Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Hand in hand

In Turkey, the way to do business is to create an almost familial relationship - but too often, government and big business are too close for comfort.

When I first arrived in Turkey, I found it fascinating, sometimes exhilarating, often confusing, occasionally infuriating amd, where relationships between people were concerned, somewhat....weird.

Take touching, for instance. We Brits are not famed for physical contact: If someone brushes pasr us accidentally, we become a flurry of 'excuse mes' and 'sorrys'. It;'s weird that we say 'sorry' to the person who has intruded on our personal space. As for having accidental leg contact as you sit down on a bus or train, that's basically Social Armageddon.

Turkey, by contrast, is much more touchy-feely - but outside the immediate family, only so between people of the same gender. Men walk down the street with their arms round each others shoulders, or walk arm-in-arm. They kiss each other on the cheeks (OK, an air kiss, but it still kissing between men). A colleague, one evening, went to link his arm in mine, and I more or less jumped across the road.

Obviously, I got used to it as time went on: We all learn to understand (if not necessarily appreciate) the ways and means of other cultures as we live within them.
I found it difficult to understand, however, when it came to work and business. The Turkish way of getting things done is far more circumlocutory that what we consider to be good practice here in the UK. It's all about building close relationships, creating familiar bonds. It sometimes feels, to outside eyes, that the relationship is actualy far more important than the work itself. And there's a very distinct atmosphere of 'You scratxh my back, I'll scratch yours' about it. Nowhere is this seen more than the way in which the government awards contracts to its favourites.

OK, business and government cosying up to each other is nothing new - it's just that we do have strict laws in place regarding competition and the awarding of contracts. This doesn't really happen in Turkey, and it has become far worse since the AKP took control.

Let me take you somewhere pretty by way of illustration. This is Artvin, in the North East of Turkey:

Pretty, isn't it? It's famed for its beauty, its green pastures, its mountains and its people - some call it the home of poetry.
And this is where a company called Cengiz Holdings is trying to whack open a bloody huge copper mine and chop down (allegedly) over 50,000 trees. For the past fortnight, there have been violent clashes between protestors and police and gendarmerie (Jandarma) units. The police have been acting with impunity and have been taking orders directly, according to reports, from the mine owners. As of a few hours ago, the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has ordered a halt to mining operations prior to a judicial decision, expected within  the next few days.
Right, so you're probably wondering 'so what?' right now.  It's probably best to look at this company and its owner, Mehmet Cengiz, a little more closely.
Anyone who cast an eye over the company account books couldn't help but approve - the balance is looking very favourable, thank you very much. A little too favourable, however. And it seems to have a remarkable ability to win very large capital infrastructure projects. This illustration shows some of the work they have done or are engaged in, including the third Bosphorus Bridge and third Istanbul Airport:

In fact, since the AKP came to power, it has won pretty much every big project that's been put up for competitive tender. It seems that the ruling party like them very, very much, because not only have they handed over all these projects, but they also wrote off the 424 million lira (currently about £100m) debt Cengiz Holdings had to the taxman.
And guess who happen to be best buddies? Why, Mr Mehmet Cengiz and Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President and former Prime Minister of Turkey, of course.
This is only one example. It is remarkable how many of the ruling party are very, very rich men who seem to have become much, much richer over the last decade. Not that it quite goes all their way: Erdogan was at the centre of a wiretapping scandal where he was caught discussing with his son Bilal about ways of getting rid of a siazeable chunk of cash. Indeed, Erdogan Junior is currently facing money laundering charges in, of all places, Italy. Now, if the Italians are throwing the book at someone for dodgy financial dealings, you know it's got to be serious.
 However, I will point out that this kind of chicanery is nothing new in the country - indeed, the political elite have always been the richest in the country and have always walked arm in arm with whoever would make them richer. The AKP, in fact, came into power on the premise that they were not like this, that they would bring, well, Justice and Development - hence their party name. Instead, they have turned out to be even worse than the venal, corrupt old political guard, because they use the veil of faith to hide their dirty tricks. I suspect there's a bit more than a bit of touchy-feely when it comes to the relationship between Erdogan and Big Business.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Ankara Bombing

Once again, there has been a bombing in Turkey. Once again, it has been relegated in the ten o'clock news bulletins.

As I write this, the death toll stands at 28, with some 61 injured, but those figures are expected to rise. If this had happened in Paris, or London, or Berlin, there seems little doubt that it would be leading the news, but it isn't at all. Does this mean that these awful deaths are somehow a lesser thing?

If so, then why is the Turkish media also muting it? Reportage is (where people can get the word out) t a relative minimum: The mainstream TV channels are putting very little out, apart from the PM and President denouncing the 'latest act of terrorism', and vowing that they will protect the nation more than ever, i.e. continue with the campaign in the South East and cross-border.

Turks have always been canny at using the world wide web, never more so than in the past few years, when the AKP has frequently resorted to censoring internet traffic. All that happens is everyone swithes to using a VPN to get the news or disseminate it. From what is emerging on Twitter, the mood is a mix of despair at another bombing, disgust at the government's latest media blackout kneejerk reaction, sadness for those affected, and a very firm idea of who is really to blame for the attack.

Addressing who is responsible, that probably won't become clear, especially if the answer doesn't suit Ankara's political narrative. The technique  - a bus packed with explosives that was detonated as a convoy of military vehocles passed - has been used by many groups in many places. I am sure the government would prefer it to have been committed by the PKK. However, the bombing of a peace rally, also in Ankara, and the bomb attack in Suruc all suggest that ISIS are more likely.

Returning to my first question, it's not that some lives matter than others. I know that there will be many angry that media in the UK, the US, France and so on isn't focusing on this event, that there are no hashtags saying #prayforankara or #ankarakliyim, or that people aren't changing their facebook profiles to show the Turkish flag. It is the simple, but brutal, fact that distance confers a lack of interest. It doesn't mean we don't care per se: it's just very human to be more concerned with that which affects us most directly. That's not to condone or condemn - I'm merely stating what is. If that weren't the case, we wouldn't be able to move for the misery of knowing how many people die each day all around the world from war, want and disease.

However, I for one am affected. I couldn't hardly be so - I wouldn't have this blog otherwise. I care very much for Turkey and, right now, not for the first time, I can only say Basiniz Sagolsun.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Nero's Fiddle

Since I wrote that last article, my predictions have unfortunately come more or less true. The Turkish state is currently in a de facto civil war in the South East, literally razing whole sections of cities to the ground, and appears to be creeping ever closer to a full-scale ground invasion of Northern Syria. I cannot emphasise too strongly how dangerous this situation is on a global scale, as the potential for all-out conflict between Turkey and Russia also risks drawing in NATO.

Russo-Turkic wars have never ended well.

But WHY is it happening? What is the Turkish government playing at? After all, it could sit to one side, halt all border movement towards Syria, wait for the outcome and play the Peace Broker card: It could genuinely make a difference, and help create stability, across the entire region. Just four years ago, it was in a position where it could have done this, yet the opportunity, and others like it, have slipped by one by one.

And why? For such a complicated issue, there is a single easy answer. His name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of the Turkish republic.

Now, I'm not usually one for pointing the finger of blame at a single person and saying that any given situation is all their fault, but in this case, I think I comfortably can. Erdogan will do anything whatsoever to hold on to power, and the fact that he wasn't able to get more control over the country last year has had a profound effect on the state's actions ever since.

In a nutshell, the ruling AKP did not achieve enough seats in last May's General Election to push through a constitutional reform that would have effectively made Erdogan President for Life. The pro-Kurdish HDP, in the meantime, received more than 10% of the votes, meaning it could be represented in parliament. Very briefly, there was hope that Turkey was on the verge of a new kind of democratic participation.

And then Erdogan, in effect, restarted the civil war with the PKK. I should point out that the AKP were instrumental, several years ago, in bringing about a ceasefire and had actually increased the rights of Kurds, including crucial concessions on the official use of Kurdish. The decades-long conflict had abated, and there was a very clear consensus on trying to find a peaceful solution. Unfortunately, this idea was sacrificed to Erdogan's personal aims: keep power at any cost. By starting the war again, he was able to represent himself as a defender of Turkish rights and, in a snap election later in the year, the AKP gained a majority in parliament once more.

It gets nastier. Since then, the HDP have had offices firebombed, their representatives attacked, arrested and imprisoned, and labelled 'terrorists'. And that label has now been applied to journalists (who have always been the target of arrest in Erdogan's Turkey), lawyers, academics and even medical staff, in fact, anyone who says anything remotely critical of him. The entire state is being pulled down in the name of one man.

Rather similar, in fact, to the situation with Vladimir Putin in Russia.

The situation in some parts of Turkey is distressing. Photos from Cizre and Diyarbakir look as if there were shot in Homs or Aleppo, and last week in the former, an estimated 100 people were reported to have been burnt alive by the military. On its borders, it's no better: The army is shelling positions held by the Kurds as they fight ISIS and the Syrian Army. The reason for this is to prevent a de facto Kurdish state developing between northern Iraq and the Mediterranean. The AKP would prefer to deal with (and I know this takes some believing) ISIS: It's been clearly established that the government has been supplying arms to the group.

And all this misery comes down to a single man and his single quest for singular control. By playing with fire, Erdogan could end up burning the whole country. The thing is, he gives the impression of not caring if this happens - he'd rather be sultan of a kingdom of ashes than no sultan at all.

What's the beef with Turkey?

This article was originally posted on 10/10/14 on The Joy of Raki.

You'd think that a country that has a war literally on its doorstep might be doing something about it, but Turkey's seeming inaction over ISIS, Syria and Iraq is ominous.

As I write, IS are continuing their assaults on Kobane (or Ayn Al-Arab), refugees continue to pour over the border, Turkish Kurds are being prevented from crossing into Syria to help protect the city, and tens of people have been killed in protests in cities right across the country. Meanwhile, Turkey's Foreign Minister, in talks with the new head of NATO, has said that it is 'unrealistic' that Turkey should lead a ground assault, while demanding that his country be allowed to set up a buffer zone and no-fly zone inside the Syrian border.

So what's happening? Why has one of the world's largest standing armies not done anything so far except move its tanks to the border?

There are several explanations, some less charitable than others.

Let's start with the most benign interpretation. Turkey has been a vociferous opponent of Bashar Al-Assad's murderous regime over the past three years, and any attempt at involvement against ISIS will only bolster his rule. Also, as a NATO country, if it engages in Syria, it runs the risk of getting involved with a larger enemy: Russia, which is Syria's ally. Just to point out, in case it's been forgotten, that Vladimr Putin now has a highly effective Black Sea presence in Crimea, thanks to his annexation of the peninsula earlier this year. Turko-Russian wars, in the past, have not gone very well for the Turks. Not for the first time, Turkey is caught in a bit of a bind.

Extraopolating from this, what would happen if Turkey attacks ISIS? This may provoke a direct, large assault on Turkish soil. Now, this would admittedly be unlikely, as well as suicidal: As I said above, Turkey's military is enormous, well-funded, and far more of a threat than the Iraqi Army. However, an assault on any NATO member constitutes an attack on all members, leading to full engagement - and once again, we come back round to the risk of full-on war with Russia as a by product.

Moving on to a less generous interpretation, astonishing as it may seem, ISIS and Turkey, or rather the ruling AKP, and bonded by their religious outlook. The majority of Turks are Sunni Muslims, as opposed to the Syrian regime being Alawite muslim, and the Iraqi government's Shia majority. That's not to say the AKP (necessarily) share the off-the-loonbar-spectrum views of their ISIS co-religionists, but they have certainly demonstrated sympathy for them in the past. There are accounts of ISIS fighters being treated in hospitals, covert Jihadi training camps near the border and the tendency for authorities to turn a blind eye as people come and go from one country to the other. They also seem to be consistently supplying more and better weaponry to ISIS than any other resistance group. In April, I witnessed what was, as I later realised in retrospect, a large demonstration in support of ISIS, in the very heart of Istanbul.

The harshest interpretation is that Turkey is playing a murderous game of Silly Buggers with everyone concerned, in particular with the Kurds. Ankara has made no secret about its antipathy towards a de facto Kurdistan on its borders, while at the same time doling out the odd concession on language rights within the country. Quite simply, they are working along the lines of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', and they will be perfectly happy to see the destruction of the Peshmerga throughout Syria and Iraq. The government's propaganda machine is currently in full flow, claiming that Turkish Kurds are sacking government buildings and damaging infrastructure throughout the southeast, hence the reason why the police and Jandarma are being so heavy handed. Looking at social media, one can see that feelings are running very high. Many Turks associate the Kurds solely with the PKK (the Kurdish Workers' Party), and blame them for the brutal civil war of the 80s and 90s. In addition, the PKK are seen as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US, meaning that they would be seen as a 'legitimate' target in the event of Ankara ordering the tanks to roll over the border.

I cannot help but feel that this is an incredibly dangerous game to  be playing. The Kurds are, in effect, guarding the Turkish state, and are paying for it in blood from both sides. And history shows, time and again, that every state that has existed in the Anatolian Plateau ignores the people on its southeastern flank at its peril.

At the same time, I have a little sympathy with Ankara's plight. It faces a genuine threat to its territorial integrity, albeit one that is to some degree of its own making. At the same time, other NATO members are really not making life easy for them. The best bet, at present, would be to ensure an effective flow of weapons, training and tactical support to the Kurds. However, to do so would fly in the face of years of political antagonism, and the AKP would be wary of doing anything to reduce their share of the popular vote. Yes, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is quite happy to let blood flow rather than risk the anger of the electorate.

Unfortunately, whatever they try to do, the Turks are being pulled into the black hole of war by the sheer gravity of events, and that should concern us all greatly.

And who, ultimately, is to blame? Probably those behind an agreement made just after the first world war, one that has caused unforeseen and untold damage in the region since. But that's something to be described another time.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

A surreal name....

Welcome to my new blog for all things Turkish.
Why 'Chien Anadolu'? Well, it's obviously a play on Bunuel's Surrealist film 'Un Chien Andalou' and translates into English as 'Anatolian Dog'. Since English, French and Turkish are the three languages I know, it kind of works.
It's also appropriate because Turkey is, quite often, a surreal place, no more so than in these days.
I'll be reposting things from 'The Joy of Raki' here. As to what I'll be writing, the aim will be fairly comprehensive - there's so much about Turkey, especially its current situation, that needs to be more widely broadcast.