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How not to stop a U.S. invasion – Iraq 2002

An Iraqi painting wrestling with symbols from the country's history - a quite a few U.S. and British bombs

An Iraqi painting wrestling with symbols from the country’s history – including quite a few U.S. and British bombs

To mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I’m posting my story that got closest to warning the readers of The Wall Street Journal: “don’t do it”. It wasn’t an easy story to get in the paper, even though I was that newspaper’s only reporter visiting Iraq in the year before the bombs started falling on 19 March 2003.


Defiance Grows Among Iraqis

Threat of U.S. Attack Brings Vows to Defend Capital, Countryside


By Hugh Pope

The Wall Street Journal, 19 September 2002

Baghdad, Iraq — EACH NIGHT, Mowafaq Mahmood, chief executive of the Bank of Baghdad, Iraq’s largest private bank, makes sure a printout of the bank’s accounts are stashed in a secure basement — a precaution if the country were to be attacked without warning.

He has put all of his staff through a fire drill and sent sacks of banknotes to his 17 branches, to be ready in case panicked Iraqis suddenly make a rush for cash.

“I’m preparing for the worst. I gather the Americans mean business,” says Mr. Mahmood, an elegant 62-year-old with a slight stammer. “But if Baghdad is invaded, I will certainly take up my gun. We will have to defend it. And I will keep the doors of my bank open until I’m ordered to close.”

The idea of Mr. Mahmood, a mild-mannered former head of the Iraqi central bank’s credit department, battling door to door through the streets of Baghdad may seem improbable. But like many Iraqis, he is feeling increasingly defiant as President Bush ratchets up the pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Where Iraqis once whispered complaints about the regime behind closed doors, many now feel they should defend their country.

“A year ago, people would discuss the regime, say this and that. Now they don’t say it,” says Hadi al-Faris, a prominent businessman. As sole agent in Iraq for the Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung, he is now holding stock back in warehouses in neighboring Jordan. He also is expecting the worst: “We will face horrible days,” he says.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, the big unknown for America was the strength of the Iraqi army in and around Kuwait. Now, Iraq’s military is a shadow of its former self — poorly supplied and one-third its previous size, military analysts say.

According to diplomats in Baghdad, only its elite units are likely to fight. How Iraq’s population of 25 million people would react to an American invasion is harder to assess. While diplomats and some Iraqis believe citizens are likely to stay on the sidelines of any fighting, many Iraqis say a decade of sanctions has turned many against the U.S. Some speak in terms of a blood feud. Where Iraqis draw the line — whether Shia Muslim villagers in the south, Sunni tribesmen in the north or the multitudes in the sprawling capital — may influence how easily Mr. Hussein could be toppled. It will also be the key to the success of a U.S. occupation or U.S.-backed regime.

For now, though, Iraqis are dealing with the looming threat by going about their lives with a measured effort to keep up morale. At the Hariri Elementary School for Girls, the school year began Sept. 8 with star pupils reciting patriotic slogans as they hoist the national flag. Next to them, the music teacher fires three blank cartridges from a Kalashnikov rifle.

A few girls nervously block their ears, but there is no escaping the underlying message: Support everything Mr. Hussein says and does. The sole decoration on the schoolyard’s concrete walls are two dozen of Mr. Hussein’s sayings. “If somebody hates you, don’t let him near you,” said one.

Saddam mural 3

Peeling paint and rising mold haven’t yet reached the showpiece mural in the school lobby — a grinning Saddam Hussein sweeping his hand in front of a battle scene of streaking missiles, exploding tanks and ancient Arab cavalry. But

Iraq’s statistics are bleak. The United Nations Children’s Fund says half of the schools are now unfit for use and more than one-fifth of children have dropped out entirely, often to work. Female adult literacy has dropped from a peak of 87% in 1985 to 45% in 1995. The physical growth of more than one-fifth of Iraqi children is stunted by malnutrition.

“Many of my pupils have anemia. They have trouble concentrating,” says headmistress Nisrin Labbu. “Then there’s the fear of the Americans; we didn’t have that before. We’ve drilled to disperse the children in case of attack. Whatever happens, we must keep going.”

Exhaustion from two decades of war and sanctions imposed by the international community has left many civilians shrugging their shoulders at the threat of war. They prepare by stocking up, as best they can, on essentials like flour and oil. There is little sign of military activity in Baghdad, the city of five million people where Mr. Hussein is expected to make his stand.

Occasional army vehicles trundle along the 300-mile highway south to Basra, a presumed U.S. invasion route up from Kuwait. The Iraqi army has bulldozed higher earthwork walls of gray sand around those bases that are visible from the hot desert tarmac. But many guard-posts are small and flimsily built of whitewashed cinderblocks. Soldiers wave most cars through a dozen checkpoints on the highway, displaying no heightened state of alert.

Nevertheless, alongside a diplomatic effort to persuade Arab and European nations to oppose U.S. action, Mr. Hussein’s regime is arming his loyalists. At the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers 50 miles north of Basra, pro-government sheik Rashash al-Amara boasts that his 6,000-person tribe now has a 1,500-man militia.

“If any American lands here, we’ll kill him,” he says. “The Americans say they are only after Saddam, but actually they are destroying our people.”


Copyright (c) 2002 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.

Why was it so hard to get this story in? Despite some reliable sources telling me and others that the Americans were seriously intending to invade in March 2003, back in mid-2002, the idea that it might happen had not reached any kind of credible critical mass that I could use as the springboard for a straight-up story on the lines of “if the U.S. invades, Iraqis will do x, y and z”. We who knew a little about Iraq, with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein presumably among us, all thought that an invasion of this country was such a crazy idea that the U.S. must be bluffing. And by the time it was clear that the U.S. really would invade, it was far too late to change much public opinion about it.  Here’s how I described my frustrations in writing and publishing this piece in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, in Chapter 15, “Jousting with the Juggernaut: How not to stop a U.S. invasion”:

In the fall, the beat of war drums was discernible and I tried again. I warned how exposed the Iraqi Christian minority felt at the prospect of regime change— indeed, vicious bombings and persecution after the invasion were to force most Iraqi Christians to flee the country. Then, under the headline defiance grows among iraqis, I tried to point out that even if the main body of the Iraqi army might not fight a U.S. invasion, nobody could predict the reaction of ordinary people: “While diplomats and some Iraqis believe citizens are likely to stay on the sidelines of any fighting, many Iraqis say a decade of sanctions has turned many against the U.S.” If that sounds bland, that last sentence in particular was deliberately so.

In the first draft, I had quoted my driver, fixer, and minder, Samir.

“You say you’re coming to bring us freedom. Well, let me to tell you something. Here in Iraq, freedom means the freedom to kill whoever you want,” he said. “Now you listen to me. Two of my relatives have died because of the lack of medicines because of sanctions. I blame the Americans for that. So when they get out of their tanks here in Baghdad, I’m going to kill two of them myself.”

Bill Spindle had sighed and told me that no reader in America would be able to stomach that kind of talk, would not believe it, and would stop reading. He was probably right. Similarly, I originally ended the story with the words of one of the Baathist blowhards, a former ambassador: “Let the U.S. put their finger in the snake’s mouth, and find out for themselves if it is poisonous or not.” Spindle ob- jected to that on the grounds that it undermined the strength of the story.

“Since it’s so clearly propaganda,” he said, “it makes one wonder whether what the other folks in the story have said isn’t also.”

I accepted that too. I was up to my eyeballs in Iraqi propaganda, and I didn’t want to scare the readers into thinking that I couldn’t be trusted. Then the battle would be completely lost. Reality was a broad spectrum, and the common zone between the diametrically different Iraqi and U.S. worldviews overlapped only a short hand span in the middle. Spindle was my adviser and protector in making sure that I stayed on this reservation. We didn’t do too badly, ending the story by quoting a pro-government sheikh complaining that “the Americans say they are only after Saddam, but actually they are destroying our people.” But why should an American believe a pro-government sheikh? We often put in such layers of distance so as not to upset people’s comfort zones. The cause seemed hopeless.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decade as Turkey’s prime minister

Interviewing Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2004

Interviewing Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2004

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrates his 10th anniversary as Turkey’s prime minister on 14 March, 2003. Below is a cover story I did for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs summing up the story so far, published ahead of the 10th anniversary of the November 2002 election victory of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.  (Erdoğan himself had to wait until he could remove a legal obstacle and win a by-election before he could take his post.) A more recent assessment of why I think Erdoğan and Turkey need to get back to measuring themselves against EU norms was published by The Majalla and can be found here, as Turkey’s Tentative EU Springtime.

Erdoğan’s Decade

By Hugh Pope

The swirling currents of daily political life in Turkey enjoy a wild unpredictability. But in November 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) swept to power with surprising strength, it turned out that it was riding one of Turkey’s regular underlying tides. This sudden popular reversal was much the same as in 1950 when a similar surge of votes brought Adnan Menderes and the Democrat Party to power. And it happened again in 1983 in favor of Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party. On each of these three occasions, the new leader catching the public imagination was charismatic, pragmatic, and able to gather round him a coalition of interests including conservative landowners, progressive businessmen, Turkish nationalists, Kurds, the pious, a scattering of liberals, and a bedrock of skepticism about Turkey’s secularist ideology and its military enforcers. The stars of Menderes and Özal both faded after ten years, during which time they became more autocratic and began to rely on an ever-narrowing circle of advisers. Erdoğan, perhaps the most effective leader of them all, reaches his tenth anniversary in November.

A younger Erdoğan in July 2002. (Photo HP)

A younger Erdoğan in July 2002. (Photo HP)

It was not immediately obvious that Erdoğan would emerge as such a national leader. A graduate of an imam and preacher-training school, he had risen through the youth wing of the implicitly pro-Islamist and usually marginal movement led by veteran politician Necmettin Erbakan. Erdoğan’s opportunity arrived in 1994, when divisions in Turkey’s political system and his own campaigning energy secured him the mayor’s seat in Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital, with just one quarter of the vote. His split with the Erbakan movement came in 2001, when he and the movement’s pragmatic wing realized they needed mass appeal if they were ever to win national elections. And in 2002, Erdoğan benefited from a general sense of popular fatigue with squabbling old-school politicians in a country still reeling from a major economic crisis. Add to the mix the fact that he and his party offered something plausible and new, and Erdoğan enjoyed a similar confluence of circumstances that had allowed newcomers Menderes and Özal their surprise victories in 1950 and 1983.

The jury is still out on the achievements of the AKP’s first decade. Great successes marked the early years—waves of reforms, the opening of EU accession negotiations, the end of torture in jails, strong economic expansion, and more improvements for ethnic Kurds than any previous government. But the AKP has fumbled important policies, often following failures of its own political will. Cyprus remains unsolved; a great wedge between Turkey and the EU. The Armenian genocide question, at one time at the gate of a path to resolution, is once again an arena of growing friction. And the Kurdish problem, in the process of being resolved in 2009, has fallen back into armed conflict. Domestic critics see the similar corrosive effects of absolute power on the AKP, with thousands of Turks being detained and hundreds held for years on controversial grounds of “terrorism.” These are mostly Turkish Kurd activists, but also include nationalists, soldiers, university students, academics, and journalists.

As with the Menderes and Özal parties before it, the fate of the AKP is above all linked to Prime Minister Erdoğan. Some people say they voted for the tall, broad-shouldered ex-mayor just because of the confident swagger in his stride; others saw him as a scary product of his former pro-Islamic party. There was radical fire enough in a poem read out by Erdoğan in 1997 to cost him his job as Istanbul mayor and provoke a temporary ban from politics: ‘The mosques are our barracks, / The domes our helmets, / The minarets our bayonets, / And the believers our soldiers.’ But the poem was actually written by Turkish nationalist panegyrist Ziya Gökalp (who died in 1924) and Erdoğan’s ability to win 34 percent of the vote in 2002 proved that ordinary Turks had accepted Erdoğan as a solid manager of Istanbul, not as a scary fundamentalist.

Indeed, during the campaign, Erdoğan told visitors to the AKP’s headquarters that he simply wanted to be known as a conservative and explicitly stated that he had broken with his radical Islamist past. “That period is over, finished,” he said, in his sometimes brusque style. “We have opened a new page with a new group of people, a brand new party . . . we were anti-European. Now we’re pro-European.” When challenged over past statements such as “my reference is Islam,” however, Erdoğan retained an element of the old ambivalence of the Islamist underground. “Islam is a religion; democracy is a way of ruling. You can’t compare the two. We just want to increase the happiness of the people,” he said. Secularists remained nervous that a new, Islamist ideology would take the place of their own. None missed an opportunity to recall that Erdoğan had once cynically compared democracy to “catching a train. When you get to your station, you get off.”

‘Brother Tayyip’

Erdoğan had already come a long way from his Istanbul origins in a working-class neighborhood whose proud men are a by-word in Turkey for rejecting any compromise as an unacceptable loss of face. Joining Turkey’s Islamist movement as a youth, Erdoğan and later his wife Emine were responsible for consolidating the party’s vote-winning infantry in the city. As much as the policies, it was Erdoğan’s control of this organization, and an obsession for opinion polls and market surveys, that was to bring him success in 2002 and keep his share of the vote above 50 percent in 2011. By this time, Erdoğan was able to send his children to U.S. universities—his daughters supposedly so they could wear their headscarves (legally banned although tolerated on Turkish campuses) but he never wanted anyone to think he had forgotten his origins. “In this country, there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks,” Erdoğan once said. “Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks.”

Erdoğan’s first big test as AKP prime minister was the run-up to, and fall-out from, the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. As so often in Turkey, the AKP’s instincts vacillated between alignment with the West, Christian and disdainful yet rich and strong; and sympathy for the Middle East, poorer and traumatized by conflicts, but fellow Muslims and neighbors. Initially, Erdoğan promised to cooperate with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in return for the promise of an extensive Turkish say in the future of northern Iraq plus billions of dollars in grant aid and loans. But the Americans didn’t read the complex politics of Turkey correctly, and even Erdoğan underestimated the strength of opposition to U.S. plans within his own party. On March 1, 2003, more than a quarter of his deputies declined to enter the assembly or voted against Turkish cooperation with the Iraq invasion. AKP leaders were left ashen-faced as they discovered they were three deputies short of the necessary parliamentary quorum. The measure was defeated.

There was no easy going back and Erdoğan had to embrace what he called a “democratic outcome.” Polls showed 94 percent of Turks opposed the war, because, like Europeans and others around the world, they did not believe that Iraq was responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, and they feared intervention would further destabilize the Middle East, hurt the Turkish economy, encourage ethnic Kurdish separatism, and fuel radicalism in the region. Not surprisingly, U.S. leaders were furious at being jilted just a couple of weeks before the planned outbreak of hostilities, not just by the AKP but by lukewarm Turkish generals too. American supply ships waiting off the Turkish coast had to sail to the Persian Gulf, their advance units had to reload what they had unloaded at Turkish ports, and troops had to leave outposts already established along the Turkish highway to northern Iraq—in one televised instance, pelted with stones by local people.

Thanks to the initial success and brevity of the military campaign, the AKP escaped the full force of U.S. opprobrium. Erdoğan rushed to make up by granting overflight rights, offering troops (in the event rejected by Iraq’s new authority), and opening up supply routes for the new U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. In 2007, Turkey and the U.S. signed a deal that saw Ankara normalize relations with Iraqi Kurds and secure U.S. intelligence in its fight against Turkish Kurd insurgents. Indeed, by 2011, the U.S. increasingly treated Turkey as a key regional partner as it moved back from engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading President Abdullah Gül to call this period a ‘golden age’ in relations with Washington.

The mid-2000s had not been smooth sailing for the AKP, however. The new party needed allies as it faced bitter opposition from the Kemalists within the bureaucracy and military, the staunch followers of republican founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which proved the basis for many later investigations of alleged coup plots. Showing their pragmatic ability to seize an opportunity, Erdoğan and Gül sought national inspiration and political protection by embracing the troubled convergence process with the European Union. Shortly after his party’s first electoral victory in 2002, Erdoğan set off on a whirlwind tour of European capitals. The athletic, then-forty-eight-year-old Erdoğan’s performance made a sharp contrast with his geriatric predecessor, Bülent Ecevit. European counterparts were impressed by Erdoğan’s direct approach and relieved by his reformist program. He also received red carpet treatment in Greece, where he followed up on the 1999 rapprochement with Athens and promised a new start regarding Cyprus, complete with new and strong support for the reunification of the island.

Divorcing the EU

Erdoğan and the AKP continued with revolutionary reforms enacted by Ankara since the 1999 recognition of Turkey as an EU membership candidate. The secularist coalition of Prime Minister Ecevit had already rewritten one-third of the Turkish constitution by adopting international human rights laws, ending capital punishment, expanding women’s rights, discouraging torture, and improving prison conditions. New laws curtailed existing restrictions on freedom of expression, civil society, and the media, as well as diminishing the Turkish military’s long-standing dominance of politics. The AKP followed this with several further packages of EU reforms passed in 2003–4, which expanded Kurdish cultural rights, brought a level of transparency to the army budget, and restricted the executive power of the National Security Council. The NSC was not merely a parallel government where top civilian and military officials hammered out Turkish national policy, but an entire military-dominated apparatus with a 600-man secretariat that monitored sensitive areas of the administration and had eyes in all state institutions. Pushing ever further, Erdoğan announced in 2012 that the ‘national security’ lesson in schools would end.

This reforming trend and the signed promise of increased normalcy with Cyprus finally won Turkey its October 3, 2005 date to begin EU membership negotiations. Nevertheless, at the December 2004 European Council where this was decided, the Dutch premier of the day didn’t receive any gratitude or back-slapping bear hugs that marked the elated reactions of other Balkan states accorded the same green light. Indeed, there is a deep ambivalence in Turkey towards the EU. Polls typically show a roughly 60 percent majority of Turks supporting membership but only 40 percent believe that it will actually happen. Ironically, only about 40 percent of people in the EU can accept the idea of Turkish membership although 60 percent believe Turkey will get it anyway. On one hand, the digestive power of the EU went to work as ministries modernized floor by floor and EU standards and regulations crept into Turkish law across a broad front from motor vehicle tests to snack stand environmental rules. But on the other hand, a Turkish artist portrayed the process in a short video set in a workshop where a worker in blue overalls steadily stone grinds a hard, pointed piece of metal. As the flying sparks die away at the end, the metal turns out to be the crescent moon of the Turkish flag, its spiky point rounded off, and, by implication, now an impotent symbol, curbed by new masters in Brussels.

Ankara still insists on its long-promised right to join. But almost no Turkish leader, questioned privately, says they would immediately sign membership treaties if and when the country fulfils all the necessary criteria. President Gül has repeatedly said that Turkey might prefer the Norwegian option, being able to join but choosing not to do so. Indeed, Turkey continues to block Greek Cypriot access to Turkish ports, thereby casting a pall over an accession process that has only thickened over the years. By the end of the AKP’s second term in office in June 2011, only thirteen chapters had been opened and one provisionally closed, and all but the rest had been blocked. The membership process had come to a virtual standstill.

Erdoğan and the AKP have blamed Europe for the slowdown. And, indeed, the old continent’s right wing governments, populist parties, economic slowdown, and loss of formerly expansive confidence have had a gravely depressing effect. The pro-Turkey EU leaders who swung the 2004 European Council in favor of accession talks were gradually replaced. But most damaging was the 2007 election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who chose to win votes via direct attacks on the EU-Turkey process. This short-term appeal to French anti-immigration sentiment was both a breach of France’s treaty commitments and a blow to France’s long-term commercial interests. It triggered an emotional response in Turkey, where early republicanism was self-consciously modeled on France’s Jacobin revolutionary heritage and secularist ideology. Even if the previous EU-Turkey process could be compared to a game in which Turkey pretended to join and the EU pretended to accept it, Sarkozy’s determination to walk out on the deal effected a rupture that had all the atmospherics of an acrimonious divorce.

However, Erdoğan and the AKP must also take their share of the blame for the deterioration of ties with Europe. They voluntarily chose not to enact the partial normalization with the Republic of Cyprus required of them, later citing the EU’s failure to implement some lesser promise. There were also other signs of an underlying lack of Turkish enthusiasm for going all the way to EU-mandated transparency in government, decentralization of power, and freedom of expression. Until 2009, the chief Turkish EU negotiator was also a busy foreign minister. Turkey’s EU General Secretariat, in charge of coordinating the adoption of EU laws, was under staffed and under funded. Talk of enacting the National Program for adopting those laws dragged out for more than a year before it was enacted in 2008. The blunt Erdoğan showed little aptitude for bonding with the less-colorful and softer-spoken EU leaders while his grandstanding style made them wonder how he would ever fit into the collegial atmosphere of European Council meetings. EU officials bristled at their frequent clashes with Turkish counterparts who kept negotiations on edge until the last minute, were unable to make decisions on their own, and whose uncompromising maximalism often made Turkey look as if it wanted to have its cake and to eat it too.

Generals and Headscarves

The EU process did, however, give the AKP cover as it saw off the biggest threat to its rule, the Turkish armed forces. The Turkish general staff had gritted its teeth as AKP took power in 2002 and avoided attending official receptions where Turkey’s new leaders were accompanied by their headscarfed wives. Their implicit insubordination had an intimidating effect, following as it did the witch-hunts against anyone with pro-Islamic tendencies after the 1997 ousting of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party. In 2009, when the AKP felt firmly in charge, prosecutors discovered what they said was a web of coup conspiracies organized by a deep state group they called Ergenekon and arrested large numbers of senior officers. It is doubtful whether the plotting was quite as widespread as some in the AKP thought. But for sure, the secularist officer corps was seething with resentment against what they saw as a political force determined to undo Atatürk’s secularist legacy. And leaked documents and testimony do indicate discussions and conspiracies against the government from 2003 onwards.

Erdogan in July 2011, having seen off the military threat (Photo Adem Altan, AFP)

Erdogan in July 2011, having seen off the military threat (Photo Adem Altan, AFP)

As it became clear that the AKP was intending to nominate one of its leaders, Abdullah Gül, to become president in early 2007, the chief of the general staff began dropping critical hints. A group, including retired officers, started organizing pro-secularist demonstrations. These drew hundreds of thousands in western cities, and serving generals even circulated propaganda by email to urge on the movement. On April 27, 2007, parliament held the first round of the presidential election and Gül did not get the necessary two-thirds majority. The same evening the general staff published on its website a memorandum warning that it was “a party to these debates and the definitive defender of secularism” and that it would “if necessary, openly display its reaction.” Five days later, on May 1, another Kemalist stronghold, the Constitutional Court, found in favor of an application to annul the election on the grounds of a hitherto unknown quorum technicality claimed by the secularist and opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

After this public threat from the general staff, some AKP leaders and sympathizers packed small suitcases, ready to be led off to jail the next morning. But Turkey had changed, and Erdoğan, Gül, and the AKP did not lose their nerve. They brought parliamentary elections forward from November to July and, faced with a choice between the AKP and the military, the Turkish people voted massively for the AKP. On July 22, 2007, the people gave the ruling party 46.6 percent of the vote; thirteen points ahead of its 2002 performance. The pro-military CHP trailed with 20.9 percent. On August 28, 2007, the new parliament duly elected Gül as president and his wife, Hayrünnisa, became Turkey’s first ‘first lady’ to wear a headscarf.

For several months, military top brass continued to boycott official ceremonies, sometimes with considerable rudeness. There was, however, no question that the military had been forced back to its barracks. The army had been able to meddle so much in Turkey’s military-dominated past because, when politicians were so obviously unpopular, generals could plausibly present themselves as the voice of the silent majority. But a conscript army could not be mobilized against a political party that had won nearly half of the national vote. Gradually the system adapted: it helped that Gül was always engagingly polite and cultivated a moderate and statesmanlike image. People became more used to seeing the headscarfed wives of the AKP elite, some of whom, like the wife of the first AKP foreign minister, Ali Babacan, dressed as elegantly as fairy-tale princesses.

Despite this, the AKP has been unable to overcome a deepening, almost tribal polarization between the secularist and pious, religious tendencies within society. This split was worsened by both the AKP’s attitude that its parliamentary majority gave it and it alone the right to decide what was best for the country, and the opposition’s stubbornly zero-sum mentality that its popularity would be damaged if it allowed the AKP to succeed in anything. The opposition refused to discuss cooperation on a new constitution after 2007—essentially, the AKP’s primary election pledge—and it did little to help the AKP’s 2009 initiative to reach out to Turkey’s Kurds. High society Istanbul dinner parties often divided into viscerally angry debates in which liberals would defend the AKP’s performance and secularists would decry the AKP’s infringements of old Atatürkist norms. This could often seem like class war. After all, the AKP represented a newly-urbanized majority descended from villagers and small-town merchants, while the secularists represented the old elite whose grandparents, refugees from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, had taken over Anatolian towns and built the Turkish republic from the 1920s.

Kurds and other Conundrums

One successful novelty of the early AKP years was a broadening détente on the Kurdish problem, although it remained slow, imperfect, and marred with continued outbreaks of violence and injustice. In the parliamentary elections of November 2002, the explicitly Kurdish nationalist party won 6.2 percent of the countrywide vote, but because it failed to exceed the national barrier of 10 percent, it received no seats in parliament. The party was banned for alleged links to separatist terrorism in 2005 and in 2007 its successor chose to run its candidates as independents, enough of whom won seats to qualify as a twenty-deputy party bloc in parliament. Kurdish nationalist politicians were enjoying long terms in power in many municipalities in the southeast, becoming more of a working cog in the political system and more responsive to civil needs. Indeed, generally lower levels of violence, in addition to the AKP’s enlightened development and road-building policies and rising levels of prosperity in Turkey as a whole, transformed the face of Kurdish-majority cities, with their new apartment buildings, shopping centers, and neater, greener urban spaces. In 2009, as part of what became known as the ‘Democratic Opening,’ a twenty-four-hour Kurdish language state television channel went on air, local Kurdish broadcasters were allowed to broadcast in Kurdish, a first attempt was made to bring Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas home to benefit from an amnesty, and universities were permitted to register Kurdish language and literature courses.

Progress was, however, too slow and insincere to satisfy Kurdish nationalists. They had to struggle every day against legal Turkish harassment and social prejudice in order to win more respect and political representation. During the first two years of the supposed ‘Democratic Opening’ (2009–11), for instance, the state jailed, for various periods, more than 3,000 nationalist political activists, not for any acts of violence but almost all on the presumption that they sympathized with or spoke about one of the policies attributed to the PKK.

The PKK had already withdrawn the ceasefire it had announced in 1999, saying that state forces hadn’t backed off. The late 2000s were increasingly characterized by a cat-and-mouse game of clashes and further ceasefires. During upswings of violence, PKK insurgents ambushed outlying conscript-manned army outposts and lay roadside bombs for passing convoys, while radical offshoots would sometimes stage terrorist attacks in the hearts of major western Turkish cities or against tourists on Mediterranean beaches. For its part, the Turkish military would hunt insurgent units high in the mountains and conduct aerial bombardments of  their bases in northern Iraq, sometimes followed up by land incursions. Extravagant Kurdish political shows of support for the PKK or funerals of Turkish soldiers killed in lethal clashes caused peaks of nationalist outrage that put pressure on the government and hindered all attempts at political dialogue. The situation had unraveled so far that, by the second half of 2011, fighting and bombings killed more than 300 members of the security forces, PKK fighters, and civilians. In the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, a general sense of a happier, tidier, more prosperous normalcy seemed to co-exist with outbreaks of mayhem. Yet at the same time, a PKK funeral could trigger a mass strike by shopkeepers, running battles in the outskirts of town between the Turkish police and Kurdish youths armed with knives, firecrackers, and Molotov cocktails while the police fired pistols in the air, released tear gas into crowds, and photographed participants for later arrest. Turks in the west of the country repeatedly failed to understand the Kurds’ need for dignity and national recognition, to feel Kurdish pain as the bodies of PKK guerrillas were brought home for burial, or the growing anger, energy, and mobilization of the new and still-dispossessed generation of Kurdish youth.

During its early years, the AKP managed to keep the support of western Turkish liberals, who accepted that pragmatism outweighed its religious leanings and shared its skeptical approach to the old-school statism of the Kemalists. AKP leaders had split with the pro-Islamist movement in 2001, and if they retained any Islamist agenda, it was unstated and relatively subtle. Some Anatolian regions resembled those provincial U.S. towns that banish liquor to brown bags bought at stores on the outskirts, acquired alcohol prices of almost Swedish levels in relative terms, and saw moralistic laws soft-focus cigarettes and alcohol out of television shows. But the first years of AKP rule also saw a blossoming of the open air restaurant and cafe culture in many cities, a boom in Russian and European tourism, and a phenomenal expansion of small enterprises manufacturing higher quality wine and spirits. Erdoğan’s attempt in 2007 to revert to the pre-1998 criminalization of adultery in Turkey, apparently on religious grounds, foundered not just on European disapproval but also on domestic outcry.

Liberals were gradually alienated, which brought more votes for the opposition in western coastal cities and led to the AKP’s loss in the 2009 municipal elections of the booming Mediterranean tourist resort city of Antalya. And, the AKP did not root out the judiciary’s authoritarian habits. At one point after the 2009 launch of the Ergenekon complex of court cases, more than 10 percent of serving generals and admirals were behind bars for supposed military and deep state coup plotting. The prosecutors clearly went too far, rounding up octogenarian activists, leaking evidence that appeared fraudulent, and jailing one well-known secularist Ankara commentator, Mustafa Balbay, for more than two years without informing him of the charges against him. Turkish Kurds and other dissidents fared no better. As happens too often in Turkey, the judicial system judged intention as action, mistook smoke for fire, confused sympathy with rebel causes for criminal anti-state revolt, and locked up many people on the presumption of guilt as an inefficient judicial process limped along for years until, as everyone knew was likely, many of the suspects would be found innocent.

Early on, the AKP tried hard to settle chronic foreign policy problems. One notable effort concerned Turkey’s long-standing differences with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Years of secret contact, civil society interaction, and then open negotiations resulted in two protocols being signed in October 2009. These formed a framework for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia and the opening of their mutual border, closed by Turkey in 1993. At the same time, the two sides agreed to establish joint official commissions, including one with participation from Swiss experts, to study their disputed history—principally the question of how to agree on the underlying facts and denomination of what the world calls the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, and what Turkey increasingly accepts as tragic wartime massacres of several hundred thousand. In parallel, Turkey harbored an unspoken hope that the Armenians would withdraw from some of the 13.5 percent of Azerbaijan that they occupied in the 1992–4 war that conquered Azerbaijan’s Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno Karabagh. Unfortunately, the two protocols stalled in late 2009 when strong objections were raised by Azerbaijan—a major Turkish energy supplier, trading partner, and ethnic cousin. To a lesser extent, the Armenian diaspora and opposition were uncomfortable with any compromise towards Turkey, and most Armenians opposed any explicit link to Armenian withdrawals from conquered territories around the Karabagh mountains. As often seems to happen, the breakdown was not a result of any bad intentions of the AKP, but rather an apparent inability to think through the need to stick by new policies when the political going got tough.

Despite this setback, Armenian and Turkish civil groups and media have stayed in regular contact. Journalist exchanges, cultural events, small business, and even the delivery of transit passes to Armenian truck drivers driving through Turkey have kept pushing normalization forward. The road has been bumpy, including the infamous 2005 prosecution of Turkey’s leading writer Orhan Pamuk for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ by referring to the killings of Armenians and Kurds. That charge was dropped on a technicality in 2006, the year that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But by 2011, the debate had moved on so far that it was unremarkable to find, for instance, a progressive Turkish newspaper commentary drawing the conclusion that the 1915 massacres “may not be a genocide in [legalistic] words, but that’s what they were in essence.” These “massacres” were commemorated for the second year running in 2011 across Turkey, including Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

The AKP also failed to clear up another legacy of the past: the well-grounded suspicions regarding the deep state’s failure to deal, in a timely manner, with attacks against non-Muslim minorities. A Catholic priest, Andreas Santoro, was murdered in Trabzon in 2006 and three Christian missionaries had their throats slit in Malatya in April 2007. The Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was once convicted for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ on the basis of mistranslated articles, was assassinated in January 2007. His death shook the country, as did credible allegations of official involvement with the teenage nationalist who murdered him. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to demonstrate their solidarity with the slain writer. But rather than giving justice to the victims’ families and reforming the intolerant xenophobia of the media and education systems, which underlie these murders, the passing years and eventual court ruling in January 2012, which allowed most of the accused to walk free, points to official indulgence of, and indeed complicity with, the perpetrators.

As the army became less of a threat and liberal support appeared dispensable, the AKP gradually lost interest in Europe and EU norms, and slowed reforms that would have brought greater transparency, accountability, competition, and open markets, and limited the government’s power to distribute patronage. Indeed, it was now the secularists who needed to seize the banner of EU-bound reform, something they failed to immediately appreciate. Even high-ranking Turkish officials became scornful of the way several member states’ economies faltered after the 2008 financial crisis, the euro came under attack, and deep political fault-lines made the EU look confused and ineffective. Turkey, by contrast, helped by a recapitalized and better-regulated banking sector, rebounded rapidly from the initial crisis and appeared to have escaped the contagion. So it was perhaps not surprising that Erdoğan and the AKP turned to the altogether more congenial goal of becoming a champion in its region, particularly in the Middle East, a goal that appeared to neatly serve Turkey’s commercial as well as strategic interests.

Managing the ‘New Middle East’

At first, AKP leaders actively compared their new outreach to the Middle East with the EU’s beginnings and championed benefits derived from the freedom of movement for people, trade, capital, and services. They explicitly aimed, like Europeans after World War II, to integrate and reduce confrontation between neighbors traumatized by decades of revolution, sanctions, and war. The policy has hints of political ambition, not to mention Turkish preeminence, but this neo-Ottoman flavor did not, at first, put off Turkey’s regional partners. Ankara’s first step was to ease travel restrictions and lift visa requirements for travelers from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya in 2009, thereby adding to the already automatic system of granting visas to Iranians. A new border crossing was inaugurated with Syria, and Cold War-era minefields were removed between the two countries. Groups of senior cabinet ministers began to hold regular joint meetings, as the AKP had done with other neighbors such as Greece and Russia. And in 2010, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan agreed to transform their bilateral free trade areas into a jointly-managed free trade zone, a first step towards an EU-style multilateral mechanism.

At the same time, Turkey became an observer at the Arab League and hosted foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Istanbul. In 2005, a Turk, Ekmeleddin I.hsanoğlu, won the first contested election to lead the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes representatives from fifty-seven Muslim countries; it’s worth noting too that in 2010 a Turk was also elected to head the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Alongside its civilian and military contributions to North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Afghan and Balkan efforts, Turkey also began contributing ships and 1,000 military personnel and engineers to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Broad regional support elevated Turkey to a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for 2009–10, the first time since the early 1960s.

Middle Easterners are finding Turkey more attractive for many reasons. The AKP’s victory had buried the image of a country long seen as having turned its back on Islam to act as a treacherous cat’s paw for Western imperialism in the region. Some prized Turkey’s readiness to challenge Israel openly, arguably the main reason for Turkey’s appeal on Arab streets when it became a pronounced Turkish trait after 2009. Turkey also appears to have made peace between its Muslim soul and secular political pragmatism. Some Middle Easterners respect its status as the only Muslim country to be accepted as a potential equal by rich, powerful Europe, as shown by the hundreds of journalists from the region who attended key EU meetings on Turkey’s future membership. Some like its success in moving from authoritarianism to democracy. Some simply admire the pure electoral legitimacy of Turkish leaders—and readiness to step down from power at the end of their terms.

The AKP has also presided over a period of unprecedented economic and commercial success. After the restructuring that followed a 2000–1 domestic financial crisis, global buoyancy helped Turkey streak ahead. Annual growth averaged 7 percent for the AKP’s early years in office, between 2002 and 2007. Inflation tumbled from an average of 75 percent in the 1990s to 9.5 percent in 2009. Exports quadrupled from $36.1 billion in 2002 to $132 billion in 2008. Foreign investment, which had lingered around $1–2 billion per year for decades, soared to $5.8 billion in 2005 and then averaged about $20 billion for the next three years. In the short term, at least, Turkey’s cleaned-up banking system and relative freedom from mortgage-backed debt allowed it to escape the worst of the 2008–9 global downturn. There is likely to be an adjustment in store for the Turkish economy in 2012, not just because of the slowdown in its main markets in Europe, but because uprisings in the Arab world will likely cause years of tumult and lower economic demand.

The AKP has endured some criticism for the way its ambitious intentions led to embracing unsavory Middle Eastern dictators, who were then disgraced by the 2011 Arab revolts. Nevertheless, in the long term, the AKP’s early proactive and even-handed diplomacy in the region retains the potential to encourage peace and stability, without which prosperity and democracy are unlikely to take root. The streets of Turkish cities and seaside resorts are audibly more filled with visitors from Iran and the Arab world than previously. At the same time, Turkish capital, films, television series, music, and products are establishing themselves in Middle Eastern markets. With more than seventy Turkish TV series sold and dubbed around the region, from Morocco to Kazakhstan, a meeting between a Bosnian, a Croat, and a Serb who differ on everything political could agree on what to make of the last heartbreak in the latest Turkish soap opera.

The AKP’s handling of Israel has been erratic, with trade still continuing but minimal diplomatic relations being conducted through second secretaries and a near-complete break in former military cooperation. As part of a return to the best of what the AKP represented in the early-to mid-2000s, Turkey would benefit from a normalization of ties with Israel as part of a Turkish strategy of equidistance from all its neighbors. However, in this case, the AKP is arguably less to blame for current troubles than the government of Israel. Until 2009, the AKP continued the previous policy of engagement with Israel. AKP leaders often visited the Jewish state, trade rose, and in 2005 Prime Minister Erdoğan himself paid his respects at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, although he declined to cover his head with a yarmulke. Turkey productively hosted several rounds of modest proximity talks between Israel and Syria in 2008.

By contrast, Israel has clearly taken the key steps that escalated the post-2009 deterioration in its relationship with Turkey. Understandably, Erdoğan felt personally betrayed in December 2008 when Israel launched its Gaza operation only days after he had spent five hours dining with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his residence, doing his best as the Israeli-Syrian process seemed to be close to achieving real results. It was when this Gaza operation killed 1,430 Palestinians, including many civilians, that Erdoğan staged his angry outburst against Israeli President Shimon Peres and his now legendary walk-out from the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was an Israeli deputy foreign minister who chose later, in 2009, to insult the Turkish ambassador in front of TV cameras. It was Israeli commandos who killed nine Turks (including a Turkish-American) in May 2010, on board a multi-national flotilla that was, in theory, trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. This may have been a reckless idea implicitly approved of by the AKP, but the midnight Israeli assault was on a ship, in practice, steaming south towards Egypt in international waters seventy miles off the Israeli coast. It was also the Israeli government that has declined to endorse an Israeli apology for this incident, the text of which diplomats from both sides have already agreed.

In the short term, the AKP’s challenge to Israel became a principal ingredient in Turkey’s new popularity on the Arab street. However, since the mid-2000s, the AKP has been neglecting another key element of Turkey’s success—and its regional appeal—namely, a healthy relationship with the EU. Europe as a whole still takes more than half of Turkey’s exports, against only a quarter taken by the Middle East. EU states supply more than three quarters of Turkey’s foreign direct investment, the best pointer toward future economic integration. And of the 183 million people who visited the country in the first decade of the new millennium, only 10 percent of visitors came from the Muslim world. Europe is home to up to four million Turks, while less than 100,000 live and work in the Middle East. High oil prices offer Middle Eastern opportunities for Turkish commercial expansion, but these markets are continuing to prove as risky as they have in the past.

The AKP’s and Erdoğan’s principal ambition is to see Turkey as a rich and powerful hub between the Middle East and Europe, and the Mediterranean and Russia. To achieve this, it will have to find its way back to a balance between the spokes of that hub, including, for instance, Turkey’s place as part of European and transatlantic alliances. This is precisely what has, for a long time, made it seem so special to the Middle East.

 Turkey and the AKP are riding high in international opinion. The energetic reforms of the AKP’s’s first years in office have, after a time lag, succeeded in changing the minds of Westerners who have for too long been skeptical about Turkey. The Middle East has been charmed by Turkey’s commercial success, the legitimacy of its politics, and its willingness to publicly challenge Israel. Domestically and internationally, the AKP has done more than any previous government towards solving the problems that have hobbled Turkey for decades: the overbearing dominance of the Turkish military, human rights abuses, infrastructural development, Cyprus, the Turkish Kurd problem, and the Armenian question.

As a result, there has been remarkably little weight given to a growing drumbeat bearing news of similarities to the bad old days of the 1990s: shrill complaints from Turkish media about official pressure to toe the government line, hundreds of dissidents in jail on flimsy charges of terrorism, and a new flaring up of the PKK insurgency. Nearly all segments of Turkish society complain that the judicial system is failing to deliver justice, that the education system needs to move much faster from learning by rote, and that polarization in politics and along the secular-religious divide means that much-needed constitutional reform is hamstrung. AKP initiatives on Cyprus, the Kurds, and Armenia have all run out of steam. The old moral hazard from the Cold War years also appears to be returning, as Washington once again overlooks Ankara’s domestic policy shortcomings in return for support for the U.S. agenda in the region.

Even so, at the ten-year point, Erdoğan’s AKP is in a much better position than his most similar predecessors, Menderes’ Democrat Party in the 1950s and Özal’s Motherland Party in the 1980s–90s. Erdoğan is able to command massive public support and has strong international winds filling his sails. Still, much of that support is derived from the reputation established during the AKP’s early years, dynamics that are now much-diminished: real work on EU convergence, more consensual decision-making and a modest, equidistant approach to Turkey’s complex diplomatic engagements. It is to these dynamics that Erdoğan and the AKP must return if they are to succeed in truly taking Turkey into the global first division.

March 2012, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs

The Turkic world’s alphabet soup

Sotsijaldy_qazaqstan - full image 1937

A 1937 Kazakh newspaper in the old transitional Latin script

News travels slowly from Central Asia, and I only just caught up with the December’s news that Kazakhstan will shift the writing of its Kazakh language to a new Latin script by 2025. Having already changed from Arabic to a previous Latin script in 1927, and then to Cyrillic in 1940, Kazakhstan won’t be the first time a state in and around Central Asia has switched, or been forced to switch, its written national literature about. One of them, Azerbaijan, has done so four times in the past century. Here’s how I wrote up the story for the Wall Street Journal a decade ago:

The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2000

Freed of Russian Yoke,

Turkic Nations Find

They Miss the Alphabet

New Countries Proudly

Adopt Their Own

Version of ABCs; Now

Try Reading the Menu


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Baku street in 2000, featuring Persian-style Arabic script, new Azeri Latin script, European Latin script and Russian Cyrillic

Baku street in 2000, featuring Persian-style Arabic script, new Azeri Latin script, European Latin script and Russian Cyrillic

BAKU, Azerbaijan — When a shoe salesman here named Mehman Alimuradov had to move some footwear this summer, he faced an odd marketing problem.

First, few people could clearly recognize the store’s sign out front, which was printed in the government-imposed Latin alphabet. But if he switched to the Russian-style alphabet most people could read, he faced possible fines from inspectors.

So the 22-year-old struck a compromise: He left the store sign alone. Above it, he hung a Russian-scripted, yellow sales banner, one provisional enough to keep inspectors off his back.

“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” Mr. Alimuradov says without much thought. “This is Azerbaijan.”

It’s also one of the world’s great alphabetical messes.

Most people here speak Azeri, so oral communication isn’t a problem. Written communication is. No one can decide how to write out the Azeri language. There have been four completely different alphabets in the last 75 years, and steady replacements of various letters.

These days, at restaurants it’s common to get a menu printed in Latin script, eat your meal, and then get the check written out in Russian-style script. (Those Latin characters look like the ones you’re reading right now.) Azeri newspapers don’t offer much clarity. Most have Latin-scripted headlines, and Russian-scripted articles. At one paper, Azadliq, the only recent all-Latin article was about former president Abulfez Elchibey, who made such a presentation a condition of his interview.

In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan and others celebrated their liberation from the USSR by announcing they would junk the Cyrillic alphabet that had been imposed by Soviet rule for 50 years. Azerbaijan was joined by the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Tatarstan, which technically is still a republic of Russia. Altogether, it has been nine years of alphabetic fits and starts.

Changing scripts isn’t easy. There’s logistics: think street signs and textbooks. There are philosophical issues: Is it really a good idea to make it more difficult for people to read? And there are the larger realities of Central Asia: not much money, half-implemented reforms, corrupt governments, emerging ethnic rivalries and a swing back to Russia.

Take Turkmenistan. A bit larger than California, it’s full of desert, natural gas, and lavish government spending on projects such as a revolving, gold-plated statue of the president perched atop a tower in the capital. Appropriately enough, when Turkmenistan went to a Latin-script seven years ago, it briefly added three characters: $, yen, and pound sterling. These characters didn’t simply mean dollar, yen and pound. They corresponded to certain sounds spoken by the Turkmens.

In all, the “Turkic region” spreads from the Balkans to Siberia, and includes five former Soviet republics and the nation of Turkey. Each has its own spoken language, a Turkic dialect. Needless to say, life would be simpler if they all shared the same alphabet. At last count, though, the region had 21 different published scripts — in various forms of Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin.

More than 1,000 years ago, Turkic-speaking people actually wrote in a single, official script: Runic.

Then they started converting to Islam, and adopted an Arabic script. The 1500s ushered in the great Asian Prince Babur, who had tough genes. His mother had descended from Ghengis Khan, the great Mongol warrior, while his father had came down from Timur, the Turkic conqueror.

Prince Babur, who himself founded India’s Moghul dynasty, felt the Arabic script’s lack of vowels couldn’t convey the rich harmonies of spoken Turkic. He tried to reform it. But Muslim clerics controlled the alphabets and blocked the Prince’s project.

Arabic scripts finally succumbed to revolutions and intellectual fervor. In 1926, here in the port city of Baku, the region’s First Turkology Congress convened inside the expropriated palace of an oil baron to discuss the alphabet issue. In a 101-7 landslide, they picked a Latin alphabet, returning to their respective countries to spread the new gospel.

To the north, Joseph Stalin was watching all this — even as much of the region was turning to communism. The Russian leader apparently liked the conversion to Latin letters, because it separated the region from Islamic countries to the south. But Stalin also wanted his own control. So, in the late 1930s, he imposed Russian-style, Cyrillic alphabets. To help drive a wedge among the Turkic nations, he assigned unique Cyrillic characters depending on the nation. So, even though Turkic dialects had the same sounds, those sounds were written differently.

These unique alphabets, in turn, further altered how people pronounced words, which further fragmented the region.

In 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkey organized a modern-day alphabet congress. Academics arrived from throughout the region, and agreed on a standard 34-character, Latin alphabet — one based on Turkey’s script. Everyone promised to go home and preach another Latin conversion. But few had much sway with the ex-Communist governments.

Azerbaijan, a country the size of Maine, has made the most progress — particularly given wrenching problems, like a six-year war in the mountains separating it from Armenia that displaced one-tenth of its population. Many Azerbaijani kids now can read their native Azeri language in Latin. But they can’t read all the Azeri literature and history printed in Russian-style Cyrillic. Their parents, meantime, can’t read newly published books. In public spaces and on billboards, there’s now a kaleidoscope of Cyrillic, Latin, even some Arabic.

Elsewhere, alphabet conversions have gone even slower. One big problem: Because the Turkic states were just freed of the Soviet Union, they feared a new big brother in Turkey. So, even those who went Latin did so on their own terms.

Meanwhile, businesses throughout the region still use Russian for conversations. So do Turkic presidents, while speaking at regional summits. For many younger people, oddly enough, Russian now is seen as cool.

Recently, a young man walking through historic, downtown Baku — near the confused shoe store — turned his head when two young women walked by, not just because they were pretty, but also because their spoken Russian made them sound sophisticated. And, where Russian is spoken, of course, Russian is written — which means the Cyrillic script.

Many feel that the Internet will ultimately drive people to Latin scripts. But this isn’t easy either. The idiosyncratic variations on the Cyrillic alphabet that Stalin imposed aren’t readily available on computers. So Turkic cybersurfers make do by adopting obscure letters from well-known American computer fonts, which of course aren’t part of the 34-character Latin alphabet established at the Turkey linguistic confab eight years ago.

And there’s always politics, in places like Uzbekistan, a large, dusty nation whose oasis cities like Samarkand evoke the famed Silk Road to China. In 1993, a nationwide committee adopted a Latin alphabet — with a goal of full conversion by 2000. Tellingly, the committee had more provincial governors than linguists.

By 1995, relations soured with Turkey. Uzbekistan changed two Turkish-style consonants to English-style “ch” and “sh.” And controversy remains about writing an “o” script when you’re saying an “a” sound. One result of all the manipulations: When Uzbeks write “Isaac, ” people elsewhere read “donkey.”

The new alphabet doesn’t sit well with everyone. “It’s so ugly. I can’t bear to see it,” says Mohammed Salih, Uzbekistan’s opposition Erk Party leader, speaking by telephone from his exiled home in Norway. A poet, he chooses to write in Cyrillic rather than what he sees as a bastardized script.

“If we come to power,” Mr. Salih says, “we’ll have to modify the Latin alphabet again.”


Turkey’s tentative EU springtime

A rare invitation to the Turkish presidency to watch the investiture of a Dutch politician with Turkey’s highest honour inspired me to do an article for The Majalla (here) that I’ve been itching to write for a year or two, underlining the gap between the Turkish leadership’s self-image and its real achievements. (Am not sure where The Majalla got its romantic notions from, however).


The Majalla, 4 March 2013


Turkey’s tentative EU springtime

By Hugh Pope

The translucent white marble stairs and cream gilt and stucco ceilings of the ceremonial hall of Ankara’s new presidential palace rarely echo to spontaneous applause, but the words “Turkey will always be part of my heart” did the trick. The declaration came from a source to which the Turkish audience is no longer accustomed: a speech by a pro-Turkish European politician.

They were the words of Dutch Senator René van der Linden’s gracious acceptance of Turkey’s highest honor, the Order of the Republic Medal. It was just one green shoot in a tentative new springtime in relations between Turkey and the European Union. France is allowing EU documents to refer once again to an eventual EU “accession” for Turkey, and will allow one of five chapters it has blocked in the EU–Turkey negotiation process to open, the first in two and a half years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited EU ambassadors to dinner and persuaded them that he really does take the relationship seriously, while playing down a recent comment that he thought the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a “better, much stronger” club.

Overall, the mood in Ankara with regards to the EU is somber. There is a deep frustration with EU member states, especially with France and Germany, which prefer taking small, tentative steps, rather than opening up the negotiations process. Turkish diplomats feel that Paris and Berlin are making a historic mistake by not treating Ankara as a strategic partner in a turbulent neighborhood, and instead letting a xenophobic and conservative domestic audience dominate the discourse on Turkey’s eventual EU membership.

Almost a decade after the Republic of Cyprus joined the European club, there is still amazed incomprehension at EU member states’ willingness to sacrifice greater cooperation with Turkey in solidarity with the Republic of Cyprus, even though Turkish Cypriots accepted the EU-backed UN plan to reunite the island in 2004, while Greek Cypriots rejected it.

Turkey is also frustrated that Europe does not give it greater credit for its remarkable economic progress. A quadrupling of national income and exports over the past decade has filled Turkey’s cities with well-finished apartment blocks, glittering shopping malls and fancy restaurants, with new cars thickly parked outside. Once-runaway inflation has been brought under control. Last year, credit rating agency Fitch gave Turkish Treasury issues investment-grade status, and this year Turkish banks will issue the first Eurobonds in lira. In terms of foreign direct investment, Turkey attracted just USD 10 billion in the two decades to 2006, but has taken in USD 100 billion in the six years since then.

Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ruling party insist that this success is due to the stability ushered in by their effective, strong government. Underlining the point, pro-government media outlets portray Europe as a weak, divided continent wobbling on the verge of bankruptcy. Turkish leaders say that Europe needs Turkey’s 75 million people more than Turkey needs Europe so often that many Turks now actually believe it.

          Artificial reform

But how much has Turkey really changed, and is it really on course to achieve its ambition of becoming one of the world’s ten largest economies? Certainly, the old gecekondu, shanty neighborhoods that used to encrust the hills along the Ankara airport highway, have been bulldozed and concreted over with what will soon be a gleaming new city. But for the other half of the journey, the new grandeur pasted onto buildings along the highway is literally skin-deep, a Potemkin illusion of red brick facades designed to please the eyes of foreign dignitaries and investors speeding into town.

Indeed it is easy to forget that the great Turkish boom was from an artificially low base and depended significantly on a European underpinning. Three quarters of foreign investment still comes from EU member states, with which Turkey still does half of its trade. Turkey’s opportunities in the Middle East have crashed after the past two years of violence in the region. Beyond its borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, the situation now offers more risk than opportunity.

Most damaging of all for Turkey’s long-term prospects of a solo catch-up with Europe, however, is a failure to keep up its reform agenda. Ankara’s first wave of laws created with EU membership in mind did just enough between 1999 and 2004 to “sufficiently” meet the EU’s Copenhagen criteria for democratic politics and market economics. But the second wave never materialized, leaving the country’s judicial, education and taxation system caught in the old mire of inefficient top-down bureaucracy.

Blame for the stalled reforms can be shared between European Turkoskeptic politicians, Euroskeptic Turkish leaders, and quarrels over the divided island of Cyprus. It is above all a Turkish political decision not to ratify the EU customs union with Cyprus and open its airports and seaports to Cypriot traffic that is directly or indirectly blocking half of its EU negotiating chapters. Turkey’s substitution of homegrown ‘Ankara criteria’ for the Copenhagen ones has proved mostly rhetorical.

         A poor record

Turkey’s leaders need to take another look at how much they need an EU process with real benchmarks. The Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2011 placed Turkey 88th as a “hybrid regime,” a category below “flawed democracy,” the same place it was in 2007. In 2011, Turkey came only 92nd in the UN’s Human Development Index, a rank unchanged since 2006. Recognition of intellectual achievements is meager, perhaps not surprising given that children still only spend an average of six and a half years in school. “Low proficiency” in English puts Turkey 32nd of 54 countries ranked by the 2012 EF English Proficiency Index.

The legal system is crying out for change. Outdated terrorism legislation meant that one third of all the world’s terrorism arrests made between 2001 and 2011 were in Turkey, including several thousand non-violent Kurdish activists placed in preventive detention. Turkey’s judiciary ranks at best 35th (for absence of corruption), and at worst 76th (for protecting fundamental rights), according to the World Justice Project’s 2012 Rule of Law Index. The Council of Europe reported in 2009 that Turkey’s prison population has doubled since 2006, with more than half being remand prisoners, resulting in jails that are overcrowded, tense, unhygienic and lacking out-of-cell activities.

Even economically, in 2013 Bloomberg only ranked Turkey as the seventh most attractive emerging market. Turkey’s vibrant commercial hub, Istanbul, took a laggard’s 74th place in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 ranking of global cities’ competitiveness. Far from rivaling the EU, average per capita income in Turkey is still half the EU average. Turkey’s much-vaunted goal to become the world’s tenth-largest economy by 2023 looks ambitious, given that Turkey’s 18th place in World Bank rankings in 2011 is not far from its 21st in 2003 and 22nd in 1993.

Istanbul, it is true, is now second favorite after Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympics—but Turkey’s sports record is hardly stellar, coming 50th out of 55 countries in the 2012 Olympics gold medal rankings. On the bright side, its regionally popular soap operas, along with Turkish Airlines being named Europe’s best airline by the World Airlines Awards in 2012, did push the country to 20th place in Monocle magazine’s annual look at global soft power. However, another survey did not find much to smile about: in 2011, Gallup found that Turkey was the seventh most unhappy country of 148 surveyed, in terms of people reporting recent anger, stress, worry, sadness or physical pain.

In a number of indexes, the stalling of Turkey’s EU reform process visibly coincides with a downward trend. Turkey is already responsible for the greatest number of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights; Russia now exceeds it in number of pending cases, but new cases referred from Turkey have doubled since 2008. Turkey was placed 154th in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, compared to around 100th in the mid-2000s. The World Economic Forum’s 2012Global Gender Gap Report ranks Turkey as the 124th-best country for discrimination against women, down from 105th in 2006.

Mingling with guests at a reception for the Dutch senator at the presidential palace, Turkey’s EU negotiator, Egemen Bağış, said it was too early to announce a high summer for Turkey in Europe. “France gave us just one chapter to negotiate! That will hardly make my year,” he said. Indeed, European diplomats already privately wonder if Turkey still “sufficiently” meets those Copenhagen criteria for political and economic freedoms. If Prime Minister Erdoğan rams through constitutional changes for a presidential system with no checks and balances so that he can win absolute power in a 2014 election, Turkey may slip down that ladder, too.

Turkey’s road to European inclusion and parity remains a long one. It will take some real outreach from Europe, too, to persuade Turks that they are not forced to find their way alone. Arriving late from work for dinner, a diplomat from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry—a principal bastion of pro-European sentiment in Ankara—said it was not uncommon these days for officials to work through the night juggling the many crises that surround the country. She felt that a little new hope from the Europeans is better than nothing, but that they are still keeping Turkey at arm’s length. “We have a saying for this,” she said. “They made me lose my donkey, and now all they’re doing is helping me find it again.”

Flying with Shevardnadze

Shev in plane

My beautiful picture

Another plane ride to Kutaisi in 1993 – the country was such chaos that the cabin was loaded up with bread to distribute to people without flour or power

In the back of an old folder I found this photo published by the Independent on 21 October 1993, taken when I accompanied a harried former President Shevardnadze from Tbilisi to the central Georgian city of Kutaisi. On arrival in Kutaisi, I (and Vanora Bennett, then a reporter) jumped onto a helicopter that was waiting to take off to reach refugees streaming out of Sukhumi. Shevardnadze’s spokesman pulled us off, insisting we stay with the president as he toured the town. Luckily. The same helicopter crashed on a mountain pass. I flew over the wreckage on the way to see the refugees in another helicopter a few days later, and the pilots told us that all who had been on board that first helicopter had died.

Out of Georgia: Coming in on a wing and a pair – of Mausers

Independent photo published 12 July 1993, very similar to what I saw a couple of months before. Photo by AP's Shakh Aivazov

Photo published by the Independent on 12 July 1993, the same scene I was part of two months before. Photo by AP/Shakh Aivazov

Two decades ago, the (former Soviet) Republic of Georgia was crazed with conflicts and confusion. Everything has now changed, of course, and when I stayed a week last summer I saw that construction is under way everywhere. Betsy’s Hotel no longer a warren of old thick-walled houses in a steep alley but a clean, all-mod-cons apartment block overlooking the city. Among the vineyards of the Kakheti valley, not far from where I had once visited rusty old Soviet grape-crushing machines and the men who had seized control of them in order to rip off foreign investors, I stayed at a German-owned winery with shiny stainless steel vats and immaculate outbuildings where vintners are recreating ancient ways of fermenting wine in great earthenware pots. And, of course, Tbilisi Airport is now new and unrecognisable compared to the days we used to go on trips like the one described below …

The Independent, 1 May 1993

Out of Georgia


By Hugh Pope

TBILISI – Cleaning one’s nails with the pin of a live grenade is an apt way to describe the thrills of flying in some of the newly-independent southern republics of the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, that as exactly what the man across the aisle was doing as we sat waiting for take-off at Tbilisi airport in Georgia. And he was modestly armed compared with the piratical gang of soldiers around us. One commander had a pair of Mauser pistols the size of meat cleavers strapped to each of his tree-trunk thighs.

When a domestic ticket costs less than a cognac and a chocolate bar in the gloomy airport cafés of the Caucasus, a sense of danger is not surprising. But there was no charge at all for this flight to the front line of Georgia’s war with separatist rebels in Abkhazia.

The gate was marked by a clutch of civilians with bundles of luggage tied up in paper, trying to get past a check-in desk wedged against the door. Soldiers lounged in corners swapping stories, toasts of brandy and comparisons of their personal armouries. Do come along, they insisted, but explained there might be a delay because of the national shortage of fuel. “Don’t worry, we’ll find some,” they said. That, we learned later, sometimes involved surrounding another plane about to take off and siphoning off fuel.

Far too many people seemed to have been invited to join us. The pilot stormed on, off and back on again. Fist-fights broke out and the man with the Mausers waved one in the air and led a charge up the boarding steps. Teenage soldiers downed vodka as if it was water. An apparently dead body on a stretcher stewed in the heat, along with nauseating smell-waves of garlic sausage and sacks of onions.

It was only five hours later that we managed to take off for the 250-mile trip to the war-torn Black Sea port of Sukhumi, cut off from the capital by bandits on the roads and rebels on the railways.

As we taxied to a halt a dozen cars surrounded the plane. Within minutes, hundreds of soldiers were fighting to get up the stairs. Others tried to forced their way down. As the first shots rang out, we escaped down a metal scaffold thrown up against a little-used emergency exit.

Our 24 hours in Sukhumi, touring frontline positions, came to seem like rest and recreation, however, compared to the flight back to Tbilisi. We limped to the airport in a wreck of a car looted from the Abkhazians. An armoured vehicle had appeared on the tarmac, symbolizing an order that did not really exist. One plane was up on three huge jacks, being looked over by a dubious ground crew. Another had been blown apart, perhaps hit in a legendary bombing raid by an Abkhazian rebel in a hang-glider. It was being subjected to the kind of cannibalization for parts that in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, has reduced half the aircraft on the apron to skeletons.

Cannibalised planes on Kutaisi airfield, Georgia, in 1993 (Photo HP)

Cannibalised planes on Kutaisi airfield, Georgia, in 1993 (Photo HP)

A flight had just arrived, miraculously, from Moscow. Its passengers were allowed off in peace. Dragging their baggage through puddles, they headed up the overgrown steps and through the broken window-frames of still-locked doors into the terminal and out through another window into the car park.

What, only six months ago, had been a rather pleasant neo-classical building among cypresses and palm trees now looked like a scene from a film about post-nuclear chaos.

Gunmen had wantonly fired bullets into the smooth plaster dome over the main hall. A gang of men had made a bonfire in the middle, sitting on planks, swilling vodka and insulting strangers. Snatches of song rolled down from a drunken party in progress upstairs.

Outside, dogs thrown out on to the streets by owners no longer able to afford pets had formed a pack to sniff for food among the debris, misty rain and advancing sub-tropical vegetation. Under the wings of the Moscow plane, local people had started bleeding fuel into kerosene cans to heat their homes, looking for all the world as though they were milking a giant cow.

The Tupolev from Tbilisi landed in a shower of spray and it our turn to lay siege to the plane. After the coffins and the walking wounded were on board, screams, shots and women’s tears made no difference as were crushed together with our luggage. A big soldier blocked my way with his rifle, hitting me one moment and gently pushing my dislodged glasses back up my nose the next.

Another gangway went up nearby. We threw ourselves off our boarding steps and headed over there. Bliss: two seats were left. Nothing else seemed to matter as the plane filled as full as a Cairo bus and a man with four machine-guns invited himself on to the table over my lap. Pockets full of bullets spilled over the seats and boisterous thugs in bandannas tied like pirates pretended to toss grenades at each other like English schoolboys with buns.

After hours of pleading, the pilot popped out to survey the bizarre scene. A crewman said there were 230 people on board the 170-seat plane. “Normal,” said the captain, and went to start the engines.

Did the Georgian doctor-turned-militiaman beside me miss the safe old certainties of the Soviet Union? Not a bit of it. War is war, he said, and the plane still flies.

Pitching the story from the comfort of the Metechi Palace Hotel - that old Toshiba went everywhere too

Pitching the story from the comfort of the Metechi Palace Hotel – that old Toshiba went everywhere too

A version of this experience also appeared in the Los Angeles Times (here). It’s pretty similar, obviously. A scary moment that neither story mentions was that in order to take off, the crewman forced all those standing in the aisles and in the front seats to go to the back of the plane to try to get the nose up in the air (the same applied to the landing). The LAT version expands on the scene when the pilot popped out of his cockpit:

The bemused pilot in his Soviet-era uniform got out to watch this exercise in anarchy. Leading the charge were the soldiers, an intimidating, war-scarred bunch, armed to the teeth, some with long beards like Orthodox monks, others with piratical bandannas around their heads. Despite their rough appearance, many turned out to be former students of economics, doctors or even former archeologists. Hard-bitten individualists to a man, there was no question of giving or obeying any orders.

“Discipline! Discipline!” shouted a 74-year-old veteran, once a squad of soldiers had managed to roll a set of steps through the crowd up to the fuselage of the plane. “If we have no discipline, we will lose the war!”

Nobody listened as the old man weakly waved his revolver in the air, although there was relative quiet as several thin steel coffins bearing war dead appeared. A drunken policeman fired a slow salute as they were passed hand over head into the plane.

I have already posted another Indie ‘Out of’ story about what it was like to travel by train in those years here, here at Champagne and Cabbage on board the Baku Express. For my summer 2012 photo album on today’s Georgia, busily under construction, see here.