For its 90th birthday, the Turkish state Tuesday gave itself and its citizens a fine present: a brand-new commuter rail tunnel that runs under the Bosphorus and links Istanbul's European and Asian sides.
The Marmaray tunnel, as it is called, is a historic achievement certainly worth celebrating. First dreamed up some 120 years ago by Sultan Abdulhamid, the underwater Bosphorus crossing that just opened is the world's deepest immersed tunnel, a technologically sophisticated $2.8 project that serves as a potent symbol for both Istanbul's and Turkey's dynamic growth.
For the ruling Justice and Development Party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the tunnel's opening was an opportunity to once again assert themselves as the succesful builders of a new and more advanced Turkey, while at the same time describing the Marmaray project's significance in rather grandiose terms.
At the tunnel's opening ceremony in Istanbul's Uskudar neighborhood, for example, Erdogan said Marmaray "is not a project only for Istanbul Marmaray is a project for whole humanity." Other Turkish officials suggested the tunnel is the linchpin of a "New Silk Road" that would, as signs at the opening ceremony promised, connect "Peking with London." (Never mind that one can already travel from China to England by train, using existing tracks that go through Russia.)
Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
In a comprehensive report released today, Amnesty International takes a look at this summer's Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, concluding that the government's heavy-handed response resulted in "gross human rights violations." The report, which can be found here, includes several interviews with protestors and others who were victims of police violence during the protests and is well worth reading.
To get a bit more background about the report's finding, I spoke with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
How did things the Gezi events, in terms of the government’s response, get to the point that they did?
I think there are a couple of points to discuss. One is that there isn’t anything especially remarkable about peaceful protest in Turkey being broken up by police, them using excessive force and the government denying the rights of protesters to gather peacefully. The difference with the Gezi events was the scale and the constituency – there were plenty of middle class Turks involved in the protests – and the fact that there was so much exposure of the events in the mainstream international process. What happened was remarkable in terms of its scale and the government reaction was, unfortunately, similar to what has happened in the past.
I think the way the government looks at opposition is to really try to crush dissenting opinions and to see all dissenting opinions expressed as representing illegal organizations or those looking to undermine Turkey. So the response is to try to crush any effort to oppose the government.
For months now, Turkish officials had been promising they would soon unveil a significant new democratization package, building it up with the kind of hype reserved for Hollywood summer blockbusters. The package, meant to move Turkey further down the democratic road and restore the ruling Justice and Development Party's reformist image after the summer's bruising Gezi Park events, was finally released yesterday, though -- at first blush -- it appears to have failed to live up to the hype, as if it had been cobbled together from outtakes and recycled footage.
The early reviews of the government's package, presented in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, certainly have been mostly neutral to negative. "Package proves disappointing for non-Muslim communities" and "Turkey's Alevis disheartened by democratization package" were two headlines found on the Today's Zaman website yesterday. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also expressed disappointment with proposed reforms. "This is not a democratization package but an election package,” said Gultan Kisanak, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party.
Thanks to sweeping new alcohol regulations passed by their parliament a few months ago, Turkish drinkers have had to come to terms with having greater restrictions on where and during what time they can buy a drink. Now, as part of the new law, they will also have to learn that alcohol is no longer their friend. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
Signs warning about the possible harms of alcohol consumption will be placed on the bottles of alcoholic beverages within 10 months, according to a statement published in the Official Gazette Aug. 11.
The statement about the warning labels to be put on alcoholic beverage packages, which was released by the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK), specified three graphic warning signs and a written message to be placed on bottles containing alcohol.
Pictures will involve warnings against consumption under the age of 18, before driving and during pregnancy, while the written message will read, “Alcohol is not your friend.”
After a lengthy five-year trial, a Turkish court today delivered its verdict in the now notorious “Ergenekon” case, in which several hundred were accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But while the court may have made its decision, the case leaves behind many unanswered questions about the fairness of the trial and the sentences handed down, as well as about whether the proceedings were able to succeed in fulfilling one of the original promises of the Ergenekon case: to shed light on some of the dark chapters of Turkey’s recent history.
At the heart of the trial was the discovery in 2007 of a stash of hand grenades found hidden in the home of a retired military officer in Istanbul’s Umraniye neighborhood. From there, Ergenekon grew into a sprawling and sometimes bizarre case that involved 275 defendants, many of them pillars of Turkey’s secular establishment, and 23 different indictments, each more complex than the other. What kept it all together was the state’s contention that there existed a widespread ultranationalist plot to bring the government down, through a combination of destabilizing violent attacks, the spreading of anti-government propaganda and other means (one indictment suggested investigators had found evidence that some of the defendants had drawn up plans to manufacture and sell chemical and biological weapons, using the proceeds to bankroll their other activities).
Turkey's recently passed alcohol law, which limits advertising on booze and the time between which it can be sold, was promoted by the government as being about protecting the nation's youth from the evils of drinking. But it appears one of the law's unintended consequences is that it might pull the legs from under Turkey's up-and-coming wine industry. Reports Businessweek:
The most sweeping -- and vague -- part of the law is its prohibition on advertising and promotion.
“Everybody in the wine business has a problem now,” said Ali Basman, owner of Kavaklidere, the country’s largest winery, and president of the Turkish Wine Producers Association, when I reached him by phone.
“It’s not easy to sell wine without having ads or ways to explain about the winery or show reviews telling how good a new wine is,” he said. “But that’s seen as encouraging people to drink. We will have to do more export.”
Basman doesn’t think he will be able to continue using the winery logo on his business cards or hold special tastings, and will probably have to close down part of his website.
His family founded the winery in 1929. It now owns 550 hectares of vineyards, produces 49 wines, and buys grapes from thousands of growers. If Basman has to cut back on production, who will pay them?
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan capped off a very eventful weekend with a visit to the Sunday closing ceremonies of the Turkish Olympiad, an annual event that brings together students from the Gulen movement’s global network of schools to show off their language skills through song and dance (if you’ve ever wanted to see African children belt it out in Turkish while dressed up like Turkic nomads, this is the event for you).
But the day’s real show of linguistic prowess was on display earlier, when Erdogan gave a two-hour speech – most of it without even looking at any notes – in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters at an Istanbul rally. It was a bravura performance, one that, incredibly, saw Erdogan’s voice actually lose the hoarseness that he started off with and get stronger as he went along. By the end, Erdogan had once again shown that there is really no one in the Turkish political landscape that can touch him in terms of working up a crowd and projecting his personality so forcefully and effectively.
One of the difficulties of writing about Turkey for a foreign audience is figuring out a way to explain the country’s inherent political weirdness. Try succinctly describing the role of the powerful Islamic Gulen movement, which has no official leadership inside Turkey and whose spiritual leader actually lives in the Poconos, or easily illuminating the Baroque ins-and-outs of Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and other intriguingly-named coup plot cases working their way through the Turkish courts.
This was the challenge facing Washington, DC-based Turkey analyst Omer Taspinar when he made an appearance on the Colbert Report the other night. As Taspinar was trying to describe to his host why the Prime Minister of a country of 72 million would be involved in deciding where a mall would be built in Istanbul – something most Turks have by now come to take for granted – Colbert interrupted him. “That would be like Barack Obama saying, ‘We need a left turn lane past the Arby’s on Maple Street. Why is he micromanaging like this?’” Colbert said, as the audience laughed loudly.
The unhinged part of Turkish politics, something that up to now was really only consumed domestically, had suddenly gone global. For the image-makers at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and PM Erdogan, Turkey’s debut on the Colbert Report should be seen as a very dangerous moment. Previously, the fact that some of the most disturbing things about what was going on in the country were also some of the most difficult to explain abroad worked to the government’s advantage, allowing it to mostly control the narrative about the “new Turkey” that was emerging, one free of the ills of the past.
With Tuesday's violent police operation to clear out the protestors from Taksim Square, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have temporarily won the battle to control that patch of downtown Istanbul, but its actions came with a high price, inflicting heavy damage on its international standing and setting the stage for what is likely to be prolonged conflict, something that will only further harm the country.
One only needed to take a look at CNN and its hours of live coverage devoted to the police takeover of Taksim and the ensuing protests to realize that a new narrative was being developed about Turkey. Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have spent the last ten years cultivating an international image for Turkey of a tourist- and international finance-friendly democracy on the rise, but the images that were being shown on international television screens told a very different story.
In that sense, today's events helped speed up what was becoming a problematic dynamic for Erdogan and his government over the past 11 days of ongoing protests in Istanbul, Ankara and several other cities, in that the kind of questions about the PM's increasingly autocratic rule that were previously only asked domestically were now starting to be discussed more regularly internationally.