Developments in China’s restive region of Xinjiang are causing a stir in Turkey, where pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan to do something about Beijing’s brutal suppression of the Uighurs; a close relative of the Turks who speak a language close to Turkish. The pressure is understandable given that many Uighurs fleeing from Chinese oppression have taken refuge in Turkey over the years and that these refugees are in close touch with ultra-nationalist and Pan-Turkic groups capable of creating serious political unrest the country.
Already, demonstrators earlier this week scuffled with police outside the Chinese embassy, and such public outpourings of sympathy can be expected to continue in the coming days and weeks depending on how the situation unfolds. Chinese brutality is of course well known around the world, particularly after the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, when government tanks were sent to crush unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, most of them young students.
China’s record in Tibet is also a known fact. That particular problem also made international news headlines again not so long ago during the Beijing Olympics. Now it is the Uighurs that have come in the international spotlight following the recent bloody events in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region.
It seems that rather than try and prevent further violence between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese, Beijing is throwing its weight behind the Chinese, and thus stoking further ethnic hatred and harming its own international reputation. Given the pressure from the public and the opposition --which as usual sees a golden opportunity here to strike a blow against the government-- Prime Minister Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Turkey would ask the UN Security Council to discuss the events in Xinjiang. Turkey is presently a non-permanent member of the Security Council.
In the meantime, the Chinese Charge d’Affaires was earlier this week called to the foreign ministry to provide the Turkish side with information concerning the events. However, a statement issued after the meeting indicates that no formal protest was lodged by Ankara.
Many question just how far Ankara will go, given that there is an economic giant and a potential, if not actual, superpower at the other end of the dispute here, namely China. It is also interesting to note that Russia has come out in support of Beijing, accusing "separatists" Ğ meaning the Uighurs Ğ of sparking the events, and saying that this is "China’s domestic issue," a warning to outsiders not to interfere.
Moscow’s position is understandable, given the fact that it too has restive regions that are predominantly Islamic and therefore amenable to "outside interference." With Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council, it is unlikely that any Turkish initiative, if it embarks on one, will result in a condemnation of China. It is still unclear as to how the violence in Xinjiang started, despite a history of Chinese oppression in the region. Reports suggest that the ethnic violence left scores of innocent people dead on both sides, inflaming calls for vengeance the ethnic communities.
There is also the fact that China is using the terms "separatism" and "fundamentalism" as cornerstones for its explanation of the events in Xinjiang. If Turkey were to go beyond calls to respect human rights in the region, and appear to be supporting Uighur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound with China referring to the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country.
Then there is the growing Turkish-Chinese common interest, especially in the economics, and this was exemplified by President Gül’s high profile official visit to that country recently. Another factor affectig how much anger the government can inject into its rhetoric in support of the Uighurs.
It is noteworthy in this context that Ankara apparently recently twice refused to issue a visa to Uighur activistand US resident, Rabia Kader, who is seen by Beijing as the person behind all the trouble.Kader herself confirmed the view to broadcaster NTV.
Clearly Ankara was not prepared to upset China in the past and if Kader is, however, issued a visa now, China will likely see it as an act of defiance. The question is if Ankara is ready for such an act of defiance at this time.
Given the conditions, Turkey will likely remain in the "We are deeply concerned and call for restraint" mode, rather than embark on an all out diplomatic campaign against China.
The government, however, will have to ward off widespread domestic criticism given that opponents of the Justice and Development Part, or AKP, are already using the issue with great relish. Whatever happened to spark the start of the events in Xinjiang, it is clear that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party could have done without this crisis at an already difficult time in terms of domestic politics.
Turkey’s top general, Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ, may have declared the document in which an plot against the government is allegedly spelled out a "fake." He may have rested this claim - made during a press conference at which he was flanked by 36 top generals - on the findings of military prosecutors, going on to belittle the alleged document as just a "piece of paper." But neither Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, nor his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, appear intent on letting the matter rest, even though the original version of the alleged document has never been found since its contents were published by daily Taraf.
That leaves the whole acrimonious debate centered on a photocopy purportedly carrying the signature of a certain Col. Dursun Çiçek from GHQ.
Meanwhile, AKP officials have filed a formal complaint about the alleged document, and Prime Minister Erdoğan, speaking a day after Gen. Başbuğ’s press conference, has backed this move.
Although the inquiry by the military prosecutor may have been concluded, Erdoğan said the civilian judiciary would be conducting its own investigation now, a clear position of defiance given that past rulings by the military judiciary have rarely been questioned in this manner. The debate surrounding this document/piece of paper is not the only indication, however, of the cat-and-mouse game going on between the military and the AKP, a game that is progressively leading to more tension between the two sides and their supporters.
A pair of developments in this respect happened just as the National Security Council, or MGK, was due to meet in order to discuss the document/piece of paper as one of its main agenda items.
In the first of these, the Parliament - in which the AKP has an overbearing presence - passed legislation that will enable military personnel to be tried in civilian courts, rather than military ones, during peacetime. In addition, the same legislation ensures that civilians will not be tried by military courts.
The government argues that this move is aimed at meeting EU criteria.
But critics point to the timing of this legislation and said that while the EU demands less military intervention in politics, it has no criteria concerning military courts - though many European countries have such courts - other than that these courts subscribe to relevant European conventions.
It is inevitable, therefore, that this move should have been interpreted within the context of the struggle between the military and the AKP, rather than as an attempt to harmonize with EU legislation.
The other significant development, as the MGK was preparing to deliberate the latest developments, was the surprise arrest of Col. Dursun Çiçek as a suspect in the "Ergenekon terrorist organization case," as AKP supporters have come to see it.
The prosecutor in that case alleges a plot to overthrow the AKP government by means of violent acts aimed at destabilizing society, making a military intervention inevitable.
What was interesting in the case of Col. Çiçek was that he was invited in by the civilian prosecutor of the Ergenekon case to answer some questions, whereupon he was unexpectedly arrested and put in prison as a suspect. What confused the matter further was that he was released by another court less than 24 hours later, even though the case initiated against him will continue.
An addendum to all this is the fact that the government is now trying to change the constitution in a manner that could allow the perpetrators of the 1980 coup, including Gen. Kenan Evren, who went on to become president, to be tried.
It seems the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, may not be totally averse to this, seeing as it was at the head of the list of parties that suffered in 1980.
Not to anyone’s surprise, these developments have further split Turkish society - which is already divided along a host of fault lines - and have led to mounting anger on all sides. It is clear that old ghosts in Turkey’s closet are coming out to haunt the country in a way that has the potential to cause serious political instability.
It is obviously a good thing that the Turkish military’s role in a modern society is being increasingly defined as a result of these developments. All the indications are that its political influence is being whittled away in a serious and unprecedented manner.
But there are aspects to how this is being done that lead one to question just how sincere the government and its supporters in the judiciary are - and it is difficult, given recent developments, to argue that the judiciary is impartial.
Using the notion of "EU criteria" in this way, while doing hardly anything in terms of the reforms that must be enacted in order to move Turkey’s membership talks along, does appear less than sincere.
What is also worrying is that simply because the government is hitting at the military in this way, some European officials and media organs that are looking at the matter superficially appear pleased over all of this. Because of this, they are suspending their judgment and refusing to ask some questions they should be asking.
At any rate, signs are emerging that even the government is now concerned about where all of this may lead. It has agreed to a commission that will take up all these matters and ensure that the tensions between vital organs of the state do not increase further. The coming days and weeks will show whether or not this is possible.
Addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament for the first time since he assumed office, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was reported by the press as saying on Wednesday: "Draw a circle and put Turkey in the center. Anything that happens a thousand kilometers away from us concerns us."
This of course fits with the grand vision that Davutoğlu has for Turkey as a major player, not just regionally but also globally. In addition to this Davutoğlu has of course been billed as a "Middle East expert," a designation that he too is fond of.
But, events in Iran force us to question these two assumptions. Let alone a thousand kilometers away, we are left wondering how concerned Turkey was with its next door neighbor Iran, given its mixed response to the events there.
Put another way, we are left wondering whether Ankara was following developments there as closely as it should have been, because if it had been, it should have foreseen the potential for a political crisis that would interest the whole of the international community. What makes it more surprising is the fact that Davutoğlu is said to be an expert on Middle Eastern affairs.
Iran on the other hand is a country that Ankara should be following the closest, not just because it is a source of international tension on our borders, but because anything major that happens in that country has always had spillover effects for Turkey.
The thing that makes us, and many diplomats in Ankara, question Turkey’s stance here is the immediate and almost knee-jerk response it had to the outcome of the elections in Iran, even though it became clear only hours after the announcement of the results that there would be trouble on the streets.
Overlooking the very serious potential for disturbances Ğ most likely because they were not aware of it, or underestimated it Ğ both President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, immediately congratulated Ahmedinejad over the phone and wished him well during his second term.
In the meantime, the Foreign Ministry remained silent for days on end as events of world importance in Iran began to unfold, and it became increasingly uncertain where all of this would lead. History has shown that such developments can end up taking unexpected turns, which makes it doubly important that they are followed closely.
The hurried congratulatory messages sent to Ahmadinejad are interesting for another reason. Turkey is known for its excessive caution in its statements about matters of international importance. It usually prefers to listen to what other are saying, and then finds a middle road for itself in the statement it makes on the particular topic in hand.
Preference for Ahmadinejad?
This sense of caution was, however, noticeably lacking in the warm messages from President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan to Ahmadinejad .
One would have expected Foreign Minister Davutoglu to advise the president and the prime Minister to take such a line.
Some analysts suggest that what was in fact happening in Ankara was a subconscious preference for Ahmadinejad , given the ruling Justice and Development Party’s, or AKP, Islamic leanings.
Put another way, it is suggested that the same tendency that pushes the AKP close to Hamas and the regime in Sudan, and which forced Prime Minister Erdoğan to explode against Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, was in operation here.
If this line of argumentation is indeed true, then there is a serious contradiction vis-a-vis Davutoğlu’s vision for Turkey as a grand regional player.
The reason is that a country with such a large pretension has to not only develop its grand strategy on the basis of a host of likely scenarios, but in doing so it has to also maintain a strong element of impartiality.
The fact that the AKP administration is struggling in terms of the second of these, namely impartiality, is already seen from reports in influential Israeli papers which are now indicating that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want Turkey to mediate between Israel and Syria.
The reason is said to be the AKP’s pro Hamas and anti-Israeli stance, a position that came to a head in Davos.
Turkey did of course issue an official statement on Iran eventually.
This came Wednesday and had a different tone to the initial warm congratulatory messages sent to Ahmadinejad .
In his statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin expressed Ankara’s desire that "the channels for seeking rights remain open in Iran."
He also said that Turkey has confidence in Iran’s ability to find solutions to its internal debates by means of these channels.
Ozugergin went on to add Ankara’s desire that the present events will contribute to the development of democratic institutions and rules in Iran.
These are, of course, diplomatically phrased remarks of caution to the regime in Teheran to refrain from anti-democratic actions. The fact that the regime in Iran is going precisely the way of anti-democratic actions, however Ğ with police brutality, censoring of the media, and attempting to find foreign scapegoats for the troubles Ğ makes in unlikely that Tehran will be too pleased with this statement from Ankara.
This statement has nevertheless shown that Ankara, which is claiming a place for itself as an important regional player, remains reactive rather than proactive in the face of major events.
Turkey’s "post-modern civil war" continues unabated. This time a document allegedly signed by a military officer has stirred the cauldron, pitting the military against the government again. The document Ğ whose authenticity is still being questioned - was published in daily Taraf, a newspaper that is building a reputation for sensational political revelations that keep the public occupied for weeks on end. This document, said to have been drawn up by an officer in the General Staff’s office, reveals a blueprint for a conspiracy from within the military aimed at discrediting the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in power, as well as the "Fetullah Group," whose leader in the United States, Fetullah Gülen, is considered by hard-line secularists in this country as their archenemy.
Authentic or not, news of the document was enough to send Prime Minister Erdoğan reeling with anger and lambasting those who are targeting his party in this way. The AKP wants prosecutors to act on the news in Taraf and apprehend the culprits and punish them.
What has added credence to the document’s authenticity for the AKP is that it was found among papers seized from a defendant in the famous Ergenekon case. How the document came to be in the hands of this defendant, and why it was subsequently leaked to the press, rather than being acted on by the legal authorities is not clear.
Conspiracy theories abound on this score also. One says that the prosecutor did not understand the seriousness of this document. Another says that some pro-Islamic people in the prosecutor’s office, or the police force, wanted to intentionally create a crisis between the government and the military.
If this is true, it means there are people on both sides of the divide in this post-modern civil war who are prepared to create a crisis in order to further their aims. The military has of course vehemently denied that such a document was prepared in the General Staff’s Office within the chain of command.
Military prosecutors are now investigating whether there are those in GHQ who acted on their own initiatives and prepared an outline for a conspiracy to discredit the government by unlawful means.
We still await the outcome of this investigation. Gen. Başbuğ, the chief of the General Staff, has promised publicly that if it were established that this document was prepared by people attached to his office, those responsible will receive severe penalties.
But what adds to the muddle is the fact that it does not matter at this stage whether the document is authentic or not. If it is, this means there are still minds in the military who feel that they can get away with such plans after all that has happened in Turkey over these past few years.
If not, on the other hand, it means that there are people out there who are prepared to go to these lengths to fabricate documents in order to stir domestic trouble in Turkey. Either way there is a criminal attempt whose perpetrators must be revealed.
What makes the whole thing more interesting is that this is all happening against the backdrop of relatively good ties between the military and the government at the present time. Some analysts maintain that this is a bother for hardliners on both sides of the secularist-Islamist divide in Turkey.
Another glaring inconsistency has to do with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s reaction to the initial report in daily Taraf. This reaction showed he was immediately convinced about the authenticity of the document the paper reported on.
In other words, he chose not to say something cautious and responsible like, "This is just a press report at this stage. We are investigating the matter together with the military and will let you know of the outcome."
This is the same Erdoğan, however, that immediately chews the head of journalists and calls on boycotting media organs that correctly report on corruption cases that may or may not have connections with the AKP.
The bottom line appears to be that the political situation in Turkey, which is messy and confusing enough as it is, is set to get messier and even more confusing in the coming days and weeks, since there are clearly those who are prepared to stir the cauldron in this way.
Given such a divided society, a gullible public and highly touchy political interest in this country, their job is mere child’s play of course.
The fact that the government is stalling on Turkey’s reform process is something EU officials are bringing up on a daily basis today. But it is not just that the reform process has stalled. There are also signs of serious regressions taking place, which should be of great concern for those who believe in democracy and the importance of the freedom of expression for this country. The case involving government intimidation of the Dogan Media Group is well known at this stage.
It took some time for EU officials to come around to understanding the gravity of the matter, but this issue, which raises questions about just how serious the government is concerning a seminal matter like the freedom of the press, is now under scrutiny by the EU Commission.
The latest case that shows just how badly Turkey is regressing as far as the question of freedom of the press is concerned involves a journalist from the influential daily Milliyet.
Nedim Şener, a highly successful investigative journalist from the paper, is now facing two trials in which prosecutors are seeking a total of 28 years in prison for a book he wrote.
The book titled "The Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies" concerns the killing of Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian language newspaper Agos. In the book, Şener highlights serious negligence by the intelligence officers of the police force in Trabzon, where Dink’s killer, Ogun Samast, is from.
Şener is being charged, on the instigation of the intelligence officers he names in his book, with "targeting persons who have taken part in the fight against terrorism, revealing secret information, and trying to divert the course of justice."
The prosecutor is seeking a total of 20 years for these charges. In addition to this case, another case has been brought against him on the grounds that he has "insulted organs of the state," and the prosecutor is seeking an additional eight years for this.
The grotesque irony here is that the total sentence being sought for Şener is more than the 20 years that is being asked for Ogun Samast, who is accused with the murder of Dink.
But the irony does not end there in this Kafkaesque case, where the state is showing its teeth, in a blatant attempt to "protect its own" and coming down with the full force of its weight on a journalist in a manner that belies every claim that Turkey has made great strides in the area of the freedom of the press.
An official report prepared and presented to Prime Minister Erdoğan, by a group of investigators attached to his office, also corroborates Şener’s claims.
According to this report the officers in question were seriously negligent since they had sufficient intelligence to act on in order to try and prevent the murder of Dink.
But no charges have been brought against these officers for this. They are merely the subjects of an internal investigation by the Interior Ministry, even though there is enough evidence to merit a case of criminal negligence.
In the meantime eight gendarmerie policemen from Trabzon are being tried for negligence, and the prosecutor wants a mere two years in prison for them.
Put another way, the intelligence officers Ğ who could have prevented this murder had they done their job properly Ğ appear to enjoy legal immunity, even though an official report from the Prime Minister’s own office indicates that they were negligent.
On the other hand a journalist who said the same thing as the official Prime Ministry report in a book he published is facing nearly 30 years in prison, not because be maligned or slandered anyone, but because he wrote the truth.
And then there are government officials going to Europe and explaining to their interlocutors there that Turkey has made great strides in the area of the freedom of the press. Who they hope to convince remains a mystery.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has a peculiar habit. He sets high targets with his various initiatives, outbursts or statements and then fails to meet those targets himself. We have seen this in Ankara’s efforts at rapprochement with Armenia, as well as his angry remarks against Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos. In the first of these examples it only took a display of Azeri ire and for Baku to activate nationalist forces in Turkey for Erdoğan to step down on efforts to normalize ties with Yerevan. So much so that one wondered why his government put so much effort into this process over a period of time it was so fragile.
As for the second example cited above, it took even less time for him to step down when he said, within hours of his reaction at Davos, that his anger was not aimed at Mr. Peres but at the moderator conducting the debate.
But it was to Mr. Peres that he had leveled his strong accusation when he said, "You know very well how to kill," with reference to the Israeli operation in Gaza.
Not being able to stand behind his government’s initiatives, or his own words (even if these are unnecessarily harsh, as they were at Davos), one is left wondering what to make of his latest remarks about the expulsion of non-Muslim minorities from Turkey, and his reference to these events as the product of a "fascist mentality."
The same applies to his castigation - in the same speech - of those who criticize business dealings with Israel, indicating these people to be narrow minded and out of touch with the realities that govern the world.
He was in this instance referring to the strong criticism of his government for planning to give a mine clearance contract on Turkey’s border with Syria to an Israeli company, and of leasing these lands for agricultural purposes to Israeli companies.
No one can doubt that these are positive statements that require courage in the present political atmosphere that prevails in Turkey. Therefore, one should, under normal circumstances, compliment Prime Minister Erdoğan for saying these things. But what is confusing people is the fact that it was the same Erdoğan, only a few days before, who in an indirect way, brought to the fore the notion of expelling 40,000 Armenians who are working illegally in Turkey.
More than this though, if the expulsion or the driving away by various means of the members of Turkey’s Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities in the past was bad, as indeed it was, then he is the one at the helm of government, and therefore the one to work out some restitution in this regard, for example by returning seized property that belongs to the Orthodox church in Turkey.
This is also what many commentators have been saying after his remarks uttered at a regional congress of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in the town of Düzce a few days ago.
And no doubt these questions will continue to be asked in the coming days.
But there is another matter that has not been highlighted sufficiently in Turkey, and which also provides a test of consistency as far as Erdoğan is concerned. During the recently held Eurasian Islamic Council meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan, in what were also brave remarks, questioned for the first time why it was that Muslims today are associated with violence, and suggested that the Islamic world should engage in self-criticism with regard to this issue.We also felt at the time that Erdoğan’s anger at Israel over the Gaza operation was justified, and reflected a general sentiment around the world. But we felt nevertheless that he had gone overboard in Davos with his remarks aimed at President Peres (who admittedly was not that diplomatic himself), given that such situations call for those at the head of governments in serious countries to be a little more delicate.
But his outrage over the images of dead Palestinian children, which any civilized person must share, also requires, for the sake of consistency, that he show similar outrage when Hamas or groups like it carry out acts of terrorism, which provide us with similar inhuman images.
We do not, however, recall such an expression of outrage from Prime Minister Erdoğan on those occasions. But is there no connection between the fact that the world thinks of violence, when it thinks of Muslims - as Erdoğan himself put it - and the lack of, or low-key response, in the face of acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam or by Islamic groups?
If Prime Minister Erdoğan, is serious in questioning these things, and in opening the doors to self-criticism, something that Turks are not very good at, then he has to keep asking these questions in a consistent manner and try to find answers. If he does this, then it is clear that he will increase his credibility in Turkey and abroad.
Otherwise he merely ends up confusing people by first saying these things and then going on to either step down or say something that contradicts his initial remarks.
All that he achieves in the end is to have more questions asked about his seriousness and credibility. This is why we don’t know what to make of these recent remarks of his, which, as we indicated, are positive and are expressions of the truth.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent address to the parliament in Azerbaijan seems to have set the record straight as far as the Azeri side is concerned. The dark clouds that were gathering over Turkish-Azerbaijani ties have disappeared for now. Baku is apparently satisfied after Erdoğan’s remarks that Ankara will not take any steps to normalize ties with Yerevan until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been resolved (to Azerbaijan’s advantage, one assumes).
This, however, raises a couple of serious questions. What then is to become of the so-called "road map" announced by Turkey and Armenia, which was ostensibly designed to lead both countries to normalized relations? Especially now that there is a "Karabakh condition" attached by Turkey? Also, why did the Erdoğan government bother to get involved in this matter of trying to normalize ties with Armenia in the first place, if it was not going to see it through to the end?
The first answer that comes to mind to the latter question is that Ankara either underestimated the reaction that would come from Azerbaijan, or it overestimated its own capacity to keep Baku in line with a "big brother" approach. The bottom line, however, is that it has now been revealed for all to see that Azerbaijan has more of a hold over Turkey than was assumed in some quarters.
Put another way, Baku holds in its hands a great ability to play the "Turkish nationalist card" within Turkey, against Armenia and against those trying to achieve a rapprochement between the two countries.
One only has to note the way the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, jumped instantly on this bandwagon, using the opening Baku provided to hit at the government.
Put even more bluntly, Turkey is not as independent in determining its policies for the southern Caucasus as it may have assumed it was in the past.
Azerbaijan, however, has shown that it has a freer hand with respect to pursuing its own national interests, as exemplified by the fact that it has refused so far to establish official relations with northern Cyprus, despite its kinship ties with Turkish Cypriots.
This situation is bound to have consequences as far as Ankara’s foreign-policy administration is concerned, not just in terms of the region, but also in terms of Turkey’s ties with the West, where there is a great desire to see a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Western diplomats are already saying that while they may be parallel processes, there is no link between the Turkey-Armenia negotiations and the efforts to solve the Karabakh conflict.
The link with the ’g’ word
The cynical view is that Ankara announced the road map with Armenia to ensure that U.S. President Barack Obama did not use the "g" word (genocide) in his April 24 message commemorating the tragedy that befell the Armenians in Anatolia in 1915.
What reinforces this view is the fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan had already said, prior to the announcement of the road map Ğ and in response to the anger from Baku, that there would be no normalization with Armenia before the Karabakh problem was resolved.
But it seemed at the time that he said that simply to appease the Azerbaijanis, while really eyeing Washington and Obama’s statement. This is the way it was also apparently interpreted in Baku, where Erdoğan’s words were not sufficient to quiet the unrest, requiring him to visit in person.
President Obama did not, of course, utter the "g" word, but went on to describe the historical events as no U.S. president had done before, angering Ankara and providing opponents of rapprochement with Armenia the ammunition they needed.
The road map, according to the cynical interpretation, in this way turned out to be a kind of one-off shot in the dark, which under these circumstances will not be followed through Ğ not, that is, unless there is a breakthrough on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
No such breakthrough appears to be in the making, as the sides are firmly entrenched in their positions. Neither is the secret rivalry between Russia and the U.S. vis-?-vis the region helping much, especially given Moscow’s proven ability Ğ demonstrated by the events in Georgia last summer Ğ to use such problems to divide and conquer. This, then, indicates that there will be no early rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan given the Karabakh condition placed by Prime Minister Erdoğan.
The Karabakh condition
Even Bernard Fassier, France’s envoy to the Minsk Group, which is trying to solve the Karabakh problem, had to admit while talking to journalists in Ankara this week that while there is light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel nevertheless appears to be a long one.
Diplomatic sources on the Turkish side are now trying to save the day by highlighting various nuances of the "Karabakh condition" set by Prime Minister Erdoğan. They say that when Armenian forces start evacuating some of the seven occupied regions outside of Karabakh, and inside Azerbaijan proper, the road map will be viable again.
They also suggest that such an evacuation plan is currently being worked on within the Minsk Group.
But this appears to be speculative, to say the least, judging by the statements from Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It is also not clear whether this is what Prime Minister Erdoğan meant when he established the Karabakh condition. Many in Azerbaijan, for example, have interpreted his words as meaning a full evacuation by the Armenians of the Karabakh enclave itself. It is clear that the public in Turkey also believes this to be the case.
Given this overall picture, it looks more and more as if this attempt at normalization with Armenia is fated to be stillborn.
The upcoming elections to the European Parliament have opened the "Turkey shoot" season in Europe again. President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel are again in the forefront leading the "No to Turkey in the EU" chorus. There are others who will no doubt jump on the bandwagon also as the elections near. As for the arguments, they are all too familiar at this stage.
However, there is something banal about it all this time. Most commentators seem to be able to see through what is going on now.
Put another way the "elections equals cheap populism equals easy targets equals hit at Turkey" approach is too transparent to be taken very seriously.
Of course, President Gül had to respond to Sarkozy and Merkel, regardless of this, when asked about it at a press conference during Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva’s visit to Ankara earlier this week. And, of course, he was correct in indicating that both lacked a vision for Europe.
Sarkozy’s attempt to offset this with a vision of a Mediterranean union, on the other hand, has come to nothing of significance. A year after it was launched, hardly anyone is talking about this project.
He is now taking another pitch with another "union" idea that somehow includes Russia and Turkey in a special relationship with the EU.
Clearly this will entail another stillbirth, even if it sounds good in an election environment to ears in France, where we are told 67 percent of the public oppose Turkey’s EU bid. As we said, there is something banal about it all at this stage.
The fact is that given the difficulties in the EU, which even the much publicized French presidency of the union failed to overcome, on one hand, and Turkey’s own problems, on the other, it means that we are talking about a 15-year period at best for Ankara’s EU bid to mature and become real.
Tony Barber's commentary, "Europe's line must take in Turkish sand," in yesterday’s Financial Times, spells out some of the problems on the economic side, and there is no point in being naive about these difficulties, which will clearly take time to sort out.
But Turkey is not a static country and the best gauge of this is to measure where it was two or three decades ago against where it is today, in order to make some extrapolations concerning where it might be two to three decades hence.
In the meantime, it is equally obvious that worlds can be destroyed and re-created during such a period. Put another way, it will be neither Sarkozy nor Merkel who decide whether Turkey will become a member of the EU, or Ğ for that matter Ğ whether it will become a special partner by its own choice, and not others.
Such questions will be decided by circumstance much more than by design. In other words, we have to see what happens in Europe, what kind of a turn the situation in Turkey takes, and what shapes up politically and economically on the global scale before we come up with fast and ready answers, as Sarkozy and Merkel are doing.
Barber, in his FT commentary, sets the picture right in the best possible manner when he says, "The EU can draw all the lines on maps it wants, but it should remember that Turkey can decide its destiny for itself Ğ possibly, in ways the EU would not like."
This is why, contrary to the impression that Sarkozy and Merkel are trying to create, there are more influential names in Europe than they would like to admit, who want to leave the door open to Turkey, not the least because of the unpredictability concerning Europe’s own future, and the dire consequences that might follow from alienating Turks at a time when there is no need to do so, other than the requirements of crass populism.
As an aside here we would like to suggest that Sarkozy and Merkel might like to read Walter Laquers latest book, "The Last Days of Europe" for a sobering account of the real problems that confront their continent and which require genuinely visionary leaders if the "Old Continent" is to overcome some of its very serious problems.
The appointment of Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu as foreign minister can hardly have come as a surprise to diplomats in Ankara. The talk of the town for weeks has basically come true. Deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, were also telling their foreign interlocutors during this time that this appointment was imminent. Davutoğlu is not an unknown quantity, of course. His views, which have always had an academic perspective due to his training, have always attracted attention and been found interesting, even if one does not agree with him on all points. Especially in matters that have to do with the Middle East. His links in the region have also landed him in controversial situations on quite a few occasions. Davutoğlu’s close ties with Hamas are a case in point. He was the one said to be behind the unexpected visit to Ankara by Hamas’ leader in exile Khaled Mashal just days after this organization swept the Palestinian elections in 2006.
His continuing links with Hamas have led some to question how he is going to deal with Israel as foreign minister now. There is, however, the fact that Davutoğlu was also one of the key figures behind the indirect talks between Israel and Syria, which ended abruptly after the latest operation by the Israeli defense forces against Gaza. One might have thought that his connections to Hamas might also have been problematic in terms of ties with Washington. But Davutoğlu was in Washington recently, on what he himself termed to be a highly successful visit, which was aimed at establishing early bridges with the Obama administration.
At any rate, any coolness that might prevail between Ankara and Washington under his tenure is more likely to be because of the Armenian genocide issue rather that his contacts with elements in the Middle East, considered by the Americans to be unsavory. If anything, there is more talk in diplomatic circles that these contacts might even bring some advantages, given that the Obama administration is opting for the dialogue approach, rather than the ostracism and vilification approach of the Bush administration, as far as some of these elements are concerned. Naturally enough, there is great excitement in the Arab world over Davutoğlu’s appointment. This is basically seen as the continuation of what is believed to be the Erdoğan government’s pro-Arab and anti-Israeli approach to the region. But the rapid normalization of ties with Israel after Erdoğan’s now-famous Davos outburst against Israeli President Shimon Peres belies this expectation. If anything, Davutoğlu is going to have to tread cautiously vis a vis the Middle East given this perception. The ties he will have to conduct with Washington will also see to that.
What Davutoğlu is not known for dwelling on extensively are Turkey’s relations with the EU. This is not because he is a novice in terms of these relations. He is more than aware of the facts and figures and the intricacies involved. It is just that his personal interests have rested elsewhere. Government spokesman Cemil Çiçek, however, made it clear in his first press conference after last week’s Cabinet reshuffle that the EU remained one of the government’s top priorities. This will mean that Davutoğlu will have to get more involved with this subject, especially at a time when the widespread belief in Europe is that the AKP government has lost interest in the EU dimension.
The first challenge that Davutoğlu faces, however, has to do with the Caucasus and the delicate process of rapprochement under way with Armenia. He will have to continue with this process while also trying to regain some of the confidence in Turkey lost by Azerbaijan. This will require all his talents of diplomatic juggling. There is a belief that Davutoğlu is essentially an ideologue and strategist. He has been attributed with being the father of what is termed "Neo-Ottomanism." He has always vehemently denied this, and it is not quite clear what is meant by this tem anyway.
If it means increasing Turkey’s influence in the old geography of the Ottoman Empire, and the Middle East in particular, this is under way anyway due to objective reasons and not in any revanchist or irredentist way. The interest in the region in his appointment also attests to the fact that there is not much aversion to more involvement by Turkey in key regional issues. Broadly speaking, the fact is that Turkey’s foreign policy is more likely to veer toward Ankara’s traditional cautious middle of the road line under Davutoğlu, rather than moving in an adventurist direction as suggested by some of Erdoğan’s recent outbursts.
The general feeling among observers is that Erdoğan has learned by now that foreign policy administration is a complex matter best left to the professionals, even if he has made his dislike for professional diplomats apparent in the recent past. His Davos outburst brought him little in the end. As for his highly controversial opposition to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general, this turned into a debacle for Turkey. One can expect him to follow Davutoğlu’s advice before taking the leap on important foreign policy issues from now on.
President Barack Obama’s Armenian commemoration statement on April 24 appears to have brought an abrupt end to the honeymoon in Turkish-U.S. relations that started with his election and peaked with his recent high-level visit to Turkey. This development also makes short shrift of the elated remarks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign-policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoğlu (soon to be foreign minister, if one believes the Ankara gossip.) During his recent visit to Washington, Davutoğlu said that Turkish-American ties were entering their best period ever with the advent of the Obama administration, a remark that now appears to have been premature.
Since President Obama’s statement has encouraged the Armenian lobby in the U.S. to push even harder for passage of the Armenian genocide-recognition bill introduced in Congress, relations could even be heading in the opposite direction.
In trying to please two opposing sides while serving his own country’s interests, President Obama was already faced with a thankless task. As it turned out, he failed to please either the Armenian or the Turkish side, and it is uncertain that he served the United States’ best interests either, if indeed those require that Washington improve the ties with Ankara that were spoiled under President George W. Bush.
Judging by the harsh Ğ and, as far as Turks are concerned, extremely biased Ğ remarks in his Armenian statement, it is clear that Obama’s advisors had told him he could say just about anything as long as he did not use the "g"-word. He thus went ahead and described the concept of genocide without actually using the word, apparently feeling Ğ misguidedly, it now seems in retrospect Ğ that this would be fine as far as Turkey was concerned. But the angry reactions emanating from throughout Turkish society, including those from President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the opposition, clearly point to a serious miscalculation.
And thus, we are seeing a return to the loveless marriage between Ankara and Washington, one that continues based only on pragmatic considerations.
It is also clear that the positive atmosphere created by President Obama’s visit to Turkey, and that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before him, which seemed to be dispelling the chronic anti-Americanism in this country, has also evaporated in one fell swoop. As one columnist suggested earlier in the week, Turkish-American ties are back to what they were under President Bush, albeit with a different color. All this is reminiscent of the Turkish saying, "Poking an eye out while trying to trim an eyebrow." This basically means ending up doing the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing. As noted, the ties between Ankara and Washington will, of course, remain. But it is clear that the Erdoğan government will have to keep a close eye on public opinion as specific issues of vital interest to Washington arise.
One can also expect that Ankara will be in no hurry to submit to pressure from Washington to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia and open its borders in the shortest possible time. The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process will also continue, of course. But given the dissatisfaction it has created, both in Turkey and in Azerbaijan, the government will not have any sense of urgency on this issue either.
Meanwhile, the genocide bill in the U.S. Congress will continue to hang like the Sword of Damocles over the efforts at rapprochement. The negative approach taken to the rapprochement process by the Armenian diaspora and the ultra-nationalist Dashnak party in Armenia will also be used by Ankara to buy breathing space in its negotiations with Yerevan.
Put briefly, President Obama’s statement has, wittingly or unwittingly, put the Armenian issue at the center of Turkish-U.S. relations once again, and has ensured that this will remain a problematic topic for some time to come. Since it is expected that Obama cannot, under these circumstances, tone down his April 24 message next year, or take a determined stand against a genocide resolution in Congress when it comes up, either this year or next year, the problem will linger on as a serious hindrance to the two countries' ties.
The victory by the National Unity Party, or UBP, lead by former Prime Minister Dervis Eroğlu, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or TRNC, clearly does not bode well for the settlement talks under way between Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat and his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Demetris Christofias. The problem is not that Eroğlu is objecting to a federal solution under one flag, and a single citizenship for the island.
His preference is for a loose confederation that basically amounts to independence for northern Cyprus. But he knows this is a formula that will not be accepted by the by the Greek side or the international community.
Eroğlu is therefore of the "no settlement in Cyprus is a settlement in itself" school of thought. Namely the one that says that the current situation is a settlement in itself that has to simply be made "de jure."
As we said, the problem is not that Eroğlu is of this mind. He was, at any rate, put in line by Ankara almost immediately after his electoral victory, which incidentally is a first for the TRNC bringing, as it did, a party to power on its own. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent him a harsh message Tuesday, telling him "not to be a spoiler" as far as the Cyprus talks are concerned.
President Abdullah Gül, for his part, in a separate statement, said that Ankara stands firmly behind President Mehmet Ali Talat, the Cyprus negotiator, thus also signaling to Eroğlu not to be obstructive. Eroğlu’s remarks after these statement, on the other hand, indicate that he got the message.
As matters stand, he has no other choice since the TRNC is dependent on finances from Turkey, over which the government has a say. It is clear therefore that Mr. Eroğlu is not going to be a "spoiler," regardless of what lies in his heart of hearts, given the fact that he has to work with Erdoğan and his government.
The bad news in all this, therefore, is not Eroğlu but the fact that Turkish Cypriots have thronged to his nationalist party that supports the loose confederation and the more organic ties with Turkey argument for northern Cyprus.
A main reason for this turnabout, which was unexpected given that the majority of Turkish Cypriots had supported the federated solution envisaged by the Annan Plan Ğ which was eventually scuttled by the Greek side Ğ is of course the sense of deep disappointment in and frustration with Europe.
After having said a resounding "yes" to the Annan Plan, which was supported by the EU as well, they ended up being the side that was punished, while the Greek Cypriots were rewarded with EU membership Ğ which also gave them a veto against Turkey Ğ even if they said a resounding "no" to the plan.
It is very unlikely, therefore, that Turkish Cypriots will have much confidence in the EU under these circumstances, given that their political and economic isolation has continued even if they did the right thing vis a vis the Annan Plan.
This should be bad news for Europe and Washington, signaling as it does that they have to come up with significant "carrots" to convince the Turkish Cypriots, and any stick they imagine they have against the TRNC is illusory.
What makes the sentiment of the average Turkish Cypriot even more important is that whatever settlement Talat and Christofias come up with, this will have to be submitted to a referendum. Having been taken for a ride once with the referendum for the Annan Plan, no one can tell how they will vote when that day comes.
There is obviously a message in all this for Europe, the U.S. as well as all other parties concerned with a settlement in Cyprus. Whether anyone is prepared to take note of this message is another question. But what is certain is that Turkish Cypriots are not taking anything for granted anymore.
The search for a rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan is a delicate matter and no one on either side has any doubts that this process will have to be conducted with the utmost care and delicacy. The reason is that there is a public opinion aspect that can not be overlooked. The Turkish public remains wary of things to do with the Armenians, as long as the international campaign for genocide recognition continues to be spearheaded by the Armenian diaspora and supported by the administration in Yerevan, and there are direct or indirect references in key Armenian documents smacking of "revanchism."
On the other hand the latest poll conducted by the Ararat Strategic Center in Yerevan indicates that 61 percent of the Armenian public is against the normalization of ties with Turkey. According the Armen Ayvazian, the director of the center, only 11 percent of those questioned supported the government’s efforts to seek rapprochement with Ankara. The Turkish side has also been aware of the sensitivities on the Azerbaijani side, given the unresolved dispute this country has with Armenia over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, which was occupied by Armenian forces shortly after the two countries gained independence from Moscow.
This is why Ankara has also been eyeing the so called "Minsk process," which is searching for a settlement to this seemingly intractable dispute, and which includes not just the U.S. and Russia, but also European powers such as France and Germany. Turkey is also part of the process, though on the fringes because of its close ties with Azerbaijan.
Given the sensitive nature of the issue, due to the factors cited above, Ankara and Yerevan have chosen the path of quiet diplomacy in their effort to overcome differences. The importance of this process increased after the Russian invasion and division of Georgia last summer, making the need for a normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia even more necessary for a host of objective reasons - even if public opinion in both countries remains opposed to this.
On the Turkish side a stable situation in the Southern Caucasus is closely linked with Turkey’s long term strategic interests, mainly in terms of security for energy lines. It is also a fact that a rapprochement with Armenian disarms the Armenian Diaspora in the West to a large extent - in itself efforts to undermine Turkey - given that Ankara’s interests in the region overlap with those of Europe and the United States.
On the Armenian side, it is a fact that not having relations with Turkey has consolidated Armenia’s regional isolation, keeping it out of key energy and communication projects, and deepening the country’s continuing economic woes. While Yerevan looks to the diaspora for a host of reasons, it is also a fact that lack of ties with Turkey has prevented it establishing the concrete bridges it wants with the West, finding itself to be increasingly reliant on Russia instead.
Azerbaijan however has been the wild card in this search for rapprochement. This is why Ankara felt the need to inform Baku of the details of the process with Yerevan at the highest level in order to allay misunderstandings. This writer was personally with President Gul and Foreign Minister Babacan on their visits to Baku for this purpose.
It appears however that Turkish diplomacy underestimated the extent to which Baku is prepared to go to spoil a process that it sees as detrimental to its own interests, even if this is going to cast a shadow on its ties with the AKP government. Acting on the basis of press reports in the West, to the effect that Turkey is on the verge of opening its borders with Armenia (these were closed after the invasion of Karabakh - as well as Azerbaijani lands outside the enclave - by Armenian forces) Azerbaijani officials and politicians started a "Turkey is stabbing us in the back campaign."
There was of course a cynical calculation in this effort to hit below the belt because Baku knows full well it can mobilize ultranationalist sentiment in Turkey with such a campaign. It also knows that this campaign can be used by the opposition in Turkey to try and hurt the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Prime Minister Erdogan.
As matters turned out Baku was successful in throwing the spanner in the works in this way, forcing Prime Minister Erdogan to say that there will be no normalization with Yerevan until the Karabakh issue is resolved. This basically means that there will be no normalization in the near future given that no one is expecting a miracle in terms of an early settlement to the Karabakh problem. This situation will in turn leave the Erdogan Government facing difficulties in its dealings with the West, given that much hope is invested in Europe and the United States in a normalization of ties between Ankara and Yerevan. It is also clear that the Armenian Diaspora will benefit from this outcome since it never liked the attempt at rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia anyway, seeing this as a mere ploy by Turkey to try and bury the genocide issue.
It is very unlikely that there will be much love lost between the AKP administration and Baku over this turn of events. What has irked the Erdogan government more than anything is that Azerbaijani diplomacy, no doubt acting on the left-over Machiavellian instincts from the Soviet era of high suspicion, decided to conduct its business on the basis of speculative press reports. rather than rely on its official contacts with Ankara. But the picture is not so clear as far as Azerbaijan is concerned. While it may be cozying up to Moscow now, in an apparent retaliatory move against Turkey and the US, it is unlikely that the Russians will ever allow it to realize its ambition of getting back Karabakh by force. Some Azerbaijanis may be deluding themselves now, but many recall the Russian involvement in the fall of Karabakh to the Armenians in the first place.
So, while Baku may have thrown the spanner in the works in a process which, had it displayed better diplomatic wisdom, might have brought it gains as well in terms of the talks over Nagorno Karabakh, it remains to be seen if it comes out of the situation it has created impulsively with any gains worth talking about.
President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey earlier this week has opened a new chapter in relations between the two countries that were severely strained under the previous administration of President Bush. It was clear from the various remarks made by President Obama during his joint press conference with President Abdullah Gül, his address to the Turkish Parliament, and his meeting with a group of university students in Istanbul, that he had done his homework and studied Turkey and the Turks well.
For example, by underlining this country’s secular democracy on various occasions he openly signaled that the period of viewing Turkey as a moderately Islamic country was over for Washington. It will be recalled that that characterization by the Bush administration had angered the secular establishment in Turkey, which is highly sensitive over this issue, as well as many Turks. The new administration in Washington has now fine-tuned its approach, and is referring to Turkey to as "a secular country with a predominantly Islamic population," which is what most Turks want to hear.
It was also noteworthy that he did not refer to a "strategic relationship" in his various remarks, but talked instead about a "new model" for relations between Turkey and the United States, trying in this way to also signal that we are on the verge of a new period in ties which requires a new definition. His remarks on Turkey’s European Union bid, however, were among the most appreciated of his utterances. He had already said prior to coming to Ankara that Turkey should be accepted as a member by the EU. Although this seriously chagrinned French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel, President Obama’s insistence on this while in Turkey was noteworthy.
His remarks in this context to the effect that if Turkey is in NATO, and has been responsible for European security, then there is no reason why it should not be in the EU will no doubt have ruffled many feathers in Europe again. Especially in the wake of the "Rasmussen crisis" during last week’s NATO summit. But it touches on a basic truth that Turks will no doubt be referring to more in the coming days, as Turkey’s role in the alliance gains added importance.
President Obama also touched on the Armenian and Kurdish issues. But he did so in a delicate manner and by providing examples from the history of the United States, thus trying to allay any notion that Turkey was being singled out over these issues. Not everyone was happy about this and it did not take long for ultranationalist politicians and their supporters to lambaste the U.S. president over his remarks about facing up to the Armenian issue, as well as his reference to the Kurds as a "minority."
The subject is still being debated hotly in some circles, but it is unlikely that this debate will be able to overshadow the overall success of this visit. In the meantime, many, both in Turkey and the Islamic world, applauded his remarks to the effect that the United States was not, and would not, be at war against Islam. His reference to the fact that there were Muslims in his family also, a reference to his father, was also noteworthy given that there are those who will object to this in his own country. This is why they were not only taken as courageous, but also as a further indication of his genuine and honest approach.
Having said all this, it must be noted that the ways of the world are many and the issues that Turkey and the United States will have to confront in the future will require delicate handling. Heading the list of these issues are of course Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way, there is no magic wand that will make thing perfect overnight. This is why Turkish American relations will have to continue to be worked on at every stage. President Obama’s visit has not only set a highly positive tone in this respect, but has established a new format for ties both in the bilateral and multilateral spheres.
Now the two countries will have to move in unison to take these ties further, and make them matter for the world, given their importance with respect to so many issues of global interest.
The results of Sunday’s local elections have left all political parties in the position of having to plan their next steps carefully. The reason is that the outcome of the voting left everyone surprised. Most people were expecting something of a landslide for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This would have meant much of the same all around, a fact that would have relieved the leadership of the various parties from having to engage in forward planning at an early stage for the 2011 general elections. Unfortunately for them, though, the Turkish electorate decided that it should not be business as usual.
As it turned out, a decline to 39 percent of the vote for the AKP is a great disappointment for the party’s executive. The intensity of the blow is doubled because, together with many analysts, the party’s leadership expected a significant gain in these elections. Not only did this not happen but there was a further shock in store after the AKP lost key cities to the opposition, and barely won in Ankara and Istanbul. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan admitted his disappointment on the night of the elections when the general picture emerged. The figures, after all, reflected a situation that has been seen previously in Turkey. Namely that a party that has been riding high finds that such turning points in terms of a decline in support can very rarely be recovered from.
Many reasons are being attributed now to this relative decline in support for the AKP. Leading the list is the almost dismissive attitude of Prime Minister Erdoğan in the face of the global economic crisis, especially at a time when jobs were being lost by the thousands on a weekly basis in Turkey. Neither did his abrasive attitude toward the business community, indebted credit card holders or the media Ğ to mention only a few groups that help him much, bringing instead the opposite result of what he would have desired. Clearly more and more people are irked with his angry and acrimonious way of conducting politics.
The list of reasons being cited for Erdoğan’s losses range from the too little, too late work being done for the Kurds in the Southeast, to causing serious concerns in secularist circles on lifestyle issues as well as the general orientation for the country under the AKP. Many felt, in this respect, that his Davos outburst had in fact rebounded, increasing the concerns among liberals that Turkey may be moving toward a radically Islamic group of countries and organizations.
The fact that he lost the Mediterranean and Aegean provinces almost in total to the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, also left many commentators wondering whether this may also have been because of his Davos outburst against Israeli President Shimon Peres. After all, the coastal provinces in Turkey are dependent on tourism and Israeli tourists are an important element of this dependency.
These are just some of the reasons cited for the drop in support for the AKP. Other reasons include serious questions relating to the Ergenekon case, and the allegations of corruption against many figures either connected to the party, or close to it. Prime Minister Erdoğan has said that they will be evaluating the situation and drawing the right lessons from it. It remains to be seen what lessons will be drawn, but a Cabinet reshuffle that will get rid of some ministers Ğ whose districts performed woefully bad Ğ seems to be on the cards. However this will not be enough to convince the public, which clearly wants to see a new orientation from the government.
In the meantime, the pressure is also mounting for the CHP, whose leadership clearly did not expect this decline in support for the AKP. CHP leader Deniz Baykal had even taunted Erdoğan by saying if the AKP did not get 52 percent of the vote, this will be considered a failure for the government. In other words, even Baykal expected a vote for the AKP that could have gone as high as 52. It is also clear that whatever success the CHP returned in these elections, this was either due to the performance of individual candidates, or to other objective factors, rather than to any major contribution by the party’s present leadership.
This puts Mr. Baykal and his assistants in the uncomfortable situation of having to face up to the need to readjust the party’s overall position on key issues and to work hard in the period leading up to the 2011 elections. Baykal also knows, of course, that if they fail to do so, this will lead to calls for his resignation and replacement by a more dynamic person, for example Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who performed exceptionally well in the race for Istanbul mayor on Sunday, even if he lost it in the end by a relatively small margin.
Finally there is the increase in the vote for the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, whose support now stands at 16 percent of the electorate. This party will also work hard now to try and increase its support base in the lead up to 2011. Many consider it unlikely, however, that it could become the main opposition party, let alone the leading party, given its ultra nationalism and the ideological approach related to this.
The bottom line in all this is that the AKP’s magic has been spoiled now in a way that was not expected. Some are even speculating that the 47 percent it got in the last general elections was an artificial one, due to the anger people felt at the interference of the military in the political process in order to try and harm the AKP’s prospects. As it is, one of the lessons of Sunday’s local elections is that if the military does not interfere with the process, then the chances are that the Turkish electorate’s vote will reflect the situation on the ground much more objectively and realistically.
Many consider it good that the AKP’s magic has been spoiled in this way given the dictatorial tendencies that Prime Minister Erdoğan has started to display. The fear was that a landslide in these elections would have meant that there would be nothing left to hold him back. But the Turkish electorate brought him back down to earth, where he is now faced with serious decisions if the erosion of support for his party is not to continue. It is clear that the AKP did not loose these elections per se. But it is clear that there is no joy in this victory for party executives.
What makes matters worse for them is that Turkey is faced with serious social and economic problems as home, and major foreign policy problems abroad. A weaker mandate will make life much more difficult for Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ministers as they try and tackle these major problems. It is unlikely that they were bargaining for this.
Those who are concerned with Turkey have to readjust their focus and follow developments much closer. There are spectacular developments that make this necessary. Turkey is changing at such a speed that those who insist on clich approaches are bound to miss the significance of the momentous events taking place. None of this frees the government from responsibility in terms of some of its misdemeanors, of course. The attempt to silence elements of the media it finds undesirable by various underhand means is a case in point. Carrot and stick political tactics, which came to the fore within the context of the local elections to be held on Sunday, is another example in this context.
Such matters must not be left to take their own course. It is incumbent on media organizations and all organizations concerned with the freedom of expression and the press, as well as fair representation in the political domain in this country, to continue applying pressure on the government in terms of such issues. Having said this, though, one cannot overlook some of the positive things that are taking place on this government’s watch, if one is to look at developments objectively. Some of these things are so reformist in terms of the realities that govern this country that they contain the seeds of a new Turkey. But first something has to be made clear here about the concept of "reform" as it is used with reference to Turkey in Europe and the United States. It is clear from various statements and reports that emanate from there that issues such as the restrictions on Christian minority foundations, or the fact that the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki remains closed, have been turned into "litmus tests" by which Turkey’s reformist record is judged.
While it is clear these have an important symbolic significance in themselves and are important issues within their own context, one must not get stuck on these clichs that, at any rate, cause sensitivity among Turks Ğ which any government in this country cannot afford to overlook. The basic fact is that even if the EU’s requirements vis-a-vis these issues were fulfilled tomorrow, the number of people that would in real terms be beneficiaries can be counted in the thousands, and not more. There are, however, reformist steps being taken that affect not thousands but millions of people, and these should not be overlooked.
The most important of these concern the Kurdish issue. Given the amount of blood that has been shed over this issue over the past quarter of a century, no one in Europe should underestimate the significance of the steps being taken now to reinforce Kurdish rights. There is of course much that has to be done yet, but even the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, which is considered to be the political wing of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, organization in the Turkish parliament, is admitting the value of these steps. The fact that we are on the verge of even discussing the highly touchy subject of amnesty for PKK members is an indication of how far we have come in this area.
But most significant in this regard is that we have senior retired generals who are openly admitting now that they were wrong in their denialist approach to the Kurdish question and are endorsing democratic means of approaching this subject. Having mentioned senior generals, this brings us to the other momentous example of spectacular developments taking place in Turkey. Namely, the fact that former and active ranking members of the military now find themselves being dragged in front of civilian courts.
They are being asked to answer charges of not just conducting a dirty war within the context of the Kurdish problem, but also of planning coups against the present democratically elected government, as well as other political parties in the Turkish Parliament. Such a thing was unthinkable only a few years ago when some members of the military felt they could act with impunity. Perhaps the most important thing here is that this weeding out process is being conducted with the help of the Turkish military itself, which is fulfilling all its responsibilities presently with regard to the rule of laws and the spirit of democracy. It is clear that all of this is happening as a result of Turkey’s own inner dynamics rather than pressure from abroad, although such pressure when applied appropriately and in a timely fashion is always helpful.
This goes once again to show that change, when it does come in this country, comes from within, and usually due to socio-political factors that are unique to Turkey. We clearly cannot go into the full details of what we have touched on here. But reading the Hurriyet Daily News should help the curious fill in the gaps.
To return to the original point made, however, getting stuck on a tree or two, that may be important in themselves but hardly of great significance in term of the big picture, will mean that one misses to point of what it going on in the forest itself. The bottom line is that Turkey has always been a much more complex country that some have assumed hitherto, and developments are proving this once again.
Relations between Turkey and northern Iraqi Kurds have come a long way. So much so that the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, has gone on record saying that they no longer fear Turkey; indicating instead that they are looking favorably on the prospect of increased relations with Ankara. There is a big change on the Turkish side also. The "Kurdish taboo" is seen to be melting away as Ankara increases its ties with the Kurdish leadership and Erbil, the capital of the KRG. The steps being taken within Turkey to address the question of Kurdish rights cannot be overlooked either.
24 hour TV broadcasts in Kurdish may not seem much to an outsider, but for those who know what has been going on in this country over the past decades understand full well the significance of such steps, which are apparently set to increase.
In the meantime President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, who is of Kurdish origin, was in Turkey this week where he held high level contacts, starting with President Gul. While here he said things about the PKK terrorist organization that comes as music to Turkish ears.
The bottom line for President Talabani is that the PKK is an anachronistic group that is incapable of seeing that the way to solve problems does not involve the use of guns. These remarks are a clear indication that the Iraqi Kurds are not going to sit on the fence anymore as far as this group is concerned.
It also seems from media reports that the KRG is preparing to convene a conference of Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, at the end of April or early May, which will issue a call to the PKK to lay down its arms. All of this makes sense from the Iraqi Kurdish perspective, of course.
The PKK has brought them nothing but trouble, starting off with the excuse it has provided the Turkish armed forces, and hard line nationalist politicians in Turkey, to strike at northern Iraq and interfere in its domestic affairs.
Interestingly enough it is the initially tacit, and subsequently overt, acceptance by the Iraqi Kurds of the military’s operations in northern Iraq against the PKK that has disarmed the hardliners in Turkey - for whom even the mention of "Kurds" or "Kurdish rights" has been an anathema.
These hardliners have always used the PKK as an excuse to demean the Iraqi Kurds, who they have claimed are behind this group, and to clamor for military operations against the region.
It is no secret that the military has also promoted this view, ostensibly because of the need to fight terrorists, but in fact to also apply pressure against the Kurds with a view to stifling their political and cultural aspirations.
Once these military operations began, with assistance from the Unite States Ğ which is much hated by the hardliners Ğ and the Iraqi Kurds were seen to be going along even if they were not extremely pleased about them, the hard-line arguments were, as we indicated, "disarmed."
Such operations also strengthened the hand of the Erdogan government, enabling it to take some bold steps in terms of Kurdish rights; given that the military’s overt argument has been that "it is not against Kurds per se, but against Kurdish terrorism." It is noteworthy in this context that the military has in fact endorsed TV broadcasts in Kurdish now, something that was unthinkable only a few years ago.
All of this, of course, leaves the DTP, which is generally considered the political wing of the PKK in something of a relationship similar to the one that existed at the time between the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland. It will be interesting, for example, to see if this party will attend the conference that news reports say will be held in Erbil and which will call on the PKK to lay down its arms. Doing so would clearly leave it in a difficult position vis a vis this terrorist group with which it has shared roots, even if it denies these.
It is no surprise that some observers claim that the best thing that could happen to the DTP, which has deputies in the Turkish Parliament, would be to be closed down by the Constitutional Court, where there is an ongoing closure case against it.
This would clearly shroud it with the mantle of martyrdom and help it out of a difficult situation. The bottom of the line appears to be, however, that just as hardliners on the Turkish side are being gradually "tamed" by developments; it is more than likely that the same will eventually happen with the DTP.
At any rate, we are dealing with an ongoing situation in terms of Turkish-Kurdish ties, and even President Abdullah Gul has referred to the prospect of "great things on the way" with respect to this issue.
Those following Turkey closely in Europe have no doubt noted the TÜBITAK scandal, the Turkish Scientific and Technical Board, with great consternation, while asking themselves the question, "where is Turkey headed?" For a government appointee, a supposed "scientist" himself to boot, to censor the board’s magazine "Bilim ve Teknik" because its editor put Darwin on the cover, in commemoration of the 200th birthday of the father of the theory of evolution, is so elemental an indication of a warped mentality that it can not be easily overlooked.
For him, in addition to that, to fire the editor is even more concerning. He and the minister involved are of course denying that this happened but the lady concerned is adamant that she was told verbally that she no longer had her job. Under these circumstances her account is of course more convincing, even if there was a stepping down on this score by the authorities because of the public outcry caused by this scandal.
Neither is this the first misdemeanor of this administration in this respect. Some will recall how, two years ago, the Minster for Education himself came out with a suggestion that the creation theory should be placed in biology books as the "alternative view."
It is not surprising therefore that a senior European diplomat should have told us, immediately after the TÜBITAK scandal broke out, that this shows the direction that Turkey would go if the government, which has taken hold of the administration, also got hold of real power in this country.
The fact that each administration has filled key institutions of the state and other organizations attached to the state with its own people is nothing new in Turkey. A look at the past reveals this to be the rule and not the exception. Therefore one may in all innocence say: "So why blame the present government. It is only doing what everyone else has done in the past."
But there is a naivety in this assertion which has to be highlighted. In the past this process took place along party lines. In other words it represented the currying of favor on the basis of partisanship. If we take TÜBITAK, for example, it would mean that one party’s favored scientist would go, and another party’s favored scientist would take his place.
It would not mean, however, that the scientists that replaced each other had different views on basic scientific tenets or laws. Even if there were ideological differences on political lines because one was a leftist and the other a rightist, it would not represent an attempt at a systemic change.
What has transpired in TÜBITAK now, however, differs fundamentally from this. It represents an attempt to change the basic system of scientific thought, with all that this denotes in term of the political domain, and as such points to a very different type of system which is clearly not democratic and certainly not secular.
Therefore to take this scandal lightly, and suggest that it is no different to what all previous administrations did, is to miss the whole point of what some in Turkey are attempting to do, and no doubt would get away with if the administration had absolute and unchecked power in its hands.
It seems now that two members of the European Parliament, Marco Cappato and Marco Pannella have asked the European Commission to "evaluate the consequences of the violation of fundamental rights, in this case the right to freedom of expression and freedom of scientific research, on the cooperation between Turkey and the EU on scientific issues."
Emma Bonnino, the deputy head of the Italian Senate has also issue a stern statement on the subject expressing her hope that a clear warning will be issued by the EU on this subject.
We have also noted that there is growing discomfort among some European diplomats in Ankara about the relative leniency with which the European Commission has been approaching some of the misdemeanors of the present government.
The hope now is that the scandal in TÜBITAK will be a true eye opener for all. The EU clearly has a very important role to play in keeping this government in line vis a vis democratic and secular principles. The sorry state of the opposition makes this role even more important and vital for Turkey if she is to remain on the path of modernity.
As one European diplomat told us, the government does not have the right to claim interference in Turkey’s domestic politics in this case. If it is genuine about EU membership then it has to accept such interference as being part of the rules of the game. If it is not serious, on the other hand, then it has to come out and say this openly.
At any rate it is a fact that some of the steps taken by this government, whether in domestic or foreign policy, are being followed closely and with concern in the West. This is why it is incumbent on friends of Turkey to issue the correct warnings at the appropriate time.
As for those who are not friends of Turkey and would like to keep her away from Europe, they must be following all this with glee.
Despite the headline, let me make two things clear at the outset. Firstly it is not clear that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is eyeing the job of NATO secretary general after he leaves his office. He himself has been quoted in the international media as saying he is not. Whether this is due to the fact that he sees the going difficult, and therefore feels compelled to say so, or whether he is genuine in saying this is an open question. The second thing is that if there is an overwhelming desire in the alliance to see Mr. Rasmussen as NATO secretary general, it is clear that Ankara will find it extremely difficult to veto his candidacy, no matter what serious misgivings it has about him. But whether such support will emerge is an open question also, even if reports from Brussels suggest that he is a "favored candidate." For this commentator, at least, such support is unlikely due to objective factors, which shall be explained below. Now to come to the details of the matter.
I was interviewed by Danish Radio earlier this week, and while the whole subject has not hit any major headlines in Turkey, it appears that it has become something of a topic back in Copenhagen. This being the case I felt it necessary to "sound out Ankara" and found that much of what came to my mind initially on the topic is not off the mark. I would like to recall at this stage a conference I was invited to in Copenhagen, as the "caricature crisis" was raging, organized by the "Free Press Society," headed by a gentleman named Lars Hedegaard Jensen, and supported by the right-wing Danish People’s Party.
Just to put things in perspective it might be useful to mention that Hedegaard Jensen is currently supporting Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician and rabidly anti-Islamic crusader, on his "world tour" to promote his provocative film "Fitna," a hate-filled piece of work that is bound to make an already difficult situation in the world worse. As it was my fellow Daily News columnists Yusuf Kanli and Burak Bekdil felt during the conference that we had been invited there to receive a "serious dressing down from the representatives of the civilized world," being curiously considered (given who we are and what our world view is) representatives of the Islamic world.
I explained during my presentation there that if Denmark wants to play an international role on key issues of importance to the world, then the government had to cultivate a more subtle and nuanced attitude in the face of a crisis, such as the one that was raging internationally as a result of the caricatures published in the daily Jyllands-Posten. "If not," I said, "then there is not a problem." But I suggested that to assume that there would be no diplomatic fall-out for the government, and Prime Minister Rasmussen, if Denmark values its international role, then that would be naive.
Having said this let us turn to Ankara’s position on this matter. Foreign Minister Babacan has already spoken on the matter, in the most diplomatic of terms, saying Ğ in the first instance Ğ that the new NATO secretary general "should share the vision and principles of the alliance," and in the second, "that he is not aware that Mr. Rasmussen is a candidate anyway." Reading between the lines, this means that as far as Turkey is concerned Mr. Rasmussen has a different conception as to what constitutes "support for terrorism," not just for Turkey but also a number of NATO countries that believe that the PKK funded Roj TV’s broadcasting freely out of Denmark constitutes "support for terrorism."
The reason they believe this is obvious. Firstly this channel is not just a mouthpiece and propaganda outlet for the PKK, considered by the EU and the United States a "terrorist organization," but intelligence reports also maintain that it is the means by which PKK operatives in Europe send coded messages to their militants in the field. At any rate, Denmark is the only country in Europe where Roj TV has found a safe haven to operate without any encumbrance. Given this situation, it is unlikely that Turkey would want to see a Dane at the helm of NATO, and this is not simply out of "spite," as some back in Denmark are no doubt suggesting, but out of "principle."
But there is an even greater problem than this involved if a Dane were to head NATO, and Ğ despite reports from Brussels that Mr. Rasmussen is a "favored candidate" Ğ there can be no doubt that other NATO members, starting from the United States, have to take this into consideration. NATO today is engaged in a fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. In many ways it has staked its honor and credibility on this. This also involves a very delicate situation for the alliance, which knows it must not in anyway give the impression that it is fighting against Islam.
In addition to this, it is clear that the bulk of NATO’s engagements in the near future will have to keep this perspective in mind, given that its foreseeable roles will be in places like the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than in Europe. It would make no sense for the alliance, therefore, to select a Secretary General from a country that has seriously compromised itself in the eyes of the Islamic world. Especially at a time when the new administration in Washington is trying to extend a hand of friendship to this world based on the principle of respect for the sensitivities of others.
Just imagine, for example, Mr. Rasmussen, as secretary general of NATO, traveling to Afghanistan or Pakistan to hold meetings with the leadership in those countries on issues pertaining to the war against terrorism. Which of those leaders could afford to be seen with him Ğ given that his effigies were being burned in the streets of those countries only two years ago Ğ and not incur some kind of a cost domestically?
My interviewer from Danish Radio the other day appeared to be very perturbed when I put these ideas of mine openly on the line. But these are issues that any country in the alliance will have to consider in selecting the next secretary general of NATO, given the current international environment. As I said during the conference in Copenhagen, unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world. It is a big bad world out there, and people in administration have to have the capacity to balance their ideals, in a highly nuanced way, with the ugly realities of this world, while also keeping their national interests in focus, which at the end of the day is what really matters from most countries.
Mr. Rasmussen clearly did not display much aptitude with respect to this. Therefore, if he has it in his heart-of-hearts to be NATO secretary general, then unfortunately we will have to quote a Turkish saying, namely that "He is saying amen to a prayer that has little hope of being realized." But if not, and he says so himself, then there is no problem. All there is in that case is some food for thought for Danes.
One can understand the European Union wanting to give Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, the benefit of the doubt. He is after all at the helm and has - in many ways - been a better interlocutor for Europe than might have been expected back in 2002, when there was serious concern about the election of what was considered then to be an Islamist government. In the interim, the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the CHP, has to a great extent, at least until the recent visit of its leader Deniz Baykal to Brussels, shunned Turkey’s EU perspective, appearing not in any way interested in this matter. It remains to be seen, even today, whether the CHP will alter this stance from now on.
Clearly it is because of this that Erdogan is getting much less criticism from Europe these days than he deserves, despite some glaring problems which should not pass scrutiny by those in the EU who are closely concerned with Turkey. It might therefore be useful to provide a quick check-list of what has been going on during his watch as prime minister.
1- Unauthorized phone tappings, the transcripts of which are then quickly leaked to the elements of the media that support the government by various means. The government tries to clear itself by maintaining it is aware that this is illegal, and yet is not seen to be pursuing this matter legally with any enthusiasm.
2 Ğ Selective tax auditing has turned into a tool of intimidation against a key element of the Turkish media that is critical of the government, and it is an open secret that businessmen who may not be close to the AKP, and may even oppose it, are wary of this weapon being used against them at any given time, should they speak out about it.
3- Calls to boycott the media that is critical of the government by the prime minister have become a regular, almost ordinary, event in a way that questions the sincerity of the government when it claims to respect the freedom of expression and the press.
4- A key government minister, namely the Minister of Justice, comes out and openly threatens the electorate, by indicating that if anyone votes for the opposition in the upcoming municipal elections, then it is unlikely that those non AKP municipalities will get any help from the government in the future. This is a serious threat given that all municipalities in Turkey need government help in providing services to the public.
5- Serious legal irregularities taking place in the Ergenekon case Ğ even though this case is important and must be pursued to the end Ğ during this government’s watch, while some cases involving corruption, and which cast a shadow over the government, are scrutinized with less enthusiasm by regulatory bodies.
In addition to this one can add an extremely vitriolic and bellicose attitude by Prime Minister Erdogan, who has gone so far as to accuse the president of another country at a public forum of being a killer, and who has also openly insulted a columnist who happens to be critical of him, and is at the same time a dog-lover - incapable of doing anything but sleep with his dogs.
Given such a list one can not help but wonder to what extent the benefit of the doubt can be extended to this government, and to when someone in Europe will start questioning what is going on in Turkey, the way they have questioned so many other issues concerning this country in the past without any prompting.