Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Anything but Turkey

“Turkey must also work to support a Cyprus settlement and open its ports to the Republic of Cyprus as it has committed to do. A Cyprus settlement would have benefits extending well beyond the island, from aviation safety to more efficient EU/NATO co-operation. Negotiations on a comprehensive settlement have now reached an intensive phase and we welcome the commitment of President Christofias and Dr. Eroğlu to work within the UN framework for a successful outcome.” This excerpt is from a joint statement titled “The EU and Turkey: steering a safer path through the storms.” Signed by foreign ministers of eleven EU member countries, including Germany, the lengthy text was otherwise filled with praise of Turkey's democratic progress and economic success. It looked apparent that it aimed to diffuse tension in Turkish-EU relations and weigh in with regard to the steady attempts by the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus to block “positive elements” -- as envisioned by the EU Commission -- aimed to improve the accession negotiations, currently in deep freeze. Mind the words “commitment of President Christofias and Dr. Eroğlu…” in the statement. After the tripartite meeting between the two in New York in late October, the world was given the “autopilot” information that all had gone well, an international conference was planned and progress had been noted, etc. When I asked about it to my reliable (i.e. “independent”) and extremely well-informed Greek Cypriot sources in Cyprus recently, all I heard was loud laughter. I was referred to reports that Christofias had assured his party comrades and others in the administration in closed door meetings, “You should not worry, nothing new will happen, I made no promises, we noted no progress at all.” “Commitment?” In a recent interview with Alithia newspaper, Nikos Rolandis, a former foreign and trade minister of (Greek) Cyprus, admitted that “by allowing things to become worse, we have now come to the threshold of final division (of the island).” “I do not wish to give you the bad news, “Rolandis added pessimistically, “but I believe that we missed the train. For the solution on the island and in order to stave off all the problems we should have called in Greece, Turkey and the UK [three guarantor powers] to assist because with the shuttling of Christofias back and forth in the negotiations, there will not be a solution even in a century.” Both Greek and Turk Cypriots who genuinely believe and fight for unification agree that Christofias simply plays the game of delays because he is politically afraid, and more importantly, he is content with the leverage his administration has in the EU. “Nothing will happen until (Greek) Cyprus takes over the presidency in July 2012; Greek Cypriots in their political blindness know no other thing than to push it to the limits,” a Greek Cypriot, deeply knowledgeable about the process told me. On the other hand, Turkey, as revealed by a Turk Cypriot, gave a free hand to Dr. Eroğlu, leader of North Cyprus, on all issues except one. “Ankara is only interested in security in all six key chapters,” he told me. “But they lost hope as well. It is an unfair game, it is very obvious.” (Greek) Cyprus and Greece recently blocked Turkey from taking part in the key discussions among the EU ministers on Syria. This took place while a top-level source in the foreign ministry in Ankara told me, “I have never experienced such intensity with my American counterparts these days; everybody there calls everybody at every level, ministers and all.” From this contrast, one can only draw the conclusion that a tiny EU member manages to obstruct a pivotal regional power from sharing its valuable data and ideas with the union, paralyzing its influence over crucial developments that might reshape the world. The same happens as you read this article. (Greek) Cyprus solely focuses on cleansing all the positive remarks from the EU statements referring to Turkey in blind intensity. Eleven EU minister certainly act in good will when they call on Turkey to “support a Cyprus settlement, and open its ports to the Republic of Cyprus as it has committed to do.” But, I am sure, they are also fully aware of the absurdity of the situation. Is it rational that Turkey opens its ports as long as the EU fails in its commitment to ease the sanctions over North Cyprus? Is it logical that Ankara recognizes Cyprus as it is before being sufficiently convinced that UN-led talks will soon enough come to a conclusion over the destiny of the island -- “divorce” or “marriage?” Can anything really happen, until the UN process becomes serious, with a strict (I mean, “strict”) deadline? These questions have clear answers, but they must be facing, more than others, France and Germany. How should this be played? How serious are they? Where is the endgame? Rolandis is right; the train has been missed. The issue of Cyprus is nothing other than a tool to keep Turkey out of the EU. Christofias is afraid but clever: He plays it gladly, by creating a new balance between the EU and (his old ally) Russia. Anything but Turkey… 2011-12-06

Despair in Cyprus

The Turkish Cypriot part of Nicosia looked completely deserted yesterday. It was because of the census, which kept everybody at home. A curfew was fully imposed, with police cars patrolling the streets. The objective of the census, the first in five years, is obviously to bring clarity on the “real population” of the northern side of the island, and particularly to learn how many “settlers” from Turkey have been living there, legally or illegally. Although a brief visitor, I was also counted, and found that it was a well-detailed questionnaire, approved and supervised by the UN. It took me a few minutes to reach the buffer zone, equally desolate since 1974. Only a hundred meters separate two communities, and in that tiny strip around the famous Ledra Palace, used by the UN peacekeeping force, the only new thing was a restaurant and a small meeting center. It faced the old “no man’s land facilities,” such as the Goethe Institute and the Fulbright Center. I was here during the weekend to meet colleagues and academics from Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Organized and facilitated by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany, this is one of a series of meetings whose aim is to shed light on the Cyprus process and Greek-Turkish relations. Gloom prevailed at every session, with the exception of the one that dealt with Turkey. It was agreed that Turkey’s pivotal role in the future of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean was now proven, though the direction of Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” was questioned. Some preferred to declare it as finished, while others thought it needed some serious revision to merge its idealism with the tough reality. It was remarkable that some Greek (Cypriot) observers perceived (wrongly) that the policy was a “one-way street” aimed at imposing Turkey’s will on its neighbors. But all the disputes dispersed when the latest findings of the Brookings Poll on the Arab awakening was presented. Its rich data concluded that “Turkey is the biggest winner of the Arab Spring. In the five countries [Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, UAE] polled, Turkey is seen to have played the most constructive role in the Arab events. [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is the most admired among world leaders, and those who envision a new president for Egypt want the new president to look most like Erdoğan. Egyptians want their country to look more like Turkey than any of the other Muslim, Arab and other choices provided.” Greek-Turkish relations were discussed in light -- or, “under the shadow” of the Greek/European financial crisis, and all that was found for progress between Athens and Ankara was the lack of leadership in the former. Greece’s and Cyprus’s rapprochement with Israel was in a sharp remark declared as “emerging strategic partnership in depth,” which gave way to Israel and Greece “attempting to embrace each other in desperation,” giving the cynics a place in the frontline. Nobody knew whether it would be beneficiary for all the key players in the region. Would there be a game-changer with regard to Turco-Greek relations? Given the prospect of a nationalist right-wing coalition in Greece, led by New Democracy (ND) leader Antonis Samaras (ND) and Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) leader Georgios Karatzaferis, after the early elections, there was no room for optimism either. The picture of the Cyprus talks was even gloomier. Negotiations between Derviş Eroğlu and Dimitris Christofias, leaders of the two communities, did not produce any results in a recent meeting in Long Island. An analysis of “behind the scenes” tells us that a stalemate is on the horizon, because Christofias would not “dare” to facilitate progress because of the prospects of political hostilities at home. Also, Eroğlu has become increasingly disinterested in the process. Opinion polls showed that up to 60 percent of Greek Cypriots were against reunification, while the undecided among the Turkish Cypriots was at its highest -- an indication of their despair with the policies of both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the Greek Cypriot administration. Small hopes were tied to a “soft deadline” given by the UN to the two leaders as Jan. 15 and an eventual conference thereafter, but, while Turkey does not show much willingness to open its ports to Cyprus, Christofias has relied much more heavily on the veto powers of Russia, an increasingly close financial partner, which hopes to use Cyprus for what it has been losing over Syria. Nobody in the meeting expected any progress in the UN talks and it seemed that the Republic of Cyprus was determined to enforce its presence and agenda during its presidency of the EU. Progress, if any, will be delayed until 2013, after the presidential elections in the south. I left the meeting with the clear notion that “reunification” has been dropped from the agenda of those who were pursuing it. In the previous meetings, Turkish Cypriots threw in the towel; now my Greek Cypriot colleagues, who were keeping hopes alive, told me they had given up. “When I see news on the Cyprus talks, I turn off the TV,” said a prominent colleague of mine. “For me, it is finished.” It all sounded like a friendly divorce is inevitable. 2011-12-04

New constitution sure to be postponed

With the first anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring slowly approaching and its progress being symbolized by a high turnout at the Egyptian elections, the spotlight is now on Ankara. Not only that. The expected pull-out of American troops from Iraq and an ugly escalation of the Syrian crisis -- now in defiance of the Arab League -- also add to attention being drawn to Turkey. Turkey's spectacular story over the past decade deserves this attention. In many aspects, the experiment that took shape under the single majority rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been quite complex, but simple enough to become an inspiration for its southern Arab neighbors. It has also exposed elements of hypocrisy within the EU that seem to have been failing in its relationship with the predominantly Muslim nation to which it had pledged full accession. Nevertheless, we are in the midst of a developing story in a rapidly changing world. If Turkey truly deserves such a focus, then the series of meetings this week in Washington, D.C., organized by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) are very timely. I was invited to elaborate on the issue of Turkey's perhaps most critical threshold in its ongoing but somewhat slowed democratization experiment: the constitutional process. In a heavily attended session at the hall at the Center for American Progress (CAP), I attempted to analyze the outlook from a humble and realistic perspective. What might that outlook for a new constitution be? Given that expectations were raised at home and abroad, would it be a “miscarriage” or a successful delivery? Here is what I, in a nutshell, conveyed at the session. The composition and methodology of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, empowered to prepare the draft, is the key to all the clues we need to answer this. At first look it all appears to be fine; all political parties, irrespective of size, are represented on an equal basis, with three representatives from each. This should give us hope that a consensus can be reached. However, the methodology has traps and pitfalls. The most problematic principle is the condition of reaching a unanimous decision. There will be no progress in the commission's work unless each and every party agrees on each article being discussed. Even if it could be achieved there will have to be a full consensus (by unanimous vote) on the whole of the text, and if a disagreement emerges on whether or not the text is considered finalized, then the whole process can be discontinued. If a party is absent from three meetings or if it decides to pull out altogether, the commission's work will be disrupted without any further steps. The commission will cease to exist in practice. So, there is strong reason for feeling pessimistic here. There is no example in the political history of the world of cases of 100 percent consensus, except for drafts that have been imposed on people through the heavily controlled parliaments of oppressive, fascist or communist regimes. Wisdom that there should be “reasonable consensus” seems to have been ignored. Why would the AK Party agree to such a methodology if its pledges for a new constitution were genuine? Some argue that the AK Party and even the Republican People's Party (CHP) are content with the arrangement: the AK Party because the current constitution is something it can continue to live with, and the CHP because its core base and top echelons have been against a new constitution as they are staunchly against the revision of Kemalism. So, work on a new constitution might end up being postponed until after the next elections in 2015. Is there a way out? Optimists claim that the AK Party and the CHP can surprisingly find common ground. Together they make up 75 percent of Parliament. This should be in principle acceptable to as close to a consensus as possible. Some optimists also add that the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) may also agree on a reasonable definition of citizenship, and the recognition of Kurdish identity and others, by deleting references to Turkish identity from the current Constitution as well as some form of devolution/decentralization. I belong to the pessimist camp. Given the establishment of the commission and its methodology, the dream of a new constitution -- a step seen by so many as crucial to institutionalizing democratization and bringing Turkey into the same league as Western Europe -- is sadly, more distant than ever. Reformists may switch to demanding what is possible, such as all obstacles before free speech being lifted from various laws, as an entirely new constitution seems impossible at the moment. Obstacles in the current Constitution must be changed so that society can be allowed to develop the maturity to have further debates and prevent all the genies that have been let out of their bottles from leading to radicalization. There are many things this government and Parliament can do. 2011-11-29

‘Whose party’ is the CHP?

The ongoing Dersim row has given analysts new reasons to shed light on where the main opposition is and where it is going. This was inevitable. The Republican People's Party (CHP) has become a political synonym with constant crisis, which describes a party in a remarkably unproductive limbo. It has failed to rise in the eyes of the dismayed voters, and it has managed not to implode. Its seemingly chosen place in limbo perplexes foreign observers, particularly those who insist on seeing with the CHP something new and progressive as an alternative. The “Dersim row” may have helped them to reconsider. It is necessary, because Turkey's political actors have already set the course, with the brand new constitution as a destiny; and the CHP, which is the key among all the oppositional players, needs a proper scrutiny. This is necessary, because the CHP's “limbo” status is chiefly responsible for keeping Turkey in limbo and at the mercy of an unequivocally strong political force -- this being the AK Party -- in power. What does the Dersim row tell us about the CHP? That it has a leadership in crisis? That Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the son of the severely oppressed and ruthlessly savaged Dersim natives, is in profound, existential trauma? That it is a party speeding towards termination or a full confrontation with its own heritage? In a sense, it can be argued that the regional crisis that is pushing the Baathist legacy towards extermination would inevitably come to the doorstep of the very party that stood as the role model for all the oppressive regimes in the Arab world. With its personality cult, strong “statism,” elitism and corporativist tradition, it was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's very CHP that inspired nationalist Baathist systems that operated under strictly controlled parliaments. The drama of the CHP was that Turkey, luckily, had given way to free elections from 1946, and once the voter had the “sweet smell of free choice,” it was irreversible, despite three-and-a-half coups d'etat. But, even this objective fact was not enough to persuade the “role model” CHP to transform itself to a social democratic party, as its archrival, the conservative right of Turkey, managed to embrace the Muslim democrat identity. What is wrong today? Is the crisis in the CHP connected to its leader, its organization -- or those who continue vote for him? Perhaps, there is convergence between what Kılıçdaroğlu represents and what the voters expect of his party. A new survey by Ankara-based pollster MetroPOLL seeks to shed light on the latter, namely the current profile of the CHP voter and how s/he sees the party's policies. The overall picture depicts severely conflicting identities, a blend of confusion and discontent, and a high level of disappointment. Half of those who were asked find Kılıçdaroğlu unsuccessful and give this as the primary reason for the party's failure, while 41 percent of those asked do not approve of his “New CHP” motto. Over 50 percent believe that a leadership change will help the party, and Mustafa Sarıgül, mayor of Şişli, ranks highest among favorites. Interestingly, over 55 percent believe that the CHP does not represent “left” and “social democracy” strongly enough. Those who believe that the CHP is a Kemalist party are 82 percent, while those who expect the CHP to be a Kemalist party are 91 percent. Who is the CHP voter? Of those asked, 35 percent describe themselves as “Ataturkists,” while only 16.4 percent respond “I am a social democrat” and 11.5 percent declare “I am a nationalist.” There are more contrasts in the survey. While 72 percent say that Turkey needs a new constitution, 50 percent respond that they would prefer it to be based on Atatürk's principles rather than fundamental human rights and freedoms. Those who do not want any amendment in the first three articles of the current constitution go up to 69 percent (over 80 percent among the highly educated). Half of those asked say they do not believe the CHP will be able to solve the Kurdish problem. If the data presented are reliable, one can almost understand the dilemma of Kılıçdaroğlu. He personifies, as it were, all the confusion, anachronism and mistaken identity that define the voter profile of his party. One can find all those bits and pieces behind his zigzags and his Hamlet-like hesitations. Also, one can find all the obsession with the Kemalist dogma, which prolongs the trauma and fuels the mechanical discourse that defines the CHP's rhetoric. Overall, the case of the CHP is to feed further pessimism for all those who express anxiety for undue asymmetry in Turkey's politics. If any, one serious conclusion of this survey may be that the party's greatest concern is not the problem of leadership. It is hostage to its voters, who insist on the utopias and illusions of yesterday. They want to remain angry at today and resent tomorrow. They are far from hope. 2011-11-27

Erdoğan's way

I was reading a critical analysis in The Guardian by Jon Henley about German Chancellor Angela Merkel titled “Angela Merkel: Europe's savior -- or biggest problem?” (Nov. 22) when my attention was drawn to a man on the TV, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister of Turkey. He was addressing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies in Parliament. It was supposed to be one of those regular Tuesday addresses, but the more attention I paid the more it became apparent that here was a politician on the top of his game as a leader; he was extremely high spirited, completely in command of his verbal skills, hitting new heights in his oratory abilities, and this was all evident in his facial expressions and posture. Everything seemed to be in place. He was truly enjoying the moment, with masterful pausing and smashing punch lines. Within the space of half an hour, he managed to touch upon many critical domestic matters as well as global ones. He declared that the names of some dubious military figures (linked with crimes against humanity in the past) at major military barracks will be replaced with more ordinary “war heroes”; he demanded that Bashar al-Assad leave his post immediately; and he went into detail explaining a politically popular topic of the introduction of payment in lieu of compulsory military service. He went on further in the midst of loud applause to attack his most favorite and easiest target of all, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). Referring to denials of the CHP's role in the 1936-39 massacre of Kurds in Dersim (which, no doubt, borders on genocide), he took enough time to ridicule CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and promised that within a day he would make public certain official documents proving the role of the one-party government of the period, the CHP. And he did. The very day he made the headlines in the international press for prompting Assad to step down, he also took an unprecedented step in the history of the Turkish Republic. He not only shared some key documents, proving the extermination of more than 13,000 Kurdish civilians in what is now Tunceli province but, to the bewilderment of the public, he apologized for the crimes against humanity. For such a delicate issue in a nation known for sweeping under the carpet many of the wrongs of the past, he was met with standing ovations. This was, objectively speaking, phenomenal. In a world where a lack of proper leadership, on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere, is visible, Erdoğan stands out with his qualities and abilities, which can be observed and analyzed carefully without bias. (His popularity remains unchanged at above 60-65 percent at the polls.) In domestic politics he is unchallenged and will be invincible for some time to come. The way the opposition acts and reacts, gives him all the space and time he needs to completely set the agenda, while they continue to drag behind. His main challenger, Kılıçdaroğlu, is now politically finished, dwarfed by his own denial of history and his inability to rule his own party. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the second largest opposition party, is marked by its own anachronistic manners before the world, and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), is unable to correct its relationship with violence. In that sense, “Erdoğan's Way” is wide open. Whether one approves of it or not, his way has been a crushing dynamic. It has been operating on its own qualifications to transform the old instruments of the Kemalist republic: The army is on the retreat towards a more professional role, and the judiciary, once heavily idealized by Kemalist dogma, is in the midst of restructuring itself, in an open-ended process (which can turn out to be correct or wrong). Now, this dynamic has started to shatter the Kemalism-obsessed CHP, which looks like a traffic jam at a roundabout where every car driver wants to drive to a different direction. But Erdoğan's Way is not without its traps and pitfalls. Now that the West finally realized that Turkey has not change its axis, we can discuss where the chances and risks are. Leave the good and likely story aside -- namely, of Erdoğan as the second transformer after Atatürk, who will by 2023 shape a modern, truly democratic, civilian, predictable world power. The risk is authoritarianism, benevolent or not. Apart from pushing this Turkish “glasnost” further, Erdoğan also hinted on erratic choices that come with the package; he lashed out at the German foundations with ungrounded accusations, openly defended Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) operations (trespassing on the territory of the judiciary), rejected conscientous objection and continued to cause concern that the line between terrorist activity or government critique and freedom of expression (he has been alienating dissidents in various camps for a while) is very thin in his mind. What's next? Apart from the challenges of the state of the global economy, he is hoping that the opposition will remain stuck and he is counting on the massive support, which is overwhelmingly pro-change, that he now enjoys. He is now at a point where the temptation to exert his single-man authority may distort his democratically mandated mission to enhance the civilian domain for a freer flow of ideas, encourage debate, boost tolerance and carry out speedier reforms. His journey continues to be exciting, with inherent risks. 2011-11-24

Friday, October 14, 2011

Turkey and the EU: time for priorities

With the new Progress Report on Turkey, two opposite observations on the state of affairs seem to remain equally valid: a) The prospects for a “marriage” look bleaker than in previous years, mainly due to deliberate and destructive blocking efforts by a couple of EU members' administrations; and b) Turkey is maintaining the momentum and continues to “sufficiently fulfill the criteria” in sync with the rather concerned, but wise, European Commission. Once more, it leaves the main question marks on Turkey's accession hanging. Despite some (unnecessarily) harsh Turkish official comments, the report is fair and balanced. It praises the main steps on passing crucial laws to meet the Copenhagen Criteria, underlines the vital importance of the demilitarization of politics, reiterates high expectations for a new constitution and commends economic policies in general. However, in an equally objective manner, it remains critical of individual freedoms and civil rights, flaws in the implementation of the rule of law (lengthy arrests and slow trials in particular), freedom of expression, public procurement system, women's rights and the “fading” independence of the regulating institutions. But both the praise and criticism in the report and the enlargement strategy paper cannot help but be overshadowed by a sense of urgency. There is a deep frustration in Ankara, as well as among its supporters in Europe, that a “reset” is necessary to overcome the folly of “Turkophobia,” which threatens to derail the negotiations entirely. Two points may be raised critically with regard to the report. One has to do with Cyprus. It says: “… It is urgent that Turkey fulfils its obligation of fully implementing the Additional Protocol and makes progress towards normalization of bilateral relations with the Republic of Cyprus. It also urges the avoidance of any kind of threat, source of friction or action that could damage good neighborly relations and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The EU will continue to follow up and review progress made on these issues in accordance with the relevant Council decisions.” To any outside observer with a sufficient degree of knowledge of the conflict, this passage is a problematic one – which to a large degree justifies tough reactions from Egemen Bağış, chief negotiator of Turkey. It avoids, either through myopia or helplessness over pressure from Greek Cyprus, any reference to the importance of a solution in UN-sponsored negotiations. The report is right to point out Turkey's obligations to open its ports to Cypriot vessels and flights, but by failing to emphasize endorsement for a settlement in the UN-sponsored talks “without delay,” it only encourages the Greek Cypriot administrations to drag its feet further and go on with damaging policies against Turkey's accession. It is a high priority; therefore, Ankara's voice must be taken into account in this key context. Secondly, if the next major step for Turkey is a new constitution, then the high priority for Ankara must be to secure freedom of expression: simply, any restriction could undermine the entire civilian dialogue process and create fear among citizens to speak out. Indeed, all the articles mentioned in various laws prevent a fully free debate in media, academia and politics. “Journalists in jail” remains an issue, despite denials from Ankara. The case of Ahmet Şık, in particular, is an example reminding Turkey of the 1990s. The line between journalism and illegal political activity must be made clear. As it is the right of every accused for a speedy and fair trial (nobody should be immune to detainment), Ankara must aim for the principle that no journalist should be in jail for doing his or her job. At the moment there are five or six such colleagues; and it is a fact. Some Turkish newspapers reported yesterday that “press freedom” will be a new criterion for accession to membership. If these reports are true, then the EU Commission has a complicated job. In many Balkan countries and in Turkey, the issue can never be simplified to state or government-sponsored oppression. It has been clear in the case of Turkey that the corrupt relationship between media owners and politicians, lack of fair competition in the media sector, insufficient legislation to regularize the sector for pluralism and diversity, direct ownership pressure over editorial independence and the continuation of state-controlled public broadcasting are aspects as crucial as the legal restrictions. There is also “homework” -- a priority -- for the commission: to work much more actively to ease the counter-productive visa regulations for Turkish passport holders. The current system sets up an invisible wall in between. This will be a serious goodwill gesture, bringing the two sides closer. Only then can many of us start to discuss with each other, face to face, the huge damage the Sarkozy administration and various “Turkophobes” caused for a common future. 2011-10-13

The ‘erratic state’ raises the stakes

There will remain, it seems, no stone unturned. Such is the spirit of the times that even the most self-confident powers today tremble before the unknown while observing the tremors in the Arab world. Without the slightest doubt, Syria is the most likely candidate for the next mother-of-all troubles. The longer its internal conflict is extended, the easier it will be to pull in the two major external players in its turmoil: Iran and Turkey. “Together we are passing a crucial test,” said Ahmet Davutoğlu at a meeting with a small group of journalists some days ago as he shared the results of an in-depth analysis of expected developments regarding the al-Assad regime. His lengthy answers barely concealed the concerns in Ankara over the spread of this contagion to Turkish soil should the bloodshed in Syria turn to civil war. The Kurdish element is already visible in the conflict with the murder of Meshaal Temo, a respected Kurdish member of the Syrian opposition. His murder sent the first serious signal to the Kurds across the Turkish border to engage one way or another with the Syrian struggle as the al-Assad regime approaches a collapse. But there is also another element on this part of the border. The reports from reliable sources in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces tell us that the more the so-called “KCK operations” spread, the more consolidated Kurds’s pro-PKK stand becomes. This happens as the PKK’s “military command” warms up to Damascus. Also, Assad’s latest, rather threatful remarks against Turkey raises concerns about this. Because all the bridges between Ankara and Damascus are irreparably damaged, the options have also changed. Al-Assad and his inner circle seem to have chosen to ignore their predicted future, despite persistent efforts by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. We now know that all went wrong, but how did it happen? A recap given by Davutoğlu clearly showed how quickly the dialogue faded in the course of their four phases of talks. He had held a 60-percent belief that al-Assad would be capable of leading the change towards democratization when they met in January this year. During their second meeting in April, which lasted three hours, al-Assad had promised he would be quick to bring about dialogue and reforms, but did nothing. When the killings intensified in July, Ankara’s trust in al-Assad to change “faded to 20 percent.” The six-hour meeting in early August between Davutoğlu and al-Assad basically ended in Ankara expressing deep concern that al-Assad was, despite all of Davutoğlu’s advise, “choosing the path of Causescu or Milosevic,” who both fell after shooting their own people. Al-Assad failed to fulfill his duty to pull his tanks out of Hama and instead played games to dupe those who called out against him. He refused to grant freedom of the press and had no intention of declaring a date for free elections to be held in 2012. At that stage, all faith in him was lost. By early September, Syria was defined as a “failed” or “erratic state” that was doomed to be demolished along with the blind clique that ran it. What concerns government sources in Ankara is the possible result of a Russian-Chinese veto of a draft resolution before UN Security Council against Syria, condemning its regime and threatening it with punitive measures. Sources in the Foreign Ministry point out that the al-Assad regime can barely conceal its joy that it – in a reminder of what took place with the Saddam regime – managed to divide the international community. It may now effect even more dangerous policies based on that feeling. Ankara fears that this international disagreement, which justifiably outraged the US, will lead to even more ruthless bloodshed by civilians, just like in Bosnia and Kosovo. The worst is when oppressive regimes get ahead by using the weaknesses of democratic powers. The show staged by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Libya and the increasing self-confidence that “we can go it alone, no matter what” felt by the French-UK axis might have caused the negative reflex of both China and Russia, sources tell. An analyst argued that “Russia suffers from the obsessions of its own past, from its archaic mentality to read into today’s quick and multi-faceted developments,” pointing out that Syria is the only country over which Moscow feels it has an influence in the region, a leverage it may want to keep. Erdoğan’s visit to Hatay province, which borders Syria and currently hosts some 8,000 Syrian refugees, has been postponed due to his mother’s passing. It is expected to be rescheduled soon. Is war in the list of concerns No; however, the major priority is one to which Russia, Israel and Iran should pay attention: All will be done to prevent Turkey’s stability from being affected by its erratic neighbor and Turkey’s rogue friends. 2011-10-11

'Balkan Americans'

It can be said that for three years, people originating from the Balkans scattered across the United States -- almost exclusively Muslims from that region -- have been engaged in finding each other, drawing out those in silent isolation, in order to establish a common platform to make themselves heard and to make a difference. Ever since the foundation of the Federation of Balkan American Associations (FEBA) in 2008, its activities were centered on locating all the people who share, beyond language or religion, a desire to revive their culture and to work for a region which -- they hope – will build a future without any reference to the past. It was in such a spirit some 2,000 of them gathered in New York for a meeting organized by FEBA last Thursday, the third and largest of its kind. In the words of Nickolay Mladenov, the foreign minister of Bulgaria, the main task of the convention was “to make war impossible” in the already hatred-riddled region. As a young speaker made it strikingly clear, “We must work to unbalkanize the Balkans, to pave the way for peace, tolerance and a serene coexistence.” The statement by FEBA, underlining the importance of the meeting, said the following: “We should remind each other of regional wartime aggression and the atrocities that occurred in the past only to take necessary lessons from these events, and not to transform these traumas into motivating tools for revenge. We are not able to fix today the mistakes which happened in history. But together we can illuminate our future by avoiding these behaviors and ideas that would lead to the ruin of mutual relationships.” According to Dr. Aras Konjhodžić, president of FEBA and a Bosniac, there are approximately 2 million people of Balkan origin in the US. The biggest group, he told me, are the Albanians, who number some 700.000. They are followed by Bosniacs, Macedonians, Bulgarians and others. He was particularly happy to come into contact with some 100 families in Philadelphia, who up until then felt very lonely in an environment with a different dominant culture. “But let me make it clear, we want integration, not assimilation,” Konjhodžić added. Balkan people in the US are one of the lesser-known communities. As many of us can guess, their journey to the US dates back to early 19th century. As the Balkans became a center of revolt and violence, some of them chose to flee to the Midwest. The first visible sign of their presence is symbolized by the Islamic Charity Association, which was founded in Chicago in 1906. But the dissolution of the old order from 1989 on and the following civil war led to a much larger exodus, in particular from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Some of them found themselves in the eastern part of the US, hoping for a better future for their children. It was a moving picture for me to see hundreds of students -- all with their roots from that politically rugged terrain -- from various American universities gathering there, too, sharing their hopes for a common future. FEBA, which has succeeded in expanding thanks to grants and internal support, enjoys strong backing from the governments of the region, with the exception -- at the time -- of Serbia and Greece. But it aims to move on, with a particular focus on reviving Balkan cultures and expanding business ties, having a bigger say as a group in lobbying Congress. This is a tough task as FEBA must represent the common interests of all the Balkan countries. So far, it seems, so good. The Balkan Leaders Summit, a part of the annual meeting, which FEBA initiated two years ago, attracts regional political leaders. Next year’s program will most likely also expand into the arts, Konjhodžić said. It will be an important move. One of the most enthusiastic endorsers of the meeting is Turkey, which sponsored the meeting to a great extent. Whether one approaches Turkish sponsorship skeptically or not, the soft power approach of Turkey seems to have won the hearts of the people of the Balkans, who openly expressed the sentiment that without leadership, they would never have come this far. “We need a strong Turkey,” Konjhodžić said, adding, “For the Turks a strong Turkey means an end to unemployment, but for a great many of us it means an end to the fear of renewed atrocities and genocides.” 2011-09-25

Dink trial: The rush for a cover-up

Four and a half years were wasted in the labyrinth of dark corridors that is Turkey's state security apparatus. When the lawyers representing the family of our murdered colleague, Hrant Dink, marched out of the courtroom in İstanbul on Monday, the overall feeling among the observers of this painful trial was one of despair. “They want to finish this trial as quickly as possible,” a lawyer told me. “It's obvious that they are rushing. The prosecutor truly tried his best to uncover the machinery of murder behind the crime, but my sense is that he felt increasing pressure from above to wrap it up.” He did. Despite attempts by the lawyers to delve deeper into the investigation, in an attempt to expose all of those people with direct or indirect involvement in the planning and execution of the murder, and also those who were engaged in covering it up, the court insisted that Hikmet Usta, the prosecutor in the case, read his final plea for the seven accused. He demanded a two life terms in prison for each of them. But there was an element of extraordinary importance in the plea. It talked at length about secret gangs that seemed impossible to uncover. Usta said: “The Dink assassination was only the latest one to come out of deeply hidden structures within Turkey. The suspects acted on ideological motives, of which the target was the Turkish Republic and public order. There is suspicion that the murder is linked to the Ergenekon network. We have reached the conclusion that the Dink murder was committed by the Trabzon cell of the Ergenekon terrorist organization.” Further on, the plea also argued -- without any proof -- that links existed between the so-called “Malatya missionary murders” and the killing of Father Andrea Santoro in Trabzon on Feb. 5, 2006, drawing attention to the common patterns shared by the killings. This statement, together with mentions of the prosecution's “inability of to expose the secret cells and links,” was spectacular, yet highly problematic, because the prosecutor simply mentioned these points, while remaining silent about whether or not the court should continue to take its time to penetrate further and find the masterminds behind the assassination. It is obvious that forces from above want the case closed as quickly as possible. Why the hurry? One explanation is technical. Because of the nature of the case, the accused cannot be kept in detention for more than five years. A lawyer told me that “the time limit will be passed in January of next year, and the court may be concerned that all of the accused may be released, if no verdict is issued by then.” But there is much more to it. Month after month, trial after trial, the lawyers have done all they can to help the court collect evidence, which they were certain linked the local gendarmerie and police, and their superiors in Ankara, with the crime. All this seems to have been in vain, because most of the evidence collected by the Trabzon Police is known to have been destroyed. If the case is closed rapidly, all those responsible will be able to get away with the murder. The Dink trial has been followed closely, because it is a test case of whether or not the rule of law will apply, and all in the state security apparatus that are found to have been involved will be held accountable. This critical test has now more or less failed. The lawyers believe there is nothing more, in legal terms, to do. “The only thing that remains is for the media, for everyone with a conscience, to keep a speaking out loudly, and demand justice, putting pressure on the government, because it has the internal tools to investigate those secret cells within the state,” Fethiye Çetin, a lawyer and a close associate of the Dink family, told me. Most likely, the court will declare its verdict when it assembles in November, after hearing the defense. The killer, Ogün Samast, has already been sentenced to 12 years in prison, as he was only 17 when he pulled the trigger. The rest, those seven, were simply front figures, according to the prosecutor. “It is not logical that a university student and a simit seller would be the leaders of an organization responsible for one of the most serious political murders in this country's history,” Çetin said. So, in bizarre circumstances, we stand between a major failure of justice and a horrible scandal for the justice system. But the search for the truth in this case will not end next month; it will continue to test the quality of our democracy. 2011-09-20

Israel’s moment of truth approaching

One can only watch with bewilderment and concern at how patchy and shortsighted so-called “super power politics” in the face of major issues have now become. Take the race for who-will-visit-Libya-first, for example. In order to childishly pre-empt steps by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have persuaded David Cameron to join him on a hasty journey to the war-torn country before Erdoğan. While it is arguable what sort of good this will do for both leaders, who are in deep trouble in their respective countries, their showing up in Libya is doomed to be perceived by the Arab world (particularly its younger generations) and elsewhere as a new phase to initiate a new wave of plundering oil and gas resources. Not even the “high philosophy” of Bernard Henri-Levy, who is expected to follow these two right-wing politicians on their journey, will help change this perception. Common sense would tell the French and British leaders to abandon the obviously childish games and focus on the mother of all problems instead. Had they paid even minimal attention to the Israeli peace coalition and the ongoing debate in that country -- let alone the discussions elsewhere -- they would have realized that September 2011 is a key time to concentrate all efforts. The date is key in the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, and it seems that even a shallow glance would reveal that it is much more important who will forego visiting a no-man’s country that is so vulnerable, needy, tormented and frightened. What will happen in New York next week? One assumption is that Israel will say no to a Palestinian state and mobilize all forces to resort to delaying it by offering another round of talks. But the question is whether almost 4 million Palestinians will continue to live without dignity and basic human rights. They have had more than their fair share of more than 40 years of suffering and bullying. Prospects for an opening at the UN do not look good, according to a well-crafted, detailed report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). The report, “Curb Your Enthusiasm: Israel and Palestine After the UN,” argues that there has been a lack of “clear thinking” and warns that “this could well produce a cure more lethal than the ailment.” As a strong reminder of where Sarkozy and Cameron should instead be looking, it says: “With little time remaining, the burden has shifted to the EU to craft [a] compromise. It has long sought that role. Now it must live up to it.” Yet, it is doubtful, at the moment, that it will. Why the gloom? The ICG report talks at length about “collective mismanagement.” It argues: “Palestinian leaders, in a mix of ignorance, internal divisions and brinkmanship, oversold what they could achieve at the world body and now are scrambling to avoid further loss of domestic credibility. Israel, overdramatizing the impact of a UN move and determined to stop the Palestinians in their tracks, has threatened all manner of reprisal, from halting the transfer of tax clearance revenues, to decreeing the death of the Oslo agreement, to worse. The U.S. administration, unable to steer events, fed up with both sides, and facing a Congress that will inflict a price for any Palestinian move at the UN, just wants the whole thing to go away.” On the lack of any ground for agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the report lines up a number of reasons: “Deep substantive gaps between the two parties; decreasing US authority and enhanced domestic constraints in the run-up to a presidential election; Palestinian divisions; and the weight of the Israeli Right. Restarting talks now to prevent a so-called train wreck in September could well provoke a more dangerous crash when negotiations collapse.” What could be achieved, then? The ICG report is cautious: “The least harmful outcome at this point is a UN resolution that is viewed as a victory by the Palestinians but addresses some core Israeli concerns and preserves the option of a two-state settlement.” The third party must be neither the US nor the Quartet -- US, Russia, the EU and UN -- but rather, the Europeans, and they should tell the Palestinians to focus on a status of a non-member observer state and not an independent one as the US Congress can cut off all paths to this road of full independence. The resolution must also take into consideration the core concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis and be based on a two-state solution. I agree with the “middle of the road” recommendation of the ICG but remain doubtful whether the EU will be able to deliver a roadmap and settlement at the UN, which must primarily satisfy the Palestinian side. The times that are rapidly changing make clear that the Israeli political leadership must use common sense and put a halt to its endless security concerns, for the sake of the justifiable aspiration of a two-state solution. It is their moment of truth. 2011-09-15

End of the First Republic? Not yet

After the historic resignation of Turkey's once mighty top command and the ensuing reshuffle of its main figures, some pundits were quick to declare “the end of the First Republic of Turkey.” It is often like that. In lengthy, arduous transformation processes, which include de-mythification of cult leaders, “holy” institutions and systems, the eagerness to jump the gun leads to new myths. To suggest that we have finally put the last nail in the coffin of the First Republic is such mythmaking. Such a declaration is hasty and premature. Earlier, when law enforcement started to arrest high and mid-ranking officers in connection with Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and the “dirty war” (in the Kurdish Southeast) trials, again, some left-leaning commentators were in joy to declare “the end of tutelage.” They were also wrong. Yes, the First Republic is in accelerating decline and the military-guided tutelage has been severely damaged, but they are still there. Because of this caution, my immediate comment to The Washington Post after the mass resignation of the top brass was, in brief, that it “was a new phase, a sharp turn toward pushing the military to adapt to the current changes in Turkey.” Many dramatic events take shape simultaneously here. It should not perplex anyone; it is the combustion of long-overdue pressure, helped by the free vote, which both sped up and increased the magnitude of the developments. The government stresses the need for a brand new constitution, the bloody Kurdish conflict is being dealt with, new evidence shows there will be new waves of investigations into the army -- possibly involving the former top commanders -- and the main opposition, having no other device at its disposal than politics itself, is plunging deeper into an identity crisis. There will be, as a sign of the times, further investigations into the various segments of the elite, to expose the sources of corruption. In short, Turkey is still in the midst of a transformation process; what has possibly changed is the pace, which has to do with the last elections. What about the First Republic? Here we have a diversity of opinions. While some see continuity in the entire period from 1923 -- the foundation of the secular republic -- until now, others, including myself, see sharp disruptions in the coups (and consequently, vertical enforcement of the constitutions) of 1960 and 1980. So sharp, in fact, that we can easily call the last period -- the period from 1980 until today -- the Third Republic. But this is certainly open to discussion. Nevertheless, at the end of July we neither ended the First nor the Third Republic. It simply does not end when a group of top generals, in dramatic fashion, ask for their retirement and resign. The simple fact of the matter is, Turkey is still ruled by a military-dictated, straitjacket-like Constitution that promotes an outdated ideology, poisonous nationalism, protection of the state against the citizen, restricted freedom for individuals, communities, minorities and institutions and tutelage mainly in favor of the military. So, the demilitarization of politics has to be completed with a new social contract. Until the Turkish Parliament and -- eventually -- its people decide on a new constitution, we are still part of the First or Third Republic, depending on how you see it. At the moment it is important to observe the moves that are still possible in the current regime, without losing sight of the main goal, as I mentioned above. Yes, a new constitution must guarantee a transparent and accountable military; its budget must be overseen by the elected Parliament to the tiniest detail; the separation of the “military high judiciary” must be abolished. A new constitution must also place the chief of General Staff under an empowered Ministry of Defense. Turkey is much closer to doing all this than ever before. But there are moves possible even as the country progresses to become a full democracy. The new top commander, Necdet Özel, is described as a professional with no interests in interfering in politics. Özel may begin a process of reforms -- finally -- in the troubled institution that is rather rotten due to the subversive activities of some of its arrogant staff, which sadly turned it into a focal point of undemocratic operations, into a center for a self-worshipping elite which desperately fought a losing battle to keep its autonomy and impunity. He can help chase away lawlessness and lead its integration into the democratic system. Godspeed. 2011-08-02

Burkay's return

“I, Kemal Burkay, a Kurdish politician, poet and author, was forced to leave my homeland 31 years and four months ago because I was the leader of a party with a socialist and Kurdish identity. In those days it was forbidden to use the words 'Kurd' and 'Kurdistan,' and the struggle for socialism was banned…” With these words, Burkay begins his touching farewell letter to a country which hosted him for years. At 74 years old and rather frail, he will be returning to Turkey tomorrow, unless he changes his mind at the last minute. His has been one of the longest exiles for a Kurd from Turkey, and he has spent it entirely in Sweden. Burkay's case is significant: The symbolism of the length of his absence from home is as powerful as the symbolism of his return at a time of political folly. A native of Dersim (Tunceli), Burkay was a pioneer in the struggle of Turkey's Kurds for recognition and equal rights. From the very beginning until today, he has consistently been a defender of non-violence and a promoter of democracy. He has long been seen as the antidote to the violent line chosen by his adversary, Abdullah Öcalan. When he graduated from law school in the late 1950s, Burkay had his first taste of suppression of and discrimination against Kurds. He served in the state bureaucracy for a short time, but was deeply dismayed in the way he and other civil servants were mistreated by “deep Ankara.” He left government work, and set up a practice in the early 1960s as a private lawyer. In 1965 he joined Turkey's Workers' Party (TİP), which enjoyed significant success in elections during a brief period of freedom. Burkay was active in organizing TİP in mainly Kurdish provinces. But, as the left gained ground, the semi-military regime in power became impatient with an outspoken socialist party represented in Parliament, and all freedom ended with the military takeover in 1971. Burkay spent the early 1970s in a brief exile. Returning to Turkey in the second half of that decade, he put his previous political momentum behind formulating a Kurdish political movement (due to a sharp split between Turkish and Kurdish socialists). It was called the Socialist Party of Turkey's Kurdistan (PSK), and it was forced to operate illegally. Its publications were “Özgürlük Yolu” (Path of Freedom) and “Roja Welat,” a Kurdish-language paper. Despite harsh suppression, the PSK successfully got its candidate Mehdi Zana (the ex-husband of Leyla Zana) elected as an independent mayor of Diyarbakır. When the political climate became totally insufferable in the spring of 1980, Burkay had to flee for his life, returning to Sweden. “Like all Kurdish intellectuals escaping from fascism, I sought refuge here. Apart from being a democracy, Sweden's natural beauty and clean air had a great impact on my poetic heart. I loved this place,” he writes in his farewell letter. “Our children were deprived of education in their native tongue in their country -- they still are -- but you [Sweden] offered them every chance to learn it. A school for Kurdish teachers was opened. Academic institutions supported Kurdish intellectuals in publishing their work. Our banned culture flourished here, and many new authors and researchers were able to work in freedom.” “My homeland is also very beautiful with its mountains, rivers, trees and flowers. I hope that one day, before it is too late, it will also become a place for freedom, democracy and peace. Burkay's return means a lot. Although his political base is much weaker than it was in his early days as a political activist here, his wisdom in understanding the deep changes that have taken place in the past nine years in favor of Kurds, and his courage in challenging the violent PKK line, will count. His return is also very timely. Of course, when Burkay declared in early spring his intention to return after the elections, he could not have foreseen the new escalation of violence. The mood is very gloomy at this time. Blind hatred is dominating the language, and there are now increasing demands for a “council of wise men” to be formed in order to declare a cease-fire and develop a roadmap for peaceful negotiations. Burkay certainly qualifies for such a group: He would enrich it with his experience of 50 years of struggle. 2011-07-28

Turkish versions of Murdoch

The phone-hacking scandal that is developing further even after the closure of News of the World (NoW) shatters the very foundations of Britain's great institutions; there will be more secrets and dirt unveiled, leading to a tough test for one of the world's oldest democracies. The NoW scandal has many facets, each of which requires careful attention. But one of them should interest us, I believe, simply because it highlights the maladies of media-state relations, a core element for durability of, and public confidence in democracy. It is a vital issue as valid in Britain as in Turkey, Brazil, South Africa or elsewhere. The key question is whether there is a place for corrupt media companies and their corrupt proprietors in already established or emerging democracies. In this sense, we must see the entire phone-hacking scandal in light of the man who ruled the Murdoch empire and the culture it has spread in the many countries it has been operational in. “A generation of people in British public life -- including politicians, police officers and, yes, journalists -- have lived with the increasing power of one person, Rupert Murdoch. He was a bad man to upset, and so most people kept their heads below anything that looked like a parapet. Politicians, in particular, paid court to him and to his lieutenants. They felt they needed Rupert Murdoch's support in order to win power, or stay in power. This suited Mr. Murdoch very well: He had things he needed from them, too. These individual relationships weren't in themselves corrupt, nor is Mr. Murdoch the purely malign caricature of some imaginations. But the effect of this power was indeed corrupting,” wrote the Guardian, which stood for all the good in journalism in revealing the phone-hacking scandal with persistent courage. “Over 40 years, Murdoch convinced the establishment that he can make or break political reputations and grant or take away electoral success. In doing so, he has come close to gelding parliament, damaging the rights of citizens and undermining democracy” argued the Observer weekly. “Prime ministers have danced fast and furiously to Murdoch's tune.” When we now realize how much even a well-established, mainly trustworthy and tradition-driven British media outlet can be damaged by a single proprietor's asserted “culture of dirt,” we can only imagine the levels of damage that multiple media proprietors in Turkey have inflicted on democratization efforts over the years. When discussing the fundamental issues related to the media and its freedom, in my earlier articles I revisited two basic questions: “Is it possible to support a democratization with a media that has refused to free itself from economic and cultural corruption?” And, “If a media proprietor is involved in criminal activities, could impunity be demanded through alarming calls that ‘media freedom is in danger”? This is what happened in Turkey with several media groups in the past two decades and the corrupting power that was exercised by Turkish media moguls continue to have an influence in some of them, resulting in their resistance to radical change. The answer to those questions is no. There is a widespread perception abroad that the Turkish government is responsible for everything that goes wrong with respect to press freedom matters. While it is true that it is responsible for not amending certain legislations to enhance freedom of expression, the issue of corruption that still remains to be investigated in financial matters, and the “culture of journalism” it has created, is the responsibility of media owners and the manager structures they have chosen. A recent case here concerns NTV, an influential news channel owned by Doğuş Group, which has come under scrutiny for discontinuing some programs and firing a host, Banu Güven, after 14 years. Yesterday, Güven told Taraf and Akşam dailies that she was “vetoed” from interviewing Leyla Zana, a well-known Kurdish political figure and a BDP deputy, before the elections. “How is it that a channel, which fought for and gained trust, comes to this point? Those who demand, warn, threaten -- directly or indirectly -- and imply censorship must sit and think about the answer to this question,” she said. So, who is responsible for the corrupt relations that exist between media and politics? It may change from case to case, but the result is the same: The threat that hangs over good journalism -- or whatever remains of it -- is becoming heavier. In the case of Murdoch it was a media mogul who drove journalism -- through criminal activity -- to a rotten state and uses it as an instrument to spread fear, to create a domain of self-impunity. In Turkey, it is the media proprietors who are so greedy in their businesses; they, and not the government, choose to become the destroyers of any decent journalism. We in international media must work together to bring down the financial villains who are the enemies of a profession they -- sadly -- rule over. 2011-07-12


The least surprising event in these intense days is the new Cabinet. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan changed only a fourth of his ministers in a calm reshuffle. This signals policies oriented towards serving the people, with the ministerial choices based on experience and performance. The focus will be on social services (under the new Ministry of Family and Social Policies) in a new era of institutionalizing of “sharing the pie” structures. Ömer Dinçer, the new minister of education, will be someone to watch simply because of his skills in the field. The ministry is expected to take a leap in deepening the much-needed reform in schools, particularly the quality of the content. Erdoğan's choice of two of his closest aides for the key ministries of Internal Affairs and Defense is telling about his plans to tighten control over security. He will need to expend much energy on civilian control of the army, which also needs an institutional renewal. The rest is, simply put, a continuation with well-known faces. The surprise is elsewhere. With a massive, ongoing police operation, the entire football world of Turkey is suddenly under scrutiny, with harsh accusations and suspicions of match-fixing and bribes. The picture emerging from behind the smokescreen is a vast network, giving enough hints about a rotten domain. In another move, we have learned that the two-year-old investigation of the so-called “Lighthouse” case is accelerating. Five people, including Zahid Akman, a former head of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), are now in custody on charges of organized crime and swindling. Akman was once in Erdoğan's inner circle. Meanwhile, Turkey is also preparing for another critical Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting. Currently, about one-tenth of the officers on duty with the rank of general are in jail, almost all of them in the Sledgehammer case. It has put enormous strain on the high command. The reports say that about 15 of the generals jailed will be forced into early retirement. The military, once the most “untouched” institution, has now turned into one whose domestic scene has been turned upside down. All of these developments are of historic significance. In what sense? In what may look like a rather chaotic picture, it is important to see a clear pattern: The “ancien regime” is cracking and collapsing in slow motion. This world, based on corruption, privileges, immorality and impunity, is increasingly exposed, spreading from one sector to another, confirming what critics of the “old Turkey” have – at the risk of losing their lives, jobs and dignity – been saying for decades: that Turkey as a police state was a land ruled by mafia, gangs, murderers, dirty businessmen and filthy media, all of whom were operating under and for a system of tutelage. There are similarities with Italy of the early 1990s. From 1992-96 the country was under the influence of “mani pulite,” a series of investigations that covered business, bureaucracy, military, politicians and media. “Tangentopoli” was the nickname for a country ruled by corruption on every level. Just as Italy was in the grips of tentacles, so has Turkey been. The main dynamic for change is the tremendous push for a structural transformation that is constantly keeping the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) under pressure to be the carrier of the process, both as a political power and political opposition (to the ancien regime). The more we have been exposed to the shocking patterns of corruption (such as the vast allegations encompassing many football clubs), the more hopeful we can be about a national “soul-cleansing” with the aim of establishing the rule of law. Will no stone be left unturned? We are not there yet. The steady push for change is rattling all segments of society, but we are facing a massive mountain. The old system was solidified on profound cronyism, on balances of terror (each corrupt actor knew the secrets of the other and vice versa) and an enormous network of those who were immune. Bank owners, media proprietors, Kurdish village guards paid by the state, smugglers related both to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and security units, judges, prosecutors, local governors, etc., etc. The task is overwhelming. What should cause concern is the next destination. It is necessary for society to know. Public trust is crucial if the process is to be made irreversible. The outcome of the vote on June 12 is encouraging, but it must be the leadership of Erdoğan, a key leader for a secure Turkey, that must clarify what is happening and why. 2011-07-07

An ‘orderly demilitarization' of politics

In a yet another historic move, Turkey has witnessed a new and peculiar detention: For the first time in the republic's history a four-star air force general in duty, who is currently the commander of the War Academies, is now in jail. The case of General Bilgin Balanlı does not have the nature of a common crime.

He stands accused of “attempting to overthrow the government by force,” as indicated by Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Although arguments by the prosecutor at this stage are not fully clear, we have been told that the case is connected to documents found at the Gölcük Naval Base last year and recent findings at the home of a colonel in Eskişehir (where Balanlı earlier served as the commander of the 1st Airbase).

The decision to detain him was made by a single judge, but this will in all likelihood be appealed and will be overseen by three judges in the next stage.

This dramatic development has several consequences and profound political undertones. Balanlı was one of the two currently serving four-star air force generals and he was on his way to being appointed as the next air forces commander next August. But the law and the regulations make it clear that he has lost all chances of being promoted, even if he is released. This leaves the army in deep trouble. Nobody seems to know whether a three-star general can be appointed instead. The situation is unprecedented.

It is apparent that the structures of the once untouchable military is shattering. Up until now there have been around 200 high ranking officers (30 of whom are one to four-star generals and admirals) who have been detained. The navy has suffered the most with many of its admirals currently in jail, and as an institution, is now operating under extraordinary circumstances.

It would be naive to think that the top command is not in disarray. Since procedural requirements demand that the prosecutor notify the General Staff of any interrogations and possible arrests of high ranking staff in advance, it is reasonable to assume that the recent cancellation of two major military exercises in the Aegean had something to do with the sentiments of the top command.

Could there be any “special timing” linked with the upcoming elections, that put Bilgin's detainment in a political context? There is no indication, no hint whatsoever that may in any way confirm this. On the contrary, reporters keenly covering Sledgehammer related investigations point out that the work of sifting through the documents -- particularly those found in the Eskişehir raid -- is taking a little longer than usual. But this apparently is not enough to hinder speculation.

Nevertheless, as events take shape, it is becoming clear that the grip of the judiciary over the alleged “rogue activity” within the military will continue, and may even tighten. Now, as of May 2011, almost the whole layer of officers who served in critical ranks during the murky years of 2002-2004 have now been subjected to severe accusations. This means an entire era is under scrutiny and prosecutors must work vigorously to sort out those responsible for undue, subversive activity against the elected government. Recent cases of arrests also highlight similar activities between 2007-2009.

Regardless of criticisms over procedures, the ongoing cases of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, with these new developments are indicating a “normalization” in critical civilian-military relations in the country. Recent statements by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while on his way back from a rally in Muğla, indicate that the process will be a “controlled demilitarization” of the political domain, possibly without too much haste (so as not to push the indispensable institution of the military off-balance). The period following the June 12 elections is crucial, since the work for a new constitution must encompass the civilian society without the interference of an institution which -- albeit to lesser degree -- is still showing intents to do so. A final nail in the coffin of military tutelage will be possible only if the people can prepare and vote on a democratic, civilian constitution.

It will inevitably mean confrontation with the bloody past. There can be no moral ground nor reconciliation unless the judiciary puts on trial the generals responsible for the ruthless, bloody coup of 1980, no matter how old or how ill they may be. The Ankara Prosecutor's Office the other day subpoenaed Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya, two members of the junta, for interrogation. This is a welcome move, although bureaucratic procedures did take over seven months to do so after amendments to the Constitution. The wounds of what these people inflicted are still wide open in Turkey's psyche (and across the social divide). This ongoing transformation requires that they are prosecuted and subjected to fair and swift trials. This will be a symbolic but crucial step to ending a period of coups.


Turkey’s ‘flawed’ democracy -- a watershed

Since the mid ‘80s on, with many ups and downs, Turkey has remained a focal point of a massive transformation process. Every day that passes is an emphasis on its irreversible nature.

The formation of problems during the ‘80s and their peaceful or violent definitions in the ‘90s led to a turning point in early the 2000s. It can be argued that the country stands at the threshold of “deepening democracy” as it enters the second decade of the millennium.

The transformation process was accelerated by a powerful economic program and accession negotiations with the EU, both of which have increased the global visibility of the country. Its importance in regional and transnational contexts continues to increase. At the same time, the very process of transformation has brought to the fore risks and challenges through the demands of different segments and the push for equality. It has been expressed by “institutional fights,” polarization, political asymmetry and more. Concerns have focused on the field of basic rights and freedoms.

Are transformation and democratization in synch with each other? Or, as others argue, is the gap between them increasing in the sense that part of the democratization process lags behind, displaying the incapabilities of those who govern through politics and bureaucracy? These questions are vital because there needs to be a constructive correlation between the two elements if Turkey is to be a place where the complex social fabric does not dissolve, where coexistence in diversity and equality is fully secured; a country that contributes to the solution of regional and global problems.

As transformation accelerates and democratization hiccups in keeping up with it, Turkey retains a position among the world’s “flawed” democracies. This major argument comes from a fresh study, titled “The Perception of Democracy” and conducted jointly by the İstanbul Policy Center, the National Democratic Institute and the MetroPOLL Center for Social and Strategic Research. Its authors, Fuat Keyman and Özge Kemahlıoğlu, set the following diagnosis on Turkey today:

“It has come to the final phase of transition to democracy, but is a ‘flawed’ one, which has been unable to strengthen democracy in its state-government and state-society/individual relations. It even feeds the perception that it may develop into a ‘mutant’ regime.”

“Mutant” is a term the authors use to refer to a model where the state and government have persistent problems with each other and restrictions on rights and freedoms remain as “local norms.”

In other words, 2011’s Turkey is stuck between a full transition to democracy and the increasing risk of remaining somewhere between “half accomplished” and authoritarianism.

The study is based on two consecutive field studies, involving 1,514 people over 26 provinces. Its aim was to find out whether the perceptions of the people overlapped with the overall perceptions on the negative correlation I highlighted above.

The results are strikingly identical. The main talking points were outlined under rights, freedoms, citizenship, fairness of elections, quality of democratic governance, perceptions on institutional changes and the views on the “de facto” regime.

The response to, “If you were to rate between 1 and 10 the quality of democracy today in Turkey, how would you?” was 5.03. To the question, “Do you believe the ethnic, religious and other minorities can express themselves sufficiently?” 49.9 percent responded negatively. Furthermore, those who believe that “journalists hesitate to express their views” are 55.4 percent, while 62.5 percent think that political parties do not compete under fair conditions. A total of 41.8 percent of the respondents believe that the army is not under the civilian government’s control.

The study is full of such details that seem to confirm that Turkey to them stands “in the middle.” Concerns remain, mistrust is intact and so are expectations.

Keyman and Kemahlıoğlu reach several conclusions in the end of their 26-page study. First, the system is a flawed one in the eyes of citizens, bearing the risk of shifting to a “mutant” one. Next, the people’s perception of the democracy itself is also flawed, meaning that the political culture to consolidate it is flawed. Third, people place higher priority on “order and stability” than on “freedom and representation.” People demand transparency and accountability, but have a “limited” view on the rights and freedoms of others. Also, polarization between people who support the government and those who support the opposition is also a variable that must be taken seriously. With this information in mind, and the additional data I conveyed in an earlier article -- namely, that some 72 percent of the voters in general want a brand new constitution -- one can easily conclude that the phase of ‘deepening the democracy’ after June 12 elections will be a tougher one than ever before.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Arab unrest may help Europe to fight its demons

Day after day, Europe is turning into a sick continent. Specters of racism and xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments and a hatred for Islam are rising up and threatening to take over mainstream politics.

Signals coming from France (Marine Le Pen), Netherlands (Geert Wilders), Finland (True Finns Party) and Sweden (Swedish Democrats Party) are adding to fears of a déjà vu of the 1930s is on our doorstep. Discreet or open racism is on the march, with the likes of Geert Wilders calling for a ban of the Quran or Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the board of Deutsche Bundesbank, spreading nonsensical claims about the genes of the Muslims and conveying hatred.

The far right is openly threatening the European project.

The worst part is, as Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in the Guardian, “In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, centre-right parties have been trying to win back voters who have turned to such anti-foreigner populists by adopting slightly toned-down versions of their rhetoric and policies.”

A picture of the European Union in 2011 is one where unifying “European values” have stepped aside for a dangerous discourse on divisive “European identity.” It has been taking over as a dominating attitude feeding on religious and cultural fault lines, despite the foundations of the EU being based on values stated clearly in the European Convention on Human Rights.

This takes place as the concept of diversity suppresses the concept of freedom. In many corners of Europe parallel societies developed and groups continued to live without a fruitful contact with each other, all in the name of protecting diversity. But, it also led to a neglect of basic human rights. Mental barriers rose between the various groups and paved the way for growing intolerance among the locals -- who were increasingly indifferent to participation in democratic debate, financial crisis, unemployment, political apathy, etc, -- that is, mainly against people who believe in Islam.

As traditional, mainstream parties lose control of the direction of discourse, the situation will inevitably threaten the ideals of the EU. This has to be diverted onto a healthy course by engaging the mass-media, churches, NGOs, trade unions and schools.

In this context, a well-prepared report comes as a rescue: “Living together: Combining diversity and freedom in 21st century Europe,” a report of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe, points out a set of risks and their urgency, such as “a possible clash between religious freedom and freedom of expression.” The report encourages Europeans to call for equal freedoms under a single legal system. It speaks of a “muscular liberalism” and broadening the base of the “democratic centerfield.”

Garton Ash, one of the signatories of the study (its members include prominent libertarian Europeans such as Joschka Fischer, Emma Bonino, Danuta Hübner, Ayşe Kadıoğlu, Javier Solana, Edward Mortimer, etc.) wrote: “Our motto is ‘minimize compulsion, maximize persuasion.’ Mainstream politicians, intellectuals, journalists, businesspeople, sports heroes -- all should mobilize to convince the public that so long as people abide by the ground rules of a free society, they have as much right to be full and equal citizens as anyone else, whether they be Muslim, Christian, atheist or Zoroastrian. And that we can make this work.”

“Living Together” is a text which must be spread and studied carefully, since it issues a clear SOS about the state of things. It contains a high number of lucid recommendations for action in order to end discrimination, intolerance, obeying laws, combating racism, etc.

But there is more to help the sick continent. Can the Arab awakening be a guiding force to change European attitudes to Islam? Clearly, it can. I was part of an initial meeting in Rome last week where a core group of academics and media figures from various European countries as well as from the Middle East/ Maghreb gathered to outline a manifesto which says: “In light of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, part of a broad struggle for freedom and dignity, Europeans urgently need to rethink their attitudes. The Arab world and Islam are not immutable essences but equally open to such influences as Europeans and their various faiths have been. These events in North Africa and the Middle East will have a profound and long-lasting impact on Europe -- whether in terms of politics, security, economics, migration or cultural and religious relations. Rather than fearing such changes Europeans should welcome them as a great reinvigorating democratic challenge. In addition they provide an opportunity to examine afresh relations with Muslim communities in Europe, which are also being deeply affected.”

The Rome Group will now engage in various actions through media and academic studies, to fight continental fear and insecurity. The path is a long one, but the way things deteriorate, it is the one that must be taken.


Media freedom in Turkey: What to do?

As journalists celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday here in Turkey another historic event in the sector also took place. The Milliyet and Vatan dailies changed proprietors in a ceremony that was attended by most of the staff of both newspapers.

Milliyet has been part of the strong tradition of journalism in Turkey, it was once led by the legendary editor Abdi İpekçi, a social-liberal intellectual who was murdered in 1979 by Mehmet Ali Ağca (who attempted to murder the Pope John Paul II some years later) in the center of İstanbul. Both newspapers, which belonged to the Doğan Media Group and have now been taken over by the Demirören-Karacan venture, have devoted professionals, but the ceremony had a somewhat bitter, uncertain air to it. Some of them felt sad that they were traded like serfs in the Middle Ages without being asked or consulted. None of them, not even those in the highest positions in the newsroom had been given any information about the sale. At the ceremony they were ignored, I was told by a colleague.

It is part of the sad reality of the already burdened profession, revealing a lot of clues about the respect for, and the editorial independence of, the Turkish media. Some of my readers may feel that focusing on ownership issues is an obsession. On the contrary, it is one of the key issues when one discusses the media sector. Sadly, the established corporate culture, which is heavily dependent on the powers that be in Ankara, deliberately hindered journalism over the past two decades from developing into a domain of rights and freedom and to remain loyal to its core values. One certainly hopes that the sale of Milliyet and Vatan, which weakens the unfairly strong domination of the Doğan Media Group in print, will encourage a return to the basics once emphasized by İpekçi, but it is a small hope.

Today, we -- many concerned journalists from Turkey -- will gather in Brussels to discuss media freedom issues together with colleagues from the Balkans at a big conference called “Speak up!”

Let me summarize my viewpoints on the current situation in Turkey. The latest report by Freedom House, which describes Turkey as “partly free,” is a serious indicator of a deviation from the Copenhagen Criteria. There are several factors that require an SOS signal when it comes to free speech issues and press freedoms.

1) The laws: Five legal codes that “cover” the area are all problematic. The Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the Internet Law, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) Law, the Press Law and the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) include more than 25 articles that curb freedom, and many of them are implemented in ways that are fiercely in disfavor of the media.

2) Legal precedents: The high judiciary continues to set precedents that consolidate a climate in which the media and individuals publish news and comment in fear and under threat of being prosecuted.

3) Arrests and prison sentences: Long arrest periods have become the norm. Because of the blurred formulations of restrictive articles, it is impossible to distinguish where free journalism ends and where “crime” begins. The TMK causes serious problems in that context. No journalist should be put under arrest for professional conduct.

4) The government: It must stop addressing the press in menacing terms and “encouraging” prosecutors to take action on exercises of free speech that it does not like. It lacks respect for the diversity and independence of the media.

5) Parliament and a culture of intolerance: In the past nine years of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule, there has been almost no example of either a stance or a push for pro-press freedom by the opposition as a whole. On the contrary, it was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) that added the “humiliation of Atatürk clause” to the Internet Law. Both the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) remain indifferent to a change to Article 301 of the TCK, free speech rights in Kurdish and harassment of their Kurdish colleagues. Today, Parliament as a whole is part of the problem, not the solution.

6) The judiciary: Its role as a “pro-restrictive” force in cases related to journalists covering politically charged cases like Ergenekon and also stories about the judiciary itself leaves no doubt. There is also reason to believe that a part of the judiciary piles up thousands of cases to make life difficult for the government, simply because it is hostile to it.

7) Media proprietors: It is they who are fully responsible for sanctioning the firing of columnists for political reasons, in order to appease the powers that be in order to gain and expand economic favors granted by such powers. None of them seem to have understood that their role does not include daily interference by shaping the content and front pages of newspapers, or what is broadcast by the TV stations they own; a politically/economically corrupt media cannot in a credible manner cover corruption and monitor those in power. They are the cause of “primal fear” among journalists today here, the fear of being fired for what they write and publish.

8) Editors and journalists: They are too polarized to defend their freedom and independence, not only against political powers but also against financial ones. They must also set an example through respect for diverse opinions in their own institutions and not silence people because of their views. They need urgently to discuss ethical issues before politics.


Journalists’ ‘real fear’ in Turkey

Nobody disputes the fact that free speech and media freedoms are worrisome issues in today’s Turkey. Yet, there is a disturbing cacophony among my local colleagues when it comes to detecting the sources of such problems, exposing the culprits and diagnosing the chronic maladies that affect the profession.

What is worse, the cacophony, which is aimed at creating confusion for foreign observers and decision makers, is deliberately spread. Cynicism and partisanship have been basic elements that pollute the conduct of journalists here. No wonder undue simplifications are common among them.

Whenever the topic of freedom is evoked, I feel compelled to interfere in order to set the record straight. As the first journalist who introduced the American concept of “news ombudsmanship” 10 years ago here, and as the only news ombudsman in the world who was fired by the proprietor (Aydın Doğan) in 2004 simply for criticizing a totally fabricated news story (i.e. for expressing an independent viewpoint) and as an “outside observer” of the media patterns that curb its freedoms, I object to distortions, biased narratives and the act of “living in lies” by many of my colleagues simply because I may have “memory overload.”

Let me take it point by point.

According to Freedom House, Turkey is “partly free.” The situation -- like that of Hungary, Mexico and South Korea -- has worsened considerably lately. Imprisonment has become a norm, and due to the Counterterrorism Law (TMK), our Kurdish and leftist colleagues have been targeted. This is shameful indeed.

Around 5,000 of our colleagues who try to cover politically sensitive trials and who publish critical stories about the judiciary itself face trial. The legislation is restrictive: There are more than four main laws that help make Turkey “partly free,” and the government remains indifferent to amending them. But my agreement with my colleagues ends here. So deep is the loyalty to ideology and fear of one’s superior among many of them that their shortsightedness becomes inevitable. The story is not only about the political pressure, but the fact that they distort.

One late example of such misrepresentation belongs to Amberin Zaman, a colleague who writes for Habertürk and The Economist. Until recently Zaman was rather sharp in her analytical skills, but no longer.

In an article for the German Marshall Fund (GMF), she outlines three categories of pressure: a) TMK (too narrow in scope), b) “Arm twisting by the prime minister” and c) Fethullah Gülen. What makes this categorization when it comes to points b and c so unfortunate is not only their shortsightedness, but the risk that it discredits the writer fully before her readers. The one on Gülen is nothing more than fiction. The fact that the authorities filed about 400 lawsuits against reporters of the Zaman daily (followed by Taraf) simply for news stories says enough about this claim. Amberin Zaman also deliberately forgets to mention the fact that Gülen recently called for tolerance and respect in the face of criticism of his person and the movement.

She also mentions the sacking of Andrew Finkel by Today’s Zaman, which was, true, an unfortunate, wrong act. It should never have happened. Yet, while mentioning the Finkel case, she ignores the recent sacking of columnist Cüneyt Ülsever and the discontinuing of the columns of Tufan Türenç by the owner of Hürriyet. Because she obviously does not want us to realize that media moguls are the threats to press freedoms here today.

So works selectiveness when analyzing problems. After all, the crucial question for us is this: Who is the journalist really afraid of today in Turkey? The law, the government, the judiciary or the police?

Journalists here have always fought boldly against the curbing of freedoms. Despite “arm twisting,” a fierce anti-government press -- Sözcü, Cumhuriyet, Yeniçağ, etc. -- is daily in action. Taraf does not mince its words, either.

The answer is simple: They are mostly afraid of being sacked by their bosses, of losing their job because of what they write and publish. This, today, is the number one cause of censorship and self-censorship in Turkey. It is our sad reality -- the heart of the matter that remains “unspoken” by my colleagues in the so-called mainstream media. It is much easier to blame the government for creating such “fear.”

Remzi Lani, executive director of Albanian Media Institute, was spot on when he, in the excellent article “Balkan Media: Lost in Translation,” described the real threats to journalism in the Balkans, which also apply fully to Turkey: “The media in the region are not faced any longer with government pressure to the extent that they were up until a few years ago. Now the media face capitalistic trends and financial pressures such as foreign capital, distribution, transparency, ownership, labor policy and corruption. Hence, a media proletariat is now a new emerging phenomenon in the Balkans. Nowadays bosses and editors pose more of a direct or immediate threat to journalists than governments do. Therefore, the hot issues in the region are now focused on the relations between media organizations and their employees, the labor market, professional unions and media ownership. This is an agenda that needs to be faced.”


WikiLeaks Turkey (8): ‘Ankara only hope for Syria’

Quo vadis? The question about what is next for Syria today is one that multiplies the concerns geometrically about Arab unrest. For 40 years, what made the hard Baathist regime survive was the defining feature of Hafez al-Assad -- pure shrewdness combined with ruthless behavior. The legacy is, as the cycle of bloody events show, still very strong.

So, in the specific case of Syria, the international community has to deal as much with fear as trust. The latter has been a key issue in the approach to Damascus, and now it has to be tested to its very limits.

An in-depth look at the WikiLeaks cables on Turkish-Syrian-American relations tells a story of caution, suspicion, tiny hopes and preparedness for a backlash: the American side did not discourage the Turks from trying to get closer to the young Assad, but it always took it with a grain of salt. Overall, there was common ground between Ankara and Washington, D.C., with regard to Syria as both countries believed it was worth a try to pull Syria out of the iron fist of the Assad clan and its corrupt backers, in addition to ending its isolation and endorsing reforms in favor of democracy and the free market. “The Turks, led by PM Erdogan [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan], FonMin Gul [Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül], and chief foreign policy advisor Davutoglu [Ahmet Davutoğlu], are selling improved relations with Syria as a major foreign policy success. GOT [government of turkey] leaders cast Turkey as a channel of communication for the US and Israel with Syria and as a friend that can support economic reform. At the same time our GOT interlocutors view Assad’s control as too fragile to sustain anything but economic reform. In this context, Erdogan has promoted his Dec. 22-23 visit to Damascus and Aleppo as a huge step forward. Erdogan reportedly raised Iraq and Middle East peace issues, but apparently received nothing new from Assad. MFA contact spun the signing of a free trade agreement as ‘the highlight’ of the visit. We pushed back that this is the wrong approach to take with Syria,” wrote Robert Deutsch, a former charge d’affaires of the US Embassy in Ankara, in a “confidential” cable on Jan. 18, 2005, weeks after Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Syria.

Deutsch wrote in another cable (April 15, 2005) that even (former) Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer “encouraged Assad to ‘continue’ with internal reforms. … With great satisfaction, (Turkish senior) diplomat Celikkol claimed that Sezer’s visit had strengthened the hand of Assad and other reformers against hard-liners who want to maintain the status quo.”

But the American skepticism persisted. The picture becomes quite clear in a cable written in July 22, 2005, by Nancy McEldowney, charge d’affaires of the embassy, when we learn that Turks also raise deep suspicions: “(Syrian Deputy FM) [Walid] al-Muallim met with FM Gul in Ankara July 22 to discuss Iraq, the Israel Palestine peace process and a possible upcoming ‘unofficial’ visit to Turkey by Bashar Assad. One MFA official told us privately that the discussions were difficult and inconclusive; another emphasized the strong message Gul and (undersecretary) Tuygan delivered on Iraq. After the meeting, Gul expressed anger at the way the Syrians are ‘using’ the Turks.”

But the absence of confidence did not halt the Turkish efforts. In the meantime, several cables emphasized that the core or “realism” in Ankara’s policies has a value, and the Turks correctly work hard to end Syria’s isolation, to stop any sectarian violence that may erupt and break the Iran-Syria axis. By October 2009, the American ambivalence seemed in line with the one in Ankara: Turkish policies on Syria encouraged Assad to hold on to his iron grip and resist change, but also seemed to be the only ray of hope to move Damascus away from its axis with Teheran.

In a “secret” cable sent by US Charge d’Affairs Charles Hunter in Damascus, Oct. 28, 2009, the conclusion reflects the persistent dilemma: “Turkey’s methodical deepening of relations with Damascus offers Syria a strategic buffer against international pressure and a ready mediator willing to help Syria mend strained relations with neighbors, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Lebanon. In the long run, Assad’s increasing trust of PM Erdogan offers the best hope of luring Syria out of Tehran’s orbit.” As of now, Assad has been losing his friends in Ankara. He abused his relations, hesitated in reform, resorted to extreme violence and may have gotten a one-way ticket out of power. Calculations have changed. It is now too late to put things on the right track. That Ankara can save him looks utterly doubtful. Every day that passes, the Assad clan moves back to isolation, and chaos.


Center of destruction

In the words of a Turkish proverb, “A madman throws a stone into a well and it takes 40 wise men to pull it out.”

One can dismiss the latest Supreme Election Board (YSK) scandal with such a reference, but it would be foolish to do so. That a 16th largest economy in the world and key regional player has been wasting its energy in an endless debate on whether some of its citizens are eligible to run in elections must be explained in sharper terms than mere foolishness.

The YSK jeopardized an already vulnerable, “razor’s edge” social peace by nitpicking details from badly written laws in a “legally fundamentalist” manner and pushing already outraged Kurds onto the streets, only to backpedal from its position 48 hours later. Are its members responsible for the damage caused to the human lives and goods? They are. Yet, nobody is demanding full-scale accountability for this archaic action, simply because 11 members of the board, whose origins as high judges at the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State, cannot be held accountable because their decisions are final.

Why? Because the catastrophically written, pro-authoritarian, “control freak” Constitution of 1980 says so.

In such a milieu, it is easier for the common man to take it to the streets, or be angry at those who throw stones. Even intellectuals en masse miss the target and blame Kurds or react with surprise when there is violence. Still, despite many years of substantial reforms, understanding the rage of Palestinians and their violence is much easier than that of Kurds.

Condemning violence is a given; it is unacceptable. But why people resort to it must be understood properly.

Orhan Miroğlu, a Kurdish intellectual and columnist, drew our attention to some statistical data yesterday. He tells us that according to one survey, Kurds prefer books on psychology to anything else. No wonder, says Miroğlu (who barely escaped an assassination, while the respected Kurdish intellectual, Musa Anter, was “executed” in a dark street), that they do. If there were an international exam on loyalty to a country, despite everything done to cut the ties to it, Kurds would win by a large margin, he adds. When one remembers mass graves, burned villages, deportations, summary executions, torture, denial of identity and poverty, he is spot on.

Now, he is worried that the “end of the road” is near. Miroğlu sees an uninterrupted pattern in Ankara, with the YSK move as the latest example. The “inner state” is determined to keep the Kurdish will out of the democratic game, it is decided to harass the free Kurdish vote, and therefore prefers that people see “mountain warfare” as the only remaining means for expressing their voices.

Since decisions such as that of the YSK can only cause consequences of deep alienation and mistrust among a segment of the electorate, it cannot be explained by myopia; there is much more to it.

It is the ghost of tutelage, alive and well. It wants to decide for people who they are allowed to elect -- or not.

This should also be a new wakeup call for all those who objectively want to see where the heart of the matter is. That the ruling AK Party may have lost its pace or its compass for reforms, that it may have moved into the area of conformism, but the fact remains the same. The “old” Turkey, still in full denial of today’s world, unleashes all of its mechanisms to derail progress, and lead it to a domain where chaos may serve its archaic purposes.

This is the old versus the new. Every anomaly and folly (in appearance) these days proves only one point: Turkey can no longer move ahead with the current constitution, the unamended laws and dusty institutions of 1980. A militarist and despotic culture, which has kept Turkey in a cage and its citizens as poor cavies who attack each other whenever they are electrified, has become a huge stumbling block. Osman Can, a former rapporteur of the Constitutional Court, called the latest YSK scandal “the magnificent parade of anachronism.”

The destructive center against the democracy is now well-known and it is only civilian politics that is up to the task of burying it.