Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Stalwart in Brussels

CHP opposition leader Deniz Baykal met with EU officials in Brussels today and yesterday, re-affirming CHP's support for Turkey's EU accession bid in front of local elections. However, as Bülent Keneş commented yesterday, such attempts by CHP should and will be met with proper skepticism by EU officials. Since AKP's election in 2002, Turkey's "secularist" party has resisted adopting large swaths of the EU acquis, the framework under which Turkey proposes to bring its policies in line with that of the European Union so as to be eligible for membership. Lest it be forgotten, CHP fought tooth-and-nail last year against even the slightest revision to the Turkish Penal Code's infamous Article 301, resisted revision to the Foundation's Law, and supported the closure case brought against AKP. Indeed, it was just last April that Baykal threatened to walk out of an address given by EU Commissioner José Manuel Barroso should the Commissioner even broach the issue of AKP's closure, which the EU monitored carefully.

In a meeting with Turkish journalists, Baykal defended his opposition to TRT-6, re-stating familiar rhetoric about the "inequalities" and ethnic strife the channel will leash upon an otherwise healthy and unitary Turkish nation. Kurdish language broadcast rights have long been demanded by the EU, and Baykal's recalcitrant stance, shaky reasoning, and refusal to deal with reality are unlikely to bolster CHP's standing with EU officials. Additionally, Baykal maintained strong positions on Cyprus and overhaul of Turkey's military constitution, all the while demanding the EU treat Turkey and CHP fairly. As of late, AKP politicians have increasingly sounded similar tones of righteous indignation at the pace of the EU process, giving CHP room to pick up the EU reform mantle and out-do AKP at its own pro-Europe game. Alas, opportunities missed and absent any signal that CHP is willing to reverse past resistance to EU-inspired reform, CHP's pro-Europe rhetoric rings hollow, the cogency of Baykal's arguments belied by his party's policies.

A Bridge Between Washington and Tehran?

President Ahmadinejad's proclamation that Iran is "ready for dialogue" with the United States, though contingent upon a "fundamental" change in U.S. policy, marks a softening shift in rhetoric coming from Tehran. Ahmadinejad's statement followed a similar declaration made by President Obama, who expressed his hope for rapprochement with Iran should it "send some signals that it wants to act differently." Though which leader will take the first step in this "sending of signals" is still very much up in the air, there is a possibility of Turkish mediation once again entering into the picture.

In November, Prime Minister Erdoğan told the New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise that Turkey wants to facilitate talks between the two countries. The U.S.-Iran mediation scheme falls amidst a host of other attempts by Turkey to demonstrate its soft power. While Turkey fears a nuclear Iran on its borders, trade between both countries has grown in recent years and diplomatic relations tightened. And, though it is unlikely that Turkey will play the role of the interlocutor it desires (see Schleifer, EurasiaNet, Nov. 21), especially given the increased angst of Washington policymakers in the wake of Davos, it will be interesting in the weeks and months ahead to see just how Turkey responds to new diplomatic opportunities born from the changing relationship between Washington and Tehran.

Monday, February 9, 2009

U.S. Condemns PJAK

PHOTO from the New York Times

From TDZ:
The US Treasury has branded the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), whose members fight against government forces in Iran’s Kurdish-populated areas, as a terrorist organization.

The group is a front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish government for 25 years, Stuart Levey, the US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said on Wednesday.

“With today’s action, we are exposing PJAK’s terrorist ties to the PKK and supporting Turkey’s efforts to protect its citizens from attack,” Levey said.
The desgination means the freeze of all PJAK assets in the United States, and prohibits U.S. citizens from having any relations with the organization.

PJAK is basically the equivalent of the Iranian PKK, springing up after and swearing allegiance to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. PJAK shares the PKK's commitment to socialism and women's rights, as well as many of the group's resources and command structures. They, like the PKK, have sought safe haven in the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq, and Turkey and Iran recently signed a joint security agreement addressing the dangers the PKK/PJAK pose to both countries (see Aug. 14 post). Like the PKK, not bent on territory-based solutions fixed on secession from Turkey or Iran, they do not necessarily support the creation of an independent Kurdistan; instead, PJAK claims to be fighting for minority rights and more autonomy from the Iranian state. However, the group does so violently, PKK commander Murat Karayilan telling the New York Times in fall 2007 that PJAK killed as many as 108 Iranian troops. However, whereas the United States condemns the PKK as a terrorist organization, there is ample evidence that the Bush Administration indirectly supported the group as a means to undermine Iranian security. The New Yorker's Sey Hersh reported in November 2006 that the United States and Israel were providing material assistance to PJAK. From Hersh:
The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as “part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.” (The Pentagon has established covert relationships with Kurdish, Azeri, and Baluchi tribesmen, and has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran.) The government consultant said that Israel is giving the Kurdish group “equipment and training.” The group has also been given “a list of targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S.” (An Israeli government spokesman denied that Israel was involved.)
PJAK leader Rahman Haj-Ahmadi visited Washington in the same August in which Karayilan attributed the deaths of 108 Iranian soldiers to the group, and though he did not meet officially with U.S. officials, he told the Washington Times that he had made indirect contacts. As evinced by a recent Human Rights Watch report on Kurdish rights in Iran, Turkey and Iran have similarly repressive policies toward their respective Kurdish minorities.

The Treasury Dept. designation is welcome news both in regard to hopes for rapprochement with Iran, as well as sending the message that it is serious about combating PKK terrorism, even when committed under PJAK command. U.S. support for PJAK is well-known in Turkey, and has contributed to the common belief that the U.S. supports the PKK. Though U.S. intelligence support to the Turkish Armed Forces, especially during Turkish incursions into northern Iraq, have assuaged anti-American sentiment and helped put such rumors to rest, most Turks are still skeptical,

Gender Equality Commission Created

PHOTO from Today's Zaman

From Kristen Stevens in Hürriyet:
After 12 years of struggling for a parliamentary commission on gender equality, on Thursday women in Turkey finally gained a commission mandated to represent them at the highest levels of government. This representation also comes with unprecedented power to serve the interests of women: a substantial budget, the authority to bring about real change and the ears of Parliament and the Prime Ministry.

In the last couple of years, Turkish women have united to transform a dysfunctional Penal Code into one of the world’s most progressive on protection of women and their rights. Taking a united stand on the proposed Draft Constitution last year, 86 women’s groups signed a declaration that argued effectively that language identifying women as a group needing "protection" was unacceptable. These days, Turkey is using new gender-sensitivity training in the curricula of the army and state organizations.

Female representation in Parliament reached nine percent after the last general election, in 2007. Hastening efforts to form a gender equity commission, the 49 female parliament members from four parties began bringing proposals together in a united front. Their joint proposal owing much to decades of equal rights campaigning by Turkish women and NGOs finally landed in Parliament for approval on Thursday.

An NGO representative on the new committee, Dr. Selma Acuner, who co-founded the Association for the Education and Support of Women Candidates (KADER) told Bianet that the committee means an institutionalized spread of gender equality over all decision-making points. "It represents a turning point for the women’s struggle for equality."

The committee will have 25 members, with preference given to MPs with expertise in the area of women’s rights. CHP Adana Deputy, Nevingaye Erbatur, along with several other women in Parliament back enacting a quota system to ensure more political participation by women. On the other hand, more than half (29) of the female deputies are from the ruling AK Party, which has soundly rejected the possibility of quotas. This should make for a lively group. The committee’s impact could carry the indelible mark of politicking or reflect the type of cross-party compromise rarely seen in the assembly hall. Promises to ensure women’s representation do not translate into changes in women’s lives because too often the implementation of laws and measures protecting women’s rights are simply not in place. But this powerful committee can move beyond political promises in its ability to make laws easier to enforce or pass a gender equality law more quickly. Ireland’s broad equality legislation, for example, has been a model for other countries on issues such as allowing women to challenge hiring practices that appear to discriminate against them, a provision that is absent from Turkey’s labor laws.
According to TDZ, under the draft bill passed,
the equality commission would be responsible for checking and reviewing all laws that are concerned with gender. The commission will be able to receive complaints regarding the violation of women’s rights. It will work in close cooperation with nongovernmental organizations and it will have a mandate to monitor the circulars of the Prime Ministry which address violence against women. The commission will inform the public and Parliament about gender issues and prepare reports on the subject.
For full story in TDZ, click here. Eyes will now be fixed on just what the commission is able to do in terms of reviewing legislation and complaints. Civil society groups like KADER are expected to work closely with the Commission, and are already pressuring for similar commissions to be created at the local level where services are still largely unresponsive to women's needs. Though women comprise approximately 10 percent of all members in Parliament, women active in municipal politics are a much rarer occurence, making up less than two percent of all local representatives. Since this is the level where implementation of important social and economic policies takes place, not having women in local office has contributed to policies meant to protect and improve the lives of women and children not being properly implemented. For example, Turkey enacted legislation requiring one women's shelter to be opened for every 50,000 citizens in a municipality, a policy that is still far from being realized.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has recently promised to increase women's participation in local politics, aiming to have 1/3 of all city council positions be occupied by women. However, AKP, including its women's branch, remains opposed to gender quotas. Though skeptical of the progress women have made since 2004, Pınar İlkkaracan, founder and director of Women for Women's Human Rights, does see reform being made at a local level, stressing the importance of a local gender equality commission recently founded in the eastern city of Van. For more on the status of women, see "Women in Politics & the Türban Bugaboo," Dec. 11 post.

Israel-Syria Talks Not Over

While George Mitchell might well have cancelled his Sunday trip to Ankara to avoid the possibility of a diplomatic imbroglio involving Gaza, Yigal Schleifer writes that analysts should now be paying attention to what role Turkey might have should the Obama Administration be able to re-initiate Israel-Syria peace talks. More from Schleifer:
Cynics portrayed the Turkish-brokered discussions as something of a ploy that benefited all sides even if they led nowhere. Turkey got to burnish its credentials as an emerging Middle East mediator and show the European Union how much of a strategic asset it could be. The dead man walking Israeli government of Ehud Olmert could turn the focus away from its disastrous war in Lebanon in 2006. Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, could demonstrate that he is not completely under the spell of Iran and that he knows how to make peace overtures. Still, although the indirect talks were on hold at the time of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza, Erdogan has said in interviews that one of the reasons he was so angry with Israel’s actions was that he believed the Syria-Israel dialogue was heading for a breakthrough and that the Gaza attack scuttled that chance.

How close were the two sides to a real breakthrough? In the course of reporting for a recent Monitor story about Turkey’s post-Davos mediation prospects, several analysts I spoke with said they believe the Ankara-brokered indirect talks had already reached a plateau before the war in Gaza. From the Monitor:

“The fundamental issues were not bridgeable by Turkey. For that, you need the United States,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“The ball was going to come into the United States court anyway, so the current tensions were not a deathblow to the Israeli-Syria negotiations….”

….According to Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey and chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, a group working towards the resumption of talks between the two countries, the departure of the Olmert government after the Feb. 10 elections in Israel means that, from Jerusalem’s perspective, “The existing mechanism [for the Turkish-sponsored talks] has collapsed.”

“From the Turkish side, the mechanism has not only collapsed but we have entered a situation in which I have a lot of doubt that an incoming Israeli government will look at Turkey as a reliable mediator,” he says.

“We took a big hit on the Israeli and Turkish side of the triangle, but we now have an American aspect to this that we didn’t have before. Everyone is waiting for a signal from Obama,” adds Liel.

With everyone waiting for that signal from the United States, the issue now is what role does Turkey play if Washington starts talking to Damascus and tries to push the Syrians and Israeli to start talking again?

Joshua Landis, co director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and author of the "Syria Comment" blog, warns that cutting Turkey out of the process would be a mistake. Ankara's improved relations with Damascus have helped attenuate the link between Syria and Iran, and if Syria and the US were to start talking, Turkey could act as a "handmaiden," Landis says.

“Turkey is going to help rehabilitate Syria. That is Erdogan's entire strategy: 'It's not that we are siding with Syria and Iran against Israel. It's that we are going to help Obama,” he says.

UPDATE 2/11 -- International Crisis Group has released a report on just how the United States might engage Syria. From the report:
Talks with Israel, although halted due to the war in Gaza and the elections in Israel, might well resume with U.S. participation. Relations with Turkey have become a central element of Syrian foreign policy, offsetting Iran’s exclusive influence and providing Ankara with real leverage. Signs of unease already can be detected in Syrian-Iranian relations; with patience and deft management, they might be substantially transformed.
The report also highlights the constructive role Turkey-mediated talks had in terms of prompting the United States to re-engage Syria.
Ultimately, it took two events occurring in rapid succession – the 21 May 2008 announcement of indirect Israeli-Syrian talks, facilitated by Turkey, and the Doha agreement – to bury the notion of Syria’s isolation. The former development, coming eight years after President Clinton’s unsuccessful efforts to broker an Israeli-Syrian deal, was particularly significant. Though the Bush administration repeatedly had discouraged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from resuming negotiations, it could not denounce them once they took place. Instead, it welcomed them even as they amounted to a solid and stinging repudiation of U.S. policy. In the words of a senior Turkish official, “our success is the most blatant
indictment of a policy that relies exclusively on sanctions and isolation. The lesson is that it makes far more sense to engage Syria so that it has something to
lose rather than to put it in a no-win situation”.
The report documents American resistance to peace talks, in addition to the American turnabout on Syrian engagement.

Tuğluk Sentenced to Prison

From Bianet:
Aysel Tuğluk, Diyarbakır MP for the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), said in Batman in February 2007: “The honourable Prime Minister is telling us that he will talk to us if we denounce the PKK as terrorists. Even if we do that, this problem will not be solved.”

She now faces 1.5 years imprisonment for the speech she made at the party conference in the southeastern city.

At yesterday’s (5 February) hearing at Diyarbakır’s 4th Heavy Penal Court, her lawyers rejected all charges; however, she was sentenced to 1.5 years imprisonment for spreading PKK propaganda. The sentence was not deferred.

The court had put a halt to the case when Tuğluk was elected into parliament in July 2007. However, when the Supreme Court of appeals overturned this decree, she was retried.
Selahattin Demirtaş characterized the verdict as political, and directly held Prime Minister Erdoğan responsible. Demirtaş told Kurdish voters to make their disapproval known at the ballot box come March 29 elections. Tuğluk's conviction follows that of Leyla Zana in December. To make the conviction all the more egregious, Tuğluk was tried before her parliamentar immunity was lifted, and with the conviction, rather than waiting for her term to inspire, the Diyarbakır court that convicted her has petitioned parliament to remove her immunity. TDZ warns that Tuğluk's conviction risks turning her into a martyr in the eyes of the European Union, embarassing Turkey and further complicating its EU membership bid.
The Diyarbakır 4th Higher Criminal Court started legal action against Tuğluk over her words at the Batman congress in 2006, but the trial process was frozen since Tuğluk is a parliamentary deputy protected by parliamentary immunity. However, the Supreme Court of Appeals, going against all established legal precedents, overruled the suspension of the case and Tuğluk's trial resumed. Tuğluk was sentenced to one year and six months in jail under Turkey's anti-terrorism laws. The court did not reduce Tuğluk's sentence, arguing that there was insufficient evidence that a future repeat of the offense would be avoided. Tuğluk's situation will now be taken up by the Parliament Speaker's Office. The stance of Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan will be of utmost importance in this process.

Legal experts say that under normal circumstances, no trial process should have taken place before Tuğluk's shield of immunity was removed by a parliamentary decision according to Article 83 of the Constitution. The decision is to be submitted shortly to the Parliament Speaker's Office, which also goes against previously established legal tradition. Normally, a case regarding the removal of parliamentary immunity is first sent by the Justice Ministry to the Prime Ministry and then to the Parliament Speaker's Office, which, traditionally, would send such a case to the Joint Constitutional and Justice Commission. This commission, however, has since 2003 always left such immunity removal cases to the end of the parliamentary term.

Typically, the sentence of a parliamentary deputy can only be carried out once the person's term in Parliament is over. The immunity of a deputy can only be lifted by a majority vote in Parliament. However, in Tuğluk's case, none of these requirements were met.

The ruling is a "forced" one, according Constitutional Law Professor Ergun Özbudun. "The Constitution says that if there is a conviction, it should be left until after the person's term as deputy ends. Also, there is Article 84 of the Constitution. There is going to be some controversy about what will happen in Tuğluk's case at this point."

He said the court ruling was referring to Article 14 of the Constitution, which suspends normal immunity rules in certain cases, and added: "Article 14 has a very wide scope. You can pretty much include everything on it if you push hard enough. I think what she has done cannot be included under 14." He said the Constitution itself was causing part of the problem.

He also noted that the parliament speaker will have to pursue legal action once the case reaches him.

The DTP petitioned the Parliament Speaker's Office, highlighting that deputies cannot be tried without Parliament's approval. In the statement, written by DTP Şırnak deputy Hasip Kaplan, it noted: "It is legally impossible to try a deputy that has parliamentary immunity. This has given way to a case we had not even seen during the time of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup."

. . . .

Tuğluk will appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court of Appeals. If the high court approves the Diyarbakır court's ruling, Tuğluk will have to go to jail, making this the first time in history that a deputy will have been sent to prison without her immunity being removed. However, Tuğluk's lawyers insist that she can be jailed only after her term in Parliament is over.
Zana won the 1995 Sakharov Prize for Human Rights from the European Parliament shortly after her conviction.

Gül Meets with Saudi's King Abdullah

PHOTO from Today's Zaman

President Gül paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia last week (from Feb. 3-5). Calling for Palestinian unity, President Gül lauded Saudi Arabia's attempt to bring Hamas and Fatah together. Bilateral ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have grown stronger in recent years. From Emrullah Uslu at EDM:
The visit also highlighted the flourishing Turkish-Saudi bilateral relationship. The Turkish president said that he felt at home on his the trip, calling Turkey and Saudi Arabia sister states and sister nations. Gul recalled that King Abdullah had gone to Turkey in 2006 and 2007 and that these two visits in such a short time had shown Riyadh's "extraordinary attention and concern for Turkey." Gul added that he had wanted to return the gesture by paying a visit without any delay to show the high esteem that Turkey attached to relations with Saudi Arabia (, February 4). Diplomatic observers believe that Riyadh might be seeking to develop a strategic partnership with Turkey to counter the growing Iranian influence in the region (, February 3).

Bilateral economic cooperation was a major theme on Gul's agenda. He emphasized that the two countries had already signed agreements covering tax exemption, investment protection, and transportation (ANKA, February 4) and expressed the hope that the two sides could extend this cooperation further. Turkish ministers and the businessmen accompanying Gul signed new agreements with their counterparts in such areas as educational exchange programs, cooperation in youth and sports, and maritime transportation (Hurriyet Daily News, February 4).

Gul also spoke at a meeting of the Turkish-Saudi Business Council. Noting that structural reforms in Turkey had helped the country withstand the global crisis and created favorable conditions for foreign investors, Gul highlighted the strengths of the Turkish banking system. He invited Saudi businessmen to invest in Turkey. Given Saudi Arabia's projected investments in infrastructure, Turkish businesses, especially contractors, view Saudi Arabia as a lucrative foreign market (Cihan Haber Ajansi, February 4).

Despite the positive outlook for the economy and financial sector that Gul presented, Turkey urgently needs an injection of foreign capital to cushion the effects of the crisis. The government has been reluctant to sign a credit agreement with the IMF, because it would impose stringent conditions on government spending (EDM, January 29). There has been constant talk in Turkey about attracting petrodollars, or "Gulf capital" as the Turks like to call it, as a way to finance Turkey's economic development. Turkish businessmen have hoped that Turkey might be able to attract Gulf capital leaving the Western banking system, especially after September 11. Lately, it has often been said that Gulf capital might make Istanbul a worldwide financial center, and end Turkey's dependence on the IMF (Zaman, January 28, 2008). As a matter of fact, although the AKP government has been successful in boosting the volume of Arab investments in Turkey, it could not raise it to a level that would reduce Turkey's dependence on money borrowed from Western financial institutions.
For full analysis, click here. For coverage from TDZ, click here.

In other news, President Abbas visited Ankara over the weekend, and while gracious toward Turkey for engaging Hamas and, according to TDZ, "pushing it toward the center," the Fatah leader was less optimistic of Turkis diplomacy than most Turks would have liked.

Rakı & Meyhane Culture in Jeopardy

From the Guardian:
Mass job losses and a government attempt to secure a £17bn IMF loan were signs that Turkey's economy was wilting in the global recession. Now the traditional meyhane - tavern - is providing proof that hard times have indeed arrived.

Raki, the aniseed-flavoured aperitif central to Turkish culture and a favourite tipple of the modern state's founder, Ataturk, has been displaced by beer as the favourite drink.

Bar owners in Istanbul's fashionable Nevizade market, a warren of taverns and restaurants that once finished off 100 crates of raki a day, have seen sales plummet by 30% in a year as customers order cheaper alternatives. Tough economic conditions have combined with a private consumption tax to price raki increasingly out of the market, traders say.

Even Beyoglu district's more bohemian establishments, which have tried to uphold Turkish drinking traditions, have recorded a 20% drop. At the same time there has been a 40% jump in beer sales, mostly benefiting the popular local brewer Efes. Half a litre of Efes sells for 80p in some supermarkets, while the same amount of raki costs 10 times as much.

"People have turned to lower-priced alcoholic beverages," Tulay Ece Guneysu, president of the Nevizade artisans' association, told Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review. "Today the consumption of raki has dropped to 80 crates per day. The consumption of beer is at about 10 50-litre barrels a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays."
For more in Hürriyet, click here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Turkey Ratifies Kyoto

From TDZ:
Parliament approved on Thursday its membership of the Kyoto protocol, the U.N.-led pact to combat global warming.

Turkey had announced in June its intention to sign the accord, which was first agreed by world governments in 1997. The government had postponed signing it for more than a decade because of its concerns about the cost on its economy.

Parliament’s ratification comes after intense pressure from both the European Union and international environmental organizations. Three voted against as 243 lawmakers voted in favor of the protocol.

Environment Minister Veysel Eroğlu in a brief speech he made after Thursday’s vote to ratify the protocol said, "I thank you all. Everyone should embrace this protocol," He said the government was taking necessary precautions for a better environment in the country.

Environmentalists say Turkey has been late in participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Turkey can no longer become a "party" to the protocol, so it has now "acceded" to it. Signing the Kyoto Protocol does not put an additional burden on Turkey until 2012, analysts said. Turkey was not a party to the convention adopted in 1992 when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, and it is not currently included in the agreement's Annex-B, which includes 39 countries that are obliged to reduce their greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

The Kyoto Protocol was open for signatures in 1998, and entered into force in 2005 with the accession of Russia. More than 170 countries have signed the protocol. Governments around the world are trying to shape the next term by holding international meetings and work will be concluded in 2009, analysts said.
According to Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu, the cost of readying Turkey for compliance after 2012 is 58 billion euros, 15 billion of which is expected to be carried by the private sector. The Turkey Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD) has endorsed ratification on grounds that it will enhance Turkey's role in energy negotiations to come and bring Turkey closer to entering the EU. For additional news analysis from TDZ, click here.

Al-Qa'ida Planning Attacks in Turkey?

The EDM's Emrullah Uslu speculates that Israeli airline El-Al's decision to suspend flights to Antalya is due to fear of an impending terrorist attack by al-Qa'ida. Uslu cites foiled al-Qa'ida plans to target the American, British, and Israeli consulates in İstanbul, in relation to which 38 suspected al-Qa'ida agents were arrested in December, as well as a series of robberies that have occurred across Turkey in recent months. According to Uslu,
[t]he recent upsurge in jewelry store and post office robberies, however, is a new trend. Al-Qaeda spends thousands of dollars for each attack. The recent spate of robberies may indicate that the police have successfully isolated the individual al-Qaeda cells so that they cannot obtain cash from the central body or that the main organization has stopped financing local operations.

If al Qaeda cuts off funding for its local branches so that each group has to find its own means of financing for the attacks, then the recent series of robberies could be a possible sign of a major operation in the making. Although the TNP [Turkish National Police] works hard and prevents most of the attacks in the planning stage, the recent upsurge in anti-Israel sentiment in Turkey may result in al-Qaeda members obtaining more informational assistance about potential Israeli targets from the local population.
Authorities still suspect al-Qa'ida involvement in last July's attack on the U.S. Consulate in İstanbul, which left 3 police officers dead.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

CHP Lends Support to Qu'ran Courses

From Hürriyet:
Republican People’s Party, or CHP, leader Deniz Baykal supported his party’s Kocaeli mayoral candidate, Sefa Sirmen’s, pledge to "build Koran schools in every district," yesterday before a top-level party meeting.

"The Kocaeli municipality developed the project to meet the people’s demand, just like opening up a computer or a foreign language course," Baykal said, less than two months prior to local elections in March.

With coordination with the Religious Affairs Directorate, in accordance with the laws, the Constitution and basic principles of the state, the Koran can be taught to children who are of an appropriate age.

"There are courses that evade the directorate’s control. Sometimes we see Koran courses that merely make children memorize the Koran. We need to pass beyond this," Baykal said.
Sirmen is a well-known personality in Kocaeli, and his Qu'ran declaration is targeted to get out voters in İzmit and elsewhere, many of whom are newly arrived immigrants from the east of Turkey, deeply religious, and quite committed to Turkish-Sunni traditionalism. Baykal's position on Sirmen's remarks takes earlier commitments to expand the role of religion in the public sphere even further. For the story from TDZ, click here. For more on the changing dynamics of CHP in response to upcoming elections, see Jan. 11 post.

Broadcasting and Minority Rights

From Hürriyet:
State Minister Mehmet Aydın says a precedent has not been set with the launch of TRT 6 and broadcasting in other languages is not about to commence. He says individual assessments need to be made on the need for TV channels in other languages before making decisions.

Turkish state television’s new Kurdish channel will not be followed by similar channels in Laz, Georgian or other languages spoken in Turkey, or by a channel broadcasting in Zazaki, a Kurdish dialect, said the state minister responsible for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, or TRT, Mehmet Aydın yesterday.

"It is too early to make a comment," Aydın told reporters at Parliament, avoiding any comment that could be perceived as a green light to other state TV channels in non-Turkish languages. "We must weigh the necessities carefully. Why was TRT-6 born? Is there need for television in other languages or dialects? These must be carefully thought out," Aydın said.

Turkish citizens speaking Laz, Zaza, and Georgian requested Parliament’s human rights committees to launch channels in their languages after TRT-6, the first Kurdish state channel, was launched at the start of the year.

"TRT-6 airs a dozen types of programs 24 hours a day. We need to consider how suitable the content and quality of these programs are in meeting the demands of other languages and dialects," Aydın said.

The minister said the Laz, Georgian, and Zazaki people would not insist on state channels in their own languages. "Why should they ask for this? There are people in Southeast and East Turkey who cannot speak Turkish. Kurdish is used in all corners of the country. Are these languages used as much?" the state minister asked.

Aydın said the request submitted to Parliament’s human rights committee was the exercise of a democratic right by these groups.
Similarly, Circassian groups requested broadcast time earlier last month, the heads of the Caucasian Associations Federation (an umbrella organization for 56 Circassian groups) sitting down with President Gül at Çankaya to discuss broadcast time on TRT-6 or another channel. The demands for Zazacı to be included are also important in that the Zaza are a minority Kurdish group; at the moment, TRT-6 is broadcasting primarily in Kurmancı, the dialect of and group to which the majority of Turkey's Kurds belong. For more on Zaza, see Wladimir van Wilgenburg's analysis of rising Zaza nationalism in the EDM.

Interesting is that Aydın acknowledged the petition as a democratic right exercised by these minority groups. Turkey has been reluctant to vest minority groups with rights, though the growing number of minority rights' claims from Turkey's multiple ethnic groups is likely to raise the ire of old-fashioned, state-centric Kemalists who have long decried that such rights will lead to ethnic fragmentation, a bugaboo which still very much influences Turkish politics. Such fear is manifest in a statement made last January by the Atatürkist Thought Association (ADD) , a hardcore nationalist organization. From the statement:
Learning Turkish, speaking Turkish and being educated in Turkish is a citizen’s responsibility. With the Kurdish broadcast channel, the TRT will play into the hands of those domestic and international powers who want to divide and ruin our country. We invite our people and administrators to see that Kurdish broadcasting, Kurdish language and literature departments, the Kurdish Institute, an autonomous region, a federation and an independent Kurdish state are all phases of a game. We strongly decry attempts by the [Higher Education Board] YÖK to establish Kurdish language and literature departments even as there are serious higher education problems in our country. The ADD will forever remain bound to the secular, democratic, social republic that the great leader Atatürk established, the unitary structure of the state and its indivisible entirety, and we will continue the ideological battle for this purpose. How happy is he who calls himself a Turk.
The ADD and the Turkey Public Employers’ Trade Unions Confederation (KAMU-SEN) have both filed lawsuits to fight TRT-6 in the Turkish courts, though victory is unlikely and the prevailing political sentiment against them (see Jan. 7 post).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Turkey-Sudan Ties Compromise Turkish Foreign Policy

From TDZ:
Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, the first vice president of Sudan, was in Ankara yesterday for talks with senior Turkish officials ahead of an expected decision by International Criminal Court (ICC) judges on whether to indict Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Taha had talks with Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan and was scheduled for a meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the evening after Today's Zaman went to print. Erdoğan was expected to host a dinner in honor of Taha.
Sudan is seeking Turkey's support at the Security Council, hoping to take advantage of Turkey's new status as a non-permanent member in its efforts to thwart the ICC's indictment of al-Bashir. In December, Ashraf Qazi, UN special envoy to Sudan, met with President Gül and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, and in August, al-Bashir paid an official state visit, using Turkish soil to deny Sudanese government crimes committed in Darfur and excoriate human rights activists worldwide as complicit in a "Western conspiracy" against his country.

Turkish hospitality toward genocidaires not only calls into question the moral ground on which Erdoğan denounced Israeli crimes in Gaza, but undermines Turkey's commitment to human rights. This commitment is particularly important in terms of its EU accession bid, and EU policymakers are justifiably discouraged when Turkey hosts al-Bashir and allows the genocidaire to use the visit as a world stage. One day Turkey is declaring its commitment to human rights in Brussels, and the next it is hosting Sudanese dictator and genocidiare al-Bashir and talking about building better relations with a genocidal state. This must end, and Turkey must instead work to better align its foreign policy with that of Europe. While Europe is no doubt still struggling in its own right to determine a common security policy, hosting dignitaries from Khartorum gives credence to arguments that Turkey is moving further away from European foreign policy norms.

UPDATE 2/10 -- From Ankara, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin urged the ICC to postpone indicting al-Bashir. Babacan did not comment on the ICC indictment, but expressed implicit support for Sudan, reiterating Turkey's support for the political unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Sudan. Ignoring that al-Bashir is considered by many in the world to be a war criminal, Babacan held the Sudanese president's leadership necessary to resolution of conflict in Sudan.

Conscientious Objector Status on EU Agenda

From Bianet:
The European Commission has announced that EU accession negotiations would also involve a debate on the right to conscientious objection and the right to choose social service instead of military service.

Following the questions of Erik Meijer, MEP of the Dutch Socialist party, Olli Rehn, member of the European Commission responsible for Enlargement, said that these issues would be discussed under Chapter 23, “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights”, in accession negotiations.

Rehn emphasised that those refusing to use arms for religious or conscientious reasons were punished repeatedly. The EU has voiced its concern over this issue in its progress reports and in meetings with Turkish officials.

Rehn pointed out that the form of military service in the EU varied from country to country; the Copenhagen Criteria did not touch on this issue, nor is there any EU legislation on it.

Meijer said that males of Turkish origin with a second passport from an EU member state were obliged to do military service in Turkey. He added that Turkey had not signed the 1963 Convention on the Reduction of Cases of Multiple Nationality and Military Obligations in Cases of Multiple Nationality

According to this convention, persons with dual nationality can only be called on to do military service until the age of 38. If they have worked abroad for three years or more, they can pay to be exempt from military service. Not doing one’s military service is a ground for denaturalising someone. On the other hand, doing one’s military service in countries such as Germany, Denmark, France or Israel means that a second military service does not have to be carried out in Turkey.

Meijer asked whether the obligatory and disciplinarian military service in Turkey was making integration of Turks in the EU more difficult. Finally, he asked, “Do you realise that the money payed for military service exemption is probably being used for operations against the Kurdish-majority population in the Southeast?”
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized Turkey's failure to acknowledge the rights to conscientious objection, as well as numerous human rights groups inside Turkey. Service is mandatory for all male Turkish citizens for a term that can range from six months (for those with university degrees) to fifteen months. Partly because conscription affects almost everyone in Turkish society, and because service has become increasingly dangerous, military service is an extremely sensitive issue of which to speak. See my post from June 1 and Mustafa Akyol's analysis of pacifism as an imagined threat to the Turkish Republic. Conscientious objectors like Doğan Özkan are certainly not popular figures who endear themselves to the majority of the Turkish public.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The United States and the Armenian Question

Protesters in Ankara hols a banner reading, "The Armenian genocide is an international lie." PHOTO from Today's Zaman

April 24, the day on which the Armenian diaspora memorializes the 1915 massacre of its ancestors, will provide a critical litmus test for just how Obama will approach the Armenian question. Traditionally, U.S. presidents have commemorated the day with speeches and a short letter to the Armenian-American community, artfully finding ways to express solidarity with the Armenian community while eschewing recognition of the massacres as "genocide." With the Armenian vote in mind, Barack Obama promised in January 2008 to not dance around the word "genocide." The Armenian National Committee of America's endorsement at his back, President Obama now has less than three months left to decide whether this campaign promise will be among the first broken. (President Bush broke his promise in 2000, so such a move would not be without precedent.) In pledging to "recognize the Armenian genocide," Obama stands alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, all of whom have made similar commitments to ANCA and the Armenian community.

The Armenian diaspora in America has long lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass legislation enshrining the genocide label in U.S. law. And, they have come close to succeeding. In October 2007, H.R. 106 won approval in the House Foreign Affairs Committee only to be defeated at the behest of President Bush and defense-oriented politicians worried the legislation might undermine the war in Iraq. Co-sponsors of the bill like Rep. John Murtha reversed their position in the face of extreme diplomatic and lobbying pressure from Turkey, which removed its ambassador and spent huge sums on lobbying fees. A similar resolution met the same demise in October 2000 when it was squashed by President Clinton under the same pressures.

The systematic 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces resulted in an Armenian diaspora that has since long worked to have the historical events that resulted in their displacement recognized as genocide by the international community. Since its founding, Turkey has denied the Armenian claims, and the facts of 1915 have been an issue of heated contention since. While progress has been made in terms of studying and understanding just what happened in 1915, history remains largely obfuscated by propaganda produced by both sides. While the Armenian diaspora doggedly continues to lobby governments in the states to which they have relocated, the Turkish state refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman crimes as systematic slaughter, much more "genocide." Ömer Taşpınar writes that Turkish success in resisting Armenian genocide recongition efforts are largely "pyrrhic victories." According to Taşpınar, Turkish victories in the halls of foreign congresses make Turkey look thuggish. When a genocide resolution is introduced, no substantive debate unfolds as to whether the 1915 massacres can actually be considered "genocide." Instead, Turkey expends diplomatic capital -- not to mention huge amounts of money for Washington lobbyists -- to defeat the resolution, its victory the result of its geopolitical importance to the United States rather than the correctness of its argument.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has already warned Obama of genocide acknowledgement, and Foreign Minister Ali Bababcan recently argued that such a move from the United States would undermine progress Armenia and Turkey have made in reconciling past conflicts. In the past, Turkey has successfully managed to throw its strategic importance about so as to effectively rebuff America's sizable Armenian diaspora. However, with Obama seeming intent to keep campaign promises and Turkey's political clout in Washington significantly weakened in the wake of Davos, this might just be the year that the Armenia diaspora succeeds in getting that which it has for so long pushed and prodded. Israeli and Jewish-American lobbying groups in the United States have long supported Turkey against past efforts by the Armenian community, but Davos has given America's powerful Israeli lobby reason to withdraw this backing.

Despite the increased strength of the Armenian position, the Obama Administration is ultimately in the driver's seat. If Obama stops short of recognizing the 1915 massacres as genocide come April 24 and convinces Congress to keep H.R. 106 off the table, recent rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia might defuse the issue once and for all. Turkey broke off diplomatic conflict with Armenia in 1993, soon after Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union and following its invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, secret talks between both states commenced in July, and in Septemeber, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian extended an invitation to President Gül to watch the Turkish team play Armenia in Yerevan. Despite plenty of opposition, Gül accepted the invitation and briefly opened its border with Armenia. Since then, the two states have made real efforts to establish good relations.

At the same time, considerable movement has occurred inside Turkey to recognize the massacres of 1915 as a genocide, and at the very least, come to some more conciliatory diplomatic settling of the dispute. If Armenia and Turkey could come to some satisfactory resolution about 1915, then future attempts by the Armenian diaspora would be significantly weakened and the potentially derailing impact of the issue on U.S.-Turkey relations eliminated. Evidencing the potential for these steps in positive relations is the recent response of Armenian intellectuals to a petition organized by Turkish intellectuals in December and since signed by thousands of Turkish citizens. Although the Turkish petition did not use the word "genocide," referring instead to the 1915 massacres as "the Great Catastrophe," it was an important and hard-fought first step. Reciprocally, the Armenian petition apologizes for the killing of Turks by Armenians. The Armenian response should bolster support for moves to acknowledge the killings.

UPDATE 2/9 -- The Armenian petition referenced above has been aborted. Dr. Armen Gavakian from the Macquarie University in Sydney, inspired by a Turkish initiative, decided last month to launch a campaign to apologize to Turks for murders committed by the Asala organization in the 1980s. Gakavian, however, retracted the campaign over fierce criticism from Armenian diaspora, Hürriyet wrote. For full article, click here.

EUTCC Conference

Worth reading is journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg's coverage of the 5th Annual Conference of the EU-Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC), an NGO set up to address relations between Turkey, its Kurdish minority, and the EU. At the conference were recently convicted and much famed Kuridsh politician Leyla Zana, Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir, controversial Radikal columnist Cengiz Çandar, and American academic Michael Günter. Wilgenburg writes mainly about the Kurdish minority in Turkey, and his blog, Transnational Middle-East Observer, can be reached here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

In the Wake of Davos

My inbox filled up quickly this past weekend after Prime Minister Erdoğan walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos on Friday. Although insistent in his desire to normalize relations with Israel damaged by previous remarks (see Jan. 22 post), Erdoğan lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres in a panel discussion on Gaza.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post moderated the panel, which also included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Arab League Secretary-General and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr-Moussa. After Erdoğan condemned Israel's indiscriminate targeting of civilians in Gaza and its illegal use of white phosphorus gas in populated areas, Peres angrily responded that Turkey would do the same if Istanbul was faced with rocket fire. In retort to Peres' raised voice and finger-pointing, Erdoğan asked Ignatius for time to respond. Regretfully, Ignatius denied the request, giving Erdoğan only a minute to respond to Peres' scolding. A visibly frustrated Erdoğan ignored Ignatius, who rather thoughtlessly responded that it was time "to get people to dinner," patting Erdoğan's shoulder for a while in a move that some read as disrespecting. Talking over Ignatius, Erdoğan proceeded to excoriate Peres, prefacing his remarks with the Sixth Commandment and Peres' "guilty conscience." Throwing up his hands, the Prime Minister then indignately remarked that Peres had been given 25 minutes to speak while he had been granted only 12. (Ignatius had, in fact, given Peres more time, but by five minutes.) Erdoğan -- the crowd, including Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, now stupefied -- declared himself done with Davos, soon after walking abruptly off the stage. Shortly after, Erdoğan's wife, Emine, reinforced her husband's sentiments, dramatically standing before reporters in tears to denounce everything Peres said as a lie. The whole panel discussion can be viewed on the YouTube link above. To skip ahead to Erdoğan's fiery, yet surprisingly crisp retort, go to 1:01 on the video.

Ecstatic crowds made for a hero's welcome when Erdoğan arrived in Istanbul later that night. (Click here for video footage from the BBC.) Talking before thousands of people, Erdoğan struck a nationalist tone, calling his response a matter of honor for Turkey and her people, but also urged that the future of Turkey-Israel relations should not be determined in anger. Turkish television and newspapers cheered the Prime Minister throughout the weekend, his actions viewed as demonstrable of an independent foreign policy. Even those who have been commitedly in opposition to Erdoğan and the AKP lauded his response at Davos, largely a function of Turkey's national pride and sense of itself being under siege. CHP opposition leader Deniz Baykal praised Erdoğan at Davos, forecasting that AKP is likely to win with a majority of the vote. Self-identified "secularist" friends have sent emails extolling Erdoğan, and Davos makes it highly unlikely that AKP will lose votes to the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the conservative Felicity Party (SP), the latter of which received an injection of popularity during the war in Gaza (see January 14 post).

The future of Turkey-Israel relations is yet to be determined. Taken in light of Peres' raised voice and finger-pointing, it would have been politically disastrous for the Prime Minister not to respond strongly. Wisely, after the meeting, both leaders qualified their exchange: Erdoğan said his choler was directed mainly toward Ignatius and the uneven format of the debate, while Peres apologized for raising his voice, explaining he had raised it because he was told it was difficult to hear in the auditorium. And, though the conservative Israeli press has pounded Erdoğan in the past few days, the reaction could have been much worse. Israeli Foreign Minister and Kadima's candidate for PM in upcoming Israeli elections did argue that Erdoğan should show more respect for the important strategic partnership that premises Turkey-Israel relations, but criticism has for the most part been tempered.

Also to be seen is how Erdoğan's remarks will impact Turkey's ambition to mediate between Israel and Syria, not to mention Hamas, and just what Turkish diplomacy in Gaza means for its position in the Middle East. Ironically, now a hero in the eyes of many Arabs, Erdoğan has placed Turkey in a potentially precarious position. While popularity in the Arab World should be welcome, the authoritarian leaders of Arab States are unlikely to sit by and watch Erdoğan's popularity grow lest it further undermine the legitimacy of their own regimes. And, even more problematic is that Turkey's diplomatic capital is now largely dependent on Hamas. Should Hamas leaders provoke Israel and/or act in any way particularly unbecoming to international norms, Turkey's support of Hamas -- as it is being read in the Arab World -- will need to be re-evaluated. In such an event, it is highly unlikely that Turkey would stand by Hamas, as doing so would devastate relations with Israel and the United States, raise important questions in Europe (which has been laudatory of Turkey's engagement with Hamas), and further discomfit Arab leaders (whose skill in maintaining the status quo should not be underestimated). If Hamas acts foolishly and loses the support of the international community it has garnered thanks to Israel's disproportionate response, Turkey will be placed in an untenable situation, and surely this reality is not lost on Hamas leaders.

Another problem in the wake might manifest itself come expected efforts by the Armenian diaspora in the United States to renew efforts to pass a resolution in the United States Congress recognizing as genocide the 1915 massacres of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The powerful Jewish lobby has historically come to the assistance of Turkey to counter such pushes.

Peripherally, it will be interesting to see how Erdoğan's indignation will effect Turkey's policy toward the Kurds and its hosting figures like Omar al-Bashir, hypocrisies involving which have been pointed out by foreign and domestic press alike. It will also be interesting to see if ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's announcement that he is exploring ways to prosecute IDF commanders guilty of war crimes commited in Gaza will bolster support for the ICC.


As before, there is concern that Erdoğan's remarks at Davos will fuel anti-Semitism, though the Prime Minister has repeated that Jews and Israelis should not be confused with the Israeli state. Before Friday prayers, Mustafa Çağırcı, head cleric of Istanbul's mosques, reportedly urged all imams to refrain from any comments that might be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Despite Erdoğan's repeated rejection of anti-Semitism, Yigal Schleifer is understandably troubled by the Prime Minister's mention of anti-Semitic performer Gilad Atzmon, asking the question of just where Erdoğan picked up Atzmon's name and whether it is reflective of who is advising him on Middle East policy. While Erdoğan also cited the work of Avi Schlaim, dropping the name of the less than savory figure of Atzmon understandably disconcerts Schleifer. Bemoaning evidence of a flurry of anti-Semitism, Schleifer explores the "online conversion" of Ignatius, who was falsely reported to be Jewish by the secular-leaning Hürriyet. Turkey is rife with what Schleifer calls "citizen propaganda," and correct in drawing attention to the proliferation of virulent anti-Semitism in discourse as of late.

UPDATE 2/3 -- The Jerusalem Post is reporting that the Israeli Defense Ministry's Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Organization (SIBAT) is re-evaluating several recently submitted arms requests made by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The paper cites an anonymous official in the Defense Ministry: Turkey is eyeing moderate Arab countries and is hoping to strengthen its ties with them . . . . Just like we don't sell advanced military platforms to Jordan and Egypt, we may decide not to sell to Turkey." According to the Post,
In December, subsidiaries of IAI and Elbit Systems signed a $140 million deal to supply the Turkish Air Force with targeting pods. Israeli Military Industries (IMI) recently completed a $700m. deal signed several years ago with Turkey to upgrade the country's fleet of aging Patton-series M60 tanks. IAI also recently supplied Turkey with its advanced long-range Heron unmanned aerial vehicle.

Sources in defense industries expressed hope that the crisis with Ankara would pass and would not have a negative impact on sales to Turkey.

UPDATE 2/4 -- Evidence of discomfited Arab leaders thanks to EDM's Emrullah Uslu:
Foreign ministers of nine Arab countries-Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates-met in Abu Dhabi as part of a growing Arab process of consultation and increasing Arab solidarity. A statement issued after the meeting noted, "We are working to overcome this difficult time in the Arab world and ensure that unwelcome, non-Arab parties do not become involved in our affairs in an unconstructive manner" (,, February 3). The Turkish press maintains that this "unwelcome, non-Arab party" is Turkey and that Arab leaders are not happy about Erdogan's response to the Gaza crisis (, February 4).
For full article, click here. On Jan. 15, Uslu wrote that Erdoğan is positioning himself as a new Nasser, and as noted above, a Turkish Nasser is not a prospect likely to be passively accepted by Arab leaders.

Also, I wrote above that Israeli press coverage has been much less incendiary than it could be. While I still think this is for the most part true, Yigal Schleifer writes today of some pretty shoddy coverage that made its way into Ha'aretz. The paper recently reported that vandals burned down a synagogue in Bursa, an event that simply did not happen, but which Ha'aretz did not correct.