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Are You Sure You Want to Say That?

May 24, 2020 Leave a comment

In the best tradition of books written by foreign correspondents, Hannah Lucinda Smith offers a journey in brave and well-informed company. Whether explaining the grip of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Turkey, dodging Islamists in northern Syria or shining light into the backrooms of London’s relationship with Ankara, she’s a companion who writes frankly and well. And surprisingly for a book that declares its theme to be all about Erdoğan – a man who avoids any public display of humour or irony – it is also an enjoyable read.

The narrative in fact ranges well beyond just the current Turkish leader, tackling the impact of authoritarian rule in general. She is a canny observer, noting the little voice that comes into the head of any writer about Turkey over the years: “Are you sure you want to say that?” The larger frame also lets her include her dangerous forays into Syria’s civil war, which to some extent is about the fragmentation of that country after the death in 2000 of its long-standing dictator, Hafez al-Assad, and the inadequacy of his son Bashar.

Despite being called “Erdoğan Rising” and sporting a striking red cover dominated by an enigmatic photograph of the president, this is not a biography of Erdoğan. Smith admits that she never met the man up close. Perhaps the focus on Erdoğan is because, as she notes, any story about Turkey is easier to sell if it has brand Erdoğan front and centre. For sure, the complete inside story of Erdoğan’s rise to power and operating methods remains to be written. As I noted in an interview here, a full accounting will be scary and difficult to write as long as he remains in power.

Hannah Lucinda Smith (e)But Smith has written one of the first books I’ve seen about what the tumultuous late 2010s felt like under Erdoğan’s rule. She shows how the public-private partnership system channeled contracts to friends of his regime. She captures well the many manifestations of Erdoğan’s public character, from the mass rallies of his adoring followers to the sunglasses that make him look like a mafia don. She delves into the little-known role of Erdoğan’s early spin doctor Erol Olçok, who died in the popular resistance to the June 2016 coup attempt. Smith looks at all the angles of that fateful episode, including how the combination of repression and lack of full explanation has given rise to bizarre conspiracy theories that just might be true.

Smith found a calling in Turkey after traveling there in 2013 to cover the doomed Syrian opposition struggle with the regime in Damascus. Switching often into first person, present-tense reportage, Smith is good at giving voice to ordinary people, who, for instance, may go to a demonstration just to have a fight with the police, not with Erdoğan’s apparatus. She chronicles the people traffickers and human suffering of the Syrian refugee exodus through Turkey to Europe. She details the brutality endured by Turkey’s Kurds after Erdoğan ended peace efforts in 2015. And she spots a major driver of Erdoğan’s policymaking: anger, as reported by a diplomat after Erdoğan turned bitterly on his former friend Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in 2014. When interviewing him about the fate of Palestinians in Gaza, I remember Erdoğan displaying barely controlled fury.

Erdogan and Hugh Pope

An interview with Tayyip Erdoğan is rarely a relaxing experience. This one shortly after he became Prime Minister in 2003 went relatively smoothly, but he still admonished me: “You don’t speak very good Turkish!”  On another occasion, I heard that when he didn’t like the questions posed by a visiting foreign TV station, he stormed out of the interview and only let the crew go when they gave up the tapes.

There are times where her comments about Turkish history feel racy, like describing the population as “a genetic and cultural kedgeree.” And even if Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) did see advantages in reaching out to Europe after it came to power 2002, far from everyone in Europe saw him as a “darling”. My impression is that European leaders actually viewed him with a mix of condescension and more often fear. He is physically bigger and more imposing than most of them. And they still can’t control either his policies, his iron-clad steamrolling of election victories, his style of abrupt confrontation or his willingness to make and carry out threats.

The book’s mainspring descriptions of secular-religious polarisation and authoritarianism are not exactly new, of course. Ataturk’s state may have been staunchly secularist agenda, but the country has swung back and forth over the role of religion since the 1950s. Erdoğan may be authoritarian, but so was Ataturk, later military coup officers and actually many other leaders. The 2010s are not the first time one group or other in the country has been dangerously threatened: politics in the 1980s were grim, and in the 1990s, rough and chaotic. Smith herself describes Turkey as a “round-bottomed toy that rocks precariously from one side to the other but always returns upright”.

Smith quotes her predecessor as a correspondent for the London newspaper The Times from the early 1960s, I assume David Hotham, who also wrote an excellent book on the country. Like all of us, Hotham didn’t always get it right. For instance, he thought the first bridge of the Bosporus, opened in 1973, a year after he published his book, would prove a colossal waste of money. Smith was there to see Erdoğan open a third bridge across the Bosphorus in 2016, alongside one of the biggest airports in the world, a 1,000-room palace and an expansion of roads and vast new building projects throughout the country.

It’s possible that Smith is right that these are merely “costly monuments to the vanities of a leader who has increasingly little else to offer”. But the Turks will still be there once Erdoğan is gone, Turkey’s state debt is still relatively small compared to that of more advanced European countries, and, it’s possible that, like the first Bosphorus bridge, Erdoğan’s projects will be useful to people in the future. What will be left of Turkey’s democracy remains to be seen.

Turkey’s post-coup funk reaches far and wide

September 14, 2016 Leave a comment

Turkey’s rulers say the world does not understand how much the attempted coup in mid-July traumatized the country. To judge by three weeks in the rural backwoods of the southern province of Antalya, they are not far wrong. But the distress is not just because of the shocking acts of the night of July 15, but also the aftermath.

 

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Few tourists are to be found this summer at the ancient city of Sagalassos, two hours north of Antalya city. The post-coup situation has also forced a suspension of long-standing archaeological and reconstruction work. Photo: Hugh Pope

 

At first glance, much looked normal around my part-time village home in the pine- and cedar-clad mountains of the Mediterranean coast. Roadbuilding continues. Provincial markets bustle with people and overflow with fresh produce. The country’s politicians are even making a show of overcoming their partisan divides.

But daily life is moving visibly more slowly. And underneath it all, most ordinary people in this country of 79 million are in a deeply apprehensive funk.

Unless uttered among trusted friends, once free-flowing diatribes about politicians dry up or turn into worried whispers. Weeks after the coup was crushed, national television stations still broadcast feverish programming in the name of national unity. Business people say they feel paralyzed. Tourism had already been hit by an eight-month long travel ban imposed by Russia after Turkey shot down a warplane on the Syrian border in November, and the bombing of Istanbul airport in March. Nobody in the sector has a clue what to plan for next.

Keeping up appearances is a well-established art in a country that has long suffered rollercoaster swings of sentiment and boom-and-bust economic cycles. But Turks fear that many real, broad achievements of the past two decades are unraveling. While everything may turn out alright in the end, as everyone says they hope, the frightening forces now at work mean nobody knows how bad it will get before it gets better.

A long-running Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency is back with a vengeance. It is not just crippling the southeast of the country. Since the conflict span out of control again a year ago it has killed more than 1,900 people, including 650 members of the security forces from all over the country.

A typical funeral in August near Antalya for a commando killed by a landmine showed how each new casualty adds layers of trauma with female relatives weeping and kissing photos of the “immortal martyr,” officers wiping sweat from the brows of the honor guard in the sweltering heat, a huge Turkish flag leading a procession of thousands to the dead soldier’s family house, and a huddle of politicians in attendance, including the provincial governor, the mayor and several members of parliament.

The spillover of Syria’s war is no longer just the burden of 2.7 million refugees, a surprising number of whom are making new lives working in Antalya’s greenhouses, garages and workshops. Over the southeastern frontier with Syria, Turkish troops have in the past month been openly sucked into cross-border ground operations. And over the past year, the suicide bombers of Islamic State have kept relentlessly and skillfully probing Turkey’s ethnic, economic and religious fault lines.

And now there is the phenomenon of what the government and the newspapers call FETO/PDY, an obscure formulation meaning something like “Fethullah Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure.” This refers to a Sunni Muslim movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a former cleric now in exile in Pennsylvania. For years, Gulenists were opportunistic allies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But a struggle between the two broke into the open three years ago. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plausibly blames the coup attempt on Gulenists who had infiltrated the military.

The problem is that Fethullah Gulen’s multitude of adherents have been working assiduously for four decades to be appointed to key posts in Turkish institutions. To outsiders, they talked little of their religious bonds. Those close to the network could often be worldly, moderate and progressive, part of an international network of hundreds of schools and civil society charities that supported each other in business and more recently in sponsoring political figures.

However, as early as the 1990s, Turkish military officers shared video evidence with reporters that appeared to show their leader’s explicit intent to win power. Now they are seen to have been behind the coup, and the government is acting to uproot what it regards as a mortal threat. Prosecutors say that Gulenists had risen to high levels in all provinces, except perhaps for Tunceli, known as Dersim in Kurdish, with its strong Alevi, or non-Sunni community. That means that national politics is no longer something remote that happens in Istanbul or Ankara, each a long day’s drive away from Antayla. Deep in the coastal mountains of a province like Antalya, it is has all become suddenly and scarily local.

antalya-paper

The Antalya supplement of one of Turkey’s biggest newspapers sums up the first four weeks after the coup: Gulenist tapes thrown hurriedly away in trash containers; policemen lead away other police, prosecutors, and judges; on the left, three suspended district prefects; and on the top, an excavator has at the first military-owned building to be seized in the city centre.

Every day, local newspapers have pictures of glum lines of policemen being led away for questioning by other policemen. Teachers are being removed from their jobs, and a university in a neighboring province is one of 15 across the country that has been summarily shut down. Headshots show several local kayimakams (district prefects), normally the state’s first line of provincial authority, who have lost their jobs or worse. Even Antalya’s deputy governor has been removed from his post.

“It’s not like before. There are judges, prosecutors, even businessmen being taken away for no reason anyone can understand. It feels like anybody can denounce anyone. Our institutions may not have been great, but we knew what to expect. Now if you have a problem, you don’t know who to turn to any more,” one hardware store owner told me — once he’d stepped out of his shop.

These are not the only certainties under attack. The once all-powerful Turkish armed forces, which have seen their mighty prerogatives cut hugely over the past decade, are now suffering the indignity of seeing civilians take aim at their large urban property holdings. In Antalya’s city center, a demolition excavator made the front pages as it smashed down a gendarmerie-owned building as a symbolic first step.

But as the AKP leaders voice multiple and doubtless sincere apologies for having been “cheated” by their former Gulenist allies in power, there is a puzzle. The newspapers cheered as former football star and Gulen associate Hakan Sukur — a member of parliament for AKP before falling out with the ruling party — was stripped of scores of assets including a building in Antalya. But AKP’s loyalist former speaker of parliament Cemil Cicek begged for understanding for his past relationship with the Gulenists, and seemed to be getting away with it.

“Maybe I got the plague 90% … but Turkey is really the country of people who’ve been fooled, politically, religiously and commercially. And the easiest cheating is with religion,” Cicek told the newspaper Hurriyet. “[The Gulenists] are being cleaned out of the state now. If everything was transparent, this wouldn’t happen. What’s important is who will take their place. Otherwise it’ll all just happen again.”

The erosion of transparency and the rule of law is indeed what is possibly most disturbing thing for most ordinary people.

The move to start legal procedures against 80,000 suspects nationwide — in Antalya province alone, 257 people had been arrested, 345 detained and 149 were on the run by Aug. 13 — has had consequences beyond fears that people will try to settle local scores through random denunciations. Ugly messaging lurks behind the bruised faces of some of the suspects taken in, or the indubitable truth of the news story about a family retrieving the body of a diabetic FETO/PDY “suspect” who mysteriously died in custody. State institutions refused to offer his family its right to a normal burial.

As the uncertainty spreads, nobody can miss the economic downturn. One of my village neighbors normally manages big busy hotels, but cannot find work. Those of his peers who do find jobs have to accept nominal wages or even just room and board. The lack of visitors means that one of Antalya’s two airport terminals has closed, marooning a newly opened tramway station. The tramway extension was built for Antalya’s Expo 2016, an international horticultural and youth celebration running until end-October, but now struggling to make an impact after years of preparation. The British singer Sting canceled a planned concert at the opening because of the situation.

Some people in Turkey appear to think it is still business as usual. When she returned from a five-day trip to Europe, columnist Gulse Birsel wrote in the Sunday supplement of Hurriyet newspaper that “if Turkey is a holiday village with all-in entertainment, Europe is like an old age pensioners’ camp!” She added: “Turks who keep shouting ‘let’s get out of here’ should know that after getting used to this level of adrenaline, you’ll miss Turkey a lot…”

Would Turks really miss today’s febrile uncertainty? I reread the column and discovered I could not be sure whether the writer was being satirical. Many newspapers now appear to be communicating in code, but it is not clear what the key is. As my hardware store friend put it, “The biggest problem is, we simply have no idea what to believe any more.”

Originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review