From Atatürk to Allah?

Tomorrow is election day in Turkey and it’s coming down to the home stretch! The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is likely to win about 30 percent of the vote, which would make them the senior partner in any coalition government, assuming they don’t win outright. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is polling at 15 to 20 percent. However, Atatürk’s party is avowedly secular, so it’s unlikely the two would partner up.
The situation is making the military and other secular Turks very, very nervous. In 1997, the AKP’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, was eased out by the military in what many have called a “soft coup.” But that option isn’t available now. With the European Union still dangling the carrot of membership, the Turkish military can’t risk stepping in and mucking about with elections and democracy. But the powers that be in Turkey also worry that a government headed by an Islamist party wouldn’t be attractive to Europe either, so Turkey is kind of caught in a bind.
Further complicating the situation, Milliyet reported last week that Turkey’s top state prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, has filed for the closure of the AKP, citing defiance by the party’s leader, former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to give up his party post. Erdogan was banned from participating in politics after he read a poem “inciting religious hatred” in a mosque in 1997 and served four months in jail. Though the case won’t be decided for months, if the party eventually is shut down its supporters would see their votes wasted. All this legal maneuvering has been an attempt by the military and secular leadership to depress the vote on AKP, and as I was told when I was in Ankara, “Turkey is the graveyard of political parties.”
(For what it’s worth Sabah reported that U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is opposed to banning political parties. “The US supports democracy and broad political participation in Turkey and elsewhere,” he is quoted as saying. “We oppose the banning of political parties that are expressing their views in a peaceful and democratic manner.”)
Though Erdogan is banned by law from serving in a governmental post — such as, oh, prime minister for example — the suspicion is that he will work behind the scenes running the country, probably through a weak prime minister. There is also concern that his commitment to moderation and democracy is only skin deep. He was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and promptly banned alcohol in the city’s restaurants. He has close ties with former Welfare Party prime minister Erbakan, who dined with terrorists and talked of pulling out of NATO. Perhaps most ominously, “You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time,” Erdogan said in 1995.
But he’s been crafty in how he has answered questions on how he would liberalize laws concerning the public expression of religion. For example, it is currently illegal for women to wear headscarves in universities, schools and government buildings or at government functions. This is a highly emotional issue in Turkey, with headscarves being a potent symbol of political Islam. Erdogan has been careful to not identify the AKP with this kind of controversy. Would his wife, an observant Muslim, wear a headscarf at government functions? “I wouldn’t bring her,” he has said, neatly not answering the question or assuaging Turkish women’s fears.
So what are the scenarios? Near as I can tell, they are as follows:

  • The AKP wins decisively with enough seats in Parliament to form a government without resorting to a partner. The military might intervene or it might not. If it doesn’t, look for the AKP to be kept on a short leash.
  • The AKP wins a majority, but cannot form a government, in which case they will partner up with — possibly — Deniz Baykal’s Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP). I think a coalition between the nationalists and Islamists could be one of the worst combinations. “The result will definitely be another coalition, an anomaly of very contradictory views,” said Prof. Deniz Ilgaz of Bogazi�i University when I emailed her about all of this.
  • The myriad secular parties in Parliament band together in a broad-based coalition together to keep the AKP out of power. The resulting government would be weak and ineffectual, and would pretty much cement the status quo. None of the problems of Turkey would be addressed, and the military would remain the de facto ruler of the country.

So what will happen and how might this affect the United States’ determination to open up some precision guided whoop-ass on Iraq, a fellow Muslim country and formerly a major trading partner to Turkey? We’ll have the outlines in a day. But one thing is certain is that the political landscape is about to change in unpredictable ways.

Happy birthday, Turkey

Happy 79th birthday, Turkey! You look weeks younger!
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded by the modern Turkish state Oct. 29, 79 years ago. For all of Turkey’s problems today, no one should underestimate the determination and accomplishment of Atatürk. In the face of hostile enemies, a skeptical world and a collection of peoples with no reason to band together, he forged a modern and Western-facing nation out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Regardless of how people view the modern Turkey, it’s a damn sight better than what might have been had he failed. And for that I tip my hat to Father Turk.
I also think that were he alive today, he would have brought the same energy, determination (and, frankly, authoritarianism) to the problems of the Republic. But he’s not, and Turkey needs to step out of the great man’s shadow and move on. Atatürk was able to accomplish what he did because he didn’t worry about the democratic process. And his approach was exactly right for what was needed at the time. But today, Turkey must embrace a full democracy and remove the military from the decision making process. The slogan that adorns the steps leading up to Atatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara should be amended. Instead of “Sovereignty rests with the Nation,” it should instead derive from the people — all of them, Turks and Kurds alike. His admonition to the army to protect the nation from all enemies foreign and domestic should come with the appendix the people are not the enemy; they are citizens.
I’d like to think that Atatürk would recognize this. Turkey no longer needs a Great Man. It needs a great people.

Turkey preparing to invade Kurdistan?

Turkey has been making noises that the Iraqi Kurds should not get too hopeful about establishing a quasi-independent entity in the three governates they control in northern Iraq. Now, it looks like Turkey is ready to back up their words with force. (At least they’re consistent.) However, there is an election coming up in Turkey, so the possibility that this is all fodder for domestic constituencies cannot be ruled out.
On the they-really-mean-it side of the equation, ArabicNews.com is reporting that Turkish deputy prime minister Doulat Bahjali said that his country must reconsider its stance regarding northern Iraq. Since 1991 when it got dragged into Operation Provide Comfort (the allied establishment of the northern no-fly zone to protect Kurdish refugees from the 1990-91 Gulf War,) Turky has gone back and forth in its relations with the PUK and KDP. At times the relationship was warm enough that Barzani and Talabani, the leaders of the respective parties, traveled under Turkish diplomatic passports.
That has apparently ended with finality after the Kurdistan Regional Government convened its parliament in October and introduced a proposal for a federal republic of Iraq with a Kurdish entity in the north and with Kirkuk as its capital. Kirkuk, rich in oil and history is home to Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkomen, to whose defense Bahjali is leaping.
“The pressures which are imposed on the Turkomen under Saddam Hussein were great and that they are at the meantime exposed to a new threat by the two Kurdish leaders Masoud al-Barazani and Jalal al-Talabani targeting their cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Arbil,” ArabicNews.com says. (Ed. I changed some spellings of towns in this quote.)
This backs up the it’s-all-politics argument, since the Turkomen are a natural ally of Bahjali’s National Movement Party, and bashing the Kurds is always a surefire way to rally the nationalist faithful. However, Turkish defense minister Sbah Eddin Oglo said Oct. 14 that Turkey intends to establish ‘a security belt’ in northern Iraq and that intelligence agencies have reported that Turkey has increased its troop strength in Iraqi Kurdistan from 4,000 to 10,000 troops.
All of this must be driving the United States crazy. The last thing it needs is a Kurdish-Turkish dispute in northern Iraq just when it’s trying to get its ducks in a row should shooting start. And this is exactly the kind of chaos various pundits have predicted would happen if Saddam is removed and regional rivalries are allowed to flare. But wasn’t that supposed to happen after a war?
Keep watching the Turks. They hold the key to all of this.

HADEP Deputy Chairman: “This is democracy in Turkey”

While in Ankara, Aykut and I spent a day trying to find the local offices of various Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups including the KDP and PUK. We were looking for various officials who might be able to help me when I went to Diyarbakir in the southeast and on to Iraq, but we weren’t having much luck, and kept driving through twisty neighborhoods hoping the cops weren’t following us.

At one point, the comedy descended into farce, as we drove into a military residence area looking for the embassies. We found the embassies, but the PUK still eluded us. We drove past the Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Embassies, but finally stopped outside the the United Arab Emirates while Aykut jumped out of the car and asked a bored-looking security guard for directions.

“Excuse me, where are the offices for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan?” Akyut asked while I shrunk into my seat and tried to look invisible.

The guard, a Turk and apparently no friend of Iraqi Kurds, looked him up and down, looked me up and down, and then motioned off down the road.

Aykut dropped his bulk into the drivers’ seat and smiled at me.

“Don’t do that again,” I said.

He apologized, but at least the guard’s directions were good. We finally found the rather sad looking house that was the office for the PUK. No one was around except for a plainclothes guy who watched us closely and smoked a cigarette like a fugitive. He made me nervous, so we left to go meet A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey. The transcript — from Aykut’s translation — follows:

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Ecevit: Kurds dragging Turkey into war

Wow. I posted the proposed Kurdish and Iraqi constitutions last night—and my thoughts that the Kurds are asking for trouble—and wouldn’t you know it? Today, the Guardian runs this. It’s more of that growling that I mentioned in my previous post, but what’s most alarming about this is Turkey’s charges that the United States is directing the Kurds: “It is beyond encouragement, (Washington) is directing them,” Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told the Turkish paper Milliyet. “We will talk to the United States.”
If the United States is directing the PUK and the KDP, that would amount to a stunning reversal against Turkey, one of our most loyal allies in the region. I don’t think that we are, frankly, and these comments are likely playing to Ecevit’s nationalist base of support, which often views the U.S. with suspicion. (They still harbor resentments over Cyprus form 1964 and 1974.)
The United States needs Turkey more than it needs the Kurds, sadly, as the Kurds have only about 80,000 lightly armed peshmergas while the Turks have tanks and F-16s (bought from the United States, of course.) They’re also a NATO ally and Incirlik is a necessary base for running sorties in the northern no-fly zone.
But beyond that Turkey is valuable to the United States in that it provides a “good example” of democracy and Islam, serving as an effective ideological counterweight to Iran. It also has close ties to the Turkish-speaking peoples of central Asia and their energy reserves.
This is why the United States has been such a proponent of Turkey’s ascension to the European Union. America’s support is a complex web of self-interest (keeping a strong, democratic Muslim nation tied to the West) and pay-back (see military alliance above.) It’s also why the Kurds of southeast Turkey both admire and resent the United States. They admire it for its stance on the Turkey-EU issue, and they see membership as the key to economic recovery in that depressed region. They resent America because it was very very supportive of Turkey’s war against the PKK’s terror campaign (which Turkey remembered when Sept. 11, 2001 happened.)
So, again, I’m not sure what would happen if Iraq’s Kurds attain some form of independence. That would almost certainly drive the Turks to war in Iraqi Kurdistan, and what then would the Americans do? This may turn out to be a bigger question than who rules the day after Saddam…

Proposed Iraqi constitution(s) asking for trouble

Here’s something you won’t find anywhere else. (I googled.) These are the scanned copies of the proposed constitutions for Iraq, post-Saddam. Sami Abdul Rahman, the deputy prime minister (KDP) of the Kurdistan Regional Government, gave them to me after I interviewed him in his offices in the Parliament building in Arbil. He wrote them, and the KDP and PUK, in a rare show of public unity, have signed on. Even State, back in July, said the ideas were “interesting.”
There are two files, the proposed constitution for a Federal Republic of Iraq (3.0MB), heavily modeled on the United States Constitution, and the constitution for the Kurdish region (5.6MB). Sorry for the size of the files. I tried to make them as small as I could.
The first one maps out a plan that would divide the country into two regions: The Arabs would get the middle and southern regions along with the province of Nineveh (excepting regions that have Kurdish majorities) and the Kurds would get the provinces of Kirkuk, Suleimaniya, Arbil and Duhok, the districts of Aqra, Sheihkan and Sinjar and the sub-districts of Zimar (in Nineveh), Khaniqin and Mandali (Diyala) and Badra (in the province of Al-Wasit.) Unlike the U.S. Constitution, however, there is a state religion — Islam — and official languages (Kurdish in the Kurdish regions and Arabic in the other.)
There is a liberal collection of rights granted, but a worrisome dependence on “the law,” as in, “No one can be captured, detained, jailed, or searched except in circumstances defined in law.” This loophole is scattered throughout the document, subordinating the constitutions to whatever the regional or national legislatures want to write into the lawbooks. Instead of being the supreme law of the land, as in the United States, the constitutions instead provide justification for, say, the harsh rule of shar’ia, should Islamists gain control over the National Assembly.
And while “power is inherent in the people as they are the source of its legitmacy,” I worry that this draft is too weak to protect the people of Iraq (and particularly the Kurds) from democracy gone bad. Jeffersonian these documents ain’t.
There’s also a lot that will piss off the Turks, making the adoption of this charter less than likely. The Kurds blame much of Iraq’s (and by extension their own) misfortunes on the centralization of power in Iraq. This is exactly the problem in Turkey and while a few Turkish intellectuals have floated the idea of a federal structure in Turkey, that idea has about as much of a chance as Saddam does of winning another war and occupying Washington.
As the preamble says:

Centralization in government has lost its appeal even within simple and homogenous communities. It has especially lost its rationale for being resorted to in communities that are of a pluralist nature made up of various nationalities, religious groups and languages, such as the Iraqi [Ed: And Turkish] community. The high degree of centralization and the indifference of decision makers to the presence of the special characteristics of the Kurdish people are among the basic reasons for the Kurds being deprived of their legitimate rights under successive Iraqi governments, which came to power under both the monarchy and the republic. This style of restricting authority in t he centre and the unwillingness to share it with the Kurds on a practical basis, even after the March 11, 1970 autonomy agreement has been the hallmark of the role of the Iraqi state.

Well, yeah, and Saddam murdering innocent women and children with chemical weapons has also been a “hallmark of the role of the Iraqi state.” Harping on the evils centralization and the failure to recognize the special nature of Kurds — which is exactly what has been happening in Turkey since 1921 — is asking for trouble, if you ask me. Every criticism mentioned in the preamble against Iraq could equally be leveled at Turkey. (Except the Turks haven’t bombed villages with aflatoxin or other weapons of mass destruction.) And Turkey has been growling that any deal that leaves the Kurds with independence, either de facto or de jure, will be met with guns and tanks. And I have no idea what the United States, as the new regional powerbroker, would do if a NATO ally began operations in the area America claims as conquered territory.

Holy crap, I’m in Istanbul (redux)

This was my email to a list of friends and family that I sent out after I landed in Istanbul and started my trip. Except for some minor editing (typos, spelling errors, continuity and some grammar clean-up) this is what went out, more or less (except for really stupid, personal stuff.) This entry was emailed July 2, 2002 while I was overlooking the Bosporus, the narrow strait that divides the city and the two continents of Europe and Asia.
This is the first entry of a continuing series of my emails and journal entries of my trip over there. It’s designed to whet your appetite so you will send me back. (Hint: Donate button is over to the right.)

From: Christopher Allbritton
Date: Tue Jul 2, 2002 3:20:59 AM US/Pacific

Istanbul!
I landed at Atatürk International yesterday at 3 p.m. or so after a couple of hours cooling my heels in Budapest. Took a bus to Taksim, the central plaza in the “modern” part of the city, and from there, I took a taxi up to Boğazi’i University, where I’m staying thanks to the hospitality of Prof. Deniz Ilgaz.
Damn, this is a confusing place. The street energy is like New York at a rave but without the feelgood vibe. The taxi drivers are homicidal (and suicidal) and the cars bear the scars of numerous encounters with bumpers and doors and hapless pedestrians. The city passes by in a blur, but ancient structures exist among modern skyscrapers and western fastfood chains. It’s all a bit overwhelming.
And Turkish is just impossible. But first, some basic geography: Istanbul is divided in half by the Bosporus, duh, into European and Asian (Anatolian) sides. The European side is further divided into North and South parts by the Golden Horn, a great natural harbor. South is the old, Ottoman city with all the tourist stuff (Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, yadda yadda yadda.) In the 19th century this part of the city, called Eminönü, was left to the Sultans as an Ottoman playground with harems, palaces, hookahs, and the whole Disneyland on opium thing. The northern part, (Beyoğlu) where I’m staying, was modernized, with streetcars, telephones, plumbing, etc. So I have to go into Eminönü to get my press creds. The office is housed in one of innumerable palaces on the Bosporus. And there are a lot of them.
[Editor's note: Here lie three paragraphs that detail the dynamics of a particularly bad liaison I had while in Germany. It really doesn't do anyone any good to rehash this stuff, so I cut them.]
Back to Turkey. I took out 200,000,000 Turkish Lira from my account at the airport yesterday. I’ve never withdrawn 200 million of anything before, so I felt like a real rich guy. (It’s about $125 or so.) I still have, after paying for a couple of meals, a taxi ride and a bus ride, … Uh, shit. A whole lot of zeros. Actually, I still have 178 million TL, or about $111.25… Jesus, all of that cost just under $15? I could live like a king in Istanbul if I had dollars coming in.
I’m staying in an antique Ottoman house near the Bosporus ( Boğazi’i in Turkish, don’t ask me how to pronounce it.) From my window, I can see the old fortress Hisar, the fort built by Sultan Fatih to conquer Constantinople in 1453. There’s an even older fort on the opposite side, the Asian side, built by the Byzantines, and I don’t mean the Eastern Roman Empire. I mean the people who built the city of Byzantium that predates even Emperor Constantine, who founded Constantinople in AD 338, if I recall the date correctly.
At any rate, it’s really, really old.
And why did they change the name from Constantinople? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks. (Actually, it’s a corruption of a Greek term that means “in the city.”)
Today, at 2:30, I meet with Kemal Kiriş’i, a Boğazi’i University professor who wrote a book on the Kurds and now deals with EU-Turkey issues. I think he will be very informative. After that, I have to go in to the old city, across the Golden Horn, and pick up my press credentials. That should take the better part of the rest of the day. Then I’m meeting some people I’ve been emailing for dinner and that’s that. Whew!
On Thursday, in celebration of July 4, I will get on a bus to Ankara, where I will meet my fixer. We’ll work on some logistics and plan for a few days and then head out to Diyarbakir and the rest of the country. It’s a shame I won’t have more time in Istanbul, as it’s a fascinating city. Bigger than NYC, too. Nine million people (although that’s only about 5.625 people thanks to the exchange rate.)
So that’s it. All is well, and I have my own Internet access. Life is good.