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Saturday, September 17, 2011

The View from Turkey: Syria and the PKK

There have been two puzzling changes in recent Turkish policy: The first is Turkey’s complete shift in attitude toward Syria’s President Assad, and the second is the seemingly bold declaration by Prime Minister Erdogan that the PKK will be reprimanded following the month of Ramadan, the religious holiday of the Muslims. To reconcile the suddenness of these changes, we could wait for the release of leaked diplomatic cables, or we could instead consider them in a broader global context to better understand the drivers behind them.

In the recent years, Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has rallied a “zero problems” policy with its neighbors. The cornerstone of this policy was abolishing visa requirements with Syria and fortifying economic and political collaboration. Marked by multiple landmark visits between state officials and with heavy domestic promotion, relations with Syria flourished as the trade volume between the two nations reached $2.5 billion in 2010, representing a 43% increase over 2009. In 2008, Turkey brokered talks between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights territory and the two nations also collaborated on cracking down on their Kurdish minorities against a threat of cross border collusion.

Early this August, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu visited Syria’s Assad for a meeting, which marked a complete turning point in relations between Syria and Turkey. Turkey shifted its formerly friendly position by delivering a very tough message that instructed Assad to stop the savagery toward its own people. To understand the drastic and sudden change in Turkey’s position, we need to consider Syria’s own position and significance in the region and the implications of this for Israel and the US:

Syria represents a primary security threat for Israel, which keeps guard along the shared border: The Alawite Syrian career soldiers are closely aligned with the Assad regime and the Syrian investment in modern weapons to fortify defenses is also well known.

Historically, Syria has supported both the Hamas and the Hezbollah and has been dependent on its close ally, Iran. On the trade front, China and Russia have both been involved in Syria with key infrastructure projects. As an ancient point on the Silk Road, Syria represents an outlet to a large trading area for China, as well as a link between the Nabucco line and gas from Egypt and Iraq via a connection which was approved to be completed in 2011. In the short term, Syria would have been a recipient, but as Iraqi gas becomes available, the line would also serve Turkey and the EU via Syria. It is no coincidence that Russia has opposed the recent EU ban on oil imports from Syria. Because of Syria’s role as a potential gateway to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, for China and Russia, a presence in Syria offers the ability to grow both trade volumes and influence.

The factors that render Syria a potential political and economical hot pot in the Middle East gives the US the impetus to exercise a higher degree of authority over the Syrian regime, which it has tried by exercising influence through allies and is clearly unlikely to achieve with the Assad government in place.

On the US domestic front, the Obama regime cannot afford a direct involvement in Syria and must instead push its agenda through others, such as Turkey’s AKP. Leaked US diplomatic cables illustrate that Turkey’s cultivated “influence” over Syria was noted by the US as far back as 2009.

Syria’s relatively high military spending and capabilities mean that a direct intervention is unlikely to quickly bring in a regime change. The most viable strategy for the US remains a concentrated effort though its allies in the region to provoke and justify the Syrian protesters to continue demonstrations to overturn Assad.

Armed with the “Arab Spring” term properly coined and its winds of change beneath its wings, the USA is able to facilitate the regional powers to withdraw support for Assad. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz made an anti Assad speech on August 8th and several Arab nations pulled their ambassadors from Syria within the same timeframe as Davutoglu’s visit to Syria.

From the Turkish perspective, things look different on the surface: AKP’s “zero problems policy,” aimed at establishing Turkey as a regional leader and a go to mitigator for western powers, is a role that Turkey vies for in order to manage power regionally. Parting ways with Syria and also alienating Iran therefore renders Turkey’s “zero problems” policy a failure and is an example of inconsistency for Davutoglu, the architect of that policy. What, then, has convinced the AKP to “sell the farm”?

Coinciding with the US’s efforts to topple Assad and with an announcement that the Obama regime is freezing Syrian assets, Turkey started an air raid of the Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq mid-August. This act essentially marked an end to the so called “Kurdish Opening”, a new policy Turkey’s Erdogan had declared a couple of years back in order to work to resolve the deep conflict between the state and Turkey’s Kurdish population.

While only a few years back, Turkey’s military activities in Northern Iraq would have categorically provoked a US reaction, today, a quiet nod is all the Turkish bombs received. The US State Department told the press that “...the United States recognizes the right of Turkey to defend itself against terrorist attacks”. With the rest of the international community turning a blind eye, the Turkish government is now able to attack the Kurds as it had been wanting to, but could not until the US approved of it.

For Prime Minister Erdogan, resolving the “PKK problem,” as it is defined domestically, would translate to increased domestic support and, in the long term, would usher a personal historic legacy. According to the bargain, Turkey is no longer expected to oppose sanctions against the Syrian regime- rather, we may see it side with the international community to cheer for Assad’s successor.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Turkey's Dilemma

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won its third major round of elections in June 2011 securing one out of every two votes. This represents an increase over past performance of 34% of votes in 2002 and 46.6% of votes in 2007.

Not only is it unusual for a party to retain its position over almost a decade, the extent of AKP’s success at the elections is inconsistent with large protest demonstrations against AKP’s policies leading up to the June elections. These included: Students, who were cheated in the university entrance exams when the AKP sympathizers were offered pre-sorted exam books with a key for the answers, Kurdish citizens whose candidates for parliament AKP attempted to block from running as independents, healthcare workers who are subject to new “service standards” such as examining patients within several minutes at government owned hospitals. To put it mildly, the Turkish vote reflects a great deal of polarization between AKP supporters and its opposition.

An analysis of AKP’s strategy to embed itself in the Turkish system would help framework the dynamics and offer clues as to what it will require for Turkey to normalize its democratic process in the future.

Historically, the typical Turkish authoritarian party structure has not truly represented a voter base. Nomination of local representatives is typically decided not by local politics but by party management with the party leader generally making any critical decisions without consultation to the base. The authoritarian party system has therefore rendered the locals incapable of exercising a meaningful sphere of influence and it has led to an environment where representatives serve only the party leader under whose rule the party operates without real accountability.

The democratic deficit within the party structures plagues the Turkish political scene by causing political fragmentation with many smaller parties forming over the years as well as a deep divide between the ruling elite and the public.

Fragmentation of the party system historically created volatility with unstable and ineffective coalition governments leading to coup d’├ętats about every ten years until 1983. Alienated from party politics, the public is discouraged from seeking representation and has been conditioned to vote not based on ideology but more on expectation of personal gains. Of note, AKP voters are the breadwinning public, primarily between the ages of 28 and 48. This group consists of younger families, and stands to gain the most economically.

A deep class divide between the ruling elite and the public has long caused distress among the middle and lower classes in Turkey, creating a sense of “otherness” and lack of control to build a future. This sentiment is the vulnerability of the Turkish system the AKP has been able to leverage.

In stark contrast to former political leaders such as Mr. Demirel or Mr Ecevit, AKP leaders resemble in appearance, speech and behavior, the Turkish middle and lower classes. Mr. Demirel, who served Turkey multiple times as prime minster and later as president, is a civil engineer and a former representative of a US construction company and Mr. Ecevit, also multiple times a prime minster was a product of western style education followed by a University of London degree as well as a very acceptable poet.

Mr. Erdogan’s use of colloquial language and unbridled temper resonates with the Turkish public. He does not speak like a statesman, but comes across like a backgammon buddy with a temper problem who does not feel the need to defend his logic and instead spews out at Westerners and the Israelis. He is the Turkish public’s panacea to their age old problem of inferiority complex vis a vis both its ruling elite and the Western World.

AKP stands on three principles widely accepted by the general public: Conservatism, service and religion. Positioned as a conservative party with central appeal provides AKP with a wide base in Turkey where right wing and centrist parties have historically received two thirds of the vote. 30% of Turks define themselves as right wing as opposed to 18% as left leaning.

The AKP web site touts that since 2002, the number of cities with access to natural gas has increased from 9 cities to 67, inflation has been capped at single digits, divided highways have been built through the country and the budget for education has been more than quadrupled.

While almost all Turks are registered as Muslims, more than 10% belong to the progressive Alevite community and only less than 20% of all Turks describe themselves as religious. Therefore, religion, by itself is not a determining variable in winning AKP the elections. It does, however serve as a “proxy” to convey humility and “trustworthiness”, both of which are critical values to the Turkish voter.

AKP Islamism is at juxtaposition with the secular parties of yesteryear, and AKP’s religious traditionalism plays into its contrast with the former ruling elite as well as the current opposition.

A poll to identify motivations to support the AKP would reveal that majority believe they will reap direct economic benefits – examples would range from free supplies for children in the public school system to direct aid and health services. A smaller portion of voters would state that they are attracted by Erdogan’s identifiable persona. A relatively small percentage would claim they are motivated by traditional values and Islam.

In order to burrow itself into Turkish democracy, AKP has relied on more than its key principles of traditionalism, service and religion by handicapping opposition via media outlets almost all of which have been sold to AKP partisans and all now censor opposing viewpoints while embellishing AKP’s accomplishments. There are more journalists in jail in Turkey at this point in time than in China and the largest national internet censor, arbitrarily prohibiting thousands of web sites will be in affect in August.

AKP opposition has a difficult task in front or it in the next four years. CHP, the main opposition party has performed reasonably well in the June elections by initially adding 23 seats in the parliament. It has, however, not been able to overcome AKP under whose regime the next four years will net out with irreversible damage as Erdogan is expected to transition the country to an “American style” presidency and select himself the new president. Of particular risk is the new constitution AKP has announced it will create - With 327 seats in the parliament, AKP is only 3 seats short of the 330 seats required to write the constitution without seeking consensus.

In order for CHP to succeed, it will have to do more than defend its seats and its role in forming the constitution: It must operate via a grass roots organization and give the public the hope of representing themselves and the ability to make decisions locally. An efficient penetration campaign is required as well as an urgent image overhaul the CHP’s image away from something that resembles yesterday’s ruling elite into one that reflects the voter base. Using an analogy from the traditional Ottoman shadow, where one of the characters, Karagoz represents the lower income citizen while another named Hacivat, represents the elite, CHP needs to modify its image to become more of a Karagoz than a Hacivat vis a vis the AKP.

Not to underestimate the gravity of CHP’s task, the level of dissatisfaction among minorities and interest groups with the AKP along with a severe degree of polarization the 2011 results indicate- CHP could succeed in the next round of elections.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Stuck Pendulum of Politics in Turkey

If a pendulum in equilibrium position is displaced, gravity will counteract to restore the pendulum to its neutral resting position.   The pendulum’s mass causes this “centering” oscillation.  Not only is a pendulum used in timekeeping, it is also a model for helping explain political oscillations between the left and right of the center:  When an election yields a shift from left to right or vice versa, analyst claim that it’s the natural reaction of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction, meaning the public feels that policies of a regime have gone too far to one side and that the public has decided to give the other side of the political range a chance to correct. 
The Turkish political pendulum has been in the rightward swing for quite some time under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and appears to be held there despite its natural tendency to oscillate back.   AKP first won the 2002 general elections and reinforced its position in 2007 while its Islamist tendencies became more obvious.   Turkey’s general elections are fast approaching this June and once again polls show AKP in the lead, despite a narrowing margin.  
How is it possible that AKP still seems to have a strong base and does the general population have access to information to formulate an opinion on their preferences?
Based on the pendulum metaphor alone, and considering that AKP has been ruling for a very long 9 years, we would expect the public to reverse direction.   In a way, this is the case:   During a stroll down a busy Istanbul street, you can see multiple groups of citizens protesting against the government. 
Theoretically, AKP’s voter base should be dwindling-  High school and university students, have been alienated entirely:  In Turkey, university seats are limited and this national test guarantees admittance so when it was recently revealed that a cheat code was shared with certain groups of students at the recent university exams,  a great deal of reaction resulted.  Healthcare workers were also pushed around with badly planned new labor regulations, forcing practitioners to shut down their private offices and instead work at government hospitals where pay is now proportional to standards such as a “a tooth filling in 4 minutes” and patient exam in 5.  Social services, including healthcare, are now cut off if the recipient is unable to make a monthly payment, placing seasonal workers, especially farmers at risk.
While segments of consumers directly hurt by the AKP policies grow in number, AKP is loading the stakes to benefit its partisans:  Ankara Chamber of Medicine documented at least 51 “professors” who have been assigned professor titles without fulfilling any of the requirements by the Council of Higher Education.  AKP has replaced elected university rectors with its own sympathizers,  On the other hand, Koranic lower schools have been mushrooming and their graduates can now move into universities and subsequently into government jobs.

To the ordinary citizen, the Turkish system appears to be one of relying on government subsidies and the good graces of the ruling party in order to survive and prosper which inevitably means a citizen must belong to the AKP, go to pray at a mosque every Friday even if they are an Alevite or non religious and the wives are expected to don a head scarf.   Once they “join” this group, they are encouraged to do business with others in the group- An established shop owner in the fashionable Nisantasi district was recently overheard complaining that the “AKP bunch” are the only ones with money but they only frequent businesses operated by their kind. 
How far can the AKP go with the carrot and stick approach to maintain its supporter base?  In a relatively poor nation lacking education in critical thinking, it can go farther than one would estimate.  There may be an abundance of citizens inclined to sell their vote to the highest bidder just so their children can eat, get into schools, receive free school supplies as one taxi driver shared recently.
Of course, AKP cannot bribe the entire voter base which explains the widespread dissent in the major cities.   AKP wants to minimize this risk by buying out the media channels and facilitating their sales to partisan institutions. One of the largest groups, ATV-Sabah was sold in 2007 to Calik Holding headed by the Prime Minister’s son in law.  Dogan Media Group faced bureaucratic pressures and tax fines coercing it to place Hurriyet, a popular newspaper on sale.  The levy, seen as the governments attempt to control free press was criticized by the US State Departments 2009 Human Rights report on Turkey. 
June 12th general elections in Turkey will be a critical turning point- If AKP manages to win, Erdogan is interested in constitutional changes to enable his presidency, a move which will help secure him a Putin style position of power.   Putin, like his friend Erdogan, wants a “dictator-length” hold on Kremlin:   After two consecutive terms, the former KGB colonel had transitioned presidency to Medvedev in 2008 but continues to wield his influence as a prime minister.  Putin hasn’t yet ruled out presidency in 2012.   Parallels are so obvious that one wonders how often Putin and Erdogan exchange “how-to” notes.
 AKP is a liability to Turkey, where it has interfered with the natural flow of political tendencies and the free will of the voters by utilizing public resources to bribe its partisans in order to stay in power.   The situation will only get worse if AKP wins the June elections and Erdogan gets his “US Style” presidency.   Unlike in the US, Turkey is now void of a system of checks and balances and a Presidential system would generate an uncontrolled one-man show, further depressing the protections around the judicial freedom.   This is a scary scenario that leaves AKP opponents completely unprotected and must be avoided at all expense.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

AKP's Achilles Heel

On March 13th 30,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians and other healthcare workers from across Turkey travelled to Ankara to hold what may have been the largest anti-government protest to date. Turkish healthcare is in very poor shape. Yet, the AKP only wants to have its own share by selling state institutions to the highest bidder. Yesim Erez examines the AKP's slow murder of the Turkish healthcare system.

Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is increasingly run as an autarchy. With the June general elections looming, it is busy manufacturing consent. A victory in June will be much more than just a political win, it will allow AKP to continue the implementation of neo-liberal policies, limiting welfare and increasing costs in an environment already lacking social balance. Among these industries is healthcare, traditionally a state welfare system which provides a safety net to the poorest classes. Number of physicians per capita is less than half of the OECD average and according to ’06 UN population data, infant mortality at 27.5 deaths per 1000 born, a figure several times higher than any country in the EU. Turkish healthcare spending actually needs to be better managed and increased as a whole but AKP wants to have its cake and eat it too. How this is carried out is examined below:

To quiet dissent, AKP has obtained control of media by buying national outlets. More than 50 journalists are in prison on charges of a so-called “Ergenekon plot” to overthrow the government, a measure meant to serve as a scare tactic for the remaining independent media outlets which are already wire tapped by the government. The September 2009 referendum called for a Yes/No vote on a package deal of 26 constitutional amendments and the results limited the military’s, Constitutional Court’s and the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors powers to show opposition or to remain independent. 

Healthcare, an Achilles heel for the AKP, had been a large driver in the 2002 and the 2007 elections, as votes are typically driven by individuals’ needs rather than political issues. Healthcare generally ranks at the top of issues that drive the vote and AKP predictably aims to use healthcare to garner votes in the upcoming general election in June.

On the other hand, AKP juggles wider access to healthcare with keeping healthcare expenditures low as deficit has a direct impact on Turkey’s credit rating. The two objectives being at odds, there is no way to optimize a real solution in the short term so marginal payments for healthcare services were introduced and also a set of regulations depriving citizens who owe on insurance premiums was passed. The new law cuts cost further by pushing out of the social welfare system, not only unemployed and seasonal workers but also women, who are increasingly under-employed under the AKP regime, by excluding them from health insurance coverage as dependents of their families. (Cosar/Yegenoglu 4/09). Government cash reimbursements for state health benefits to hospitals is also being reduced, controlled and delayed.

The Turkish State Statistics Agency conducted a 2009 report on public satisfaction reporting a 15 percentage point increase in overall satisfaction with healthcare services since 2003 to 65%.   While AKP,s move to allow citizens use their state benefits at private hospitals gained public praise, the highest driver of dissatisfaction was healthcare worker availability, followed by the response to a leading question “How satisfied are you that doctors serving at public hospitals are allowed to have their private practices?”. The construct of this state survey foreshadows the AKP agenda to force doctors to leave private practice positions to only work in public hospitals.

70% of all Turkish inpatient healthcare facilities are publicly owned. According to a brand new set of healthcare regulations, doctors working part-time in state hospitals must now close down any private offices, giving up their only meaningful income. In state hospitals, compensation has been switched to become proportional to the number of patients examined and the number of surgeries performed. Appointments are dictated at 5 minutes per patient and no more or the doctors pay is cut, a move that seriously increases the likelihood of malpractice. 

In response to the new regulations, doctors in the public sector began resigning to practice privately. AKP then confronted them with a new by-law which enumerated unreasonable requirements for private offices including dictating the office size, the dimensions of the doors and the number of toilets, effectively precluding opening of a new office. This new by-law compelled most of the doctors who only worked in their private practice to quit working.

Pay for performance system dictates that training of residents at teaching hospitals is now neglected due to an abnormal schedule and patient overload. Furthermore, to cosmetically increase the number of general practitioners referred to as “family doctors”, a grossly inadequate 10 day training was implemented for medical school graduates who lack specialization, following which, they are allowed to serve as general practitioners. The AKP regulations are thrown together in haste, without either consultation with medical professionals, or consent from professional associations. More importantly, they endanger public health and health education for the price of making short term cosmetic changes.

On one hand, AKP is coercing physicians to work only for state run hospitals, on the other hand, it is squeezing out private hospitals not affiliated with its sympathizers: It holds the purse strings of state benefits reimbursements to private hospitals, and has control over the cash position of each hospital. Medical Park chain, 40% of which was recently sold the US firm Carlyle, or example, is rumored to be owned by those close to the prime minister. Remainder of the private hospitals have to deal with a severe cash constraint imposed by the government and were told they can increase co-pays from 30% to 70% in order to make up the shortage, making them very expensive.

In March 2010, AKP adopted a State Hospitals Union Bill which requires a gradual privatization of all state hospitals.  While the move is concealed as an attempt to bring market economies, it actually aims to sell off state hospitals to the highest bidder with no concern for public health. Privatizing the public system will decrease the quality of the healthcare and eradicate an important safety net for the working class.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians- the entire community of healthcare workers are dismayed about AKP’s policies held what may have been the largest public protest in the capital city of Ankara on March 13th. Over 30,000 professionals from all over the country traveled to Ankara, the capital to hold a protest together in harsh winter conditions. Photos from the event can be seen on www.tabip.tv but there was no significant media coverage of the event. While this is partially explained by the fact that media outlets have been quieted, neither of the main opposition parties CHP and MHP made meaningful endorsements of the healthcare professionals cause. Both have refrained from aligning against the AKP on the healthcare issue since the consent AKP has “manufactured” around its success of its health policies. 

Not standing up against AKP’s slow murder of the Turkish healthcare system is a mistake CHP and MHP must avoid making.  Healthcare is AKPs Achilles heel and laying out an alternative plan that saves public health and addresses the valid concerns of the Turkish healthcare professionals could help the opposition win the next election.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

View From Turkey: A Deliberate Middle East Overture

AKP wants to become a political stabilizer and the leading economic power in the Muslim world, and is shifting Turkey’s focus toward the Middle East. At the same time, the US is losing direct influence in the same region. Yesim Erez analyzes how foreign policy will evolve to accommodate this new dynamic and its risks.

BOSTON- AKP (Justice and Development Party), the party in power in Turkey has an ambition to become a political stabilizer and the leading economic power in the Muslim world, and is shifting Turkey’s focus toward the Middle East. At the same time, the US is losing direct influence in the same region.

AKP’ leader Erdogan’s show of leadership is not a last minute attempt to fill in a void in the Middle East, rather; it is a deliberate foreign policy which has been percolating for years. Under AKP, Turkey drastically increased its trade relations through the Middle East in the last few years. In 2009, Turkey advertised a “Zero-Problems” policy, stating that it first aimed to normalize its relations with all its neighbors. As a part of this initiative, meetings were held with Iraq and Syria to sort out economic and security issues and visa requirements with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya were abolished.

In 2009, Erdogan made a planned anti-Israel outburst at Shimon Peres at Davos during a panel discussion on Gaza. In 2010, IHH, a Turkish Islamic NGO, set off a ship purchased from the Istanbul municipality towards Gaza, with the premise of delivering humanitarian aid. It tried to enter the Gaza blockade and refused Israel’s procedure to have the cargo inspected at port of Ashdod and to have the goods delivered. When the ship did not stop, Israeli teams abseiled the IHH boat from aircrafts and speedboats and were attacked with weapons. As a result of the clash, 9 activists onboard were killed. The Turkish authorities who blessed the aid trip had been well aware of the likely consequences and deliberately took advantage of the anti-Israel, pro- Palestine sentiment domestically and more importantly, in the Middle East.

Today, AKP plans to establish a free trade zone with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Iraq, UAE. Libya and Egypt are 4 of the top 5 trading partners with highest net contribution to the Turkish trade balance.

Recently when the governments of Egypt, Tunis, Libya started unraveling, Turkish diplomats scurried to fortify their regional relationships: Turkey just signed a nuclear deal with Jordan and hosted the Crown Prince of Bahrain in February 2011. As regimes collapsed, Erdogan meandered his rhetoric to fit the circumstances, distancing himself diplomatically from ousted leaders, and toward encouragement of dissent. Al Jazzera which was then involved in negotiations to buy a TV channel in Turkey, played up Erdogan’s statements on freedom on Egyptian TV during the protests. Erdogan is keeping relatively mum about supporting the citizens on Libya but it is assumed this is due to his acceptance of the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights last November which allegedly came with a $250,000 reward.

Few factors have eased the way for Turkey’s leadership ambition: Domestically, Turkey’s new found prestige plays well to the pro-Islamic sentiment. EU’s discrimination of Turkey had led to a drastic decline in popularity of the accession and prospect of alignment with the west by the Turks. Turkish support for EU accession declined from 73% in 2004 to 40% in 2007. A feeling of rejection by the West rendered increased involvement with the Middle East more palatable to a nation comparing themselves to the West. Internationally, a growing Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East created a need for a leader in the region – this is a position Turkey and Iran are both vying for.

In contrast, USA continues to have interests in the increasingly unstable area but with much less leverage than ever before. Tunisians, Egyptians alike realize that the US was supporting the leaders they just ousted. They have finally attained liberty despite the US and not because of it.  The US has been caught by surprise by the ability of the populations to drive change.  Spokespeople made conflicting statements as situations changed, often withholding endorsement of support for the protesters which caused further diminished credibility in the region for the US.  In contrast, Erdogan jumped at the opportunity to culminate his leadership strategy by making popular statements on Middle Eastern TV stations. This except from his exaggerated Cairo speech shows a desire to position Turkey in a pivotal role in the region, while directly conflicting with the human rights violations of protesters and minorities in Turkey: “Not only in Turkey but everywhere in the world, the Justice and Development Party has shown no fear or hesitation in siding with the oppressed and the victim. It has always taken its position against the status quo and against pressure and oppression… Turkey is playing roles that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history” 

How will the US deal with protecting its interests in the Middle East while the landscape is shifting drastically? Firstly, it will need to deal with any contingencies taking a role in the emerging governments such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Secondly, since the US has very small leverage in the region, it may closely align with a regional power who agrees to push US interests. The only viable candidate is Turkey since a close relationship with Iran is unlikely.

Meanwhile, US governments public reaction to Turkey’s new aggressive foreign policy includes expected statements of concern from the pro Israel contingencies in Washington. What we do not hear from US official channels is that Turkey’s leadership and authority in the Middle East can satisfy some of the US needs in the region: During an era of diminished influence in the Middle East, US may be best served by supporting the AKP regime and its Middle Eastern aspirations. 

However, there are challenges to a US-Turkey alignment of interest. Firstly, Turkey’s Middle Eastern overture may not succeed: Iran has coveted the same regional leadership role but it is showing temporary tolerance for Turkey’s Middle Eastern assumptions because of the high direct trade volume and Turkey’s support for its nuclear program. Secondly, having rid themselves of their autocratic leaders, no Middle Eastern nation is anxious to return to a nostalgic Ottoman era type construct when the Middle Eastern peninsula was under the Ottoman regime for four centuries. 

Third and most important challenge to the US aligning with the AKP is that Erdogan and his team resemble the very autocratic leaders the US made the error of supporting for years. As the June 2011 general elections approach, there is increasing reaction to AKP and its human rights abuses. The blatant manipulation of trade to benefit AKP partisans is also not sitting well with the Turks. Just like in Egypt and Libya, a smaller insurgence is first organized through social media, and protests gain mass as a larger population is encouraged to participate and to speak up. The more nervous AKP gets about its domestic footing, the more aggressively it is expected to embrace Middle Eastern leadership politics to distract from domestic issues.

The US should be very careful in its support for the current regime in Turkey and must apply the lessons it learned in the Middle East so far: AKP’s human rights record and its domestic popularity must be taken into careful consideration. The best US foreign policy toward Turkey right now is the same as all through the Middle East- to watch the will of the people and to stand for democracy not only in rhetoric but with authenticity.
4 March 2011

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

USA Called Out (Published by Cumhuriyet, Eng Ed, 2/1011)

The US severely needs to overhaul its image.  In the 2010 annual BBC World Service Poll, 70% of Turks indicated that they had a negative image of the US, up from 63% a year ago.  As a matter of fact, the US holds an average (all countries surveyed combined) reputation of around 40% positive, lower than both India and Brazil.   You would think Turks didn’t grow up watching Dynasty and Star Trek and envied the American lifestyle we saw on TV in the 80’s and 90s!
Nowadays, any conversation about politics on the streets of Istanbul leads to the mention of dissatisfaction with the ruling AKP and lamenting the US for its support of Kurdish separatism- all within the first five minutes.   The common Turkish man’s misery seems to be indexed to the US involvement in Turkey’s affairs.  Why do Turks think they are miserable? Is it because the US bestrides the Middle East like the Colossus?  
Rather, it is because Turks know who is supporting the current government and why:  AKP has tolerated the US policy of supporting a Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq, which would have been unacceptable to any other political faction.  
The AKP regime has a dismal human rights record:  According to an October press release by the European Parliament, it has not detained any of the 400 government officials against whom the EU has received “credible allegations of torture of detainees from prisons and from police detention facilities or even at peaceful demonstrations”.   According to a Human Rights Watch report published last November, there are 50 documented cases of unarmed protesters being treated harshly as terrorists, violating the public’s freedom of expression.
The reason people of Turkey, Egypt, Yemen are so unhappy with the USA is tied to the US policy preference for “stability” over democracy.   While the US State Department makes claims of promoting democracy around the world, its realpolitik has involved support of oppressive regimes which are willing to promote the US economic interests.  The oppressive Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia, Mubarek and Saleh are examples.  This realpolitik of “stability” over democracy is severely problematic: 
The late 20th century observed the US shifting from use of diplomacy to a “war on terror”, a “crusade” which began with Al Qaeda but is supposed to defeat all terrorist groups. The US approach shifted from one derived from moral and civic principles into one with a punitive orientation.  Domestically, color coded terrorism alerts fortified the population’s conviction that there is a continuous threat.  By 2004, a Pew research study found that 41% of the American public perceived “War and terrorism” as the number one problem for America.  Economic issues were rated a distant second at 26%.   Today, the Transportation Security Administration (the folks in uniform at the airports) are an over 50,000 force with a budget of more than 7.8 billion dollars, and they yet have to catch a single terrorist.  A large industry feeding the “war against terrorism”, supplying weapons, transportation, software, etc. continues to churn even today, under the Democratic Obama regime.  Egypt is second to only Israel in buying the most weapons from the US.
A result of the war on terrorism and the subsequent need for security is that Washington is now making a foreign policy trade off:  It is trading off a more altruistic mode of support for local democracies with support for dictators who protect US commercial interests such as the priority access to the Suez Canal in Egypt, giving American military vessels expedited transit.   The dictatorial regime willing to offer incentives to the USA, however, sets off a cycle of oppression, building pressure over the years as in Tunisia and Egypt.  This continues until a tipping point of tolerance is reached then leads to a sudden collapse.   
Why does this vicious circle of predictable events happen?  In order to protect the status quo in the region, US backed dictators such as Ben Ali, Mubarek, and Saleh have blocked opposition and handicapped domestic democratic processes.  A political power vacuum is therefore likely to follow when the dictatorial regime eventually collapses. This is because grassroot organizations have not been allowed to form and the only entities available are groups of protesters who would find it difficult to organize on their own, or worse, fundamentalist Islamic contingencies such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who are relatively organized.   The collapse can leave a country vulnerable to fundamentalist Islamic influences.
When the protesters called for regime change in Egypt, they were also protesting against the US neo colonialism and an end to the fulcrum balancing the USA on one end and Mubarek on the other.   The image of the US has become closely tied to the illegitimate and oppressive regimes it supports.   When these regimes collapse, the US is also likely to lose not only face but also strategic partnerships.   This is a Type II error on the part of the US, where the wolf at the door is missed. 
To avoid the pitfalls of a negative international image and the possibility of losing dialogue with allies, the US must refocus its foreign policy principles to support the will of the people.   It must support democracy and encourage its allies to actively promote democratic processes.    In Egypt, it is still not too late-  the protesters can be helped to organize.
Long after Mubarek is gone, American interests will remain in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere.  The extent to which the US pays serious attention, and not just lip service, to the what the people on the streets want instead of investing in autocratic regimes, it is likely to find friendlier ears in the future administrations.      

Digital Democracy (Published by Cumhuriyet, Eng Ed 2/2011)

Obama, then a relative unknown, first won the US Democratic candidacy and later, the presidency with an unprecedented level of on-line donations and viral support.  How he accomplished that has to do with a multi-layered communication strategy that leveraged social media from web sites to You Tube to Facebook.    He was able to get his grass roots supporters to do the viral marketing which multiplied the campaigns effectiveness.   Obama may be a good example of the power of social media which has become a standard tool for political campaigning.   Political use of social media is an under utilized wild card in Turkey.   If employed properly, it offers the upside of a few percentage points of support before the upcoming elections.

Ten years ago, it used to matter what country, city and neighborhood you are from.  As Turks in living in the USA, we hang out with other Turks, gravitating toward people with whom we shared a common culture.  These days, it is still fun to get together with Turkish friends to enjoy a glass of raki with meze, but thanks to the World Wide Web, we now have no trouble finding people who are just like us in that they share our opinions- and they are just as likely to be from Germany, the US or China as they are from Turkey.  

On Facebook, I am a fan of “Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi”  with 800,000 plus others, “100% Electric Motorcycles” and an avid follower of a band called Wilco with 330,000 Facebook fans.  If I can find Turks who support the CHP party, who like clean transportation who listen to Wilco, I am sure to have a lot in common with them.  This is quite likely given that in Turkey, almost a third of the population uses Facebook including my parents who are in their 60’s and 70’s.   

Social media has made it possible to find commonalities among individuals:  These are similar interests, think of them as “horizontal” relationships across geographic boundaries which can alter the modern definition of identity.  Today, we are not only likely to have more in common, and identify with friends on the internet as we do with our neighbors.  Facebook communities, for example, serve the purpose of sharing information and soliciting reaction from like minded members.  Social media is instrumental in mobilizing activism locally and internationally.  By definition, it is infinitely more useful in mobilizing crowds when a reaction to the status quo is required.  

Social media acts as social glue.. While some claim they don’t like to communicate on-line because they may prefer face-to-face interaction, I know first hand that this is a misnomer.  My high school class is still tight knit 25 years after graduation thanks to Yahoo groups.  We initially used Facebook for sending reunion invites, then started to spend a lot more time with each other as a group.    Social media brings people together.  For example, the recent “Drinking to AKP” protest by Turks would have been impossible to organize without social media.

During the recent uprisings in Egypt, the government has tried to restrict access to the internet with limited success.  Activists have been able use Facebook, You Tube, internet messaging and Twitter to share news and to organize protests against the regime.  For example, “We Are All Khaled Said”  named after the 28 year old Egyptian tortured to death by policeman currently has over 38,000 fans.   It shares information with the followers on latest events, information on how they can help support the cause and pulls in supportive coverage from overseas.

Twitter and Facebook helped mobilized the crowds not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia.  Communication enabled protest and brought attention and results.   Dire economic and social conditions were the prerequisite to the movement:  Egyptians earn less than $4 per day, half of the population is illiterate and the educated are underemployed.  During the past 30 years, these conditions could not be resolved using democratic methods until the availability and popularity of social media reached a tipping point.

Social media has become an indispensible tool for political activism because it is accessible and egalitarian.  When the Turkish AKP government exercises control over news media by threatening media outlets, by imposing tax levies and sentencing columnists to prison, traditional press outlets have had to to succumb to pressure.  Social media however, remains independent.   If the government attempts to shut off access as the Egyptian Government tried to do, masses can easily circumvent by using fax, telephone and other more traditional means of communication. 

Social media has become a standard tool for politics- the extent to which a political party can utilize this tool effectively will benefit them but will also demonstrate how organized and transparent it will be after winning an election.   For example, if CHP can seriously adopt a viral marketing policy and management system, it will add several percentage points to its tally until the elections.   Especially when it comes to securing votes among the under 30 educated urban masses, effective social media participation is now a requirement of success.

What constitutes an effective viral campaign?   The campaign must tie directly to the party’s strategy and reflect learnings from market research so that every web posted message is directed at the correct audience.  While it must be consistent with the non-viral components of the campaign such as TV coverage and other media interviews, an online campaign can go into detail in a targeted fashion.  A campaign’s success is determined by its messages that synergistically integrate across various modes of communication to reach its audience.  TV presence supports street marketing which in turn is fueled by social media.

The viral component of a campaign must arm the fans with encouragement and information.  A fan in Kadikoy must be able to  find a link to look up where to go for the next local meeting and who to call to get on the invite list.  Grassroots party participation is a two way stream, and not a monologue of pearls of wisdom of a single leader.  A good social site seeks dialogue and inspires grassroots action.   Surveys can be used to prompt dialogue and requesting action can be as simple as asking the fans to invite all their friends to the site or it can be taking part as a volunteer in the next party meeting.   Lastly, a good fan site must tie in with links to the network of other sites such as Tweeter, MySpace and Meetup groups.     

Creating a Facebook site for a cause is hardly sufficient for success.  MHP has very slim presence with no substantial content and CHP fails to properly utilize its web presence by maintaining only a monologue:  The site is used to only disseminate words of wisdom recently uttered by the upper echelon of the party.  Instead, the site’s management must fall under the strategic marketing arm of the party, supervising a dialogue with partisans to foster grassroots support.  Meetup is another great site for forming local organizations and for finding local supporters who can meet among themselves.   I have seen very efficient uses of this in the US local elections  but none of the parties in Turkey are currently using this site.

Mistakes from Turkish opposition party social sites also include writing in all caps, which is the web equivalent of screaming, and letting people who don’t understand social media post updates in a tone of voice that doesn’t sync with positioning their candidate in clear presidential form.   Postings that exhibit inter party disputes must also be avoided. 

Web mass communication is by definition, more efficient when righting the wrongs and when reacting to the status quo.   It is on the people’s side.  This is why it is more important than ever that opposition parties start paying attention to social media 101. 

Cheers of Protest (Printed by Cumhuriyet, Eng Ed. 2/2011)

I have lived in the United States since 1985 and visit family in Turkey every chance I get.   Political and social changes can be even more obvious when observed once every few months, capturing disparate snapshots, instead of continuously being in that environment.  This is why my visits to Istanbul over the years have created a unique panorama of views on trends.  My January 2011 illuminated significant social changes: 

My favorite pastime in Istanbul is walking up and down the pedestrian street Istiklal, in the district of Beyoglu.   In the early 2000s. dense packs of 20-25 year olds would rush down like buffalo herd to various bars and coffee shops along the street, illustrating the result of immigration from the underdeveloped southeast regions coupled with high birth rates.  Istanbul’s population is said to have tripled between 80’s and the 2000’s.

The Istiklal Streetyouth would have been born in a period which was also a stage to the 1981 coup d’etat.  The intervention aimed to depoliticize Turkey limiting democratic processes in order to facilitate central control, a reaction to combat the instability, believed to have resulted from the failure of the previous democratically elected governments.     

Following the coup, our school bags were searched every morning by armed soldiers in front of my all-girls middle school.   Political discussion was not tolerated in the schools or outside.   My generation had its democratic wings clipped early on in life!

During my strolls along Istiklal Street 20 years later, I assumed that the 20 year olds, raised in this depoliticized environment would not embrace their rights to speak up and take the political reigns.   My theory seemed to sync with the boisterous advent of the Islamic oriented AKP party.  AKP, in its untypically long rule in government, sought to limit the rights of critical government institutions such as the military and the high courts, staffing them with pro-Islamic partisans.  Yet, they had secured almost half of the national votes.

Along Beyoglu, extremes were still present…. The occasional communists selling their publications, Green Party representatives, factory workers on strike…  These tiny groups were precious tokens, a symbol of non conformism we had to nurture.  Every time I went for a stroll along
Istiklal Street
, I would return with their magazines under my arm, my name signed under every petition.

AKP party must have shared my conviction about the overall depoliticization and lack of public reaction.  After winning 58% of the votes in a constitutional referendum to boost its own reigns of power, AKP brazenly believed in its license to take their Islamist agenda to the next level.   It had already been wire tapping its opposition and sending anyone who speaks against them to jail based on ungrounded allegations, AKP proceeded to ban alcohol from sports events, limiting its sales to licensed shops, whilst claiming no ideological motive although Turkey has the lowest alcohol consumption per capita of any European nation. 

What AKP didn’t realize is that the tipping point of the public tolerance against Islamic extremism had finally been reached.   In January 2011, at the Galatasaray Stadium opening ceremony,  Prime Minister Erdogan was booed by thousands of sports fans.   He threw a temper tantrum, leaving the match and proceeding to claim that his government paid for the stadium and that Galatasaray fans were ungrateful.  I can imagine his political strategists’ dismay at his reaction.  

In December, at a conference at Ankara University, eggs were thrown in protest at an AKP party deputy.  The Prime Minister lashed out against the students, blaming the university administration for their lack of control.

January 19, 2011 witnessed the fourth anniversary of the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink.  Although the criminal was detained, justice has still not been served-   even official inspectors believe that the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) may be involved and yet, identified parties have not been questioned in the investigation.   On January 19, tens of thousands walked along
Istiklal Street
, placards in hand, chanting in Turkish and Kurdish “Justice for Dink” , “We are all Armenians”, “Government is the Murderer”.   Upon hearing my participation in this march, my mother was dismayed “I warned you not to go to Beyoglu!” she scolded me.  Yet, walking along the thousands in this protest was the safest I ever felt in Beyoglu.  Given the choice, I would want to be a part of a nation full of people I walked with that day, screaming for justice and ready to do something about it. 

On January 29, thousands have planned a “raise your glasses against AKP’s restrictive policies” protest against restrictions on drinking.  The event will be held in various cities in Turkey and abroad.   The event has been announced in social media which will increasingly become the synergistic adhesive amongst the internet generation for spreading opinions.   

I had been wrong about the 80’s youth -  Political protest is in their DNA.   On January 29, I will be raising my glass from Boston not just to protest the AKP, but also to celebrate the resurfacing of political reaction in Turkey.    AKP’s demise will come from the organized participation of the young generation in the political processes and nothing can hold them back.