Turkey watchers in Washington were afforded a rare sighting a few months back: the first ever appearance in the city by the head of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main Turkish opposition party.
The visit by the party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered former bureaucrat, was dismissed by many as ineffective (to be fair, it's hard to be noticed when your adversary is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan). But the underlying point of the trip was worth noting -- after years of wandering in the political wilderness, mostly through its own doing, and of being dismissed at home and abroad as utterly hopeless, the CHP was again trying to make itself relevant.
Checking in with Washington was a welcome move, but, of course, becoming politically relevant in Turkey requires, well, succeeding in Turkey. In that sense, Sunday's local elections will provide a crucial test for the CHP's efforts to revitalize the party and present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Failure by the CHP to score some solid victories at the polls -- holding on to Izmir, winning either Ankara or Istanbul and boosting its share of the national vote -- will put into question not only its future viability as an opposition party, but will also have profound implications for the future of democratic politics in Turkey.
Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
Despite its citizens going to the polls in the wake of military coups, economic crashes and other crises, Turkey has managed to develop a strong record of running free and fair elections since the country ended one-party rule in 1950. But with local polls being held on Sunday in the midst of a particularly heated and deeply polarized political fight between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition, there are growing questions about whether this vote will end Turkey's streak of untainted elections.
Over the last few weeks and months, the amount of rumors and questions surrounding the sanctity of Sunday's elections has been quickly increasing (a good example can be found here). The reason for this is clear: the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a decade of easy electoral victories are suddenly finding themselves fighting the most intense and complex political battle they have yet to face and have staked their legitimacy to winning big at the ballot box. Failing to score a decisive victory on Sunday, by losing in Istanbul or Ankara or by failing to win more than 40 percent of the national vote, is a scenario that Erdogan -- based on the level of invective he is using against his opponents -- is clearly not wiling to consider.
What does Turkey have in common with Iran, North Korea, China and Cuba? As of last night, the NATO member and European Union candidate had joined those four other countries with dismal freedom of expression records as one of the few nations to have instituted a total ban on access to Twitter. Turkish Twitter users have been quick to circumvent the block, but the move marks yet another disturbing anti-democratic turn for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The block on Twitter access started late yesterday, just a few weeks after the government passed a new internet law that gives it enhanced powers to shut websites down and only hours after Erdogan vowed at a campaign rally to "eradicate" Twitter, which has been playing a prominent role in recent weeks as the conduit for links to leaked phone calls and documents connecting the PM and other official to corrupt activity. The Hurriyet Daily News provides some interesting background on how the new internet law was used to put the Twitter block in place through executive order, rather than a court action:
Twitter, the social media platform with 12 million Turkish users, has been blocked by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), working under the Ministry of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
Ever since Turkish Airlines introduced a few years back direct flights from Washington's Dulles Airport to Istanbul, the American capital and Turkey and have somehow seemed less far apart. Now, as the ongoing battle between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen heats up, with both sides trying to pull Washington into the scrum, the two places seem even more closely linked, although in a way that could ultimately drive a wedge between Turkey and the US.
With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a mounting corruption scandal and the constant leaking of recordings of incriminating personal phone calls, which the PM and his supporters say are being orchestrated by the Gulen movement, Erdogan is striking back, accusing the movement and its leader -- who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania -- of working to destabilize Turkey.
In a television interview last week, Erdogan said that he recently spoke to President Barack Obama on the phone and delivered that message to him. “The person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly,” Erdogan said during the interview. “I said, ‘I expect what’s necessary (to be done).’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.” According to Erdogan, Obama told him: "We got the message."
As described in a Turko-File blog post yesterday, the Tuesday death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan -- an Istanbul boy who spent 269 days in a coma after apparantly being struck in the head by a police tear gas canister -- has helped to reignite the protests that first rocked Istanbul last summer during the Gezi Park demonstrations.
One of the interesting elements of these new events has been the presence of bread loaves carried by demonstrators as symbols of protest, to commemorate the fact that Berkin had left his home on the day he was injured in order to go buy bread. (The Bianet website has a nice gallery of silent "bread" protests held two days ago after Berkin died.)
Writing on her blog, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains why bread is proving to be such a powerful symbol of protest in Turkey:
Bread is quasi-sacred in Turkey. In Turkey, it is the source of nourishment and it represents both human labor and God’s bounty through nature. If a piece of bread falls to the ground, my grandmother kisses it after picking it up from where it fell. Wasting bread is seen as a sin, and not having bread at a table will get you howls of protest from people who will tell you they’ll be hungry without bread. (Yes, in Turkey, people will eat bread with pasta, for example).
Berkin was buried today, in a procession that was attended by perhaps tens of thousands and which was soon forcibly broken up by police using gas and water cannons. Held aloft by many of the mourners? Loaves of bread.
A massive police crackdown may have put an end to the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park last summer, but it wouldn't be correct to say that it put a stop to the protest movement that was born during that occupation. Instead, the Gezi movement has been simmering slowly since last summer, with occasional flareups here and there, waiting for a spark that might reignite it.
That spark might very well have appeared, in the form of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who died today after spending 269 days in a coma, brought about after he was apparantly struck in the head at close range by a police tear gas canister. According to his parents, Berkin went out to buy bread on the morning of June 16 and got caught up in the Gezi-related protests that were taking place in his Istanbul neighborhood. He never came home.
With its newfound oil and gas riches, Azerbaijan has been able to buy its way onto the world stage in a number of areas -- art and architecture, for example -- that one wouldn't normally expect from a small country on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Now it appears Azerbaijan is trying to apply this winning formula to wine, another field where the country, despite having a long history of winemaking, has not been particularly associated with (at least not in a good way). Reports the AzerNews website:
Azerbaijan is planning to gain more shares of world's vine market. It comes after the country joins the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). Agriculture Ministry's Department Head Sabir Veliyev made the remark at a session of the Agrarian Policy Committee of the Azerbaijani Parliament on January 29. Veliev recalled that a prohibition law adopted by the Soviet leadership in 1985 on vine production has destroyed the viticulture industry in Azerbaijan. "Before the adoption of this law, the country produced about two million tons of grapes per year, which provided 40-45 percent of Azerbaijan SSR's GDP," he noted. Veliyev went on to note that in 2013, Azerbaijan harvested 150,000 tons of grapes. However, Azerbaijan intends to return to its past production capacity. The Agrarian Policy Committee has handed the draft law on Azerbaijan's joining to OIV to the parliament for further consideration.
As the images distributed the other day by the Turkish press of Russian naval vessels steaming through the Bosphorus made clear, Ankara has little choice about being involved in the ongoing crisis surrounding Crimea.
Beyond its geographic proximity to the peninsula in the Black Sea, Turkey also has deep historical ties to Crimea, once an Ottoman province, and strong interests there, especially with regards to the fate of Muslim Crimean Tatars, who make up an estimated 15 percent of the population.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently expressed his concern about how developments in Crimea might impact the Tatars and today his ministry issued a statement calling the upcoming referendum there on whether the region should become part of Russia as a "wrong" move.
But just how much can Ankara do in the face of Moscow's moves in Crimea? The truth is very little. Write the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffrey in a brief released this week:
The massive Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, which helped send a large number of high-profile Turks (numerous generals among them) to jail on charges of planning a coup, were hailed by many as an important step in finally confronting the troubling history of Turkey's "Deep State" and in finally breaking the military's unhealthy hold on political life.
Those were certainly noble objectives, but from the beginning of those cases there were those who asked if the evidence in the trials really held up. Already in 2009, analyst Gareth Jenkins issued a highly critical report about the Ergenkon case, writing: "Despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government."
Economist and blogger Dani Rodrik (whose father-in-law was one of the generals caught up in the Balyoz (or "Sledgehammer") investigation) was also an early and constant critic of the cases and Istanbul-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller produced some very good pieces noting the profound problems with the evidence used in the trials (take a look at this article in The Times (London) from 2011).