Wednesday, November 1, 2017

'Be Careful': If You're Visiting Turkey, Don't Provoke the State*

Haaretz: "If Turkey hadn't directly provoked the U.S., reports of its human rights violations would be collecting dust. Now, with red lines being crossed and Americans targeted, Congress is upping the ante."

It's been more than two weeks since the United States suspended the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in Turkey, halting the travel to the U.S. of thousands of Turkish citizens. Tit-for-tat, Turkey announced it would stop issuing e-visas and airport visas to U.S. citizens arriving directly from U.S. destinations.

American sanctions on Turkey come as Turkish citizens working at the U.S. consular offices in Ankara have been targeted by the Turkish government’s expanding purge: two consular workers have so far been detained.

U.S. visa sanctions sent shock waves through Turkey, especially for those accustomed to frequent travel to the U.S. over the last decade. Turkish Airlines’ extensive U.S. flight schedule is testament to the Turkish demand for interconnectivity with the U.S. Thousands have had their plans put on hold or cancelled altogether.

Thus far, the damage has been limited. Since U.S. visas often have a ten-year expiration date, many still have no problem getting through; and, for those desperate to get to a U.S. destination without a current visa, they can also apply through a third country - though that’s certainly a costly and time-consuming process.  

Unlike in Turkey, in the U.S., the visa suspensions have barely made the headlines, and Turkey’s reciprocal act - while in line with diplomatic protocol - shortsightedly hurts its own interests far more. Turkish Airlines has reported a 45 percent drop in reservations from Turkey to the U.S.

But even if the visa issue hasn’t made much impact newswise for many Americans, Turkey’s image has already hit rock bottom, thanks to other events that have indeed made a media impact, not least Erdogan’s intemperate language towards the U.S., and the whole sorry episode of his presidential guards who beat up protestors in D.C. 

The complimentary image of Turkey I used to hear described in America has been replaced by one dominant take: Turkey as an authoritarian state. And, as the political situation in the country has worsened, the many students, colleagues and friends who once streamed to Turkey, slowly stopped going.

Now, those friends and colleagues tell me before I go there to visit: "Be careful."
Back in 2015-2016, "be careful" referred to one’s personal safety.

During those years, Turkey was struck by ISIS and PKK terror, one bomb coming a bit too close for comfort, hundreds of yards from a student group I was leading last in early 2016. Turkey has been able to bring back a sense of security to its streets.

However, following the 2016 attempted coup and the ensuing State of Emergency, which has led to the arrest of tens of  thousands, "be careful" has become a wider warning: "Beware of protests", and "beware of protesting". Americans saw firsthand how protesters in Washington D.C. were attacked by Erdogan’s guards.

It would be equally relevant to add further warnings to visitors: "Beware of journalism", after Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to two years in jail in absentia for an article she wrote that the government condemned as "terrorist propaganda".

And they also could add "beware of human rights activism", in relation to the members of Amnesty International, who were released last night on bail after spending almost 100 days in jail (Turkey’s Amnesty chairperson, Taner Kilic, is still in custody).

And "beware of working with NGOs of any kind", after the recent arrest of Osman Kavala, who has played a key role in promoting civil society and international art projects.

And "beware of just being an American who can be used as a hostage", after U.S. media coverage of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s been held for over a year on dubious espionage charges, went up a gear since fears were raised that Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip by Turkey. That was after Erdogan hinted that he could be exchanged for Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric wanted in Turkey for allegedly masterminding the coup.   

The sad reality is if Turkey had minded the diplomatic niceties and worked to stay off the radar of the U.S. and had avoided unnecessary conflict, most of the overflowing and documented human rights violations in Turkey would have remained tucked away in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

How many Americans realize (or care) that the co-chairs of the third largest political party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag of the mostly Kurdish HDP, are behind bars, together with a long list of other MPs from the same party, effectively silencing the opposition?

As news of Turkey’s human rights violations become more mainstream, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress that Turkey has crossed all democratic and rule of law red lines.

Despite concerted attempts by Turkey to sideline Congress and State Department officials, Erdogan’s attempts to carry out a direct line of communication with U.S. president Donald Trump, for now, at least, seems to have failed as a strategy.

Just yesterday, U.S. senators sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump expressing their grave concern over the "continuing erosion of human rights and decline of democratic values in Turkey."

As Turkey repivots closer to Russia, and as more voices arise in the U.S. calling to rethink the historic strategic relations between the two countries, Turkey is on track to fatally tarnish its image in the United States, risking not only a key ally but also the chance of Turkey once again becoming a magnet for American investment and support. America is also paying a price, absorbing varied geopolitical losses as Turkey retreats.

This article appeared in Haaretz on October 30,2017. Click here for the link

'This Is 1940s Germany': Can Turkey's Revitalized anti-Erdogan Opposition Prevail?*

** This article is from July 2017 and was written in wake of the masive Justice rally held by the CHP in Istanbul. 

Haaretz: "This week, one million people in Istanbul demanded civil rights, law and justice. As Erdogan's purges intensify, can a fragmented opposition sustain that momentum?"

"This is the era of dictatorship. This is the era of 1940s Germany."

Such explicit fighting talk directed against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rare these days in Turkey, not least in the heart of Istanbul. But they were the words spoken days ago by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the mostly secular center-left CHP party, at a huge rally rounding off a 25 day march through Turkey aimed at strengthening the democractic spirit in the country which has been under intensified assault for a year.

A year go, following the July 15 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s three main parties (excluding the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP party) came together at a massive rally held in Istanbul’s Yenikapi neighborhood. For Erdogan, having nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, and the main opposition leader, Kilicdaroglu, join the rally, together with his AKP party, seemed liked an impossible feat. Following the rally, a new term emerged on the Turkish political scene to describe this show of unusual unity: the "Spirit of Yenikapi."

However, this spirit was short-lived. With the government moving full steam ahead with its extensive purge, a clampdown that includes the arrest of critics of the government, such as journalists, academics and Members of Parliament, what seemed to some like a new dawn for Turkey, quickly turned into a nightmare for tens of thousands of people who have found themselves behind bars, not to mention the far greater numbers of family members affected.  

Fast forward a year. Turkey’s second massive rally, termed the “Justice” rally, held in Maltepe (also in Istanbul), highlighted the failed spirit of Yenikapi.  At this rally, over a million people joined Kilicdaroglu to chant in unison three words: Hak, Hukuk and Adalet: Rights, Law and Justice.

Never has Turkey seen such a huge and blatantly anti-Erdogan rally, nor has it seen Kilicdaroglu perform with such sharp, high caliber language to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of implementing autocratic rule and using the attempted coup to enact a civil coup through the State of Emergency, introduced five days after, which has enabled the ongoing mass purges and arrests.

So how did Kilicdaroglu succeed in transforming himself from a predictable - and at times obedient - opposition leader to a level of popularity unprecedented since becoming party head in 2010?

The answer is by marching over 400 kilometers over 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul, and the massive rally for which he set the agenda. On the march he endured mountainous steep climbs, pouring rain, and burning summer heat, but endeared himself to many of those he passed. It not only didn’t exhaust the modest 69-year old politician, but he positively gained momentum with each passing step.  

It wasn’t only admiration for his determination that boosted Kilicdaroglu’s success. The march functioned as a process of renewal; by removing himself from Ankara’s petty politics and parliamentary hallways, he was no longer a secondary figure, trailing behind Erdogan, but transformed into a real leader.

Over 25 days even groups who were initially reluctant joined in. Their differences with the CHP and its secular and Kemalist legacy quickly dissipated once it was made clear that no party or organization would march with their own banners. The march had one title and one title alone: justice for all those who have been wrongly sentenced to prison, serving time waiting for trials, or fired from their jobs.

So, where from here? Will the massive rally in Maltepe transform into a new movement for the return of law and an independent judiciary?

In the short term, no change is in sight, and the purges and arrests will continue. What better proof of this than this week’s arrest of Bogazici University professor Koray Caliskan, on charges of possible links to the Gulen movement (a claim that seems absurd on the surface, not only due to his past leftist politics but also due to his ties to the CHP).

Whether there’ll be a longer term effect depends mostly on if Kilicdaroglu can convince his party to keep building coalitions, to push beyond his electoral ceiling of around 25-30%. However, the time is ripe for this approach. If the opposition learned anything from last April’s constitutional referendum, that is only by finding common ground and rising above their differences can they defy the odds; true, the opposition lost the referendum, however the margin of Erdogan’s victory was small, and the opposition took all the major urban arenas, including Istanbul, once an Erdogan stronghold. Elections are due in 2019.

The CHP will need to reach out to conservative and more right-leaning voters, while continuing to develop a dialogue with new emerging voices, such as with Meral Aksener, who is set on establishing a new party in the near future together with other defectors from the ailing MHP. As for the Kurds, few expect Kilicdaroglu to get their votes, but the HDP’s participation in the march was a positive step forward; however, without a transformative initiative to end years of violence, it is highly unlikely the CHP can reach the level of optimism needed to make real change, something once offered by Erdogan and the AKP.

So, for now, it is hard to declare that the Maltepe Justice rally was a turning point, and better to echo Kilicdaroglu’s own words: that July 9, 2017 was only the beginning of a movement. For now, the spirt of Maltepe is very real; whether it awaits the same fate as the 2016 spirit of Yenikapi remains to be seen. Only time will tell, but the almost impossible weight of Turkey’s future is riding on it.  

**This article appeared in Haaretz on July 12, 2017. Click here for the link