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.