Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why are Erdogan and the Gulenists slugging it out?

As the political crisis in Turkey continues to unfold, I've been trying to get some sense of the underlying causes of the escalating power struggle between Erdogan and the Gulenists which is one important component of this crisis.  A post by David Pickering with some reflections on Turkey's political crisis pointed me to a piece in Al Jazeera by a Turkish journalist named Yavuz Baydar titled "Erdogan v Gulen: Zero sum game?"  I've never encountered this Baydar person before, but his account is interesting and makes plausible sense (at least, in terms of capturing at least part of the background story).  It's worth reading.

The mini-bio for Baydar mentions that, among other things, he is a columnist for Today's Zaman—which happens to be a Gulenist-controlled newspaper.  So I couldn't help wondering whether he was peddling a Gulenist line.  (My impression is that a lot of the independent press, i.e. neither pro-AKP or pro-Gulen, has been shut down or intimidated into shutting up, leaving the Gulenist media as the main alternative to the government and pro-government media.)  However, an informed analyst from Turkey whose judgment in such matters is highly trustworthy, and who knows Baydar personally, assures me that Baydar is neither a Gulenist nor an AKP mouthpiece but a serious journalist with genuine integrity and independence of mind (who at various points in his career has worked for newspapers in several sectors of the Turkish political spectrum).

=>  By the way, I couldn't help noticing a curious little detail about the photo at the head of Baydar's article, which I've reproduced at the beginning of this post.  Someone on the Al Jazeera staff (who probably didn't know Turkish and wasn't paying close attention) decided to illustrate this article with a photo of demonstrators from Turkey's Communist Party, carrying posters with pictures of both Erdogan and Gulen and condemning them en bloc.  Some people who do know Turkish were kind enough to help me out with a translation of the slogan on the poster. What it says (roughly) is:  "We will destroy the reign of thieves."

That strikes me as an admirable program, in principle, but I suspect their chances of success in this endeavor are not great.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  For more on Gulen and the Gulenist movement, including some intriguing US angles, see here & here.

Al Jazeera
December 28, 2013
Erdogan v Gulen: Zero sum game?
Once allies in changing Turkey's ultra-secular state structure, the two men are now at loggerheads.

By Yavuz Baydar

Yavuz Baydar is an award-winning journalist, commentator and a former news ombudsman. He is a columnist with daily Today's Zaman, Istanbul, and a blogger with Huffington Post. He covers Turkish politics and diplomacy, the Middle East and the EU, human rights, minority issues and media matters.

In what looks like a perfect political storm, the vessel called Turkey is now in uncharted waters, increasingly adrift. During the last ten days that shook the country - following a police operation linked to a massive graft probe which involved four government ministers, an Iranian businessman and the CEO of a public bank, Halkbank, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the judiciary are now at what can be described as a full-scale war.

The developing story has two layers. At the top, there are allegations of bribery, money-laundering, racketeering, and organised crime of immense proportions. If the accusations have ground, the suspects - two of the detained are the sons of government ministers - have received bribes that surpass $120m.

In a so-called "second wave" graft probe, which was blocked by a stunning row between the government and the judiciary, one of the suspects is Bilal, son of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As the corruption inquiries seem to engulf Erdogan's family, the confrontation between the executive and the judiciary has - perhaps expectedly - turned into an existential battle for the separation of powers, threatening the stability of Turkey.

In the second layer, there is open warfare between two men, who, in their own way, have defined the course of the country, and its national brand of Islam - Erdogan representing its vertically political and Gulen its horizontally social side.

Erdogan, who had accused an array of enemies - the interest rate lobby, Israel, international media, and business circles in Istanbul - as the real culprits behind the early summer's Gezi Park protests and general urban unrest, has now added Fethullah Gulen and his followers as the top player to oust him from power, claiming that "the gang" associated with Gulen's Hizmet Movement, has operated within the state, plotting against his rule.

The adversary

Gulen is a 72-year old reclusive cleric, writer and preacher, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, US, after being persecuted by the Turkish military's top brass in the 1990s. The old, ultra-secular establishment regarded him as a dangerously subversive leader; however, he is loved by millions of followers in and outside of Turkey for his staunch advocacy of a moderate, tolerant, modern brand of Islam, and peace and interfaith dialogue.

Gulen preaches that education is vital in promoting a new version of Islam, and endorses a global movement to operate schools - now active in more than 140 countries.

His followers in various business sectors - often small and mid-scale - have become key players, spreading around the world - comparable to Calvinists - to be part of the trade globalisation.

In Turkey, Gulen encouraged massive social engagement, on a voluntary basis, for the support of democratisation and diversity. His pious civilian movement called "Hizmet"(Service), is present in media, academia, education, and the bureaucracy - security and judiciary.

But it is the latter which has been at the focus of controversy - now at full display after the graft probe. Erdogan, who since Gezi Park tends to see enemies in every corner, openly targets those whom he believes are Gulenists among the police, prosecutors and judges.

He seems so convinced that he reportedly threatened Hizmet, by saying, in private conversations, that it may be charged as a "terrorist organisation". Among his public accusations: There is a "parallel state" and those in the police and media are involved in "spying".

This is Erdogan's well-known pattern that after such a long time in power, and unchallenged by opposition, he - reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher or Helmut Kohl - targets all the dissenters, and creates imaginary enemies to antagonise them in order to boost his popularity.

Yet, although it partly and correctly explains it, there are deeper reasons behind the fallout between Erdogan and Gulen. After all, these two popular figures were allies in dismantling much of Turkey's ultra-secular state structure, which ruled for eight decades with the military the master sponsor.

Clashing views

Erdogan had the backing of the Hizmet Movement in consecutive elections, in the trials of attempted coup leaders, and in a referendum that led to a patchy, but crucial constitutional reform, which radically changed the structure of the judiciary.

But, for insiders, the fact of the matter is, the friction started to develop between the two men in 2010. And it has always had to do with two clashing views within the sphere of Islam stemming from the old traditions of Turkey.

The first element had to with Erdogan's deviation away from Turkey's European Union membership aspiration. When Gulen, who has been vocal in supporting a civilian constitution, saw delays in the process, his patience grew thin.

When the Gaza Flotilla episode in May 2010, ended with a tragedy, it was Gulen who, in a surprise move, criticised the violence. His blunt criticism, it was reported, was never "forgiven" by Erdogan.

First, a deep division emerged on Erdogan's choice to conduct the so-called "Kurdish Peace Process". Erdogan's methodology was to negotiate directly with the PKK, both with its leader Abdullah Ocalan, and its "military command" in Iraq's Qandil Mountains.

But, Gulenists, who see the PKK as the main adversary in the mainly Kurdish regions - as the PKK considers them - were discreetly dismayed. They argued reasonably, that Erdogan could and should focus on broader political reform, push for a civilian constitution and grant all the rights the Kurds of Turkey demand, such as recognition of ethnic identity, education in their mother tongue, and endorsement of local governments - without talking to the PKK. This approach, Hizmet's supporters argued, would weaken the PKK, because it would "disarm" the armed movement from all the reasons it continued to wage guerrilla warfare. The AKP and the Gulen Movement have never recovered from this difference of opinion.

Finally, a series of developments brought the rift to new heights. Gulen never had sympathy for Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's Intelligence Service (MIT), whom he suspected secretly profiled his followers.

When Fidan was summoned for interrogation in the probe of the PKK-related Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) network in February 2012, and when some bugs were later found in Erdogan's offices, the mistrust became visible. Hizmet started to see itself as the next target for Erdogan's action for submission.

Final break?

The last straw came months ago, when Erdogan declared that he would terminate all the private prep schools in the country, more than half of which were owned by Hizmet affiliates. And when he insisted on passing a law for their closure, all the remaining bridges were burned.

The estrangement is now irreversible. The two lines are now on separate paths, and a historic bond, which previously broke down much of Turkey's rigid system, is broken.

Is it a zero sum game? It's hard to tell. Yet, it would be simplistic to claim that it is a power struggle between the two lines. Gulenists are not in power, in the police or the judiciary: Both contain a wide blend of people. Thus, Erdogan will have a hard time to do a convincing "cleansing", considering that he is already facing accusations of a McCarthyesque witch-hunt. He will end up as a leader whose hunger for control knows no limits.

Will the fallout effect the local elections scheduled for March 30, 2014? Two pollsters, who wish to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that unless dramatic changes occur in the economy, and unless Erdogan continues with his erratic behaviour, the AKP may end up winning, with a possible loss of 4 to 7 points. But, the 2014 elections in Istanbul demand attention: This is where anything can happen. Both AKP and CHP have strong candidates and if the AKP loses there, it may signal very bad news for Erdogan indeed.

(The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Who is Fetullah Gulen, what is the Gulenist movement, and what are they up to? (Claire Berlinski)

It is generally agreed that the current political crisis in Turkey is bound up, to a considerable extent, with an escalating power struggle between two wings of Turkish political Islam—Prime Minister Erdogan and his supporters, on the one hand, and the movement headed by Fetullah Gulen, on the other. So it's logical that some people might be asking questions like these:

Actually, Claire Berlinski researched and wrote a piece about these subjects back in 2012. It's a useful introduction, even though (or perhaps because) when you finish reading it you will probably feel that a great deal about Gulen and his movement remains hazy, uncertain, mysterious, and perplexing.

"Who Is Fethullah Gülen?
Controversial Muslim preacher, feared Turkish intriguer—and “inspirer” of the largest charter school network in America

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. One interesting American angle in this story is the way that the Gulenists seem to have successfully used charter school programs in the US as a vehicle for getting US taxpayers to (indirectly, and in effect) subsidize the Turkish operations of an international Islamist organization with a strong political agenda. A clever and impressive feat.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Thailand's permanent political crisis – A brief introductory guide

My friend George Dreyfus, who lives in Thailand part of each year and is very savvy about politics, recommends the piece below as a "brilliant summary for those outside of Thailand who wish to understand what is going on."   —Jeff Weintraub

Economic & Political Weekly
December 26, 2013
Thailand in Another Round of Turmoil
By Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker

The proximate cause for the latest wave of protests which has swept through Bangkok since October was the ruling party's attempt to ram through legislative changes that would have benefited the former prime minister and deeply polarising figure of Thaksin Shinawatra. However, the demonstrations reflect a deep divide in Thai society according to class, region and ideology, a divide which has developed over the past half century as growth has centred on Bangkok while the rural north and east have been left behind.

Pasuk Phongpaichit (chrispasuk@gmail.com) is at the Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and Chris Baker is an independent writer who lives in Bangkok.

Between October and December 2013, Thailand has experienced another round of street protests. The government has dissolved parliament and scheduled a general election for 2 February 2014, but the protesters want to suspend parliament for 18 months while an appointed “people’s council” maps political reforms. This round of protests is not over yet.

October-December 2013

The government that has just resigned was installed after elections in July 2011 delivered a strong majority to the Pheu Thai party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. In its election platform, the Pheu Thai party promised to provide amnesty for offences during the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, and to amend the constitution drafted after an army coup in 2007. More informally, the party also promised to bring Thaksin home, which would require cancellation of a two-year sentence for abuse of power.

In mid-2013, the government began to deliver on these promises. Parliament debated a bill to amnesty the ordinary protesters in various street demonstrations since the 2006 coup, but to exclude the leaders. A parliamentary committee modified this bill to include leaders in the amnesty, and added an extra clause that would annul Thaksin’s conviction (and several thousand corruption cases). The modified bill was promptly rammed through three readings, ending at 4 am in the morning of 18 October.

The reaction to this clumsy piece of parliamentary chicanery was immediate. Protests came from anti-Thaksin groups bent on stopping his return, but also from Red Shirts intent on some legal accounting for those responsible for shooting Red Shirt protesters in April-May 2010. While this protest was swelling, the government passed a constitutional amendment to make the upper house of parliament totally elective (under the post-coup constitution, roughly half is appointed), and to remove a restriction on kin and relatives of sitting MPs becoming senators.

Protesters saw the amnesty bill as evidence of parliament manipulated solely for Thaksin’s benefit, and the constitutional amendment as evidence of the ambitions of Thailand’s big political families to dominate both houses and neutralise the system of checks and balances.

Three Different Groups

Three different groups brought people out onto the Bangkok streets in protest. The first were the core of the Yellow Shirts, the nickname for the anti-Thaksin movement, founded in 2005-06, that uses the colour yellow associated with the king as its uniform. The second was the Democrat Party, which initially kept its rather decorous protest well separate from the Yellow Shirts. The third and most effective was a collection of ad hoc groups that devised a strategy of urban protest brilliantly attuned for white-collar workers – flash-mobs announced on social media, gathering over lunch-hour at intersections served by Bangkok’s mass transit, getting visual impact from the restricted site and aural impact from blowing whistles.

The government backed down almost immediately, calling on the senate to kill the amnesty bill and making little protest when the Constitutional Court killed the senate amendment.

At that point the protests might have died as the two proximate causes had been neutralised. But the protests had very rapidly gathered considerable emotional momentum based on deeper causes (explored below). On 11 November, six opposition Democrat Party MPs resigned from parliament in order to continue the protests. Their leader is Suthep Thaugsuban, a long-standing politician from Thailand’s south, a typical local machine politician trailing a string of scandals, mostly over dubious acquisition of land. In the Democrat Party-led government of 2009-11, he was the tough-guy enforcer working behind the scenes for the inexperienced prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Suthep is an unlikely character to become a hero of street politics. He was turned into a protest leader by the collective emotion of the crowd rather than his personal attributes.

Over the following weeks, the three protest groups gelled into one. An elaborate protest camp was established in the heart of the old royal city, costing an estimated $1,70,000 a day, suggesting powerful business backers. Several socially powerful groups voiced support including groups of university teachers and students, doctors, lawyers and civil servants. The Bangkok press was largely favourable. On Sunday, 24 November, the leaders claimed a million people attended the rally. Though other sources estimated the crowd between an eighth and half of that number, the impact was significant.

The combined protest vowed to “overthrow the Thaksin regime”, meaning the removal of the current government but also (and more vaguely) reforms to prevent its return. While the movement had momentum, it lacked a mechanism. Traditionally, the military had provided the mechanism by enacting a coup, and more recently the courts have played the role by annulling an election or dissolving the ruling party. On this occasion, neither mechanism worked. The army chief repeatedly refused to get involved, while the constitutional court claimed there were grounds for dissolving the ruling party but decided not to enforce them. Most likely, both the military and the courts were nervous because their intervention would undoubtedly provoke the Red Shirts into a much larger protest and possibly more violence. The protesters also called on the king to intervene and appoint an alternative government under Article 7 of the constitution, but the king had refused a similar call in 2006 and this time the palace kept silent.

Following the refusals of the military and judiciary, Suthep and other protest leaders adopted a vocabulary of “people’s revolution”. Their thinking drew on two incidents in Thailand’s recent history. First, during the student protests of October 1973, the leaders of the military government were sent into exile, creating a power vacuum. The king then appointed a prime minister along with an assembly of over 2,000 people that selected the members of a constitutional drafting body. Second, the leaders of a military coup in 1991 installed Anand Panyarachun, a former diplomat, as prime minister, and Anand hand-picked a cabinet of technocrats that devised several reforms. Suthep called for some combination of these events, meaning a suspension of parliamentary government, the installation of an appointed, non-political cabinet, and the convoking of an assembly to draft reforms.

The Yingluck government replied that this procedure had no basis in the constitution. Various academic groups endorsed this view.

On 9 December, Yingluck dissolved the parliament. Suthep declared victory, claiming that power should now “return to the people” to enact his plan.

Red and Yellow since 2005

These events are just the latest round of a political battle that has been fought out largely on the streets of Bangkok since 2005. The country is increasingly divided into two camps, colour-coded as red and yellow. The division is very complex – with elements of class, region, and ideology – plus the controversial figure of Thaksin.

The core of the yellow movement is the Bangkok middle class. From the 1960s onwards, most of the gains of economic development have accrued to Bangkok, the seat of power, the source of over a third of gross domestic product (GDP), and the country’s only major city. As the city was transformed by globalisation, its middle class, mostly of Chinese origin, prospered, embraced modernity, and identified itself with booming urban Asia. Its members appreciate the upcountry peasantry as a source of cheap labour, but look down on them as backward.

The core of the red movement comes from the rice-growing regions of the upper north and north-east. Over the last quarter of the 20th century, per capita GDP tripled, and enough trickled down to transform the peasantry. Many tapped the gains of growth by migrating to work in Bangkok or overseas. Travel, television, and internet blew away old local horizons. Many developed rising aspirations for themselves and their children, and growing resentment at the great inequalities in income, in the distribution of public goods, and in access to power.

From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the power of the vote. Thaksin Shinawatra recognised the power of this new social force to win elections at the national level. By delivering some basic services (universal healthcare, microcredit, crop subsidies) that significantly changed people’s lives, and by being the first leader to empower this new social force, he was rewarded with fierce emotional support.

In the late 1990s, the Bangkok middle class had strongly supported Thaksin because he promised to make the economy grow and lift Thailand into the first world. They fell out of love with him because of his corrupt use of power to boost his family business profits, and because his tilt towards popular politics raised a “fear of the mass” inculcated during the Cold War. From 2005, Bangkok middle class opinion turned against Thaksin with the fire of a jilted lover.

Thaksin was felled by a coup and driven into self-exile by a conviction for abuse of power. In the past, such action had been enough to eliminate an unwanted leader. But his political colleagues and his mass base refused to abandon him. When the electorate again returned a Thaksinite government in 2007, the middle class swarmed onto the streets, clad in yellow. The courts toppled the government and dissolved the Thaksinite party, then the army and business groups installed an alternative government. Supporters of Thaksin then swarmed onto the streets dressed in red, and demanded new elections to return a legitimate government. The July 2011 elections brought in Yingluck Shinawatra, followed by the recent troubles.

Thaksin’s Electoral Triumphs

The Thaksinite party has now won all five national elections since 2001 by convincing margins. In face of this record, his opponents have gradually lost faith in electoral democracy. Initially, they pressed for more checks and balances on the executive, coded into the 2007 rewrite of the constitution. Some yellow theorists advocated increasing the institutional power of the monarchy, military and judiciary. In 2009, the yellows proposed “new politics”, meaning a retreat from the principal of one person/one vote through some graded form of franchise. Yellow advocates talk of a need for more “morality” in politics, and a greater role for “good people”. They repeatedly aim to delegitimise elected politicians by claiming that they buy their votes. Now they are pressing for a complete suspension of constitutional democracy.

On the other side, the reds have consistently backed the electoral principle. The main objective of the Red Shirt protests in 2009 and 2010 was the return of an elected government. As one 2010 protester told a researcher, “Bangkok people already have a good life, they don’t need elections for change, but we do”. The red rank-and-file is aware of Thaksin’s considerable failings but they put their faith in the electoral principle and his leadership because they believe this combination has brought them significant benefits in the past.

The reds say they want elected people running the country, whether or not they are “good”. The yellows want “good” people, whether or not they are elected.

The yellows have more money and more social power. They own the capital which is the stage-set for rally politics. They have the support of the media. But they lack the numbers to win in national elections.

The reds have the numbers but they lack the social power and get very little support in public media. In rally politics, they are at a disadvantage because people have to be transported into the city and have to operate in a hostile environment. This was evident during their 2010 protests.

The two camps have grown steadily further apart over the eight years of turmoil. With the explosion of social media and cable television, each camp now has its own source of news and opinion. In red media, Thaksin is a wronged hero. In yellow media, he is a demon destroying Thailand.

This latest round of protests has hardened these divisions, but has also brought some important milestones. Thaksin can probably never return to Thailand. After the amnesty bill fiasco he gave a statement which suggests he is resigned to that conclusion. The military, judiciary, and palace refused to intervene (openly), forcing the two camps to seek a negotiated solution. How that can be done is still very unclear.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Erdogan Agonistes – Is this what a panicked Erdogan looks like? (Michael Koplow)

In some ways, the latest developments in the intensifying political crisis in Turkey are starting to remind me of plotlines from "Boardwalk Empire".  (Anyone who has watched that HBO series will understand what I mean.)  But this is a very serious business.

Michael Koplow (whose Ottomans and Zionists blog is always a good place to go for informed and insightful analysis of Turkish politics and society) had this to say yesterday:
I said last week that I thought things were inevitably destined to get uglier, and it seems that uglier has arrived. The latest from the AKP-Gülen fallout is that over 500 Turkish police officials and officers have been sacked, investigations have been launched into Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sons Bilal and Bürak along with the newly government-appointed Istanbul police chief, the chief prosecutor in the corruption case has publicly claimed that the government is obstructing his case by ordering the police not to arrest suspects and not to implement judicial decrees, and, in the biggest sign of just how much things have gone off the rails, Erdoğan last night replaced ten cabinet members at once. There is now no question left that this is the biggest crisis by far of the AKP’s time in power and that it overshadows Gezi by orders of magnitude.

If anyone still harbors any doubts that this is an AKP-Gülen fight, those doubts can be put to rest. After the initial arrests and announcements of corruption probes, Erdoğan purposely went after one of the Gülenists’ strongholds in replacing high-ranking police officials wholesale. What is now happening is a showdown between prosecutors, who are still largely Gülenist, and newly appointed police who refuse to carry out the prosecutors’ orders. Any semblance of impartiality and rule of law on either side has been completely thrown out, and Turkish institutions are being harmed in ways that will take years to overcome. When the courts and the police are being used to further nakedly political agendas, it is the first and easiest sign that Turkish democracy is as hollow as it has been since the military was openly running things. How this is going to eventually be sorted out I have no idea, but at this point neither side appears willing to back down and each day brings a new escalation.

Were this the only element to this, I’d put my money on Erdoğan emerging from this bloodied but still standing. However, the earth-shattering cabinet shuffle, how it was done, and how Erdoğan assembled his new cabinet lead me to believe that the prime minister is in very serious trouble. In fact, this is the first time it has ever crossed my mind that his tenure as PM is legitimately in danger. First there is the fact that in the span of just a couple of days, Erdoğan went from denouncing any and all allegations of wrongdoing as a foreign plot to accepting the resignations of the three ministers he had been defending so wholeheartedly. Of the three, his closest ally was Erdoğan Bayraktar, who on his way out revealed that he was not resigning of his own free will but had been fired, and – this one is the real shocker – threw Erdoğan under the bus by alleging that any corruption in construction deals had been signed off on by Erdoğan and called on him to resign. For those of you who do not follow Turkey as obsessively as others, high level AKP officials simply do not publicly challenge Erdoğan like that.  [....]

Furthermore, the new cabinet ministers are only going to make the AKP’s political problem worse, because instead of appointing people who might be more conciliatory, Erdoğan appears to have doubled down in appointing close allies with not much political experience and who are known hardliners.  [....]  Once the public becomes more involved in this ongoing saga, things are going to get even worse, and I fear that what we have seen so far is just the warmup act to much more unpleasantness ahead.
All the while, Erdoğan’s comments and the comments of those around him increasingly beggar belief. Whether it is veiled threats to expel the U.S. ambassador, the by now rote accusations of U.S. and Israeli perfidy, the denunciation of foreign plots, Erdoğan’s claiming that photos of ministers accepting bags from businessmen implicated in the corruption scandal could be bags of books or chocolate rather than money (yes, he really said both of those things), Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tired refrain that Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tired refrain that this is all resulting from the jealousy of unnamed foreign countries determined to keep the new Turkey down…does any of this sound like it is coming from a government that has things under control?  [....]
If the AKP does worse than expected in the local elections in March, which is a very likely possibility, it seems to me that Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility and stranglehold on his party will be permanently broken. Once that happens the long knives are bound to come out, and with the perfectly acceptable alternative of Abdullah Gül waiting in the wings, Erdoğan’s tenure as the sun around which Turkish politics revolves (to quote my friend Steven Cook) may be done. While I have learned enough to know that Erdoğan should never, ever be counted out or underestimated, we may have finally arrived at the exception to this longstanding rule of Turkish politics.
Maybe.  Read the rest of Koplow's blog post here ... and stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Erdogan Agonistes

The growing political scandal in Turkey may be turning into a genuine political crisis for Prime Minister Erdogan and his government.  A number of figures close to Erdogan have been arrested or implicated as part of a large-scale anti-corruption investigation, and everyone expects to see more arrests.  Erdogan has responded, characteristically, by ordering a sweeping purge of the police force—in Istanbul, this included firing the police chief and the heads of the financial crime, organized crime and smuggling units, among others—and by charging that the whole anti-corruption investigation is a "political plot" being carried out by a "criminal conspiracy" that has infiltrated the police and the judiciary and is acting in concert with shadowy foreign forces hostile to Turkey.

Conspiracy charges of that sort are par for the course with Erdogan and his supporters;  but we know that even paranoids (or politicians inclined to use to paranoid rhetoric) often have real enemies, and Erdogan has plenty of those.  Most informed analysts seem to agree that this unfolding political crisis is bound up with an escalating power struggle between Erdogan and his former allies in the Gulenist movement, a conflict that amounts to a civil war within Turkish political Islam.  So if we leave aside the wilder elements in the conspiracy charges, Erdogan's claim that he and his inner circle are being targeted by political opponents with allies inside the state apparatus may not be purely imaginary.  On the other hand, most analysts seem to agree that the corruption charges being pursued by this ongoing investigation aren't simply imaginary either.

Here are some recent updates in this ongoing drama.

 Saturday, December 21:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday continued his embrace of what has traditionally been the strategy of Turkish politicians facing a crisis: Blame foreign powers, in this case the United States.

On Saturday morning, four pro-government newspapers featured the American ambassador on their front pages, suggesting that the United States, a strong ally of Turkey, was behind an escalating corruption investigation that has ensnared several businessmen and others in the prime minister’s inner circle. One headline said, “Get out of this country.” Other media reports also suggested a plot by Israel.

Then in a series of speeches on Saturday, Mr. Erdogan threatened to expel foreign ambassadors for what he called “provocative actions.”

Mr. Erdogan did not specifically mention the United States, but referring to unnamed “ambassadors” he said, “We are not compelled to keep you in our country.” [....]
[JW:  To interject a small reality check, it so happens that relations between the Obama administration and Ergodan's AKP government have actually been quite friendly on the whole—so friendly that one alternative conspiracy theory, subscribed to by many anti-Erdogan Turks, is that the US engineered, or at least promoted, the AK Party's s rise to power.  The fact that the US government would have no obvious motive for suddenly changing course and getting involved in a high-risk plot to attack Erdogan and destabilize Turkey is one of several factors that helps make these particular charges sound especially implausible.]
The conspiracy theories advanced by the pro-government media — which resonate with certain segments of the population because both anti-American sentiments and anti-Semitism are widespread in Turkey — center on the fact that one of the targets of the investigation, the state-owned bank Halkbank, has in the past been accused by the United States of helping Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program.  [....]
Wednesday, December 25:
Three Cabinet ministers resigned in Turkey on Wednesday, days after their sons were taken into custody in a sweeping corruption and bribery scandal that has targeted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's allies and rattled the government.

The resignations include Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler and Erdogan Bayraktar, the environment and urban planning minister Erdogan Bayraktar - who also called on Erdogan to step down while announcing his resignation and exposing a deep rift with the Turkish leader.

All three ministers denied any wrongdoing. [....]

Media reports said police seized $4.5 million in cash that was stashed in shoe boxes at the home of the bank's CEO, while more than 1 million dollars in cash was reportedly discovered in the home of Guler's son.

Erdogan has denounced the corruption probe as a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to thwart his country's growing prosperity and discredit his government ahead of local elections in March. [....]

In a telephone interview with NTV television, Bayraktar also denied any wrongdoing, complained of being pressured into resigning by Erdogan and insisted "a great proportion" of construction projects that are allegedly under investigation were approved by the prime minister himself. [....]

"I want to express my belief that the esteemed prime minister should also resign," Bayraktar said. [....]
And then on Thursday, December 26 Erdogan announced an even more drastic overhaul of his cabinet that struck many observers as a defensive circle-the-wagons maneuver::
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tapped loyalists to rebuild his cabinet and fight a deepening corruption scandal that claimed its first victims from his inner circle and sent markets plunging.

Erdogan replaced 10 ministers in his 26-member cabinet, parting ways with those implicated in the probe, seen as the battleground in a struggle with a former long-time ally. He appointed his deputy minister Bekir Bozdag as justice minister to lead the legal battle allegedly against followers of a U.S.- based imam, Fethullah Gulen, who fell out with Erdogan lately. [....]

“This is a cabinet based on loyalty, designed to restore discipline and for damage control,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by phone. [....]

“This is the independence struggle for a new Turkey,” Erdogan said yesterday, hours before President Abdullah Gul approved cabinet changes. “Plots against Turkey will unravel.” Erdogan said the probe amounted to an attempted coup. [....]

The next wave of graft-related arrests will target the high-speed railway network and name one of Erdogan’s sons, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik said on Twitter yesterday. The Ankara prosecutor’s office confirmed an investigation, without giving further details. [....]

“For the first time since getting into office, Erdogan looks under siege and clearly on the defensive while unity within his party is starting to show some cracks,” said Wolfgango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence in London. “If the pressure intensifies in the days ahead and the probe gets closer to him and his family, Erdogan may have to resort to snap elections to try to regain momentum.”
=>  I don't pretend to have any idea how all this will turn out.  But while we await further developments,one way to help make sense of what it going on might be to reflect on what we know about the characteristic political style of the figure at the center of this crisis, Erdogan himself.  That's only part of the story, but a significant part.

Back in August 2011 Okan Altiparmak and Claire Berlinski, drawing on the big WikiLeaks dump of US diplomatic cables, put together an overview of political dynamics in Turkey that included an incisive analyses of the strengths, weaknesses, and potential dangers of Erdogan's style of political leadership.  I think that analysis makes for timely and illuminating reading today.  Some highlights:
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey reveal a surprising paradox. U.S. diplomats present themselves as highly-informed, perspicacious observers of Turkey with more insight than one would expect into the Islamist complexes and prejudices of Turkey’s governing AKP, the role of the Gulen movement in Turkey, the political talent and personality of Prime Minister Erdogan, his increasing isolation from competent advisors, and the central problems that characterize AKP governance: lack of technocratic skill, corruption, and influence-peddling. Yet time and again, these diplomats fail to draw from these observations the obvious conclusion: This represents a risk to Turkey, the United States, and its regional interests.

The Wikileaks cables on Turkey have shown that American diplomats understood far more about Turkey under the AKP (Justice and Development Party) than was previously thought. Their reports are in places remarkably perspicacious, yet again and again, they contain obvious analytic missteps. In particular, the authors tend to make important observations and then fail either to ask the obvious next question or draw from it the obvious conclusion.

On January 20, 2004, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman penned a report[i] of nearly impeccable insight into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. He correctly emphasizes the luck that ushered the party into power in November, 2002, notes the Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and aptly characterizes his political talent and pragmatism. Edelman’s description of the prime minister’s personality is almost painfully prescient: “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs… [his] authoritarian loner streak… prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.”

Edelman also observes central problems of AKP governance–lack of technocratic skill, corruption and influence-peddling–that are now well-known to foreign observers but were at the time little-remarked. Finally, he notes the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of several key Erdogan appointees:

"Erdogan’s refusal to condemn these positions, the question of the level of influence of Islamic brotherhoods and groups (including the followers of Fethullah Gulen) on the government, and the presence of Turkish Hizbullah supporters in AK Party provincial structures in the Southeast have also raised deep concerns among many long-standing Embassy contacts who themselves are pious. …how well [Erdogan] can control the phenomenon remains a very open question."

As is now known, these questions have become the questions.

The odd thing about this cable is the conclusion. These observations would, logically, give a rational observer pause, but instead lead Edelman to assert–without further argument–that the AKP is therefore the only party capable of “advancing the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe.” If he drew upon other premises to arrive at this conclusion, they are in a cable that has not yet been released to the public. Of those cables that have been released, none seem to suggest such a thing; indeed, they explain why–precisely why–the AKP has not been able to advance this vision.

In subsequent cables,[ii] Edelman deepens these observations, noting that Erdogan has surrounded himself “with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors,” isolating himself from a flow of reliable information [....]

The key insight of this and the preceding cables is that Erdogan and his advisors are not receiving high-quality intelligence and are instead relying upon “media disinformation.” Edelman notes the dominance of emotion and Sunni cronyism over analytic depth and vision in both the AKP’s domestic and foreign policy. He also notes that Erdogan has compounded his isolation through incessant travel and alienated many supporters in the AKP with his temper.

It is clear from the cables that by the end of 2004, American diplomats had a clear understanding of many critical points that the foreign press would not appreciate for several years to come. (Much of it still does not.)[iii]

"PM Erdogan is isolated. He has lost touch with his Cabinet and parliamentary group. We hear MPs and Ministers alike, xxxxx who is close to Erdogan, complain they no longer have comfortable access, or feel obliged to kowtow for fear of incurring Erdogan’s wrath. Business associations, strong advocates of AKP economic policies, tell us they feel they have lost the PM’s ear….

According to a broad range of our contacts, Erdogan reads minimally, mainly the Islamist-leaning press. According to others with broad and deep contacts throughout the establishment, Erdogan refuses to draw on the analyses of the MFA, and the military and National Intelligence Organization have cut him off from their reports. He never had a realistic world view, but one key touchstone is a fear of being outmaneuvered on the Islamist side by “Hoca” Erbakan’s Saadet Party. Instead, he relies on his charisma, instincts, and the filterings of advisors who pull conspiracy theories off the Web or are lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies, e.g., Islamist foreign policy advisor and Gul ally Ahmet Davutoglu."

Cables from January 2004 to March 2005 return repeatedly to the themes of the cronyism, incompetence, and corruption in the AKP:[iv]

"AKP swept to power by promising to root out corruption. However, in increasing numbers AKPers from ministers on down, and people close to the party, are telling us of conflicts of interest or serious corruption in the party at the national, provincial and local level and among close family members of ministers. We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.[v]

"Among the many figures mentioned to us as prominently involved in corruption are Minister of Interior Aksu, Minister of Foreign Trade Tuzmen, and AKP Istanbul provincial chairman Muezzinoglu. As we understand it from a contact in the intel directorate of Turkish National Police, a continuing investigation into Muezzinoglu’s extortion racket and other activities has already produced evidence incriminating Erdogan. In our contacts across Anatolia we have detected no willingness yet at the grassroots level to look closely at Erdogan or the party in this regard, but the trend is a time bomb."

As anyone who lives in Turkey knows, this cable suggests that Edelman was, indeed, living in Turkey. Corruption is the time bomb—a massively important point no one living here could readily miss. Whether or not these specific accusations are correct, anyone who lives here will hear similar stories from every observer, daily–from shopkeepers struggling with local corruption to companies bidding for tenders worth billions of dollars. Foreign observers tend to miss both the observation and its significance with great regularity, however; and if having this insight has had any effect on U.S. diplomatic posture toward Turkey, it is not clear how. Of what use is such a shrewd observer on the ground if one pays his warnings no mind? [....]
The rest of their piece is also worth reading, even though in retrospect some parts of the analysis look more prescient than others. For example, one theme running through their discussion is the increasing entanglement of the AK Party and the Gulenist movement, and much of what they have to say in that respect remains on-target and important. But no one reading this piece in 2011 would have expected to see Erdogan and the Gulenists locked in bitter conflict a few years later—a power struggle whose underlying causes remain a bit mysterious, at least to me. (Altiparmak and Berlinski do mention a passage from one of the diplomatic cables reporting that a Gulenist spokesman had described the Gulenist movement as "ambivalent" about the AKP. But they express skepticism about whether this expression of ambivalence should be taken seriously—clearly, they felt the Gulenist informant was just telling the gullible Americans what he thought they wanted to hear—and then they drop the whole subject.)  I don't mention that point as a criticism, since political prediction is never an exact science. Actually, both the insights and the omissions in this piece (and even points on which one might disagree) are usefully thought-provoking.

Meanwhile, stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Veni, Emmanuel

(Via Brad DeLong.)  The text, in Latin and in an English translation, is below the video clip.  —Jeff Weintraub

Latin Text

Veni veni, Emmanuel
captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, O Sapientia,
quae hic disponis omnia,
veni, viam prudentiae
ut doceas et gloriae.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, veni, Adonai,
qui populo in Sinai
legem dedisti vertice
in maiestate gloriae.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, O Iesse virgula,
ex hostis tuos ungula,
de specu tuos tartari
educ et antro barathri.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, Clavis Davidica,
regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum,
et claude vias inferum.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, veni O Oriens,
solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas,
dirasque mortis tenebras.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Veni, veni, Rex Gentium,
veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos
peccati sibi conscios.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
nascetur pro te Israel!

Lyrical English Translation

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse's stem,
from ev'ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heav'nly home;
make safe the way that leads on high
that we no more have cause to sigh.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death's dark shadow put to flight.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven's peace.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmastime for the Jews – A seasonal collection

These will be new for some of you, re-runs for others, but timely for all (or so I hope). With good will for Jews and goyim alike.   —Jeff Weintraub

Jewish Christmas - The Chinese connection

Christmastime for the Jews (contd.)

All I want for Christmas is ... Jews (Pseudo-Mariah Carey)

 (If you get a pop-up ad while the video is running, just click the X in the upper-right-hand corner of the pop-up.)

=>  And here's a little tidbit (parody! parody!) by David Mamet:

Friday, December 20, 2013

The civil war within Turkish political Islam

The increasingly open and dramatic power struggle between Erdogan and the Gulen movement, who were formerly close allies, is an important story, but not one that's easy to follow, especially since much of it remains shadowy and under-the-surface.  Claire Berlinski describes the piece below by Michael Kotlow (on his always useful Ottomans & Zionists blog) as "A good, succinct, English-language summary." It's a very informative opening guide for perplexed and non-expert observers (including yours truly).

It's also worth reading a recent analysis by Henri Barkey, in which he suggests that both Erdogan and Gulen may emerge as losers from this confrontation, though Erdogan probably has the stronger hand in the short run.  "If this crisis results in re-establishing some balance and curtailing the power of increasingly unaccountable forces, then Turkish democracy may be the other winner. "  Maybe, maybe not.

On Thursday, in the latest development, Erdogan announced a sweeping purge of the police force, charging that it has been infiltrated by a "criminal gang" engaged in a "political plot" against him, his government, and Turkey.  It's no secret to anyone who this "criminal gang" is supposed to be.  Even people with no love for Erdogan have been increasingly alarmed by the way the Gulenists were building up their own version of a Deep State inside the police, the judiciary, and other arms of govenment, as well as education, the mass media, and business.

As Koplow concludes:
Each side is playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and anyone who claims to know precisely how this will end is much wiser than I. But stay tuned, because this is a battle of epic proportions whose chaos has the potential to overwhelm everything else taking place in Turkey.
—Jeff Weintraub

Michael Koplow (Ottomans & Zionists)
December 17, 2013
Graft, Gülen, and the Future of the AKP

For months now there has been open war between the AKP and its erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement. The feuding can be traced back to an overzealous Gülenist prosecutor’s attempt to interrogate Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and things have spiraled downward from there, with Gülenist media outlets such as Zaman now routinely slamming the prime minister and government officials making shadowy threats about the Gülen movement having to be put down. When the government announced a couple of months ago that it was going to shut down the largely Gülen-run prep schools called dershanes, things began to get really nasty, and despite Tayyip Erdoğan’s eventual partial walk back, in which he announced that nothing would be done about the dershanes until September 2015, this was an effort to strike directly at the Gülenists’ livelihood, which they could not simply ignore. The aftermath of the dershane fight saw all sorts of uncomfortable leaks about the government, including the revelation – that the government did not deny – that back in 2004, the Turkish National Security Council had issued a directive (signed by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül) that plans should be made to counter and block the Gülen movement. While deputy PM Bülen Arınç and others immediately claimed that the directive was only advisory and was never implemented, the damage was done and the fighting between the top layers of the AKP and the Gülenists was fated to keep on escalating.

That brings us to today, when Turkish police arrested nearly 50 people at Halkbank, Turkish police arrested nearly 50 people at Halkbank, including the sons of two cabinet ministers, over corruption allegations in the government tender process. Halkbank has long been reputed to be actively involved in evading U.S. sanction on Iran, and indeed is the bank that processes Turkish payments for Iranian oil and gas, so it is highly likely that this probe is not based on fictitious charges. Nevertheless, it does not escape notice that the Turkish police and judiciary are dominated by Gülenists, and that the Istanbul prosecutor’s office has now arrested a number of people who are prominently connected to the government. Given the timing involved, this does not seem like a mere coincidence. I’ll also note that this fight has been taking place on the margins for awhile (in June 2012 I speculated that a split was coming, and I think that my hunch about who had tapped the PM’s office was likely correct in light of recent events).

Parsing what exactly is going on here is difficult, but I’ll take a stab at it nonetheless. The first big mystery is why Erdoğan decided to take a conflict that had been going along at a barely perceptible simmer and turn it into a huge conflagration with his aborted move against the dershanes. My hunch is that after three national elections in which each subsequent margin of victory was larger than the previous one, Erdoğan decided it was time to flex his muscles and show the Gülenists – who are in many ways natural rivals given their own Islamic, conservative backgrounds and tendencies – who was boss. In doing so, Erdoğan made a mistaken political calculation to rival the mistake he made in his approach to Gezi. If you need proof of this, think about how the conversation a few months ago was about who Erdoğan was going to install as a puppet PM after he assumes the presidency, and now it’s about whether he will be able to control his own party. Because Erdoğan never admits wrongdoing and loathes backing down, this feud was destined to get worse, and my bet is that it will get even worse still. Erdoğan is not going to crawl into a corner and lick his wounds, and I’d bet my last Turkish lira that the fallout from this will get uglier yet. As of this writing, Erdoğan is putting together a board that will have the power to fire prosecutors, which is a direct shot across the bow at the Gülenists.

The second big mystery is what the Gülenists hope to get out of this. There are some who think that the electoral alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement is now over, but I’m not so quick to declare this marriage completely spent. I don’t see that the Gülenists have anywhere else to go; are socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth voters suddenly going to abandon the socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth party and vote for CHP? The same CHP that in public and in private denigrates religious voters, or that is so closely associated with the institution – the military – that is the Gülen movement’s biggest foe? I find it very difficult to see a situation in which that is a long term or even sustainable short term political solution for Gülen adherents. I think what is going on here is a struggle to take over the AKP rather than cast it aside now that the Gülenists are feeling personally threatened by past and present government decisions. Based on what I observe, the calculation seems to be to weaken the party ahead of municipal elections in March to the point where some important posts, such as the Istanbul mayoralty, are lost, and make the AKP higher ups realize that they risk losing a great deal if they so blithely cast the Gülenists aside. At the same time, the Gülenists seem to want to do whatever they can to destroy AKP officials or keep them under their thumb, which explains the rumors flying around now about AKP ministers on tape accepting 7 figure bribes and the Halkbank prosecutions. I don’t think the intention here is to break away from the AKP, but to more thoroughly control the AKP.

The great danger in all of this, of course, is that once things get too far out of hand, there is no going back. The Gülen movement may want to show how valuable/powerful they are in an effort to control the party, but the law of unintended consequences always rears its head and may end up blowing up the party instead. Similarly, Erdoğan may want to put the Gülen movement in what he views as its proper place while keeping them in the fold, and instead could prompt his own downfall. There is just no telling where all of this will lead, and neither party seems to want to back down or deescalate in any way. Both the AKP and the Cemaat may have a final aim in mind and think they know how to get there, but the environment right now is amazingly combustible and volatile. Each side is playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and anyone who claims to know precisely how this will end is much wiser than I. But stay tuned, because this is a battle of epic proportions whose chaos has the potential to overwhelm everything else taking place in Turkey.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How do Turks feel about linguistic multi-culturalism?

According to a recent poll, the answer depends on whose language and culture are involved.  Perhaps that's not so surprising, but it's worth noting.  According to a report in Rudaw, an on-line newspaper from Iraqi Kurdistan:
Most people in Turkey believe that the children of Turkish immigrants in Germany should have the right to education in their own language, but less than half as many back the same right for Kurds in Turkey, according to a survey by an Istanbul-based social research group.

The poll, taken in 27 cities across Turkey by the Konda Research and Consultancy Company and released to coincide with the UN-inspired Human Rights Week, places two opinions side by side: Turks believe that the children of Turkish immigrants should be taught their own language in public schools; they do not believe that the millions of Kurds under Turkish rule have the same right to language.

The survey reveals that 81 percent of the people polled agree that denying ethnically Turkish children in Germany the right to study in their own language is a human rights violation, while only 47 percent see denying the same right to Kurdish children in Turkey as a breach
A few points about these figures strike me as intriguing. (I will assume for the moment that they're accurate, and that they accurately represent broader tendencies in Turkish public opinion.) Actually, 47% is not "less than half" of 81%, though there's certainly a big difference between those two numbers. I suspect that the writer simply meant to say that 47% was "less than half" of the respondents, and the formulation got altered somewhere in the copy-editing process.

The question is how to interpret those percentages. From one perspective, it's a big deal that almost half of the respondents in this poll supported the right of Kurdish children to be taught Kurdish in school. Since the modern Turkish republic spent over a half-century trying hard to suppress any public use the Kurdish language, that figure might suggest that Turkish society has moved a long way toward accepting Kurdish language rights and, more generally, the notion of Turkey as an ethnically pluralistic society.

On the other hand, a socially meaningful interpretation of that 47% figure would probably require disaggregating the respondents along ethnic lines—and on the basis of the information provided in this article, one can only speculate about that. Roughly 20% of Turkey's population are Kurdish. Let's assume that Turkish Kurds constituted 20% of the survey respondents, and let's also assume (for simplicity's sake) that all of them supported the right of Kurdish children to be taught Kurdish in school. If so, then non-Kurdish respondents—i.e., members of the Turkish majority who consider themselves ethnically as well as legally "Turkish"—accounted for 27% of that overall 47% favorable figure. (The numbers of other ethnic minorities in Turkey are statistically trivial, not least because the once-significant non-Muslim Greek and Armenian minorities were expelled or massacred during the 20th century.) And that would mean, in turn, that roughly a third of the respondents from the non-Kurdish Turkish majority supported language rights for Kurdish children in Turkey. Frankly, a third of the respondents is still a pretty high proportion in this context (even if the number of favorable responses was inflated by the way those two questions were juxtaposed in the survey) ... but yes, a third is considerably less than half of 81%.

So the contrast is indeed pretty striking, and worth pondering. The analysts quoted by Rudaw were not at all uncertain about how this contrast should be interpreted:
“It is not very surprising that Turkish people distance themselves from the language and rights of Kurds,” said Ali Fikri Isik, a Kurdish literary critic and one of the pioneers of the Kurdish conscientious objection movement in Turkey.

He told Rudaw that Turks have not been able to incorporate the true meaning of “rights” to their own culture.

“You cannot develop a democratic stance toward something that you denied for years,” Isik said, referring to Turkey’s decades-long oppression of its Kurds, who until the turn of this millennium faced fines or prison for even speaking their own language in public or listening to songs in Kurdish.

Kurds comprise an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s 76 million population and live in the predominantly Kurdish southeast regions, where Ankara does not allow the Kurdish language taught in schools.
[JW:  Actually, large numbers of Kurds now live in other parts of Turkey, which complicates this picture significantly.]
Zana Farqini, head of the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, told Rudaw that the findings of the survey did not come as a shock.

“When linguistic and cultural rights of Kurds are discussed, the dominant ideology in Turkey is shaped by the paranoia of separatism. Not only ordinary citizens, but also top-level state officials have the same view about this issue,” Farqini said.

“When former president Suleyman Demirel went to the Balkans, he told the Turkish people there to speak their mother tongue. When Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan went to Germany, he said assimilation is a crime against humanity. So when it comes to the rights of Turks living in other countries, they never think about the threat of separatism,” Farqini said.
[JW:   That kind of hypocrisy is par for the course with Erdogan, and this is hardly the most extreme example. It's characteristic, for example, that Erdogan once described China's treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, aka Chinese Turkestan, as "genocide" and routinely tosses accusations of "genocide" against Israel, but engages in total denial where real genocides are concerned. Not only does Erdogan aggressively deny the reality of the 1915 Armenian genocide—in this respect, he's simply in accord with the consistent long-term position of the Turkish government, which still makes it illegal to tell the truth about the Armenian genocide in Turkey, as well as the dominant Turkish popular consensus—but ever since his visit to Sudan in 2006 Erdogan has steadfastly denied "that there has been assimilation or genocide in Darfur" and has warmly supported Sudan's genocidal rulers. But be that as it may ...]
“The right to get education in one’s native language is not a negotiable right. Actually, it is a sacred and innate right that everyone should have without any exceptions, but the Turkish education system is based on double standards,” Farqini charged.
For the moment, we can side-step the question of precisely which individual and collective rights are "sacred," "innate," and non-negotiable under which circumstances. But the charge of double standards is hard to deny.

=> It so happens that the current Turkish government, led by Erdogan and the moderate-Islamist AK Party, has been more willing to accommodate Kurdish aspirations than previous Turkish governments. But everything is relative. And part of the socio-political reality underlying those survey results is a persistent sense of anxiety and insecurity about the whole project, now almost a century old, of trying to build a modern Turkish nation-state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. So far, that nation-building project has been remarkably successful at incorporating a wide range of disparate (Muslim) ethnic groups, including refugees from various other parts of the former Ottoman Empire. The effort to fully assimilate Turkey's Kurdish population to that overall sense of "Turkish" identity has been the great, and conspicuous, exception to this overall nationalist success story. And the long-term prospects remain uncertain. This Rudaw article also reports on another survey:
Meanwhile, a survey by the Political and Social Research Center (SAMER) about the perceptions and expectations of Kurds in 22 Kurdish cities in Turkey – taken after a “Democratization Package” announced by the Turkish government in October – showed that a majority of the respondents did not back the initiative.

Nearly 67 percent of the participants said the democratization package has not met their demands. Only 17.4 percent thought that the initiative was sufficient to solve Turkey’s Kurdish issue.

When asked what the next democratization package should include, about three-quarters of the respondents said: The political status of Kurds should be recognized; Kurds should be able to get education in Kurdish at public schools; Kurdish should be one of the official languages of Turkey; the democratic autonomy of Kurds should established; there should be an amnesty for political prisoners, and local administrations should be strengthened. [....]
On the other hand, it's clear that a lot of (non-Kurdish) Turks continue to fear that accommodating this agenda would indeed lead the country down a path to Kurdish "separatism" and national break-up. Are those perceptions a manifestation of totally unrealistic "paranoia," as Zana Farqini suggested?  Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe a bit of both. (There was a very serious Kurdish nationalist insurgency in Turkey for decades, after all, even if it's now suspended.  Perhaps accommodating Kurdish aspirations would weaken or moderate the sentiments that drove that insurgency, but it might also help encourage and consolidate them. And Kurdish national identity remains a very unsettled matter in all countries in the region with substantial Kurdish minorities.  This Rudaw article was written in Iraqi Kurdistan, not in Turkey. Still, one can't help noticing that it refers to Turkey's Kurdish population, not as "Turks of Kurdish ethnicity," but as "millions of Kurds under Turkish rule.")

For a lot of reasons, the break-up of Turkey as a unified nation-state strikes me as a very unlikely prospect in any reasonably foreseeable future. But then what do I know? Actually, the long-term outcomes will depend on a lot of factors that are not easy to predict ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Time to ditch the privatization/contracting delusion (once again, with feeling)

Back in 2011 I posted two items (here & here) on the dawning recognition that the vogue for outsourcing government functions to commercial contractors has largely proved be a debacle, especially in the military & national-security fields—one more exercise in what C. Wright Mills used to call "crackpot realism," abetted by the strange mixture of pro-market ideological delirium and practical corporate welfarism that has infected so many areas of public policy over the past several decades.

I could have followed up those items with a constant stream of blog posts on the same topic, but why keep belaboring the obvious?  However, since this reality is still not obvious to everyone, and since the drastic and harmful reductions in overall government spending in the US since 2009 mean (among other things) that federal and state and local governments are hemmorhaging public employees and civil servants of every sort at an unprecedented rate ...

.... here's another relevant item that I happened to notice.  It's a recent Newsweek article by David Cay Johnston,"The U.S. Government Is Paying Through the Nose For Private Contractors". Some highlights:
In theory, these contractors are supposed to save taxpayer money, as efficient, bottom-line-oriented corporate behemoths. In reality, they end up costing twice as much as civil servants, according to research by Professor Paul C. Light of New York University and others has shown. Defense contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman cost almost three times as much. [....]

Washington lavishes taxpayers’ money on for-profits. Many smaller contracting firms making good money for doing relatively little work ring the nation’s capital and are commonly known as Beltway Bandits. Remarkably, some of these enterprises set themselves up with a Bermuda mailbox to escape paying the federal taxes – perhaps most notably Accenture, which runs the IRS website. (Accenture maintains that its structure was not designed to avoid taxes.) [....]

But shoddy work doesn’t mean you will get fired from a government contract. Nor can that lackluster effort, like the disaster that is the Obamacare signup website, be blamed on inadequate pay to hire talent to set up a reliable website. Last year, contractors were allowed to charge the government as much as $763,029 per worker. [....]

For-profit contractors charge not just for salaries, but also for management pay and perks – like corporate golf outings and executive retreats – as well as the cost of renting space or operating buildings the contractors own, plus any other overhead. In a congressional hearing in March Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, revealed that of the $31.5 billion in invoices contractors submitted to the U.S. Army, $16.6 billion was for overhead. [....]
And there's another interesting wrinkle, which belongs in the category of 'astonishing but not really surprising':
Essentially, the federal government operates two contracting systems, separate and unequal. One hires profit-making corporations, the other handles nonprofits. [....]

The nonprofit contractors that get federal contracts are varied. They include soup kitchens and emergency shelter providers, some run by churches and others by secular institutions. They are forced to operate under much more stringent rules than those regulating the for-profit sector. [....]

“The government expects nonprofits to do work for less than the cost of doing the work,” said Rick Cohen, who negotiated nonprofit contracts with federal agencies and now writes about such issues for Nonprofit Quarterly.

Cohen broke into laughter when asked about a nonprofit billing for overhead costs. “Unlike corporations, the feds don’t let you charge anything for indirect costs, certainly not anything close to reality,” he said. “Corporate contractors operate in whole different world from nonprofits,” which he said are treated with suspicion and are closely audited compared to corporate contractors.

“The government also makes it a practice to be late paying nonprofits, which is why so many of them are in a constant cash crisis,” he said.  [....]
As the Good Book says, "Unto him that has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him."  You can read the whole article here

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Nelson Mandela's endorsement of Israel's right to exist and of "the legitimacy of Zionism"

The history of Israel's relationship with South Africa, before and after the end of the white-supremacist apartheid regime, is a story with many complex, difficult, and deeply troubling aspects.  That complexity was highlighted once again by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last-minute decision, on a pretext that looked pretty flimsy, to cancel his scheduled trip to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral on December 10—a decision so unwise and unfortunate, even scandalous, on the face of it that I still find it a bit inexplicable (though I've seen a range of speculative analyses).  President Shimon Peres had a plausible-sounding medical excuse that also kept him away.  Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu, he's smart enough that he must have realized how bad it looked for both of Israel's top political figures to be absent from Mandela's funeral, so I can't help wondering whether there isn't some complicate behind-the-scenes angle here that we may eventually learn about.  At all events, Israel was represented at the funeral by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and five other Israeli legislators (including one African-Israeli Knesset member, Penina Tamanu-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia).

=> I mention this recent unpleasantness mostly as background to a more important story about Mandela and his relationship to Israel, reported (below) by Alan Johnson, editor of Fathom.  It confirms for me something about Mandela's record of which I was only partly aware, and gives me new reasons to admire Mandela's historic role and greatness of spirit.

Here is a statement that Mandela made as President of the African National Congress in 1993, the year before he was elected President of South Africa. (If you're skeptical about whether the quotation is accurate, you can also find it on the ANC website.):
As a movement, we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.
This formulation is clear, straightforward, and important.  And as far as I can tell, it was Mandela's consistent position through the end of his life.

Mandela and the ANC were, of course, thoroughly committed to the Palestinian cause and regarded the PLO as a fellow liberation movement.  So it's unsurprising, as well as entirely proper, that Mandela would have endorsed the legitimacy of the Palestinians' struggle for liberation and national self-determination.  What is more striking, in this context, is that Mandela explicitly and unambiguously supported Israel's right to exist.  That is, he didn't just indicate a willingness to accept Israel's existence as an unavoidable (though perhaps unwelcome) fact of life, but asserted that Israel has a right to exist.  And he supported Israel's right to exist, explicitly and unambiguously, on the grounds that Jews have the same right to national self-determination as any other people.  That cuts to the heart of what is as stake in the whole controversy.  Everything else is details—though the details are obviously very important.

(Lest anyone think that I am overdoing the significance of Mandela's position on these issues, it is worth noting that, to this day, almost no one in the entire Arab world has publicly accepted that Israel has a moral right to exist or that Zionism is a legitimate national movement—even people who, over time, have grudgingly come to accept the idea of making peace with Israel for reasons of prudence, realpolitik, or simple exhaustion.  I can think of a few exceptions, but they can be counted on my fingers.  As the New York Times journalist Ethan Bronner, who spent years covering the Middle East, wrote in 2003:
I once asked King Hussein of Jordan whether he considered Zionism legitimate. Did he accept that there was any historical basis to the Jews' claim to a portion of Palestine as their homeland? He looked at me as if I were from Mars and ducked the question. Later, he told a Jordanian colleague that only a Jew could have posed such a strange question. Perhaps by the time of his death in 1999 he had softened his view. But his reaction still exemplifies that of the vast majority of Arabs today. Even the many who favor peace with Israel under certain conditions accept its reality but not its legitimacy.  [....]
("On the Israeli side," Bronner added, "there are similar denials" regarding the legitimacy and moral claims of Palestinian nationalism—though nowadays significant numbers of Israelis, and certainly a major proportion of Israel's supporters world-wide, do accept, at least in principle, that Palestinians have a right to national self-determination.)  And I know people here in the US who have no desire to see Israel destroyed but who reject, or at least are uneasy about, recognizing the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, though they have no trouble accepting the legitimacy of an Irish or Greek or Turkish or Egyptian or Palestinian nation-state—which means, whether or not they're fully aware of it, that they don't really accept that Jews have the same rights to political self-determination as other peoples.

In short, Mandela explicitly and unambiguously supported the principle that can be summed up with the formula "two states for two peoples".  Like it or not, that fundamental principle continues to be the only possible basis for a just, durable, and non-catastrophic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which, in turn, can work only in the context of a more general Arab-Israeli peace settlement that includes genuine Arab acceptance of Israel's existence and security.  That outcome is by no means inevitable, and in fact there are many good reasons for feeling pessimistic about whether it will actually happen.  But all the realistically conceivable alternatives lead to catastrophe.  So it's a good idea to take Mandela seriously on this matter, as on many others.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  And speaking of the details ...  here are a few of Mandela's statements to reporters during his visit to Israel in 1999, after retiring as President of South Africa.  On the one hand:  "My view is that talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands."  But on the other hand:  "I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders."

Mandela made these statements toward the tail-end of the Oslo era, before the dramatic collapse of the supposed "peace process" in 2000.  But they still sound like a good basis for a package deal.  Some tendencies in the Arab world have been inching in that direction over the years (and the broad outlines of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement along these lines were put forward, albeit with significant gaps and ambiguities, in the Saudi-inspired Arab League Peace Initiative of 2002—which, so far, has not been followed up from either the Arab or the Israel side).  Other tendencies have been moving even further away from it. All the available evidence suggests that a solid majority of Israelis are willing, in principle, to agree to a peace deal on this basis—but most of them have no confidence that it's actually a realistically available option.  What will happen in the future remains to be seen ... though, again, excessive optimism would be foolish.

[Update 12/16/2013:  I've been reminded that there is a a quotation from Mandela floating around the internet in which he accuses Israel of pursuing "apartheid policies" like the old South Africa.  This quotation is often cited by people hostile to Israel.  But it happens to be a fake.  To be fair, it appears that the person who originally wrote that statement didn't pretend that it was an actual quotation, but instead meant it to suggest what Mandela would say if he were really expressing his innermost thoughts.  But it now gets quoted and re-quoted as something Mandela actually said—which he didn't.]

Jewish News Online
December 12, 2013
Mandela defended the Jewish state even as he opposed the occupation
By Alan Johnson (senior research fellow at BICOM and editor of Fathom)

That Nelson Mandela was not a fierce opponent of Zionism and Israel is remarkable.

It would have been convenient for him to be so. Firstly, the African National Congress during the Cold War was allied to the ‘anti-Zionist’ Soviet Union and Arab dictators, and received a lot of money from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Second, the ANC was supported by the South African Communist party, whose members, Jews included, took their line from Moscow. Third, as Israeli historian Shlomo Avineri has observed, there was Israel’s own troubling relationship to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, not to mention the fact that, exceptions aside,”South Africa’s Jews on the whole did not oppose the apartheid regime.”

Despite all this, Mandela defended the Jewish state even as he opposed the occupation.

His memoirs tell how he learnt about guerrilla warfare from Arthur Goldreich, a South African Jew who learnt his trade in the Palmach in 1948, and recall how only El Al would fly his friend Walter Sisulu to Europe without a passport.

While some will try to claim Mandela as a supporter, the plain fact is he defended “two states for two peoples”.

We should remind ourselves of what Mandela said in 1993: “As a movement, we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination."

“We are gratified to see that new possibilities of resolving the issue through negotiation have arisen since the election of a new government in Israel. We would wish to encourage that process, and, if we have the opportunity, to assist.”

Sunday, December 01, 2013

So what have Americans got to be thankful for?

This parody country-western song (which I ran across on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish) tries to answer that question not by ignoring or denying our troubles, but by putting them in comparative perspective—while cheerfully running down and insulting a lot of other countries in the process.  The result is convincing only up to a point, and some parts of it would probably be objectionable if it were meant to be taken seriously ... but it's not without some grains of truth.

Happy Thanksgiving (a bit late, but better late than never),
Jeff Weintraub