Turkey faces numerous domestic challenges, but reforming the country's out-of-date education system is without a doubt one of the most significant ones. No matter how you slice it, Turkey's performance in the field of education leaves much to be desired. Guven Sak, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News and head of the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), laid out Turkey's education woes in a recent piece:
Let me split the problem into three components. First, Turkey has a young population. The average age is still around 28.5. That is a good thing. With that much potential, Turkey’s European convergence should have been through education and training. Neither the European Union nor our government had the wisdom to design the process accordingly. Secondly, our population has only 6.5 years of schooling on average. Turkey has the youngest population with the poorest education performance among the top 20 economies in the world. That bodes ill for our future. We have a population of middle school dropouts. On top of that, OECD PISA tests show that our students’ academic skills leave much to be desired. Our kids are among the worst around the block, which any decent economist will tell you puts us straight into the middle income trap. Thirdly, Turkey’s female labor force participation ratio is the lowest, even among Muslim majority countries. Only one among four women participates in the workforce. Why? Because of low educational attainment.
Tasoluk, a development on the outskirts of Istanbul
The subject of Istanbul and its booming growth appears to be in the air these days. In a recent report, National Public Radio's Peter Kenyon takes a look at how Istanbul's fast-paced development is leading to a clash between old and new and also forcing residents of older, more run-down neighborhood out of their homes.
Meanwhile, in a report for the Atlantic's website, writer David Lepska asks how Istanbul has managed to become one of Europe's safest cities despite its becoming one of the world's largest cities? From Lepska's piece:
In terms of policing, Turkey's vast cosmopolis offers lessons for the developing megacities of today, places like Dubai and Jakarta, Nairobi and Cairo. Istanbul has in recent decades been undergoing a rapid transformation, as urban expansion and modernization remake previously dilapidated and marginalized neighborhoods into welcoming retail and residential districts, often pushing the less advantaged to outlying areas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Istanbul mayor, envisions the city as a global hub and world financial center.
It's already one of the safer major international cities, for which Zarinebaf cites layers of law enforcement. Policing principles are drawn from the military. Training and education is essential – 85 percent of Turkish police have undergraduate degrees.
The city sets up police checkpoints at night to monitor movement. An integrated surveillance system connects hundreds of CCTV cameras to thousands of squad cars and scores of mobile stations, keeping an eye on most public areas.
For the people living in the predominately-Kurdish southeast region of Turkey, the fact that their region is dotted with the mass graves of victims of the political violence that haunted the area in the 1980's and 90's has long been an open secret, although one that few talked about in public. That changed several years ago, especially because of the high-profile Ergenekon case -- an investigation into an alleged ultara-nationalist plot to topple the government -- which, despite its flaws, has managed to land some formerly untouchable military and political figures in jail and shed some light on dirty deeds committed by the Turkish state.
Emboldened by the Ergenekon case and other efforts to root out Turkey's "Deep State," Kurdish activists in the southeast have started to make more forceful demands for these suspected mass grave sites to be excavated, part of an effort to determine the fate of the several thousand Kurds who went missing during the 80's and 90's during the fight between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and security forces.The Diyarbakir branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association, for example, has published on its website an interactive map of suspected mass grave sites. Also in Diyarbakir, a recent petition made by relatives of several missing person has led to a court-ordered excavation that so far has revealed the remains of some 23 people. From a report on the Bianet website:
Despite threats to punish France for its parliament's recent passing of a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman state in 1915 was a genocide, Ankara for now is holding back on hitting the French with any sanctions. But things appear to be a bit different in the culinary realm. As the Financial Times reports, while the Turkish government might be taking a more patient approach, some Turks are talking about boycotting Sodexo, a French company that is responsible for managing a large program that allows Turkish companies to provide their employees with lunch, either in-house or by going out using chits. From the FT:
Turkey is talking of boycotts in its increasingly bitter dispute with France.
At the centre of attention: Sodexo, the French food company now the target of Istanbul restaurateurs who say revenue from $2bn’s worth of Turkish meals is at stake....
....“We will carry out a boycott against the people who are trying to blacken the name of Turkey for political reasons in France,” declared Sait Karabagli, the [Chamber of Istanbul Restaurant Owners] chairman, announcing steps he said would hit not just Sodexo but also Ticket and Multinet, two other French-owned food groups. “We and our 13,500 members have decided to say enough to the French companies,” he added.
Karabagli reckons $150m is at stake in the boycott he is proposing – part of the reason for his action in the first place. He claimed the French companies were exploiting Turkish restaurants by imposing an eight per cent commission on $2bn or so or receipts – and also asked for help for the Turkish state to get the commission come down.
With a decision today to give life in prison for one of the several suspects in the 2007 murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, an Istanbul court brought the drawn-out and controversial case to a close, but offered little closure to Dink's family and supporters and found itself facing strong criticism over its verdict.
Dink, the outspoken editor of the Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos newspaper, was gunned down in front of the paper's Istanbul offices on Jan. 20, 2007. His assassin, a 17-year-old named Ogun Samast, was sentenced (as a minor) to 22 years in jail in July. But the sentencing of Samast still left open the question of what role did the 19 other people arrested in the case play in the murder and, more importantly, what was the involvement of certain elements of the police and other state bodies in the killing?
Today's verdict did little to answer those questions. Despite fairly strong evidence indicating there was an organized plot with links to the police, all 19 were acquitted of being part of a conspiracy (or a "terrorist organization," as the indictment put it) to kill Dink and only one of them convicted for instigating the murder. As the New York Times reports, the verdict was swiftly criticized by Dink's lawyers and other observers:
Gokceada (also known as Imroz) is a large Turkish island in the northern Aegean that, until recent decades, was predominantly Greek. Although it was not part of the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece, Gokceada's Greek population has dwindled to almost nothing as its original residents left due to a combination of political, economic and social factors.
In recent years, Greek life on the island -- the birthplace of Bartholomew I, the current Orthodox Patriarch -- has seen something of a small revival, thanks mostly to the presence of former residents who have returned to the island to retire or spend their summers. But the island's Greek community has now received an interesting boost from the Turkish government, which has given permission for a Greek primary to be reopened on the island. From a Cihan news service report:
The Ministry of Education has given permission to the Greek community to open a primary school on Gökçeada (Imbros), an island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Çanakkale province.
Laki Vingas, elected representative of non-Muslim foundations at the Council of the General Assembly of the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), was quoted in the Milliyet daily on Thursday as saying that the ministry gave permission verbally and that the Greeks of Gökçeada can start the process of opening a Greek school on the island.
Turkey's Greek schools are on the verge of closure because the Greek community's population is close to the point of extinction. There are estimated to be only 180-200 Turkish citizens of Greek origin on Gökçeada, and the number of Greek students expected to attend a Greek school on the island is expected to be low. But Vingas said that even if there are 10 students, the initiative would be important because it gives hopes for the future of the Greek community in Turkey.
Despite facing mounting domestic and international criticism, an Istanbul court today decided to keep in jail two leading journalists who are on trial for allegedly being part of a plot to topple the Turkish government. The journalists, Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, have been in jail for almost a year on charges that many believe to be fabricated in order to silence the two muckrakers. Some background from a good piece in today's New York Times about the trial and the growing threats to press freedom in Turkey:
A year ago, the journalist Nedim Sener was investigating a murky terrorist network that prosecutors maintain was plotting to overthrow Turkey’s Muslim-inspired government. Today, Mr. Sener stands accused of being part of that plot, jailed in what human rights groups call a political purge of the governing party’s critics.
Mr. Sener, who has spent nearly 20 years exposing government corruption, is among 13 defendants who appeared in state court this week at the imposing Palace of Justice in Istanbul on a variety of charges related to abetting a terrorist organization.
The other defendants include the editors of a staunchly secular Web site critical of the government and Ahmet Sik, a journalist who has written that an Islamic movement associated with Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric living in Pennsylvania, has infiltrated Turkey’s security forces....
Without a doubt, one of the major changes in Turkey in recent years has been the willingness of the state and of a growing segment of Turkish society to confront some of the dark chapters in the country's modern history. The way this is being done might be flawed (look at this previous post about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's politically-charged apology for a 1930's mass killing in eastern Turkey), but the significance of what were once taboo subjects now being openly discussed should not be overlooked.
That said, the subject of how to confront the past remains a very loaded one that frequently feeds -- rather than heals -- Turkey's political divisions. A good illustration of this is an excellent Foreign Policy story by Jenna Krajeski about the efforts by activists in Southeast Turkey's Diyarbakir to turn a notorious local prison into a museum dedicated to chronicling the abuses committed by the Turkish state against Kurds in the 1980's and 90's.
Questions about just how to deal with recent dark chapters of Turkish history are also likely to come up now that a prosecutor in Ankara has issued an indictment for the last two surviving members of the military junta responsible for Turkey's 1980 coup. The two, Kenan Evren, 94, and Tahsin Sahinkaya, could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.
The killing last Wednesday of 35 Kurdish villagers in a botched Turkish airstrike against what were thought to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants has, naturally, only further increased political tensions in Turkey and ushered in a new round in the ongoing war of words between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
Speaking to the AKP's parliamentary delegation today, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily accused the BDP of "abusing" the event, which took place near the Iraqi border in Southeast Turkey. From Today's Zaman:
In an angry speech delivered at his party's parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, Erdoğan said: “Whoever makes the issue an ethnic one by saying 35 Kurds were killed, they are trampling all kinds of humanitarian values. … We approach this incident as 35 people losing their lives in Uludere. We regard this issue as 35 citizens, 35 brothers who lost their lives. But they [the BDP] are making the issue an ethnic one. …. Those who classify the deaths as Kurdish and Turkish are following the path of the devil.”
Kurdish politicians, in turn, accused Erdogan of lashing out at the BDP in order to deflect attention away from the details of what happened on the border. “I was ashamed to be human as I listened to the prime minister's speech,” BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas told his own parliamentary group today.
Sweeps and large-scale arrests of people accused of being members of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), a pro-Kurdish group that Turkish authorities accuse of being a front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), have become a commonplace event in Turkey over the last few years. But while the original targets of KCK-related arrests were mostly pro-Kurdish politicians, recent sweeps in the case have netted a wider assortment of suspects, including academics and writers (see this previous post).
In yet another round of mass arrests, Turkish authorities today detained what appear to be about 25 journalists, many of them working for pro-Kurdish media outlets, but apparantly also a well-known photographer who works for AFP. As the official Anadolu Agency put it, the raids were directed against the "press and propaganda" wing of the KCK. (More details via CNN, here.)
The arrests again raise the question of how Turkey's expansive terrorism laws are being used and if they're allowing the authorities to detain suspects for reasons that have very little to do with terrorism. Human Rights Watch's Turkey researcher, Emma Sinclair-Webb, raised this issue in an op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. From her piece: