The massive Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, which helped send a large number of high-profile Turks (numerous generals among them) to jail on charges of planning a coup, were hailed by many as an important step in finally confronting the troubling history of Turkey's "Deep State" and in finally breaking the military's unhealthy hold on political life.
Those were certainly noble objectives, but from the beginning of those cases there were those who asked if the evidence in the trials really held up. Already in 2009, analyst Gareth Jenkins issued a highly critical report about the Ergenkon case, writing: "Despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government."
Economist and blogger Dani Rodrik (whose father-in-law was one of the generals caught up in the Balyoz (or "Sledgehammer") investigation) was also an early and constant critic of the cases and Istanbul-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller produced some very good pieces noting the profound problems with the evidence used in the trials (take a look at this article in The Times (London) from 2011).
The release of a recording of what sounds like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructing his son Bilal over the phone on how to hide very large sums of currency has presented the PM with one of the most serious challenges of his twelve-year rule.
The leaking and the contents of the conversation, which appears to have taken place some two months ago, may have shocked some Turks, but Erdogan himself should not have been too surprised that his phone might have been tapped. After all, in a 2009 interview with the NTV television network, Erdogan expressed concern that his phone conversations were being listened to. "What do you think? Of course I am worried about it. Therefore I watch what I say over the phone. I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone," Erdogan told his interviewer.
"I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me."
Erdogan's concern at the time was not unreasonable. Over the last seven years or so, wiretapping -- both legal and illegal -- has been booming in Turkey, with the release of secretly recorded audio and video now an integral feature of Turkish political life. Wiretaps were a major feature of the Ergenekon case and the online release of secretly recorded video of Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), having a liaison with a female colleague was responsible for the veteran politician's exit from public life in 2010.
As Eurasianet's Dorian Jones pointed out in a recent article, in response to growing domestic political strife and economic uncertainty, Turks are turning to conspiracy theories to explain things (with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading the pack).
The propensity to turn to conspiracy theories fueled by the belief that foreign powers are out to get Turkey is certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has a clinical name: Sèvres Syndrome, in reference to the treaty the Ottomans were forced to sign at the end of World War I which led to the carving up of their former empire.
In a new paper released by the German Marshall Fund, pollster and political scientist Emre Erdogan takes a look at the syndrome's enduring legacy and its relevance to today's politics in Turkey. From his piece:
The Turkish political culture and education system have reproduced this anxiety over generations. A very simple battery of survey questions illustrates this: 60 percent of the Turkish population believes that “Western powers” aim to disintegrate Turkey, as they have in the past. Similar percentages agree that the reforms that the EU expects Turkey to implement within the framework of the accession process are similar to articles of the Sèvres Treaty, and that the attitudes of Europeans toward Turkey is based on the “crusader ideals.”
These levels remained the same in different surveys conducted in 2003, 2006, and 2012. While almost one- quarter of the Turkish population has been renewed through generational replacement, there has been no change in the intensity of Sèvres Syndrome, a clear indicator of the success of the education system and political culture in shaping people’s attitudes.
Back in 2011, during the height of what was then still optimistically being called the "Arab Spring," the Turkish press was in the habit of crowing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was "one of the five" world leaders American President Barack Obama spoke to the most. Certainly, with Turkey's foreign policy at the time still showing promise and Ankara positioning itself to become a key and constructive regional powerbroker, speaking frequently with Erdogan made a lot of sense.
Things have changed a bit since that time, perhaps best reflected by the fact that Obama and Erdogan have not spoken on the phone since August of last year, following a turbulent summer that saw the Turkish government crack down hard on the large protests that rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks. But, after a long lull, the two leaders did reconnect, speaking on the phone yesterday about, as a White House readout put it, "a range of bilateral and regional issues."
Back in the summer of 2010, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies bombarded the country with ads in support of a referendum on a constitutional amendment that the government billed as one that would create a more independent judiciary, part of what was supposed to be a larger effort at creating a new constitutional order that would emphasize the rights of the individual over the Turkish state's traditional impulse to protect itself.
The referendum succeeded and the amendment was made into law, but Turkey's constitutional reform drive has since then faltered. So much so that on Feb. 15 the AKP-dominated parliament approved a new law that essentially undoes the changes approved by the 2010 referendum. In a heated debate that ultimately ended with members of the AKP and the opposition coming to blows, the government succeeded in passing a bill gives it far greater control over judges and prosecutors and how they are appointed, and which has led to increased concerns over the growing lack of separation of powers in Turkey. "Most of the steps taken in the direction of judicial independence with the 2010 referendum are being taken back with this law," wrote veteran columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Over the last decade, the Turkish government has instituted a series of increasingly problematic internet laws which, according to watchdogs, have given Ankara greater and greater control over online activity (Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Turkey 154th out of 179 in its "Press Freedom" index, has a good primer on the country's internet laws, here).
In recent weeks, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been fighting off a major graft case that has targeted now former ministers and several businessmen close to the government, has proposed new internet legislation that has raised even more concern and that led to a large protest this past Saturday in Istanbul's Taksim Square which was broken up by police using water cannons and tear gas.
To get a bit more background on the new law, I reached out to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University and a leading expert on Turkey's internet laws. Below is our exchange:
Can you describe some of the more troubling aspects of this latest internet law?
Since becoming foreign minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has used the annual gathering of his diplomatic corps as a way of pushing his new vision of Turkey's role in the world and for encouraging his ambassadors -- a notoriously stuffy bunch -- to think outside the box a bit.
A good example of that was the ambassadors' 2010 meeting, which Davutoglu held not in Ankara, but in Mardin, a historic hilltop city not far from the Syrian border in Turkey’s southeast region, which, along with Kurdish and Arabic speakers, is also home to an ancient though dwindling Christian community. Once there, the FM admonished his ambassadors to go out to the city’s teahouses and bazaars and mingle with the (mostly bemused) locals.
Davutoglu, at the time drawing early plaudits for his now failed "zero problems with neighbors" policy, drew on the town’s historical setting to deliver a philosophical – even mystical – look forward to his diplomatic corps. “By 2023, when the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding, I envision a Turkey that is a full member of the EU after having completed all the necessary accession requirements, living in full peace with its neighbors, integrated with neighboring regions in economic terms and with a common security vision, an effective player in regions where our national interests lie, and active in all global affairs and among the top 10 economies in the world,” he told them. In order for that new vision to happen, Davutoglu said, his ambassadors first "need to understand Mardin’s soul."
The Turkish diplomatic corps has been holding its annual meeting over the last few days, but they seem far removed from those heady days in Mardin. Rather than looking hopefully outward, this year's gathering seems to be gazing defensively (even paranoically) inward, offering a very good opportunity to understand the current state of Turkey's tortured political soul.
Thanks to the continuing domestic strife created by the massive ongoing graft probe in Turkey, the country is about to have what may be the world's most highly-trained traffic police force. The reason? As the corruption investigation continues, targeting current officials, former ministers, their relatives and businessmen close to the ruling Justice and Development Party -- the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting back with a wholesale reassignment of police chiefs, many of them being demoted to work in traffic divisions and in other less desirable places.
The police purge has been striking: yesterday, in Ankara alone, some 350 police chiefs and officers were reassigned, many of them from high positions in departments investigating terrorism, corruption and organized crime. Since the large corruption case started last month, close to 1,700 police commanders all around Turkey have been either fired or reassigned.
Without a doubt, 2013 will be a year Turkey’s powerful leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will do his best to forget.
Prior to this year, Erdogan – in power since late 2002 – had gotten used to seeing things go his way. Rivals, in the form of the military and the old secularist establishment, had been vanquished. Plaudits for Turkey’s foreign policy and economic growth were coming in on a regular basis. And, following a third straight victory at the polls in 2011, Erdogan was being hailed as one of the political giants of the modern Turkish Republic, perhaps even an invincible one.
Things have worked out a bit differently in 2013. On the foreign policy front, Turkey found itself increasingly isolated in the Middle East this past year, as its aggressive policies regarding Syria, Egypt and Iraq, accompanied by ever tougher talk from Erdogan, failed to deliver tangible results (of the positive kind, that is). On the domestic front, the summer’s Gezi Park protests and Ankara’s heavy-handed response to them presented the most serious homegrown challenge Erdogan had yet to face, while his insistence that the protests were somehow part of a shadowy international conspiracy to topple him seriously tarnished his reputation abroad. Meanwhile, the PM’s effort to have a new constitution passed this year that would provide for a more powerful office of the president that he would assume failed, leaving Erdogan with a less clear path forward (the bylaws of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) forbid him from serving more than three consecutive terms as PM).
Considering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gotten involved in telling Turks how many children they should have (at least three), what they should drink (the non-alcoholic ayran) and what kind of bread they should eat (whole wheat, preferably), it would seem unlikely that the opinionated leader could still shock with his intrusions on people's private lives.
But, true to form, Erdogan again stunned the nation, telling members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) today that the government is not only working towards creating segregated dormitories for male and female university students (known as "adults" in many parts of the world) but that it is also working to ferret out any instances where members of the opposite sex may be living together off campus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The prime minister said the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had been completed in around three quarters of all dorms.
“There are some troubles concerning the share of houses in some places since we could not meet needs at the dormitories,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the Anadolu Agency on Nov. 5 as he addressed a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).