Back in 2011, during the height of what was then still optimistically being called the "Arab Spring," the Turkish press was in the habit of crowing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was "one of the five" world leaders American President Barack Obama spoke to the most. Certainly, with Turkey's foreign policy at the time still showing promise and Ankara positioning itself to become a key and constructive regional powerbroker, speaking frequently with Erdogan made a lot of sense.
Things have changed a bit since that time, perhaps best reflected by the fact that Obama and Erdogan have not spoken on the phone since August of last year, following a turbulent summer that saw the Turkish government crack down hard on the large protests that rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks. But, after a long lull, the two leaders did reconnect, speaking on the phone yesterday about, as a White House readout put it, "a range of bilateral and regional issues."
Back in the summer of 2010, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies bombarded the country with ads in support of a referendum on a constitutional amendment that the government billed as one that would create a more independent judiciary, part of what was supposed to be a larger effort at creating a new constitutional order that would emphasize the rights of the individual over the Turkish state's traditional impulse to protect itself.
The referendum succeeded and the amendment was made into law, but Turkey's constitutional reform drive has since then faltered. So much so that on Feb. 15 the AKP-dominated parliament approved a new law that essentially undoes the changes approved by the 2010 referendum. In a heated debate that ultimately ended with members of the AKP and the opposition coming to blows, the government succeeded in passing a bill gives it far greater control over judges and prosecutors and how they are appointed, and which has led to increased concerns over the growing lack of separation of powers in Turkey. "Most of the steps taken in the direction of judicial independence with the 2010 referendum are being taken back with this law," wrote veteran columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Along with covering figure skating, luge and skiing, the Sochi winter games are providing some outlets with the opportunity to create some confusion about the provenance of some Caucasian culinary specialties.
Take the case of khachapuri, that most Georgian of dishes (or so you'd think). Not according to the Annapolis, Maryland Capital Gazette, which in it's "Foraging for Flavor: A Taste of Sochi" feature, offers up a picture of khachapuri with a headline that reads "Russian cheese bread."
Meanwhile, on the website of clothing maker American Eagle, a travel blog posting about Sochi offers up a sampling of "Russian Delicacies," among them not only khachapuri, but also khinkali, the classic Georgian dumpling. (The original post appears to have been taken down, perhaps due to a Georgian outcry, but a cached version can be found here.)
Of course, considering the history of the region and historic tensions between Russia and Georgia, the confusion over who can claim khachapuri as their own has touched a raw nerve among Georgians. Says a local Kebabistan source in Tbilisi: "I have seen Georgians posting photos of churchela [a confection made out of grape molasses and walnuts], etc. on Facebook with reminders to journalists that these are Georgian foods. Attributing these foods to Sochi or to Russia is being seen in Georgia as just another example of Russia trying to steal things that belong to Georgia, and managing to deceive clueless foreign journalists."
These days, the words related to Middle East diplomacy that probably inspire the least amount of confidence are "Israel and Turkey near repairing alliance" (as the Wall Street Journal suggested the other day).
Since a Washington-brokered breakthrough last March, which led to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling his Turkish counterpart to apologize for the deaths caused during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, there has been little movement in terms of actual reconciliation. Although there have been various reports over the last year that the two sides are close to patching things up, with only the matter of how much Israel will pay in compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims' families left to be resolved, these have all proven to be erroneous.
But the latest suggestion that the former allies may indeed be close to restoring ties was different, considering that it came from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself. “There has recently been a momentum and new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions,” Davutoglu said in a Feb. 9 television interview.
By now, it's not secret that Turkey -- although blessed with a very long coastline and a cuisine heavy on seafood -- is slowly losing its fish stocks. In fact, as one article pointed out a few years back, the mackerel served in the iconic fish sandwiches along Istanbul's Golden Horn is today most likely hails from Norway, having arrived from there as a frozen filet.
So what's causing the fish in Turkey to disappear? Reuter's takes a look in an article today:
Over fishing, illegal netting and pollution threaten the industry. Anchovy production, which accounts for around two-thirds of the annual catch, fell by 28 percent in 2012, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.
In a bid to replenish stocks, the government has banned fishing in the summer months when fish reproduce and says it is tightening supervision. But it appears too little, too late.
"Twenty years ago, you put your arm in the water you could pull out fish - there were so many," said Osman Korkmaz, a 53-year-old fisherman who has fished the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea for 40 years.
Aylin Ulman, a researcher with the University of British Columbia's Sea Around Us Project, conducted more than 150 interviews with Turkish fishermen from May through July to determine how Turkey's fisheries have changed.
The number of commercial species in Turkey's fishing areas has fallen to just five or six from more than 30 in the 1960s, she said, based on her survey and catch data Turkey provided to the United Nations from 1967 to 2010.
Over the last decade, the Turkish government has instituted a series of increasingly problematic internet laws which, according to watchdogs, have given Ankara greater and greater control over online activity (Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Turkey 154th out of 179 in its "Press Freedom" index, has a good primer on the country's internet laws, here).
In recent weeks, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been fighting off a major graft case that has targeted now former ministers and several businessmen close to the government, has proposed new internet legislation that has raised even more concern and that led to a large protest this past Saturday in Istanbul's Taksim Square which was broken up by police using water cannons and tear gas.
To get a bit more background on the new law, I reached out to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University and a leading expert on Turkey's internet laws. Below is our exchange:
Can you describe some of the more troubling aspects of this latest internet law?
Since becoming foreign minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has used the annual gathering of his diplomatic corps as a way of pushing his new vision of Turkey's role in the world and for encouraging his ambassadors -- a notoriously stuffy bunch -- to think outside the box a bit.
A good example of that was the ambassadors' 2010 meeting, which Davutoglu held not in Ankara, but in Mardin, a historic hilltop city not far from the Syrian border in Turkey’s southeast region, which, along with Kurdish and Arabic speakers, is also home to an ancient though dwindling Christian community. Once there, the FM admonished his ambassadors to go out to the city’s teahouses and bazaars and mingle with the (mostly bemused) locals.
Davutoglu, at the time drawing early plaudits for his now failed "zero problems with neighbors" policy, drew on the town’s historical setting to deliver a philosophical – even mystical – look forward to his diplomatic corps. “By 2023, when the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding, I envision a Turkey that is a full member of the EU after having completed all the necessary accession requirements, living in full peace with its neighbors, integrated with neighboring regions in economic terms and with a common security vision, an effective player in regions where our national interests lie, and active in all global affairs and among the top 10 economies in the world,” he told them. In order for that new vision to happen, Davutoglu said, his ambassadors first "need to understand Mardin’s soul."
The Turkish diplomatic corps has been holding its annual meeting over the last few days, but they seem far removed from those heady days in Mardin. Rather than looking hopefully outward, this year's gathering seems to be gazing defensively (even paranoically) inward, offering a very good opportunity to understand the current state of Turkey's tortured political soul.
With all the attention focused on the negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program, it's easy to miss some of the other important developments in that country, and by that I mean the burger boom that's taking place in Tehran.
Someone who's been on top of that meaty story is the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, who recently filed a superb report from Tehran about the city's profusion of burger joints. Here's a taste of his article:
Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of U.S. culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification.” Those eateries were mostly in downtown working-class neighborhoods, serving laborers in need of a blast of calories or students watching their budgets.
Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are suddenly popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution — and the quest for the best burger — the latest trend in Tehran dining.
Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other U.S. chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar — conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr. — and even a place calling itself Five Guys.
I recently sent Rezaian, who's been based in Tehran since 2009, a few questions to get a bit more of the backstory of this Iranian culinary awakening. Our exchange is below:
Thanks to the continuing domestic strife created by the massive ongoing graft probe in Turkey, the country is about to have what may be the world's most highly-trained traffic police force. The reason? As the corruption investigation continues, targeting current officials, former ministers, their relatives and businessmen close to the ruling Justice and Development Party -- the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting back with a wholesale reassignment of police chiefs, many of them being demoted to work in traffic divisions and in other less desirable places.
The police purge has been striking: yesterday, in Ankara alone, some 350 police chiefs and officers were reassigned, many of them from high positions in departments investigating terrorism, corruption and organized crime. Since the large corruption case started last month, close to 1,700 police commanders all around Turkey have been either fired or reassigned.
Yerevan-based Marianna Grigoryan finished 2013 off with what might be Eurasianet's wildest story of the year: an article about one Armenian supermarket that is offering up an entire smoked crocodile as an item for the traditional New Year's feast.
Here's a taste of her great article:
Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary.
“Who can afford such luxury?” fumed 48-year-old Yerevan dressmaker Silva Alexanian. “Once the markets used to be full with people before New Year’s nowadays; now they are empty. People have either left the country, or cannot afford celebrating New Year’s. Most of them hope for the money their relatives working abroad send them.”
With roughly one-third of Armenia’s approximate population of 3 million people now officially living in poverty, for some, the crocodile symbolizes all that has gone wrong economically with this South Caucasus country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Migration has increased by 12 percent this year, while remittances increased fivefold in the first six months of the year to $1.2 billion, according to official data.
Grigoryan's smoked crocodile tale was so intriguing that I followed up with to get more details about the story and some of the economic and sociological background to it. Our exchange is below: