Seljouk!

His ancestors had fought their way from Central Asia slaughtering, looting, burning, and worse. At night, they often slept in the saddle, on their horses that looked as wild as they did.

He was a large, muscular man with a fierce face, a slick mustache, and hairy forearms. First, he put his long sharp blade to my throat, then, he set me on fire; finally, he tried to break my cervical vertebrae with his bare hands.

Tesekkur ler,” I said, handed him fifty million liras.

I had not had the time to visit the barber before leaving California. That’s how I got a straight razor shave and haircut, my ear and nose hair singed with flaming alcohol, and a vigorous cricking of the neck to finish. It all happened in the open air, in a street lined with rug shops, in Seljouk, the tourist town next to the great ancient archaeological site of Ephesus, Turkey.

The Al Ula Accord: Qatar’s gains, the UAE’s losses, and Iran’s quiet win

Introduction 

Days after the signing of the solidarity and stability agreement – the Al Ula accord – between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s allies, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, made it clear that Doha would continue to pursue an independent foreign policy driven by its own national interest. The Qatari Foreign Minister was alluding to demands by Riyadh and other countries that Qatar should re-assess its ties with Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the agreement.

Days after the imposition of the blockade, Saudi Arabia and other countries had stated that they would remove the blockade provided that Doha accepted a list of 13 demands. One of these demands was that Doha should downgrade ties with Tehran and Ankara. Qatar categorically refused to accept this demand.  

The UAE’s response to the accord  

While all other signatories have hailed the agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has said that while the signing of the agreement is a welcome step, there is no clarity with regard to contentious issues – such as Doha’s relations with Ankara and Tehran. Expressing the UAE’s skepticism, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said

Some issues are easier to fix and some others will take longer. We are off to a very good start…but we have issues with rebuilding trust.

The UAE had opened land, sea, and airports with Qatar on January 8, 2021 (Saudi had opened the borders on January 4, 2021). According to many observers, the accord will give a boost to bilateral economic links between the UAE and Qatar (the UAE’s tourism and construction sectors are likely to benefit significantly from the agreement).

It would be important to point out that, till a few months ago, the UAE had been opposed to the removal of the blockade on Qatar, but was compelled to sign it, given the changing dynamics in the Middle East. 

Iran, Turkey, and the agreement 

The key objective of both the US (White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner had visited the Middle East in December) and Saudi Arabia in removing the embargo on Qatar was reducing the latter’s dependence upon Iran. Qatar has been using Iranian air space ever since the blockade was imposed in June 2017.

On the other hand, Doha realizes that its independent foreign policy, and good relations with Washington and Tehran and Ankara, are an asset. The latest agreement, which will improve ties with Saudi Arabia, could further bolster its strategic importance and foreign policy options. Qatar has consistently batted in favor of reduction of tensions between the US and Iran, and after the signing of the agreement, it has offered to intervene between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey (both Turkey and Iran had also welcomed the Al Ula accord, and expressed optimism that it would pave the way for stability in the Middle East). 

Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister for Combating Terrorism and Mediation in the Settlement of Disputes, while commenting on the possible role of Qatar in reducing tensions between Ankara and Tehran, stated:

If these two countries see that the State of Qatar has a role in this mediation, then it is possible to do so.

The UAE is not too happy with Qatar’s increasing clout as a result of the agreement (for long the UAE has viewed itself as a key player in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] and a bridge). While the UAE itself has maintained back channels with Iran, especially in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, it has serious differences with Turkey and has not been comfortable with Qatar’s increasing proximity with Ankara. 

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the agreement is an important step but the geopolitics of the Middle East are extremely complex. Qatar is unlikely to drastically alter its approach vis-à-vis Turkey and Iran; in fact it would like to view itself as a peacemaker rather than just a mere bystander. The fact that Qatar was able to deal with the economic implications of the blockade has only strengthened its position (in 2021, it is likely to grow at 2.7%, the second highest rate within the GCC). 

It remains to be seen how the Saudis and the US view the role of Qatar within the GCC. What would also be important to watch is how the UAE deals with the changing landscape in the Middle East.

The Saudi-Qatar thaw

Introduction

On January 5, 2021, at the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, at Al-Ula, an agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia (along with its allies) and Qatar that restored diplomatic ties.

Blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt had imposed a trade, travel, and diplomatic embargo on Qatar (two GCC states, Oman and Kuwait, did not cut diplomatic ties with Qatar). Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, and its close ties with Iran, were cited as the main reason for the decision to impose this blockade.

Saudi Arabia and its allies had closed its sea routes, land borders, and airspace to Qatari vehicles. As a consequence of the blockade, Qatar was compelled to use Iranian air space. Riyadh re-opened its airspace and land and sea borders with Qatar on January 4, 2021, and other countries will be following suit.

Attempts had been made by the US to broker a deal between both sides in 2017. Riyadh, along with other countries which had imposed the blockade on Qatar, had presented 13 conditions to Qatar including; shutting down of Al Jazeera and other Qatar-funded news outlets, downgrading ties with Iran and Turkey, and refraining from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. Qatar categorically refused these conditions and stated that it would not in anyway compromise its sovereignty.

Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, had said that “we are willing to negotiate any legitimate grievances with our neighbours, but we will not compromise our sovereignty.”

He also dubbed the blockade imposed on Qatar as a violation of international law.

The agreement signed for restoration of diplomatic ties

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, while commenting on the agreement signed to end the blockade of Qatar, stated:

What happened today is… the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman dubbed the agreement as a reiteration of “Gulf, Arab, Islamic solidarity and stability.”

Senior Advisor to the White House, Jared Kushner (also Donald Trump’s son-in-law), along with Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook, a special State Department adviser, witnessed the agreement for restoring diplomatic relations between Riyadh, its allies, and Qatar.

Role of the US, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia

During his visit to the Middle East in December 2020, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Kushner is supposed to have pushed for the removal of the blockade on Qatar.

Kuwait too has been an important player in trying to reduce tensions between Qatar and the other Arab states. In December 2020, the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Al Sabah, had hinted at progress in this direction, though Qatar had stated that it would only accept any agreement which was fair.

Iran and Saudi Factor

There are two important factors behind this agreement. First, that the Saudis want to send a positive message to the incoming Biden administration. Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on human rights, and he has even dubbed Riyadh as a “pariah state.” The Biden administration has also stated that it will re-assess ties with Riyadh, and it has accused Trump of being soft vis-à-vis the Saudis.

The Trump administration, especially Jared Kushner, is taking credit for the removal of the blockade, with one senior official dubbing it as a massive breakthrough and that “it will allow for travel among the countries as well as goods. It will lead to more stability in the region.”

The Trump administration is calling this agreement its second most important Middle East accomplishment, after the Abraham Accords (through which relations were normalized between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel).

Riyadh too is likely to take credit for its role in reducing tensions with Qatar, which is home to the largest American military facility in the Middle East – the Al Udeid air base.

The second important part is the Iran factor. Saudi Arabia is wary of the Biden administration’s possible outreach to Iran, and it has sought to isolate Iran through this step. As a result of the embargo, Qatar had moved much closer to both Turkey and Iran.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a number of economic and geopolitical factors have resulted in removing the embargo on Qatar. While it is likely to reduce tensions, there are some major divergences between Qatar and other Arab countries on crucial foreign policy issues, especially Iran. Qatar is unlikely to accept any conditionalities, and unlikely to re-orient its foreign policy significantly. It will also be interesting to see how the incoming Biden administration views the role of Saudi Arabia in this agreement.

UK-Turkey Free Trade Agreement: Beyond the Economics

Introduction

On December 29, 2020, the UK and Turkey signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will become effective January 1, 2021, after the UK leaves the EU. Turkey’s Trade Minister, Rushkar Pekcan, and the British Ambassador to Turkey, Dominick Chilcott, signed the agreement. 

The timing of the agreement was interesting, since the FTA was signed days after the UK and EU had managed to clinch a Brexit trade deal, with great difficulty, and after the US imposition of sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia (the decision to impose sanctions is likely to have its impact not just on Turkey-US ties, but also between Turkey and other NATO member states).

Commenting on the importance of the deal, Pekcan said:

The free trade agreement is a new and special milestone in the relationship between Turkey and United Kingdom.

President Recep Erdogan, while referring to the significance of the FTA a day before it was signed, had said that it would create a win-win situation for both Turkey and the UK. He also said that the deal is crucial, and dubbed it as Turkey’s most important economic agreement after the 1995 Customs Union.

Economic importance of the FTA 

If one were to look at the economic significance of the deal, it is dubbed to be the fifth largest trade deal for Britain. The UK-Turkey FTA is also likely to give a significant boost to the bilateral trade between both countries. The UK is Turkey’s second largest export market (for commodities including vehicles, textiles, and electrical equipment). The agreement is also important from Turkey’s point of view because without a deal well over 75% of Turkey’s exports to the UK would have been subject to tariffs. The FTA will also ensure existing preferential tariffs for 7,600 British businesses that exported goods to Turkey in 2019.

According to estimates, the potential for bilateral trade between Turkey and Britain is up to $20 billion. Britain is Turkey’s fifth largest investor (investment is estimated at $11.6 billion) and a total of 2,500 British companies are based in Turkey. 

UK Trade Secretary Elizabeth Truss, while commenting on the deal, said ‘[…it] provide[s] certainty for thousands of jobs across the UK in the manufacturing, automotive, and steel industries.’

While the key features of the deal are known (it seeks to prevent supply chains in automotive and manufacturing sectors, and also covers all agricultural and industrial goods), the FTA could also give a fillip to deeper defense cooperation between the UK and Turkey (in November 2020, Turkey and the UK held defence exercises for the first time).

Geopolitical context

The FTA also has geopolitical significance, because the UK is one of the few Western countries with which Turkey has a cordial relationship. While all eyes have been on the imposition of US sanctions, and its impact on the Washington-Istanbul relationship, Turkey’s ties with the EU have also witnessed a steady deterioration due to a multitude of factors in recent years. Turkey has also not been on the same page as the Western world on a number of geopolitical issues. This includes the Syria issue, as well as the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey’s military operation in Syria and reactions

Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish forces in Northern Syria in 2019 received strong responses from EU member states and the US. While the EU was critical of the action, US policy makers had urged Donald Trump to freeze assets belonging to Turkish leaders and block the sale of arms to Istanbul. Trump had written to Erdogan to refrain from such an action, but the Turkish President paid no heed to the same. It would be pertinent to point out that after Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of Syria, Britain had stopped sales of arms, but said it would not be providing new export licences for weapons which may be used in military operations in Syria.

If one were to look at the Azerbaijan-Armenia issue, France has been vocal in supporting international supervision of the ceasefire and has also expressed apprehension that Turkey and Russia may exclude Western countries. 

The EU has also been uncomfortable with Turkey’s policy in the Mediteranean. Only recently, the EU imposed sanctions against Turkish companies and individuals for oil drilling. Greece had wanted sectoral sanctions but this was resisted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who shares a close rapport with Erdogan.

Russia-Turkey relationship

While it is believed that the main reason for the rift between Turkey and the West is the former’s growing proximity to Russia, Istanbul and Moscow too have divergences over geopolitical issues (be it Syria, Libya, or Azerbaijan). Only recently, the presence of the Turkish President at Azerbaijan’s military parade on December 10, 2020, to mark Azerbaijan’s victory over Russian ally Armenia with Turkish assistance, would not have gone down well with Moscow. Yet in public, Russia has refrained from criticizing Turkey. In an interaction with the media in December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that sometimes Russian and Turkish interests do not ‘coincide,’ yet he also praised Turkey for pursuing an ‘independent foreign policy’ in spite of being a member of NATO and honoring its commitments. 

He has also stated that Moscow needs to be ‘patient’ and adopt a more compromising stance vis-à-vis Turkey. 

Erdogan does realize that he cannot afford a sudden deterioration of ties with the US, and his reconciliatory statements vis-à-vis Israel, and the Turkish decision to appoint an envoy after more than two and a half years, is being viewed as a step towards mending ties with the incoming Biden Administration.

Conclusion 

The Britain-Turkey FTA is important not just for economics but also for geopolitical reasons. While Britain will deal with the realities of a post-Brexit world, and such FTA’s will be important in navigating the same, for Turkey the deal is important in the context of the geopolitics of the Middle East and beyond.

Nightcap

  1. Erdoğan and Turkey’s missing 30 million Selim Koru, War on the Rocks
  2. The rise of extreme politics in a federation Daniele, Piolatto, & Sas, VoxEU
  3. China hasn’t lost Europe just yet Michito Tsuruoka, Diplomat
  4. What is “God” even supposed to mean? Ed Simon, LARB

Nightcap

  1. Is Turkey moderating its foreign policy? Fehim Tastekin, Al-Monitor
  2. On Rudyard Kipling’s World War I-era book Lance Morrow, City Journal
  3. Habsburgs: The rise and fall of a world power John Adamson, Literary Review
  4. The end of the New World Order Ross Douthat, New York Times

Nightcap

  1. The United States needs Chinese medical equipment Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. How India is dealing with Turkey’s Kashmir stance Niranjan Marjani, Diplomat
  3. Cooking up a new constitution in Russia Lisa Gaufman, Duck of Minerva
  4. In praise of the Divided States of America Matthew Berry, Law & Liberty

The North Syria Debacle as Seen by One Trump Voter

As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.

On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.

Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.

Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.

Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that

Continue reading

Nightcap

  1. French financial experts are anything but Diego Zuluaga, Alt-M
  2. The beauty of Soviet anti-religious art Roland Brown, Spectator
  3. Obama, Erdoğan, and the Syrian rebels Seymour Hersh, LRB
  4. Europe, Turkey, and the Kurdish rebels Bill Wirtz, TAC

Turkey, Syria, the Kurds, and the American Foreign Policy Establishment

Donald Trump pulled the US out of Syria, and Turkey brutally pounced on the Kurds. What a mess.

I have just two quick notes on the subject: 1) the American Foreign Policy Establishment has upset me for many years now, mostly because they are liars. The allegations of American betrayal in regards to our Kurdish allies are simply not true. If the Kurds were truly American allies, then the hawks would have gone out of their way to call for a Kurdish state in the region (something some Kurds have been trying to found for a long time). This has not happened in the 50 or 60 years that the United States has been deeply involved in the Levant. Have you heard hawkish politicians in the US call for an independent Kurdish state? Instead, Washington’s Foreign Policy Establishment has been content to use the Kurds as pawns against its Persian and Ba’athist enemies. Once the Kurds outlived their usefulness, they were abandoned by the American Foreign Policy Establishment, ironically in the name of state sovereignty.

2) The Kurds should have known better by now that their only friends are the mountains. I don’t know why they thought they could hold Syria. I don’t know why they thought they could trust Washington. My best guess is that geopolitics is hard to do when you’re as politically decentralized as the Kurds, and there was simply no overall game plan for going to war alongside the Americans, except to maybe slaughter some Arabs and Turks and build rapport with Washington for an eventual Kurdish state.

One last note: Not only is Turkey slaughtering Kurds, but Iran is calling for Turkey to stay out of Syria. The Russians are still there, too. The withdrawal of American troops from Syria means that Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and several non-state actors will now fight for control of the Levant. Having Moscow bogged down in the Levant bodes well for peace in Europe for the time being. A Turkish-Persian small war would likewise give the West a breather, at least militarily. If anti-refugee parties in Europe thought the first wave of refugees was unbearable, they’re in a for a world of surprise now. The bloodshed that will result from the world’s hegemon leaving a power vacuum will likely make Europe’s populist parties even more popular.

Nightcap

  1. Ottoman nostalgia (back to the Balkans) Alev Scott, History Today
  2. Did post-Marxist theories destroy Communist regimes? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Islam in Eastern Europe (a silver thread) Jacob Mikanowski, Los Angeles Review of Books
  4. Against Imperial Nostalgia: Or why Empires are Kaka Barry Stocker, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Israelis versus Jews Jonathan Bronitsky, Claremont Review of Books
  2. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  3. Erdoğan’s Flights of Fancy Kaya Genç, NY Review of Books
  4. Why Free Markets are Better than Globalism David Gordon, the Austrian

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism X

In my last post in this series, I discussed Turkey of the 1970s, starting with the 1971 Coup by Memorandum. Now I will move onto the Turkey of the 1980s, starting with the 12th September Coup in 1980, its impact and the foundations of civilian politics after the military left government. The coup was in reaction to political violence in the streets, political deadlock in the National Assembly and a worsening economic situation. It was overwhelming popular when launched, but since has become thought of as the darkest moment of the Turkish state. Despite its retrospective unpopularity and the ways that Recep Tayyıp’s Erdoğan AKP (along with Islamist predecessor parties) has positioned itself as the biggest victims of the coup, there are clear continuities with the current illiberal Erdoğanist-AKP regime and the 12th September regime.

At the time of the coup the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces was Kenan Evren, and he became head of the military council which administered the country until 1983. He also assumed the office of President of the the Republic, which he retained after the return of civilian rule in 1983. He was still respectfully known as Evren Paşa to some when I first came to Turkey in 1997, but all lingering respect and affection has disappeared. There is some ingratitude here as Erdoğan’s way of running the country clearly owes a lot to Evren and the 1982 constitution promulgated by the coup regime, with its lack of restraints on executive power, enabled Erdoğan to take over the state and turn the kind of power Evren exercised during a military regime into the permanent power of a civilian president, based on a crudely majoritarian understanding of democracy. Majoritarian in two senses, which will be discussed below. The regime became famous for abuse of human rights, including mass detentions, widespread torture and widespread use of the death penalty for political linked crimes, including a man of only 17 years. The brutality and the crude political understanding of the generals in power undermined the idea that a full scale military coup was acceptable and it never happened again, though the story of military involvement in politics was not over.

The 12th September regime stabilised the economy with the help of Türgut Özal who was then a professional economist and then the first civilian Prime Minister when elections returned. The original plan was presented to the last pre-coup government and so the coup regime’s initial economic plan was a continuation of ideas entering the centre-right civilian political sphere sphere. This reduced some forms of state intervention in the economy and opened it more to the world economy, so could be labelled neo-liberal, a term now used largely as a term of abuse, but which can be used in a more meaningful way. Inevitably, there are left-wing analysts who treat the economic changes that came out of 1980 as the equivalent of the economic changes introduced in Chile after the September 1973 coup. This conceals more than it illuminates. The military adopted Özal’s plans out of pragmatism of the moment rather than conviction, soon moving away from economic liberalism, when a military figure replaced Özal as head of economic planning in 1982.

The 12th September regime organised a referendum in 1982 to pass a constitution which was far less liberal than that of 1961 (itself introduced by referendum during a period of military rule). It retained the role of the army in influencing the government through a National Security Council, introduced by the 1961 constitution. The 1980 constitution is still in place, though heavily amended. The 1982 constitution retained the centrality of the National Assembly as the expression of the national will, going back to the constitutional ideas at the beginning of the Republic. It increased executive privilege though in over-ruling court decisions and gave the Presidency just enough power so that once Erdoğan came to power with a strong willingness to ignore precedent and the norms guiding the constitution, he could turn Turkey into a de facto presidential republic with a weak national assembly, even before the 2016 referendum which formalised the change.

The electoral rules for the National Assembly were changed to exclude parties with below 10% of the vote. The system of proportional representation introduced (a version of the d’Hondt system), favoured the largest party so that it could take the majority of seats with about 35% of the vote (lower is possible but that in practice is how it has worked, depending on the distribution of votes between parties), which is how the AKP gained a majority. The rules were biased towards rural constituencies over urban constituencies, so favoured the right-wing parties.

The 10% rule is sometimes seen as aimed against Kurdish based parties, but if we look at the election results before 1980, it would be more reasonable to think of it as aimed against Idealist Hearths/Grey Wolf Turkish ultranationalists and National View Islamists. Preventing radical left parties and Kurdish based parties from entering the National Assembly may have been an aim in 1982, but surely only secondary to a wish to keep the far right out of the National Assembly. The system had adjusted to a kind of absolutist majoritarianism in which the ‘majority’ could be a plurality with much less than half the vote. The less formal design was to make Turkey a permanently majoritarian country in the sense that it would be dominated by forces rooted in the Sunni religious majority and dominant Turkish ethnicity resolutely committed to a very homogenous understanding of the nation in which the more extreme versions of ethnic nationalism and religious conservatism would be marginalised but so would religious minorities (most significantly Alevi Muslims), ethnic minorities (most significantly Kurds), and open non-believers. Evren himself publicly quoted from the Koran, completely against the spirit of Kemalism, and suppressed the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. Erdoğan has imitated him in both these respects.

The coup regime created its own national-conservative party with a left-Kemalist (national republican party) as the preferred opposition, both of which disappeared before long. Özal was allowed to create a middle ground party, Motherland (which now exists only as an on-paper micro-party satellite of AKP). This gathered members of the Menderes-Demirel centre-right tradition along with three other pillars: ultranationalists who had been active in the Grey Wolf  associations, former members of the left (including far-left) turned ‘liberal’, members of Sunni religious communities. All the pre-coup parties were illegal during the 1983 elections and the Motherland Party was the only legal party led by people with political experience and talents, so it was in the ideal position to get the most votes, to the irritation of the military leaders who nevertheless accepted the result.

Özal himself was a member of the Nakşibendi Sufi lodge (a very old religious community linked to very orthodox Sunni Islam, originating in the Ottoman lands but also present in other Muslim areas) so was the first Turkish leader from the world of religious communities in the history of the republic. More on Özal and the politics of the 1980s in the nest post.

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism IX

After a break dealing with proofs and indexes of two forthcoming books, a process that overlapped with getting a new university semester started, I can return to this series, which I last added to here. I set the scene of the late 1960s in Turkey, so I will turn to the next big upheaval, the Coup by Memorandum on March 12th 1971.

The Coup by Memorandum followed an attempted coup by far left/third worldist revolutionaries amongst the officer corps. Any unity created by the Kemalist project (secularist national-republican tradition of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk) was effectively ended, though this decomposition could be said about the whole period from the 1940s to 1971, especially after the adoption of multi-partyism by Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü.

The 1971 coup forced the resignation of the conservative Prime Minister Süyleman Demirel and the implementation of a program to crush the far left, while also implementing some of the more left-wing ideas associated with the 1960 coup (particularly land reform and trade union rights). National View, the first Islamist party in Turkey, founded by Necmettin Erbakan, was closed down along with leftist groups so that an appearance of balance could be maintained in opposing the extremes on both sides. The reality, though, is that the level of state repression, including violence, and further including illegal violence (torture of the arbitrarily detained) directed against the far left, including Kurdish autonomists, drastically exceeded that directed against the far right.

The level of oppression that affected the mainstream right (in that the Justice Party was temporarily removed from government) and religious right was enough to create the idea that the right in Turkey was in some way the liberal part of Turkish politics. This not only influenced liberals, but even some people with very left wing views. It is part of how the AKP could come to power and hollow out state institutions, while subordinating civil society from 2002 onwards. The right continued with a militant anti-communist discourse, in all parts, while in part posing as the liberal friends of leftist rights, along with the rights of the Kurdish autonomists. This was pioneered by Turgut Özal in the 80s and taken further by the AKP. Presumably, Turkish liberals and leftists of the most anti-Kemalist sort have now learned a lesson, but possibly too late to benefit from it for at least a generation.

The military establishment’s implicit tolerance of the religious right, along with the ultranationalist grey wolves, in comparison to the secularist leftists tells an important story about the reality of ‘Kemalist domination’ of Turkey. It had evolved into a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a compromise with the more conservative parts of the Kemalist establishment, in which the Turkish-Islamic synthesis became more prominent and the ‘Kemalism’ became more and more gestural, including a pointless obsession with preventing young women with covered hair from entering the university, at the same time as the rights of non-Muslim minorities.

The picture is more complicated in that the anti-leftist post-memorandum government in 1971 closed the Greek Orthodox seminary in the Princes Islands off the Marmara Sea coast of Istanbul, as part of a general closure or nationalisation of private (largely foreign) institutions of higher education. This was a policy in accordance with the demands of the far left, including campus radicals. So a measure to deny rights to a Christian minority coincided with the demands of the far left and was undertaken by a notionally secularist government, in reality more concerned with crushing the far left and extending a conservative form of statism.

The above, in any case, did not resolve the real problems of political violence to which the 1971 coup responded. The period between the end of the very temporary government appointed in 1971 and the coup of 12th September 1983 was one of increasing political violence and extremism, with a lack of stable governments as the Justice Party lost majority support (though it remained in government most of the time). Neither it nor the Republican People’s Party were able to form stable coalitions or parliamentary agreements, while the economy suffered and political violence increased between far left and far right groups. Unexplained massacres of demonstrators and political assassinations accompanied barricades that violent groups put up to signify control of urban areas.

The National Assembly failed to elect a President of the Republic in 1980, despite 115 rounds of voting during increasing political and economic disruptions. When the army seized power again on the 12th September, there was widespread public support, but this was the most brutal of the military governments. Its attempt to create a more ‘stable’, i.e. authoritarian, democracy gave Turkey a constitution and system which enabled the AKP to come to power with 35% of the vote in 2002 and then erode the weak restraints on executive powers when held in conjunction with a one party majority in the National Assembly.

More on this in the next post.

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VIII

Continuing from Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VII.

The Democrat Party returned to power under the name of Justice Party (a name possibly referring to ‘justice’ for Adnan Menderes, who was certainly executed as the result of a very politicised trial, but was no genuine martyr of democracy) in 1965. This hint at an enduring idealisation of Menderes sets up many problems in Turkey to the present day.

Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has appealed to the same theme, which has very evidently turned under his rule into a drive for ‘revenge’ against anyone who supposedly defies the National Will.

The National Will, in practice, is based on preserving a monolithic majoritarianism based on ethnic Turkish nationalism and Sunni religious identity along with loyalism to the state under its rightful leader, who looks more like a Reis (a traditional chief) than the head of a liberal democracy.

This process begins under Süyleman Demirel (1924-2015) as leader of the AP (short for Adalet Partisi, the Turkish words for Justice Party). Demirel himself was despised by Erdoğan, and in the end sided with his old enemy, the Republican People’s Party, against Erdoğan’s AKP. However, AKP stands for Adalet ve Kalkınması Partisi, which is Justice and Development Party, so clearly Erdoğan placed himself in Demirel’s tradition. Demirel was Prime Minister or President for nearly half of the time from 1965 to 2000, but never acquired the status of a giant in national history, as such a long occupation of the highest offices of state might suggest.

The most grotesque single item of evidence of Demirel’s desire for revenge over the 1960 coup came in the case of Deniz Gezmiş, a leading figure on the revolutionary left, who was arrested for the kidnapping of two American soldiers. Gezmiş was executed in 1972, along with two associates, after Demirel had said ‘we want three’, in a clear reference to the execution of Menderes and two of his ministers in 1961, and possibly referring to Gezmiş’ self-declared Kemalism (though he is usually seen as more a revolutionary Marxist). We have two major problems in Turkish politics in one here. Firstly the attraction of some parts of the left to political violence; secondly the unendingly vengeful attitude of the right towards the 1960 coup and a belief in state violence as the solution to the far left.

State violence against the far left has been constant in the Republic. As long as there was Soviet Socialist Russia and then the USSR, the far left tended to be seen as part of an assault by a traditional national rival, whether run by a Tsarist or Bolshevik regime. This combined with a never ending fear of the weakness of liberal democracy in the face of possibly existential enemies in which political compromise has been seen as treason.

The continuing idolisation of Gezmiş, who was it must be said an attractive and charismatic person, who died young and very good looking, by the far left continues a vicious cycle in which the state establishment under various governments treats any expression of far left views as subversion, only one stop at most from outright terrorism, while the far left can then see violence as politically legitimate. Not everyone who continues the memory of Gezmiş advocates violence and we can only hope he does become a symbol of revolutionary purity detached from advocacy of political violence.

The existence of the revolutionary groups where Gezmiş operated itself tells us something about the difficulties of the 1960s. Economic growth and stability was reasonable, but there was no state understanding of how to incorporate the most disaffected parts of society. The far left was not very working class in its base, which has a stronger social core in Aleviism, that is a heterodox off shoot of Shia Islam, which constitutes the largest religious minority in Turkey.

The strongest geographical concentration of Alevis is in the Tunceli (also known as Dersim) region. These Zazaki (Persian dialect) speaking Alevis, along with Alevis elsewhere, had an antagonism to the Republican People’s Party as a result of extreme suffering during state-Zazaki Alevi conflict in Tunceli during the later 30s. However, when the Democrat Party-Justice Party line became the new state establishment and expression of Sunni supremacy, Alevi support switched to the Republican People’s Party and has stayed with it ever since as a major component. The far left also has a strong Alevi component, expressed at its most extreme in the DHKP/C terrorist/insurgent group.

Support for the far left reflects to some degree the incapacity of the state to deal with Alevi identity, while also failing to adapt to the kind of radicalised student political culture of the late 60s that existed on a global level. A significant part of this international trend comes from the growth of higher education to accommodate more people from non-elite backgrounds, which meant an increasing proportion of students with little hope of achieving the elite status more easily achieved by earlier students.

Pesant families were moving from the land into illegally constructed buildings in city suburbs, creating a target audience for the far left, though providing more support overall for the most conservative aspects of the right. The ultranationalist right found political expression in the Republican Peasants’ National Party after its take over by Alparslan Türkeş. Türkeş had announced the 1960 coup on the radio, but in politics deviated from the Kemalist ideology of the military government, certainly by the late ’60s when Türkeş went on pilgrimage to Mecca and changed the name of the party to Nationalist Action, with a party emblem of three crescent moons, referring to an Ottoman military standard.

The Nationalist Action Party was named as such in 1969, the year that Necemettin Erbakan founded National View. National View is a Muslim conservative movement which takes much of its inspiration from the Arab-based Muslim Brotherhood. The National View of Erbakan evidently refers to Turkish nationalism. The nationalist movement had secular aspects and the religious conservative movement had aspects of a Muslim universalism beyond nations, though particularly directed towards the Arab world, so seeking a kind of authentic source for religion. On the whole, the Grey Wolf/Idealist Hearth nationalists of Türkeş and the National View religious conservatives of Erbakan converged. This tendency is often referred to as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis and has roots going back to the late 19th century, but is mostly thought of as something that grew in the 60s.

More on this and related topics in the next post.