Like in previous years, Turkish police and protesters this year again clashed in the heart of Istanbul after authorities blocked unions and other labor organizations from holding an event celebrating May 1 in downtown Taksim Square.
The excuse for keeping the groups out of Taksim this year was different than in the past, though. This time, authorities said, the square was too dangerous a place to be because of a massive construction project going on there that will redirect car traffic into several underground tunnels and remake Taksim in other ways.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have had other motives for closing off Taksim to the labor groups, many of which are fierce opponents of the government, but it's hard to deny that Taksim Square has in fact become one big construction site. Actually, all of Turkey has become a big construction site over the last decade, with cities expanding at a rapid rate and "urban renewal" projects -- most of them initiated by the government-run housing administration, a highly unaccountable body known as TOKI -- changing not only the skyline but also the social fabric of many cities.
The rapid rate of construction is now giving rise to concerns about the "cementization" of Turkey's cities, particularly Istanbul. Writes Bulent Kenes, editor of Today's Zaman, in a very good recent column:
In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
At this point, Turks have become accustomed to having their moralizing Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer them tips on how to live. Erdogan has previously urged Turkish families to each have three children and, more recently, asked his fellow citizens to change their eating habits in order to decrease the amount of food they throw away.
Now the PM is wading into an even trickier subject: what should Turks drink. Reuters provides the details:
If you are looking for one sure way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word alcohol.
That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.
During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink. However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.
Turkish classical musician Fazil Say is best known for his piano work, but it's the actions he took using a computer keyboard that have thrust him into the limelight in an unexpected -- and disturbing -- way.
Yesterday, Say -- who has received rave reviews for his playing and has performed in concert halls around the world -- was given by an Istanbul court a suspended 10-month prison sentence for insulting Islam and offending Muslims -- in Twitter posts. Although he was spared the indignity of being sent to jail, Say could find himself locked up if he is convicted of similar offenses during the next five years.
The offending tweets? In one, Say forwarded an excerpt from an 11-th century poem written by the famed Omar Khayyam. “You say that the rivers flow with wine, is heaven a tavern? You say that you will give every believer two very beautiful women, is heaven a brothel?” the poem says. In another tweet, the pianist -- a self-declared atheist -- suggests the rapid call to prayer he heard coming from a nearby Istanbul mosque might have been given by a muezzin eager to get his work done and head out for a drink.
Looking at the case in a piece for the Al-Monitor website, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a well-known civil rights lawyer in Turkey, suggests Say's conviction is part of a disturbing trend in Turkey regarding the prosecution of those deemed to have insulted religion or Islam. From Cengiz's article:
Slowly but surely, the latest attempt by the Turkish government to resolve the decades-old Kurdish issue is moving along. In the latest confidence building measure, members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BD), who were given Ankara's permission to meet with jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan this past Sunday, delivered a message from Ocalan that suggested his organization's fighters would soon be leaving Turkish territory. “The peace process we are currently going through is continuing at full speed. I am striving to make the ceasefire permanent and to ensure a withdrawal. I can say we are more hopeful now that we have come to this stage. In this context, I will reveal the details of the efforts we are making,” Ocalan's statement said.
Still, the nascent "peace process" is facing some profound challenges, both domestic and external. In a new piece from the German Marshall Fund that gives a good overview of the latest developments surrounding the Kurdish issue, political scientist Ilter Turan takes a look at these challenges, suggesting there is good reason to be cautious about predicting the process's success.
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad probably gets very few visitors these days, and rightly so. Still, it appears Assad can count on the friendship of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition party, which recently sent a high-level delegation to visit the Syrian autocrat in Damascus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
A parliamentary delegation from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad early yesterday. The three-member group, which consisted of deputy leader Şafak Pavey and deputies from the neighboring Hatay province, Hasan Akgöl and Mevlut Dudu, was in Syria following an invitation from al-Assad, according to CHP sources.
Al-Assad told the team there was “a need to distinguish between the stance of the Turkish people, who back stability in Syria, and the positions of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which supports terrorism.
“The Syrian people appreciates the position adopted by forces and parties in Turkey that reject the Erdoğan government’s negative impact on our societies, which are multi-religious and multi-ethnic,” al-Assad added.
Human Rights Watch has just released its annual World Report and its chapter on Turkey contains some very strong criticism of Ankara's efforts at human rights reform. “Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's senior researcher in Turkey. “If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” she said. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”
In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.
Although it's still quite early to know which way Turkey's new peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will go, this week saw some very encouraging signs coming out of Ankara.
Late Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that will allow defendants to use Kurdish in court, a long-standing demand put forward by Kurdish activists and politicians. Up until now, Turkish courts have regularly refused to allow Kurdish defendants to use the language during proceedings.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet, most significantly replacing the hawkish Interior Minister Naim Sahin with Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul who originally hails from southeast Turkey. Sahin, an old school nationalist, had managed to enrage Kurds on numerous occasions, especially in the wake of the 2011 Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in an errant military operation. At the time, Sahin dismissed the killed villagers as "extras" in a PKK operation and said there was no need for Turkey to apologize for the incident.
Following today's burial in Turkey of the three Kurdish women activists murdered last week in Paris, Ankara's renewed peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, are facing a critical test.
There were some concerns that the funerals, which drew a massive crowd in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, could turn violent and become another provocative development which could jeopardize the nascent talks, but the event turned out to be peaceful in the end. Writing in the Hurriyet Daily News today, analyst Semih Idiz takes a look at the significance of both the murders in Paris and today's funerals:
The bottom line is that today’s developments, whether are positive or negative, will determine the course that the ongoing peace talks between the government and the PKK take, perhaps much more than the actual murders in Paris. Despite the horror of that event, a positive result has been that the government, the PKK leadership, and the BDP have all indicated views suggesting that this as a provocation aimed at derailing the current peace talks. This shows that there is a desire for these talks to continue.