Saturday, 6 February 2016

One Day, What Goes Around Comes Around -- Even In Turkey

Turkey seems to be sleep walking into one of the most important political decisions in the history of the republic, almost as if the country has had a national lobotomy.  President Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen are pressing hard to change the constitution in such a way that the president will have almost unfettered powers, but the debate is strangely muted.

            It would be one thing if Erdoğan had guided Turkey from success to success and the country was now claiming its rightful place at the high table of stable, democratic, economically sound countries of the world. But it is not. It remains far down below the salt. His list of failures is extensive:

1.     Economy – once the envy of the emerging world. Now struggling with rising inflation, rising unemployment, decreasing exports, and very limited foreign investment. The only good news is that the collapse of the price of oil has narrowed Turkey’s current account deficit.
2.     Foreign policy – how to turn ‘zero problems’ into ‘zero friends’ in 10 easy steps. It is now a real challenge to name even two countries that consider themselves close friends of Turkey --- and Kyrgyzstan doesn’t count. Turkey’s so-called Red Lines in Syria seem to be quickly fading to light pink as the realities of major power involvement become clear – realities that pretty much ignore Turkey.
3.      Domestic peace – never in recent history has Turkish society been more dangerously polarized. The so-called Peace Process with the Kurds has turned into open warfare. The split between fanatic, thuggish Erdoğan supporters and the rest of society has become increasingly violent.

If this is what he can accomplish with limited powers just think what he can do with unlimited  power. Surely the people can recognize the danger signs on the road to autocratic power. Wrong. Erdoğan’s almost complete suppression of the media -- jailing obstreperous journalists or intimidating hapless owners -- means that any opposing views are drowned at birth or classified as the lunatic rantings of disloyal segments of society under the perfidious influence of unnamed foreign powers. A deep freeze has descended on Turkey’s once vibrant, if not always accurate, media. Worst of all, it has become boring to read and watch the same nonsense day in and day out. Maybe that’s Erdoğan’s goal – bore everyone to sleep and then pass critical legislation without a murmur.

            Obviously this has worked with Turkey’s feeble opposition. While Erdoğan dominates the daily news with fervent statements about the supposed benefits of a new constitution the opposition sits on its hands. An outside observer is not quite sure if he’s watching a key national debate or a re-run of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

            So far I have not heard or seen one single person defending the current parliamentary system. All they can do is protest that Erdoğan is becoming dictatorial. Not a startling or original claim!  Merely focusing on the man’s hunger for more power will never generate enough votes to defeat the coming constitutional referendum. This strategy of focusing on the negative has failed time and time again to dent his voter base, yet no one seems to have accepted this rather basic reality.

            It would be nice to see the opposition start making the positive case for the current parliamentary system – namely that the long suffering people are better represented with a parliament than with the narrow views and prejudices of one person. If the opposition really believes in the value of a broad-based parliamentary system why don’t they duplicate some of Erdoğan’s tactics and stage as many rallies as he does? They could, if they have the energy, explain loudly why the people are better off with a parliament. They may still lose, but surely losing with a fight is far better than waiting passively in the middle of road for the truck to run over you. It’s also a waste of time hoping that former founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who split with Erdoğan will ride to the rescue. People like Bulent Arinç or former president Abdullah Gül may disagree with Erdoğan, but they have no stomach for a public fight or for creating a new party based on disgruntled former AKP members. 

            On the other hand, Erdoğan should be careful what he wishes for. He may well get his new sultanate, and he may well turn the country into something found in the pages of George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This will work for him, but I’m not sure about the rest of the Turkish population.

            But what happens when one day someone with strongly opposing views takes over? That new president, and there will be new presidents some day, could easily use the same powers to undo everything that Erdoğan has done. One need look no further than the late unlamented Soviet Union to see how fast policies can change with new leaders. Ottoman history itself is filled with fluctuating domestic and foreign policies of different leaders. If he’s not careful Erdoğan will go down in history as the man who created and then destroyed the AKP movement.


Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Does Erdoğan Want Yet Another Election In Turkey?

Not too long ago Turkey was regarded as an island of stability, a reliable barrier between the unstable Middle East and Europe, a respectable model of ‘moderate’ Islam, a promising democracy in a region where democracy is in short supply.

            Now, all of those clichés look completely outdated as the country lurches from one crisis to another. Far from having a moderating influence on the region Turkey seems to be sliding ever further into the unrest that plagues its neighbours. 

            “(President Tayyip) Erdoğan always wanted Turkey to be more a part of the Middle East. Well, he certainly has achieved that – only not quite in the way he imagined,” quipped one mordant businessman.

            Deadly bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul attributed to ISIS show just how much the Syrian chaos has spread to Turkey and is drawing the country reluctantly into that fight. Renewed military confrontations with the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK have virtually shut down several provinces in the south east with almost daily clashes resulting in mounting civilian and military casualties.
Deadly Istanbul blast killed several German tourists
            Some of these crises, like the deepening polarization and fractures in Turkish society, are home grown. They reflect the overbearing, authoritarian nature of President Tayyip Erdoğan who cannot tolerate dissent in any form – especially when such dissent blocks his road to an imperial presidency.  

The latest incident came with the arrest of several academics who signed a petition protesting the government’s actions in the strife-torn Kurdish region of the country. They were charged with ‘supporting terrorism’. Erdoğan could have brushed off this criticism as ‘naïve’ in its failure to criticize the brutality of the PKK, and be done with it. Instead, he overreacts with insults and legal action that may impress his devout followers but only yet again demonstrates his rigid intolerance to any other opinion.

            Foreign policy problems with countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Russia have highlighted the country’s almost total isolation and forced the Turkish government into embarrassing U-turns. Once scorned as the source of unrest in the region, Israel is now embraced. The European Union, once mocked for interfering in Turkish affairs with constant calls for more democracy, is now back in favour. The government has always had a love/hate relationship with the United States. But the needle is now pointing more toward the ‘love’ side as Turkey has nowhere else to turn since Russia, infuriated by the shooting down of one its fighter planes, slapped stiff economic sanctions on Turkey.  

            Perhaps the biggest puzzle in this mounting list of problems is the deadly struggle with its own Kurdish population. After the highly touted ‘peace process’ with the PKK broke down last summer the savage fighting renewed with devastating consequences for anyone caught in the middle. Whole regions of the south east are now under martial law and the government has imposed curfews on several towns.

            But why all this trouble now? What caused this so-called process and dialogue with the Kurds to break down? One reason may be Turkey’s fear of Kurdish gains in Iraq and Syria. Over strong Turkish objections America has supported Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria who have recaptured a great deal of territory from ISIS. The last thing Turkey wants is a viable, autonomous Kurdish region on its southern border. The Turks fear that such an autonomous region could link up with Kurds in Turkey and claim an even larger area at the expense of Turkey. This is Turkey’s Red Line, and may explain in part why they are trying to pre-empt such a move.

                        Turkey’s conspiracy theorists have a simpler reason – one linked to Erdoğan’s overweening presidential ambitions, ambitions that require a new constitution. According to this theory the Kurdish political party HDP is responsible for the ruling party’s failure to get enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and allow Erdoğan to become a powerful president unfettered by the checks and balances that define mature democracies. In the June election the HDP easily passed the 10% barrier for parliamentary representation and won 80 MPs. This drove AKP below an absolute majority for the first time since 2002.

            This did not please Erdoğan. He made sure that no coalition government could be formed, thereby forcing a second election. The conspiracy theory is that the real troubles with the PKK began after the June election and escalated to the point where voters would desert the HDP and return to the ruling party for the sake of stability. To some degree this worked, but the HDP still won enough votes and MPs in the November elections to deny AKP the ability to change the constitution by itself.

            The question now is what Erdoğan will do if this parliament fails to give him the constitution he so desperately wants. Will he force yet a third election hoping that the increased action against the PKK weakens the HDP enough so that it doesn’t even qualify for parliament?  In that eventuality the ruling AKP party would pick up all the MPs that HDP had previously won. And then Erdoğan should finally have enough MPs to force through the constitutional changes he wants.

            In normal times one would laugh off such speculation as being completely absurd.  But these are far from normal times in Turkey, and such conspiracy theories are no longer considered totally absurd.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Finally Some Good News For Greece?

After more than eight years of being confined to the European Union’s intensive care ward with systemic, near-death, and highly contagious economic and political maladies is Greece finally ready to hobble out of bed? Although the team of EU fiscal doctors, aided by consultants from the International Monetary Fund, is not completely convinced there has been a noticeable positive shift in the tone of comments from friends and family.

We spent several months in Greece last year, and the mood was unremittingly gloomy all the time. Almost every conversation began and ended with a litany of the country’s problems: the idiocy of the government, the evil of the creditors, the collapse of the financial system, and on, and on, and on. The newly elected Syriza government, together with its tragi-comic finance minister Yiannis Varoufakis, was trying desperately to implement its version of the almost universally unsuccessful leftist economic and administrative ideology. All it succeeded in doing was to demonstrate its own incompetence and find new and unique ways to infuriate the people who were trying to keep Greece afloat. At one point, people on various islands were seriously investigating ways to secede from mainland Greece and create their own little versions of paradise.

While the underlying economic reality may not have changed very much, the election of a young, very smart, and dynamic leader as head of the main opposition New Democracy party has injected a whiff of change, the possibility of something better. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the scion of one of Greece’s leading political families, but people should be careful of thinking of him merely as new wine in an old bottle. In addition to showing himself to be politically astute, he brings an impressive educational and professional resume to the job.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis -- the new leader of New Democracy
He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and has graduate degrees from Stanford and the Harvard Business School. In addition to idiomatic English, he speaks French and German. He spent time in London working for the McKinsey consulting company. He also served as Minister of Administrative Reform in the government of Antonis Samaras from 2013 – 2015.  I met Mitsotakis several years ago when he was managing director of the venture capital arm of the National Bank of Greece. We worked on a cross-border investment project involving Greece and Turkey, and I found him smart, pragmatic, and focused on solving problems rather than advancing any particular theoretical approach.

Greece’s European partners will breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of dealing with someone in Athens who literally, and figuratively, speaks their language. They would be making a serious mistake, however, to think that Mitsotakis will roll over and accept anything that comes out of Brussels. What they may well find is that instead of facing the profoundly unserious bombast of Syriza, they will be facing deeply analytical, thorough, and logical counterproposals to defend and advance Greece’s position. If Mitsotakis ever gets elected prime minister his counterparts in Brussels better be prepared to send the A Team to meetings with Greece.

Many of the people I spoke with on the island of Andros and in Athens greeted his victory in the race to lead New Democracy as a sign of very, very cautious hope.

“We hope, we wish,” said one shop owner. But with an expressive shrug of her shoulders she added, “But we really don’t trust any government anymore.” She, like thousands of other small businesses, is caught in the uncomfortable position of facing mounting taxes long before there is a hint of the economic recovery that could provide the money to pay the taxes.

A financial analyst in Thessaloniki said that Mitsotakis’ election has “re-energized the middle class. He is the flip-side of Syriza.” Others say Mitsotakis represents an important change in perception.

“Look, nothing fundamental has suddenly changed in Greece. Unemployment is still about 20%, the banks are fragile, and it looks like the capital controls will have to stay in place for the rest of 2016. But, in our politics, perception is very important. And right now, Kyriakos is benefitting from the perception that he may be the one to lead us out of this quagmire. The same dynamics of anger at the existing government and hope for change that brought Syriza to power in the first place could now benefit Kyriakos.”

Mitsotakis is certain to face the charge that he is nothing more than the latest manifestation of the dynastic politics that have plagued Greece for generations by focusing on punishing perceived enemies and rewarding clients rather than solving national problems. Another senior executive laughed and said ‘clients’ are nothing new in Greek affairs.

“Go back and re-read the Iliad. Homer gave the gods plenty of ‘clients’. Hera and Athena, for example, worked hard for the Achaeans while Aphrodite supported the Trojans. Kyriakos will undoubtedly face pressure from some so-called ‘clients’ but I think he is clever enough build bridges rather than simply settle old political scores.”

Under his very new leadership New Democracy has already received a bounce in the polls that puts them a few points ahead of Syriza.  It remains to be seen if Mitsotakis can ride this momentum to victory in a general election, but at this point not very many people would bet against that possibility.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Syrian Situation Just Got More Complicated

Besides clearly demonstrating the utter hypocrisy of both Turkish and Russian actions in Syria, the destruction of the Russian fighter plane by the Turkish Air Force demonstrates the complexity of forming any coalition to defeat ISIS. It is almost impossible to find a formula that fits everyone’s agenda, especially Turkey’s, in Syria.

According to Turkish sources the Russian plane was in Turkish air space along the northern Syrian border for all of 17 seconds. Given the uneven nature of the border at that point it is hard enough to stay on the Turkish side on foot let alone in a jet fighter travelling at more than the speed of sound. None less than Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan recognized this reality in July 2012 when Syrian forces downed a Turkish fighter plane. The BBC reported his comments then that “A short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.And now? What has changed?

Turkey has a great deal to lose by alienating Russia.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has many levers to use against Turkey if he chooses. For one thing, almost all of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia. And more than three million Russian tourists come to Turkey every year, almost filling the massive hotels along the southern coast. In addition, countless Turkish businesses operate in Russia which is also a key market for Turkish exports. Russia could also decide to use this incident as an excuse to annoy Turkey by helping the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

            So why did Turkey take such a risky step when it could just as easily have overlooked the temporary border violation and sent a sternly worded memo that the Russians would have filed in circular bin?
Dangerous Escalation In SyrIa
            The most obvious, and least credible, is that Turkey was defending its homeland. Scrambling a few fighters to ‘guide’ the Russian plane out of Turkish air space could have accomplished that. A more credible explanation is that this incident demonstrates the completely different objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria. Russia has committed money and military might to prop up Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Turkey demands that al-Assad’s departure is a requirement for any settlement.

            Rather than focusing on defeating ISIS, Russian planes, for their part, have been attacking those anti-Assad forces, mainly in the north western part of the country, that are friendly with Turkey. This annoys Erdoğan greatly, especially as he considers some of those anti-Assad forces to be distant cousins of the Turks. Therefore, shooting down a Russian fighter plane in that area could be seen as a warning not to attack the Turkmens. A dangerous step, because history has repeatedly shown that Russians tend to react harshly to threats.

            Conspiracy theorists, never in short supply in that region, go one step further and say that the attack is Erdoğan’s attempt to derail any grand coalition to destroy the barbaric ISIS forces by making it harder for Turkey’s NATO allies America and France to join forces with Russia against ISIS.

Turkey has a complicated relationship with ISIS, and so far has devoted much more rhetoric than military action against the group. This could reflect Erdoğan’s preference for ISIS rather than the Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, but it also reflects that fact that some of his political base views ISIS positively. Twice in the last month there have been ugly incidents at Turkish football matches when a moment of silence for victims of ISIS attacks in Ankara as well as Paris has been interrupted by a group of fans whistling abuse or shouting loudly “Allah-u Ekber.” Erdoğan’s criticism of this atrocious disrespect was muted at best.

Turkey will go to great lengths to prevent the Kurds in Syria from creating an autonomous region along its southern border even if the Kurds have been the most effective anti-ISIS force. Turkey is already annoyed at American support for the Kurds, and it would be doubly annoyed to see increased support from France and Russia in the name of an anti-ISIS coalition.

Add to this Turkey’s role as a transit point for refugees and you begin to see the volatile mixture that complicates any potential settlement of the Syrian issue. It is no longer just about the Syria we used to know or the future of al-Assad and his clan of Alawites. Now you have to include the contradictory agendas of several different regional and global players – agendas that include sharp religious differences, hopes for political autonomy, and national security.

Three years ago I wrote a post about Dr. Haitham Manna, one of the early opponents of the Assad regime, and how he was strongly opposed to foreign intervention into what he considered a Syrian civil war. His concern was that the foreigners would turn a Syrian conflict into their conflict. How right he was.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

War Alone Will Not Protect Us From Global Terrorism

We have seen and heard it too many times before – the wailing sirens, crowds gathered helplessly around scenes of carnage, words of solidarity with the victims, and the vows to chase the perpetrators to the ends of the earth.

And yet in response, more often than not, we wind up chasing our own tails. Even our successes in killing this or that terrorist leader soon degenerate into a deadly game of ‘whack a mole.’ Eliminate a terrorist in Syria, and his counterpart pops up in Yemen, or Sudan, or Libya, or Iraq.

An all-too-familiar scene
We also hear ringing declarations of ‘war’ – although it is not exactly clear just how and with what that ‘war’ is to be waged. Whose troops will be used? Where will they be used? And, most importantly, what happens after the military objective is won? Yes, a particular den of barbarians may be wiped out to everyone’s great – and temporary – satisfaction. But who will fill the vacuum? How can we be sure the same problem won’t crop up as soon as the troops return home in triumph with ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners waving in the air? In short, defeating the entity called ISIS will not, by itself, put an end to the larger problem of global terrorism.

Once you have ‘won’ such a war, how do you reconcile the ensuing conflict among the various local factions, each of whom has its own agenda. Olivier Roy, one of the leading scholars of political Islam, highlights this problem in an essay in The New York Times. The Kurds, for example, will fight to protect their area, but are not enthusiastic about fighting ISIS on behalf of the Arabs. The Saudis are in no rush to destroy their Sunni brothers in ISIS lest such action strengthen their main enemy, Iran. Israel, for its part, is delighted to see most of its enemies busy trying to destroy each other and relieve the pressure to do anything about Palestine.

So what can Europe do to protect itself against the outrages of global terrorism? A good place to start might be with far better defences. The Schengen agreement allows free travel throughout most of the EU member states. Once admitted into one of the Schengen countries people are allowed to travel to any other member state without worrying about visas. This attempt to emulate the United States where you can travel freely from California to Maine is admirable, but it omits one critical difference. The United States has a common policy for its external borders. As any foreign traveller can tell you, coming into the United States at any of the entry points is not that simple. Forms need to filled out before you get on the plane, the no-fly rule is checked, and you are finger printed upon arrival. These steps may not eliminate terrorists entering the United States, it makes it more difficult.

Europe, on the other hand, does not have a unified approach to its external borders. Some borders like the United Kingdom can be difficult to cross, while others are porous. Two of the weakest states in the EU, Greece and Bulgaria, have enormous pressure on their borders and the least amount of resources to deal with the problem. One problem is that low paid police and border officials are vulnerable to bribes from well organised people smugglers to turn a blind eye toward illegal entry. Many times these countries simply do not have the equipment or manpower to scrutinize ordinary travellers let alone vet and process the wave of immigrants coming from places like Syria and Libya.

This is not a problem for Greece alone
If the EU acted as a real union a common border policy would be imposed on all members. There would be one well-funded European agency with well-paid and well-trained personnel to handle security of external borders. The surge of migrants would no longer be just a Greek, Bulgarian, Italian or Spanish problem. Such a move would inevitably generate wails of protest about violating national sovereignty, but without such a solution the European Union is hardly a ‘union’, and remains easy prey to anyone seeking to create havoc inside the EU borders.

Obviously, solving the problem of external border control does not solve the issue of home-grown terrorism – be it deranged teenagers with high powered weapons in the United States or dissatisfied members of the Moslem communities across Europe. A threat in, say, Belgium can easily morph into a catastrophe in France. One would hope that seamless cooperation among the various intelligence agencies in the EU would ease this problem. But if the United States has problems coordinating activities of its several different intelligence agencies within its borders think how much more difficult it would be coordinate such activities across international borders. The Turks, for example, insist they warned the French about one of the attackers in Paris, but apparently nothing was done about this warning.

A longer term solution would be to restore a semblance of stability in Syria. Once people can be reasonably sure of going about their daily lives without getting shot they would be less eager to risk the trip to Europe. This alone won’t solve the problem of global terrorism, but it certainly would eliminate one of the contributing factors.