Borderlands week in review: low ski N & P

Sunday, January 22, 2012 

These have been some pretty busy times up at the Borderlands Lodge. The new semester started a couple of weeks ago, and the two classes I've been teaching--"The Making of Modern Turkey" and "Eurasian Borderlands"--have gotten off to a fast start. Writing, too, has kept me pretty busy.

One thing I haven't been spending much time lately has been skiing. You heard me right, Borderlanders. The skiing has been really pitiful this year, it's been really frustrating. Loyal readers will remember that I took a couple of trips up to the mountaintop in late December, but since that time it's been nothing going on. First, I was researching in Istanbul, and ever since my return there hasn't been much snow at all.

Actually, we had a really nice dump of snow last Sunday night. On MLK day I briefly entertained the idea of heading up the mountain, but I figured who needs it? I was still recovering from my Freezing Delta Flight-inspired flu, the ski hill was going to be mobbed with people who only get to ski on weekends and holidays, and in any case the weather report said not to worry, Borderlanders, we've got you covered, it will snow every day this week.

What happened instead was on Tuesday we had wild winds--40 mph--which literally blew all of the snow off the ground. There were a couple of dustings later in the week, but then the weather turned warmed. Yesterday, my friends, third week of January, up here at the Borderlands Lodge we had...rain.

That rain turned to snow overnight, but it's still pretty paltry. I'm losing my patience--pretty soon I think I'll just hit the slopes regardless of what's beneath me. 


While this scarcity of snow has been a story all over the United States, there's been of course a lot more going on in the rest of the world. Here are a few of the bigger stories, courtesy of JMB on FB:

Turkey was in the news briefly in the Republican debates, when Rick Perry showed off his foreign-policy props by declaring that Turkey should be expelled from NATO because Turkey is ruled "by what many would perceive as Islamic terrorists."


The Turkish government responded with eye-rolling. Noting Perry's low standing in the polls, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu released a statement observing that "the U.S. has no time to lose with such candidates who do not even know America’s Allies."

Anyway, Perry's taken his dog-and-pony act back to Texas, so I guess it doesn't matter too much in the long run. An ignoramus running in the mold of W and ("Ubeki-beki-stan-stan") Hermain Cain, Perry made the casual elision between "Islamic" and "terrorism" that is typical among Americans who know nothing about the rest of the world. Unlike Cain, who appeared proud of his ignorance, Perry made the mistake of actually trying to answer a question about a part of the world of which he knows virtually nothing. 

But obviously, there are much more serious stories circulating about Turkey, particularly with respect to the ongoing series of trials, Ergenekon and otherwise. Even Mustafa Akyol is getting worried.

Both within Turkey and without, most people are happy about the military getting pushed out of politics. As I explained in my last post, one reason why Turkey's AK Party government has been so successful is that they've managed to cloak their own authoritarianism within a message of pushing the military out of politics that is genuinely popular. That is how we ended up with the one-two punch of this new year. First, it was announced that Kennan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup,  would be put on trial---a very popular move. Then, the government went after İlker Başbuğ, the chief of staff of the military until last year, who was arrested on charges of “heading a terrorist organization and planning a coup.” When opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu criticized the arrest, he was investigated as well

An important question surrounding all of these trials is this: is Turkey replacing an authoritarian system in which the military plays an outsized role in politics with a different kind of authoritarian system in which a political party dominates the system?

The Constitution that is currently being prepared will offer, I think, some important insights. What will Turkey's new charter look like? Will it constitute an AKP power grab in the form of diminished checks and balances on parliamentary power? Or will the new document represent a real effort to replace the current military administration-era constitution with a new charter that not only limits the role of the military in politics but which also limits the power of political parties.

Up until now, the AKP has, to some extent, been fighting fire with fire. Even if we were to assume--and I don't think we should make this assumption--that Ergenekon has been nothing more than a politically-inspired witch hunt, it's important to remember that the AKP was facing closure back in 2007. Prime Minister Erdoğan had already spent time in prison. I'm sure he didn't feel like going back.

It's a fair question, and the frequent counter-argument to the Ergenekon-is-a-witchhunt-argument: isn't this what it takes to get the military out of politics?

But now that the AKP has apparently seized the advantage over the military, what's next? Will the AKP use its opportunity to create a truly non-authoritarian (vis-a-vis the military or a political party or otherwise) constitution? Or will the party instead press its advantage, jailing still more officers and opponents? Will the model be post-Franco Spain or Putin's Russia?

Speaking of Russia, there are exciting things happening there these days as well. There's a big rally planned for February 4. We'll see how that works out.

An older generation of Russianist historians likes to talk about how much Russians love authoritarianism. I think that's a bunch of BS. Russians want accountability from their leaders as much as anyone else. The problem is they've been managed by drunkards, incompetents, and really old people for much of their recent history. Putin, at the very least, seemed competent and sharp. After years of Yeltsin's erratic behavior and Gorbachev's well-intentioned blunders (pay attention, Obama), Putin finally gave Russians a sense that someone who knew what he was doing was in the Kremlin's driver's seat.

But they only got one chance to elect him--that was in 2000.

By 2004, the fix was already in. Putin would have won re-election anyway, but the voices of opposition media (who had already been co-opted by Yeltsin anyway--nobody in the US noticed because we liked Yeltsin) had already been silenced, to a large extent. Opposition candidates ran against Putin in 2004, but it was a farce. I was living in St. Petersburg at the time and remember watching the presidential debate. Putin didn't bother attending, and the debate was held in the middle of the morning. The remaining candidates didn't attack Putin, but one another. Everybody knew that Putin wasn't going anywhere, and not many people cared.

Now, of course, people want more. But I think some kind of leader is necessary. Right now, there's no one that I see as emerging to challenge Putin, no one who could really attract a groundswell of mass support, at any rate.

Advice to Putin-haters: be careful what you wish for. While Putin is authoritarian, there were far worse directions that Russian politics could have taken post-Yeltsin (Vladimir Zhirnovsky, anyone?). I don't think the Putin magic can be put back in the bottle--large numbers of (especially young) Russians have moved on, even if they don't know exactly where they're moving on to yet. But this anti-Putin opposition won't necessarily take the form of liberal-minded western-loving democracy. It would be nice if it did, but we shouldn't assume this will be the course.

Turkey and Russia: the Ali and Frazier of the Borderlands! In one country, a political party has been consolidating its power in recent years, in the other it seems the consolidation is beginning to fray. If Putin is the model to which Turkey's leaders are looking, they might want to reconsider.  

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