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Thursday, 28 September 2006

Southeast Turkey: Ceasing fire. Again.

Speculation has been mounting that the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, is on the verge of unilaterally declaring a ceasefire. Kurdish political figures in Turkey and Iraq's president have both called for it, and they were joined earlier today by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in a Turkish prison for seven years but still remains an influential figure among many Kurdish militants.

An end to the bombing is of course what any sane person would want. It might even be the only course of action left to the PKK; it lost what little sympathy it had over the summer when it blew up minibuses in Turkish tourist resorts or bombed bus stops in Kurdish towns. What is less clear is whether this ceasefire will last.

There have been two PKK ceasefires before. The first was announced by Ocalan himself in 1993, while he was still riding high in Lebanon, while the second was immediately after his capture six years later. The latter of these held for a few years into the new century, until fighters declared the government hadn't done enough to increase the rights of Kurds in Turkey.

In a way, the fighters were right. 'Enough' had not been done - it was after all only with EU-orientated reforms that such changes as Kurdish broadcasting were grudgingly introduced. But where the fighters were wrong, so desperately wrong, was in their choice to resort to violence again. Since then there have been countless bomb attacks on police stations and military outposts. Tens of soldiers and officers were killed, with each death helping to fuel a resurgence in Turkish nationalism.

There is nervous talk of offering an amnesty to some PKK leaders, including Öcalan, in return for an end to the bombing. Nervous, because no Turkish political leader would ever openly advocate it. But there are some both in government and opposition who privately accept it is the only way to end the bloodshed. Those same people have come to accept that Turkey's Kurdish population should be further embraced, not distanced, as a result of PKK militancy.

There are of course circles that would be outraged at the mere idea of talks of any kind with the PKK. But even Turkish generals have admitted that the PKK threat cannot be elimated by purely military means. Öcalan is far too high profile to ever be released from his prison island in the country's northwest, but other wanted militants aren't. If allowing them back to their homes in southeastern Turkey will stop the attacks, then so be it. It is not as if those militants would suddenly be living in full liberty; more likely they'll be watched by the state from a certain distance for the rest of their lives. But if it stops the killing, then it has to be done. And if the PKK is on the verge of declaring a ceasefire, then that is precisely what has happened.

Thursday, 21 September 2006

Article 301: Victory, but beware the nationalist

It took forty minutes at an Istanbul court to acquit Elif Şafak of all charges against her, and this without the defendant even having to set foot in court. The judges dismissed the case because "the legal components of the offence had not been established" - or, to put it simply, the prosecution could not prove Elif Şafak had broken the law.

It means that yet another case has fallen through one of the gaping holes in Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. Save the case of Hrant Dink, who was given a delayed prison sentence, no trial has reached a successful conclusion. Surely this means the law is not watertight? Surely this means it should go?

This evening, the prime minister welcomed the ruling and finally gave way: "We can sit down and talk (about Article 301), just so long as government and opposition reaches some kind of consensus." CHP leader Deniz Baykal made an attempt, of sorts, to jump on the bandwagon; when asked whether the article should change, he responded with a question: "Does the problem come from the article, or the application of the article?"

The answer to Mr Baykal's question is "both". Though despite his less than clear response to today's ruling, opposition party sources in Ankara were saying tonight that they would consider supporting a change.

But nothing is ever black and white, and Nazif İflazoğlu in today's Radikal went some way to show that the AKP might not have been entirely driven by a stubborn desire to protect the apparent sanctity of Turkishness. It seems there are fears that by scraping the article, the AKP will have served a strong campaign issue straight into the hands of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) ahead of next year's general election. "The government has permitted the freedom to insult Turkishness", the MHP will be able to cry. The government's concern is that such a line of campaigning will go down rather well in rural parts of the country, at the AKP's expense.

Their concern is a legitimate one. The MHP is not an unpopular party; they were a partner in government until 2002, when they failed to cross the election barrier and enter parliament. While there was widespread relief at having kept the extreme right wing out of parliament, many overlooked the fact that the nationalist vote was split almost equally between the MHP and the Youth Party, the latter of which has since become a non-entity. Their combined share of the vote is 15 percent, which - had they been united - would have placed them comfortably behind the CHP as parliament's third party.

Regardless of whether the election barrier falls, the MHP will almost certainly re-enter parliament in 2007. Article 301 could help them even further.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Article 301: Cracks in the AKP?

It seems Abdullah Gül, the foreign minister, has conceded Article 301* of the Turkish Penal Code could change. "If there is no violence behind a thought," he said yesterday in New York, "then we are in favour of that thought being expressed".

His words follow up on those of Ali Babacan, the chief EU negotiator, but clash with those of Cemil Çiçek, the government spokesman. Speaking before parliament met today to discuss urgent EU reforms, Mr Çiçek said again that Article 301 was not on their agenda. Radikal today picked up on the differences of opinion with the headline "Cracks in AKP over 301". The prime minister, it seems, is also against changing the law.

But the government's voice is not one of unity on the matter. State Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin has admitted that "it would be easier" if the courts did not produce "conflicting rulings" on cases of 301. He's suggested waiting a little more to see what the Court of Appeals has to say.

Except time is not something the government has. Tomorrow begins the trial of Elif Şafak, author of "The Bastard of Istanbul", a rather controversial title that has not gone down well among the hawks of Turkishness waiting for a sign of blasphemy. Ms Şafak herself will not be present on the opening day, but all the same it will be closely watched by the media. An EU delegation headed by Joost Lagendijk, the head of the EU-Turkey Joint Commission, will be there as well. And the Istanbul governor has said there will be extra security precautions in place to avoid a repeat of the scenes outside Orhan Pamuk's trial in December.

Tomorrow might not find as much international coverage on the scale of Mr Pamuk's abortive case, but the urgency is ever greater. The opposition CHP has said the article should be changed so that it creates "no further problems". The EU has taken things a step further, insisting it be scrapped completely.

It will take two weeks before parliament can even discuss the law, which is why a shift in government position is needed now. With a critical progress report from the EU on the horizon, a modified Article 301 could be just the small symbol of readiness for change that Turkey needs.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Formula One: A deserved punishment

The governing body of Formula One, FIA, fined Turkey $5 million this afternoon for using the president of a country that doesn't exist* to present a trophy to the winner of this year's Turkish Grand Prix. TOSFED, the Turkish Motorsport Federation, will be footing the fine; it is a fine they deserve, and they should be grateful the race itself wasn't pulled completely from the F1 calendar.

TOSFED have yet to react to the ruling, although their website does contain a feeble explanation about why President Talat was used to present the award in the first place. "When a country's president or prime minister, or the FIA president, are unavailable, the host country invites either a figure who represents them or an individual of international stature. In line with these conditions, our organisers MSO invited Mehmet Ali Talat."

Some might call that a fair argument. But it doesn't quite check in with the words of Rıfat Hisarcıklıoğlu, chairman of a major MSO shareholder, who unashamedly said, "if we are fined, we'll pay it. The promotion of (North) Cyprus is far more important for us."

Many people in Turkey, of course, think five million dollars is worth paying for a victory over the Greek Cypriots. But a sizeable contingent is not waving the flag of nationalism. The government, for one, has stood well away - when asked for his response to Mr Hiscıklıoğlu's words, state minister Mehmet Ali Şahin refused to comment.

There is also anger among members of the Istanbul Chamber of Trade, another major MSO shareholder. Writing on the NTVMSNBC website, Kerim Suner said, "I think the fine should be paid by those who came up with the idea. I pay my membership fee to the chamber every year. I am against my fees being used to pay off this fine."

Turkey has escaped with minimum damage from a diplomatic stunt they knew was provocative. I still have to ask - was it all worth it?

Monday, 18 September 2006

The Pope, and whether he has a big mouth

So a man who leads a branch of the largest religion in the world quotes something said by some emperor six hundred years ago and manages to offend followers of the world's second largest religion in the process. Is that an accurate summary?

Pope Benedict XVI would probably not have expected such a ferious response to his lecture as he stood up to deliver it at the University of Regensburg, in the German state of Bavaria. He's been compared to Hitler and Mussolini, he's had effigies of himself burned, and several churches in the Middle East have been attacked. Yesterday, an Italian nun living in Somalia was shot in the back and killed. So far, the backlash has not reached the levels of demonstrations against Danish cartoonists earlier this year, although the risk has been there.

I read a copy of the lecture on Saturday, soon after the story of the first protests broke, and although I did not have a chance to update this blog at the time, I do remember thinking that the Pope's words had been misunderstood. Yes, he does quote a Byzantine emperor who says that the Prophet Mohammed's teachings are "evil and inhuman". And yes, the rest of the lecture does consider the matter of spreading faith by force. But just as importantly, he never does say that he agrees with the Emperor's words. I would wager that protestors in India or angry AKP politicians in Turkey had hardly read the quotation, let alone the entire speech.

The Pope did make a mistake by failing to make a clear distinction between the thoughts of Emperor Manuel II and those of his own. He has since apologised through a statement, and then in person, for the mistake and for the reaction it caused. He needs to make no further apology for daring to discuss the matter of spreading faith through violence. It would help though if he visited a mosque when he comes to Turkey in November.

In Turkey, there has been some genuine anger, but many have taken the opportunity to use the backlash for political gain. Yestrday, True Path Party (DYP) demonstrators appeared outside Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara with a banner reading "Easy to be the Pope, Hard to be the Human", as foreign press cameras clicked away. The Pope's words were condemned by Deniz Baykal, the CHP leader, and Mehmet Agar, the DYP leader, as well. It's funny how staunchly secular parties have suddenly jumped on the religion bandwagon.

But it was Salih Kapusuz, the head of the AKP paraliamentary group, who rocketed to international attention as the face of Turkey's reaction when he compared Benedict XVI to the first fascist dictators that sprang to mind. His words were lapped up by an eager foreign press - "angry words from a high ranking Turkish official", they cried. Mr Kapusuz is no such thing, and in his full statement he said the Pope's "insolent words" had shown he was ignorant and had "a mentality left behind from the darkness of the Middle Ages". He was livid, and clearly had no idea that simply by using Hitler's name he would catapult himself into the pages of every broadsheet in the West.

Response from the higher levels have government has been far more measured. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday thtthe Pope had made "an unfortunate statement" and should apologise, while foreign minister Abdullah Gül confirmed November's papal visit would not be called off. It is a commendable response, one that showed there are people in govenment who understand that running amok will do them no favours, however offended they might be.

I won't call the last few days a PR victory for Turkey, but it could have been a lot worse. Imagine if Mr Kapusuz was prime minister.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Article 301: Release Michael Dickinson

This is the image that landed Michael Dickinson in police custody in Istanbul yesterday. The British artist unfurled the banner while demonstrating outside the trial of an anti-war activist charged with displaying similar images of the prime minister. He refused to put it away when approached by police.

Mr Dickinson is charged with "insulting the prime minister's dignity", an old chestnut from Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. It is this article that makes it a criminal offence to insult "Turkishness". It is this article that has spawned nearly 70 trials against apparent enemies of the state.

Having lived in this country for twenty years, Michael Dickinson will have been fully aware of how individuals in Turkey do not enjoy civil liberties at the degree they do in, say, his native homeland. The moment his banner was unveiled, he would not have expected anything but to be approached by police. Any romantic claims that he is a martyr of free speech are, frankly, rubbish.

His poster might be stupid and immature, but Mr Dickinson certainly does not deserve arrest or trial for it. What the Turkish authorities have failed to understand for decades - and particularly since the law criminalising Turkishness first passed - is that by detaining artists and authors they are doing little else than promote their work.

Orhan Pamuk, for instance, is Turkey's most popular author abroad. His abortive trial last year only helped fuel his image. The cartoon above of President Bush alongside Prime Minister Erdoğan's head on a dog's body appeared in all its glory in today's Guardian. The article goes on to mention how Mr Erdoğan "is believed to have earned at least £115,000 in damages from insult cases" since he first sued a cartoonist for personal damages last year. In Mr Dickinson's homeland, it would be that fortune, and not the cartoons,that are brought into public scrutiny.

Article 301 does not need alteration, nor any kind of public review. It needs to go, plain and simple.

Image © Copyright Michael Dickinson, "Turkey's War on Political Cartoonists, 2005. Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, March 31 2005.

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Southeast Turkey: The bubbling pot

There's something about terrorism involving children that makes my blood boil. It's not that attacks on adults are any less gruesome, but it is an outrageous, filthy, disgusting act to use children to make a violent statement. I remember feeling I had lost all possible sympathy for Chechens after 2004's Beslan siege, when hundreds of schoolchildren were taken hostage. I won't say that I still take such a one-sided approach today, but it does go to show that using children does introduce a numbing, inhuman aspect to any struggle.

Something similar happened in Diyarbakır, southeastern Turkey, earlier this evening. At least seven people were killed when a bomb was detonated at a busy bus stop. 17 people were wounded. Five of the dead were children. Few people doubt that PKK extremists were involved.

Attacks like this one, alongside recent attacks in Mediterranean tourist hotspots and elsewhere in southeastern Turkey, are doing little to help the cause of moderate Kurds in Turkey. The AKP government has so far proven itself far more able than its predecessors in making the vital distinction between a PKK militant and a Kurdish-speaking Turkish citizen. It has also appointed a former general to head a new division dedicated to eliminating the PKK - and crucially, the United States has done precisely the same thing.

But understandably, the response of Turkish public opinion to the attacks has not been as rational. A resurgence of nationalism has swept the country over the past year and a half, deepening divisions that some might never have thought existed. When a Turkish flag was burned during a normally peaceful Kurdish spring festival last year, the public responded by draping every possible window, square, even car bonnets with the star and crescent. This year's shooting of a high court judge involved in a ruling over Muslim headscarves in schools provoked similar nationalist sentiment. And just this week, the prime minister's entourage clashed with supporters of the right wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at a memorial in the northwestern town of Söğüt, triggering a bitter war of words.

The PKK needs to be stopped to prevent further loss of life. The PKK needs to be stopped before the government, as it enters election year 2007, finally succumbs to public opinion and adopts a nationalist policy in the southeast. The consequences for the Kurdish population would be dire.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Troops to Lebanon: An approval

After some fiery political debate, protests on the streets of Ankara and even the occasional scuffle in parliament, Turkey has decided to send troops to Lebanon. It means that up to a thousand soldiers will be sent before the end of the month, probably to the region surrounding the Litani river, 30 kilometres from the Israeli border. 340 MPs voted in favour of sending troops, 192 voted against, while one government MP abstained.

The government's victory might have been easy, but the parliamentary sitting that delivered it last night was anything but. Government ministers were heckled, opposition parties derailed the debate for a few hours over a technicality on speaking times, and a few MPs even threw their briefcases at each other.

The opposition took every possible opportunity to exploit the overwhelming public mood against sending Turkish troops abroad, and were not ashamed to admit it afterwards. CHP leader Deniz Baykal said after the vote: "today's meeting was beneficial in the sense that the public has become aware of the opposition's stance".

This morning's papers were not nearly as outraged as the opposition seemed to be in parliament. Sure, fringe newspapers like the staunchly nationalist Milli Gazete did scream "This is the actual treachery", while Vatan's splash read "None of their children are going to Lebanon". The more reputable secular Cumhuriyet went with "In spite of the people", but aside from these, the outrage in most mainstream papers simply wasn't there. The headline in Posta, the country's most popular, was "An appropriate step to Lebanon". Other newspapers in the influential Doğan Media Group, including Hürryet,Milliyet and Radikal, went with similar leaders. Other pro-government papers quietly reported the result, and said little else.

Opposition parties might have picked up brownie points for uniting to put their weight behind public mood, but the reality is that the anti-war mood will pass. Yesterday's vote will have little effect on AKP poll ratings - after all, it was this same AKP government that supported opening Turkish borders to American troops ahead of the invasion of Iraq, lost the vote in parliament, and went on to sweep the board at local elections the following year. In the meantime, it is important to recognise that Mr Erdoğan's government has taken a difficult decision - but the right decision.