Critics of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have for years been warning that the country, under the leadership of now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken an authoritarian turn after several years of reform-minded action. Supporters of the AKP and Erdogan, meanwhile, have denied the charge, accusing the critics of being disgruntled supporters of a previous status quo who are simply upset with seeing their once privilaged position in society disappear.
A new report issued today by Human Rights Watch goes a long way towards settling this debate, accusing the Turkish government of "taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protestors." From HRW's report:
Turkey is undergoing a worrying rollback of human rights. In office for twelve years under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—elected president in August 2014—the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has shown increasing intolerance of political opposition, public protest, and critical media. Over the past nine months, in an effort to stifle corruption investigations, the AKP government has sought to curb the independence of the judiciary and weaken the rule of law. The erosion of human rights through limitations on media freedom, clampdown on protest, and further loss of trust in Turkey’s politicized criminal justice system have deepened political polarization in the country.
The release a few days ago of the group of 49 Turks being held hostage in the Iraqi city of Mosul by the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself) signals the end of one crisis for Ankara but by no means the end of Turkey's troubled entanglement with ISIS or the danger that the rise of group poses for Turkish interests and security.
Certainly, despite the good feelings created by the release, major questions remain about just how Ankara was able to get ISIS to give up a group that provided it with enough leverage to keep Turkey out of the military efforts against the extremist organization. Turkish officials have insisted that no ransom was paid, but reports in the Turkish press suggest that the hostages' release may have been part of a simultaneous release of ISIS members being held by another rebel group in Syria.
As previously reported on this blog, with Moscow blocking imports of food from several European and western countries in response to sanction placed on Russia, Turkish food makers are seeing an opportunity for boosting their exports.
Despite objects from some European neighbors that Turkey is "exploiting" the situation at the expense of solidarity in the face of Russia's destabilizing actions in Ukraine, the efforts by Turkish exporters appear to be continuing. Reports Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency:
Turkey plans to increase food supplies to Russia to $3.0 billion in 2015 from $1.2 billion in 2013 if customs duties are lowered, Zechariah Mete, chairman of the country’s grocery products exporters association, said Tuesday. “We do not ask for special privileges or preferences. We request that (customs) duties (for the country) are set equal to that of the EU. There is no reason to put Turkey in another tax category,” Mete said. Turkey has a potential to raise annual food exports to Russia to $3 billion-$4 billion in 2015-2016, he said.
Turkey is ready to export poultry, fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, confectionery, cereals, legumes and oil-plants.
Turkey also plans to double its sweets supplies to Russia to $80 million in 2015 from around $37 million in 2013 on the background of rising interest from Russian companies to counteragents from countries which did not support sanctions against Moscow, Hidayet Kadiroglu, head of the association’s confectionery direction, said. Turkey may raise its confectionary supplies to Russia to $2 billion in the long run.
The little pistachio may be best known as the main ingredient in baklava, but it's worth remembering that it's only the emerald green inside of the nut that gets used up to make the flaky pastry. The outside shell ends up serving as an unwanted floor- and sidewalk-covering in cities, towns and villages across the Middle East.
But it appears that scientists in Turkey, the world's third-largest producer of pistachios (and home of Gaziantep, what is arguably the city producing the finest baklava in the world), have finally figured out what to do with all those unwanted shells: make electricity. Reports Turkey's Anatolian news agency:
Scientists in Turkey have been working to produce biogas from pistachios on an experimental level for more than three years in a collaboration between the government, a small business development organization and the Middle East Technical University.
One ton of pistachios can produce 1.1 million cubic meters of biogas, which in turn can generate 14 kilowatt-hours -- enough to meet the needs of a typical Turkish house for a year, said Goksel Demirer, a professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.
Turkey produces 112,000 tons of pistachios a year, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, making it the third-largest producer in the world after Iran and the U.S.
Gaziantep is the center of pistachio cultivation in Turkey, producing 100,000 tons a year. The city, formerly known as Antep, even lends its name to the Turkish term for pistachio -- Antep fistigi, or "Antep nut."
Russia's embargo on foodstuffs coming from several western and European countries may mean no brie on the shelves in upscale Moscow supermarkets, but it also means less cheese sold (and, thus, less income) for French cheesemakers.
In fact, it appears that the Kremlin's moves against western foods -- which came in response to sanctions imposed on Russia because of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Moscow's role in stoking it -- is starting to take a bite out of the European economy, forcing the European Union to respond. Reports the EUobserver website:
The EU is preparing to unveil new aid for EU fruit producers hit by the Russia food ban.
Agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos promised extra assistance in the coming days for suppliers of citrus fruit, apples, and pears at a hearing with MEPs in Strasbourg on Monday (15 September).
The European Commission has since August earmarked €158 million for aid to fruit and vegetable growers who have had to take products off the market, as well as €30 million for dairy suppliers who are putting stock into cold storage.
The money is to come from a “margin” - money allocated by EU countries but unlikely to be needed - in the EU’s 2015 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget....
....Ciolos also noted the compensation for citrus, apples, and pears will be paid out using new rules, to enter into life next week, which tie the money more directly to volumes affected by the Russia ban.
The change comes after Polish producers filed massive claims - worth €145 million - in the €125 million envelope.
By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
As part of the effort to boost its image and role on the world stage, Turkey has over the last decade made a push to host a bigger number of international meetings and conferences, especially in Istanbul.
The setting makes sense, considering the city's obvious charms. But sometimes Ankara's eagerness to play host doesn't quite match the reality on the ground. Case in point: the ninth annual Internet Governance Forum, a large United Nations-mandated gathering, which is currently taking place in Istanbul at a time when Turkey is increasingly under fire for curtailing internet freedoms within its own borders.
In a sharply worded briefing issued ahead of the Forum, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish government of having an "abysmal record of protecting free expression online." From HRW's report:
Turkish authorities have blocked tens of thousands of websites under the country’s draconian Internet Law 5651 over the last few years. The exact number remains unclear since the judicial and administrative procedures for Internet blocking are not transparent. In February, the government passed amendments to the law that expand censorship powers, enabling authorities to block access to web pages within hours, based on a mere allegation that a posting violates private life, without a prior court order.
In Israel, coffee served with sludgy grounds at the bottom of the cup (akin to Turkish coffee, although prepared with less ceremony) is known as "botz," which literally means "mud."
But to make this "muddy" hot beverage, one has to start with finely-ground beans that are typically sold under the name "Turkish Coffee," which -- considering the sorry current state of Turkey-Israel realations, which has have only gotten after the recent Israeli operation in Gaza -- is leaving some Israelis with a bad taste in their mouth.
As the Israeli Ha'aretz reports, some coffee drinkers in Israel have started a campaign to get Elite, the company that produces Israel's leading brand of Turkish coffee, to stop calling its product by that name. From Ha'aretz:
Channel 2 reports that an Israeli woman recently wrote a Facebook status reading, "I call on Elite [Israel's leading coffee maker] to change the name of its coffee to black coffee. I really have no use for anything Turkish these days." Turkey supported Hamas during Israel's just-adjourned war with Gaza, and the leader of its Islamic-oriented government, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, doesn't hesitate to vent his antagonism at the Jewish state.
"The time has come to change the name of the coffee to black/Israeli/tasty/wonderful or some other kind of coffee," wrote another Facebook poster. "Just not Turkish! This offends the sensibilities of the nation, which is liable to boycott the product!"….
With the power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or, as it now calls itself, the Islamic State) growing and the amount of territory it controls increasing, Ankara is now facing some uncomfortable questions about what role it played in facilitating the organization's rise.
In a Washington Post piece from last week, reporters Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet provide a fascinating insight into this issue, visiting Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border where until recently ISIS fighters had the run of the place. From their article:
Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.
In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
While European and North American food producers might be worried about the sting of Russia's new ban on western produce, Turkish exporters could soon be celebrating.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, Moscow's ban -- enacted in response to western sanctions on Russia to punish it for its role in the current crisis in Ukraine -- is providing Turkey with an opportunity for expanding its agricultural exports:
Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision last week to block certain food imports from the European Union and the U.S. is a potential boon for Turkey just as Islamist insurgents in Iraq choke off trade to key markets for Turkish goods. Exporting food to Russia could also help make up for slowly recovering demand from the EU, Turkey's biggest market.
Shipping more fruit, vegetables and dairy products would also aid Turkey in plugging an annual trade deficit of about $20 billion with Russia.
"This is 100% positive, we need to seize this opportunity, Russia can devour everything we produce," said Ahmet Ozer, vice president of the general assembly at the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. "We don't have energy like Russia, but we have agriculture, water and farmlands; we must work them and sell our produce."
Last year, Turkey sold $7 billion worth of goods to Russia, which Mr. Ozer said could jump by 25% as Moscow turns to Ankara, among others, for food it previously imported from Australia, Canada, Norway, the U.S. and the EU.