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Turkey Book Talk episode #62 – ASLI AYDINTAŞBAŞ, journalist and fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, on the ECFR’s recent report: “The Discreet Charm of Hypocrisy: An EU-Turkey Power Audit”

Based on interviews with top officials on all sides, the report examines bitter current ties between Brussels and Ankara. It recommends finding a new model for the relationship beyond the hypocritical and stalled accession process.

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Turkey Book Talk episode #49 – ALEXANDER CLARKSON of Kings College London discusses his research on the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora in Germany, addressed in his long article “Kenan Evren’s Bitter Harvest: Legacies of a Coup that Changed Turkey and Europe.”

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Having lead a government that has spent much of the last 10 years in a bitter tug-of-war for power with the military establishment, it has recently become clear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now attempting to secure rapprochement with the Turkish armed forces. The latest indication came with his visit on Feb. 9 to the hospital bedside of retired general Ergin Saygun, whose 18-year prison sentence in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plot trial was suspended on Feb. 7 following a medical report. Saygun is now undergoing critical heart treatment in Istanbul.

The hospital visit was just the latest in a series of moves that indicate Erdoğan’s changed approach. In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed frustration at the long detention times of military officers and even at the alleged excesses in the ongoing Ergenekon coup plot investigation. Two weeks ago he complained in a live television interview: “There are currently 400 retired commissioned or non-commissioned officers. Most of them are detained … If the evidence is indisputable, give a verdict. If you consider hundreds of officers and the [former] chief of staff to be members of an illegal organization this would destroy the morale of the armed forces. How will these people be able to fight terrorism?” Indeed, with so many detained or facing trial, there have also been rumours of growing organisational chaos inside the armed forces due to the lack of staff; as many as a fifth of Turkey’s top military chiefs are currently languishing behind bars. (In an unfortunate gaff, one opposition deputy recently bemoaned the lack of serving generals currently available to conduct a military coup.)

The Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat) is the strongest and most powerful advocate of the ongoing coup plot trials. As Dani Rodrik, a fierce critic of the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases, has written: “[Erdoğan’s] Gülenist allies … have been the key driving force behind the sham trials. It is Gülen’s disciples in the police, judiciary and media who have launched and stage-managed these trials and bear the lion’s share of responsibility.” Below the surface, it is therefore becoming clear that Erdoğan’s recent moves to normalise relations  with the military constitute the latest steps in the power struggle between himself and the cemaat. As a leader with impeccable political antennae, Erdoğan also probably recognises the political importance of “moving on” with the military. Despite all the reputational damage it has suffered over the last 10 years, the national armed forces still retain considerable loyalty among the Turkish public.

As the newspaper most closely affiliated with the Gülen movement, it is thus interesting to observe how daily Zaman is reporting Erdoğan’s search for a settlement. On the day after Erdoğan’s hospital visit to Saygun, the paper’s front page carried a picture of him standing at the former general’s bedside, with an innocuous story inside titled “Surprising visit to Ergin Saygun.” However, it is also worth noting that Zaman’s front page headline on the same day focused on the recent three-day summit of the (Gülen-affiliated) “Abant Platform,” which came out in strong support for Turkey’s continued EU membership negotiations. The piece mentioned the “hardening attitude” within the EU and unfair visa restrictions, but also included criticism of the recent public declarations of some Turkish officials, which it said “lead the way to opposition to EU membership among the public.” Erdoğan has been leading the charge in negative statements about the EU process in recent weeks, so Zaman’s emphasis was perhaps not without significance, hinting cryptically at the growing Gülen-Erdoğan split.

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Zaman headline Feb. 10: ‘Support to EU process from the Abant Platform’

 

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent comments that Turkey could give up its EU membership bid and instead pursue membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are still reverberating in much of the Turkish media. Speaking Jan. 25 on TV station 24TV, Erdoğan said: “The EU does not want to include a Muslim country … Of course, if things go so poorly then, as a prime minister of 75 million people, you seek other paths … The Shanghai Five is better, much stronger.” Last year, Erdoğan had said something similar after a diplomatic visit to Moscow: “I said to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, ‘You tease us, saying “What is Turkey doing in the EU?” Now I’m teasing you: include us in the Shanghai Five, and we’ll forget about the EU.’”

The “Shanghai Five” was created by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1996 in an attempt to counter U.S. influence in Asia, and was later joined by Uzbekistan and renamed the SCO in 2001. It has been described as “a vehicle for human rights violations” by the International Federation for Human Rights. Erdoğan’s latest pronouncements on the group were immediately picked up by much of the Turkish commentariat as significant indications of Turkey’s shifting priorities. In Radikal, columnist Cengiz Candar wrote that the prime minister had dropped a “geopolitical bomb.” Hürriyet’s Sedat Ergin has so far spent three days worrying over the remarks, writing that Erdoğan’s words amounted to “one of the most significant foreign policy moves since he took office 10 years ago, maybe the most important.”

For me, the way these latest statements were reported merely highlighted once again the unhealthy intensity with which the Turkish media hangs on every single word uttered by the prime minister. The smallest pronouncement can be seized upon to set the agenda and send the media into a tailspin. It’s a little discussed symptom of a wider (and more discussed) problem – the increasing concentration of power in one pair of hands.

This is the pattern of how an address or press conference given by Erdoğan is typically reflected in the Turkish media: it is broadcast uninterrupted by every major television news station; the words are transcribed and posted immediately on internet news portals, with the only journalistic interjection in each paragraph being “the prime minister said”; the next day’s newspapers feature prominent news stories on the speech, perhaps as the front page headline; finally, the chorus of daily columnists set to work dissecting whatever the prime minister has decided should be the subject of the moment. As Fehmi Koru wrote in Star on Jan. 29: “Erdoğan is a master at forcing an issue, bluffing and occupying others with his own agenda … We have not yet seen one of the opposition parties able to force the country to debate a single topic. They jump into the agendas set by the head or members of the ruling party.” The prime minister is a master at manipulating how news is covered, and the producers of that news coverage are often more than happy to be manipulated.

This week’s episode of the BBC’s Start the Week, where the discussion centred around George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” brought the issue into even sharper relief for me. In the programme, Phil Collins, one time speechwriter for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, spoke about how he was always acutely aware when writing speeches of the low level of coverage that any public address by a prime minister could today expect to receive in the U.K. press. “Once upon a time your whole speech would be printed verbatim in The Times the next day, but that’s not the case anymore … You’re talking into an atmosphere in which you’re only going to get six seconds on the evening news, whether you like it or not,” he said. This seems to be the inverse of the Turkish problem: symptomatic of a corrosively cynical British public, disengaged from the political process and instinctively suspicious about the public utterances of any elected official.

Of course, there are many such cynics in Turkey, but they are little represented in the conventional large media corporations.

Recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed his opinion that Turkey should consider reinstating capital punishment “in certain situations.” He first brought the issue up at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputies on Nov. 3, in reference to Abdullah Öcalan, the convicted leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has returned to it on a number of occasions since. “Right now a lot of people in public surveys say that capital punishment should be reintroduced … It is legitimate in certain situations,” Erdoğan said. “Yes, the death penalty was removed from Europe, but has it left America, Japan and China? Then there is a justified cause for the death penalty to remain.”

Capital punishment was abolished by Turkey in 2002, just prior to the AKP’s accession to power in the general elections of that year. Although no execution had been carried out by the Turkish state since 1984, an official end to the practice on the Turkish law books was seen as one of the key steps in Turkey’s EU accession process, which was then entering its most energetic period. The decision was fairly controversial at the time, as PKK leader Öcalan was captured and sentenced to death by the Turkish authorities in 1999. With the abolition of capital punishment, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Öcalan has since been held in a remote prison on İmralı Island in the Marmara Sea. With the recent spike in clashes between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, Erdoğan’s words on capital punishment should be interpreted in terms of the government’s failure to solve the Kurdish question – populist sentiments aiming to deflect nationalist criticism that he has made too many concessions to Kurdish rights with little to show in return.

The most striking newspaper coverage of the issue I saw came from popular pro-government daily Sabah, the newspaper with the fourth highest circulation nationally. Its Nov. 13 front page carried the bold headline “Bring back capital punishment, end this business.” These were the words of Fatma Çınar, the mother of one of the 17 soldiers killed in the recent helicopter crash in the southeastern province of Siirt, speaking at her son’s funeral. The crash was not a result of direct clashes with the PKK, but it was enough for PM Erdoğan to frame it as taking place within “much intensified, multi-dimensional” military operations in the region.

The return of the issue to the national debate has predictably raised eyebrows among those parts of the media who retain forlorn hopes that Turkey’s EU accession process can still be revived from its current moribund state. Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Rıza Türmen, who worked for 10 years at the European Court of Human Rights, wrote in Milliyet on Nov. 13: “Capital punishment is banned according to the third section of the European Union’s founding principles, and the lifting of capital punishment is a precondition for membership of the EU and the European Council … Is leaving the EU process what the prime minister actually wants?” Meanwhile, Taraf editor Ahmet Altan’s disillusionment continued on the same day: “We’ve gone from a country that celebrated with enthusiasm the opening of ‘full EU membership negotiations,’ to one with a prime minister – like a funeral undertaker – shouting ‘hang them, hang them’ at every opportunity.” A response even came from the murky corridors of the EU itself, with Peter Stano, the spokesman for Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, stating: “Our position on this is quite clear. Countries wishing to be a member of the EU cannot practice capital punishment. If capital punishment comes, the EU goes.”

Meanwhile, the hunger strikes of 700 Kurdish prisoners today entered their 64th day. Despite the increasing urgency of the situation, Erdoğan has so far ignored calls to directly engage in finding a solution. He even spent Nov. 12 in his hometown of Rize, receiving an honorary doctorate from the newly-established “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University” (it’s sometimes difficult to tell in Turkey that you’re not reading The Onion). His words on capital punishment have certainly been an effective tactic distracting some attention away from the critical situation of the strikers. However, like the Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) recent remarks about erecting a statue of Öcalan, they have hardly done much to help create an atmosphere congenial to a solution.

The European Commission published the 15th(!) annual “progress report” on Turkey’s EU accession bid on Oct. 10. It makes for depressing reading – not only because it is 87 more pages of EU bureaucracy, but because it comes at such an inauspicious time, with Turkey’s EU accession process having slid into something worse than just abeyance.

It has been widely interpreted as the harshest report on Turkey issued by the EU yet, criticising familiar enough failures: the lack of further steps towards a political solution to the Kurdish conflict, concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and press self-censorship, judicial deficiencies, gender inequality, and worrying signs of rising discrimination against Alevis.

Once upon a time, these progress reports would dominate the Turkish media’s agenda, but no longer. Numerous dailies had no coverage at all of the report on their Oct. 11 front pages. Daily Milliyet, a newspaper that has always tended to show more interest than most in Turkey’s EU accession process, was the only major newspaper to focus on the issue for its main front page story. Under a headline titled “From the EU to its members: Don’t block Turkey,” Milliyet emphasised the words of the European commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Füle, commenting after the release of the report. Füle laid most responsibility for the lack of progress squarely at the door of those EU members opposed to Turkish membership, such as France and South Cyprus. He described Turkey as a “key country” for the union and said that its future membership was ultimately “in the interest of all members.”

I was not surprised to see that newspapers known to be friendly to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) generally responded to the report with government-sanctioned indifference. Zaman included a low-key article on page 18 under the headline, “What kind of progress report is this?” listing the criticisms levelled and particularly focussing on the words of EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee member Helene Flautre, who said:

“It is deceptive to describe this report as a ‘progress report’ on Turkey’s EU accession process when there is no progress …  With Turkey in the process of discussing a new constitution, the EU could hardly have picked a worse time to abdicate its influence on reforms in the country.”

While it no doubt feels some resentment about Turkey being lectured to by the European Union, nationalist anti-AKP daily Sözcü seized the opportunity to once again slam the government, a banner on its front page declaring: “Sledgehammer from Europe to the AKP” (clearly referencing the controversial “Balyoz,” or Sledgehammer case). “The EU hasn’t swallowed Tayyip’s ‘advanced democracy’ tale,” it said.

Meanwhile, the EU report caused barely a ripple among the army of Turkish newspaper columnists, who are generally all preoccupied with the ongoing Syrian crisis. Still, Taraf’s Ahmet Altan addressed the issue and struck a faintly desperate note on Oct. 11, writing one of his characteristic editorials – somehow pulling off the miraculous trick of combining onanism with self-flagellation:

 “I don’t think it’s very complicated. In Turkey, all disagreements return to two basic questions: Do we want European standards of democracy, or not? In Turkey, do we believe we are worthy of European standards of democracy, or not?

“… This is a time when Albania can be recommended for EU membership ahead of us. If you’re not uncomfortable with our own distance from EU standards then you’re welcome to continue with demagoguery, nonsense, and humming and hawing.”

In response to the report, Turkish Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bağış described it as “disappointing,” and “unbalanced.” “The EU’s broken mirror is far away from reflecting the truth. The report is only a reflection of efforts to delay Turkey’s EU membership, since the EU is in an economic and political crisis,” he said.

Anyway, two weeks before the official unveiling of the report, Bağış had announced that he “no longer took [the progress reports] seriously.” Somewhat alarmingly, he said that he gave more importance to the government’s own self-produced assessment: “At the end of the year we will prepare our own progress report.  For us, the progress report we prepare for ourselves is the most important one.”

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