Like in previous years, Turkish police and protesters this year again clashed in the heart of Istanbul after authorities blocked unions and other labor organizations from holding an event celebrating May 1 in downtown Taksim Square.
The excuse for keeping the groups out of Taksim this year was different than in the past, though. This time, authorities said, the square was too dangerous a place to be because of a massive construction project going on there that will redirect car traffic into several underground tunnels and remake Taksim in other ways.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have had other motives for closing off Taksim to the labor groups, many of which are fierce opponents of the government, but it's hard to deny that Taksim Square has in fact become one big construction site. Actually, all of Turkey has become a big construction site over the last decade, with cities expanding at a rapid rate and "urban renewal" projects -- most of them initiated by the government-run housing administration, a highly unaccountable body known as TOKI -- changing not only the skyline but also the social fabric of many cities.
The rapid rate of construction is now giving rise to concerns about the "cementization" of Turkey's cities, particularly Istanbul. Writes Bulent Kenes, editor of Today's Zaman, in a very good recent column:
In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
A cup of the real Turkish coffee, at Mandabatmaz in Istanbul
When water, finely-ground, dark roasted coffee and sugar are put together in a long-handled coffee put and brought to a near boil, is the result "Turkish coffee" or "Greek coffee"? That question, of course, is one that has been vexing the Middle East, Balkans and the Mediterranean for decades.
Inspired by a recent visit to Mandabatmaz, perhaps Istanbul's finest maker of Turkish coffee, reporter Joanna Kakkissis wrote an interesting post for NPR's food-oriented blog, The Salt, in which she took a look at how the politics of Turkish/Greek coffee. From her post:
....Ordering Turkish coffee today doesn't go over well in some Balkan or eastern Mediterranean countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire — even if their preparation of the coffee is remarkably similar.
In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it's Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a "Turkish coffee" only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: "You mean a Bosanska kafa" — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it's a kypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee. (Except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974.)
In Greece, where I live and which has a tortured history with Turkey, you order an elliniko — a Greek coffee.
"It wasn't always this way," says Albert Arouh, a Greek food scholar who writes under a pen name, Epicurus. "When I was a kid in the 1960s, everyone in Greece called it Turkish coffee."
Like most other countries, Turkey has no desire to see the current Syrian regime stay in power but also has little appetite for intervening militarily in Syria. At the same time, like many of its neighbors, Ankara is finding itself dealing with a growing Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis, one that could have a disruptive effect on Turkey's own domestic affairs.
A new report released today the International Crisis Group takes a look at this dynamic, suggesting that Ankara needs to recalibrate its Syria policy if it wants to keep the effects of the conflict in that country from spilling across the border. From the ICG's report:
Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep. Meanwhile, the suffering of millions of civilians in Syria continues. Even though Ankara has responded well over the past two years, it will need more support as the refugee crisis becomes larger and protracted. Turkey should allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access. EU member states should also show more solidarity by facilitating access to their territory for fleeing Syrians, who should not be turned away at either EU borders and should be granted asylum.
At this point, Turks have become accustomed to having their moralizing Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer them tips on how to live. Erdogan has previously urged Turkish families to each have three children and, more recently, asked his fellow citizens to change their eating habits in order to decrease the amount of food they throw away.
Now the PM is wading into an even trickier subject: what should Turks drink. Reuters provides the details:
If you are looking for one sure way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word alcohol.
That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.
During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink. However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.
There's no better way to start and end a holiday in Turkey than with a drink, but it appears that some Russian tourists are taking things a bit too far. So much so that Turkish Airlines (THY) is considering making its Russia flight booze-free, according to the Russian Izvestia.
As the publication reported the other day (the photo used to illustrate the article says it all), a THY official told an Izvestiya reporter in Istanbul that the "drunken antics" of some Russian passengers has led the airline to consider taking this action. According to the article, in 2012 some 28 Russians were unruly enough to require police intervention. In the latest episode, a drunken Russian coming back from vacation in Antalya in late March got into a heated on-board argument first with his wife and the, less wisely, with members of a Russian soccer team who where heading back home from a trip to Turkey.
In recent months, THY's alcohol policy was in the news after several Turkish papers reported that the airline is considering ending alcohol service in domestic business class (there is no alcohol served in domestic economy class). This led to accusations that the state-run airline is bowing to the wishes of conservatives in the government of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). THY already does not serve alcohol on a few international routes, most of them to conservative Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
For now, it seems like the Izvestia article was meant to serve as a warning for any hard-partying Russians coming to Turkey to keep their drinking firmly grounded.
Compared to previous years, this April 24 -- the day that commemorates the 1915 destruction of the Ottoman Armenians -- has arrived with few diplomatic problems for Turkey. There were no resolutions in other countries' legislative bodies recognizing the 1915 events as a genocide to fight off and no foreign governments to spar with over the issue.
But could this merely be the calm before the storm? In two years, which will mark the centennial of the 1915 events, Ankara will likely be facing a very different picture, with preparations already being made to use the occasion to, as one Armenian website put it, "take Genocide recognition to a new dimension."
Turkey's policymakers are not unaware of the preparations being made for 2015. In fact, as the Hurriyet Daily News's Barcin Yinanc suggests, they have a careful plan for how to deal with what's coming. From her report:
No one, of course, should expect the Turkish government to remain idle regarding these activities.
Brandy means big business in Armenia -- it was the country's second-largest export last year, after the less drinkable copper concentrate -- so recent negotiations with the European Union over what to call the libation could have profound implications.
Yerevan and Brussels are currently negotiating the terms of a Free and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), part of a larger agreement that would help bring Armenia and the EU closer together. As part of the negotiations, Yerevan is asking that the EU allow it to continue marketing its brandy as "cognac," which is the name used to sell the stuff in many parts of the former Soviet Union, which remains the largest market for Armenian brandy. According to European law, the name "cognac" can only be used for brandies that come from the French region of, well, Cognac. Reports the Armenpress website:
“There have certainly been discussions and they still continue. If there is an agreement, we will let you know”, - said the Deputy Minister of Economy [Garegin Melkonya]. Melkonyan stated that all the parts of the negotiations on the Armenia-European Union Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, which had not been finally agreed, would be passed to the next stage.
The Deputy Minister of Economy of the Republic of Armenia Garegin Melkonyan earlier informed that the word “Cognac” was protected by the European Legislation and was registered as a geographical indication. The Armenian side presented the European partners that cognac in Armenia was perceived as a kind of a product.
Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
As Georgian wine continues on the path towards what looks like its return to the Russian market, Armenian wine producers are expressing concern that Georgia's gain may come at their expense. Reports the Arminfo website:
Return of Georgian wines to the Russian market following embargo suspension may cut growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia, Avag Haroutiunyan, Head of the Union of Armenian Winemakers, told ArmInfo.
A threefold growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia was planned for the coming five years. Wine export from Armenia grew 60% in 2012 to 1.185 million liters versus 744,000 liters in 2011, with nearly 75% of sales being in Russia. A few years ago, export totaled 500,000 liters, Haroutiunyan said. Before the embargo on Georgian wines in Russia, 50-55 million bottles of Georgian wine were sold in that country annually, despite the fact that the production capacity of Georgian wineries is some 15-20 million bottles. This shows that counterfeit production was manufactured either in Georgia or in
Russia. Georgian wineries have raised significant investments in modernization over the last years and have greatly improved the quality of wines.
"Now, they will offer the best products in the Russia market. Georgian wines are now of higher quality than the Armenian ones, but the prices will be similar. Armenia will have to raise additional investments in modernization of wineries to sustain competition," Haroutiunyan said.