Wednesday, November 1, 2017

'Be Careful': If You're Visiting Turkey, Don't Provoke the State*

Haaretz: "If Turkey hadn't directly provoked the U.S., reports of its human rights violations would be collecting dust. Now, with red lines being crossed and Americans targeted, Congress is upping the ante."

It's been more than two weeks since the United States suspended the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in Turkey, halting the travel to the U.S. of thousands of Turkish citizens. Tit-for-tat, Turkey announced it would stop issuing e-visas and airport visas to U.S. citizens arriving directly from U.S. destinations.

American sanctions on Turkey come as Turkish citizens working at the U.S. consular offices in Ankara have been targeted by the Turkish government’s expanding purge: two consular workers have so far been detained.

U.S. visa sanctions sent shock waves through Turkey, especially for those accustomed to frequent travel to the U.S. over the last decade. Turkish Airlines’ extensive U.S. flight schedule is testament to the Turkish demand for interconnectivity with the U.S. Thousands have had their plans put on hold or cancelled altogether.

Thus far, the damage has been limited. Since U.S. visas often have a ten-year expiration date, many still have no problem getting through; and, for those desperate to get to a U.S. destination without a current visa, they can also apply through a third country - though that’s certainly a costly and time-consuming process.  

Unlike in Turkey, in the U.S., the visa suspensions have barely made the headlines, and Turkey’s reciprocal act - while in line with diplomatic protocol - shortsightedly hurts its own interests far more. Turkish Airlines has reported a 45 percent drop in reservations from Turkey to the U.S.

But even if the visa issue hasn’t made much impact newswise for many Americans, Turkey’s image has already hit rock bottom, thanks to other events that have indeed made a media impact, not least Erdogan’s intemperate language towards the U.S., and the whole sorry episode of his presidential guards who beat up protestors in D.C. 

The complimentary image of Turkey I used to hear described in America has been replaced by one dominant take: Turkey as an authoritarian state. And, as the political situation in the country has worsened, the many students, colleagues and friends who once streamed to Turkey, slowly stopped going.

Now, those friends and colleagues tell me before I go there to visit: "Be careful."
Back in 2015-2016, "be careful" referred to one’s personal safety.

During those years, Turkey was struck by ISIS and PKK terror, one bomb coming a bit too close for comfort, hundreds of yards from a student group I was leading last in early 2016. Turkey has been able to bring back a sense of security to its streets.

However, following the 2016 attempted coup and the ensuing State of Emergency, which has led to the arrest of tens of  thousands, "be careful" has become a wider warning: "Beware of protests", and "beware of protesting". Americans saw firsthand how protesters in Washington D.C. were attacked by Erdogan’s guards.

It would be equally relevant to add further warnings to visitors: "Beware of journalism", after Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia for an article she wrote that the government condemned as "terrorist propaganda".

And they also could add "beware of human rights activism", in relation to the members of Amnesty International, who were released last night on bail after spending almost 100 days in jail (Turkey’s Amnesty chairperson, Taner Kilic, is still in custody).

And "beware of working with NGOs of any kind", after the recent arrest of Osman Kavala, who has played a key role in promoting civil society and international art projects.

And "beware of just being an American who can be used as a hostage", after U.S. media coverage of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s been held for over a year on dubious espionage charges, went up a gear since fears were raised that Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip by Turkey. That was after Erdogan hinted that he could be exchanged for Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric wanted in Turkey for allegedly masterminding the coup.   

The sad reality is if Turkey had minded the diplomatic niceties and worked to stay off the radar of the U.S. and had avoided unnecessary conflict, most of the overflowing and documented human rights violations in Turkey would have remained tucked away in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

How many Americans realize (or care) that the co-chairs of the third largest political party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag of the mostly Kurdish HDP, are behind bars, together with a long list of other MPs from the same party, effectively silencing the opposition?

As news of Turkey’s human rights violations become more mainstream, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that Turkey has crossed all democratic and rule of law red lines.

Despite concerted attempts by Turkey to sideline Congress and State Department officials, Erdogan’s attempts to carry out a direct line of communication with U.S. president Donald Trump, for now, at least, seems to have failed as a strategy.

Just yesterday, U.S. senators sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump expressing their grave concern over the "continuing erosion of human rights and decline of democratic values in Turkey."

As Turkey repivots closer to Russia, and as more voices arise in the U.S. calling to rethink the historic strategic relations between the two countries, Turkey is on track to fatally tarnish its image in the United States, risking not only a key ally but also the chance of Turkey once again becoming a magnet for American investment and support. America is also paying a price, absorbing varied geopolitical losses as Turkey retreats.

This article appeared in Haaretz on October 30,2017. Click here for the link

'This Is 1940s Germany': Can Turkey's Revitalized anti-Erdogan Opposition Prevail?*

** This article is from July 2017 and was written in wake of the masive Justice rally held by the CHP in Istanbul. 

Haaretz: "This week, one million people in Istanbul demanded civil rights, law and justice. As Erdogan's purges intensify, can a fragmented opposition sustain that momentum?"

"This is the era of dictatorship. This is the era of 1940s Germany."

Such explicit fighting talk directed against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rare these days in Turkey, not least in the heart of Istanbul. But they were the words spoken days ago by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the mostly secular center-left CHP party, at a huge rally rounding off a 25 day march through Turkey aimed at strengthening the democractic spirit in the country which has been under intensified assault for a year.

A year go, following the July 15 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s three main parties (excluding the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP party) came together at a massive rally held in Istanbul’s Yenikapi neighborhood. For Erdogan, having nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, and the main opposition leader, Kilicdaroglu, join the rally, together with his AKP party, seemed liked an impossible feat. Following the rally, a new term emerged on the Turkish political scene to describe this show of unusual unity: the "Spirit of Yenikapi."

However, this spirit was short-lived. With the government moving full steam ahead with its extensive purge, a clampdown that includes the arrest of critics of the government, such as journalists, academics and Members of Parliament, what seemed to some like a new dawn for Turkey, quickly turned into a nightmare for tens of thousands of people who have found themselves behind bars, not to mention the far greater numbers of family members affected.  

Fast forward a year. Turkey’s second massive rally, termed the “Justice” rally, held in Maltepe (also in Istanbul), highlighted the failed spirit of Yenikapi.  At this rally, over a million people joined Kilicdaroglu to chant in unison three words: Hak, Hukuk and Adalet: Rights, Law and Justice.

Never has Turkey seen such a huge and blatantly anti-Erdogan rally, nor has it seen Kilicdaroglu perform with such sharp, high caliber language to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of implementing autocratic rule and using the attempted coup to enact a civil coup through the State of Emergency, introduced five days after, which has enabled the ongoing mass purges and arrests.

So how did Kilicdaroglu succeed in transforming himself from a predictable - and at times obedient - opposition leader to a level of popularity unprecedented since becoming party head in 2010?

The answer is by marching over 400 kilometers over 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul, and the massive rally for which he set the agenda. On the march he endured mountainous steep climbs, pouring rain, and burning summer heat, but endeared himself to many of those he passed. It not only didn’t exhaust the modest 69-year old politician, but he positively gained momentum with each passing step.  

It wasn’t only admiration for his determination that boosted Kilicdaroglu’s success. The march functioned as a process of renewal; by removing himself from Ankara’s petty politics and parliamentary hallways, he was no longer a secondary figure, trailing behind Erdogan, but transformed into a real leader.

Over 25 days even groups who were initially reluctant joined in. Their differences with the CHP and its secular and Kemalist legacy quickly dissipated once it was made clear that no party or organization would march with their own banners. The march had one title and one title alone: justice for all those who have been wrongly sentenced to prison, serving time waiting for trials, or fired from their jobs.

So, where from here? Will the massive rally in Maltepe transform into a new movement for the return of law and an independent judiciary?

In the short term, no change is in sight, and the purges and arrests will continue. What better proof of this than this week’s arrest of Bogazici University professor Koray Caliskan, on charges of possible links to the Gulen movement (a claim that seems absurd on the surface, not only due to his past leftist politics but also due to his ties to the CHP).

Whether there’ll be a longer term effect depends mostly on if Kilicdaroglu can convince his party to keep building coalitions, to push beyond his electoral ceiling of around 25-30%. However, the time is ripe for this approach. If the opposition learned anything from last April’s constitutional referendum, that is only by finding common ground and rising above their differences can they defy the odds; true, the opposition lost the referendum, however the margin of Erdogan’s victory was small, and the opposition took all the major urban arenas, including Istanbul, once an Erdogan stronghold. Elections are due in 2019.

The CHP will need to reach out to conservative and more right-leaning voters, while continuing to develop a dialogue with new emerging voices, such as with Meral Aksener, who is set on establishing a new party in the near future together with other defectors from the ailing MHP. As for the Kurds, few expect Kilicdaroglu to get their votes, but the HDP’s participation in the march was a positive step forward; however, without a transformative initiative to end years of violence, it is highly unlikely the CHP can reach the level of optimism needed to make real change, something once offered by Erdogan and the AKP.

So, for now, it is hard to declare that the Maltepe Justice rally was a turning point, and better to echo Kilicdaroglu’s own words: that July 9, 2017 was only the beginning of a movement. For now, the spirt of Maltepe is very real; whether it awaits the same fate as the 2016 spirit of Yenikapi remains to be seen. Only time will tell, but the almost impossible weight of Turkey’s future is riding on it.  

**This article appeared in Haaretz on July 12, 2017. Click here for the link

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Post Turkish Referendum Analysis: Its not Yet Game Over*

Haaretz: "It's too early to declare the Turkish Republic dead and buried. The president's popularity has maxed out at 50 percent of the population, and the anti-Erdogan opposition won't be silenced"

Walking the streets of Istanbul just a week before the country’s fateful referendum, from any and every point I could see the larger-than-life faces of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, trying to convince voters to get out and vote “Yes,” for a ‘better’ Turkey. That entirely disproportionate number of “Yes” campaign posters filled the streets of even overwhelmingly anti-AKP neighborhoods; even there very few posters could be seen pushing a “No” vote.  

Nevertheless, I sensed hope among many “No,” voters, who believed that in the end, it was the Turkish people who would decide the fate of the referendum and not posters. Further, what might have appeared to some as a lack of organization among the “No” camp, was actually a strategy; the secular-CHP, the smaller, mostly Kurdish, HDP, and other fringe parties and civil organizations, maintained a significant measure of autonomy, presenting their case to their own constituencies, in place of opting for a unified campaign. Solidifying each voting bloc rather than attempting a one-size fits all campaign.

But it wasn’t only the Yes vote takeover of the public space that constituted an unfair playing field. The whole  referendum process itself took place under a State of Emergency. While the government had a free hand to do what it wanted, some of the strongest voices in the “No” camp were severely constrained: some are sitting in prison, such as the co-chairs of the HDP party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, together with government critics, not least a slew of journalists, such as Ahmet Sik and Kadri Gursel. 

While the Turkish government claimed foul play in Europe, when some European leaders blocked Turkish officials from campaigning on European soil, ‘No’ campaigners ironically faced bans within Turkey itself. The Ankara rally of Meral Aksener, the rising voice among Turkey’s nationalists, was cancelled by the local authorities unwilling to provide her security. Aksener was not just aiming her opposition at Erdogan, but also her former party head, the nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, who repelled many party members with his support for Erdogan, seen as a desperate tactical attempt to hold on to power.  

Another ‘No’ campaigner, Tuna Beklevic, was prevented from holding rallies on the grounds that his party hadn’t been officially recognized, despite fulfilling all the requirements. Beklevic persevered, visiting numerous cities and using Facebook to hold a virtual rally which attracted almost 70,000 viewers.

Well, the government ended up with a huge surprise last Sunday when - despite some polls predicting an easy victory for them - the opposite occurred. The “No” camp gave Erdogan, and his weak nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli, a run for their money, with Turkey’s three major cities, Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir (and many other urban centers) going to the “No” camp. Even if the “Yes,” camp won on bare numbers, the outcome of 51.41 percent to 48.59 percent was achieved only among serious concerns of mass voter fraud.

Since the referendum results were released, protesters have taken to the streets across Turkey demanding the Supreme Election Council explain its last minute acceptance of over a million “non-stamped ballots,” and address a long list of documented irregularities. However, the Council has flatly rejected their call, strengthening fears that it too has all but become a government mouthpiece. Unfortunately, the “No” camp has little power to enforce its demands and its attempts to bring it to the Constitutional Court will have a slim chance at best to produce results. However, its persistence stains the legitimacy Erdogan so longs for.  

So where from here? Some analysts have gone so far as to declare the end of the Turkish Republic, reiterating much of their pre-referendum coverage, which characterized the vote as a zero-sum game of dictatorship versus democracy.  

This dichotomy ignores the fact that even if the “No” camp had won the referendum, under the current State of Emergency, Erdogan and his AKP party which has a strong grip over Turkey’s bureaucracy and government offices, would continue to rule solely (and oppressively if they choose to do so) with or without a referendum victory.  

This dichotomy is also problematic due to the fact it transforms the AKP supporters into one unified group, and that their voting “Yes” is a confirmation of their support for a full-blown dictatorship. Admittedly, there are strong political and security arguments why someone might support the constitutional changes. However, in the current political atmosphere, the vote could only polarize the electorate.

On the flip side, this dichotomy robs the multiple oppositions of any agency whatsoever, as if their strong resistance to Erdogan is completely inept and that they are doomed to live under a fascist dictatorship, in which the only hope for them is leaving their homeland.

So, no, it is not game-over for those who oppose Erdogan. Yesterday’s Erdogan is no different than today’s Erdogan, save for the fact that he has received a strong message that, at least for now, his popularity has dwindled and that his popularity has maxed out at not much more than 50 percent of the population. This is not likely to change in the near future, and if Erdogan does make note of the dynamic changes within the Turkish electorate, he might even lose his bid for presidency in the 2019 elections, never having the chance to rule with super-presidential powers accorded to him in the referendum.

For the opposition, the arrests of protesters taking part in post-referendum protests, with one even being charged with “delegitimizing the “Yes” victory", the referendum is not a turning point but rather a continuation of “more of the same.” The victory of capturing Istanbul, where almost 25 percent of the overall Turkish population resides, together with the belief that the vote was stolen, has emboldened them for now, showing that they are very much alive. True, this most likely will not continue, in which case, silent resistance to Erdogan’s power will return, as the risk of arrest outweighs the urge to take to the streets.

Like Erdogan, who needs to reassess his base, the opposition groups need to as well. Will Meral Aksener be able to form a successful party that will replace Bahceli’s MHP, providing a new path for the nationalist opposition? Will a center-right party emerge from former AKP members challenging Erdogan? Will the secular CHP be able to reach out to new groups, create fronts, which will be able to break their normal 25-27 percent of the overall vote in parliamentary elections? Will these parties create a dynamic where the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP can remain a relevant party in light of the mass arrests that have taken place during the last almost two years? These questions are just a few of many pressing questions that could prove a challenge to Erdogan and his AKP party in the future. 

It is for these reasons that the referendum victory of the AKP should not be seen as a turning point but rather a continuation of the standoff between Erdogan’s AKP and different oppositional forces, one that unfortunately promises more instability, a continued sluggish economy, and frustration among those who do not see eye-to-eye with Erdogan and his hard-core supporters.

Nevertheless, one only need to look at Turkey’s shaky history to understand that just as its jails have revolving doors, new political systems, such as the post-referendum constitutional changes, can also be discarded over time. While many can predict what Turkey might look like in two years, what it might look like in a decade is still very unclear. While the path and determination of Erdogan is clear, the opposition could splinter further while the jockeying continues for its leadership, which may result in a force weakened even further and incapable of any real challenge to the newly empowered president.

This article appeared in Haaretz on April 24, 2017, under the longer title of: Wounded but Alive: It's Not Yet Game Over for Turkey's Democracy - or Its Resistance. Click here for the link. 

*Wounded but Alive: It's Not Yet Game Over for Turkey's Democracy - or Its Resistance