As he had long suggested he would do, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday announced his candidacy for the presidency in a splashy ceremony in Ankara. Expected by most observers to win (the question for now is really whether he does it in the first or second round), Erdogan would become Turkey's first directly elected president, a move his supporters say is a natural step for a man who is the country's most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and which critics say will only lead towards a more authoritarian government. Either way, while the road towards the office of the president appears open for Erdogan -- despite the opposition's intriguing candidate choice -- the PM faces some major challenges in his quest to turn the presidency into an even more powerful position than it already is.
Up until now, Turkey's president has been chosen by Parliament. Like in many other parliamentary systems, the Turkish president is something of a figurehead, with the Prime Minister wielding the real power. But the Turkish presidency, as defined by a constitution written by the military after the 1980 coup, has been something of a hybrid office, with the president wielding some important powers designed to make him a kind of ultimate guardian of the state (that is secularist and Kemalist) structure. For this reason, there has long been a demand in Turkey for a new constitution, one which redefines and limits the powers of the president, making it one that's more in line with other parliamentary systems.
On August 10 Turks will for the first time have the opportunity to directly elect their president, a mostly ceremonial position (though one that has some notable hidden powers) that was previously earned through a parliamentary vote.
Perhaps it's an indication of what Turkish parties think of their voters or of their country's political system that up until earlier this week, none of them had declared who their candidate would be for an extremely significant election only a few weeks away. Although it is widely expected that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run as his party's candidate, the fact that he has yet to make it official only makes the situation odder.
On June 16, though, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (CHP) joined forces and announced a consensus candidate: Ekmeleddin İhsanoglu, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and, until last year, someone considered to be close to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Ekmeleddin who, you might ask? That's certainly the question many Turks asked when his candidacy was announced. A mild-mannered academic with an old world demeanor, İhsanoglu is far from a household name and has not had any previous experience with domestic Turkish politics. Still, the surprise choice is an intriguing one, a move that doesn't necessarily spell victory for the opposition, but that will certainly force Erdogan and his party to rethink their strategy and which tells an interesting story about the AKP's own evolution over the last decade.
Fehmi Ozsut is a true Istanbul original. Owner of a small shop in the waterside that specializes in dairy dishes, Ozsut (the name, fittingly, means "pure milk") has had all kinds of previous lives, including a five-year stint as a security guard at the Waldorf Astoria in Phoenix, Arizona, where he says he wrestled out of control rock stars and even met Ronald Reagan.
Ozsut today, though, spends most of his time with a herd of water buffaloes, who produce the rich, fatty milk he used to make the kaymak (clotted cream) he sells in his shop. Considering the difficulty involved in raising the buffaloes and making kaymak, it's not surprise that Ozsut is likely the last of the water buffalo herders and small-scale kaymak makers left in the Istanbul area.
Ozsut's fascinating story is the subject of a new post on the Culinary Backstreets website, written by Roxanne Darrow. From the piece:
Back when Özsüt’s grandfather started his kaymak business, water buffaloes were raised in the forests around Istanbul. The animals flourished in the shade of those trees, and shepherds didn’t need to buy feed for the animals. Each muhallebici would buy fresh milk from nearby producers to make its yogurt, kaymak and desserts. Now, the few small forests left around Istanbul are for recreation.
In 2002, Özsüt started his own water buffalo farm in Sarıyer, 45 minutes north of Istanbul, because he could no longer buy high-quality milk at a reasonable price. In 2005 he had to move further afield, to Kemerburgaz near the Black Sea, because his buffaloes were destroying the palm trees in the new luxury compounds popping up near his farm. In 2011, he moved to his current location near Tekirdağ, which has rich soil and an abundant water supply but is an hour-and-a-half-long drive west of Istanbul.
Turkey's recent approach to regional Kurdish issues has been highly contradictory. In northern Iraq, in an effort to diversify its energy supplies and further establish itself as an oil and gas hub, Ankara has entered into energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), something which has infuriated the central Iraqi government in Baghdad but which has helped the Kurds further build a foundation for their independence.
In northern Syria, on the other hand, Ankara has been so alarmed by the growing Kurdish autonomy there that it reportedly has provided support for radical Islamist groups (including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)) in their fight against the the Kurdish militia that controls the region, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The rapid advance by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in northern and central Iraq and their takeover of the Turkish consulate in the city of Mosul is presenting Ankara with a host of new political, diplomatic and security challenges.
After ISIS fighters took over Mosul yesterday with barely a shot fired, members of the previously al Qaeda-linked group stormed the Turkish consulate, taking 49 people hostage, including the consul general and three children (this is in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers detained earlier by ISIS). The Turkish consulate in Mosul, the only foreign diplomatic presence in the city, a former Ottoman provincial capital, has been a source of pride for Ankara, which saw the mission as an important reflection of Turkey's growing political and economic presence in northern Iraq and its growing outreach to Middle Eastern neighbors.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, the fall of Mosul into ISIS's hands and the capture of the consulate dramatically changes Turkey's position and ability to operate in that part of Iraq. From the WSJ:
[ISIS's] capture of the mission also fuels mounting threats against Turkey's interests across its southern border, with diplomatic hostages joining about 30 Turkish truck drivers who were kidnapped Tuesday while carrying diesel from Turkey's southern port of Iskenderun to a power plant in Mosul.
"There is an emergency situation right now," a senior government official said. "(ISIS) is a very worrying organization and we can't be sure about how they're treating people and we don't know what to expect from them."
Last October Amnesty International released a report looking at the summer's Gezi Park protests, concluding the government's harsh response resulted in "gross human rights violations." Today, the organization released a followup report, one that looks at the situation in Turkey a year after the Gezi events. Like the first report, this one also finds much to criticize regarding the government's actions, suggesting its "approach to demonstrations is as abusive as ever while impunity for police violence is rampant."
To get a better sense of the report and its findings, I spoke today with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher, about some of the main points raised in the document. An edited version of our interview is below:
What led to Amnesty creating this report?
It was really to do a follow up on the last report. What we found in the first Gezi report, which covered the events of the protests themselves, was there was really unnecessary, abusive use of force by the police, not to disperse people but to directly injure and punish people for going on the streets. The government’s policy for people taking to the streets was extremely restrictive and very much about keeping people from taking to the streets in any way they can.
The annual Washington conference of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), perhaps the best-known group lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests in the United States, is usually an occasion for both sides to boast about the strength and importance of the Turkey-US relationship. This year's conference, though, turned out to be a showcase for the deep divisions and political dysfunction gripping Turkey.
On June 1, the day the annual conference started, the ATC's long-time president, former US ambassador to Turkey James Holmes, submitted his resignation along with several other top executives. As reported in the Turkish press, Holmes -- whose organization counts among its members numerous corporations, especially in the defense industry -- had been feeling some heat from Ankara in connection with the political divisions currently gripping Turkey. In particular, it appears supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were upset that the ATC had sent out a news bulletin which included articles from Today's Zaman, the English-language newspaper affiliated with the Gulen movement, which is currently locked in an intense political battle with the AKP.
When the Turkish parliament passed last year strict new regulations on where and when alcohol can be sold, among the changes was a stipulation that shops, bars and restaurants selling alcohol could no longer have signs advertising that they sell, well, alcohol.
After an almost year-long grace period, the time has now come for Turkey's groceries and beer shops to take down any mention of booze from their signs. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
After June 11, shops and restaurants will be banned from displaying the signs of alcoholic beverage companies, removing another possible source of revenue. Many alcohol companies make deals with shops to pay for signboard costs in exchange for their advertisement. Alcohol advertising was banned in Turkey last year, and shops are now also required to hide alcoholic drinks from their windows.
“It’s alcoholic drink firms that have renewed our shop signs. Without logos, even tourists won’t want to enter the shops. Before, they would come and do their shopping here when they saw famous brands on the signs,” said Yusuf Deniz, a retailer who has been working in Istanbul for 22 years.
The latest measure affects around 250,000 retailers across Turkey. They were initially given a September 2013 deadline to complete the signboard transition, but this period was prolonged following difficulties in implementation.
To get around the regulation, many shop owners are planning to only remove the alcoholic brand logos and will keep the colors and lines that remind customers of them.
It goes without saying that the Gezi Park protests, which started a year ago and rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks, were a watershed moment for Turkey. A profound tipping point, there's very little in Turkish political and social life that has not somehow been influenced by the Gezi events. At the same time, Gezi's legacy is still evolving, its impact seen on developments that are both encouraging and dispiriting.
This mix of positive and negative changes can be seen regarding the fate of Gezi Park itself. At the most basic level, the effort to save the Istanbul park from being turned into a shopping mall -- which is what led to the protests in the first place -- was a success, with Gezi today still serving as a rare green space in the heart of Istanbul. On the other hand, as evidenced by the ongoing construction of the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the protests have done very little to slow down the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's appetite for environmentally costly state-sponsored megaprojects that are greenlighted with little oversight or input from the public.
And while the protests were instrumental in mobilizing a new class of political activists and in raising awareness about a host of issues that had previously been ignored (for more take a look at this very good piece by the Guardian's Constanze Letsch), that energy has yet to be directed into an organized political effort that can successfully challenge the AKP.
As a story in today's New York Times makes clear, among the many things Ukraine lost when Russia recently annexed Crimea was the historic Massandra winery, which was first set up by Czar Nicholas II in 1894. From the NYT:
Agriculture is a crucial sector that the Kremlin hopes to rejuvenate to make Crimea an economic success story under Russian tutelage. The new administration hopes to exploit the wine industry not least to draw more tourists, blaming Ukraine for neglecting both when it ran Crimea.
“Thank God it has not been completely ruined within these 23 years,” said Yelena Yurchenko, Crimea’s minister of tourism and resorts, speaking of viniculture. “Of course it would be in better shape if there had been investments in this field.”
Actually, while much of Crimea was bemoaning empty hotel rooms and a scant number of tourists, the bedrock of the economy, the team at Massandra was in a buoyant mood. Wines flew off the shelves at their three local stores last month, on track to double the sales volume from last year, they said.
The winery attributed the increase to many first-time Russian visitors’ eagerly snapping up potable souvenirs. The czar’s former winery now caters more to those day-to-day visitors than to the elite, producing 10 million bottles a year. Winemaking in Crimea dates back more than 3,500 years, but the intense Black Sea sunshine means it is most known for sweet wines and sherry.