In the early days of the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, a then status quo-oriented Turkey was criticized by some for at first having little to say about the unfolding events in Cairo (it was only once it became fairly clear that Mubarak would fall that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan started vocally calling on the Egyptian leader to step down). Following the recent ouster by the Egyptian military of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, Turkey’s problem seems to be reversed: keeping Erdogan from saying too much about what’s happening in Egypt.
In the wake of the coup in Egypt, Erdogan was without a doubt the most outspoken international critic of the military’s action, issuing a steady stream of denunciations – not just of the Egyptian generals but also of the western countries that refrained from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup – and, at one point, referring to the deposed Egyptian leader as “my president in Egypt” and boasting of having refused to take a call from Mohammed ElBaradei, the liberal former diplomat appointed interim Vice President. Erdogan’s lambasting of the new regime in Egypt reached such a level that Cairo pointedly warned Ankara not to “interfere” in its internal affairs, while the Turkish PM felt obliged to publicly state that he is not “obsessed” with Morsi.
Georgian wine and produce may again be appearing in Russian stores after Moscow lifted its seven-year long embargo, but the products remain the potential victims of regional politics. Case in point the recent news that a top Russian official has warned that the presence of a United States-funded bio research lab in Georgia could have a "limiting effect" on the import of Georgian wine.
The $150-million lab, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, was opened several years ago and is designed to help Georgia do research on infectious diseases. But Russia's "chief sanitary doctor" sees it differently, suggesting that cases of Georgian wine might also come with cases of African Swine Fever and other illnesses. Reports the Civil.ge website:
Just few months after Russia dropped embargo on Georgian wines and mineral waters, its chief sanitary doctor warned that presence of the U.S.-funded bio lab in Tbilisi would have “sharply limiting effect” on bilateral trade ties.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s state consumer protection agency RosPotrebNadzor, which ordered ban on import of Georgian products to Russia in 2006, told Interfax news agency on July 20 that the laboratory represents “a powerful offensive potential.”
“Russia deems it to be a direct violation of BWC [Biological Weapons Convention],” Onishchenko was quoted by Interfax.
The other day I wrote about the latest disturbing urban development in Istanbul, the bulldozing of centuries-old vegetable gardens alongside the city's historic Byzantine-era walls. Writing for the Atlantic Cities website, Istanbul-based journalist Jennifer Hattam adds more color to the story:
In the shadows of the 1,500-year-old fortifications ringing Istanbul’s historic core, farmers push wheelbarrows of freshly harvested greens through small vegetable gardens, continuing a centuries-long tradition in the area. This past week, however, the farmers watched in dismay as bulldozers moved into the Yedikule neighborhood, dumping trash-strewn dirt and rubble onto the fertile soil of two of those gardens.
"I don’t know what we’ll do, where we’ll go if our land gets destroyed as well. We don’t have anything else," says one woman who works a nearby plot along with her husband, scraping out a living selling their chard, corn, radishes, purslane, and herbs at Istanbul’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
Like many of the people currently farming along the old city walls, the couple are migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, who have followed in the footsteps of the Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Albanians who tended the land before them. The specific gardens currently being razed have been identified on a map dating back to 1786, but historical sources indicate that small-scale agriculture was present in the area not long after the UNESCO-designated city walls were built in the 400s.
Istanbul’s Yedikule gardens present something of an incongruous sight: good-sized agricultural fields squeezed between modern apartment buildings on one side and the city’s historic Byzantine city walls on the other. They are also an ancient sight – according to researchers, urban farmers have been cultivating the land near the walls here since most likely the 6th century. In fact, agriculture is so established in the area that romaine lettuce from the Yedikule fields – the area’s main crop – had long ago developed a citywide reputation for its exceptional taste.
Now, though, these patches of green and the lettuce they produce are under threat, victims of yet another one of the government’s “urban transformation” projects, which tend to look at Istanbul’s past as the greatest impediment to the city’s future (this Tumblr site gives a good sense of the gardens and the plan to replace them). This week, workers from the local Fatih municipality started bulldozing the fields with little warning, as part of a plan to create a large park in the area. While there’s nothing wrong with building parks, the scant details given by the municipality about its plans have left locals and historians concerned, particularly since the Yedikule gardens are considered part of an area that is under UNESCO protection as a cultural heritage site. The fact that the local municipality is the same one that was responsible for the complete tearing down of Sulukule, a nearby neighborhood with a long-standing Roma population whose own history in the area went back for centuries, only raised concerns that little would be done in terms of preservation when it comes to this latest project.
While much of the attention in the wake of the crackdown on the Gezi Park protests in Turkey has focused on its impact on domestic politics, experts are warning that recent events could have a deleterious effect on the country’s foreign policy.
Turkey's recently passed alcohol law, which limits advertising on booze and the time between which it can be sold, was promoted by the government as being about protecting the nation's youth from the evils of drinking. But it appears one of the law's unintended consequences is that it might pull the legs from under Turkey's up-and-coming wine industry. Reports Businessweek:
The most sweeping -- and vague -- part of the law is its prohibition on advertising and promotion.
“Everybody in the wine business has a problem now,” said Ali Basman, owner of Kavaklidere, the country’s largest winery, and president of the Turkish Wine Producers Association, when I reached him by phone.
“It’s not easy to sell wine without having ads or ways to explain about the winery or show reviews telling how good a new wine is,” he said. “But that’s seen as encouraging people to drink. We will have to do more export.”
Basman doesn’t think he will be able to continue using the winery logo on his business cards or hold special tastings, and will probably have to close down part of his website.
His family founded the winery in 1929. It now owns 550 hectares of vineyards, produces 49 wines, and buys grapes from thousands of growers. If Basman has to cut back on production, who will pay them?
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan capped off a very eventful weekend with a visit to the Sunday closing ceremonies of the Turkish Olympiad, an annual event that brings together students from the Gulen movement’s global network of schools to show off their language skills through song and dance (if you’ve ever wanted to see African children belt it out in Turkish while dressed up like Turkic nomads, this is the event for you).
But the day’s real show of linguistic prowess was on display earlier, when Erdogan gave a two-hour speech – most of it without even looking at any notes – in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters at an Istanbul rally. It was a bravura performance, one that, incredibly, saw Erdogan’s voice actually lose the hoarseness that he started off with and get stronger as he went along. By the end, Erdogan had once again shown that there is really no one in the Turkish political landscape that can touch him in terms of working up a crowd and projecting his personality so forcefully and effectively.
One of the difficulties of writing about Turkey for a foreign audience is figuring out a way to explain the country’s inherent political weirdness. Try succinctly describing the role of the powerful Islamic Gulen movement, which has no official leadership inside Turkey and whose spiritual leader actually lives in the Poconos, or easily illuminating the Baroque ins-and-outs of Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and other intriguingly-named coup plot cases working their way through the Turkish courts.
This was the challenge facing Washington, DC-based Turkey analyst Omer Taspinar when he made an appearance on the Colbert Report the other night. As Taspinar was trying to describe to his host why the Prime Minister of a country of 72 million would be involved in deciding where a mall would be built in Istanbul – something most Turks have by now come to take for granted – Colbert interrupted him. “That would be like Barack Obama saying, ‘We need a left turn lane past the Arby’s on Maple Street. Why is he micromanaging like this?’” Colbert said, as the audience laughed loudly.
The unhinged part of Turkish politics, something that up to now was really only consumed domestically, had suddenly gone global. For the image-makers at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and PM Erdogan, Turkey’s debut on the Colbert Report should be seen as a very dangerous moment. Previously, the fact that some of the most disturbing things about what was going on in the country were also some of the most difficult to explain abroad worked to the government’s advantage, allowing it to mostly control the narrative about the “new Turkey” that was emerging, one free of the ills of the past.
With Tuesday's violent police operation to clear out the protestors from Taksim Square, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have temporarily won the battle to control that patch of downtown Istanbul, but its actions came with a high price, inflicting heavy damage on its international standing and setting the stage for what is likely to be prolonged conflict, something that will only further harm the country.
One only needed to take a look at CNN and its hours of live coverage devoted to the police takeover of Taksim and the ensuing protests to realize that a new narrative was being developed about Turkey. Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have spent the last ten years cultivating an international image for Turkey of a tourist- and international finance-friendly democracy on the rise, but the images that were being shown on international television screens told a very different story.
In that sense, today's events helped speed up what was becoming a problematic dynamic for Erdogan and his government over the past 11 days of ongoing protests in Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities, in that the kind of questions about the PM's increasingly autocratic rule that were previously only asked domestically were now starting to be discussed more regularly internationally.
After giving a nice fake pass and suggesting he may veto the controversial new alcohol law recently signed by parliament, Turkish President Abdullah Gul today went ahead and signed the new bill, a move that will likely only increase tensions in Turkey.
The Hurriyet Daily News gives a rundown of the new law's restrictions, here. Among its main features are a complete ban on retail alcohol sales between 10pm and 6am, an almost complete ban on the advertising of alcoholic beverages, a restriction that requires establishments selling alcohol to be 100 meters away from "religious and educational" facilities and a ban on screening images in films and on television that show (or even "glorify") the consumption of alcohol. (A similar provision in an anti-smoking law passed in Turkey several years ago forced broadcasters to blur out the screen any time someone lit up.)