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Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Election 2007: Early beginnings

"Hustings" is a British term used to describe those political activities and speeches that are made before an election - the ones meant to bring in the votes. It isn't a term used very often outside of the UK, but its definition applies very well to what's happening in Turkey at the moment.

It all began with something Mehmet Ağar said last week. During a visit to the southeast, the True Path Party (DYP) leader said that PKK members should be doing politics on the plains rather than roaming the mountains with guns. When asked by Sabah whether this was a call for an amnesty, Mr Ağar said "if necessary, yes".

Mr Ağar's suggestion is interesting and worthy of a national debate at the very least. It did not go unnoticed that his words were cautiously supported by the government. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül pointed out that Mr Ağar was a former interior minister and had experience in such affairs, and said "his words should be carefully read".

But those words provoked a fierce backlash from nationalist circles. The new army chief Yaşar Büyükanıt violently condemned his words, while the news website 8sütun screamed: "Ağar wants to forgive the terrorists!" The response from the political arena was quite the same. Anavatan leader Erkan Mumcu said it was "an attempt to form a government at the next election that will act as a patron over the Kurdish state in Iraq". Even Recai Kutan, leader of the religious Felicity Party (SP), said Mr Ağar had suggested negotiations with terrorists. Mr Kutan was also careful to dismiss rumours of a post-election coalition with the DYP.

Mehmet Ağar's words came a matter of days after the date for the next general election was finally set: November 4th, 2007. That may well be a year away, but opposition parties know perfectly well that they have some serious catching up to do if they want to re-enter parliament, let alone government. Four years on from its landslide victory, the governing AKP is slightly weakened, but still commands by far the largest bulk of support nationwide.

A number of parties have used the recent resurgence in Turkish nationalism to boost their popularity, trampling on ground traditionaly occupied by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Being nationalist is not a particularly difficult thing to do. "The EU is out to destroy us," you can say, with dashes of "Cyprus is slipping away from under our very noses" and "the government wants to legalise the insulting of Turkishness". It's easy stuff really. The thinking is you can't go wrong with belting a few nationalist sentiments here and there, and all the opposition parties have therefore tried it. It is why Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition CHP, finally got around yesterday to criticising Mehmet Ağar. After all, doesn't the man want to forgive terrorists?

But publicly worshiping Turkishness will only get you so far in the eyes of the electorate, and Mehmet Ağar's recent actions suggest he is aware of that. By going to the predominantly Kurdish southeast and talking openly about negotiating with PKK members, he has joined the select few who have publicly advocated more politics and less military in the region. If he sticks to his position without submitting to the initial fierce backlash, it will win him support among Kurds desperate for a lasting solution, and perhaps some forward-thinking Turks too.

With 382 days to go, the hustings have already begun.

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Armenia: French bills and Nobel laureates

There is some strange, twisted irony in the fact that France's parliament passed a bill outlawing genocide denial on the same day that the Nobel prize in literature went to Orhan Pamuk, a man who himself went on trial for saying genocide did happen.

The French bill was passed by an overwhelming majority - 106 votes to 19 - after weeks of often fierce debate on the issue. It provides for a €45,000 fine and one-year prison term for anyone who denies a genocide of the Armenians. This puts it on a par with sanctions for denying the Jewish Holocaust, which is already law in France.

Note that the Armenian legislation has not passed into law yet. It needs approval first from the French senate, then from the president before that can happen. But in a country where elections are but a year away and Turkey's EU membership is one of the top campaign issues, it is not clear if either senate or president will go so far as to put freedom of speech before national interest.

If there is no veto, it will be France that suffers more than anyone, particularly as Turkish leaders have already threatened to block French companies from business ventures in Turkey. And the trial of anyone charged under the new legislation would attract wide media coverage, not unlike the trial of a British historian tried and sentenced in Austria last year for holocaust denial.

But for all its injustice, the potential law could have positive effects too. There is greater talk today than ever before about a meeting of Turkish and Armenian historians to unearth the truth of what happened in eastern Anatolia more than ninety years ago. Just this week, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said (in reference to the French bill), "You cannot clean dirt with dirt; you can only clean dirt with clean water." The focus of that statement should be not the fact that he likens the French bill to dirt, but that he acknowledges there is dirt that needs to be cleaned up in the first place. For the Turkish political elite, this is a great step in the right direction. The next step must be abolishing Article 301 of the penal code.

Just under twenty minutes ago, Orhan Pamuk became a Nobel laureate for literature. The Swedish academy awarding the prize said that "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city (he) has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures." It is a remarkable achievement for a man who champions the cause of freedom of speech.

Congratulations to Orhan Pamuk. He has done himself proud, he has done Turkey proud. Now Turkey should recognise what he stands for.

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Armenia: New cards at play

Turkey has made a historic concession to Armenia, the neighbour it does not recognise, during secret talks in Vienna, according to CNN Turk reporter Barçın Yinanç. She says in her blog entry that the Turks have stopped demanding a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute before diplomatic relations are established. The two countries are now on track to setting up a high commission to look into relations between them. "It is an important step that could be considered historic," says Ms Yinanç. But is it really that?

Turkey was the first country to recognise Armenia when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Things faltered after that; diplomatic relations never really got off the ground, and while Turkish embassies sprung up in nearby former Soviet republics like Azerbaijan and Georgia, relations with Armenia remained unofficial. When war broke out in 1994 between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey sealed shut its 268km border with Armenia. Azerbaijan did the same.

Neither border has opened since, and it has been Armenia that suffered most. The country is hopelessly poor. Its only realistic avenue for trade with the west is through a small border with Georgia, hundreds of kilometres north of the capital.

In the 12 years since the border was sealed, the Armenians missed out on the opportunity to be a corridor for one of the largest oil pipelines outside of Russia and the Middle East. The pipeline in question goes from Azerbaijan to southern Turkey via Georgia; taking it through Armenia would have been a far more sensible route, and cheaper too. Think of the millions of dollars that could have resuscitated their economy. All because a closed gate.

With the situation as gridlocked as it is, it is interesting that the Turks seemingly blinked first yesterday. They have always had the upper ground: sure, the closed frontier does not help the regional economy in eastern Turkey, but the effect on the country's national economy is small, and the enthusiasm to resolve the dispute has consequently been smaller still. So why the concession?

It might be a case of preemptive action. See, for all their weaknesses, the Armenians have one powerful bargaining chip - that of a potential genocide in 1915. The facts are disputed; the Armenians say it was part of a centuries-long conspiracy to eliminate their kind in Ottoman Turkey, the Turks deny it with arguments that range from "it didn't happen" to "we didn't do it". Armenia's influential diaspora has exploited it abroad to considerable success over the years, be it with Canada's recognition of the events as genocide or French motions making it an offence to deny it ever happened. But it wasn't really until talk popped up of including genocide recognition in Turkey's EU accession talks that the diaspora began to pose a serious diplomatic threat.

Perhaps Turkish authorities are beginning to see that the diaspora can make things even more uncomfortable for them. Perhaps they see that Armenia can no longer be ingored. Perhaps they are aware that a stricter definition of their position over the massacre - or genocide, or non-entity, or whatever - might be needed very soon.

Yesterday's Turkish concession is actually tiny. With it, they have simply agreed to meet and talk about the possibility of meeting again, perhaps that time with someone keeping the minutes. That means little on its own. But it might be the starting point for a greater concession, an admission of the vaguest sort that something horrible happened 91 years ago. Now that would be historic.