Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Turkey stretches a hand to Greece

Greece’s unending anger over the economic crisis was visible again in what took place during May 1 demonstrations that turned into destructive urban warfare. It has shown what sort of risks the crisis creates within and how contagious it would be if it were to spill over to the other side of the Mediterranean – to Italy and Spain.

Catastrophes have marked, paradoxically, windows of opportunity for Turkey and Greece. When the entire bay area between İstanbul and İzmit was severely hit by the earthquake in 1999, killing more than 30,000 people, the pain and misery had a wake-up effect in Greece, and the deep empathy of the Greeks led to what was later called “earthquake diplomacy” between Athens and Ankara. It helped ease the enormous tension that had developed because of Greek involvement in helping fugitive Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), months before the natural disaster. The diplomacy was even more successful on the level of track II diplomacy and led to a new spirit in civil society activities.

As Greece falls deeper into the abyss of economic crisis, the rapidly developing sense in Ankara is comparable to the compassion (not pity) of 11 years ago. It can be said that, again paradoxically, the current crisis presents a window of opportunity to deal with the chronic problems between the two countries.

The window of opportunity this time is based on the parameter of “common destiny,” which Turkish diplomatic circles are keen to draw attention to. Therefore, the announced visit to Athens in two weeks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has raised many expectations and is viewed with a great deal of anticipation. The importance given the visit is visible in its format.

The head of the Turkish government will be accompanied by 10 key ministers (economy, energy, transportation, tourism, interior affairs, education, etc.), and there will be a joint cabinet meeting in the Greek capital. This is extraordinary and may come to point to the beginning of a new era, if managed boldly and intelligently.

The mindset shaping Ankara’s foreign policy is also based on the observation that in today’s world seemingly tiny local conflicts and crises have a tendency to develop first into national, then regional and then global problems. A reminder is how a small conflict in Georgia which began with Ossetia and Abkhazia developed into a conflict between Russia, the US and NATO.

The crisis in Greece could be seen in the same manner, Ankara argues, and therein comes the argument that in such phases, in order to prevent them, a sense of common destiny must be seen as the guiding light.

Certainly the focus will be on economic cooperation to lower the effects of the huge burden on Greece. The composition of the ministers who will be visiting Athens was mainly decided upon the advice of Athens. It all looks fine, except one urgent and important aspect.

One way to rapidly help ease tensions for Greece would be to discuss a sort of lengthy moratorium on the problematic and costly military flights over the Aegean. As much as it would help Athens, it would also help Ankara. “If we did not have the armed conflict in eastern Turkey and had a common consensus in the West with Greece on defense cuts, we would have a brand new military concept in Turkey,” goes the argument in government circles.

In that sense, even a unilateral decision to cease military flights seems to have the chance of finding a positive response from the other. Therefore, it seems more logical that Athens and Ankara will agree to add defense ministers in the context of the visit or that Erdoğan and his counterpart, George Papandreou, will give priority to minimizing rifts linked to military exercises.

Overall, there are grounds for Turkey to assist Greece out of the mess. But it should be done without waking up the old fears and prejudices rooted in the highly problematic, nationalistic and provocative Greek press.

If the Turks are interested in being helpful, it is neither due to pity nor neo-imperial domination, and therefore it should be the duty of Greek journalists to understand and make clear to the Greek public that catastrophes today may bring the societies together and help them realize that peace is possible only when one is able to tear down mental borders. Greece’s burden will not vanish in one day, but it is made much easier through neighborly cooperation.

Continuing to be skeptical to such prospects paves the way to all sorts of radicalization and, in the long run, the threat of political instability for the entire region.

Sept. 12, May 1 and the CHP

“Dear deputies, let us share the honor of getting rid of the black stain on Turkey’s law and Constitution. Let us be realistic: We will either be able to put some 90-or-so-year-old ex-generals before the courts or leave their fate to divine justice. But we are doing something: Turkey’s elected legislative body today, for the first time, says, ‘Yes, coup perpetrators can be subjected to trial and interrogated’.”
As Ertuğrul Günay, a Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy and the current minister of culture and tourism, spoke in Parliament, addressing in particular his former “comrades” in the Republican People’s Party (CHP), what they did was not nod, not say “aye,” let alone applaud him. Instead, they rotated their seats, turning their backs to him.
It was, doubtlessly, one of the most remarkable, most symbolic acts noted in the recent history of the Turkish Parliament. On one side is the ruling party, placed in the conservative right and often seen with a great deal of suspicion for its “hidden agenda” both domestically and abroad, which voted to abolish an “article of shame” (guaranteeing impunity for the military junta of 1980 and their rank and file) in the military-sponsored Constitution. On the other is an opposition party, which labels itself “center-left” or even “social democratic,” a member of the Socialist International, whose entire group of deputies not only visibly turned their back to pleas but also refrained from voting.

Turkish politics is full of irony, at times even surreal. An original political scientist, İdris Küçükömer, had argued in the late 1960s that while the real identity of the “left” (meaning progressive) as we know it in Turkey was actually “right” (reactionary), the “right” of center was in fact the bearer of the reverse, unspoken identity. He was criticized thoroughly at the time by both the left and the right, but time has proven -- over and over -- that his was a very sharp observation.

The wee hours of April 28, 2010, were in that sense truly striking. Almost alone, the AK Party, a post-Islamist movement, sent a clear statement in the General Assembly that it is opening the door to seeking justice for one of the darkest episodes in the country -- a coup that led to the hanging of 50 people, and for more than half a million people to be detained and systematically tortured. It sent a strong message to the world that there is a will among the elected in Ankara to deal with a violent intervention which led more than 20,000 people to be stripped of their citizenship, tens of thousands to flee to Western Europe from a country then described as “one open prison.”

The vote on lifting the impunity of the junta followed, remarkably, another historic decision. By the decision of the AK Party government, all major trade unions will tomorrow be able to march toward and demonstrate together in Taksim Square, in the midst of İstanbul, breaking a 32-year ban. The joy among the leaders of the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions (DİSK), the Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions (Hak-İş) and the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions (Türk-İş) was visible. Every May 1 in those 32 years was a day of protest and violence because the workers’ demands remained intact and frustrations were at the point of explosion.

It was impossible not to notice the irony again. A conservative party with Islamic roots, the AK Party, paving the way for expanding freedom into a forbidden zone, while a party which claims to represent the working masses did not even bother to thank the government for this long-overdue decision.

Obviously, such moves perplex foreigners -- particularly when words and pompous announcements from time to time turn into deeds like this. Understanding this is simple: What defines the manner and conduct of politics in Turkey is the distance between the parties. The closer a party sticks to its grass roots, such as the AK Party and to a certain extent the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the easier they reflect the true nature (for progress) of Turkish society; the more remote they are, such as the CHP, and the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the more alienated from reality they become. Therefore, the concepts left and right have lost their meaning here more than anywhere else in the world.

Under such circumstances, the demand for change is vocalized in mysterious ways, and paradoxes surprise us all. In response to accusations from his previous “comrades,” who called him a “renegade,” Günay mocked the CHP deputies as “enemies of democracy who tie their hopes to the military as they see that they cannot deal with the will of the people.”

The question again is whether the recorded attitude of the CHP in Parliament on a vital issue will have any impact at all in its membership in the Socialist International. This, indeed, remains to be seen.