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Boardman writes: "It's probably safe to say that the Republic of Turkey is something of a mystery to most Americans, and in part that's due to very limited reporting on Turkey by American media."

Large protests are rocking Turkey, this time over new internet access laws. (photo: Reuters)
Large protests are rocking Turkey, this time over new internet access laws. (photo: Reuters)

Turkey in Crisis? Through a Glass Darkly

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

11 February 14


"In line with the concept of nationalism and the reforms and principles introduced by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Atatürk, the immortal leader and the unrivalled hero, this Constitution, which affirms the eternal existence of the Turkish nation and motherland and the indivisible unity of the Turkish state…." Opening of the Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey (as amended on October 17, 2001)

t's probably safe to say that the Republic of Turkey is something of a mystery to most Americans, and in part that's due to very limited reporting on Turkey by American media. The following are all true statements about Turkey in early 2014:

  • Turkey is a democracy, a democratic republic. Turkey is, effectively, a one-party state, and has been since 2002.
  • The Turkish presidency is a largely ceremonial position in government. The Turkish presidency is on the verge of becoming the most powerful position in government.
  • The Turkish government supported the Syrian uprising and removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in early 2011. Now the Turkish government is on the verge of siding with Iran, which has supported Assad all along.
  • Turkey is a constitutionally secular state. Turkey, with a population of about 75 million that is 99% Muslim, is becoming increasingly Islamist.
  • The Turkish Constitution of 1982, Article 28, guarantees that: "The press is free and shall not be censored." As of December 2013, Turkey had freed some journalists, but still held 40 in jail, more than any other country in the world, for the second year in a row (top ten include Iran, China, Syria, and Egypt).
  • Turkey has a history of military coups d'etat (1960, 1971, 1980), most recently a "soft coup" in 1997. Turkey has recently purged its military in a case known as Ergenekon (2008-2013).

If Turkey is to suffer – or cause – a political earthquake in the near future, the fault lines along which one or more might occur include, in no order of priority: the prime minister's consolidation of power, internet censorship, the presidential election, an entente with Iran, renewed Kurdish resistance, or spillover from the Syrian civil war.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 60, isn't a dictator, but some of his opponents suspect that's his ambition, pointing to his government's heavy-handed, violent response to last year's peaceful protests around the country as a possible harbinger of worse police state tactics to come. Erdogan IS a lame duck prime minister, now in his third term, which is the constitutional limit. He is also perceived as the most powerful Turkish leader since Ataturk, and has dominated Turkish politics since 2002.

As a lame duck, Erdogan has proposed changes to the constitution that would make the Turkish presidency more powerful. Then he would run for president in the 2014 presidential election, without giving up his seat in Parliament, or the prime ministership, unless he won. These plans suffered a setback last fall, when a multi-party commission announced that it was not able to draft more than 60 articles for a new constitution, less than half the amount needed.

Further complicating Turkish politics in December was a corruption investigation that reached into the Erdogan administration and led four accused cabinet members to resign. Five others left the cabinet, three to run in local elections, leading Erdogan to announce a new cabinet on December 25. By then, the 24 arrests in the corruption case had also included the sons of three different cabinet ministers.

Fethullan Gulen, 71, a Muslim imam living in rural Pennsylvania has long had ties to Turkish authorities, especially in the judiciary and police. Gulen fled Turkey in 1999, accused of plotting an Islamist coup. Both opponents and supporters of Erdogan suspect Gulen is behind at least some of the political unrest in Turkey, but connections are murky.

Demonstrations against government censorship of the internet have been met with extreme force by the government in recent weeks. Despite the protests, Parliament passed amendments to Law 5651, expanding censorship and police power over the Internet, giving government power to shut down websites without a court order and to require Internet providers to collect and share user data with the government. The law passed by Erdogan's AKP party is defended as a consolidation of government power in the midst of the corruption scandal that Erdogan calls a "judicial coup" against his administration. Internet postings, including recordings of corrupt ministers, contributed significantly to public awareness of Turkey's biggest scandal in years.

The AKP – the Justice & Development Party – has held an absolute majority in the Turkish Parliament since 2002, enabling it to pass legislation without modification by the other parties. AKP currently holds 319 of 550 seats. In January, this majority passed a law against giving first aid without a license, punishable by a heavy fine and up to three years in jail. This is seen as an anti-protest measure, adding a new vulnerability for people who help their fellow demonstrators who get beaten, hosed, gassed, shot with plastic bullets, or otherwise attacked by police.

Even though the new Internet control law is not yet in effect, an Azerbaijani journalist married to a Turkish woman was deported for sending two tweets about news articles connecting Erdogan with a presumed financier of al-Qaeda. The deportation followed an unsuccessful attempt by Erdogan's lawyers to bring a criminal complaint under the Turkish criminal code's Article 301, which criminalizes speech or writing that "insults the Turkish nation." (Erdogan himself had been convicted of an offense under Article 301 in 1998, when a judge determined that he had incited religious hatred by reading aloud in public a poem that included the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." Sentenced to 10 months, Erdogan served four.)

"At present, Turkey is still a wonderful country for tourists, but it is becoming an increasingly difficult place for its citizens. You wouldn’t want to be a writer, journalist, translator, publisher, human rights activist, democrat, thinking person, or anyone who seeks justice in 'my' country." – Tarik Gunersel, president of PEN Turkey, a global human rights and literary organization.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, 63, is a target of current demonstrations intended to persuade him not to sign the new internet control legislation into law. Gul is variously thought to be an ally of and rival to Erdogan as either president or prime minister. He is the first Islamist president of modern Turkey, who once said, "The secular system has failed and we definitely want to change it."

Gul is under pressure not only from street demonstrations but several civil society organizations to veto the Internet censorship law. Gul has until February 25 to decide. If he fails to veto the law, the main opposition party, CHP – Republican People's Party – has promised to challenge it in the Constitutional Court.

On February 10, CHP Deputy Head Faruk Logoglu said: "This bill contradicts with European Convention of Human Rights articles on the right to privacy, freedom of association, and freedom of speech…. We see that this law has no place among basic human rights. Everyone wonders if the president will veto it, but he has always approved [bills]…. The only objective of this bill is to cover-up the claims of corruption and bribery."

Turkey's application to join the European Union, filed in 1987, remained dormant until 2005. Since then, progress has been slow, not least because of European concerns about Turkish commitment to civil rights and human rights, as well as the rule of law generally. In the spring of 2013, when the Turkish government started cracking down on protesters at Gezi Square in Istanbul, the Europeans suspended talks for several months until the country quieted down.

After visiting European Union headquarters in January, his first trip to Brussels in five years, Erdogan came away speaking contemptuously of European concerns once he was back home in Ankara: "Is the European Union's only issue to prepare a progress report on Turkey? You cannot stand idly by the developments in Syria. The E.U. still doesn't dare to call a military coup against the elected president in Egypt a coup. We sincerely expect the E.U., which sharply criticizes its member countries, should criticize itself and write its own progress report."

The Turkish economy, which grew rapidly in recent years, has turned more sluggish. In 2013 the unemployment rate was almost 10% overall in December, but approaching twice as much for men and women under 26. Unemployment grew in January, with 2.7 million Turks unemployed. The OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, first established to run the Marshall Plan after World War II – sums up Turkey's recent development this way: "Turkey has made considerable progress in improving the quality of life of its citizens over the last two decades. Notwithstanding, Turkey ranks low in a large number of topics relative to most other countries in the Better Life Index."

Turkey has relatively low scores for housing, jobs, income, education and life satisfaction. It has better relative scores in health, safety, and especially civic engagement. Nevertheless, Turkey was making progress, at least as measured by the OECD, and there was talk of a "new Turkey" rising under the Islamist one-party state with its popular, charismatic leader.

“The life and times of the so-called ‘new Turkey’ under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule has been so short that all those analyses based on the ‘democratic potential’ of a rising moderate Islamic political power proved to be a disastrous delusion within a very short amount of time.” – Nuray Mert, columnist for Hurriyet Daily News, February 10, 2014

Turkish foreign policy may not be as lively as the domestic scene (which is blamed for having only six Turkish athletes at the Sochi Olympics), but there's more going on than just the mud wrestling with the European Union.

Turkish relations with Armenia remain chilly mainly because Turkey gets mad when anyone says the Turks carried out an Armenian genocide in 1915. Erdogan is on record saying Turks killed a million Armenians, but that it wasn't genocide.

Turkish relations with the Kurds aren't generally called genocidal yet, but they've killed some 30,000 Kurds in recent years. This is more of a longstanding guerrilla war waged by Turkey's largest minority population, which is also a large minority population in Iraq and Iran, and would really rather have their own Kurdistan. The Alevis are another minority population in Turkey, but a much smaller minority of the wrong kind of Muslim, so the Turkish Sunnis massacre them periodically, most recently in 2010.

Turkey and Iran were at odds over Syria when the civil war there started, but more recently Erdogan's opposition to Assad has been fading for the sake of Turkish-Iranian relations that are said to be better than they've been in centuries. In that context, a recent trial balloon posited that Turkey, Iran, and Iraq might form an alliance that could bring stability to the Middle East.

Turkey has a 511-mile border with Syria, which is virtually defenseless. Southeastern Turkey has become a lawless place pretty much used at will by refugees, Syrian rebels, Islamic jihadists, smugglers, human traffickers, and anyone else with motive and muscle. Turkish and Syrian defense forces are largely a non-factor.

Turkish relations with Israel have been chilly since the Israelis killed eight Turks on a boat loaded with humanitarian aid trying to get past Israel's illegal blockade to help besieged Palestinians in Gaza. The Israelis eventually apologized, but the Turks still want reparations.

Turkish relations with Greece might be improving as Cyprus reunification talks are resuming. Turkey invaded Cyprus to head off a Greek coup in 1974 and talks have gone on sporadically for a decade or so.

Offshore oil and gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean could always complicate matters for the closest countries – Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, not to mention interested parties at a greater distance.

And none of this takes into account the nuclear weapons based in Turkey as the result of its 52-year NATO membership.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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