Friday, 26 December 2014

So You Want To Be An Expat

Stuck in a rut, craving a little excitement, something different and more glamorous than school runs in a small town, a chance perhaps to move up the corporate ladder, expand your horizons, intrigued by how others live on this increasingly crowded planet? Those pictures of the sophisticated café life in Paris or picturesque villages nestled in the sun-baked hills of Tuscany beginning to look better and better? Starting to ask yourself what you’re missing? Have you started, secretly at first, collecting a pile of information about life overseas?

If so, then you’re a good candidate to join the more than 7.5 million Americans whose home address doesn’t include a U.S. zip code. This, however, is the moment to sit down and think again, very carefully. While an expat life can undoubtedly be very fulfilling and fascinating, it is not for everyone. No matter how attractive the brochures, no matter how often you’re told ‘You don’t really need to speak the language. Everyone speaks English’ it will certainly be very, very different. For many people that is the very essence, the satisfaction, of an expat life. For others, it can be a nightmare.

            Like many things it is a much easier decision when you’re young, just out of college. You have time to live for a while in many different countries, learn languages, you don’t need that much money, you’re generally more flexible. Beware, though. Once you gain that experience at an early age it is very hard to get it completely out of your system. It will always be there as a temptation, an alternative. On a rainy, miserable day back home you will stare pensively out the window and think longingly about those days in Malaysia, India, or Chile. Add a family, a decent job, a dog or two and it becomes a much more difficult choice. Still possible, but it can be difficult to convince everyone around you that disrupting their lives and moving abroad is the best choice.

            My older daughter, then on a research trip for several weeks in the Republic of the Congo, recalled what may be the extreme example of commitment to an expat life. She met an American missionary family with two children living deep in the bush far from any town that could remotely be called large. After a while she politely brought up the question of exactly how they came to find themselves deep in the African bush. They had been living quite happily somewhere in the Midwestern United States when the husband came down to breakfast one day and said he had been called to do missionary work in Africa. Fair enough. But if I had been his wife I just might have had him sit down, have a cup of coffee, maybe a couple of aspirin and double check that the call wasn’t a wrong number.

            Before you grab your boarding passes and head to the airport there are couple of things to think about.

1.      Be careful about people who tell you how easy it is to transplant your lifestyle to another continent. Closer examination may reveal they have a few advantages you don’t. Such as, a) already having dual citizenship and fluency in the language, b) having family members with invaluable connections in the host country, c) being married to a native of the country in question, or d) already having job open only to citizens of that particular country.

2.      Be careful also of rushing into foreign assignments for your company. They can be the springboard to more responsibility and promotion or they can equally be the slide into oblivion. Out of sight, out of mind. Make sure the country of your assignment is critical to the company’s overall success. Otherwise you are in a sideshow that doesn’t even have the benefit of useful gossip around the water-cooler. You can get into a position where a number of previously junior colleagues are promoted ahead of you at home simply because you are not there. When it comes time to go home, you may well find your bosses hemming and hawing about ‘difficult times’ or ‘it might be hard to slot you back into your old position’, etc. etc. Without iron-clad guarantees you might well be stuck overseas for a much longer period than you anticipated. Few things are sadder than an aging expat who hangs on by the skin of his teeth with marginal jobs in a foreign country simply because there are even fewer opportunities at home.

3.      Be especially careful of taking a job for a foreign company regardless of how much they offer you up front. You may be coming in over a number of local executives who could resent your presence and undermine everything you try to do. When trouble comes it is a lot easier for your new employer to get rid of you than them.

4.      Check the procedure for obtaining tricky things like resident permits and work permits. You never had to give either of those a second thought at home. Overseas they are crucial. Without them you will be floundering around. Countries are very careful about giving jobs to foreigners ahead of their own citizens unless you have some special skill. Don’t assume you can pitch up anywhere you like, find a place to live and start looking for a job without jumping through a lot of hoops.

5.      In cross-cultural situations the words ‘why’ and ‘should’ are the worst words in the English language. You can go nuts constantly asking ‘why’ things are done in a certain way that seems totally weird. Your life will be a lot less frustrating if you can restrain that impulse and take the time to appreciate that maybe, just maybe, there is a good reason that is not obvious at first. Also, no one wants to hear your opinion about what ‘should’ be done. Most people are well aware of their national problems and don’t appreciate constantly being reminded of them. Wait until you are asked. Things may take a little longer than you would like, but you will earn a great deal of good will by not constantly informing everyone within earshot that ‘We do it differently at home.’

            But most of all work hard to get the most out of your total experience. Don’t be afraid to jump in the deep end and immerse yourself totally. Moving overseas, even for a few years, can be one of the most memorable things you have ever done. Enjoy the difference. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Welcome To America! Brace Yourself For Contrasts.

Visitors to the United States use many adjectives to describe the country. Subtle is not one of them. To many, the U.S. seems much more the lethal, cumbersome 70-ton Abrams tank thundering down the road than the nimble, fleet-footed forest creature relying on cunning and camouflage to escape capture.

My native country can often seem an incredibly jarring mixture of loud noise, blaring commercial assaults to buy something – anything, constant change coupled with in-your-face innovation, and a near-total disdain for anything that happened the day before. Europeans steeped in centuries-old traditions -- along with their assorted vicious religious and political feuds -- are often shocked that history in America is what you had for breakfast. Ancient history is last night’s TV schedule. Culture buffs are horrified that classical opera is reduced to elevator music and works by giants like Michelangelo can be reduced to hastily-created digital images on hand-held tablets.

On a recent visit home I was struck once again by the stark differences between the United States and Europe. Even in New England, considered by many to have close cultural and social ties to Europe, it was clear that the U.S. really is an ‘all bets are off, anything goes’ country.

American TV ads are one of my favourite examples of this. Other than the ban on cigarettes and alcohol there don’t appear to be any standards at all. The airways are filled with ads for prescription medicines that are supposed to cure all sorts of horrible diseases. A deep, authoritative voice assures you that this particular pill will reverse your downward slide and return you to sparkling shape in no time at all. Then the last half of the ad mentions, very rapidly, all the equally horrible side effects of this drug that could send you to an early grave.

Best of all, though, are the ads aimed at older men suffering from what is politely called erectile dysfunction. These ads all feature an attractive woman saying how much she likes older men, but, unfortunately, so many of them seem to have difficulty between the sheets. This little pill, however, can cure all of that and have them prancing around like randy teenagers in no time at all. Then the sonorous voice comes on listing all the adverse side effects, and says that if you have an erection lasting more than four hours you should call your doctor. Doctor, hell! It’s time to notify the Guinness Book of World Records.

These are just part of the stark contrasts that seem to define America. Awe-inspiring natural beauty and some man-made horrors; world leading universities stuffed with Nobel prizes coexist with some stupefying, almost wilful (I-don’t-know-nuthin’-and-I’m-proud-of- it)ignorance; cutting edge medical industry that leaves many with no care at all; dynamic economy that offers great opportunities but no guarantees.

Then, of course, there is the American love affair with ice. It can -15 degrees with a howling blizzard outside and the waiter will invariably serve you water in a glass filled with ice cubes. As you glance at the snow outside and politely ask if it would be possible to have the water without ice cubes the waiter gives you a look that says you are seconds away from being reported to Homeland Security. That threat level goes to orange when you mention to the same waiter that the portion size of the meal is perhaps better suited to a small town than just one individual.

Maybe it was the impact of the holiday season, but no effort is spared to part the consumer and his money. You are constantly bludgeoned with your patriotic duty to shop – on the internet or in real stores. One famous retailer specialising in outdoor gear is open 24/7 all year with no exceptions. I was jet lagged the day after arriving and decided to experiment with a bit of browsing at 4 am. Interesting people go shopping in a rural town at 4 o’clock in the morning. You want to watch out for the genetically-challenged guy with the glassy-eyed stare going over to the gun rack at that time of day. “Boy, that sure is a real nice looking shot gun you got there,” he gushes as he lovingly strokes the barrel. Others were just taking advantage of a warm place to sit and get some free coffee.

Personal freedom is cherished above all else. There are no thought police, no taste police in the form of not-so-subtle community pressure that dictates what you do. You want to wear orange bib overalls with a loud green shirt, go right ahead. You want to put enough reindeer and Christmas lights on your house and lawn so it can be seen from the planet Mars, go right ahead. People will congratulate you. Same for cars. You want what Europeans would consider an environmental disaster of car, go right ahead. Again, no one is going to stop you.

Perhaps most of all it is the sheer energy level, the drive to innovate, to change, to renew that make America an exciting place. Sometimes exhausting, frustrating and hypocritical, but seldom dull. All that went before -- your lineage, your achievements, your sense of proper social order -- means absolutely nothing. You are what you did today. Perhaps this is why the people who appreciate America the most are those who arrived with the least.

Friday, 21 November 2014

We're Right And Everyone Else Is Wrong!!

I’ll bet you didn’t know that it was Mustafa Columbus who discovered America more than 300 years before that other Columbus made the trip. I’ll also bet you didn’t know that Columbus, either one, clearly saw a mosque on top of a hill in Cuba.

His claim that it was a Moslem sea-farer who really discovered America long before Columbus and that a mosque could clearly be seen in 15th century Cuba are just two of the latest bizarre claims by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. For some reason he feels compelled to rely on highly dubious scholarship to prove that it was Moslems and not the perfidious West who discovered the New World. Perhaps this research came from the same library containing works by another Turkish ‘scholar’ claiming that Johann Wolfgang Goethe was really a Turk and not German at all.

The sad thing in this farce is not Erdoğan’s latest howler. He and his acolytes make them all the time. It’s that this desperate need to ‘prove’ the achievements of Moslems, especially Turkish Moslems, only distracts people from the very real achievements of Arab scholars, navigators, physicians, philosophers and mathematicians in the Middle Ages. Most serious Western scholars recognize the intellectual and artistic debt that is owed to the Arabs. They don’t need the Turkish president to remind them of those achievements.

But again, no one should be surprised by comments like this from a man who seems to live by conspiracy theories where everything bad that has happened to Turkey is caused by devious outsiders like the infamous ‘interest rate lobby’, the ‘Jewish diaspora’, or – as always – the Americans. Even the German airline Lufthansa has joined the list of all those seeking to derail Turkey’s march toward global dominance.
While Turkey is no stranger to weird conspiracy theories (see the Levantine Musings post of 28/07/13 Only In Turkey about the mysterious kestrel accused ofWe're  spying for Israel), the crescendo of conspiracy claims seems to be building just as the country is sliding ever deeper into the self-dug hole of isolation. The ruling party acolytes like to claim it is their ‘principles’ – whatever they may be – that separates Turkey from others, and that the ensuing isolation is therefore a ‘precious’ isolation. Most rational people call it plain old isolation where you can use a telephone booth to hold a Friends of Turkey meeting.

Just a few years ago Turkey was the coming nation of the Middle East, the beacon of modern Islam and democracy in a very confused region. That promise, alas, was never fulfilled, and now Turkey has few if any friends in the region. The country’s isolation was hammered home in a recent vote in the United Nations for rotating members of the Security Council. Turkey had high hopes of winning one of those seats, but those hopes were shattered when it received only 60 votes, just about half the votes it received a few years previously.

Rather than using this humiliation as a reason to review its policies, the ruling party seems only to have increased the “We are right and everyone else is wrong” rhetoric. A few days ago a senior ruling party official claimed that Turkey’s one-time friends in the Gulf have joined unnamed outsiders to undermine Turkey and even were behind the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013.  And these are the very same countries that Turkey is hoping will invest vast sums in its rapidly slowing economy?

Most readers can be excused for never hearing of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France in 1916 when British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart George Francois Picot drew up a map assigning spheres of control in Arab territories following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. But for people like Erdoğan this ill-fated agreement remains fresh news and is yet another indication of Western attempts to control the Middle East. In a speech last month he not only dredged up the Sykes-Picot agreement again but warned of new forces posing as Lawrence of Arabia. “Lawrence was an English spy disguised as an Arab. There are new voluntary Lawrences, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.”

A courageous, or knowledgeable, adviser might have saved his president some embarrassment by reminding him of just a few inconvenient facts. The Ottoman Empire had willingly joined World War I on the German side in hopes of regaining some long-lost imperial grandeur. Its rulers failed to realize that Turkey had few, if any, friends in the Middle East in those days despite, or perhaps because of, centuries of colonial rule. Erdoğan forgets that even the ultimate religious trump card in World War I, the Ottoman Empire’s call for a jihad – or holy war, fell on deaf ears as thousands of their fellow Moslems joined the British struggle against the Turks. Many Arabs today have the same jaundiced view of Turkey as they do of all the other outsiders meddling in their business.

I doubt he realizes that these flights of fancy are having the opposite effect of what he is trying to prove. Turkey is a large and serious nation that could play a constructive role in regional and even global affairs. But as long as Erdoğan continues to rewrite history recklessly while ignoring inconvenient facts he is making it very hard for people to take him, or his country seriously.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

"We Have History"

Taking a taxi in Istanbul can be an interesting experience in the best of times. Sometimes the driver knows how to drive. Often the cab is his first experience with a motorized vehicle. Sometimes the driver knows where he is going. Other times you find that he only arrived in the city shortly before you did and knows very little.

            In theory the taxis are regulated. The reality is somewhat different. Take smoking. Removing a cigarette from many Turks is almost an act of war. Most cabs have stickers warning that smoking is not allowed. Most drivers, however, are busy working their way through at least two packs a day. If you’re brave or foolish enough to point out the no-smoking sticker they merely point to traffic mess around them and mutter the word ‘stress’ to explain their action. Given the total vehicular and pedestrian anarchy dominating the city’s streets they have a point.

The safest taxi in Istanbul?
             Then comes the tricky point of conversation. Most drivers are astute enough to recognize that you’re probably not Turkish. And they’re naturally curious. Who is this person in the back of my car? So while manoeuvring with the dexterity of a Formula 1 driver through speeding traffic as they constantly change lanes and run red lights they half-turn to you and utter the word ‘memleket’ – country—with head and hand gestures signifying a question. It’s a loaded question with uncertain consequences for the wrong answer. You, however terrified you may be with visions of instant death rapidly passing in front of your eyes, would be well advised to consider the answer carefully. Looking for tell-tale clues of the driver’s own political, sporting, or religious tendencies is a good start. These can usually be found hanging from the rear-view mirror or stuck to the windshield obliterating the view of oncoming death.

            One time I got this question from a driver who had a long beard and was wearing a white skull cap. Another clue was the fact that he was bobbing his head and muttering verses from the Koran propped up on the steering wheel. Given the state of his driving I thought this was an entirely logical thing to do. When he turned around with his fierce, challenging eyes and fired the question memleket? I had to do some fast thinking. The wrong answer might just land me bound and gagged in his trunk.

            My first reaction was to scroll quickly through my family tree to see if I could come up with a long-lost relative who was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed.  Failing that I concluded that admitting I was an American was probably not a great idea. British probably wouldn’t work either. Dutch? Risky. He might have a relative there and could speak a few words in Dutch, which was more than I could. Irish? Too obviously Catholic. Finally it dawned on me. Canadian. God bless the Canadians! No one in his right mind hates Canadians. Doubtful he’s ever seen one. And who has ever heard of Canadians getting stuck in trunks with gags and blind folds? Once I ventured that miraculous word Canadian he muttered something incomprehensible and focused on his driving.

            Another time I got this question and quickly searched for clues. Surprisingly there were none – no prayer beads hanging from the mirror and no stickers proclaiming his allegiance to one football team or another. The driver seemed like a decent person and I admitted to being American. Instantly his face lit up into a huge gap-toothed smile. The only nervous moment was when he turned around to give me a high-five.

            “My friend, this trip is on me. Where can I take you,” he proclaimed.
            Stunned, I asked him where he was from. This being the Middle East, friends of America are a little thin on the ground. He thumped his chest proudly. “I am from Kurdistan,” he announced. It turned out his family was from northern Iraq and had been saved by the American no-fly zone after Saddam Hussein had killed thousands of Kurds with his chemical warfare. For him the Americans could do no wrong. He was far less charitable toward the Turks whom he accused of suppressing their own large Kurdish population. “We have history,” he said darkly as he spat viciously out the window. Indeed they do. And much of it is not pretty.

            And therein lies the problem we see played out today as the brutal  jihadi forces of ISIS threaten to take over the city of Kobani, just a few meters from the Turkish border. The world wonders why Turkey, with its huge army, does nothing to stop this assault. The Kurdish forces in Kobani may not even want the Turkish army. But Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan won't even let the Kurds get resupplied from Turkey. And he refuses to let anti-ISIS forces use air bases inside Turkey for more effective air cover. The simple fact is that Erdoğan and many of his acolytes see the Kurds in Kobani as a greater threat than ISIS. They see the Kobani Kurds merely as an extension of the militant PKK Kurds in Turkey that have caused so much trouble over the years. Any effort to help the Kurds in Kobani, they believe, could backfire on Turkey.

            No one knows for sure how many Kurds are inside Turkey, but various estimates put the number at 12 – 15 million – a sizable minority out of population of about 75 million. After years of brutal conflict with the PKK that has cost about 40,000 lives over the last two decades, Erdoğan had launched a highly publicized effort to end that conflict and give the Kurdish citizens more cultural rights.
A preview of coming attractions inside Turkey?
            Such cynical realpolitik of letting ISIS do his dirty work in Kobani carries two large risks. One is that it could risk alienating even the moderate Kurds in Turkey. Any future outbreaks of violence won't be limited to the traditional Kurdish homelands of south-eastern Turkey. The large cities are also extremely vulnerable. Whatever progress has been made to ease age-old tensions could be undone very quickly. The fragile alliance between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kurds could quickly unravel. Among other things this could easily cost the AKP a lot of votes in the next election, ending whatever fading hopes Erdoğan has of changing the constitution to give himself even more power.

            The second major risk is that despite AKP's kind gestures ISIS will not stop at the border. The group has enough followers within Turkey to cause serious problems. 

            If he is going to stop to the looming Kobani massacre from igniting even greater problems inside Turkey he is going to have to act with greater sensitivity and skill than we have witnessed so far. His usual bluster and bellowing will only intensify the problem.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Damned If You Do. Damned If You Don't.

Turkey is beginning to learn the very high cost of fighting wars by proxy. Unfortunately they never learned the lessons of the Americans or the Pakistanis who armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Russians 30 years ago. Both the United States and Pakistan soon learned at a very great cost that those heavily armed and well trained fighters had their own agenda – one that was viciously opposed to their former benefactors.

            After funnelling arms and money to radical Sunni groups in Syria opposed to the regime of Bashar al Assad Turkey now finds that those one-time allies are threatening to bite the hand that fed them. Welcome to the Middle East where alliances and loyalty are fluid at the best of times. What is interesting is that many of the same people in the United States who fervently supported arming the mujahedeen against the Russians in the 1980s now want President Obama to fall into the same trap in Syria. Good thinking, guys.

Exactly why Turkey is so vehemently opposed to its former best friend Assad is a matter of some speculation. President Tayyip Erdoğan would have us believe he is shocked, shocked at the violence and brutality that Assad has used against his own people. Others, less charitable, say he only wants to establish a strong Sunni belt on Turkey’s southern border to counter what he sees as the Shiite threat from Iraq and possibly Iran.

Whatever his reasons, this policy has left Turkey with extremely difficult choices, each of which has unpredictable and dangerous outcomes. Right now a heavily armed (thanks in part to Turkey) group of medieval jihadis (ISIS) has swept through large parts of Syria and Iraq. They have besieged a fairly large town right next to the Turkish border. If they take that town they will be right up against Turkey itself. What to do? From Turkey’s point of view it would appear to be the lesser of two evils.

The town in question, Kobani, is largely populated by Kurds who have pretty much established an autonomous region within Syria. Turkey doesn’t like that. It might give Turkey’s own large Kurdish population similar ideas.

On the other hand, Turkey has suddenly woken up to the dangers posed by ISIS. “Hey, these guys may be out of control and may not be our friends.” The Turkish parliament passed a motion allowing Turkish participation in the hastily formed anti-ISIS coalition. So far that participation has been limited to loud denunciations of terror and strident calls for more action -- by someone else -- against ISIS. But what action, and by whom are not clear. What is clear is Turkey’s ambivalence about the entire anti-ISIS project.

So far the Turkish army has provided great photo opportunities of its tanks lined up aggressively on the border across from Kobani. And there they sit. Turkey does not even allow coalition airplanes to use nearby bases in Turkey in order to provide more effective air power against ISIS.
Turkish tanks on Syrian border
Coalition commanders are frustrated and the Kurds are furious. Turkish leaders piously justify their do-nothing response by claiming that taking out ISIS without first taking out Assad would be pointless. The Turks also say they want a no-fly zone. Why, precisely? ISIS has no air force. But, for the Turks, the target is Assad, not ISIS. Therefore they will do nothing unless the coalition, i.e. the Americans, commit to regime change in Damascus. The Turks are silent on who or what might fill the power vacuum in Syria once Assad goes. Having, hopefully, learned the folly of regime change the Americans are in no mood to topple Assad, no matter how brutally he might treat his own people.

The Kurds are adamant that the Turkish lack of action is merely a pretext for eliminating the Kurdish population. If ISIS wipes out the Kurds, according to this logic, then that particular threat to Turkey is gone.

To be fair to the Turks, however, any action, or lack thereof, carries grave risks. Don’t attack ISIS and you risk inflaming your own large Kurdish population and ending whatever chance there was for reconciliation. Kurds in several of the country’s larger cities have already hit the streets in violent protests against Turkey’s lack of support. The cease-fire with the Kurdish militant group could end any day and plunge the country back into a brutal conflict that has cost about 40,000 lives over the past two decades. Soldiers are now patrolling the streets of major cities in an effort to stop the protests.

Kurdish protest in Turkey. A return to the bad old days?

Moving aggressively against ISIS, however, risks alienating a large part of the Turkish population that wants nothing to do with a war among Arabs that they believe was created by the Americans in the first place. “Let them stew in their own juice” seems to be the most popular attitude in Turkey. The government would also risk alienating that portion of the Turkish population that thinks ISIS is not such a bad thing.

The other serious risk of attacking ISIS is creating blow-back inside Turkey. I doubt that ISIS would challenge the might of the Turkish army directly. But it doesn’t have to. It could easily create problems using the 1.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey. ISIS could also ignite serious violence using its supporters already in Turkey’s sprawling major cities. A recent story in The New York Times about Pakistan’slessons for Turkey highlighted the problems the country could face with people it once thought were its allies.

"He (Erdoğan) is a fool," a Turkish friend fumed. "He wanted to be a big deal in the Middle East, the champion of the Sunnis, the new Caliph. All he did was to bring the problems of the Middle East inside Turkey."

The Turkish government is in a very uncomfortable place at the moment, condemned both for doing too little and possibly too much against ISIS. Sooner or later it will have to make a choice. And then the question is whether the Turkish leadership is wise enough to handle the consequences of whatever choice it makes.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reality Is Beginning To Hit Home

I doubt very much that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has had much time to read about Voltaire’s ever-optimistic character of Pangloss in Candide or to learn about the young girl Pollyanna in Eleanor Porter’s famous work of the same name. But if he did he would learn that he shares the same basic trait as these two characters. Everything is rosy and fine in Erdoğan-world where reality is seldom, if ever, allowed to penetrate.

            But now, cold, hard, unyielding reality is finally beginning to challenge Erdoğan’s rose tinted vision of Turkey’s unstoppable economic growth and rapidly developing political importance. And he, as usual, is not happy about this. Only the total sycophants and house-broken media can continue to maintain with a straight face that black is white – that the economy is still growing strongly or that the country’s erratic foreign policy has not created a huge problem on its southern border.

            Rather than focus on the reality of Turkey’s economic and political challenges the president prefers to focus on the superficial status symbols of his so-called ‘New Turkey.’  Forget the reality, how better to prove Turkey’s importance – at least to himself – than to buy a large new presidential plane or to build a 1,500-room presidential palace to the replace the more modest, historic presidential residence.

            Why grapple with difficult, real problems like rising unemployment, declining growth and an alarming increase in industrial fatalities when you can use mere symbols of power like a fancy plane and a new palace to disguise the darkening reality? It would have taken a very brave adviser to show him the story in Forbes about Turkey’s growing problems.

            As usual Erdoğan’s default response to any bad news is to blast the bearer of that news. When the rating agencies warn of looming problems for the economy and possible downgrades, the president yells that they are nothing but tools of Turkey’s enemies trying to ‘keep Turkey down.’ This type of school yard response used to play well in the hinterlands. But I wonder how it continues play when increasing numbers of young people can’t find jobs or prices in the market place keep spiralling upward?

            Despite the rapidly depreciating currency and the country’s continuing need for at least $200 billion of foreign inflows every year to cover debt service and the current account deficit, Erdoğan and the comical minister for industry continue to demand lower interest rates. They demand growth regardless of damage to the country’s delicate financial balances.   The president is annoyed with the semi-independence of the Central Bank and has proposed moves to make it subject to its political masters

            A friend in London put it very well. “Erdoğan has consistently mistaken favourable global financial conditions for his own supposed economic genius. Turkey is now one of the countries most exposed to potential changes in those conditions. For the time being we remain invested in Turkish debt. With global interest rates so low you can still make money borrowing dollars and buying that debt. But, my finger is on the trigger. At the first whiff of change I am out of there.”

            The New York Times is the latest to make his ever-lengthening enemies list with a story about the radical Islamist group ISIS recruiting in the middle of Ankara. In addition to presidential insults the author of the piece, who happens to be a Turkish woman, was subjected to vicious abuse from all the flunky media. One of the papers published her picture and encouraged ‘loyal’ Erdoğanites to teach her a lesson. I couldn’t figure out if they were challenging the accuracy of the story or simply angry that someone had the nerve to show what was really happening. The loyalist media also made a big deal out of Erdoğan’s refusal to meet with The Times when he was in New York. I’m not sure if the Times editors were upset or relieved with this development.

            The timing of the Times story was particularly delicate because it came shortly after another column in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Turkey is no longer much of an ally, and perhaps the United States would be well advised to move its large airbase in southern Turkey to friendlier places like Kurdistan.

            The whole sorry situation on Turkey’s southern border with Syria and Iraq has the feel of ‘chickens coming home to roost.’ Turkey bet heavily on the overthrow of the Syrian regime and did its best to supply the Sunni opposition with weapons and other logistical support. The fact that much of this support went to radical Islamist groups didn’t seem to bother too many people in Ankara. Refugees from the fighting poured into Turkey creating serious social problems in the south.

Syrian refugees desperate to enter Turkey

            Then the radical Syrian opposition morphed into a powerful armed group called ISIS that swept into Eastern Syria and Iraq like a fire-storm. The group even captured the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took 49 hostages. The Turkish government now had a real problem. Its supposed Sunni friends were running amok and exposing Turkey’s helplessness. Hundreds of thousands of additional refugees were pushed across the non-existent border into Turkey.

            Out of deference to its own hard-line Sunnis or genuine concern about the hostages Turkey refrained from joining the growing anti-ISIS movement led by the United States. Then the hostages were suddenly released for reasons still not clear. Was Turkey’s abstention from the anti-ISIS coalition the quid-pro-quo? Did Turkey agree to release a number of radicals held in its jails? What is clear is that Turkey’s far south is in complete turmoil, and the government has yet to decide just what to do about it – if anything.

            It is obvious why Erdoğan would love to continue denying reality and, like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, convince his countrymen that ‘this is the best of all possible worlds.’ There is a critical national election next spring, and he needs his party to score an overwhelming victory. If he gets enough seats in the next parliament he can force a constitutional change to create the strong executive presidency he has always wanted. If reality continues to puncture his self-created dream world it will be difficult to secure that victory.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Time To Come Up With A New Idea On Cyprus

Cyprus is one of those issues that illustrates clearly the difficulties facing any well-meaning envoy trying to solve the long standing political/social problems in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

The envoy starts off by making one fatal assumption -- that either side actually wants any sort of a reasonable solution.That, in the immortal words of Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Ain’t Necessarily So. The key word here is reasonable, i.e. any solution that involves that dreaded concept of compromise. Neither side sees any need to budge. All parties to these conflicts are absolutely convinced of the ‘self-evident’ religious or political righteousness of their cause and the ‘obvious’ perfidy and heresy of their opponents. Sunni, Shiite, Palestinian, Israeli, Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot. It makes no difference.

They will swear they want a solution and are perfectly happy to bury the hatchet – as long as that hatchet is buried deep in the head of their opponent. A compromise is where one or two of their opponents is left gasping for air in a ditch by the side of the road.

Cyprus has seen a great deal of conflict in its long history, and the latest chapter started in 1974 when Turkey landed troops and occupied most of the northern part of the island. The Turks maintain they were protecting the beleaguered Turkish minority against marauding Greek Cypriot gangs. The Greek Cypriots maintain this intervention was an invasion, pure and simple. You can be excused for thinking this sounds ominously like the current stand-off between Russia and the Ukraine. And there we stand, 40 years later. The Turkish troops are still there. And the island is still divided between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – recognized only by Turkey – and the internationally-recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south. It must be somewhat galling to the Turks that a hold-over from the Middle Ages -- The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta – that does not have one square meter of territory has diplomatic missions in more than 100 countries while Northern Cyprus has just one.

There was one abortive attempt at a settlement in 2004 with the much-criticized Annan Plan that the Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly approved and the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected. Now that Cyprus, at least the Greek controlled part of Cyprus, is in the European Union, it has very little, if any, incentive to compromise on any point. And the Turkish Cypriots will accept nothing that treats them as a minority in a Greek Cypriot controlled island. However, the native Turkish Cypriots even now don’t have that bad a deal. Among other things, they can get Cypriot passports and are thus de facto members of the EU, something their cousins on the mainland see as a rapidly receding dream.

The United Nations has recently dropped a new envoy, a Norwegian with an impressive CV, into this mix. Good luck to him at squaring the circle. Actually, one of the best ideas I have heard on this issue came from a brilliant Greek friend of mine during a recent lunch in London. His plan was strikingly simple, and therefore most likely doomed at birth.

Under my friend’s plan the Turkish controlled part of the island would become a separate state with the full acquis communautaire of the European Union with full freedom of movement and settlement. In return the Turks would remove their remaining troops from the island. In addition the three guarantor powers – Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom – would give up those powers. In theory, a member of the EU does not need any external guarantees. Again, in theory, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots would be free to live and work anywhere on the island.

Britain, always nervous about a solution that changes the legal status of Cyprus and thus calling into question the legality of its bases on the island, would require separate guarantees protecting those bases. In addition, there would have to be agreement on the issues like the exact borders and the compensation for those members of both communities whose property was lost during the military intervention. Here I would anticipate typical EU legerdemain where there is quite a bit of EU money disguised in such a way to persuade the average German taxpayer that he is not footing the bill – again.

Before the Greeks throw up their hands and starting loudly whinging about ‘rewarding’ military intervention they should think carefully about the benefits of this plan. They get rid of the Turkish troops, both sides are governed by EU regulations, the threat of future Turkish intervention is removed, and the island’s moribund economy might start to grow. Furthermore it becomes much easier to develop whatever natural gas lies offshore. Instead of building a hugely expensive liquefied natural gas terminal on Cyprus they could take the easy route with a pipeline to nearby Turkey and then onto Europe.

The Turks should also welcome this. The isolation of northern Cyprus is ended, Turkey no longer has to provide hundreds of millions of dollars it doesn’t have to subsidize the Turkish Cypriots, and a major hurdle in its own EU quest is removed. Essentially it can bow out of the Cyprus quagmire with honour maintained.

Is something this simple in theory likely to happen? Very doubtful. Given all the history and entrenched attitudes I’m afraid the new UN envoy, Espen Barth Eide, will have his hands full getting the two sides to agree to a lunch menu much less a realistic solution. It would be nice, though, for once to see common sense prevail in a part of the world that sees precious little of that valuable commodity.

Monday, 11 August 2014

No, They Will Never Learn

Pathetic, simply pathetic. While Tayyip Erdoğan was giving a Master Class in politics on his way to victory in Turkey’s presidential race his opposition was AWOL (absent without leave.) Opposition voters had a golden opportunity to derail Erdoğan’s presidential plans, but their inability (unwillingness?) to capitalise on this opportunity means that the future of Turkey is completely out of their hands.

            Even with all his manipulation, public financing and suppression of the media Erdogan got in with just under 52% of the vote. One can only wonder what the outcome would have been if even half of the 13 million voters (out of 53 million eligible voters) who failed to vote had gone to the polls. Even the former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to vote. Some couldn’t be bothered to get off their sun beds in Bodrum or leave the cocktail party circuit in Bebek to vote. Others, like a young columnist in the Daily Telegraph of London, justified their failure to vote on the grounds that the election was not ‘true’ democracy and that they didn’t want to participate in a sham election. Unbelievable! While they preserved their precious democratic scruples Erdoğan was busy tightening his iron grip over Turkey. They have only themselves to blame for the outcome.

            Of course he’s ruthless! Of course he plays hard ball and appeals to baser instincts of his followers! Of course he manipulates wherever he can! What did they expect? Politics in Turkey is a ‘full-contact’ sport. It is not a parlour game limited to polite discussions in beautiful homes along the Bosphorus.It’s about time they woke up to the realities of modern Turkey.

            If the opposition ever wants to beat Erdoğan it has to learn a few hard lessons.

1.      Come up with a message that means something to the mass of the people. What is your positive vision for Turkey's future? Simply focusing on Erdoğan’s obvious faults has failed over and over again. I have never heard any opposition candidate say something positive, give any hint on how he would improve services to the people. AKP candidates are masters at this, always focusing on services they provide for the people. Do something For the people rather than lecture To them about the failures of Tayyip Erdoğan. Essentially the so-called main opposition CHP has to ask itself a very serious question.  Why has it won so few elections since the introduction of multi-party politics in Turkey after World War II? What exactly does it stand for? Could it be that the mass of Turkish voters rejects everything it stands for? Instead of blaming the voters maybe it’s time to blame the message.

2.      Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, died in 1938. Let him rest in peace. Any political party that wants to be successful today has to do more than repeat ad nauseam pithy little phrases from his speeches. Atatürk set the general direction of Turkey, but it may come as a shock to most opposition politicians that the man himself is no longer that relevant to the vast majority of Turks. Maybe he should be. But that’s beside the point. He isn’t. And no one understands this better than Tayyip Erdoğan. Say what you will about the man, he understands his people. The opposition is lost in a time warp and hasn’t got a clue.

3.      Admit that AKP has a vastly superior political organisation. Learn from it. Copy it, if necessary. It’s much more than giving away free refrigerators or coal or any other gift. Effective politics is hard work. Without a strong grass-roots organisation in every town in Turkey and without a massive get-out-the-vote effort you will never win. You will always be seen as a creature of the so-called ‘elite’ – far removed from ordinary people who care much more about jobs than about vague threats that Tayyip Erdoğan poses for Atatürk’s legacy.

4.      Perhaps the CHP and MHP should merge, formalise the arrangement they had during the presidential election. CHP likes to pretend it is a social-democratic party. But the reality is that it is just as nationalistic as MHP. Of course such a move would alienate some CHP’s more effete members, but so what? They don’t bother to vote anyway. The genuine political left – the real social democratic movement -- in Turkey is minuscule and doesn’t count for much. So why shouldn’t the nationalists join forces?

      Will the CHP make any effort to change? More important, will it even recognize that its policies must change to meet the needs of today’s Turkey? Very, very doubtful. The early signs are that the party will be consumed by yet another sterile leadership battle rather than focus on  the obvious need for basic reform of the party. Erdoğan could not buy a better opposition party. He must be laughing all the way to the presidential palace.

Where does Turkey go now? Will Erdoğan be able to get his wish and replace the present parliamentary system with a strong executive presidency? Maybe, maybe not. While he won the presidency he didn’t get as many votes as his sycophants were hoping. It may be difficult for the Erdoğan-less AKP to get a large enough majority in the next general election to change the constitution.

What will the current president Abdullah Gül do? Will he fight for a senior position in the new AKP or will he retire gently into the night? It is no secret that the Erdoğan people would love to push him not-so-gently into the night. For one thing he has stated several times that he prefers the parliamentary system to the strong, executive presidency. He also presents a less strident, more amenable face to Turkey’s Western partners.

How will Turkey deal with the looming constitutional crisis when Erdoğan starts to act like an executive president instead of a figure head? Even with a puppet prime minister Erdoğan may have problems keeping the AKP together.

Turkey faces serious internal and external challenges in the next several months. Those people who piously abstained from voting in this election have to decide whether they are going to help the country through these crises or whether they will remain in the stadium seats as mere spectators.
Tercih onlarin. The choice is theirs.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Will They Never Learn?

In normal circumstances someone who has sharply divided his country with inflammatory rhetoric, driven foreign policy from the much vaunted ‘zero problems’ to the current ‘zero friends’, scorned the fundamental democratic principles of separation of powers and judicial independence, crippled the media and weakened the economy should have no chance of being elected president. But these are not normal circumstances in Turkey. And Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has a very good chance of becoming Turkey’s first president chosen by direct popular ballot.

How is this possible, you might well ask? Liberals in Turkey and abroad scratch their heads in wonder about how someone with this dismal record can retain the trust of so many Turkish voters. By all rights, according to them, he would be consigned to a small footnote in history by now instead of retaining the trust of about 50% of Turkish voters.

There are at least three reasons for this seeming contradiction.

The first is that corruption scandals like the ones that rocked Erdoğan’s government and the abuse of power are nothing new to Turkish voters. Governments long before Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) were no virgins in these issues. Voters only have to look back to the 1980s and 1990s to remember similar, if not worse, examples of corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of democratic institutions. Being a ‘friend of the party’ counted much more than planning regulations in winning valuable construction projects. Cronyism was rampant throughout the economy. Judicial independence was a nice thought, but that was as far as it went.

No one should kid themselves that the pre-Erdoğan media was free in the European or American sense. Many journalists were censured or jailed for daring to criticise the military, comment favourably on the Kurds, or obliquely hint that Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, had human foibles. No serious attempt was made to solve the assassination of a prominent investigative journalist who was thorn in the side of the so-called ‘Deep State.’

The less said about economic mis-management in the 1990s the better. Serial financial crises severely damaged the average citizen. People at the top of the pyramid were delighted with the money they earned from sky-high interest rates and were in no hurry to fix the ridiculous inflation that was making life very difficult for the remaining 99%. Everyone knew that the music had to stop sometime, but hoped they could make their millions before that happened. And collapse it did in 2001 when the country’s financial system was almost wiped out.

And then there are the Kurds, who now seem to hold the trump card in the upcoming presidential elections. The 1990s saw some of the worst violence between the Kurdish guerilla group (PKK) and the Turkish security forces. Successive operations by the regular army and ‘special’ forces failed to stamp out the violence that claimed more than 30,000 lives. In many cases these military operations only increased the Kurds’ burning sense of resentment. Erdoğan, to his great credit, was the first Turkish prime minister to try to solve the Kurdish politically instead of militarily. This may be nothing more than a cynical move on his part to get Kurdish support for his presidential bid, but the fact remains that south-eastern Turkey remains relatively calm.

The second major reason for Erdoğan’s continued support is that under the AKP living standards for millions of ordinary Turks have improved. Health care is better organized, public services are sharply improved, and elderly citizens are given cash supplements to their meagre pensions. A friend did an informal survey of villagers in his area and found a very simple reason for their continued support of AKP. People are better off financially and feel more secure with a single party government. Abstract issues like freedom of the press, abuse of government powers, environmental protection count for very little against cash in hand.

The third reason for Erdoğan’s likely victory is that elements of the main opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP) have learned nothing from their previous electoral failures. The party leadership has finally come to its senses and joined with other opposition parties in nominating a joint candidate acceptable to a wide range of the population. The candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, is a soft spoken, respected scholar who previously was the head of the Organization of Islamic Countries. More important, he vows to protect and enhance the country’s democratic institutions. The vast majority of the Turkish population is socially conservative, and Ihsanoğlu is exactly the type of candidate required to attract that vote.

And yet the hard-core Kemalists, rigid followers of Atatürk, refuse to support him. To them, Ihsanoğlu is not hard-core enough. Such a stance only reveals how little they know their own country. A frustrated anti-Erdoğan friend could only put his head in his hands and moan at the idiocy of this view.

 “Atatürk has been dead for almost 76 years. Let him rest in peace. He set the direction and the country has moved on. We need to recognize reality in Turkey. We need to accept that it was our own failures that set the stage for AKP’s electoral success. We need to learn how to appeal to the material needs of the bulk of people, to respect their right to be devout Moslems, and to reinforce real democracy. Only then will we be in a position to seriously challenge Tayyip Erdoğan.”

Alas, this remains a distant dream. Even with the backing of all the opposition parties Ihsanoğlu has only a slim chance to win. Without the full support of all those opposed to Tayyip Erdoğan the opposition will remain in the political wilderness for many years to come.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Military Intervention Is Not The Answer In Iraq

The rapid success of the jihadist sweep into northern Iraq is equalled only by the speed and volume of calls by some in the United States to ‘Do Something, Anything’, to stop this particular domino from falling. Neocons, ignoring the foolishness of invading Iraq in the first place in 2003, blame Obama for prematurely withdrawing American troops. Others say the solution is to use American military might to stop the spread of murderous thugs masquerading as devout Sunni Moslems into Baghdad itself.

            The calls for outside intervention ignore one critical problem. The creation and initial success of these extremist groups is an Arab-wide problem that outside intervention can slow, but cannot stop. The removal of autocratic leaders across the region has exposed the fragility of any underlying social contract that was never really given a chance to develop since the Arab countries were carved out of the desert 100 years ago by bureaucrats in London, Paris and Rome. 

It’s not so much a question of failed states, because many of these countries never really developed into states per se in the common sense of the word. Too many of them were run by loose affiliations of families, tribes, sects whose only object was to protect their own interests. Well-meaning democrats interested in social cohesion are a little thin on the ground in the Middle East.

RamiKhouri, the astute columnist for the Daily Star in Beirut, gets to the root of the problem in two recent columns.

“The open warfare and shaken statehood that characterize Syria, Iraq and Libya are the painful commemoration of the Arabs’ own 100 Years War for stable, legitimate statehood.

“Syria, Libya and Iraq are only the most dramatic examples of countries suffering from serious sectarian and other forms of warfare that could easily lead to the fracturing of those states into smaller ethnic units. Similar but less intense tensions define most Arab states. With the exception of Tunisia, the citizens of every Arab country have always been denied any say in defining the structure, values or policies of their state.

“It is no surprise, therefore, that Syria, Iraq and Libya should be at once so violent, fractious and brittle. The capture of cities and territory across northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) symbolizes a common aspect of the fragmented nature of many Arab countries: the ruling party or family that runs the government is at war with well-armed non-state actors that reflect widespread citizen discontent with the power and policies of the central state. The brittle Arab state is not simply melting away, as happened in Somalia over the last two decades; rather, the state in many cases has become just one armed protagonist in a battle against several other armed protagonists among its own citizens. . .

“Drone attacks and troops from the United States or Iran or any other foreign source will not have any significant impact on the multiple forces that drive the fighting and fragmentation in many Arab countries, and would probably only aggravate the violence.

“The popular uprisings that erupted three-and-a-half years ago have exposed the lack of foundations for coherent statehood in several Arab countries, and in some cases led to a vacuum that has been filled by various fighting forces in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

In another column Khouri notes that the “underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.”

The expansion of the ISIS is not a sign of the future, according to Khouri. “These extremists have no base of support in the region . . . In more normal conditions, they have never had any serious support in Arab countries.”

So, what is the answer to these fractured societies attracted, at least in the short term, to the call of the extremists? Alas, there is no short-term solution. American politicians seem to like problems that can be solved with a single stroke – military action or massive economic aid, much of which winds up in Swiss bank accounts. But a solution to the problems in the Middle East requires decades, not days.

The only lasting antidote to the problems we are witnessing in Syria and Iraq, and in less intense forms in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, requires many years to take shape. That antidote is more democratic and inclusive government coupled with growing economies. . . when citizens suffer both police state-style governments with stagnant economies that mostly favour a small number of families close to the ruling regimes, we end up with situations like the ones in Syria and Iraq,” Khouri writes.

ISIS is frightening, to be sure, but not because it portends our future; it is frightening because it reminds us of the criminal incompetence of ruling Arab regimes during the past half-century, and as such it clarifies what must be done to bring Arab societies back to some semblance of normal life. This will be a long and hard struggle, but we have no other options.”

Western statesmen would be well advised to pay close attention to these points before doing anything, like ill-considered military strikes, to make the problems worse.