Monday, December 13, 2010

Öcalan’s olive branch

His surprise move is Abdullah Öcalan’s latest attempt to approach the Gülen movement. In a recent meeting with his lawyers on the island of İmralı, where he is imprisoned, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader said the following: “I have never denied their [the Gülen movement’s] existence, and expect them to do the same.

Both we [i.e., the PKK] and they are important actors in the Middle East. If these two dynamic powers build a mutual understanding of each other and stand in solidarity, many of Turkey’s problems can be resolved.”

This is an unusual extension of an olive branch and became visible with Öcalan’s three lawyers meeting with Hüseyin Gülerce, a columnist with the Zaman and Today’s Zaman dailies, in the town of Yalova after these remarks.

In his column yesterday in the Zaman daily, Gülerce confirmed the event and gave further details. It is well known that our colleague is a highly respected opinion maker who is close to Fethullah Gülen, though he is keen to remind us that he has never been a spokesperson of the Gülen movement of volunteers. But it is also well known that his views weigh heavily in that domain.

Gülerce wrote that he had put forth two conditions to the lawyers for a lasting solution of the Kurdish problem, which he calls the greatest challenge before Turkey: sincerity and (rhetorical) style. He explained it in the following words:

“There are representatives and spokespersons of the PKK on the mountains, in İmralı, in Europe… There are countries that do not wish to see a stabilizing, strengthening Turkey. Inside [Turkey] there are those who make huge profits through human, weapon and drug smuggling. The situation is truly complicated. That is why sincerity is a must. Unless the conscience of Turks and Kurds plays an active role, a solution becomes even more remote. Style is also of vital importance. Bullying and pushiness are known to be obstructive elements. Just as some wise men enter into the process, a spokesperson of, say, the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP], can mess a lot of things up with words.”

Gülerce wrote that he had told the lawyers a solution must be built on democratic ground -- based on the rule of law, equality, freedom of expression, conscience and belief, and through Parliament. Gestures should suggest opening doors to peace.

In a surprise response, one of Öcalan’s lawyers asked Gülerce: “What if a BDP delegation visits the cemeteries in Çanakkale [Gallipoli]?” To which he responded, “That is what I mean by gestures.” When Gülerce complained to them that the BDP is unable to be a “party of all of Turkey,” they responded that “that is exactly what our ‘client’ says all the time.”

The meeting was, as reported by the Taraf daily yesterday, followed by the same group of lawyers meeting with some “officials,” again in Yalova. The contacts were also reported by the pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency.

What does it all mean? First, it has become clear that Öcalan has engaged in some serious rethinking after the critical Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting and the referendum in mid-September. Until lately, he seemed convinced that the real counterpart would be the state (and the military). No longer. He realizes that the AK Party government is an increasingly powerful player whose basic instincts are constantly pro-solution and whose investment in infrastructure in the region has a strong impact on the “locals.” The new olive branch extended to Gülen’s movement of volunteers is also a reflection of the realization that a solution can be sped up and consolidated by this pious, widespread and benevolent civil society formation.

At this critical stage, where Turkey is pacing towards a critical election in June, after which a full-scale debate and a “conclusion” on a brand new constitution seems inevitable, the involvement of the Gülen movement is crucial, as much as Kurdish political figures’ cautiousness to keep guns and mines silent. In this context, Öcalan’s recent remarks on extending the “cease-fire” until June, and not March as previously reported, are positive signs. At the moment, the primary duty is to avoid any provocation, big or small.

Outside, looking in

Foreign ministers of the European Union meet today in Brussels at the General Affairs Council to discuss, among other issues, enlargement.

To claim that the meeting will be marked by a jolly mood would be an exaggeration. The EU is being dragged into one of its worst financial crises ever, and the unease among its populations regarding “the other” is becoming very vocal. Xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiments are on the rise and extreme right wing parties gain more ground as a result of growing irrationality fuelled by self-centeredness.

It becomes difficult, but even more necessary, to discuss the future under such circumstances. The more social and economic problems are visible, the louder they tell us that there is something seriously wrong with the policies. Some leaders feel it is time to dig deeper, while the others seem lost in the vortex of thought.

With the Greek and Irish crises developing, and with the ones in Portugal and Spain looming on the horizon, it is inevitable that eyes will now be more focused on the successful parts of the story called Turkey. As some predicted, the discussions on the future of the EU will have to be linked to Turkey, since the current state of affairs within the union shows that the seemingly desperate attempts by some cynical members to isolate Turkey where it is, or to divert it away, have been foolish and unsuccessful.

Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, complained in blunt terms that “some centers in the EU” had no idea why they were acting like that. “When I met them I always asked what was their strategy behind keeping Turkey away, and they just looked at me with no clear answer,” he said in a recent TV interview with a Turkish colleague. “They have absolutely no strategy on Turkey other than obstruction.”

There is growing worry among some others. There are no more chapters in the accession negotiations with Turkey that can be opened at the moment, as Greek Cyprus blocks some and France seems rather determined to obstruct certain chapters that pave the way to full membership.

“EU integration is about strengthening the rule of law and common European values and standards all over the Continent. This is apparent not least in Turkey, where EU-inspired liberal reforms have turned the country into one of Europe’s principal growth engines,” wrote four foreign ministers in a joint article published by The New York Times some days ago.

Carl Bildt of Sweden, Franco Frattini of Italy, William Hague of Great Britain and Alexander Stubb of Finland have reason to powerfully argue in these confusing times that Turkey may actually be a driving force in making the EU as extroverted as it was envisioned by its founding fathers in the ‘50s. Their article is a devastating critique of the neocon-generated “axis shift” thesis which found some ground in the US capital.

“The crucial question,” they write, “is not whether Turkey is turning its back on Europe, but rather if Europe is turning its back on the fundamental values and principles that have guided European integration over the last 50 years.”

Although they admit that there are concerns that admitting a large nation would upset some balances within the union, they say: “New members can help Europe return to economic dynamism and take on its proper weight in world affairs. By pushing prospective candidates toward liberal reforms and full respect for human rights, the European space of stability and growth can expand further. In the back of our minds we should also remember that Turkey, like no other country, has the ability to advance European interests in security, trade and energy networks from the Far East to the Mediterranean. …

“Turkey is in a class of its own. It is an influential actor on the world stage with considerable soft power. Its economy is expected to expand by more than 5 percent this year, compared with a eurozone average of 1 percent. The [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] OECD predicts that Turkey will be the second-largest economy in Europe by 2050.

“Turkish entrepreneurs in Europe already run 40 billion euros worth of businesses and employ 500,000 people. A Turkish economy in the EU would create new opportunities for exporters and investors, and link us to markets and energy sources in central Asia and the near east. So the security and economic case for Turkish membership is strong. …

“Let us be clear: The Union’s exacting standards of democracy and rule of law require a welcome but time-consuming reform process. However, the magnetism and the transformational capacity of enlargement works only if commitments are kept on both sides.”

The authors are keen on reminding their colleagues that the more the credibility of the enlargement process is damaged, the weaker the European Union will be. To be a powerful actor, in particular where Turkey is concerned, it is high time that a strategy is debated on the specific case of this country, including a “deadline” for a full accession -- however remote in time it may be. The issue can no longer be kept adrift.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Axis shield

Now that NATO’s Lisbon Summit is over, there should presumably be fewer concerns left as compared to ones earlier about where Turkey stands in its vocation on the ever-changing global map of power.

Overall, the summit seems to have achieved its envisioned results -- in general terms -- and the leaders got what they hoped for. There is now an agreement on a missile defense system which will cover the entire territory of NATO’s European allies (although there will be much work left on structuring the system and fine-tuning its command and control mechanism in a coherent and functional framework). The Russians have been “won”: There will for the first time in history be a coordinated defense model which aims to bring together Moscow and NATO to direct cooperation. Agreement has also been reached on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Is Ankara, too, content? According to President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, yes, very much so. In the past weeks, there has been a lot of publicity and alarmism in the international press, as if Turkey had already shifted its axis in favor of its Muslim brotherhood, and would behave like an “enfant noir”; this occurred, with voluntary backing of the neocon camp and the Israel lobby. Gül was certainly right when he complained of “psychological warfare” targeting his country.

There was certainly a great deal of unease as the leaders entered the talks. It was not entirely about the missile shield. Beyond that, Lisbon came to symbolize a historic, defining point about NATO’s new collective defense model, and its global role in a rapidly evolving, volatile environment.

Ankara was deeply concerned and involved with the outcome, the (re)shaping of the Strategic Concept. Gül and Davutoğlu reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to NATO’s updated mission, as they managed to help allies reach a smooth agreement on “indivisible defense,” which strengthens the level of engagement in the event of hostility against individual allies.

So, it looks as if the actors engaging in psychological war against the current Turkish administration ended with a considerable amount of disappointment. Turks played ball, but friction that marked the summit appeared between France and others.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy heavily insisted on specifying country and region, when the missile shield issue was on the table. It was hard to understand the reasons for his insistence because when it comes to projects such as the one agreed upon, the threat is not equaled to any specific country; it is a practice that dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War.

Why did Paris insist? One possible explanation is that Sarkozy wanted to expand ground by winning over powerful allies around the idea in order to corner, alienate and expose Turkey as an “enfant noir,” but if his plan was so, it failed badly for him.

The concealed idea to bash Turkey through the issue of Cyprus seems also to have backfired. Thanks to the fair attitude of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary-general, the unfair treatment of Turkey in the past decade was thoroughly exposed.

Furthermore, the difference between the old and new attitudes became even more apparent in an exchange between President Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Gül during the same dinner. When the issue of NATO-EU relations was discussed, the former two apparently asserted that Ankara was blocking them due to its policies on Cyprus.

Gül’s response was firm. “We have a crisis of confidence with you,” he said. “You do not stick to your promises. The EU promised Turkey would be part of the European Defense Agency, which never happened. The security treaty between Turkey and the EU has not been signed either. These have caused mistrust towards you. You must fulfill your promises.”

To the objection that the “EU has principles” and “it has to protect the rights of its members [Cyprus],” Gül’s response was also firm. “I agree that principles are crucial. Why then did you not remember those principles when you accepted Cyprus as a member? The principle was never to accept a member that has problems with a neighbor and that has a dossier of conflict at the UN Security Council. You may say that Cyprus as an EU member is a fact of life, but it is also a fact of life that Greek Cyprus does not represent the entire island.”

These words reflect the real fact that Turkey and Cyprus will remain big problems both for the EU and NATO as the symmetry created calls for a bold and flexible solution to satisfy all parties.

Nevertheless, the end result of the summit for NATO and Turkey may help all concerned relax. “This [agreement] can carry NATO for 10-15 years,” Gül said. Meanwhile, there is much work to do to consolidate Turkey’s position in the axis. Myths on Turkey “shifting away” have received a huge blow.

CHP: Into the unknown

As soon as he felt a bit safer with regard to the fragile political landscape after his entry as chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), one of the most defining moments for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was to assemble a conference with a limited and secretive attendance that strictly adhered to the Chatham House Rule.

The meeting, which ended with a series of ideas and proposals for a new identity and direction, preceded the “operation” of ousting Önder Sav from the post of secretary-general within a matter of days.

Those with insider knowledge of the meeting cannot conceal their surprise at how quickly Kılıçdaroğlu moved in to “implement” some of the decisive major points underlined in the meeting. One insider commented, “Usually it takes a leader time to absorb the content before acting, but in this case he saw the opportunity and did not hesitate.”

There is a lot of truth in this, showing where Kılıçdaroğlu is moving to turn his chairmanship into leadership, in the slippery, treacherous environment called the CHP. His ensuing steps confirmed that they will either make or break his party.

It is hard to know whether or not he impressed his comrades in the Socialist International, but he clearly displayed the profile of a leader exactly opposite that of Deniz Baykal, his predecessor. Kılıçdaroğlu has the old leftist in his DNA, which helps to establish a common terminology and new prospects with the SI community.

While in Paris he went even further, and did something Baykal never would do: He visited Père Lachaise Cemetery and laid flowers at the graves of two Kurds -- the legendary Marxist director Yılmaz Güney and Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya. He topped his surprise moves with a visit to Diyarbakır, where he met locals and talked about what he calls “the new CHP” attempting to create a “third path” between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) as a “democratic alternative” to shape a “united or allied left” and challenge the current status quo. These remarks came as some politicians even discussed the (remote) possibility of a CHP-BDP alliance in the next elections. Fruitless or far fetched as these moves look, they tell us that Kılıçdaroğlu intends to push his party into new waters.

But, he is only in the beginning of a tough journey. Challenges will be multifaceted, both inside and outside. Kılıçdaroğlu knows that the old Baykal line is an infinite loser, but it is doubtful he knows how to convince party people. For this, he needs to convince himself that the party’s worn out ideology, Kemalism, must at least be sharply revised to harmonize with the democratic left -- a very arduous task. The widely shared belief among the party’s modern flank and outside observers is that leaving behind the legacy of Kemalism is the only way for the party to be integrated into civilian politics and to be “normalized.” This is a precondition for Turkey’s major, chronic issues to be resolved by consensus.

Every step he takes brings the party closer to a watershed. Now, the next issue is whether or not Kılıçdaroğlu will need to hastily assemble an extraordinary congress, possibly before the end of the year. The reason is obvious: He controls only one-fourth of the party assembly, which defines the candidate deputy lists for the next elections. Baykal and Sav lurk in the background and still have considerable power. Should the new leader keep the party assembly intact, he may face an uphill battle and end up breathless. To consolidate his power even more, the need for a congress seems inevitable as days go by.

His own identity as an Alevi from Dersim is both an asset and a disadvantage. As this helps him win back the Alevis and warm up to Kurds, the old elite of the CHP feel increasingly uncertain about his intentions. Kılıçdaroğlu has so far moved in the area of what is possible, and it may not be enough. At the moment he is on a move into the unknown.

Monday, October 25, 2010

‘Healthy man of sick Europe’

As what the Economist notes as a “welcome rise” of Turkey in the economic and international policy field becomes increasingly visible, the state of confusion within the EU about Turkey is more clearly exposed.

It is an interesting type of development. In the first half of the now ending decade, what pushed Turkey ahead in terms of substantial change was the enormous dynamic of the prospect of membership in the union, and despite the quickly fading desire in Europe to accept its progress as an indication to speed up membership talks, Turkey accelerates its normalization nevertheless.

What is wrong then, and where? It is obvious that the main denominator for things having taken a negative turn is the lack of leadership within the EU. Its current state is of aimlessness, fatigue over political direction, shortsighted foreign policy and weakening coordination of economic management. What suffers most because of these factors is the enlargement policy.

What today’s Turkey -- as opposed to the Turkey of, say, 2002 -- sees in the EU of today is a picture of a destiny much less desired. As today’s Turkish society is more and more involved in a peaceful debate on the role of religion in politics and developing modalities over dealing fairly with diversity, etc., the old continent is sending out signals of increasing intolerance for its diversity and suffers from a growing extremism in many corners within.

A leader of a powerful member declares that the integration policies of its immigrants and new citizens failed fully (thus, spreading fear rather than hope), as the emerging far-right finds momentum to expand and to instrumentalize Turkey’s accession prospect as a political weapon to build a base against Islam, deliberately ignoring its democratic, civilian and European attributes.

It is apparent that the lack of decisive leadership will help revive the old ghosts of Europe, as the xenophobic, selfish, small-minded far-rightists from the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Bulgaria, etc., will push for a referendum in order to block Turkey altogether from the EU.

When the issue of direct trade (along with forgotten promise by the EU) with north Cyprus comes again to the discussion within the European Parliament (EP), the picture becomes even more worrisome. When the Legal Affairs Committee of the EP, giving in to massive Greek Cypriot pressure, decides against it, even the socialists choose to join the vote.

There is still (little) hope that it may be rejected by the Presidents’ Conference, but the real issue is the following: The mood, reflected by the vote, tells Turkey and Turkish Cypriots that the EU is now entirely controlled by a membership, whose desire is to pit the EU against the UN, in order to make the latter dysfunctional in reaching a settlement on the island.

Had the decision been reversed, it would have paved the way for Turkey to open its ports to Cypriot vessels and aircraft, and sped up both the negotiations for a solution on the island, and membership for Turkey in the union. The difference between the Europeans’ choice at the committee level is that simple.

The paradox is, it may add to the determination in Turkey to go further with the reform process, even if today’s profoundly confused EU may be even more stuck with its counterproductive Cyprus policies. In the end, who to blame for the historic folly will become much easier.

The fact of the matter is, Turkey, once labeled the “sick man of Europe” (not anywhere else, but Europe) has now managed to replace “sick” with “healthy,” and is seen with respect or envy by members under a huge burden of economic crisis.

Let me leave the word to the latest analysis of the Economist, whose recent, extremely sober article on Turkey is a devastating critique of an increasingly myopic continent.

“Negotiations (with the EU) have formally been going on for over five years. No country that has begun such talks has ever failed to be offered membership. But the leaders of France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands seem dead set against Turkish entry, as is much of their public opinion. The unresolved Cyprus dispute seems a near-insuperable roadblock. Yet if the EU chooses to exclude its own China, it will be turning away the fastest-growing economy in its neighborhood. It will also lose any hope of influencing the region to its east. At a time when many Europeans fret about being ignored in the world, this would be a historic mistake.

“ ... Turkey is heading in a good direction. It remains a shining (and rare) example in the Muslim world of a vibrant democracy with the rule of law and a thriving free-market economy. Much though Western leaders would like to turn the argument into one about Turkey, the real question is for them. Are Americans and Europeans prepared to accept Turkey for what it is: a Muslim democracy, with a different culture and diplomatic posture, but committed to economic and political liberalism? This newspaper hopes the answer is yes.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

The proof of the pudding

In the wake of the referendum, the inevitable is already fully visible. The result has paved the way for a new phase -- certainly promising ups, as well as downs -- in the democratization process. The inevitable is the fact that society is now involved in interpreting the meaning of the changes already launched.
Initial indications of the implementation of the new rules, the restructuring the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), have been rather strongly expressed dissatisfaction at the outcome of the vote which elected 10 new members to the body. In an unprecedented format of democratic elections almost 12 thousand judges and prosecutors participated in the process.
Then all hell broke loose. Pundits in the media known for their pro-status quo stand cried foul, claiming that those who were elected -- with great margins in votes -- were all favored and endorsed by the Ministry of Justice. Some went even further to argue that the “separation of powers” was now in the coffin, ready to be buried.

These views may be severely polluted by exaggeration, but if dug deeply, they may have a point. The article concerning elections to HSYK in the original draft amendments -- as voted through Parliament -- was based on the principle of “pluralism” in the elections to the supreme body. Put simply, each judge or prosecutor would have the right to vote for names rather than lists. The Constitutional Court, going through the petition by the opposition later disagreed with this principle and made its own adjustments based on the principles of a “majority” system. The adjustment was harshly criticized by experts at that time and its possible dangers were exposed.

At the moment, remaining cautiously alarmist, this should be said: In practice it is almost impossible to control a full electorate of the judiciary and direct it to vote on a perceived “ministry list” -- the voters are far too complex in their leanings and positions to be able to be guided into a single line. Moreover, it is the first time such a democratic election has taken place and it can be compared to a dam breaking and a flood rushing in. It is known that prosecutors and judges in the country have suffered systematic suppression under the old caste system of the HSYK -- which acted like a judicial politburo -- and looked with contempt at the “old rulers.” It will take time before the waters calm down and a new internal balance is established.

Does this mean that the judiciary is now falling under the control of political executives? It is a brand new situation and as with any transitional democracy, it must be strictly monitored by its practices. Any strict judgment now would be premature.

As the saying goes, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Extreme alarmism should be taken with caution, since democracy -- as proven in any part of the world -- is a fluid process, which must be kept open to new problems and their solutions.

We are somewhere between panic and calm. On another front, in the wake of a directive by the Supreme Board of Universities (YÖK), the chronic search for the freedom of the wearing of the headscarf on university campuses continues -- and polarization on the issue shows no signs of abating. On Wednesday some Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies met with the three opposing parties to explore whether or not there would be a consensus. Merely an hour later, the Chief Prosecutor of the High Court of Appeals appeared on the scene again -- after a couple of years -- with a new threat. Declaring the wearing of the headscarf at universities to be “illegal” -- thus putting the YÖK directorate into question -- he warned that any party involved in policymaking on the issue would face “consequences” (read “closure”). The AK Party and the Speaker responded harshly, demanding an apology for intervening in “affairs of the legislative body.”

This is bound to heat up the debate.

It is clear that the high judiciary is keen to resume the fight from where it left off. If the parties (against all odds) decide to pursue the issue, the chief prosecutor knows he has very little chance of success with the new expanded 17-member Constitutional Court. With this old pattern of behavior, he would only succeed in victimizing the AK Party on the eve of new elections, thus putting the opposition in an even more precarious position.

If the move by the chief prosecutor is an outcome of a new escalation, one may expect the top command to declare soon that it is refraining from joining the Republic Day reception on Oct. 29, in which the First Lady will welcome guests while wearing her headscarf, putting an end to a practice of absence in prior years.

The remnants of the tutelage have -- sadly -- not yet learned the lesson of letting civilian politics alone to find their democratic balance.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Greece misreads the new reality

The other night I met with some old friends from Athens. Some of them are linked with the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and keen followers of Turkey’s reshaping foreign policy. For years they have been sincerely engaged in overcoming obstacles which have made Greek-Turkish relations problematic in many areas.

The main topic of the conversation was -- inevitably -- Cyprus. They asked me, in a concerned tone, whether Ankara would take new steps to help speed up the process. They meant, naturally, opening Turkey’s air and seaports to Greek Cypriot aircraft and vessels. Because, the argument went on, Turkey could not be a credible regional power if it went on denying these steps. And, of course, it will put the entire accession process for EU membership into jeopardy.
The question and the related argument is not new. They were based on the regular presumption that Turkey is as keen as, say, five years ago, to hurry into full membership. They were rather outdated in their formulations: They displayed a simple equation between the implementation of the Ankara Protocol and a possible cheering within the EU to open up the gates to full membership with immediate effect. Last, they were had a lack of a fresh reading into what sort of shape Ankara has already been taking in today’s foreign policy.

I may have provoked my dear friends with my direct responses. I countered that EU membership in the minds of the people here has lost much of its glamour and support has now fallen to around 40 percent. What the common man and woman on the street generally believe is that their country is misunderstood or ignored fully because of a failure by Europeans to understand the meaning of changes and the objectives maintained for democratization. The fatigue is endorsed by the continued economic success here, and the turbulence in financial management of the union. People here see a Europe with no bold and visionary leadership, with increasing xenophobia, with a worrisome contempt for Islam and chronic myopia in its foreign policy.

The notion that keeps developing here is the “Turkey does not belong in Europe, let us resist membership fully” motto among some political actors and segments of European society that is now turning into an obsession. The open tolerance for anti-Turkey and anti-Turkish sentiments, often bordering on archaic acts of racism (in member countries such as the Netherlands and Bulgaria), automatically awakens similar sentiments in this country as well.

So, I suggested to my Greek friends that they should adopt new ways of thinking. The more prosperous and self-confident Turkey is -- as seems to be case now -- the more independently it will reason and act. Can Turkey live with the Cyprus problem for a long time? Yes, it can. The wealthier it is, the easier it can finance North Cyprus.

Yes, but what about EU negotiations and how will it affect security in the Eastern Mediterranean? It is Ankara’s policy to sit at the EU table and support the Turkish Cypriot position. In no case, the towels will have to be thrown in.

If a solution to the conflict and regional security are in the interests of Greece and Cyprus, it should be for the whole union as well. So, if this premise is logical, hitting the ball in Turkey’s court and expecting other sides to do nothing is old thinking. The correct question to be asked is, “What can we do that we have not done so far?”

There are two crucial, principal points for reflection: First, the EU must stop approaching Ankara, acting “undecided” about the prospect of full membership. Mixed messages, often aimed at domestic consumption, but also based on extreme prejudice, only make the Turkey-EU dialogue worse. Alienating Turkey and its people will have far-reaching consequences; it will not add to the strength of the EU.

The second has to do with the role of Greece in the Cyprus issue. Ever since Cyprus became -- with its chronic problems -- a full member of the EU, Athens has barely done anything to encourage Nicosia to work constructively toward a solution. It stood in the background saying: “This is their problem. They must solve it.” This was an act of hypocrisy because Athens archaically believed that the appetite for EU membership would lead Ankara to make unilateral concessions. But Ankara has shown that outside engagement can change parameters: the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government boldly made Rauf Denktaş leave his post to Mehmet Ali Talat in 2004. It showed that when “main lands” become involved, the process can raise hopes.

It is time for Athens to stop the hypocrisy and adopt a new language. It is much weaker on the position to dictate conditions for Turkey. Greece, as is well known, does not enjoy a positive reputation within the bloc at the moment. Because of its tremendous economic mismanagement that threatens the EU, it has an issue of profound mistrust.

One way of repairing its image could easily be through engagement in Cyprus. Lifting the embargo on the North and opening of the ports must be in synch. The more in cooperation and pragmatic Athens and Ankara are on the issue, the stronger the prospects for regional security and a settlement on the island. Then they can make sure that it is understood clearly within the confused and prejudiced EU circles.

Disturbing legacy of murder culture

Summarizing the past 30 years in Turkey would be devoid of context if one ignored the pattern of murders that cut right across it like a thread of damnation. During the period 1980 to 1983 under the strict and ruthless rule of generals, the entire register of crimes against humanity were committed – such as hangings of militants of the right or left, mass torture and summary executions – all legitimate under the coup regime.
From approximately 1987 onwards, up until the start of the Ergenekon trial and other trials in 2007 involving civilians or the military, the narrative is dominated by incidents whose backgrounds are (kept) in darkness.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the notorious “old stories” of that period never age. The demand for truth about the past haunts today and tomorrow. When Semra Özal and her son Ahmet insist Turgut Özal was murdered by poisoning while on duty, almost nobody is shocked. The period in question had that characteristic -- nobody, including even the highest placed people, felt safe.

Feeling increasingly encouraged, the various actors of those times now come forward and fuel more suspicion, challenging those who did not believe in the role of conspiracy to influence the direction of the -- then unstable -- country.

If Özal was murdered, as claimed, then it was a successful end to a series of attempts to do so. Already in 1988, an apparently hired gun had tried to shoot him down in an indoor political meeting organized by his Motherland Party (ANAP). The case remains unresolved today, as well as hundreds of others involving all sorts of people in politics, academia, media and bureaucracy.

One of the actors who now steps forward is Feyzi İşbaşaran, currently an independent deputy, who was Özal’s private secretary at the time of the attempted murder. In an interview with the Sabah daily, he said that a team Özal had gathered solved the murder attempt and “identified some names with certainty” behind gunman Kartal Demirağ. He said four people helped him, adding that when Özal was told the identities, “he was shocked.”

When they were ready to act, İşbaşaran said, some people from within ANAP warned Özal and his team: “Leave this case alone.” At that time, Özal was prime minister and was planning to take over the presidency soon, so he let it be covered up. İşbaşaran quoted Özal as telling his team, “If we take this challenge, the country will end up losing. I operate under constant threat. Those who did this know that we have found out the truth. They fear that with 292 deputies (a majority) we will change the constitution. But knowing that we know (about the attempt) they will not dare again.”

But they did, in April 1993, if we believe his family. His wife insists that he was given a liquid at a reception in Ankara, and she felt sure of “something gravely wrong” when she witnessed her husband’s last moments. She disputes the claims of current Deputy Chief of General Staff Aslan Güner, who then was Özal’s adjutant, who says Özal was driven swiftly to the hospital. She claims that he was deliberately “driven around” Ankara’s streets to waste time.

While the period 1988 - 1992 was filled with murders of state dignitaries, officers, and some prominent academicians of the “republican camp,” the year 1993 symbolizes in the eyes of many keen observers of late Turkish history, a peak in events that not only marked patterns of social trauma but also signaled a policy change in tightening the screws of tutelage over the government.

In the course of less than 11 months in that year, murder followed murder. In January, prominent investigative journalist Uğur Mumcu was targeted by a car bomb in Ankara. A couple of weeks later, Adnan Kahveci, one of Özal’s most trusted aides, was killed in a mysterious car accident with his family. He was the author of an internal report on the Kurdish issue. Soon after, Eşref Bitlis, then Commander of the Gendarmerie, was killed in an airplane crash -- another event still surrounded by deep suspicion. (Bitlis was very close to Özal and outspoken about a “civilian solution” to the Kurdish issue.)

Shortly after Özal’s unexpected death, 33 soldiers were executed in an act attributed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which even shocked Abdullah Öcalan, its leader. In the summer of that year, 37 intellectual Alawites were burned to death by a mob -- an apparent act of arson to a hotel in Sivas. Again, soon after this, an attack in a village near Erzincan ended in a massacre of 33 peasants.

So on and so forth.

Given the memories, kept fresh because little has been done to seek the truth behind all of these, its not hard to understand the nature of cases like Ergenekon and those launched in the southeastern towns; moreover, it points to the vital importance of keeping pressure on the government and the judiciary to “go to the very end, wherever it might lead.” İşbaşaran argues that if one begins with the assassination attempt in 1988, “the rest will follow in a series of flashes of truth,” since they are, he implies, interconnected. He might be right.

Journalists in jail

Noam Chomsky, who visited İstanbul to take part in a conference on freedom of expression, summarized the situation in a calm manner. He told the press that from 2002 to 2008 observers of Turkey had noted with satisfaction that freedom of expression thrived and that journalism and debate became much bolder, but that in the last couple of years the situation had again become alarming.
He is right. We have reason to worry because as discontent among our colleagues grows, so does the insensitivity of the authorities, both political and judiciary.
A severely disturbing indicator of worsening conditions for journalists is the number of those in jail, and the escalation in cases filed against them. In more than 3,000 cases, newspapers and reporters are being subjected to legal inquiries, and more than 2,500 indictments have now been filed against them.

The Taraf and Zaman dailies top the list of these files. Taraf recently broke the national record as a newspaper that was tried in 44 separate cases in just one day. It has 285 cases hanging over its head.

But the record of ongoing cases goes to Zaman. Prosecutors filed more than 550 cases against the newspaper. The Star daily, “number two” on the list, has also been shaken by 407 cases. Others are also being affected, including Radikal and Milliyet.

An overwhelming majority of those cases have the core of journalism as a target: Prosecutors ground their accusations on “national security,” “breach of the secrecy of legal investigations,” “criticism of the courts,” “revealing secret documents,” “exposing authority figures as targets for terrorist organizations,” etc. In some cases, it is prosecutors with expanded jurisdiction, and not the so-called prosecutors responsible for “violations in the press,” who act. It is a clear indicator of what direction the “respect for press freedom” is going in.

How many journalists are in jail? This is a tricky question and one that divides those who monitor the state of journalism in Turkey. It has to do with the criteria with which each arrest, detention and sentencing is judged, whether or not the cause for legal action has to do with the professional practice of the journalist.

Arguably, the most reliable source for this is the Independent Communications Network (Bianet), which has for years systematically monitored media freedom indicators along universal norms. According to Bianet, four journalists were in jail as of late August. The network recently added a fifth name to the list. Four of them are editors of Kurdish publications while the fifth is Erdal Güler, the editor of the Devrimci Demokrasi periodical.

We have two other sources. One is the Solidarity Platform for Detained Journalists (TGDP), which claims that the number is 40. The other is the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Turkey branch, which insists that there are 48 journalists in jail. These are less reliable, simply because they are not as meticulous as Bianet, which receives the powerful assistance of lawyers and observers. The TGDP includes in its count all cases filed under “terrorist actions,” where it is very difficult to distinguish whether or not a certain publisher is detained due to their professional work or not. (That is also the reason why many prominent journalists disagree that journalists such as Mustafa Balbay, Tuncay Özkan and Ergun Poyraz are to be campaigned for. They are detained under the Ergenekon case for their work. It is a symbolic problem of defining where the criteria end.)

The IPI’s problem is consistency and bias. The organization, which had displayed remarkable insensitivity in the hugely problematic 1990s, particularly to the “severe” cases of the Kurdish and pro-Islamist press, is now -- mainly because of its affiliation with the Doğan Media Group -- keen on being seen as the champion of press freedom.

Apart from serious sources such as Bianet, other figures must be taken with a pinch of salt. But this does not by any means minimize the seriousness of the situation. Something has to be done.

The problem with the Turkish press today is also the press itself. It is severely divided; due to internal fights and ideological differences, it acts on selectivity. While ignoring completely what happens on, say, the “Kurdish press,” it chooses to blow out of proportion cases in its own “camp.” There is no longer a common ground on which to fight the cause for the profession, and this much is tragic.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said preparations were being made to “review” laws and articles that curb freedoms. The ball, as with many other things, is in the government’s court. Many laws indeed need changing, including the Internet Law. Hoping, however, will not be enough; concrete steps need to be taken.

Refocusing on press freedom

In his analysis on Monday, Ömer Taşpınar highlighted two main points on how Turkey in the post-referendum period is perceived in the US capital. The positive part is, Taşpınar wrote, that there is no doubt across the ocean that Turkey is consolidating its democracy by a resounding “yes.”
But, he underlined, “There is a perception among important segments of the US punditry and more importantly the US government that the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party is becoming more authoritarian. The reason for this perception is primarily the tax penalty exerted on the Doğan Media Group.”

He went on: “It was a bad idea to exert such a heavy and irrational tax penalty on the Doğan Media Group. In addition to the ethical problem and the ‘freedom of the press’ dimension of the penalty, it was also bad politics, mainly because this tax penalty constantly overshadows democratic developments in Turkey. The penalty allows the Doğan group to argue that media freedom had never been more endangered in Turkish history. Such exaggerated allegations are of course baseless and false but they still resonate in Washington because of the pervasive negative image of the AK Party.”

I read Ömer’s column as I entered a meeting with prominent colleagues representing a wide range of Turkish media to discuss “Media, Democratization and Self-Regulation in Turkey” under the auspices of UNESCO, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Present were outlets such as Hürriyet, Sabah, ATV, NTV and some voluntary “media watch” organizations.

After intense and profoundly frank talks, I decided to comment on US perceptions on the “Turkey and press freedom” issue, revisiting some key points, which obviously misled some segments in Washington, D.C., either due to severe exaggerations, as Ömer emphasized, or spin.

Let us begin with a fresh and developing story. Bekir Coşkun, an outspoken and very popular columnist, was fired on Monday from the Habertürk daily, a newspaper owned by the Ciner Group. Coşkun told Internet news sites that he was fired because of “his opposition to the government.”

A couple of weeks ago another columnist, also known for her ultra-secularist views, was shown the door. Mine Kırıkkanat, an (ex-)columnist with the Vatan daily wrote that the motive was political. Her editor claimed in a letter to her that what she wrote was “unethical.”

Kırıkkanat had called for not sending any aid at all to Pakistan’s flood victims, implying that they as Muslims did not deserve that.

It is very simple to deduce that in both cases the owners decided to fire them, not the government.

Is it that easy to fire people working for news outlets? It happens almost every day. The very media owners who act this way are the ones who dismantled every trade union structure from their media companies, leaving job security constantly vulnerable in Turkey.

It is no wonder, then, that all my colleagues within such outlets put the blame entirely on the government, pushing forward the argument that “press freedom is in danger,” simply because they have been stripped of their right to unionize and do not dare raise their voices in unity against the owners.

The very fact that not even a single journalist with a conscience has declared his or her solidarity with big media conglomerates and their owners is telling enough: Ownership structures and abuses of journalists’ integrity exercised by media moguls are remembered with experiences of pain and harassment in the collective professional memory.

The simplistic view among American pundits and power circles, based on raw linkages between punitive measures on media and its freedom, must be nuanced, because it perpetuates chronic and fundamental problems in Turkey’s troubled and bruised media sector.

Those who cling to the view on Doğan tax evasion case must first clarify: Are they concerned because a media company has become a target of tax scrutiny or because the penalty figures are too high? This is not clear. Nor enough.

The fundamental problem has to do with the behavior of media proprietors. As experience shows, the same criteria for “quality” do not apply to, say, an owner of an energy company and a media company. The latter works mainly on principles and trust, and for this it needs something called editorial independence.

Those who draw an equation between tax evasion and press freedom must talk to the entire press corps of Turkey, including a vocal critique of the government, Emin Çölaşan, who wrote a book about his experiences in a censoring corporate culture.

They must also solve the following puzzle: If the press freedom is really in danger, how come a newspaper like “Sözcü”, a ruthless oppositionalş paper, not only survives but also constantly increases its circulation.

If they do, they will find the right way:

The path to press freedom will be opened if the government in Ankara regulates the shares in media property area, blocks loopholes to monopolization, bans cross ownership, stops by law media owners entering public tenders and passes the Trade Unions’ Law in the parliament.

This is the logical way to create a diverse, more independent and free press that competes freely, and invalidates cheap arguments based on corporate self-interest.

With or without a cross

The plane was just one of the dozen or more that flew to the eastern city of Van. It was early Saturday morning, and in the aircraft, a buzzing mixture of people: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, journalists, priests and academics.
The Armenians, the majority of the passengers, came from various corners of the world. Some had flown by night flights via İstanbul or Vienna, reaching here from Armenia proper. The air was of a meet and greet, and talk came easily.
I met an old friend, from the Armenian community in İstanbul. I had not seen her for a long time. She was visibly sad when she saw me. “He should have been with us, now,” she said. The missing person was our mutual friend, the patriarch of İstanbul, Mesrob II, who has been gravely ill, incommunicado for months. “It was his dream,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

Indeed. I had first heard about the miserable state of the Church of the Holy Cross, known as Akdamar, from him years and years ago. He wanted it to be restored and opened for prayers, as much as he wanted the tiny, historic Silk Road bridge between Kars province and Armenia rebuilt. Both as symbolic gestures, small in size, but huge in impact, and to accelerate reconciliation and peace.

Thanks to efforts from various sides and institutions, and after a series of hurdles, Van finally witnessed an historic event. A thousand years of history has seen again the light of today, and the Armenians, sharers of these lands with others, were in tears while praying on the island, after a horrid period of darkness, for memory and forgiveness. It was more than a little step, to say the least.

The people of Van had anticipated with great excitement the idea that people would visit their city in great numbers, taking the event as a pretext, and experience their well-known hospitality. Fewer than expected arrived, mainly due to problems with the preparation work concerning the cross.

Overall, the restoration attracted praise. The work conducted inside and outside the church was meticulous. However, when it came to the cross, it was a complicated story.

“Well, my brother, what can I say? It is a church, so it should have a cross, is that correct? Can a church be complete without it? No!” Zahir Kandaşoğlu, the dynamic chairman of Van Chamber of Trade and Commerce, and a prominent figure from one of the province’s most powerful Kurdish tribes, reacts with open frustration that the cross could not be placed on top of the building for the ceremony. He is the driving force for opening the Armenian border, only two-and-a-half hours away, and he tells me funny stories about how the local Kurds changed their minds in favor of restoring the Armenian heritage, realizing how important it is for Van to open up to the world. “Before, those Kurds out there would refuse to talk to you if you had mentioned these issues,” he said. “Now they are all for it.”

He visited Yerevan, some months ago, with a big delegation from Van. He says after the visit he became fiercely involved in “getting the cross installed on top.” He even paid for a builder from Armenia to do it, but there were problems with the “paperwork.” He complains that the authorities were not as eager as him.

We visit the governor as a tiny group of journalists. A soft-spoken man, he does not hide his opinion that the opening of the Armenian border is vital and urgent. What happened with the cross, then? Everything went smoothly with the restoration, and at a later stage, even with producing a cross, which was done under the supervision of the patriarchate in İstanbul, and sent to his office. But, at the last minute it was discovered that the restoration project, which involved an assortment of state, church, academia and institutions, local and abroad, did not include the part with the cross. It was not considered, nor mentioned. So, says the governor, when the building was restored, the construction was not strong enough to support the cross, which was no longer than 1.5 meters long and no heavier than some 50 kilos.

So, it lies there, at the building, unable to be unified with it. Not at the moment. It prevented some visitors from joining the ceremony -- the symbolism of the cross was strong enough for some of them to create pretexts not to do so, for some others a continuing suspicion prevailed about the genuine intentions of Ankara.

Meanwhile, thousands attended the moving ceremony, under unusually blue and beautiful skies, full of promises of a future of peace and reconciliation, and they did not seem to mind that not everything was in place. It was the notion of moving ahead, albeit with small steps, that mattered to them.

The poverty of opposition -- and the media

The result of the referendum was not only a victory for those who voted “yes” to democratization or for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership, but also for an elderly gentleman whose name has strongly been linked with an endless pursuit for European-style social democracy in Turkey.
Tarhan Erdem, a gray-haired, soft-spoken analyst and pollster, is the owner of the renowned institution called KONDA. Erdem is a regular columnist at the Radikal daily, which is affiliated with the Doğan Media Group.
The newspaper often cooperated with KONDA, publishing its nationwide surveys on politics and other issues. It even included election predictions in past years. Because of its good reputation, KONDA’s findings have always drawn widespread attention, and had an impact on the debate.

However, the last survey, which preceded the referendum, became the subject of a scandal. Despite information that spread to various news outlets that the analysis would be published in Radikal three days before Sunday’s vote, it was fully censored (possibly by the management). Observers had access to the survey thanks to KONDA’s website, and rival Taraf published it a day later. In a nutshell, the survey predicted “yes” votes would win and come in at 56.8 percent.

This was yet another example of “freedom of the press” by one of its so-called “promoters” (Doğan Media). Indeed, just as the post-referendum days have also proven, the major loser of the vote was probably the “mainstream” media, which again failed to understand and analyze society, its trends and its pulse -- all in the hope of manipulating the “wind of change” against the AKP. It has once more become obvious that the media, resisting the push for democratization, is tumbling down into professional misery. Large segments of it, harshly under the control of owners hostile to the government, are visible as stumbling blocks against rather than channels for normalization.

These days the same media continue to be uncritical of the “new” Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition guided by Kemalism, and have become instrumental in vocalizing the excuses and pretexts for what went wrong. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the party’s leader, seems to have decided to act like a teflon politician, expressing satisfaction over the result, and declaring the defeat a success. His supporters in opinion columns refrain from asking for accountability, and the pattern is again the same as with the defeats of the past decade: proceeding with minimal self-criticism, with the same “reactionary” policies that are based on a harsh rhetoric of accusations.

What went wrong with the opposition? The naked truth tells a simple story: The CHP has declared its ideological poverty, and a high degree of political myopia. The failure became most visible in its choice of refusing to cooperate in the preparation of the reform package (in terms of helping with adjustments, etc.) as well as abstaining from all parliamentary voting on the amendment package; and, finally, foolishly turning the referendum into a vote of confidence for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party. This had its own traps.

Kılıçdaroğlu copy-pasted Bülent Ecevit’s persona of the 1970s, “touching” the people, but failing to convince them with his messages on the economy and, to a larger degree, why the republic was under siege by huge threats. At the end of the day, the CHP looked the same as under Deniz Baykal: a party in the chains of a dogmatic Kemalism, unable to be creative, other than in campaigning for “say no to Erdoğan!” The masses, and in particular the target group of the “oppressed and the poor,” did not buy it.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was simply erratic from the very beginning. Sticking obstinately to a “no” vote, its leader, Devlet Bahçeli, simply managed to alienate devoted voters deep in Anatolia, voters whose memories of the brutal military coup are still fresh.

The result is a huge disappointment for the opposition. Thanks to the robotic, reflexive, “no-substance” type politics, the opposition is now responsible for helping Erdoğan test his popularity, and his party’s declared direction for reform.

Two-thirds of the voters are for democratic change. A detailed analysis of even many of the coastline provinces in west and south of the country tell us that there is only a slight gap between the “yes” and “no” votes. This may point to a delicate balance of opinion, rather than division, on the transformation. The well-being of the economy helps increase the endorsement of reform even there.

Arguably, there is no point in dwelling too much on “what about the 42 percent who said no?” question. Enough will do, and the answer should be sought in this: Yes, there are fears, suspicion and hostility towards the AKP and its leader, but these sentiments and perceptions will never be managed well unless they are channeled rationally through radically revised policies within the CHP.

The crucial question, then, is whether the party will “wake up to the reality of Turkey 2010,” read the social change without the filters of Kemalism, open itself up to the social democratic values of Europe, revive the connections with the academia and youth, distance itself from militarism, stop denying the rights of ethnicity and belief and meet the people with an agenda which will be aimed at challenging the AKP on the content, speed and volume of democratization and prosperity. This is the only way to avoid the trap of spreading the lie that “Turkey is moving into darkness.” The CHP was responsible for the wrongs of yesterday, as it is for the wrongs of today and tomorrow. Turkey needs a smart and modern opposition.

After a ‘yes’ win, political storm will gather, slowly

As the newspaper goes to print, the data flowing in from various corners of Turkey was vaguely projecting a win in the referendum, tipping a victory on the “yes” vote for the reform package.
First, it must be noted that Turkey did not experience a threatening incident, or provocation, which could have jeopardized the turnout and security of the polls. Reports from here and there were calming. This reassures us that Turkey has passed another test of “democratic maturity,” bringing society a bit closer to social stability and tolerance.

There is reason to be cautious about the outcome since the vote count primarily showed a strong presence of “yes” votes in the eastern and southeastern provinces. As I wrote my notes it looked as if, with “no” votes in the western parts somewhat balancing the overwhelming “yes” in the east, the final outcome would be around 55 percent “yes” (give or take). This prediction was based on the absence of a comprehensive vote count in İstanbul.

It should be taken as normal if the voters surprise us once more. The previous referendums showed us that the people tend to push for change, rather than act conservatively to consolidate the existing system. For years, studies and deep analysis also showed that citizens in general have had problems with various segments of the state bureaucracy and the mentality it represents. It is known that the judiciary has constantly lost credibility, as the military has recently. The demands for “normalization” have the essence of the desire of the people to be treated as real stakeholders and equals. Even the seemingly strong campaign of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to boycott the referendum, should be seen as a statement in that direction.

The stronger the yes, the more powerful its consequences will be. If the percentage is closer to 60 percent, a turmoil should be expected within the opposition, particularly in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but also in the Republican People’s Party (CHP). While the supporters of the MHP will ask “why did we so fiercely support a no?,” the new leadership of the CHP will possibly be confronted with the inquiry on “what went wrong with our campaign?.”

The debate expected there will expose the misreading of social currents and the inability to develop credible political programs.

This will mark the third big defeat for the adversaries of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). First, the old style opposition had to leave the stage, humiliated, in 2002. Second, the remnants of the so-called center-right – the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) -- had to disappear in 2007, due to miscalculations that the military would “teach a severe lesson” to the AK Party. This seems to be the third blow, and it will either minimize the size of the opposition to varying degrees, or force them to change internally.

It is harder to predict how the outcome will effect the Kurdish politics. Because it not only depends on the Kurdish dynamics themselves, but also how the ruling AK Part will interpret the result of the referendum and whether it will reassert a decisive reform policy on the demands of Kurds.

Finally, this must be said: the referendum was a test as a vote of confidence for the AK Party, and a dress rehearsal for the upcoming presidential elections (due in 2012). Erdoğan was aware of this and wanted to have the test; he has had his self-esteem reassured. It will be up to him to carry Turkey further and it will be even more exciting whether he expands his democratic agenda – or narrows it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kurdish boycott’ a fading option

With the referendum approaching, a review of public and not-so-public opinion polls present the following view: “Yes” votes seem to be stabilizing at around 55 percent, and “no” votes and undecided votes (which may be dominated by intimidation or political pressure) at 45 percent. Several serious pollsters I have constantly been in touch with agree that “yes” votes are on the slow increase.
We have rough ideas of where party support stands. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), more than three pollsters say, is now above 42 percent, which is explained by the so-called “Supreme Military Council [YAŞ] crisis” -- on the choices and appointments of the top echelons of the military command. It is rather obvious that the public perceives the “crisis” as a political “derivative” of what happened on April 27, 2007, when the top command issued an extremely threatening e-memorandum against the government.

All pollsters point out that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is descending from about 30 percent to slightly above 20-23 percent. The surveys say that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s performance during the referendum campaign has created some disappointment, mainly due to harsh, combative, out-of-context rhetoric, perceived as a “bad copy” of Baykal’s style. One may predict that a possible defeat of the “no” side will mean trouble for the new CHP leadership, which could have chosen a softer style, leaving its voters more flexible and free. An obstinate “no” campaign now seems to be a huge gamble for the Kılıçdaroğlu line and might diminish the chances of preparing the CHP for the next national elections as a credible, hopeful, intelligent and reformed party.

The divisive effects of the referendum are also to be seen within the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which carried out a staunch “no” campaign from the very beginning. But the feedback it received has, it seems, been that of confusion and objection. A reliable source recently told me that the last meeting of the party’s executives turned into a session of harsh criticism of what is seen as the “obsessive line” of MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. The growing vocal discontent there is based on surveys that say around a quarter of the MHP grass roots might defy the party line and vote “yes.”

Some party officials see danger ahead if the “yes” votes win, as the MHP will sink into a destructive vortex. Prominent figures feel uneasy that, by sticking to a categorical “no,” the party, which has performed relatively well in terms of protecting parliamentary democracy in recent years, now risks being perceived as an anti-democratic one -- the more the AK Party drives the reform line and the more lasting the PKK cease-fire is.

The PKK and its elected political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), are also being forced to seriously reconsider their stance. The PKK’s declared cease-fire, however fragile it may be, has two basic causes. First, the resolution of the YAŞ meeting in favor of the ruling AK Party has shown that civilians are slowly, but surely, taking control over the “autonomous” military, and this does not escape the attention of the common Turk or, more importantly, the Kurds.

Abdullah Öcalan and PKK commanders as well as the BDP have come to realize that, if the Kurdish initiative is to continue, it will have to be with the government and no longer the “state within.”

Second, the very nature of the reform package, and in particular its symbolic way of dealing with the ill spirit of the military coup, has led to a division among Kurds. And when this state of mind was confronted with the mine explosion incident in Batman (where four known Kurds died) and Dörtyol (where complex relations between the PKK and the deep state elements were exposed), a new civilian Kurdish dynamic emerged, forcing the PKK/BDP line to declare a cease-fire and phase out the rhetoric on calling for a boycott.

At this juncture, how the Kurds will act (without forgetting the traps of the fragile cease-fire, certainly) will define the future path of reform and normalization. My Kurdish sources, both hawks and doves, agree that this cease-fire is the “most serious one” after the one in 1993 that was initiated by the late President Turgut Özal. They agree that both sides are now extremely tired of fighting, and this may revive the “initiative.”

At the moment, the question is no longer whether the Kurds will boycott the Sept. 12 referendum. Rather, it is how high their turnout and how strong the “yes” vote will be. Polls (some unpublished) say over 75 percent of Kurds in Diyarbakır have declared that they will -- if necessary -- defy the boycott (this was before Öcalan said that the boycott was not a necessity).

In this sense, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stands once more before a great opportunity to strike a “bond of fraternity” with Turkey’s Kurds. He will visit Diyarbakır on Sept. 3 as well as other predominantly Kurdish cities around the same time. What he says, and does, will have a tremendous effect on the outcome of the vote as well as the pace and content of the reform process. There is no doubt that winning the hearts of Kurds will mean winning the battle for democracy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Erratic behavior is a loser

Who is the winner of the extended standoff between the government and the military over appointments to the top echelons of the army? After a deeply suspenseful week, it must be said, with slight caution, that a minor but significant tectonic shift occurred in the ever-so-sensitive relations between those elected and those appointed.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to have entered the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) with the same sense that has dominated his general approach to the commanders in the past year: mistrust. The reason for his mood was obvious; persistent reporting by the press -- fed by leaks from within the high command -- since the last national elections has shown that the high command acted in secrecy, often refusing to address the public at all in direct and honest institutional responses, or, at best, taking side routes to clarify questions that arose as a result of the revelations.
More importantly, all attempts to build trust were destroyed by allegations that some parts of the “headquarters” were until very recently engaged in clandestine political activity to weaken the ruling party and the work of its government. The clouds of suspicion never dispersed before Erdoğan’s eyes about obstacles to establishing normal relations.

The mistrust has led to different behavior than before: He took part in the YAŞ meetings with the determination that it was time to use powers granted to the civilian government to assert its will on choosing the commanders it wants to work with. These powers more often than not had remained on paper, but were never fully applied by the civilian predecessors. In this sense, it was a groundbreaking act.

For the military, always keen on its privileges and its self-declared “record” of interfering in political affairs, it was yet another frontline battle to keep the institution as it had been: autonomous, closed to civilian scrutiny, largely secretive and strictly defensive about its “homemade” appointment designs deep into the future. Yet, the predominant mood among the top generals could not be described as self-assured; some of them were self-conscious about the state of the institution as harmed and questioned in the eyes of the public. The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to implement the tough rhetoric as well as the means to “keep the civilians away.”

As a colleague recently put it in his analysis, the confrontation in the tense YAŞ meetings, day after day, showed that a shaken and stirred top military had repeated the erratic behavior that caused it great harm in the form of an e-memo on April 27, 2007.

This time, again, obviously ill-advised, top commander İlker Başbuğ chose the flawed path of attempting to create a deadlock by insisting on appointing Gen. Hasan Iğsız as land forces commander, defying Erdoğan’s will. The will, Başbuğ refused to acknowledge, was based on a constitutional right given to the prime minister. Complicating things even further, a replacement considered a midway solution ended badly when Gen. Atilla Işık suddenly declared his early retirement. Was this act the result of the top command “persuading Işık” to destroy Erdoğan’s “game plan”? Persistent allegations say it is, but we cannot be certain.

Was the “resistance” of the generals mainly driven by Başbuğ’s personal concern that he might be implicated in the ongoing trials -- for example, the one about the extrajudicial killing of Kurds in the early ‘90s under his command -- when he retires at the end of August? Even if this were the case, it still exposes the flawed nature of the collective act, as much as it did when the entire corps of officers -- 101 of them -- “disappeared” in order not to be interrogated by civilian law enforcement in the ongoing Sledgehammer case.

From whichever angle one approaches it, this was a staged act bordering on absurdity, displaying an institution in despair. In other words, the “crisis” was not actually about the confrontation between the government and the army, but the top echelons of the army itself.

The end result has been an encouraging one. Despite tensions, Turkey’s fragile system passed yet another test of durability, as it became clear that the elected can -- and hopefully will -- prove that it is the power of the vote that defines who will decide on the appointments in the bureaucracy and -- again, hopefully -- restore harmony within the state, and not vice versa. Furthermore, what took place has also become a lesson for the militarist segments of the press, which now realize that the days of myth-building around the military are nearing their end.

There remains only one blurred point, and this is whether the generals have come to the realization that their institution truly needs reform and adaptation to the realities of the world today.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The dubious case of Col. Çiçek

Well, we all know Turkey is a puzzle. But, if it is translated correctly, I think the “reading” by American Ambassador James Jeffrey of the spectacular trials on conspiracies and threats (under the symbolic umbrella called Ergenekon) against a fragile democracy is correct.
In an interview with the Hürriyet daily Jeffrey expresses confidence in general and says: “On one hand, there is evidence which make people think that [Ergenekon] is not a fantasy, and which causes legitimate concern. On the other, the release of a lot of people gives trust in the rule of law, and that the rights of innocent people and even potential criminals are also under protection. There is also increasing evidence which signals that some fire exists beyond the smoke. This is a complicated case. But at the same time there is a common understanding that the tenets of Turkey’s political system will not be shattered by this, and that the country is overcoming these complicated issues through maturity.”

Yet, as the old adage goes, “The intrigue of the Ottoman is endless.” Therefore, the suggestion that the focus should be on the Ergenekon type cases and in particular the curious case of Col. Dursun Çiçek is timely and proper. Recent developments seem puzzling but indicative of the major game now being staged.

Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ is in a sour mood these days. It would be unfair if we merely blamed the escalating campaign of violence by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for his mood. He and the entire top brass are more concerned than before as the critical August meeting, during which institutional appointments are made, approaches. Başbuğ was consistent in complaints that he had to be “kept busy” because of accusations, claims, investigations and trials “my officers” were subjected to. He mentioned that some 30-40 mid and high-ranking officers on duty were indicted in various cases and, although some of them were released or cleared, the institution’s profile was clearly harmed.

The problem ahead is whether or not Article 65 of the Law on TSK Staff will be implemented, and, if so, to what extent. The article makes it clear that if an officer is the subject of a trial, s/he cannot be promoted. When you have so many officers “from colonel upwards” allegedly involved in “organized crime” under a political disguise, there is indeed enough reason to be sour.

In this context, the case of Col. Çiçek comes to the fore. In what seems to be a hasty act, the office of military prosecutors made it clear, through a surprising indictment, that Çiçek is the sole person responsible for the document called the “chaos plan” to weaken the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement through social unrest and violence -- and he should be sentenced to six years in prison for “dereliction of duty.” With the indictment, prepared upon the instructions of the top commander, military prosecutors admit the document and Çiçek’s signature are genuine. But, they allege, the text was written without the knowledge of any superior and with the intention of revenge (for not being promoted).

But the surprise is elsewhere: The indictment says, since it is a “personal note” of some kind, it cannot be treated as “coup plan”; and all officers and top bureaucratic figures (such as prosecutor İlhan Cihaner) now on trial in civilian courts for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and the government” are “victims” of Çiçek’s “solo act.” The evidence presented to the civilian court lists the names of officers in rank and order as “the ones under whose knowledge the plan has been written.” They include the current commander of the 1st Army and six other top ranking unit commanders within the high command.

At first glimpse, it may look as if Col. Çiçek has been chosen as a “scapegoat,” to be sacrificed for the sake of saving the others and for not “rocking the boat” too much at the critical August meeting of the army.

It may be a deceiving sight. Çiçek has not protested, and his children display a deep caution not to “talk straight.” And once you start questioning “How come there is no attempt to link and ensure cooperation between the two dossiers on the same allegation of ‘crime’?” the picture becomes clear.

The military indictment, limited by its “disciplinary crime” part, boldly enters the territory of civilian courts and, in an apparent attempt to narrow down its jurisdiction, it allows itself the freedom of interpreting the “chaos” document as a “personal note,” and declares on a very dubious ground (by sheer deduction rather than evidence) the other “suspects” as Çiçek’s chosen victims.

What we can most probably expect from now on is chaos between the two courts. Çiçek might be hopeful in ensuring a swift trial in the military court and its appeals, and even if he is sentenced for “abuse of power” for six years, he will in practice be free. Meanwhile, both Çiçek and the other “suspects” can now also be given a free hand to apply to civilian courts, saying that its indictment is baseless and should be dropped. In this way, both the “scapegoat” and “victims” may find a “way out.”

Therefore, the dubious case of Col. Çiçek needs thorough attention and pure, legal analysis because it gives the strong impression of being an “efficient tool” for the sworn enemies of democracy in the struggle of civilian control over the military on one side and the rule of law on the other.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A disputable, but smart move

After deliberations which lasted almost 10 hours, Turkey’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday signed, sealed and delivered another historic decision which, although in part disputable, shines with its caution to not cause severe damage for the fragile democracy.
The reform package, as prepared by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), had become a subject for appeal to the top court by the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which had two-part demand: rejection of the entire package (and the referendum) on grounds of procedural “wrongdoing,” or the rejection of seven articles which specifically had to do with the reform of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and the Constitutional Court itself.

The verdict came as a surprise.

First, the top court disagreed -- in a unanimous vote -- with the CHP and rejected its demand on procedural wrongdoing, finding that holding the referendum was appropriate.

Second, in a majority vote, the court entered deliberations on the portion of the changes on reforming the bodies of the high judiciary (HSYK and Constitutional Court) on the “essence” of the changes. As a result, the wording in some articles about selecting justices for those bodies was changed, instead of rejecting them altogether. This means that the top court, despite claims that it violated the very Constitution (Article 148) it serves under, for the third time is behaving like a legislative body -- taking upon the duty that is given to Parliament -- and interfering with the “content” of a major constitutional amendment. Previously, it had seen itself as entitled to do so -- to protests by prominent experts and the Venice Commission -- by arguing that it is highly proper to judge amendments to the first four unchangeable articles of the Constitution: It happened when it found that a three-fifths quorum was necessary to convene Parliament for discussing and voting on constitutional changes and when it delivered its verdict on the closure case against the AKP.

Needless to say, this goes against the unchangeable tenets of democracy, where the roles of the three powers are separate and well defined. The top court acted again, to use a metaphor, as a driving course teacher, pulling brakes and grabbing the steering wheel, treating Parliament like a person without a license and reaffirming the tutelary regime.

That said, the question is: What about the current verdict? It is apparent that the top court, under strain, chose a “third path” which made no side entirely happy. The referendum will be held, but adjustments were designed by the court. It can be said that the package went through the appeals process with minimal damage. That the leadership of the AKP was very cautious in its reaction to the verdict means that it sees clearly that the reformist nature of the package is still intact. There is reason to agree: Seen as a whole, a “yes” to the referendum will bring Turkey several steps closer to a full-fledged democracy, help speed up further reform processes and make it more difficult to stage a return to the paradigms of “old Turkey” (unless by way of a coup d’état).

If the AKP is discontented with the repeated role of the top court in acting like a legislative body, the disappointment both by the CHP and representatives of the conservative high judiciary was much more vocal. CHP leaders did not think the verdict met their expectations (based on at least a partial rejection of the package) at all. Voices from the HSYK and the Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV) were clearly bitter, with some declaring that the “battle is not over.”

Unless it changes its course radically, the AKP seems to think it can live with the way the package will go to the people’s vote. That it emerged from the top court’s scrutiny with slight bruises may mean that the AKP may postpone its intention to go to early elections in the autumn.

This will have to do with the awkward position Wednesday’s verdict puts the CHP in. Earlier, the top figures of the main opposition had declared that they would vote yes for the package if the disputed articles were rejected. How should they act now, given that the high court did not fully deliver what they had asked for? If the CHP decides to say “no” to the referendum, the AKP may emerge victorious with the claim that the entire “yes” segment belongs to it. Additionally, the CHP may look even more undemocratic than before, raising the speculation that nothing has changed in its post-Baykal period -- and perhaps nothing will.

The same dilemma will also apply to powerful organizations like the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions (DİSK), the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) and some segments of academia, which had been critical of points in the package.

Now that they have been partially revised, what will these players do? Interesting, indeed.

It seems that the Constitutional Court refused to be part of further polarization, and with that it shuffled the civic responsibility over to political, social and economic actors. Politics in Turkey always have mysterious ways.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Trench politics

The biggest story in yesterday’s Turkish newspapers seemed to be the “format” of the visit Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) new leader, paid to army trenches in the southeastern corner of the country. Did he stand up tall, or kneel down? Did he look determined to finish off the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or not? How was he treated by the commanders and soldiers?
And so on and so forth.
Some papers published two photos together; one taken directly after the attack at the border post -- with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kneeling together with the top commanders -- and a standing Kılıçdaroğlu, almost hidden behind a high wall of sandbags.

The CHP leader’s visit had other types of symbolism, again noticed and exposed by the same papers: He was invited by Gen. İlker Başbuğ, the chief of General Staff, to visit the trenches, but later -- to his expressed surprise -- he was on the journey assisted by the Land Forces commander, Gen. Işık Koşaner, and the commander of the 2nd Army, Gen. Necdet Özel. Now, this was a sort of military troika: The current top commander asks his successor and his successor’s successor as chief of General Staff in the coming four years or so to accompany a fresh political alternative. Should we pay attention to that? Naturally (we all know where most of the officer corps’ sympathies lie), but not too much.

The forest of symbolism somewhat blinded an important aspect (perhaps another symbolism) of Kılıçdaroğlu’s instant visit. He chose to be flown to the military side of the conflict rather than meeting the people, the natives, the Kurds, with whom he has many things in common. He did pay a visit to a village, but the one chosen was known for its armed fight with the PKK. One can only imagine how a common Kurd would react to such a format and choice of symbols. Kurds are good at that.

Meanwhile, I was attending a meeting in İstanbul which brought together some creme de la creme members of Italian and Turkish businesses, joined by a large group of European colleagues. There, I bumped into Gülsüm Bilgehan, a highly respected and dignified figure of the “new CHP” under Kılıçdaroğlu. Now at the top layers of the party, she truly signaled hope and change in the attitudes of the main opposition, in particular those towards accession negotiations to the EU. Responding to chief EU negotiator Egemen Bağış, she underlined the common points of her party’s EU strategy with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than its differences. When she concluded her intervention with the point that “we all want the membership because of our children and grandchildren in a world of peace and prosperity,” a wave of applause filled the room.

Now, this was a clear deviation from the line drawn by Baykal devotees like Onur Öymen, who, if he were present, would easily turn an event like this into a sour shouting match.

At the moment, the CHP is -- as we have seen from these two examples -- raising more questions than presenting answers. Clearly the party is much keener than its previous leadership to convey to the foreign observers a political line formed by hope rather than bitterness and obstinacy, but when it comes to the crucial details of a holistic vision and strategy in the major issues, it seems adrift. Much of it has to do with the slow motion tectonic shifts taking place at the moment on the top level. Kılıçdaroğlu is still uncertain of how much room to maneuver he has, in the thick and complicated structures remaining after Baykal.

The recent example of stepping back and forth came when he declared -- albeit in very vague terms -- that he would solve the headscarf issue. The same day he backpedalled, saying he did not say anything about the headscarf in universities, and that there were court decisions about it. He showed that he would be too keen on not scaring some solid parts of the party and the staunchly conservative-secular segments of the electorate.

It was like sticking one’s head up and then ducking again in the trenches. It is even more unclear where the CHP will stand on the Kurdish issue. The visit to the “Kurdish frontier,” taking photos with the soldiers and neglecting to meet the dismayed residents, may at the moment look like a safe choice. After all, what the CHP is waiting for, more than any other actor in politics, is to see what the top court will have to say about a constitutional reform package it objected to.

That its attitude goes against the expectations of the considerable part of the EU does not seem to concern Kılıçdaroğlu (who could discontinue the Baykal line and rescind the petition filed with the Constitutional Court), who hopes that an annulment -- in whole or in part -- of the package will open the doors wide open for his party to rise as an alternative from the autumn on. Until then, it is safer hiding behind the sandbags, avoiding any “real” visibility on issues such as the Kurdish problem or the one concerning the headscarf.


The reports on the military units firing at and killing two shepherds -- apparently collecting thyme -- whom they suspected to be Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, in the highlands of Hatay, came as yet more salt rubbed into the huge wound inflicted by terror.
The event followed an apparent disagreement between the government and the top command on allowing freedom of movement on the plateaus and roads that lead to them. Immediate suspicion was raised in yesterday’s columns on whether the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) was putting stumbling blocks before the delicate process of solution.
The incident in Hatay, as well as many others before it, such as the PKK attacks in Reşadiye and Tokat and the recent ones in Hakkari and Elazığ, need thorough civilian examination. That the Interior Ministry launched an inquiry on Hatay (at the inspector level) is definitely not enough; Parliament must be much more vigorous on moving in and subjecting these bloody events to commission-level inquiry. This should happen even if the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputies drag their feet. On the issue, the government looks like someone running from house to house, extinguishing fires as they pop up. Since the priority is silencing the guns and bombs, the question is where the cooperation and agreement between the army and the civilian executive branch is at the moment. And another question linked to this one is whether the drug-smuggling lobby (and its alleged ties within the security apparatus) is part of those who do not want to see an end to the bloody conflict. A report published by daily Radikal on Monday tells us about an increase in heroin trafficking, which has more than doubled in the past three years, from Afghanistan through Iran and provinces like Hakkari, Van and Ağrı.

But there is much more than this, and it is hard to predict what the government’s moves to extinguish the fire will be. The recent call to duty of NATO in the fight against the PKK (in Iraqi Kurdistan) by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may not be a very good idea at all, particularly because the US wants to end the military presence in that country, and the objection of Baghdad -- as well as NATO itself -- is a given. The only option for NATO interference would be if Iran (for example) had started an invasion -- and nothing else.

The government is also considering limiting the access of lawyers to jailed Abdullah Öcalan on the island of Imralı, in order to stop him from sending instructions and “political orders” to his movement. This may, too, backfire. A wiser move would be to allow access as before but intervene whenever the conversation shifts from legal and private matters to open political messages. The authorities should have a right to intervene if those “orders” are in favor of violence, and it should even be possible to prosecute the lawyers who act as carriers of them.

The unease with the violence in the mainly Kurdish provinces is actually mixed with feelings of disappointment and resolve (in traditional Kurdish demands for cultural recognition and administrative reform). The communiqué signed and declared by some 100 NGOs and professional organizations in Diyarbakır over the weekend was changed at the last minute into a double call to Ankara and the PKK to simultaneously declare a cease-fire. This means, very clearly, that the domination of the PKK is a remaining fact in the discourse and that it should be seen as a serious factor for Ankara. Blaming the common Kurds and foreign powers is an old habit and will not work. There is reason, once more, to reaffirm the unchangeable equation in which the chicken and egg puzzle is solved: Without a proper, bold constitutional and administrative reform, it will be very difficult to solve the Kurdish issue. Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), reiterated in an interview yesterday that if the government changes the constitutional articles which define Turkish as the “official language,” lifts the ban (Article 42) on education in the mother tongue and conducts administrative reforms (to establish a more autonomous provincial system) then “90 percent of the Kurdish problem will be solved.” Time and strategy have proven it will not be that easy for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). What the past 10 months of process has shown is that “the de-facto alliance of the powerful elements within the judiciary and the military,” sworn to pacify this government into total immobility, has been instrumental in moving the conflict ahead. The screws are being tightened around the constitutional reform package, which may at best be watered down by the top court, and the escalation of violence between the PKK and the army strengthens the latter’s position vis-a-vis the government, which have had (fading) hopes of appointing democratic, reform-friendly generals in top posts at the critical meeting in August.

The fight is for the speed of the democratization, and the intensity will remain high.

Dalaras is in ‘Poli’ -- at last!

“At last,” was one of his first remarks to a wild, cheering crowd at İstanbul’s traditional summer concert venue on a pleasant Saturday evening. George Dalaras, or simply Yorgos, as we all know and call him, was surprised and moved when he finally faced his devout followers and admirers.
One could say “everybody” was there: prominent Turkish musicians; young fans; members of high society; intellectuals; Kurdish dissidents; diplomats; politicians such as Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator; and Turks from Greece’s Western Thrace region.
The concert ended years of vicious campaigning against this wonderful singer, the “golden voice of sorrow and hope” in this part of the world -- certainly a musician of the highest caliber, of world class, placed among Sting, Caetano Veloso, Pino Daniele, Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour.

His hope was to play in Turkey, where, like many Greeks, he has his roots. His grandparents came from the vicinity of İzmir -- then Smyrna -- and the roots of his music are certainly inseparable from the Aegean folk tradition.

Deeply engaged in politics, and highly suspicious of Turkey’s painful struggle to shake off its military tutelage, Dalaras previously struggled with the dilemma of appearing here, whereas many of his colleagues, including Haris Alexiou, Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Vassilis Saleas, Savina Yannatou, Mikis Theodorakis, etc., visited Turkey’s venues, to great welcome. He chose to stay away, even when joint “friendship projects” between renowned Greek and Turkish musicians developed.

Not long ago, his mood changed. It was the post “earthquake policy” era, when Greece came closer to Turkey, which became more visible with its struggle for change and reform. But, when he felt ready, Turkish nationalists blocked it. Let us read what Wikipedia tells us about the sad incident three years ago:

“Dalaras had been scheduled to perform a concert on the closing night of the second International Orthodox Youth Conference held in İstanbul from July 11 to 15, 2007. The event, organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, had drawn the ire of the Turkish press and Turkish nationalist politicians who filed complaints to the İstanbul Governor’s Office to revoke the license for the concert it had issued, and the concert was abruptly cancelled by the Turkish authorities of the İstanbul Governor’s Office on the grounds that the country’s Archaeological Service did not permit the use of the planned venue, the 15th-century Rumeli Hisarı castle. The site had previously been used for international theater festivals and for an international dance festival, until its use was prohibited by the Archaeological Service. The last-minute cancellation of the concert attracted strong media coverage and criticism in neighboring Greece.”

The campaign to block his appearance was led by an ultranationalist and influential opinion writer who was with the Hürriyet daily at the time, and it was primarily Dalaras himself who felt disappointed, as well as his fans. The cancellation was indeed a scandal.

Those times are now over. When I met him after almost three hours of music, performed in its perfection with a 15-man band, his relief and joy were visible. As he watched the Golden Horn from the restaurant we were in, he agreed with me that it was indeed a “new beginning.” We talked at length about politics and the ordeal Turkey has been going through and agreed to be hopeful about the future. I was struck by his profound reading and analysis of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and where Turkey is actually heading. I conveyed to him my expectations about what artists like him can do to change the mindset of Greeks about Turks from negative to positive.

How Dalaras feels and acts about Turkey counts. He is a national hero, a cultural landmark, a symbol of freedom, pride and celebration. My sense of hope of seeing him here, at last, in Turkey stemmed from the fact that an artist of enormous popularity like him can move mountains, in order to set his people into the correct mood. Today, many Greeks are fearful of Turkey and of Turks. They perceive their eastern neighbor as a threat and dread the possibility of seeing their islands in the Aegean Sea invaded. Many Greek politicians -- excluding George Papandreou -- thrive on that fear; the Greek media feed those sentiments constantly.

The more Dalaras notices that these fears are unfounded, that today’s Turks are overwhelmingly globalist, that they share the same values on democracy and freedom, his domestic message and his choices of going further with artistic projects with Turkish musicians, the easier it will be to change his countrymen’s perceptions and concerns.

He knows the value of living in a democracy. He strikes a chord with his Turkish and Kurdish colleagues, who like him had to go through censorship and suppression to sing freely. On a magic Saturday night, when this fantastic musician shared some of his vast repertoire (coming from 70 or so records that mark his career), with enormous concentration and devotion, his personal history connected with that of his father (Loukas Daralas, a rembetiko musician) and his ancestors. It was a closure for him as many Turks, some with tears in their eyes, felt, again, how much Turkey lost when it lost its Greeks and other ethnicities in the last century due to the foolish, inhumane policies of many of its politicians.