Monday, January 20, 2014

Hrant Dink: Seven Years Marching for Justice (Buradayız Ahparig We are here!)

Hrant Dink (1954-2007): "As long as I live here, I will go on telling the truth, just as I always have." ."

For seven years now, on January 19, people have taken to the streets to remember Hrant Dink, who was shot dead in front of the offices of  Agos, the Turkish-Armenian newspaper, where he served as its chief editor. 

The newspaper, Birgun, opted to remember Dink by publishing the picture of when he was killed on that January 2007 day. All we could see from the covered body was the worn-out shoes with a hole in them-this became a sign of his modesty.

The annual march starts in Taksim and slowly makes it way to his offices in Osmanbey, a neighborhood in the Şişli district. With tensions high since the Gezi Park protests, three water cannons were placed at the starting point of the procession. Happily, all ended peacefully (just the night before police had used excessive force to silence a protest against internet censorship with teargas and rubber bullets). 

The marchers represent all walks of life: old and young; religious and secular; rich and poor; Turkish people of all religions and ethnicities:  Turks, Kurds, Sunnis and Alevis, Armenians, Greeks, Jews; also present were worker unions, and members of Turkey's LGBT community. Together everyone chanted "We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian."

A different chant heard over and over again was "Killer-State, we will hold you accountable!" For seven years, despite credible suspicion that some within the Turkish state apparatus (the Deep State) masterminded the assassination, the trial has been shrouded in cover-ups and only people on the lower-end of the ladder have been prosecuted. Even though the young gunman, and another shady character, have been convicted, the trial continues on...

Other chants included those remembering the seven young men who were killed in the Gezi Park protests, and get-well wishes to Berkin Elvan, the 15-year old, who during the summer protests, while out buying bread was hit in the head by a teargas canister-he is still in a coma. Lastly, a call to bring justice to Sevag Balıkçı was heard over the loudspeakers. He was an ethnic Armenian who was killed while serving in the Turkish army; despite the courts finding that this was a case of an accidental shooting, some of his army mates have a different story. He was killed three years ago in his barracks on April 24-the official day of commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.

Along the way, we passed a main road named Ergenekon, which leads up to the neighborhood Kurtuluş, home to many Armenians, and where Hrant Dink once lived. In addition to the name of the street's Turkish mythical nationalist significance, it also is the name of the ultra-nationalist group whose members were sentenced to prison due to attempts to stage a coup d'etat; many believe that some members of this group could have ties to the Dink assassination. Ever since he was killed, there have been calls to change the name of the street to "Hrant Dink" avenue. 

This was the last photograph as the marchers paused to let the merging group from "Hrant Dink" avenue join in, before making the way to the Agos headquarters. Among the people leading the procession is Rakel Dink, Hrant's wife, the one who has never stopped speaking up on his behalf, working endlessly to keep his memory alive.

Arriving to Agos, speeches took place and sad music was played. Among the speakers was Gulten Kaya, wife of the famous Turkish singer who died in exile, Ahmet Kaya. Also, one of the speakers stressed the importance that next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide; in other words, it is impossible to separate the killing of Hrant from the massacre of Armenians in 1915. During the ceremony, some people cried, while others chanted defiantly. Slowly the tens-of-thousands of people holding signs in Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish departed their ways. For seven years they have demanded justice, and until it is served they will be back. 

Buradayız Ahparig We are here!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Some thoughts on Turkey’s “Parallel State” and Corruption

Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has recently been marketing a new term for Turkish public consumption: the “Parallel State.” This of course is a term that bears a striking resemblance to the familiar term, the “Deep State,” which describes the once anti-democratic forces within the Turkish establishment that prevented the will of the people from being realized, achieving this through violent means such as assassinations and extrajudicial killings of Kurds. The deep state (derin devlet) of course, went hand-in-hand with Turkey’s history of coups, and the grasp the military once had over the state institutions, with its fate being sealed with the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials.

Following the unfolding of the events of the December 17 corruption probe, Erdogan was quick to attribute the probe as a work of the parallel state (paralel devlet). In other words, a new “state within the state,” had emerged within the Turkish bureaucracy, and the corruption probe was nothing less than a blatant attempt to topple his government. In fact, as far as Erdogan was concerned, this did not begin with the corruption probe, but actually with the Gezi Park protests. In his New Year’s Eve message, Erdogan stated that “In May 2013 when everything was going well, both domestic and external powers, which were jealous of our successes, started the Gezi protests and attacked the nation's hopes and the future and independence of our country. This movement was followed by a plot started on Dec. 17.”

Defining the parallel state however was much easier than the underground shady forces of the deep state, since from the beginning there was only one culprit: the once staunch ally of the AKP, the Gulen movement. Despite that tensions between Erdogan and the Gulenist movement became evident a few years back, its spiritual leader, the self-exiled religious preacher, Fethullah Gulen, never pulled his support for the government; however, during the last few months, as Erdogan took steps to consolidate his power within his party, the two camps seemed set on a course of collision, which hit new heights right before the breaking of the corruption probe.  

While there is a kernel of truth concerning the Gulenists' influence within state institutions (as I wrote in Haaretz), what is lacking in the parallel state thesis is that the Gulen movement has showed no signs of wanting to take power away from the AKP. In fact, up until a month ago, their main newspaper, Zaman, one of Turkey’s largest dailies, was still publishing pro-government op-eds, even if its editorial staff had grown more critical following the Gezi protests.

The claim that the movement was attempting to topple Erdogan, in what has been coined as a “judicial coup,” on the surface seems ludicrous; if the Gulenists had no plans to take the reins of the state, or did not support a power to replace the AKP, then what kind of coup is this? And, if Erdogan saw them as such a great threat, then why did he work hand-in-hand with them for the last eleven years, allowing them to become an integral part of the party’s makeup. If anything, Erdogan is a political genius; he clearly is not naïve.

Of course, this leads us to the main question, whether or not the Gulenists only crime (from the perspective of the AKP) was withdrawing its support from the government? Or, perhaps, was it due to the simple fact that Erdogan could not stand any criticism whatsoever, which the Gulen movement was increasingly voicing concerning both domestic and foreign affairs?

The Turkish government knows how to strike back against its opponents and it certainly has. Without any judicial process, hundreds of police and government officials (including prosecutors), believed by many as followers of Gulen, have been removed from their positions, threatening the existence of the rule of law. The weeding out process that we are witnessing appears strikingly similar to the February 28 process, also known as the 1997 “post-modern” coup d’état, when religious Turkish citizens, including many current AKP members, were removed one-by-one from public institutions due to the demands of the once strong secular establishment.  

While Erdogan continues to call foul play, few can deny that the claims of corruption, which on the surface seem to be evident. This was so eloquently expressed by Cuneyt Ozdemir in his weekend article in the Turkish newspaper, Radikal.  According to Ozdemir, most of those accused of receiving bribes or gifts (including government ministers) have yet to deny it; however, the same answer to accusations is repeated over and over again: this is the work of the parallel state! He then goes and highlights the need to separate the two accusations: bribes and corruption are one thing; while, the struggle against parallel state is another, reiterating that if there is such a parallel state it should be investigated accordingly.

What I will add is that until now the government has been unable to present little-if any-evidence of such a parallel state, even if there is no doubt that two camps are involved in a bitter fight. And, even if the government does find the “smoking-gun” that they are endlessly searching for, the recent curbing of judicial powers to obstruct further investigations into corruption affairs, much less the targeting of peoples’ careers based on belonging to a certain sect, is worrying to say the least.

Lastly, a strange twist has emerged from this discovery of the “parallel state.” Erdogan, and the Turkish government, has signaled their support for the retrial of army officers and citizens convicted in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, as a result of claims that they were unjustly judged by this newly founded parallel state.

Regardless if one agrees with the convictions (numerous legal experts continue to voice concern of the special court’s judicial transparency), the fact that Erdogan is willing to allow a retrial of these convicts shows just how upside down Turkish politics have become. Imagine the impossible: the ones accused of being the deep state will be retried due to the injustice done to them by the parallel state. The fact that AKP is willing to reverse what they considered their greatest victory in order to cover up the corruption within the government is a travesty.

Lastly, if Erdogan expects to find new friends from this political maneuvering, he will most likely be mistaken. What seems clear is he will likely be opening a new can of worms, which will add to the already growing instability of the Turkish political scene. Let us not forget, for many jailed in Silivri, some who might even be released pending retrial, as far as they are concerned, there is only one parallel state, and that is Erdogan and the AKP apparatus that landed them behind bars.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Erdogan in the headlights: Crimes, corruption and conspiracies* (from Haaretz, December 29, 2013)

The uncovering of a slew of financial scandals in Turkey shocked the country and exposed what appears to be a government corrupt to its bones. It is also a turning point for Turkey’s prime minister for the last eleven years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP. While few can deny his remarkable achievements - a strong economy, removing the country's military tutelage, working for a just solution for the Kurdish question, and fixing injustices, such as lifting the headscarf ban, the political chaos we are now witnessing is not due solely to the gravity of the corruption issue, but also to Erdogan's miscalculations and inherent weaknesses.
The corruption probe caps a rough two years; after being elected with almost fifty percent of the vote for a third term in 2011, Erdogan was in an ideal position to legislate reforms close to his heart. But the key reform should have been to adopt a new constitution, sealing his legacy as the leader who eradicated one of the last vestiges of the 1980 coup. But his party has now postponed debate on this until after the 2015 parliamentary elections, and Erdogan did not push back against this.
Within the parliament, Erdogan’s push to legislate presidential reform, entitling Turkey’s president to executive powers, was also another miscalculation. According to the AKP’s guidelines, a prime minister can serve only three terms. To realize his dream of leading Turkey until 2023, its 100th anniversary, Erdogan announced plans to run for president in summer 2014. While this option is still possible, his attempts to transfer executive powers to the presidency failed, due to parliamentarians' fears of a 'Putinization' of the Turkish political system.
Since 2011, Erdogan has also had to face a much more organized opposition, both within parliament and on the street. While many focus on Erdogan’s strong poll numbers, it's wrong to ignore the CHP, the main opposition party, which now enjoys the support of a quarter of the Turkish population. However, the opposition is not limited to parliament: Over the last few years, more citizens have taken it upon themselves to express their dissent towards Erdogan’s policies. At sporting events and universities, Erdogan and his ministers have been openly booed, forcing them to seclude themselves within protected domains. This seclusion revealed to the public one of Erdogan's greatest weaknesses: His inability to absorb any forms of dissent.
Erdogan has wrongly interpreted the support of such a large electorate behind him as carte blanche to curb all dissent; where once it was only 'radical' Kurdish and leftist groups which met with teargas, now the mainstream opposition, and almost any group protesting government policy, is subjected to violent police clampdowns. What Erdogan did not understand was that the harder the government fought to silence dissent, the louder the voices were raised, culminating in the Gezi Park protests.
There is no doubt that the Gezi protests surprised Erdogan; however, in place of adopting a damage control plan, he remained defiant, blaming the protests on international conspiracies, with some of his ministers even using the potent Jewish conspiracy card. Taking this route left the Turkish police battling protesters until today in a vicious circle; as Erdogan has never addressed the core of the problem, he has prolonged it, making it much worse. As a result, Turkey has become even more polarized, and, with former liberal support withering away, Erdogan opened the AKP’s door to a more conservative-based factions.
As Erdogan was faced with greater dissent in the public sphere, he also sought to consolidate power within his own party, and there is no doubt that the Gulenist movement, followers of the Turkish religious preacher Fethullah Gulen, in self-imposed exile in the U.S., was top of his list. Known also by the term Hizmet, the Gulen followers were a major sub-faction of Erdogan's AKP, who joined forces against the Turkish military. Over the years it became apparent that this was a marriage of convenience, and that a power struggle was inevitable.
During the last few weeks, an all-out war of words has erupted within the AKP between the two factions, a particularly messy fight thanks to how integrally woven into the party the Gulenists are. Following the corruption probe, this group has been targeted by Erdogan as those conspiring against his leadership, strengthened by the rumors that they have a strong presence within the judiciary and police force.
While there is a kernel of truth concerning the Gulenists' influence within state institutions, it in no way exonerates those accused of the alleged crimes. Yet, like the Gezi protests, the prime minister has brushed off this corruption as an international conspiracy as well, with some even linking the Gulen movement with Israel in a plot against Turkey. Erdogan has stepped up his campaign against his opponents, tagging them as traitors. The rhetorical volatility is reaching a tipping point that risks bringing Turkey back to the dark days of the past. There are also serious allegations that Erdogan is meddling in judicial affairs, raising concerns about the future of Turkish democracy.
If the corruption allegations are true, it seems impossible that Erdogan will remain unscathed. With the local elections months away, and presidential and parliamentary ones on the horizon, he faces an unprecedented challenge. No electorate likes polarization; nor, does the financial sector, weary after this week’s stock market losses. Perhaps the resignation of members of his own party resign will convince Erdogan to rethink his moves in order not to lose significant popular support.
There is no doubt that Erdogan is a political genius, but he might be running out of the clout he once wielded. Erdogan is facing a rough road ahead, and he is taking a whole country with him on this journey.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York and writes on Turkish, and Israeli/Palestinian affairs. His upcoming book is on Ottoman Palestine.  He has lived most of his life between the U.S., Israel, and Turkey. Follow himon Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv He blogs at:
*This article appeared originally in Haaretz on Dec 29, 2013; I am placing the entire text here since due to the paywall sometimes the link is blocked