Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Spiral Of Violence In Turkey Spins Faster And Faster

Several years ago I was sitting in the back of a very small school room on a very small chair in the Kurdish area of Turkey watching an earnest young teacher trying to teach the Turkish language to about 40 Kurdish 10-year-olds. Suddenly the door burst open and another student rushed in with eyes as big as dinner plates. “Obzer,” he yelled, “Run for it. They’re here.” Obzer didn’t need to be told twice. He knew he was just the latest target in a generations-old feud.

In one bound he was out the window and quickly disappeared toward the Euphrates River in a ball of dust. A few minutes later the door crashed open again as two very rough men carrying small, lethal shotguns came into the room demanding to know where Obzer -- the new world record holder in the 400-meter dash -- had gone. No one said a word. One kid in the front row merely nodded his head toward the open window to indicate that their quarry had escaped.

            I was told later that this was more or less par for the course in that part of the country. Blood feuds were common. No one bothered calling the police or gendarmes to settle ancient grievances. In another, less lethal example, the farmer I was staying with grew rice near the river, and each night he had to hide his tools in a different location in an effort to keep them from thieves.

            Therein lies one of the big problems with the Kurds – the lack of unity, the lack of trust among themselves. Kurds are scattered over at least four countries. And from what I could see each of the several factions, tribes, families has a different agenda. Just when you think that a Kurdish-based political party is making serious, peaceful, headway in Turkey, another group becomes jealous of the newcomer’s power and resorts to violence to assert its own power. The only beneficiary of this mess is Turkey’s aspiring dictator, President Tayyip Erdogan. This intra-Kurdish conflict makes it easy for him to demonize all Kurds and erode the base of the Kurdish political party. This in turn makes it easier for him to get enough members of parliament to change the constitution.

            I have no idea who was behind the latest deadly suicide bomb attack in Ankara. The government is saying, predictably, that the Kurds are behind it. Perhaps. But it sounds a little like Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, telling police to ‘round up the usual suspects.It is entirely possible that a little-known faction of the militant Kurdish guerrilla group, PKK, that is even more militant than the parent group has resorted to these attacks. If so, it is another nail in the coffin of Kurdish political development – at least in Turkey.

Is this the new normal in Turkey?

            It is not obvious who re-started the military conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state last summer. We know it followed the unexpectedly strong showing of the Kurdish political party in the June elections. Both the PKK and the government each had reasons to re-start the violence at that time. The PKK could well have wanted to demonstrate that it, not the Kurdish political party HDP, controlled negotiations with the Turkish state. The government, for its part, needed to demonize the Kurds to reduce their vote in the next election. That strategy worked like a charm in the November election.

            What is obvious now is that Erdoğan has no idea how to stop the violence. His preferred military solution isn’t working any better than similar efforts for the last 30 years. Security officials have so far proven incompetent in stopping the violence spreading from the southeast to big cities. Arial attacks on alleged PKK camps in the mountains of northern Iraq do nothing except make the rocks bounce. The bomb in Ankara on Sunday was the third deadly attack in the Turkish capital since last fall. In January another terrorist attack claimed about 10 lives in the middle of Istanbul’s main tourist area. In most countries, such failure on this scale would at the very least raise questions about the quality of the security services. Not in Erdoğan’s Turkey.

            It is also sadly clear that Erdoğan does not have the will, temperament, or imagination to seek any other solution at this time. He can use the violence and instability as an argument for his long-cherished unchecked presidency. He can blame the current parliamentary system for the current chaos in Turkey, and say that only a strong presidency can stop the violence. The fact that Erdoğan, already acting as a strong president, has been unable or unwilling to change course is conveniently forgotten by most AKP voters.

The tragedy of the situation is that at one time he almost succeeded in a negotiated settlement with the PKK. But he must have felt betrayed when that settlement lead to strong Kurdish political gains that put his cherished presidential ambitions at risk. He could, if he wanted, recognize that the military solution won’t work and re-start the political process. He could also, if he wanted, seek the support of the other political parties for such a move. But, given the dangerously polarized state of the nation it is unlikely any of this will happen. And it is the innocent citizens of Turkey who will continue to pay the price for this folly. At what point does he start to question the high cost of his obsessive push for the strong presidency?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Is This A Tory Party Bun Fight Or A Serious Debate?

What should be a serious debate about Britain’s place in the European Union has descended fairly quickly into nothing more than a food fight in a rather exclusive secondary school. On one side you have Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne lobbing day-old bread rolls across the dining room at other Tory party grandees who respond in kind with volleys of butter pats. Stewards at some of London's finer gentlemen's clubs aren't quite sure which members are no longer on speaking terms.

            Make no mistake. This is a Conservative Party issue. Most of the non-political population of Britain seemed perfectly happy muddling along in the bosom of the European Union with the ease of visa-free holidays overriding nebulous issues of ‘sovereignty’. There were a few dissenting voices, but they were largely relegated to some colorful fringe elements. Most of the rest of us are left with mouths agape at the finest example of British fratricide since the civil war in the 17th century. The Labour Party can only marvel at this sudden turn of good fortune that has taken attention off its own internal problems. 

            Those Tory party members champing at the bit to leave make a great claim about regaining British sovereignty and ending the rule of faceless, unaccountable EU bureaucrats in Brussels. The problem is they haven’t really defined exactly what they mean by sovereignty and how much that perceived sovereignty has been curtailed by Brussels. They forget the considerable success that British diplomats have achieved in winning substantial concessions for Britain. One of the main British victories allowed London to remain the leading financial center in Europe.

In their more fevered moments some members of the Leave campaign sound as if they would like to re-fight the Battle of Hastings. And this time the good, solid Saxons would send the poncey Frenchmen scuttling back across the English Channel to Normandy. One forgets that it was the Plantagenet heirs of those poncey Frenchmen that won eternal glory for the English at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.

            The debate has divided the British cabinet with several members taking prominent roles in the Leave campaign. The ever-calculating mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has thrown his lot in with the Leave campaign by trying desperately to sound like his hero Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately for him his thundering denunciations of the EU make him sound much more like Basil Fawlty than Winston Churchill.

            The main fault of the Leave campaign is that it only speaks in vague generalities about what Britain would look like outside the EU. Oh, there are brave words about how the economy would flourish, trade would soar, British-made justice would rule the land, and the British lion’s roar would once more be feared. But there are precious few specifics about how all this would be accomplished. No answers to questions about British access to European markets. No answers to questions about Britain’s relationship with the United States. No answers to questions about the likelihood of another referendum for Scottish independence. No answers to questions about the willingness of companies to re-locate or even remain in an EU-less Britain. No answers to questions about how seriously an EU-less Britain would be taken by the rest of the world. We are supposed to take it on faith that all would be good in this best of all possible worlds. Right.

            One of the biggest victims of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU could well be one of the most important parts of the country’s economy – the financial sector. London is without doubt the financial capital of Europe, if not the entire world. This status could be crippled by Britain’s departure from the EU by eliminating the ability of London-based financial firms to ply their trade in the EU. It’s not just the financial firms at risk. Think of the lawyers, the accountants, insurance companies and others that underpin much of the financial world. How long would they stay in a City of London stripped of its ability to operate within the EU? That crunching sound you might hear could well be the price of London office space landing on the suddenly empty streets.

            The best argument the Leave campaign might use has nothing to do with the imagined loss of British sovereignty to a bunch of Eurocrats. The best argument may well be that the European Union itself is crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Is it a loose federation of sovereign states? Or is it the beginning of the United States of Europe? Rather than deal conclusively with these hard questions the EU leaders preferred to bask in the glow of good feeling – almost as if they were a bunch of campers holding hands around a campfire singing Kumbaya. Meanwhile the real issues like common monetary policy or common foreign policy were left in limbo.

            If the British referendum on EU membership does nothing else, it should sharply focus the minds of everyone in the EU about the future of the entire project.