a trend in the images produced by protest movements- clouds of tear gas, police in armor and choking but defiant citizens.  The post 9/11 world have given rise to the nearly universal militarization of police forces.  Whether recent protests have taken place in an autocracy, democracy, or one of the many semi-democracies, police have again and again erred on the side of excessive force.

Both Ferguson and Gezi are examples of a dangerous world-wide trend in law enforcement.  However, the demands and demographics of the protesters in these two cases actually have little in common.  A more apt comparison to Ferguson in the Turkish context would be the intermittent and chronic protests by Kurds against government repression, particularly the building of gendarme outposts, in Turkey’s Southeast.  Both involve an ethnic and socio-economic underclass that largely inhabits marginal areas.  Both groups have been the target of brutal police repression but are often ignored by the mainstream media.

Of course comparing these two very complex and very different cases of minority repression is dangerously reductive on many counts.  That being said, at this particular moment in Turkish history, Turkish politicians would be wise to take a broad lesson from the history of African-Americans in the US, of which Ferguson is only the latest manifestation.  Turkey is in the midst of a much heralded attempt to finally reach a settlement with its indigenous Kurdish armed movement in return for increased cultural rights for Kurds.  Even if this process reaches the ideal outcome of granting equal cultural and legal rights to Kurds, the residual social and economic discrimination faced will not be erased.  The Turkish government cannot drop its focus on Kurdish issues and concerns once the settlement process is deemed complete.  Even if a formerly second-class group group of citizens is recognized as having full legal parity with the majority, in all likelihood discrimination will continue in practice for many decades to come.  Leaders on both sides of Turkey’s settlement process need to realize that the current legal negotiations are only, and should only, be the beginning.  In the decades to come, social, educational and economic inequalities will have to be addressed in order to truly reach equality between ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Turkish citizens of Turkey.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

August 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Questioning the Outcome of Turkey’s Presidential Race

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Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent announcement of his candidacy to be Turkey’s first popularly elected President was, despite the AKP’s best efforts, utterly unsurprising. Erdogan and his party had been all but discussing it as a done deal for months prior. Now that his candidacy is official, commentators across the spectrum have largely been assuming that Erdogan’s electoral success is all but inevitable. Though Erdogan’s chances of winning are undoubtedly high, the effect that his two challengers will have on the August election, as well as how he will use the powers of his office if and when he does win, make the results of this election more unpredictable than it may first appear.

Erdogan’s rivals in this election are Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the CHP/MHP parties and Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the Kurdish HDP party. Ihsanoglu’s nomination was as surprising as Erdogan’s was predictable. Ihsanoglu is not a politician per se, let alone a member of either the CHP or MHP. Instead, he is a career diplomat and intellectual who most recently was the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. His endorsement by the two largest opposition parties, and three smaller ones, caught the Turkish political community and its followers off guard. As far as I know, he was not on any analyst’s list of probable candidates.

In certain respects Ihasnoglu is a solid choice for a Presidential candidate.  Both his academic and professional work have centered around Islam, giving him the potential to appeal to Turkey’s pious majority.  His diplomatic career, as well as his statements since beginning his campaign, indicate that Ihsanoglu would confine his role as president to the traditional, a-political figurehead role.  His short campaign has already had some ups and downs, one low point being the bizarre campaign slogan announced yesterday, but Ihsanoglu has made a good faith effort to reach out to a variety of underrepresented groups in Turkey, including Alevis and supporters of the Gezi movement.  Though Ihsanoglu is certainly no match for Erdogan, arguably there are no current CHP or MHP politician that would potentially make a better candidate or draw more votes.  Ihsanoglu has little chance of making a dent in the AKP base, but will likely collect the disaffected voters from the former AKP block- youth, liberals and possibly others.

The Kurdish candidate, Demirtas, was a bit of surprise as well.  There had been speculations that the Kurdish party would back Erdogan’s candidacy, in part because of Erdogan’s role in the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish peace process.  Demirtas will certainly take votes away from Erdogan in the first round of voting; Kurdish voters are unlikely to support any CHP or MHP candidate because of both parties’ historic (and present) nationalism.

This brings up the first major question: Will Erdogan win a majority in the first round of voting?

If no candidate wins a majority in the August 10 ballots, then a second round of voting will be scheduled.  Analysts agree that if Erdogan were to not receive a majority in the first round, but then presumably go on to win in the second round, his mandate would be diminished.

This leads to the related question: What percentage of the vote can each candidate expect to receive?

While Turkish polls are notoriously unreliable and often purposely biased, the recent local elections can provide us with a rough prediction.  The AKP received about 43% of the vote, the CHP and MHP a combined 43% of the vote and the Kurdish parties 6% of the vote.  This breakdown corresponds roughly with some poll results.  Other polls, notably trumpeted by the pro-government media, show Erdogan getting a majority in the first round (here, here and here) but these same polls are cited in the international media as well.

Erdogan may or may not win in the first round of voting, but barring some political disaster on his part (there are still Turkish diplomats being held for ransom by terrorists after all) it is safe to assume that one way or another Erdogan will get his wish to become president.  However, if voting goes to a second round, Erdogan’s mandate to rule may very well be diminished.

This leads to the next question: How will Erdogan use his power as President?

He has notoriously promised to use all his constitutionally given powers, something that current President Gul has refrained from doing, and generally continue to maintain his tight grip on Turkish politics.  However, it is still not clear if Erdogan will be able to gather power and centralize it as he clearly wishes to.  His efforts to change the constitution to create a strong, central and basically unchecked presidency have been thwarted in the past and, despite Erdogan’s change of office, there is no indication that the current political situation will allow Erdogan and the AKP to successfully relaunch their constitutional initiative.

Despite efforts to bring the judiciary under executive control, local courts and most notably the Constitutional Court have exhibited a remarkable level of independence and commitment to the rule of law.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Constitutional Court challenges Erdogan if and probably when he tries to overstep the constitutionally constrained bounds of the Presidency.

Finally there is the wild card of the next Prime Minister.  Current President Gul had initially denied the desire to fill this position, but rumors have been circulating lately that he may have changed his mind.  If Gul does eventually become PM (he would have to run and be elected to parliament first) some believe he may actually use the powers of the office to keep President Erdogan in check.  This would be constitutionally possible, but given Gul’s track record I remain skeptical.  However the fact remains that the next Prime Minister, whoever he may be (and it will be a he) will be able to challenge Erogan’s power if he so desires.

I have previously waxed optimistic about Turkey’s political future, probably overly so.  However, the future remains too uncertain to declare the end of Turkish democracy and assume that this election marks the beginning of Erdogan’s term as President for Life.  The political opposition remains divided and disorganized, but also makes up at least 50% of the population.  There is enough political discontent to keep Erdogan on his toes and, if there is a will in Parliament and the courts, make him fight for every inch of power.

The AKP v. Social Media

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Turkey has a long history of official government censorship.  Despite this fact, the issue has exploded on both the national and international stage over the past several years.  The factors driving the shift from passive acceptance to active resistance to media censorship among Turks are two-fold: there has been a radical shift in both people’s expectations of the media and the seriousness of Turkey’s censorship laws

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society by Prof. Zeynep Tufekci, sociologist of technology, and Engin Onder, one of the founders of the Turkish alternative media collective 140 Journos.  Engin traced the inspiration for 140 Journos to a pivotal moment in recent Turkish media history.  In 2011, a group of Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkey-Iraq border were bombed by the Turkish military.  The Turkish government subsequently claimed that they had believed the group to be PKK fighters.  Thirty-four people, mostly teenage boys, were killed.  After the story broke, the Turkish media sat on it, afraid of repercussions if they were to break the story.  One journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided to report on the incident independently.  In an iconoclastic act of “citizen journalism,” Serdar traveled to the home village of the victims just in time to witness a mass funeral.  He uploaded a picture of the funeral procession to his instagram account, which spread rapidly on social media, effectively breaking a story that the mainstream media had refused to touch.

Serdar’s reporting on the Roboski massacre demonstrated the power of social media to cut through the mainstream media’s stifling self-censorship.  The coverage of the Gezi protests a year and half later offered further proof of the growing disconnect between the information being reported by the mainstream media and the facts on the ground.  The Gezi protesters and those that sympathized with their cause relied on social media sources, especially twitter, for accurate, up-to-date information.  Sources like 140 Journos were especially important as they vet their reports for accuracy before posting them.

The ability to access unfettered news via the internet questions the whole logic of government censorship.  What’s the point of censoring one form of media when the same information can be spread on another?  Instead of using the rise of social media as an excuse to loosen its grip on the mainstream media, the Turkish government has pursued the opposite approach.  AKP government officials have argued that the media controls imposed by the AKP government are comparable to those imposed by previous Turkish governments.  However, Prof. Tufekci argued that the recently passed internet law gives the government unprecedented powers to pursue critics.  It will allow the government not only to access information about the web usage of all Turkish citizens but also to present this information in court as evidence.  The AKP government had previously blocked websites, most infamously YouTube.  However, as Prof. Tufekci pointed out, these bans were easily and frequently circumvented via tools like proxy servers; the prime minister himself acknowledged as much.  Very few Turks have ever been prosecuted for their online activities.  However, this new law is designed to close these loop holes by requiring ISPs to keep a 2 year log of all their customers’ activities.  Prof. Tufekci believes that likely use the information they gather from ISPs to bring intimidating suits against government critics for their online speech.

When asked about the threat that this new law poses to the work of 140 Journos, Engin seemed fairly unconcerned.  Indeed, the Turkish government is playing a loosing game in its attempts to censor the internet. Half of Turks are under the age of 30.  At least 50% of the population has access to the internet at home and 41 % of internet users have a smart phone.  Twitter claims at least 10 million users in Turkey, making Turkish the 8th most used language on the micro-blogging site.  Erdogan’s frequent denunciations of social media sites, Twitter in particular, indicates that he considers these sites, and in following the free flow of information, a real threat to his hold on power. Two weeks ago, he threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, a threat that he subsequently back down on.  Just today, Erdogan announced that he planed to “dig out” twitter from Turkey.  Despite the immediate panic this statement is causing, I would be very surprised if it was carried through.  At the Bergmen Center talk Prof. Tufekci made it very clear that extreme measures such as a total ban on the internet were very unlikely to happen in Turkey due to the internet’s deep penetration in society.  If the government were to attempt to ban the internet, it would be a clear indication that they have completely lost control.  Due to its popularity in Turkey, I would argue that the same sentiment applies to banning Twitter, if to a some what lesser degree.  Twitter has become invaluable to government opponents in terms of organizing, sharing news, etc.  Erdogan is playing a dangerous game, and he almost certainly knows it.  The “Gezi people” will not accept such a ban without a fight.  If Erdogan does indeed have a court order to shut down Twitter in Turkey, the consequences may cost him dearly.

Turkey is Losing the Syrian War

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Written by ataturksrepublic

October 23, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Gezi Continues

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Yesterday a tragic incident provided proof that Gezi is far from over.  Many of the facts surrounding the event are still in dispute, but what is clear is that during the course of a protest in Antakya early Tuesday morning, 22 year Ahmet Atakan died.  His death triggered renewed protests across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara and the AKP stronghold of Bursa.  Istiklal Boulevard in Taksim was once again the scene of police intervention with tear gas and water cannons.

Though eyewitnesses report that the protests were smaller than those at the peak of the Gezi uprising this summer, the renewed clashes between police and civilians is an important and potentially dangerous sign.  Many reports state that Atakan died during a protest related to the previous death of a Gezi protester.  However, some also mention that the protest Atakan participated in was against Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.  Whether or not Atakan went out with the intention of protesting Turkey’s current and future involvement in Syria, his death is perfectly poised to exasperate an already tense situation.

Atakan’s hometown Antakya is located in a small peninsula of Turkish territory that sticks down like a thumb into Syria.  The area has a proud history of religious and ethnic diversity, even through the periods of ethnic cleansing that homogenized much of the rest of Turkey during the 20th century.  However, the Syrian civil war is putting a strain on both inter-communal relationships and the relationship between the citizens of the province and the Turkish government.  Potentially making this situation even more explosive, Atakan was apparently an Arab Alawite, the ethno-religious group to which Assad belongs.  Most Alawites both in and outside of Syria continue to support Assad’s government, if for no other reason than they fear the consequences for their community if the rebels prevail.  So far the Alawite community in Turkey has largely kept a low profile, but this death could energize the community to lash out against the Turkish government or even Sunni refugees and fighters from Syria.  Resentment of Turkey’s unofficial involvement in the Syrian civil war is not isolated to the Alawite community.  Polls consistently show that the majority of Turks are against further intervention in Syria.  The bombing in Reyhanli earlier this summer, which was assumed to be connected to the Syrian regime, already demonstrated the potential for retaliatory attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.

In addition to it’s involvement with the Syrian war, Turkey is also currently confronted with another extremely delicate internal situation.  A few days ago, the much hailed peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down.  The Turkish government has claimed that the PKK has not withdrawn enough of its fighters from Turkish territory and now the PKK has stated that it will halt its withdrawal until progress is made on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights.  Ethnically Kurdish areas generally refrained from participating in the protests this summer.  However, there were representatives of the Kurdish BDP party at Gezi and the movement in general has shown itself to be sympathetic to the issue of Kurdish rights.  If the protests we witnessed on Tuesday result in a revived Gezi movement, Turkey’s frustrated Kurdish minority may find this an opportune moment to revive protests for their rights as well.

The Turkish government has a potentially explosive situation on its hands.  In the case of the Gezi protests of this summer, the repeated use of force by the police encouraged protesters to seek out creative non-violent ways to continue their resistance.  However, if the government chooses to meet minority protesters in Turkey’s south with violence, past experiences demonstrate the potential for prolonged, deadly conflicts to erupt.

Written by ataturksrepublic

September 11, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Peace in the Middle East

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It is not an exaggeration to say that the last two days have been of historic importance for Turkey.  First, as anticipated, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan made a Nowruz declaration calling for a cease-fire and reconciliation with Turkey.  Then today, in a quite unexpected turn of events facilitated by President Obama, PM Netanyahu of Israel apologized to PM Erdogan over the phone for the death of Turkish civilians in the Mavi Marmara incident.

The cease-fire declaration by Ocalan is an indisputably important gesture toward real, lasting peace between the Turkish government and its Kurdish minority.  But the question remains will the Turkish government do its part to bring about this reconciliation?  As I previously argued, I believe that PM Erdogan has the power to end the Kurdish insurgency.  There have already been a number of articles which outline the obstacles which still must be overcome before the cease fire can be deemed a success.  Factors such as disarmament and amnesty are certainly extremely important in the short term.  However, the only way to ensure that the peace between Turks and Kurds lasts is to grant Kurds all of the political, cultural and linguistic rights that they demand, without exception.  Any lingering rights issue has the potential to fester into renewed insurgency.  Of course fully and legally acknowledging the rights of Turkeys’ Kurdish minority is not without its risks.  Turkey’s violent and vocal far-right ultra-nationalists will never accept the right of non-Turkish and non-Sunni groups to live freely in Turkey.  Turkey must carefully monitor these extremists to be sure they do not sabotage the peace process, but their reaction must not be given undo consideration.  Turkey must continue to move forward in giving all its citizens equal rights even if there are groups that wish otherwise.

The apology from Israel is situated perfectly (perhaps purposely given the fact that Davutoglu and the Foreign Ministry were circumvented) to maximize Erdogan’s popularity and therefore his power to orchestrate the rapprochement between the Turkish government and the PKK.  Some have worried that if Erdogan appeared too eager to placate the Kurds and Ocalan, he risked alienating his conservative Turkish base.  However, the Israeli apology is the perfect bone to throw to his supporters.  If Erdogan does not take advantage of this moment to do everything he can to ensure a successful peace process between Turkey and the PKK, then he truly never was committed to peace in the first place.

Written by ataturksrepublic

March 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm

The Fate of Minorities in Turkey

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The Old Greek Orphanage on Buyukada

Last summer when I visited Buyukada I briefly discussed the confiscation of properties owned by ethnic minorities by the Turkish State.  The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2010 that confiscated properties must be returned.  Predictably, the Turkish government has made few efforts to ensure the former owners of properties in Turkey are given justice.  In August of last year the Turkish government passed legislation in order to comply with the ruling of the ECHR.  However, the majority of appeals by property owners have been rejected.

The once numerous Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey have been the victims of discriminatory legislation dating back to the Ottoman Empire.  However, the large-scale exodus of these groups did not occur until the founding of the Turkish Republic.  Turkey and Greece exchanged the bulk of their Christian and Muslim minorities respectively in the early 1920s.  Throughout the 20th century, both countries have been guilty of official discrimination against the small groups of ethno-religious minorities which were allowed to remain.  In the case of Turkey, a series of crushing taxes directed specifically at minorities stripped Jews and Christians alike of their businesses, wealth and property.  Convinced of  the Turkish government’s animosity, many victims of these taxes left to rebuild their lives elsewhere.  Non-citizen Greek minorities, many of whom had family members with full citizenship,were subject to several waves of deportation.  These deportations aimed to force families to emigrate en mass with their non-citizen relatives.  This systematic persecution created the 99% Muslim Turkey we know today.  Outside of the property disputes, the Turkish government continues to show little concern for protecting the few minority enclaves that remain in Turkey.

As I discussed in my last post, Turkey’s Kurdish minority population has also been subject to official persecution at the hands of the state.  However, unlike the Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations in Turkey, Kurds are without the benefits provided by an ethnic nation-state.  However, the conflict in Syria has revitalized the movement for an independent Kurdistan.  Although the prospect of a greater, independent Kurdistan remains somewhat of a pipe-dream, in a post-Assad Syria Kurds could officially gain control over an autonomous region, similar to the situation in Iraq.  The power-vacuum left in the wake of the civil war in Syria has already de facto created a such a region.  A Syrian Kurdish autonomous region would certainly go far in ensuring the rights of Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.  However, Kurdish politics are bound to spill across boarders.  The current situation in Syria has arguably already negatively impacted the Kurdish community in Turkey and contributed to Erdoğan’s recent retreat from his previous support of greater Kurdish cultural rights.

Kurdish Syrians and Iraqis seem satisfied to remain in autonomous regions united to their respective countries for the time being.  However,  if either or both should gain true independence, I fear for the continued existence of the Kurdish community in Turkey.  For the past century, the Turkish government has failed to incorporate its Kurdish citizens into greater Turkey either through integration or autonomy.  If a “homeland” is created for them elsewhere, Kurds may face intense pressure to immigrate.  I do not envision it being as harsh as the cleansing of the Armenians from Anatolia, the Turkish government is far too sophisticated to engage in such open brutality.  However, policies similar to those that helped to drive out members of the Greek and Jewish communities (taxes, property confiscation, etc) could be employed to make life (even more) intolerable for Turkey’s Kurds.  At this point in time, it is hard to predict how the Kurds on both sides of the boarder will fare in the wake of the Syrian civil war.  However, I predict that the more power Syrian Kurds have on regions bordering Turkey, the harder life will become for Turkish Kurds.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm