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Enemy at the Gates: why Syria’s disaster threatens war in Turkey

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Turkish tanks at the Syrian border. Sedat Suna/EPA

By Hugh Pope

published in The Guardian Friday 10 October, p. 37

Turkey feels as if it’s reliving an old nightmare. Each morning television presenters and newspaper headlines glumly round up news from the Islamic State (Isis) siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobani, and its spillover into Turkey. Riots, tear gas, and live fire this week have killed more than 20 people in cities in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east. There have been multiple arson attacks on cars, buses and trucks, ethnic tensions, street corner nationalist gangs, curfews and armed troop deployments unseen since the miserable years of all-out Turkish Kurd insurgency in the 1990s.

At the same time politicians have begun shrilly pouring doubt on the vital, nine-year-old peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents. This reached an apex of absurd conspiracy when both sides began labelling each other as being “the same” as Isis, a group which is actually their mutual enemy.

A tragedy has indeed engulfed Kobani, but little fundamental has changed just because, unusually, TV cameras lined up on the border are able to record first-hand one scene within the larger epic of the Syrian disaster.

photo (1)The hard truth is that the Syrian Kurds and their main Democratic Union party (PYD) militia were always vulnerable and ultimately unable to defend Kobani alone, puncturing a moment of Kurdish hubris after a summer of impressive progress. Their isolation is partly because PYD and the PKK, with which it is umbilically linked, have insisted on a level of autonomy that is controversial, both in Turkey and with the Syrian mainstream opposition.

Nor is Turkey free to drive its tanks down the hill to save Kobani, as demanded by Turkish Kurd politicians. Breaking international law by crossing a border would weaken Turkey’s international position (as with Russia in Ukraine), set off angry regional reactions from backers of Damascus such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and could lead to Syria itself firing missiles at Turkish cities. Turkey may be a member of Nato, but the airstrikes are not a Nato operation; Nato is supposed to be a defensive alliance, and is unlikely to back a unilateral Turkish move.

Turkish action around Kobani would also mean armed confrontation between Turkey and Isis. The Turkish armed forces are absolutely unprepared for any long-term foreign operation. With its porous, 570-mile long Syrian border, Turkey has everything to lose in such an open-ended conflict, and Turkish soldiers would certainly die on a mission that most Turks would not understand let alone support. Where would Turkey’s military have to stop in Syria to make its border secure? Do jihadi sleeper cells lurk among its 1.5 million Syrian refugees, ready to target the tourist industry that powers 10% of Turkey’s economy? Would taking sides against Isis – the principal Sunni militia in the Syrian war – risk a reaction from Turkey’s own Sunni heartland, which has already sent hundreds of Turks to fight in Isis ranks?

Turkey cannot order the ethnic, sectarian and political faultlines of the Middle East to stop at the Turkish border. Certainly, Turkey made mistakes: betting too big on the quick ousting of Bashar al-Assad, and opening its border to all who would fight against Damascus – a policy it is only beginning to reverse. But these policies are similar to those of western actors. It is not fair to make Turkey both the viewing platform and the sole scapegoat for the dysfunctional international system that has exacerbated the Syrian war.

The Turkish government and the Kurdish national movement should therefore discuss what they can themselves do, not what they would like others to do. Both sides actually identify Isis as their deadliest enemy, abhor Isis tactics, broadly favour friendship with the west, and adhere to an ideal of secular governance. Both sides’ favoured scenario is a partnership between Turks and Kurds. They share a long common history, a common Sunni religious tradition, and are interconnected in a way that would be hard, if not impossible, to unravel.

The only way to make this partnership happen is to complete the peace process fitfully under way since 2005. All the necessary elements are in place for a breakthrough to end a 30-year conflict that has already killed 30,000 people. A ceasefire has held since March 2013. Strong leaders on both sides could implement a deal. Popular support is significant. Notorious south-eastern jails are now being made into remembrance museums. The Kurdish language, previously prohibited, is spreading in the media and public life. And above all, a decade of normalisation has empowered both Turkish and Kurdish middle classes, laid new roads and brought new prosperity all over Turkey.

It has not been easy to dispel mistrust. From the 1920s to the 1980s, Turkey denied the existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks”. Police torture in the 1980s and death squads in 1990s killed and traumatised Kurdish activists. Even in 2009, nationalists in the Turkish judiciary undermined the government’s efforts by arresting thousands of Kurdish political activists, including elected mayors, on terrorism charges. Subtler discrimination in workplaces, public spaces and house lettings remains rife.

But since direct talks started between the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish state in late 2012, there has been improvement. Reform laws have brought legal protection to the peace process. Delegations of Turkish Kurd MPs travel from Ocalan’s prison island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul to the PKK’s mountain headquarters. On 1 October the government announced a proper framework, a cross-ministerial board under the prime minister with 11 sub-commissions.

Still, progress remains much more of an avalanche of initiatives than a structured process. Neither side trusts each other enough yet. Ankara sometimes seems to be regally granting small concessions to the Kurds and resenting legitimate demands. And the PKK finds it very hard to commit publicly, as it must, to eventual disarmament within Turkey; to a wish to join the whole country and act through the political capital, Ankara; or to state clearly whether, as its actions on the ground often suggest, it retains a secret urge to push for an independent state under PKK control – a goal for which there is no economic, geographic, social or consensus among Kurds, let alone the majority Turks.

A Turkish-Kurdish partnership is achievable, and should not be put at risk by political grandstanding over the ruins of Kobani. If its defenders are doomed, the town’s remaining population should be safely evacuated to the Turkish border, like the 150,000 who have already passed through. But whatever happens to Kobani, it is only by sorting Turkish and Kurdish differences inside Turkey that the two sides can begin thinking the unthinkable about facing Isis together. And the time to begin negotiating that compromise is now.


Echoes of the past in Istanbul’s mayorial race

The pre-election narrative all sounds so familiar: corruption allegations, massive building projects, destruction of historic districts, new hotels, environmentalist protests, a sea of concrete suffocating the city, and evergreen hopes of one day hosting the Olympics – some elements of this article I wrote in 1989 to raise the curtain on municipal elections in Istanbul 25 years ago seem strangely familiar to the discussions ahead of Turkey’s mayorial races on March 30. 

The city is aflutter with election flags again and there are other, more political, similarities. Bedrettin Dalan, standing for re-election in 1989, was part and parcel of the regime of the late Turkish leader Turgut Özal, who after six years in power was stumbling with accusations of corruption and authoritarian tendencies. The current Turkish leader, Tayyip Erdogan, 11 years in power, is fighting back against the same kind of accusations, even though the scale of everything involved seems to have multiplied many times.

Kadir Topbaş, the faithful old pro-Islamic party member to whom Erdogan has entrusted the city since 2009, is lower-profile than Dalan. His ruling AKP expects to win, even if they do not share the cast-iron confidence displayed by the Motherland Party that 70 per cent of the vote was in their pocket. Back in 1989, Dalan was so sure he’d win that he filled the municipality entrance hall with tables groaning under a slap-up celebratory feast. When I passed by on election night, nobody had come to the party.

The end of the story has not been happy for the ex-mayor. Since 2008, Dalan has bounced about in exile between Russia, Holland, Belarus and the U.S., running from a charge sheet of “terrorist” activities filled out against him at home. He tells newspapers that he longs to return to his home city.

Istanbul – Hustling Capital of Ozal’s Turkey

By Hugh Pope

Istanbul, Reuters_Few people boast about what they have destroyed, but Istanbul Mayor Bedrettin Dalan says it with pride: 10,000 buildings in just five years.

“We virtually had to recreate the city,” Said Dalan, Mayor since 1984. “Over 620 factories and 400,000 people were also moved. I think it is unique in world urban history.”

A new Istanbul born under Dalan symbolises the kind of energy released in Turkey since Prime Minister Turgut Ozal’s centre-right Motherland party came to power in 1983.

One million new homes are under construction with state aid, dozens of arterial roads have been opened and enough pipes to supply a town of 50,000 with water are laid each month.

Alongside Dalan’s efforts, non-municipal facilities have changed out of recognition: telephones, hopeless five years ago, now work well and power cuts are the exception, not the rule.

The price has been high. The once-green hills beside the Bosphorus waterway are now a sea of concrete, traffic clogs city streets and the fabled skyline of minarets and mosques is frequently blotted out by sulphurous smog.

“The only planning has been Dalan’s imagination,” said Celik Gulersoy, head of the semi-official Turing Club, which has lovingly restored at least 20 of the most striking relics of the former capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires.

“This is a 3,000-year-old city, not an American desert,” he said, adding that recent road projects were like “running a motorway down the Grand Canal in Venice.”

Gulersoy is Dalan’s chief independent critic, but Istanbul’s marginal Greens Party has also attacked Dalan as a “King who was destroying the city without consulting the people.”

Dalan says dislocation is inevitable in a city whose infrastructure was almost totally neglected as its population grew from about 1.4 million in 1960 to 7.0 million today.

Under Dalan, Istanbul now has new main vegetable markets, a large bus station complex nearly ready and the sewage system, neglected since Byzantium times 500 years ago, is being totally rebuilt and designed with World Bank support.

One monument to Dalan's rule in Istanbul is his replacement of the decayed Ottoman-era Galata Bridge with an unlovely  structure that has now put two great steel blocks in every picture of the Golden Horn skyline.

One monument to Dalan’s rule in Istanbul is his replacement of the decayed Ottoman-era Galata Bridge with an unlovely structure that has now put two great steel blocks in every picture of the Golden Horn skyline.

As part of a controversial program to move colourful, traditional small tradesman out of the historic centre, a huge structure with 5,000 shops is near completion outside town.

Children’s parks have taken the place of many polluting workshops along the banks of the Gold Horn sea inlet and line the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea shores as well.

Much of the changes have been made possible by new laws freeing municipal finances. Dalan, whose taste for foreign projects has made him popular in foreign capitals, has already run up at least 530 million dollars of foreign debt.

Ozal and Dalan are still thinking ahead and have laid down foundations for an Olympic stadium to boost Istanbul’s chances of hosting the Olympic games in the year 2000.

A dream that Istanbul can recapture its former place as a gateway from Europe to the Middle East is also being pursued with a 3/4-billion dollar work trade centre and a third terminal for Istanbul Airport, already Turkey’s busiest.

Part of the first metro to be built in Istanbul since 1869 is about to be opened, despite controversy about the route and expense, and fifteen first-class hotels are under construction in a city that until recently had only five.

“In the summer it’s dust and in the winder it’s mud,” admitted Dalan. Municipality statistics show much remains to be done – half of Istanbul’s streets are still dirt tracks.

Opinion polls say Istanbul appreciates the efforts of Dalan, a 48-year-old engineer-industrialist whose eye for publicity may stem from a past job lighting fashion-show catwalks.

He is likely to win 70 per cent of the vote in next month’s local elections, the polls say, making him Turkey’s most popular politician and likely future candidate for one for the top posts in the political capital, Ankara.

Under Dalan, Istanbul has reasserted its claim to lead commercial life – double the size of Ankara, it produces a quarter of Turkey’s goods, owns a third of the cars, controls two-thirds of foreign trade and is home to most banks.

The yachts of the city’s new rich lie anchored near the few remaining wooden summer houses along the Bosphorus, contrasting with the lot of many forced to work on two jobs to keep pace with the galloping cost of living.

But imbalances of wealth are just one of the many striking contrasts in Istanbul, where 1940s U.S. Limousines work as taxis beside the sleek European luxury cars, and images of the 20th century co-exist with medieval buildings and lifestyles.

In fact, the groundswell of Dalan’s support comes from the mass of poor immigrants from the Turkish hinterland. Dalan first arrived in the city penniless, aged 17, and he represents many of the immigrant’s aspirations

To cement the alliance, Dalan has looked after most vote-rich Gecekondu (built-overnight) squatter settlements, building amenities and handing out 250,000 title deeds to inhabitants.

Critics say the urbanisation should be stemmed – 90 per cent of inhabitants may now be first-generation – but Dalan said: “We are a democratic country, we cannot stop it.”

The wholescale reshaping of Istanbul and accompanying speculative opportunities have brought Dalan many enemies and death threats, but he said he was not afraid to continue.

While the overwhelming complain of the people centres on grim hours spent in polluted traffic jams, Dalan said his main achievement was to show that change was possible.

“When I became Mayor of Istanbul, the problems were thought to be insoluble in the minds of the people,” Dalan said, “Now people think Istanbul can become nicer and easier than before.”

Yigal Schleifer's picture of urban renewal, Istanbul style - click for link to his blog.

Yigal Schleifer’s picture of urban renewal, Istanbul style – click for link to his blog on staying one step ahead of the wrecking ball.


AKP got some things right - the new metro is a huge boon to Istanbul and the new bridge of the Golden Horn with a station in the middle has a certain élan. (AKP isn't responsible for the route of the metro, which arguably should have avoided interfering with the Golden Horn skyline altogether).

AKP got some things right – new metro lines have been a huge boon to Istanbul and the new bridge of the Golden Horn with a station in the middle has a certain élan. (AKP wasn’t responsible for choosing the route of this metro line, which arguably should have avoided the Golden Horn altogether and I think was decided in Dalan’s time too).

Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey

A story from Azerbaijan before the fall of the Soviet Union, when everything seemed possible and old ties were suddenly being rediscovered across borders that had been closed for 70 years. I even met then disgraced Haidar Aliyev in exile in his hometown of Nakhichevan, where he served me breakfast in a light tracksuit and predicted correctly that the then regime in Baku was only hanging on thanks to support from Moscow.

Wednesday 31 October 1990

Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey

Hugh Pope, in Baku, finds a people in search of independence rediscovering their roots.

azerbaijan yellow

The grizzled Azerbaijani in the airport car park leaned forward to display his Grey Wolf lapel pin and whispered in Azeri Turkish: “Are you one of the pan-Turkists from Turkey?” It was an odd welcome to Azerbaijan, the first sign of a web of conspiracies, trade and bloodbrother love that is starting to bind the Soviet republic to Turkey as it moves to greater independence.

For years, such emotional bonds have been suppressed on both sides of the short Transcaucasia border Azerbaijanis share with Turkey. Throughout the Cold War, Nato-member Turkey feared to provoke Moscow and later wished to protect valued trade links. For its part, the Soviet Union feared for the loyalty of the 15 per cent of its population who speak Turkic dialects, stretching into a crescent across its southern boarders in central Asia.

Few in Azerbaijan or Turkey believe that the pan-Turkish dream of a union of Turkic peoples in anything but a dream, like the legend of the Grey Wolf said to have guided the Turks in their migrations westward from the Mongolian steppe a millennium ago. But as the Soviet Union decentralises, it is increasingly common to hear the idea voiced that Turkey will no longer stand alone as the self-styled “last independent Turkish state.”

The Turk in Istanbul may be lukewarm to such ideas, discredited because it was espoused by right-wing extremists during violence in the 1970s. But among the seven million people of soviet Azerbaijan, decades of frustration have bottled up feelings of Turkishness that are far more striking, for instance, than any post-glasnost revival of Islam.

Azerbaijan’s 70 mosques are being renovated but three generations of Marxist education have Europeanised the mainly Shia population. The Marlboro-smoking religious leader of Azerbaijan, Allahsukur Pasazade, effectively lost his deposit in the recent elections. The only taxi-driver I found who displayed a picture of the late Ayatollah Khomeini made it clear he did not want and Islamic state.

On the boulevards of Baku, the Soviet Azerbaijani capital, cassette tape sellers stock almost as much Turkish music as Azerbaijani. Hotel receptionists follow the fate of Turkish football teams and a teashop owner proudly displays a picture in his wallet of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.

“We like Turkish songs. We know their poetry. We have the same blood. We are Turks inside,” said Kamer Novrozaliyeva, 21, an Azerbaijani teacher. Refik Onur, an Istanbul chemicals manufacturer who attended the recent Azerbaijan Business Congress, where the biggest delegation came from Turkey, said he often had to eat in two houses each night in order not to give offence. “I never imagined such love,” he said.

Although plum contracts for the oil and cotton industries are likely to go to Western multinationals, the communist leadership of Azerbaijan has started its foreign visits with ground-breaking tours of Turkey, reciprocated by a visit from President Turgut Ozal’s wife, Semra. The Azerbaijan Prime Minister, Hasan Hasanov, glows with pleasure at the thought of engineering the same economic boom that Mr Ozal gave Turkey in the 1980s.

“We are doing everything that can be done with Turkey,” Mr Hasanov said. “We have great feelings for Turkey and Iran.”

In neighbouring northwest Iran, there are between 15 and 20 million Azeri Turks living in what some nationalists call “South Azerbaijan”. But both Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijanis say that a basic popular wish for reunion is complicated by differences arising from more than 150 years of separate development. For the times being, Soviet Azerbaijanis say that Turkey remains a more attractive partner mainly because it offers economic hope and a Moscow-free rout to the West, through Azerbaijan’s westernmost outpost of Nakhichevan.

A Turkish consulate opens in Baku soon, but Cengiz Israfil, a senior Turkish official of Azerbaijani origin, said: “Our policy has not changed. We don’t want to get involved in internal Soviet politics. Pan-Turkism is a false dream… But personally I would like to see more independent Turkish republics.”

Independence is the ultimate desire of nearly all Azerbaijanis and local political forces in the republic, including a bewildering variety of 15 small new parties, the main opposition movement, the National Front, and even, to a certain extent, the well-entrenched ruling Communist Party. Some Azerbaijanis see Baku’s role as a future lodestar and route to the West for the other Turkic republics of Turkmenistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan further east.

Meanwhile lessons have been learned from “Black January” when mass rallies for independence led by the National Front in Baku were crushed by the Soviet Army; 122 people were killed.

“It must be that the Soviet leadership doesn’t feel it necessary to do such things again,” Mr Hasanov says. “We are going towards independence. But it will not be by Lithuania’s or Armenia’s way. We will negotiate [with Moscow] all the way. We do not want to harm the other republics.”

After the Soviet intervention, the Communist Party successfully repressed and split the National Front. Baku remains under a 1am to 5 am, its fine turn-of-the-century centre scarred by a burnt-out Armenian cathedral. Two years of ethnic strife in the Transcaucasus have left some 250,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia living in slum suburbs around Baku or in Armenian homes deserted by their owners. Only a few thousand Armenians remain from what was once a community of 300,000 people.

In this strained atmosphere, two rounds of voting on 20 September and 14 October gave the Communist Party 90 per cent of seats for the 360-seat Azerbaijan parliament. Nobody believes the result is representative, since opposition parties were not allowed to hold meetings, Communist Party pressured on voters on polling-day were great and turnout was low.

“They put 22 other communist candidates up against me in my constituency alone. No wonder I couldn’t reach the 50 per cent barrier,” said Vahit Akhundov, an opposition figure.

“If the elections had been free, the party would have lost power… the Baku leadership is there with the support of the Soviet army,” said Haidar Aliev, the former communist strongman of Azerbaijan who was ousted from the Soviet Politurbo in 1987. Mr Aliev was elected as an independent last month with the highest percentage vote of any candidate in Azerbaijan.

The Communist Party remains relatively strong and is adopting Azeri national issues as it struggles to recover popularity. Mr Hasanov wants an Azerbaijani army and is struggling to bring economic independence and direct foreign trade to the long-isolated republic which has large surpluses in basic foodstuffs and energy.

Azerbaijani officials say that both a strong army and economy are vital to counter what is seen as the main threat to the republic, the Armenians. Azerbaijan is convinced that Moscow and the West give one-sided support to what everyone in Baku describes as Armenian aggression. Azerbaijanis point to Armenian claims on the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh and what they say are a pattern of attacks against the 300,000-strong Azerbaijani enclave of the Nakhichevan, bordering Turkey and Iran.

Armenians launched attacks on Nakhichevan in January. Azerbaijani nationalists tore down the border fences with Iran and Turkey and forced the enclave’s parliament to declare a unilateral independence which, although it collapsed after eight days, was technically the first in the Soviet Union. Some Azerbaijanis are bitter that the Turkish troops could do little more than mass on the border. But Azerbaijanis involved in the clashes said a dozen or so Turkish “Grey Wolf” irregulars managed to slip across to fight alongside what Turks on both sides of the border agree are their “brothers in soul and blood”.

An English poet’s Byzantine journey

John Ash - Pose Serious wide

When I wrote the review below of John Ash’s “Parthian Stations” for the Economist, I deliberately tried to foster the idea that Ash represented a new “Istanbul school” of poetry. I meant it to refer to the work of Ash and a circle of writer friends and acquaintances who have come together in our old Ottoman-era part of the heart of Istanbul, and whose writings draw inspiration from ancient and modern, east and west, and the multiple religious faiths in our crossroads city. Seven years later, a Google search shows that “Istanbul school of poetry” now scores several hits as an idea in blogs and newspaper articles, and someone (no, it wasn’t me!) even posted that “Istanbul school” idea in Wikipedia (here). One of the first references is in a broader story I did on ‘The Poets of Istanbul’ for the very first edition of Turkey’s Today’s Zaman in January 2007 (here, scroll to p.17). Fingers crossed that we’ll see even more Istanbul poets’ work in the coming years.

Poetic inspiration

A Byzantine journey

Feb 15th, 2007

Parthian StationsBACK in the days when John Ash was a rising English poet of the New York School, critics either loved his stiletto wit or loathed it as “camp disdain”. Mr Ash’s new book, “The Parthian Stations”, shows how a decade of living in Istanbul, studying the heritage of Byzantium and travelling in the Middle East has sharpened both his eye and the claws of his feline black comedy. Meanwhile, any disdain he may have felt in the past at the politics he observes around him has matured into a deep and incisive anger.

“The Parthian Stations”—named after a caravan route between the Mediterranean and India that was described by a Basra geographer in the 1st century BC—displays Mr Ash’s talent for integrating contemporary Middle Eastern events into a classic English poetic frame. He condemns the ruler of Syria, for instance, for retaining the holes made by bullets fired during the 1982 Hama massacre—and then building a hotel on the bulldozed remains of the ancient city centre.


Out of crushed bones and corrupted
flesh a white, pyramidal hotel
rose in balconied stages. Cursed.

When Mr Ash’s 2004 collection, “To the City”, came out, Poetry, a leading American literary magazine, said that he “could be the best English poet of his generation”. Now he may also be the doyen of a new “Istanbul School”.

Several English-speaking poets are publishing work that, like Mr Ash’s, use the city as a vivid background against which to weave together themes of East and West. There is the easy fluidity of Sidney Wade of Florida, the wry melancholy of Mel Kenne of Texas and the keen eye of Alabama’s late Daniel Pendergrass for the theatre of the streets. James Wilde, a Canadian, writes savagely of war, Edward Foster pens gay odes and George Messo, an Englishman, is working on an epic.

By day, many of these poets teach English in Turkey’s burgeoning private colleges. Some meet regularly, others share a new literary periodical and two recently produced a Turkey supplement for the Atlanta Review. Several translate Turkish verse into English. Turkish respect for poetry goes back to Ottoman times, when, according to Walter Andrews, a translator, “almost everyone, from the ruler to the peasant, from the religious scholar to the rake and drunkard, aspired to be a poet.”

Tony Frazer, whose Shearsman Books is one of a number of publishers now interested in poems about Turkey, believes that the country exerts a unique and powerful influence. He gives the counter-example of expatriate British and American poets in Germany, who “might as well be in Leicester or Peoria for all the impact that Germany has had on their work.”

The son of a schoolteacher, Mr Ash, 58, lived until 20 years ago in his hometown, Manchester. Just as he was achieving recognition in Britain he left for America as a protégé of John Ashbery, a leader of the avant-garde New York School.

In his new book, Mr Ash writes that he moved to Istanbul partly to be in a land of Muslim calls to prayer, “to shuck responsibility, to imagine I was not Western, not Christian and free.” He found a new patron, Selçuk Altun, a Turkish banker-turned-novelist who supported him for three years. Istanbul recalls Paris of a century ago, a place where expatriate writers can find liberty, affordable living and exotic surroundings. However, Mr Ash, who likes to sip aniseed-flavoured raki instead of absinthe, rejects the comparison. “I just like cities on the verge of chaos,” he says. “Istanbul was one of the few places that wouldn’t seem boring after New York.”

His book is by turns autobiographical and whimsical. The narratives are accessible, whether meditating on the spontaneity with which he writes or on the sudden death of his sister. Above all, Mr Ash engages with Istanbul, the former Constantinople—“an antechamber of Asia a place of distances and perspectives”.

A voracious reader, with a passion for Byzantine history, Mr Ash takes a long (and not altogether favourable) view of America’s role in the region’s conflicts.

The auguries, the inaugurations
Proceed at vast expense, banquet after banquet.
A fire of the mind is invoked, and this is what
We must live with as the century raises itself
On crippled limbs to proclaim victory.
Neither Alexander nor Trajan combined
Such arrogance with ignorance
But, in the end, what difference does it make?
Persepolis burned, and Fallujah is emptied.

Original article from the Economist’s books section here

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.”

Survivors’ guilt & a pioneer who helped save the Kurdish language

mehmed_uzun_festivali2_1_Nearly thirteen years ago, I was lucky to meet the late, pioneering Kurdish novelist Mehmed Uzun in Stockholm, Sweden. The story I wrote about him for The Wall Street Journal makes interesting reading today, even ominous. What a chance there was back in 1999/2000 to settle this long-running and much misunderstood conflict — just like today, yet again. It’s as if history is doomed to repeat itself, bloodily. And Uzun’s account of his experiences remind me again why Kurdish speakers in Turkey continue to insist on equal rights and justice – and especially freedom for their mother tongues.

Restaurang PrinsenUzun died in 2006 of cancer, aged 54. He was an intense person to interview. He met me off the plane at Stockholm’s airport and attended to me almost non-stop for the 48 hours I was in Sweden. We dined together in the  famed Prinsen restaurant – a haunt of the city’s intellectual elite, where he was treated with respect – he drove me round Stockholm to show me the city, he took me to his modest apartment to meet his family, and he insisted on dropping me off at the airport when I left 48 hours later. He even shyly showed me the Swedish Academy building where the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony is held each year.

The epic and fable-like tone of his novels made didn’t make them my favourite reads. But I could have gone on listening for ages to his stories of how he and a group of others set about trying to rescue their Kurdish language, and through that, to restore a sense of communal dignity. After meeting someone like Uzun, it is hard to believe that Kurdish languages are a threat to anyone, as too many people in Turkey believe. In fact, Kurdish is in reality so marginalised as to be threatened with oblivion — which is why Uzun acted in the first place.


War and Peace Turn

A Kurdish Novelist

Into a Cause Celebre

Mehmed Uzun Finds Fame —

And a Less Hostile Turkey


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter

STOCKHOLM — Mehmed Uzun’s education in the power of language began the day he watched a man sear his own flesh with a cigarette.

Then an 18-year-old ethnic-Kurd activist, Mr. Uzun had been arrested and taken to Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, on charges of supporting independence from Turkey. Held in a cell with two dozen fellow Turkish Kurds, he found himself next to a terrified shopkeeper with an outlawed word tattooed on his hand: “Kurd.” As Mr. Uzun watched, the man burned it out.

“The torturers will have to thank me for helping them,” the merchant said as he was led away for interrogation.

Mr. Uzun later fled to Sweden, where he took up a different brand of subversion, in exile: creating a modern, literary form of Kurdish, a language once banned by the Turks. His quest involved, among other things, entering a Turkish army base in disguise to do research on a medieval Kurdish prince  and flying a Kurdish shepherd to Stockholm, to pick up unusual words for entry in a new Kurdish dictionary. Now 47, this bookish ex-radical finds that he and his works have become star players in Ankara’s latest clash with the West.

Last year, Turkey pretty much crushed a 15-year-long Kurdish rebellion. To the surprise of many, it then let a Kurdish Spring ensue. Kurdish culture became fashionable, Kurdish bookshops opened up, and Mr. Uzun’s novels started selling fast. His sudden celebrity helped Ankara’s campaign to join the European Union.

When Foreign Minister Ismail Cem visited Sweden last year to promote Turkey’s application for EU membership, he showed off three of Mr. Uzun’s novels. The EU made Turkey a candidate in December. Then in February, a provincial Turkish court banned seven of Mr. Uzun’s works. Mr. Cem and other Turkish progressives got the order rescinded in May, but not before Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lind had talked of freezing Turkey’s EU bid.

Europeans have mistrusted their Muslim neighbor for centuries, while in recent years, the Kurds — numbering 25 million and spread out among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria — have become a cause celebre in which many European liberal activists see Ankara as the villain. For their part, the Turks have lurched between scrambling to join Europe and striking out at any EU meddling in their Kurdish affairs.

Mr. Uzun’s role in this drama began with his love of an imperiled language. Years ago, when he said he wanted to write in Kurdish, friends begged him not to. Use Turkish or his adopted Swedish, they told him: Turkey virtually outlawed Kurdish between 1920 and 1990, fearing its use would strengthen the separatists.

“There were no publishers, no market, no critics, no schools, no TV, no proper dictionary, no translators and no readers,” he says. “The language was in a tragic state.”

So he set out to create a new Kurdish literature, drawing on his childhood in the town of Siverek in southeast Turkey, a region dominated by Kurds. His sheep-merchant father nourished young Mehmed’s love for rural Kurdish life: They would go around to check on flocks, chat with villagers and listen to Kurdish ballads sung by shepherds who accompanied themselves on a kind of wooden flute.

As a teen, he seethed as he watched police beat Kurds in the street merely for speaking Kurdish. Then came arrest and torture in 1971, where he says his jailers beat the soles of his feet with a stick.

During his time in jail, he fell in with a heady mix of Kurdish characters who constituted what Mr. Uzun calls his university. “They lived at peace with themselves,” he says of the inmates. “They taught me to love Kurdish.” Let out under an amnesty, he wrote a plea in Kurdish to save the language in a nationalist magazine in 1976. Within half an hour of publication, police bundled him off to jail again. Released pending trial, he escaped through a border minefield to Syria and eventually to Sweden.

He resumed his linguistic quest in Stockholm, fueled by grants from the Swedish government. To collect vocabulary and lore, he visited an Iraqi Kurdish leader in a rebel-held mountain valley of Iraq, spending evenings in a tent listening by the light of an oil lamp to Kurd poets and storytellers. Mr. Uzun learned Arabic script to read classical Kurdish poems that thrived in a Kurdish princedom in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Later, he hunted down rare copies of a magazine published by Kurdish exiles in the 1920s. The ill-fated adventures of these pioneers form the backbone of two of Mr. Uzun’s novels, which, like all of his fiction, detail the struggles of Kurds through the ages. He also led an editorial board of intellectuals, who would pay for Kurds to fly to Europe to brief them on obscure vocabulary.

From his research, Mr. Uzun published his first attempt at a modern Kurdish novel in 1985, “You.” Next came an anthology he edited of Kurdish literature, the first of its kind. Critical success came with his novel “In the Shadow of a Lost Love.” The story fictionalizes a 1920s Kurdish intellectual’s struggle between love for a woman and duty to go fight the newly formed Turkish republic, and the tragic failure of both quests. Turkish translations followed, usually outselling the Kurdish versions, since only a few thousand people can read or write the Kermanci dialect of Turkey’s Kurds. His novels began to be translated into European languages in the 1990s, although as yet not into English.

Last year brought a truce between Kurdish rebels and Ankara, and suddenly Mr. Uzun was famous. In January, Turkish police allowed him to visit his home region for the first time in 23 years. More than 3,000 people jammed the city hall of Diyarbakir to hear him read from his new book, “Love Like Light, Death Like Darkness.” Crowds of Kurds lined up for hours to get his autograph on copies of this tale of love between a Kurd rebel and a Kurdish girl, set against the military repression of the Kurds. A Turkish translation became a bestseller, as ordinary Turks became more curious and less fearful of their Kurdish cousins after the rebellion was put down.

His success has drawn envy, both from Sweden’s exiled Kurdish intellectuals and back home. “He may have created the modern Kurdish novel, but he didn’t invent the language,” says Edip Polat, a much-jailed author living in Diyarbakir. “What about those of us who stayed and struggled for Kurdish literature here?”

But Mr. Uzun has had brushes with the kind of violence that fills his work. In 1979, gunmen shot dead his elder cousin as he held his newborn daughter in his arms. In 1992, assassins murdered Musa Anter, the revered author of an early Turkish-Kurdish dictionary, who taught Mr. Uzun to write Kurdish in jail. Two younger cousins were killed in action as rebel commanders during the latest Kurdish revolt.

“That’s why I put no humor in my novels,” Mr. Uzun explains, steering his new silver Skoda car through the orderly streets of Stockholm, far from where he spent his youth, the now dank and dilapidated alleyways of Diyarbakir’s old town. “You could say it’s survivor’s guilt.”


24 May 2000

Copyright (c) 2000 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.

Moustaches that Bristle with Meaning

Istanbul Turkish bath massageA nice story in the Guardian last month by Constanze Letsch (here) updates readers on a new trend in Turkey for facial hair implants. Long ago I did my own take on the Turkish & Middle Eastern man’s love affair with the moustache, published in the Wall Street Journal in 1997, when the news was that a clean-shaven look had begun to come into fashion (somewhat). In hindsight, that quote on top would probably be better translated as “I’m a Turk, I always do right, and …” Otherwise I wouldn’t twirl a hair of the story differently today. Here it is:

Turkish Mustaches,

Or the Lack Thereof,

Bristle With Meaning

They Reflect Social Class,

Politics and Religion;

It’s Trendy to Shave Them

By Hugh Pope, Staff Reporter

“I am a Turk, I’m always right and I’ve got a mustache.” — Headline in the Istanbul daily newspaper Hurriyet

ISTANBUL — If there is one thing that symbolizes the manhood of a Turk, it is his mustache. So why has hair-salon owner Orhan Bademli ordered his young barbers to shave theirs off?

“In the West, a mustache is just an accessory. Our mustaches are part of us,” says the 46-year-old Mr. Bademli. “But the mustache is also the symbol of the uncompromising Turkish male, who never admits a mistake, and who spends a lot of time preening in the mirror. In modern offices here, there are hardly any mustaches left.” His barbers say they don’t even want their facial hair anymore.

The grand mustaches of Turkish lore are now a rare sight in the gleaming office blocks, restaurants and shopping malls that are joining Istanbul’s old bazaars. Pollsters chart the trend: A study by Istanbul’s Piar-Gallup Market Research Co. found that while 77% of Turkish men had mustaches in 1993, the figure is now down to 62.8% and falling.

Sociologists and marketers believe the trend is also spreading eastward through Turkey’s towns and villages. But facial hair still fairly bristles with political and social meaning. Mustaches signal the difference between leftist (bushy) and rightist (drooping to the chin), between Sunni Muslim (clipped) and Alevi Muslim (curling into the mouth). Beards are also still in play on 19% of faces, and can be either short and trendy, shaggily Marxist, long and religious, or clipped and politically Islamic.

The issue seemed so important to 62-year-old author Demirtas Ceyhun that he titled his popular book on the Turkish condition, “Oh, We Black-Mustachioed Turks.” It sold 100,000 copies. “We are basically still nomads at heart,” he says. “Before, we only got shaved to get married. Even then, you’d still leave the mustache. Some people may be cutting them off, but Turks will never get rid of them.”

To be cleanshaven has for decades been a political statement of solidarity with the secular, Westernizing elite that founded the republic in 1923. Today, this look is more evident than ever. Turkish army officers rarely request the permission necessary to grow a mustache, feeling duty-bound to drag mostly Muslim Turkey into the beardless Western world. The same goes for the Foreign Ministry. “We’re all cleanshaven here,” says Aydan Karahan, Turkey’s chief of information, who snipped his mustache as a young diplomat in Washington.

Corporate culture in Turkish companies that do business with the U.S. and Europe strongly discourages the mustache look. “There’s no ban on facial hair, but we’re very clean-cut here,” says a spokeswoman for Turkey’s biggest group, Koc Holding. “We’re pretty clean-cut too, and I prefer it that way,” says her counterpart at the headquarters of the No. 2 conglomerate, Sabanci Holding. “But in the factories, plenty of men still have mustaches.”

Sociologist Nukhet Sirmen says it was Turkey’s up-and-coming generation of businessmen who pioneered the cleanshaven trend in the 1980s, as they began traveling to Europe and the U.S. The blades cut deeper in 1993, when Turks celebrated the choice of their first woman prime minister, Tansu Ciller. Now, mustaches are disappearing right and left from middle-class faces.

“What we’re seeing now is the trickle-down effect from the bourgeoisie,” says Ms. Sirmen, searching her memory and failing to come up with anybody among her academic colleagues at Bosphorus University who still wears a mustache. “I can’t think of anyone! It’s probably a sign of the new Turkishness, a symbol of being integrated with the rest of the world.”

Turkey’s young generation is hard at work cutting all kinds of new profiles, influenced by dozens of television channels that bring international programming to a country where 84% of homes now have color television. Sitting around their cell phones at a tea-shop table by the Bosphorus strait three interior decorators turn passionate as they discuss what looks best.

“If I had a mustache in my job, people would react differently. They’d think I was a salesman or something,” says Bulent Karabas, 30, cleanshaven but nostalgic about his drooping right-wing mustache of yesteryear. “Mustaches have lost their importance since they brought in the free economy,” agrees Muzaffer Kara, 28, who hasn’t shaved for a couple of days. But Mahmut Cetin, 31, will have none of it. “I’m not shaving, whatever happens,” he says, stroking the short hairs of what Turks call a dirty beard. “This is my soul.”

Fashions change fast in Turkey. But all agree that competing hair styles do represent a deep parting in society. Social Democrat parliamentarian and pollster Bulent Tanla, owner of the Piar-Gallup agency, sees a society galloping in opposite directions.

“There is a search for identity. You can see it in politics, in Islam and also in mustaches,” he says, dabbing an old school mustache that, in honor of the barricades of Paris, he defines as “generation of ’68.” “One part of society is going off to the West, wearing jeans, carrying briefcases and shaving off their mustaches. The other is going to radicalism, be it right wing or Islamic.”

In the anarchy of the 1970s, extremists here killed political rivals whose views were betrayed by the cut of their mustaches. That doesn’t happen these days, but divisions among the most hirsute political elements can still be murderous.

Today’s bushiest left-wing mustache, mimicking Joseph Stalin’s, is on the face of the Stalinist leader of Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, Abdullah Ocalan, who operates out of Syria. Fighting his Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey are ruthless “special team” police units, whose mustaches trail down the chin in the manner of Mongol horsemen. The look signals political views somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, a hero of theirs.

Back in Istanbul, Mr. Bademli, the modernizer, hasn’t gone so far as to adopt the new look himself. That’s fine for his barbers, but he hasn’t taken a razor to his own close-clipped mustache.

“My mustache simply won’t let me do it,” he says. “Also, I have a bet with a former minister of education that I won’t be the first to cut it off, and he won’t do it, either. He says that voters in the villages just wouldn’t take him seriously if he did.”

The Wall Street Journal, 20 May 1997

(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Shakespeare’s Turkish Hazelnut Shells


I was recently in touch with a legendary editor of the Wall Street Journal, Michael Williams, and he reminded me of one of the favourite stories I wrote for the paper. I dug it up and decided I’d post this and other pieces like it on a blog. William Shakespeare just keeps on giving inspiration. This was how Mike helped the piece end up in the paper back in 1997:

Hazelnuts Find Use

In Shakespeare Plays

And in His Theater

Fortunately, Turkey Has Shells

For Globe Theater Mortar;

Bard Supplies the Metaphor


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare. And the world itself had to be scoured to finish the reconstruction of the Bard’s own stage, the Globe Theater in London, as meticulous craftsmen searched for a most unlikely 16th-century building material: to wit, hazelnut shells.

The hunt hasn’t been easy for the brittle brown husks, an authentic finishing touch to the theater that opened in June as a facsimile of the circular playhouse where many of Shakespeare’s works were first staged four centuries ago.

The sad fact is that England has neglected what seems to have been an Elizabethan enthusiasm for the hazelnut. Few authors in modern times would go as far as did Shakespeare, who in “The Taming of the Shrew” has a suitor exclaim: “Kate, like the hazel-twig/Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue/As hazel-nuts, and sweeter than the kernels.” Nowadays, the most likely way one would find hazelnuts at a theater in Shakespeare’s native land would be as filberts imported, shelled, bleached and packed in little plastic bags for sale at the intermission bar.

But the Globe’s restorers were determined to find the shells. Their search eventually involved a former dressmaker for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the manufacturer of a key ingredient in candies, Britain’s Royal Air Force and a small port town on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.

This final rush of activity was unwittingly triggered by a guide at the Globe Theater during its opening month last June. The out-of-work actor was explaining to a group of visitors how archaeologists discovered hazelnut shells in the central pit of the circular theater, an area open to the skies where there used to be penny-a-person standing room for a raucous part of the audience known as groundlings.

The first assumption was that the shells were dropped by groundlings for whom filberts were a sort of Elizabethan popcorn. Then the archaeologists realized that the nuts were a component of a poor man’s mortar that remained firm while allowing any rainwater to percolate through, the other ingredients being cinders, ash, sand and silt from the nearby Thames.

The actual shells, the guide explained, were now available only in faraway places like California, or in the country that claims to have been the birthplace of the hazelnut two millennia ago: Turkey.

“That’s when my ears pricked up,” says one of the visiting Shakespeare enthusiasts, 63-year-old Audrey Uzmen. Mrs. Uzmen had once been a dressmaker for Shakespeare plays staged in the author’s sleepy English birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, where she had met a visiting professor of English literature, married him and moved to his native Turkey. “I was determined the shells would come from here,” says Mrs. Uzmen, back home in Ankara.

Still, the Globe needed 7.5 tons of the cracked brown husks, an industrial quantity that in Shakespearean times was supplied by a nearby factory that made soap from hazelnut oil. Hazelnuts are presumed to have been common in England at that time. Now, more than two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Turkey’s rainy Black Sea coast.

Through her friends in the Turkish theatrical world, Mrs. Uzmen sent a plea for help to the Black Sea port of Giresun, whose mountainous hinterland is famous for the quality of its bushy, man-high hazelnut trees. Of the 500,000 people in Giresun province, 200,000 live directly from the nuts, according to Mayor Mehmet Larcin.

“They grow hazelnuts now in Italy, Spain, even Azerbaijan. But nobody gets the same taste as us. It’s our soil and our climate that does it,” Mr. Larcin says, fresh from a Black Sea lunch of anchovies barbecued over hazelnut husks.

In contrast to the English, the Turks haven’t forgotten the romance of the hazelnut, says Tamer Levent, an actor and president of Turkey’s State Theaters, Opera and Ballet Foundation. A gently flirtatious daughter is dubbed a hazelnut, he says, and even the hazelnut maggot connotes a plump and lively girl. There is also a Turkish proverb that the Globe’s modern-day, $8-a-ticket groundlings should soon have cause to remember: “Don’t run too fast, or you’ll slip on a hazelnut shell.”

Acting on the appeal from Mrs. Uzmen, Mr. Levent sought hazelnut help from Giresun. And the town swiftly offered to aid the thespians, even though it has no theater and is not known to have ever staged a Shakespeare play. A local cooperative takes in the nuts, shells them, roasts them, slices and dices them and also makes hazelnut cooking-oil. Nearly 80% of the processed filberts go to the world’s confectionery and candy-bar industry; hazelnut paste, for instance, is a key ingredient of pralines.

All that remained was the problem of transporting the shells to their new home. Shakespeare made “an empty hazel-nut” fly as a dream fairy carriage in “Romeo and Juliet,” but that wasn’t an option, even for his new Globe Theater. Instead, the 150 sacks of shells got to England aboard a heavy-lift transport plane flying British military jeeps back from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercise in Turkey. They are now safely in store and will be made into mortar and laid on the floor in March for the new Globe Theater season starting the second week in May.

As a coda to this tale, half a sack of shells was kept back, placed in one of Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomatic bags and formally handed to British Ambassador David Logan by the Turkish hazelnut farmers’ representative, Kamran Sahin, and the actor Mr. Tamer. As Mr. Tamer made a speech in praise of “Shakespeare’s shells,” the husks spilled and spread and were gradually crunched into the parquet of the British Embassy ballroom floor by the crowd, under the stern gaze of a portrait of King George V.

“I hope this will be good for the hazelnut trade,” Mrs. Sahin said nervously, overwhelmed by the fuss being made over broken husks that are usually sold off cheap for heating fuel at her cooperative’s factory gate. But with Turkey having as much as 500,000 tons of shells to dispose of each year, she was keen to build on this first, if peculiar, sign of foreign interest. “You know, the shells light very quickly and give off lots of heat. And they’re great for barbecues.”


Copyright (c) 1997 Dow Jones and Company, Inc. 11/12/97