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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.”

[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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