The release of a recording of what sounds like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructing his son Bilal over the phone on how to hide very large sums of currency has presented the PM with one of the most serious challenges of his twelve-year rule.
The leaking and the contents of the conversation, which appears to have taken place some two months ago, may have shocked some Turks, but Erdogan himself should not have been too surprised that his phone might have been tapped. After all, in a 2009 interview with the NTV television network, Erdogan expressed concern that his phone conversations were being listened to. "What do you think? Of course I am worried about it. Therefore I watch what I say over the phone. I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone," Erdogan told his interviewer.
"I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me."
Erdogan's concern at the time was not unreasonable. Over the last seven years or so, wiretapping -- both legal and illegal -- has been booming in Turkey, with the release of secretly recorded audio and video now an integral feature of Turkish political life. Wiretaps were a major feature of the Ergenekon case and the online release of secretly recorded video of Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), having a liaison with a female colleague was responsible for the veteran politician's exit from public life in 2010.
Sahlep, a hot, milky drink made from the powdered root of a type of orchid, may be a sweet wintertime treat in Istanbul, but for the roving vendors who sell the beverage from rolling carts, life is anything but sweet. Faced with growing pressure from municipal authorities, who are working to crack down on unlicensed street vendors, Istanbul's sahlep sellers are struggling to survive, with their carts sometimes confiscated.
Tagging along with one seller named Huseyin Kozak as he cruises the snowy streets of Istanbul's Beyoglu neighborhood, Culinary Backstreets in a new article offers a look into the life of the city's sahlep sellers -- most of whom come from the same village in Turkey's Isparta region -- and the history behind their work. From the article:
By the name of the place, you’d expect the Sütçüler (“Milkmen” in English) district near Isparta in southern Turkey to be a dairyland paradise, thick on the ground with men carrying buckets sloshing fresh milk, cheese wheels stacked in cool dark sheds, verdant hills freckled with cows. But there are no milkmen in Sütçüler, at least not in the wintertime. The area’s name actually has nothing to do with anything going on in Sütçüler itself.
The mayor of Sütçüler, Hüseyin Müftüoğlu confirmed this over the phone. “In 1938, the decision was made to name this area Sütçüler. For more than 100 years, in Istanbul, in every neighborhood there’s a milkman and almost surely, that man is from here, one of our Sütçüler brothers,” Müftüoğlu told us.
From a distance, it might seem like these Ispartans are dairymen, providing an important link between city folk and the farms back in the village, but spending some time among those from Sütçüler, we found their most common feature to be their willingness to grind out a living by dragging a push cart through the streets of Istanbul, winter after winter.
As Eurasianet's Dorian Jones pointed out in a recent article, in response to growing domestic political strife and economic uncertainty, Turks are turning to conspiracy theories to explain things (with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading the pack).
The propensity to turn to conspiracy theories fueled by the belief that foreign powers are out to get Turkey is certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has a clinical name: Sèvres Syndrome, in reference to the treaty the Ottomans were forced to sign at the end of World War I which led to the carving up of their former empire.
In a new paper released by the German Marshall Fund, pollster and political scientist Emre Erdogan takes a look at the syndrome's enduring legacy and its relevance to today's politics in Turkey. From his piece:
The Turkish political culture and education system have reproduced this anxiety over generations. A very simple battery of survey questions illustrates this: 60 percent of the Turkish population believes that “Western powers” aim to disintegrate Turkey, as they have in the past. Similar percentages agree that the reforms that the EU expects Turkey to implement within the framework of the accession process are similar to articles of the Sèvres Treaty, and that the attitudes of Europeans toward Turkey is based on the “crusader ideals.”
These levels remained the same in different surveys conducted in 2003, 2006, and 2012. While almost one- quarter of the Turkish population has been renewed through generational replacement, there has been no change in the intensity of Sèvres Syndrome, a clear indicator of the success of the education system and political culture in shaping people’s attitudes.
Carlo Catani, an activist with the Slow Food movement, was at a wine show in Italy two years ago tasting some bottles from Georgia when an idea struck him: what if he were able to convince Italian winemakers to make wine using the traditional Georgian method of fermenting it in large clay vessels known as kvevri?
The initial idea was something of a joke, says Catani, who works on promoting wine culture in his native region of Romagna. But the more he thought about it, the more intrigued he was about the idea. “We talked to some producers in our region, and 15 of them agreed to try doing it. Our goal was to help spread Georgian wine culture, but another goal was to get the producers to collaborate among themselves, which was something they usually didn’t do. This was the only way they could make this kind of wine in a good way,” Catani says.
And so was born what is still an ongoing experiment – to make Italian wine with a Georgian accent (or is it Georgian wine with an Italian accent)?
The experiment is not so far fetched, Catani says. Turns out making wine in clay vessels was once done in Italy – in Roman times, that is. “The Romans stopped using this method more or less after the Barbarian invasion. After that they started using wooden barrels,” he explains. “So we more or less have some 1,500 years of a gap in using kvevris. The Georgians have been using kvevris from the beginning, from when wine grapes were domesticated until now. So they have good knowledge in how to use this.”
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?