Turkish roundup: this week's news and propaganda

Sunday, May 3, 2009
  • One of the biggest news stories from Turkey this past week was the holding of May Day demonstrations on Taksim Square for the first time since 1978. In 1977, a demonstration drawing tens of thousands of people ended in pandemonium when unknown assailants opened fire on the crowd, killing thirty-six individuals.
While public events were held on May 1, 1978 to commemorate the deaths which had occurred the previous year, public demonstrations were banned in Taksim on May Day in 1979 and 1980. After the military takeover of September 12, 1980, May 1 ceased to be an official public holiday in Turkey.

Taksim Square: site of one of the most notorious crimes in modern Turkish history, the 1977 massacre of 36 May Day demonstrators
When I lived in Turkey in the 1990s, May 1 was often the occasion for clashes between the police and demonstrators commemorating May Day. On the days leading up to May 1, leftist groups like Dev-Sol would often claim responsibility for the shooting of police officers (something which occurred with some regularity throughout the year, in fact) and there were occasional police raids of the residences of individuals thought to be involved in such violence (at least this what the police said they were doing). On April 30, 1993 I was attending a Türk Sanat Müziği concert that a friend of mine was performing in at a municipal cultural center in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. About midway through the concert, the houselights suddenly went on and the music stopped. At the front of the auditorium, a police officer told us we all had to leave immediately because a shoot-out was taking place in a building down the block from us.

This year there were also a number of raids conducted in the days leading up to May 1, although it is unclear to what extent these events were connected to May Day. Earlier in the week, police had announced that the Kurdish Workers' Party was planning to send suicide bombers to three major cities in Turkey, and the raids which took place prior to May 1 may have been undertaken in connection with this operation.

The big news this year is that Turkey's AK Party government has again made May 1 a legal holiday in Turkey. While the governor of Istanbul, citing security concerns, initially expressed reluctance to allow demonstrations to take place in Taksim, a compromise was eventually reached whereby labor unions were allowed to bring 'reasonable numbers' to Taksim Square.

Ultimately, it is estimated that about 5000 demonstrators managed to get into Taksim Square. While the demonstration in Taksim Square was itself peaceful, large numbers of people attempting to get into the square via sidestreets were beaten by police officers. Some individuals were apparently beaten up by plainclothes police simply for chanting May Day slogans

All in all, it seems like most of the violence was carried out by the police, and centered around preventing individuals from getting into Taksim Square. In Taksim Square, the individuals who were allowed to gather apparently were able to demonstrate peacefully and apparently without being subjected to violence.

* I should mention that only a handful of the people who died on May 1 actually died from gunshot wounds. Most of the dead were crushed to death in the ensuing stampede [updated May 9]
  • Yigal Schleifer has a piece in Eurasianet.org on the Turkish-Armenian normalization talks, a subject that I've written about in a number of posts recently. One of the things which surprised me a little about this piece is the view of Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group. With regard to Azeri objections to Turkey opening its border with Armenia before progress is made regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Armenia has been occupying about 20 percent of Azerbaijan since the early 1990s), Pope is quoted by Schleifer as arguing that it would be a mistake for Turkey to pay too much attention to Azeri concerns in pursuing normalization with Armenia. 
"Ankara would be ill-advised to hold up rapprochement with Yerevan because of protests from its ally, Azerbaijan," Pope said. "In fact, normalizing relations with Armenia is the best way for Turkey to help its ethnic and linguistic Azerbaijani cousins. It would make Armenia feel more secure, making it perhaps also more open to a compromise over Nagorno-Karabakh."
"The way the Azeris are dealing with it now is that they are telling their people that they didn’t lose the war and they are talking about military reconquest and that’s completely unrealistic," Pope continued. "Turkey obviously has a lot of work to do to convince the Azeris that their current concept is not working and that your only way to get their land back is through the Minsk Group process."
Personally, I think it's unrealistic to think that Armenia, feeling "more secure" with its open border with Turkey, would be more open to compromise regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. When Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was, during the course of his recent talks with Turkish officials about opening the border, asked about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, his response was the same as Pope's--let the Minsk Group work it out.

But the Minsk Group--
an OSCE-sponsored effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict--has been meeting, without much success, for seventeen years. While I don't find it surprising that the Armenian government would be content to leave the question of resolving Nagorno-Karabakh's status to the Minsk Group, why on earth anyone would expect the Azeris to view the Minsk Group a credible hope for satisfactorily resolving this conflict is beyond me. 

Look again at the second of these two paragraphs quoting Pope, the one about Azeris "talking about military reconquest." Pope seems to be dismissing the Azeri threats, but as I wrote in an earlier post 
I think it's really quite dangerous to deprive Azerbaijan of its one hope for diplomatic leverage vis-a-vis Armenia. If this leverage disappears, and Azerbaijan is left to depend on an impotent Minsk Group for assistance in resolving the status of Nagorno-Karabakh peacefully, it would not be difficult to image the Azeri government--awash in petro-dollars and nearly one million refugees from Karabakh--taking matters into its own hands by perhaps seeking a military solution to this problem.

While I think it's a great thing for Turkey and Armenia to be talking, and I really hope the two states manage to normalize their relations and open their border soon, doing so without providing the Azeri government with a reasonable hope of solving this matter peacefully could eventually bring more harm to the region than good.
  • On Wednesday of last week, the New York Times published a brief article by Sabrina Tavernise on the Ergenekon trial in Turkey, a subject of numerous posts on this blog. What I found interesting about this piece is that it made absolutely no reference to the manner in which the Ergenekon probe was ostensibly first undertaken--as an investigation into Turkey's 'deep state,' i.e. alleged state support for death squads of the sort which seemed to come to light during the course of Turkey's Susluk scandal of the 1990s. Instead, Tavernise's article simply describes the trial as one investigating "an illegal ultranationalist group called Ergenekon that was plotting to destabilize the country in a military coup."
I guess it isn't possible to adequately discuss Ergenekon in such a short space, but I still found Tavernise's description of what's happening to be rather bland and vague. In this article, the impression seems to be given that "liberals" are simply concerned that the arrests are "too far-reaching." In particular, I think that the fact that the Ergenekon trial would now be presented as chiefly relating to coup-plotting charges is proof of the complete success with which the narrative regarding this trial has been radically transformed--at least in the eyes of western correspondents who are paid to report the news from Turkey.

A somewhat more satisfying discussion of Ergenekon can be found in H. Akın Ünver's recent paper with the Middle East Institute [which I first learned about through the Istanbul Calling blog]. Even this article, however, doesn't really explicate the extent to which this investigation was remade and the timing surrounding this transformation.

If such questions interest you, take a look at the coverage of the first several months of the Ergenekon investigation [ie, June 2007-January 2008] of Zaman, one of the most pro-AK Party newspapers in Turkey and one which now sticks to the Ergenekon-as-coup-plot-against-AK Pary narrative more closely than anybody. Back in 2007, the Ergenekon investigation was about looking into state support for death squads. It was only in late January of 2008, around the time state prosecutors were preparing a case to close the AK Party, that the focus of this investigation shifted away from alleged state crimes against Turkish citizens, and towards the alleged crimes of citizens against the AK Party government.
Personally, I find the very concept of there having been a single 'Ergenekon gang' to be a little absurd. It would be nice to think that we could solve all instances of state-criminal cooperation in Turkey simply by solving the Ergenekon case, but my hunch is that such instances were hardly so centralized. Indeed, I would not be surprised to learn that there was not one single 'Ergenekon' gang, but rather many, and that they often had little or no idea of one another's existence. Moreover, criminal elements and the state may have indeed worked together with respect to "ideological" matters such as the undertaking of political murders (the apparent focus of events leading up to Susurluk), but it's hard to imagine that there was not a financial or business element to much of this cooperation as well. 

By presenting Ergenekon as a single 'criminal gang' it becomes easier to believe that, by sending a few people to jail, it will be possible to bring an end to this sort of criminality in Turkey. If necessary, it also becomes easier to implicate one's political enemies in such activities by placing their 'coup-plotting' under the umbrella of the more general search for criminality that Ergenekon has evolved into.

My prediction is that a number of individuals--old and sick people like Veli Küçük and İbrahim Şahin--will eventually do some time, but that folks like Sedat Bucak and Mehmet Ağar, people who are considered by opposition sympathizers to simply know too much to ever be punished, will not even be brought to trial for crimes related to Ergenekon. 

The real question is, who will be punished for their supposed involvement in Ergenekon? Will the journalists and university professors who have been arrested for their involvement in anti-AK Party "coup plotting" go to trial? How far are prosecutors and police officials willing to take this?
It would be nice to see issues like these get more attention in western media coverage of the Ergenekon trial.
  • Following the AK Party's disappointing returns in the March 29 nationwide municipal elections in Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has shuffled his cabinet. One of the most interesting changes has been made regarding the position of Foreign Minister. Outgoing Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who played an instrumental role in the recent talks between Turkey and Armenia, has been made a deputy Prime Minister and has been put in control of coordinating the government's response to the economic crisis. Babacan has been replaced as Foreign Minister by Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, who previously was the chief foreign policy advisor to Erdoğan.  

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