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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.

[Published on openDemocracy (27th March 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/europe-turkey-and-historical-amnesia]

“In the first years after the war … Europeans took shelter behind a collective amnesia.”    –   Hans-Magnus Enzensberger.

In his robust case for a liberal Euro-scepticism, ‘A Grand Illusion?’ (1996), Tony Judt robustly debunked an oft-repeated myth about the post-war rebuilding project in western Europe. From the very start, rather than being part of a carefully planned attempt to reshape the continent by deliberately sabotaging nation-states from above, (with the eventual goal being to unite the entire continent under one umbrella European super-state), initial moves after the Second World War towards greater European cohesion were, in fact, the logical result of quite distinct national concerns. These concerns only converged in shared European projects by force of convenience. As Judt points out, post-war European cooperation was “a fortuitous outcome of separate and distinctive electoral concerns, economic interests, and national political cultures, it was made necessary by circumstance and rendered possible by prosperity.” In particular, the war of 1939-45 had the lasting consequence of giving the continent something else in common: “a shared recent memory of war, civil war, occupation, and defeat […] The shared experience of defeat points to another common European wartime experience: the memory of things best forgotten […] Hitler’s lasting gift to Europe was thus the degree to which he and his collaborators made it impossible henceforth to dwell with comfort on the past.”

Almost every European participant emerged from the Second World War having lost. The shared perception of a necessity for deliberate historical amnesia in post-war Europe, for forgetting the traumatic recent past, was thus one of the most significant points of convergence between nation states that helped legitimate the new European project. Cooperation was imperative, and part of this cooperation was the tacit agreement between nations as to the importance of ignoring their own roles in the madness of the war that had just ended. At the very most, if not forcibly ignoring, countries tended (or still tend) to absolve themselves of as much responsibility as possible, to trumpet exaggerated national myths of resistance to fascism. The phenomenon is observable in France, (formerly West) Germany, Belgium, Poland, Italy: such methods were considered something like an existential necessity, necessary in order for states to get over the Second World War as cohesive units. It is only since 1989 and the end of the Cold War that a more complex, honestly realistic picture of the European inheritance has emerged, and even now it’s clear that many countries are still far from willing to look their own troubled histories directly in the eye. The official French line, for example, shared by a majority of the French people, continues to exaggerate the significance and size of the French Resistance, and underestimate the completeness of Vichy France’s submission to fascism, and its horrendous consequences. There’s a salutary lesson to be taken from a charmed visit to Paris: its state of flawless architectural continuity was paid for at the price of submission to the Nazis.

In its capacity as a candidate country of the European Union, Turkey’s apparent refusal to come to terms with the Armenian “events” of 1915 is often cited as a clear example of why the country is unsuitable for membership. However, the opposite could well be true. Far from having to recognise these events as “genocide” in order to adhere to established European norms of historical account-settling, Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian “events” should rather be seen as an advantage, recommending it as an entirely suitable European candidate. Following classic post-war European form, perhaps Turkey’s historical amnesia should be seen as one of the key criteria that it fulfils in its wish to be defined as an authentic European state!

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