Well-meaning and with lofty goals, Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy came crashing down once the advent of the Arab uprisings exposed some of the policy's internal contradictions and shortcomings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with striving to have no problems with neighboring countries, but Ankara's overly optimistic approach -- which, among other things, failed to see how its own ambitions for regional leadership would set off alarm bells in the capitals of other countries with similar aspirations -- was not able to withstand the tensions and dynamics unleashed by the new crises in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
But it's fairly clear now that Ankara is working on rebooting its regional foreign policy, with its strained relations with Iraq being used as a test case of what a new version of the "zero problems" policy might look like.
Ties between the two countries hit rock bottom in April of last year, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upset about Ankara's support for his political rivals, labeled Turkey an “enemy state” bent on interfering in his country's internal affairs. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Iraqi counterpart – leader of a Shiite party – was fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. The exchange of words led to ambassadors being summoned in both capitals.
In recent weeks, though, Turkey and Iraq have had reciprocal visits by their foreign ministers, and visits by their prime ministers are in the works. Writing in Today's Zaman, analyst Yavuz Baydar provides the background to all the action taking place on the Turkey-Iraq front:
Considering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gotten involved in telling Turks how many children they should have (at least three), what they should drink (the non-alcoholic ayran) and what kind of bread they should eat (whole wheat, preferably), it would seem unlikely that the opinionated leader could still shock with his intrusions on people's private lives.
But, true to form, Erdogan again stunned the nation, telling members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) today that the government is not only working towards creating segregated dormitories for male and female university students (known as "adults" in many parts of the world) but that it is also working to ferret out any instances where members of the opposite sex may be living together off campus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The prime minister said the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had been completed in around three quarters of all dorms.
“There are some troubles concerning the share of houses in some places since we could not meet needs at the dormitories,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the Anadolu Agency on Nov. 5 as he addressed a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
For its 90th birthday, the Turkish state Tuesday gave itself and its citizens a fine present: a brand-new commuter rail tunnel that runs under the Bosphorus and links Istanbul's European and Asian sides.
The Marmaray tunnel, as it is called, is a historic achievement certainly worth celebrating. First dreamed up some 120 years ago by Sultan Abdulhamid, the underwater Bosphorus crossing that just opened is the world's deepest immersed tunnel, a technologically sophisticated $2.8 project that serves as a potent symbol for both Istanbul's and Turkey's dynamic growth.
For the ruling Justice and Development Party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the tunnel's opening was an opportunity to once again assert themselves as the succesful builders of a new and more advanced Turkey, while at the same time describing the Marmaray project's significance in rather grandiose terms.
At the tunnel's opening ceremony in Istanbul's Uskudar neighborhood, for example, Erdogan said Marmaray "is not a project only for Istanbul Marmaray is a project for whole humanity." Other Turkish officials suggested the tunnel is the linchpin of a "New Silk Road" that would, as signs at the opening ceremony promised, connect "Peking with London." (Never mind that one can already travel from China to England by train, using existing tracks that go through Russia.)
Fast food entrepreneur Kadir Nurman recently died in Germany, leaving this world with what may be one of the finest titles ever bestowed on any man: "Inventor of the doner kebab."
Nurman, born in Istanbul, was part of the wave of Turkish migrants who came to Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960's and 70's. Settling in West Berlin, he set a food stall selling sandwiches of grilled meat sliced off a vertical spit and, as they say, the rest is history. Or is it? As the Guardian points out in an article written in the wake of Nurman's death, attributing the "invention" of doner to him might be a bit misleading. From the Guardian:
The doner – or shawarma or gyros, as it's also known –differs from other familiar kebabby preparations, such as shish, by being layered up on a spit and grilled vertically. This in itself wasn't particularly novel; 18th-century Ottoman travel books talk of meat being cooked this way, while in the kebab's spiritual home of Bursa, the vertically grilled Iskender is perhaps Turkey's finest mouthful.
Nurman's supposed innovation came in sticking the shaved pieces of meat into a flatbread with the saladings, making kebabs a moveable feast for busy Berliners. Until then, in theory, they had been shoved on a plate. While few seem convinced by Nurman's claim to have invented what is essentially a sandwich, in 2011 a slightly mysterious Berlin-based organisation called the Association of Turkish Doner Manufacturers made it official, and so it passed into history.
While Turkey's foreign policy in the Middle East has faltered over the last two years in the wake of the Arab uprisings, a region where Turkish diplomacy has racked up some important successes has been the Balkans, where Ankara has been behind a number of significant diplomatic and economic initiatives. But a comment made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent visit to Kosov is threatening to derail Ankara's Balkan express -- and again raises the question of what kind of impact does the mercurial leader's rhetoric have on his country's diplomacy.
During an address made last week while visiting the Balkan mini-state, which declared independence in 2008 after breaking away from Serbia, Erdogan told an audience in the city of Prizren: “Do not forget that Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo."
The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Serbian leaders, who not only called for Erdogan to apologize for his comments, but who also announced that they would freeze their participation in an upcoming trilateral meeting between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey, part of successful mechanism put in place by Ankara in 2009. From a report on the Serbian B92 website:
[President Tomislav Nikolić] underscored that the scandal triggered by the Turkish prime minister in Prizren constitutes brutal and reckless breach of good neighbourly relations and disrespect and violation of Serbia's sovereignty by a revision of history.
Nikolić said that when he took on the position of the president, he also took on the good relations with Turkey set up by his predecessor, former president Boris Tadić.
One of the culinary trends to take hold in Istanbul over the last few years is the appearance of several restaurants promising "Ottoman palace" cuisine, with menus made up of dishes, based on recipes dug up in archives, that the chefs swear are no different than what the sultans themselves ate.
These claims, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Considering Ottoman palace cooks probably didn't leave behind cookbooks for today's chefs to work with, are there really that many researchers out there who are poring over archival material to somehow reconstruct what went into the sultans' favorite dishes? And are there that many chefs with the skills to translate both what the researchers are coming up with and the sultans' notoriously finicky tastes into actual dishes that will appeal to today's palates?
Can neo-Ottoman cuisine, then, be anything more than tarted up traditional Turkish dishes served in dining room with overstuffed chairs and gaudy decor? That's the question doctoral candidate Pinar Tremblay tackles in an interesting piece she wrote for the Al-Monitor website, tying it in with the same questions raised by the rise of Turkey's neo-Ottoman foreign policy. From her article:
When they were signed in Switzerland in October of 2009, the normalization accords between Turkey and Armenia promised to be perhaps the fullest expression of Ankara's then new (and now failed) "zero problems with neighbors" policy, restoring diplomatic ties with a country that had strong historical grievances against Turkey.
Sadly, the accords never went much further, languishing to this day in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments, where they have yet to be ratified. Although both sides blame the other for the failure of the process, the general consensus among experts is that what mostly doomed the process was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence after the protocols were signed that their ratification be linked to the successful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, a precondition that was not part of the original negotiations between Ankara and Yerevan. (For a thorough history of the rise and fall of the protocols, take a look at this report by David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights Institute for the Study of Human Rights.)
Is there any prospect for the Turkey-Armenia normalization process to be revived? Yesterday, on the signing's fourth anniversary, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested Turkey is still trying to find ways to move forward. From Today's Zaman:
Unlike other things, when it comes to fish, size does matter. That's certainly the argument that Fikir Sahibi Damaklar ("Sophisticated Palates," Istanbul's Slow Food chapter) has been making for the last few years, since it started a campaign to save the local population of lufer (bluefish) by asking Istanbulites to make sure they only sell, cook or eat fish that are larger than 24 centimeters, which is the size at which they can start to reproduce.
The campaign has been both successful, with the government responding to it by raising the size limit on bluefish from 14 cm. to 20 cm., and controversial, leading to infighting among commercial fisherman (for more, check out this previous Eurasianet article).
To raise regional awareness about the issue of overfishing, Fikir Sahibi Damaklar is organizing a four-day "Slow Fish" conference that will take place in Istanbul October starting October 17. Culinary Backstreets caught up with Defne Koryurek, who runs the Slow Food Istanbul chapter, to interview her about the conference and her group's efforts to save Istanbul's threatened lufer. From the interview:
How did the idea for the Slow Fish conference come about?
It was Fikir Sahibi Damaklar who decided to do this event, and it is mainly because we've been campaigning for fish, particularly for our beloved lüfer, or bluefish, for the last 4 years.
Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
In a comprehensive report released today, Amnesty International takes a look at this summer's Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, concluding that the government's heavy-handed response resulted in "gross human rights violations." The report, which can be found here, includes several interviews with protestors and others who were victims of police violence during the protests and is well worth reading.
To get a bit more background about the report's finding, I spoke with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
How did things the Gezi events, in terms of the government’s response, get to the point that they did?
I think there are a couple of points to discuss. One is that there isn’t anything especially remarkable about peaceful protest in Turkey being broken up by police, them using excessive force and the government denying the rights of protesters to gather peacefully. The difference with the Gezi events was the scale and the constituency – there were plenty of middle class Turks involved in the protests – and the fact that there was so much exposure of the events in the mainstream international process. What happened was remarkable in terms of its scale and the government reaction was, unfortunately, similar to what has happened in the past.
I think the way the government looks at opposition is to really try to crush dissenting opinions and to see all dissenting opinions expressed as representing illegal organizations or those looking to undermine Turkey. So the response is to try to crush any effort to oppose the government.