Sunday, 28 July 2013

Only In Turkey

During my many years in Turkey I have witnessed countless instances of weird conspiracy theories, national paranoia, and distrust of any and all foreigners. But an incident reported recently in The Daily Telegraph of London has to take first prize.

Residents of a village in eastern Turkey thought that a kestrel – a fairly large bird of prey – soaring back and forth over their village could be an Israeli spy. Apparently they caught the bird and found that it was wearing a metal band stamped with the words ‘24311 Tel Avivunia Israel.’ The dreaded word Israel was all it took to drive the local spy-catchers into high gear.

The offending bird was frog-marched off to a local hospital where it was promptly registered as an ‘Israeli spy.’ I am not making this up. It was only after intensive medical examination – including X-rays – that the bird was identified as, well, just a bird. There were no microchips or other devices that might transmit vital information about an extremely barren part of Turkey back to the hated Mossad. All in all, I suppose the bird was lucky it wasn’t slapped into an orange jump suit complete with ear muffs and shipped off to Guantanamo.
An Israeli Spy?
I was reminded of my own experience in another small eastern Turkish town many years ago where I was working as a teacher. Because I was foreign, because I spoke a little Turkish, and because I sometimes went to the capital Ankara the locals were convinced I was a foreign agent. The only question was who I was working for – the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Russian KGB, or the British MI 6. Every denial on my part only reinforced their conviction. “He would deny it, wouldn’t he?” Finally, a fellow teacher put the issue to rest one evening in the local coffee house. “What in the name of Allah,” he asked “is in this small town that is worth spying on? How many goats you have, Ahmet? Where you hide your tools, Orhan? Is America so rich that it can afford to send people to every small town in the world to find out useless information?” The others had to nod their heads in reluctant agreement, somewhat annoyed that their evening’s entertainment had been taken away.

All of this would be merely humorous if it didn’t reflect the attitude of senior members of the Turkish government today. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and certain members of the cabinet have been acting ever more erratically while ranting and raving about foreign and domestic conspiracies ever since large scale protests broke out in May. First it was the perfidious, and always useful, foreign agents, who were stirring up trouble. Then it was agents from the opposition political parties. When the stock market and the local currency began to slide then the well known – to the prime minister at least – interest rate lobby – was hard at work undermining the Turkish economy. One cabinet minister pulled out the always useful Jewish conspiracy to explain the economy’s problems. These activities are all part of the larger conspiracy, you see, organized by people who want to slow down Turkey’s growth.

Since taking office more than 10 years ago the prime minister has travelled the world. Unfortunately, he seems to have learned very little on his travels. His guiding principles seem to be the same ones he developed growing up in one of Istanbul’s notoriously tough neighbourhoods – never take a back step, absolutely never apologize, intimidate your opponents by yelling loudly and fiercely. Compromise is not a word he recognizes. He also learned that you never lose votes in Turkey by blaming foreigners for the country’s problems. There was the famous case after the devastating earthquake in 1999 when the nationalist health minister refused to accept foreign blood donations that could dilute ‘pure’ Turkish blood.

The prime minister was furious about an open letter recently published in The Times of London that sharply criticized his violent words and crude police behaviour during recent protests. The letter was signed by luminaries including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Ben Kingsley, the historian David Starkey, and many others. A more rational politician would have shrugged this off and accepted the criticism as the price of being in office. Not Tayyip Erdoğan. He went off the handle accusing dark forces for being behind the letter. Demonstrating his complete ignorance of the concept of freedom of speech he threatened to sue the newspaper. One hopes that cooler heads in Turkey can prevent him from making a complete fool of himself on the international stage.

No one is exempt from the paranoia of the witch hunt against anyone thought to be supporting the protests against him. Doctors, teachers, foreign and domestic journalists, economists, leading Turkish companies, and professional organizations have all been targeted as agents of those who want to undermine Turkey. Even Turkey’s largest company, the Koç Group is not exempt from his fury. Not only is prime minister annoyed at Koç University but he is furious that the group’s Divan Hotel offered shelter to people running away from police tear gas during the demonstrations. Therefore, it came as no great surprise when the group’s refinery Tüpraş was subjected to a surprise tax audit. Only fanatical Erdoğan supporters believe this is a coincidence. And the prime minister wonders why very few people are rushing to invest in Turkey.

Is Turkey's Largest Refiner On The Lengthening 'Enemies' List
Can anyone within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) curb this brutal and damaging abuse of power? Can President Abdüllah Gül curb the prime minister’s behaviour before it undoes everything the AKP has accomplished? Or, more properly, does he want to curb this behaviour? When you take on Tayyip Erdogan you better be ready for a bare knuckle battle. The answer will go a long way to determining Turkey’s near-term future.

Monday, 8 July 2013

What Lessons Will Turkey Take From Egypt?

Sometimes you have to feel sorry for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. You really do. He has had a horrible summer so far.

First, many thousands of his own citizens rebelled for days against his own narrow, very limited vision of democracy and his arrogant assumption that he and only he knows what is best for that complex country of almost 80 million people.

Second, and most alarming, his fellow Islamists in Egypt get booted out of power. Days of mass anti-government rallies culminated in the army removing the Moslem Brotherhood government and attempting to install a more professional cadre.
Not everyone voted for the Egyptian president
Erdoğan’s indignation kicked into high gear as he railed against this ‘shocking’ anti-democratic move. He and his henchmen predictably blasted Western nations for not reacting for more forcefully against the coup. To Erdoğan’s people, the Egyptian coup was nothing more than the work of ‘anti-democratic’ forces around the world. They conveniently ignore that there was nothing remotely democratic about the short rule of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. In addition to being administratively incompetent the Brotherhood froze all other elements of Egyptian society out of the governing process. In short, they made it easy for their opponents to drive them from power and forcefully deliver the message that real democracy only begins at the ballot box. The most glaring example of this abuse of ballot box power was Adolf Hitler who was, after all, elected. It didn't take him long, however, to destroy the democracy that brought him to power.

Erdoğan even went so far as to claim that the Moslem Brotherhood government had been undermined by an economic boycott during its short time in power. I have no idea where this groundless claim came from, but once again it shows his complete disregard for any facts. But, as his reactions to the unrest in Turkey show, he will simply make up facts to suit his thundering arguments. When all else fails he and his sycophants can always fall back on the tried and true ‘Jewish, international, financial conspiracy’ theory to explain problems in Turkey and Egypt.

So far he has remained tactfully silent about the support that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown for the Egyptian army’s move. We shall also forget for the moment Turkey’s own support for that notorious despot Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (subject of an international arrest warrant for genocide in Darfur) or that Erdoğan himself was the honoured recipient of the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights just before that dictator was driven from power.

The backdrop to Erdoğan’s unhappiness about the Egyptian situation is, of course, Turkey’s own history of military intervention.  He is all too familiar with the military justifying its actions by saying it was protecting the secular character of Turkey’s government against inroads by radical Islamists. His answer to this risk was to lock up several leading military figures and throw the key away. As usual he misses the fact that his own democratic credentials were severely dented by jailing hundreds of his opponents for years without the benefit of a trial – which might, after all, show that the charges were false or fabricated in the first place.
No longer a real threat in Turkey
Erdoğan’s erratic and increasingly shrill behaviour just might reflect the looming domestic threats to his own legacy and the collapse of his grand vision of Turkey’s role in the Middle East.

 His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) prides itself on Turkey’s rapid economic development during their rule. Up to a point that’s true. But as more and more economists are noting, the wildly touted growth numbers don’t stand up to rigorous analysis. They are good, but not great. Much has been said about the relatively low level of government debt. Again, true as far as it goes. But the government spokesmen never mention the explosion in private sector foreign debt. But most of all, Turkey’s economic performance rests largely on the ephemeral confidence of international investors who provide the $200 billion external financing that the country needs every year. And nothing removes that confidence faster than political unrest coupled with the merest hint of monetary tightening by major central banks. International investors are getting restless and starting to question the wisdom of their Turkish investments. The stock market is down more than 20% since the end of May. The currency has depreciated more than 10% since the beginning of the year and is approaching the once-unthinkable level of 2:1 against the US dollar. As far as the AKP is concerned a weakening economy is far more dangerous to the party’s future than the almost non-existent threat of military intervention à la Egypt.

Not too long ago Turkey’s smug foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was crowing about a resurgent Turkey’s key role in the Middle East as a balance to the deteriorating relations with the European Union. Now Turkey has to look long and hard to find a Middle East ally beyond, of course, Hamas in Gaza. The new rulers of Egypt will hardly appreciate Turkey’s loud support for the deposed Moslem Brotherhood. Wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar will continue to support the coup in Egypt regardless of Turkey’s objections. And who can predict how Syria will turn out. Turkey has gambled heavily on the fall of Basher al-Assad who, so far against all odds has avoided the fate of Gaddafi or Mohammed Morsi.

Turkey faces a critical period over the next several months with delicate Kurdish negotiations, possible changes to the constitution, juggling the economy, and meeting the demands of its own people for real democracy and inclusion. Has  the prime minister learned anything from the unrest in his own country as well as Egypt? Will he be able to meet these challenges with something more than his usual bombast and conspiracy theories?