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Turkey's swing to the right.

A mood of hyper-nationalism is running through Turkey following the capture of PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) leader Abdullah Ocalan. The dismay of PKK supporters around the world has been surpassed at home by the jubilation of Turks. The conflict between these Kurdish 'separatists' and the state must be one of the world's dirtiest wars, involving not just the aboveground fighting between PKK guerillas and the state but the activities of a 'deep' or 'parallel' state, including assassinations by gangs connecting the state to the Turkish underworld, drug running (a German federal court named former Prime Minister Tarisu Ciller as being involved in the drug trade, while the PKK has been smuggling tons of heroin into Europe every month to finance its operations), and deals with Kurdish feudal chieftains. During the course of the war large areas of the south-east have been depopulated and tens of thousands of people killed: Turkish soilders, PKK guerillas, Turkish civilians (including engineers and teachers assigned to the south-east) and Kurdish civilians (including villagers massacred by the PKK and journalists murded by secret gangs). Europeans rightly condemned Turkey for its human rights abuses and its failure to develop a social answer to the Kurdish question but skated over PKK atrocities until the PKK began launching operations inside their countries. Only then did they decide that the PKK was a terrorist organisation, but even now most European governments allow the PKK to operate through front organisations. Greece has gone much further, giving the PKK office space and training facilities and when others would not take him in, sanctuary to Abdullah Ocalan. This is not because Greece believes in the Kurdish cause but because it will do anything that makes life more difficult for its larger neighbour on the other side of the Aegean.

The Kurds have been brought to where they are at this late point in the twentieth century by a complex combination of historical and contemporary circumstances. A starting point is the tribal-feudal structure of Kurdish society itself; Yashar Kemal's novels set in the cotton-growing region around Cukurova in south-eastern Turkey are strongly centred on the theme of exploitation of the Kurdish village population by Kurdish tribal overlords. The tribulations of the Kurds also arise from the neglect of a region that in many respects is typical of a developed centre-neglected periphery situation. In the past two decades Turkish governments have poured billions of dollars into the largely Kurdish south-eastern provinces (particularly into the massive GAP irrigation scheme) in an attempt to bring them up to the material standards of the western part of the country and take the economic sting out of Kurdish grievances. However, what Turkish governments have steadfastly refused to do since the republic was established in 1923, is acknowledge the cultural dimensions of the problem. This they would do by allowing the Kurds to publish and read newspapers in their own language and by allowing them to study their history, culture and language in schools and at universities: in other words, instead of repressing Kurdish culture they would take pride in it, but as people whose history from the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries was scarred by partition and demands for autonomy made by religous ethnic groups with the backing, of self-interested European governments, Turks know where demands for recognition of cultural identity can lead. They fully understand the connections between language, culture and nation because even before the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918 they had taken this road themselves. In the face of Kurdish demands for what the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Armenians all demanded in the nineteenth century, and still concious of how close Turkey came to being further partitioned after 1918, they cannot move; yet they must, if Turkey is to develop into a contemporary state. Ocalan's elimination (through execution or life-long imprisonment) and the crushing of the PKK will only create the illusion of a solution. This reality is recognised in Turkey, by academics and even businessmen, if not by the 'pashas' (the chiefs of the general staff) and the hyper-nationalists who reaped the benefits of Ocalan's dramatic capture in April's national elections.

Loss of Sanctuary

The country is now fixated on Ocalan's trial. That he will be found guilty and sentenced to death (perhaps by the time this journal goes to print) there is no doubt. This was the fate of his former second-in-command, Semdin Sakik, at the end of his trial in May. Turkish commandos had grabbed Sakik from northern Iraq early in 1998. Both the Kurdish Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Jalal Talabani maintain a workable relationship with the Turkish government and had come to regard the PKK as a dangerous intruder on their turf, which PKK bases had turned into a secondary battleground between the PKK and the Turkish military. Last year they finally signed an agreement (under the auspices of the United States) committing them to keep the PKK out of northern Iraq. The loss of this cross-border sanctuary was a severe blow for the PKK and Sakik's capture was another. Held incommunicado by the Turkish military, he was soon alleged to have made a series of accusations linking prominent Turks with the PKK: all of them--Islamist MPs, journalists and human rights advocates--just happened to be on the military's shortlist of enemies of the state as well. Within a week or so of the media giving splash coverage to these unsubstantiated accusations, two gunmen had walked into the Ankara office of the Turkish Human Rights Organisation and tried to kill its chairman, Akin Birdal. As assassins they were extraordinarily incompetent, firing a large number of bullets into Birdal's body at short range without managing to hit one vital organ. What came out of the police investigation, pushed along by public outrage at the boldness of the attack (off one of Ankara's main streets in the middle of the day), was the revelation that the gunmen were working to the brief of a notorious state gang-mafia operative known as Commander Yesil (Green). Even the present Prime Minister admitted that the state could be involved.

A year later the Turkish government had Ocalan in the bag as well. For years Ocalan had been living in northern Syria, near President Hafiz al Assad's home town of Kardaha. From Kardaha it is a short run to the Turkish border and from Damascus only half an hour by car to the training camp which President Assad had allowed Ocalan to run in Lebanon's Bika'a Valley. Of course, his freedom of movement was entirely contingent on Syria's interests, and when Turkey threatened a military attack last year unless the connection was broken the PKK leader was told to find a home elsewhere. He disappeared into the air space over a variety of countries before turning up in Italy. The conscientious security officials who detained him at Rome airport might only have been doing their job but they severely embarrassed their government. Italy did not want him and certainly did not want to be the government forever held responsible for handing him back to Turkey. It was the same with the Germans. The German government even had a warrant out for his arrest on charges of terrorism but refused to use it, because of the explosive effects of the trial in a country with large Kurdish and Turkish populations (if that was the case why did they issue the warrant in the first place?). The only country that wanted him was Turkey, which offered to drop capital punishment if Italy would hand him over but Italy hastened to let him go before such a move could be put to the vote in the Turkish parliament. Ocalan disappeared back into the air space. Speculation as to where he had gone centred on Russia and Armenia, but it turned out that it was the Greeks who had taken him in: he was hiding out in the Greek embassy in Nairobi when his presence there was exposed and the Greeks told by the United States that he had to go. On his way to the airport Turkish commandos intercepted his convoy and dragged him off to a light plane owned by a Turkish businessmen for the flight back to Istanbul and thence to imprisonment on the Sea of Marmara island of Imrali. If Ocalan is sentenced to death, the Turkish parliament will then have to ratify the sentence before the government takes the final responsibility for carrying it out. There will be a furore in Europe if it does. The trial already has the potential to be the most sensational in Turkey's history, depending on how far the Turkish government wants to go in embarrassing not just those governments which have been giving the PKK open support (Syria and Greece) but those whose assistance has been more clandestine.

Islamists Lose Votes

The capture of Ocalan redounded greatly to the credit of Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP). Ecevit, the Prime Minister who ordered Turkish troops into northern Cyprus in 1974, was called on to lead the country again after the collapse of the government led by Mesut Yilmaz last year. Both men were appointed as caretaker prime ministers: Yilmaz after the propaganda campaign waged by the military against the Islamist-dominated coalition government of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 ended in Erbakan's resignation and the closure of his Refah (Prosperity) Party by the Constitutional Court; and Ecevit after Yilmaz was brought down late last year on charges of personal corruption. Until the capture of Ocalan it was the Islamists who were expected to top the lists at April's national elections. The results showed how quickly the national mood had changed. The main beneficiaries were the DSP and the fascistic National Movement Party (MHP), whose votes jumped from less than 10 per cent last time around to 22 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. Fazilet (Virtue), the Islamist successor to Refah, was expected to do at least as well as its predecessor but instead watched its share of the vote slump from 22 per cent to 15 per cent; it is now threatened with closure by the Constitutional Court itself, following the wearing of a head scarf into parliament by one of its female MPs. Mesut Yilmaz's Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) took about 25 per cent of the vote between them: as this article was being written (June) the probable outcome was a coalition government between the DSP, the MHP and ANAP despite the objections of Ecevit's wife Rahsan to going into government with the fascists. Ecevit himself argued that the MHP had changed since the 1970s, when the 'Grey Wolves' of its predecessor (the National Action Party) went forth into the streets and on to the campuses of Istanbul and Ankara to beat or kill leftist students and occasionally their professors.

The growing potency of the right was underscored by the funeral in Ankara last year of the MHP's founder, Alparslan Turkes. The city was snowbound. Schools, universities and government offices were all closed and buses were not running; there was no one around but tens of thousands of MHP members and supporters; they marched through the whitened city for hours, trailing the party's triple crescent red flag and giving the wolf's head salute (index and little finger cocked to form the ears and two middle fingers joined to the thumb to form the snout) in solidarity. This is the movement that Ecevit thinks he can live with. The election results confirmed the rising trajectory of the Right, and indicate that ultra-nationalism has replaced Islamism as the dominant socio-political paradigm.

These events have been taking place against a background of political dislocation and cultural disorientation, of which the effects of globalisation and Turkey's failure to secure acceptance of itself as being part of 'western civilisation' and a member of the European community are part. It is common to describe Turkey as a bridge, geographically and culturally, between Europe and a range of other worlds: the Middle East, Transcaucasia and Central Asia. However, the idea of belonging, rather than being just a connecting or crossing point, has had a fixed place in Turkish thinking since the foundation of the republic in 1923 and in Ottoman thinking for a century before that. The Ottomans began borrowing European administrative techniques to bring their bureaucracy up to date and reformed their military along European lines. This was not uncommon: the Persians began to do the same in the nineteenth century and so did the Egyptians and a lot of other people trying to unlock the secrets of European power. Where the Ottomans went further was that they also wanted to be accepted as part of the European collectivity (in their time the Concert of Europe) and increasingly as Europeans. They began reading Lamartine and wearing frock coats, but whatever they did (and that included constitutional government for a brief period) it was never enough to meet with the approval of those on whom they were styling themselves, in their laws and their modern way of dress as well as the books the educated class chose to read.

By 1918 the Ottoman state had collapsed and it was up to the Republican Turks to continue the struggle. They swept away the Ottoman-Islamic past. They replaced religious institutions with secular ones. They gave women the vote and the right to sit for Parliament. They abandoned the single-party system and brought in a multi-party democracy. They joined NATO and have supported its causes right down to the war on Serbia. They gave the United States bases across the country. They sent troops to Korea. No state could have been a more reliable friend of the West; no state has been more persistent in seeking membership of the European Union and no state has been rebuffed so consistently by the European Union. Now, after more than thirty years of seeking entry into Europe without its credentials being accepted, a bitter mood is beginning to creep into the Turkish body politic.

If anything, Turkey's admission to the European Union seems less likely since the collapse of the USSR reduced its military importance as a buffer state. Other countries have been admitted or have been pushed to the front of the queue, if there can still be said to be one as far as Turkey is concerned: when convening an expansion conference two years ago the Europeans decided that they would not even invite Turkey to attend. The cause was not just the usual Greek obstruction or Turkey's shoddy human rights record or even the European Union's inability to come to terms with the economic implications of admitting a dynamic country with a population of nearly 70 million to the club. The underlying reason is the jarring effect on the European Union's sense of itself. Europeans love coming to Turkey as tourists; they can never say enough nice things about the culture, the people and their hospitality but ultimately they cannot bring themselves to accept Turks as members of the European club because Turks are Muslim and Europeans are Christian. Very few will say it out aloud but that is what this is all about; even if it were not, it is certainly a strongly held perception in Turkey.

Yearning to Belong

This leaves Turkey without a bloc to which it can belong. And Turkey clearly feels a need to belong. The emancipation of the Central Asian republics sent an anticipatory frisson running through the manufacturing, banking and construction sectors as well as among the Pan Turkists. But largely because of domestic complications, Turkey has failed to make the most of its opportunities in a region where it had a head start because of the historical, linguistic and cultural connections. In the Arab world and within the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Turkey has blotted its copybook by entering into what is pretty close to a de facto military alliance with Israel, a country which Turkey's political and military elites see as being very much like their own, that is, modern, progressive and secular, despite the existence of Jewish fundamentalists demonstrably more dangerous than the Turkish Islamists the pashas have been so busy repressing.

The growing sense of drift in foreign policy, along with the social consequences of the deregulation of the Turkish economy and the ineptitude of the mainstream parties, greatly benefitted religious Refah (Prosperity) Party over the past decade. By the late 1980s voters were streaming towards Refah: it shocked the country by sweeping the board at the 1994 municipal elections and in 1995 it secured enough votes at the national elections to become the senior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right True Path Party. It was not long before the military was cranking up its propaganda machine and declaring that Refah was a 'fundamentalist' party whose aims and very existence were a threat to the secular republic. Many of its accusations were demonstrably untrue. The senior echelons of Refah are (or were) hardly radical: they were in fact extremely bourgeois. They liked their creature comforts (Aegean villas, Italian topcoats and Saudi money). For all the bluster emanating from the offices of the General Staff there was little they did, apart from making the occasional remark or speech which the generals immediately leapt upon as proof positive of their more sinister hidden intentions, that could be called an innovation. The religious schools being targetted as centres of Islamic fundamentalism had been around for decades and you did not need a long memory to recall that it was the generals themselves who were promoting the importance of religion back in the 1980s. Furthermore, Erbakan might be a devout Muslim but what was overlooked was that he was also a good Turk; in his wheelings and dealings he behaved like all other Turkish politicians, much to the disgust of many of his own rank and file.

All of these developments have left Turkey with no European Union to which it can turn, no Arab world or Islamic world on which it can fall back for emotional sustenance and, within its own body politic, no sense of common identity or direction. What or who is to blame? There is a chicken-and-egg factor here. Most Turks would probably argue that the military has to intervene because the politicians are so hopeless, but it could be that the politicians are hopeless because the military keeps intervening. Turks have had a democratic system for only half a century and in that time the military has intervened four times: 1960, the 'coup by memorandum' of 1971, 1980 and the 'soft intervention' against the Refah Party two years ago. Turks need the opportunity to breathe, to develop, to make their own mistakes and learn from them, but as things are they are not being allowed to grow up. The generals might sit back in silence for a decade or more, but let someone stray off the straight and narrow and in they jump, not just against the 'extremists' but anyone tarnished by association. This meant not just the radical activists arrested in 1980 but the mild Left consequently purged from universities and the public service; not just the Kurdish 'separatist terrorists' but anyone campaigning for a new approach to the Kurdish question; not just the 'Islamic fundamentalists' but devout Muslims in the public service and the army (sometimes singled out because photographs showed their wives wearing the hicab or head scarf). In the minds of the generals, being Turkish is as fixed as creation theory and far too sacred a matter to be left to the vagaries of ballot box evolution. This raises an obvious question. What is the real difference between the pashas who have taken upon themselves the responsibility of interpreting the wishes of the revered but long dead founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the Iranian scholars whose sacred duty it is to interpret Shi'i Islam in accordance with the will of the long disappeared Hidden Imam?

The capture of Ocalan has abruptly changed the national mood. The elections signify a turning not just to the Right but to the extreme Right; whether Ecevit is correct in claiming that it has calmed down remains to be seen, but as the third probable coalition party (ANAP) already has a sizeable number of members close to the MHP in their thinking, it may not be long in the life of the new government before Ecevit finds himself outgunned. It would be unwise to hope for any striking change in the way bigger questions are handled; the distinguished Turkish scholar Talat Sait Halman has remarked more than once that Turks always find a way, and that is probably about as optimistic as anyone should get.
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Title Annotation:Commentaries: the world at large
Author:Salt, Jeremy
Publication:Arena Journal
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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