Turkey’s claims of PKK demise exaggerated

Late last month, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported that a Turkish airstrike had seriously wounded veteran Kurdish fighter Rıza Altun.

Altun is a member of the executive council of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organisation that includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting an armed insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

The KCK neither confirmed nor denied the report. Meanwhile, the PKK has been relatively quiet for more than a year now in its fight against Turkey. Has the armed movement really been weakened and reported strike on Altun the icing on the cake of the Turkish army’s victory?

Continue reading at Ahval!

In Turkey, PKK Weakened but Vows to Step Up Attacks in Spring

According to statements issued by the Turkish government in early 2019, more than 10,000 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters have been ‘neutralized’ since the end of the so-called ceasefire between the two sides in the summer of 2015, and only 700 fighters remain in the mountains in northern Iraq. It is hard to give this number credence: if it were accurate, Turkey would surely have wiped out the PKK by now. Then again, there have not been many recent PKK attacks in south-east Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live, and the armed movement seems at least weakened in its capability to strike. Fanack sorts out the facts.

Continue reading at Fanack!

Turkey struggles with state armed citizens

The peace process in Turkey, that started in March 2013, still continues. One part of the problem that doesn’t get much attention, is the village guard system. It will have to be abolished, but for now, the state continues to expand the system. Village guard Seymus Akbulut: ‘We want peace, but we want to be safe too. What if anybody wants to take revenge on us?’

Village guard. Picture: Tommaso Protti.
Village guard. Picture: Tommaso Protti.

Dressed immaculately in a dark blue suit and with his hair perfectly combed, he sits in front of a portrait of Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father, and a huge Turkish flag. On his desk two more Atatürk’s: one on a silver plate, one as a glass statuette in a red velvet box. ‘We love Atatürk’, says Seymus Akbulut. ‘Whatever the state wants us to do, we do it’.

That is how it all started in the early nineties, now more than twenty years ago. Southeast Turkey was in turmoil: the war between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), that wanted to carve out an independent Kurdistan, and the Turkish army was getting more violent every day.

This story was published on Beaconreader, a US based site that supports independent journalism. If you subscribe to my page there, you get an exclusive story from me every week, and on top of that access to all other Beacon writers. Lots of interesting writers and stories there! Want to read the whole story? Click here and subscribe! Thank you!

Defending Erdogan’s rights

Sivas massacre, Ergenekon trial, Uludere, the Van earthquake and its aftermath, press freedom, May Day celebrations, KCK trials, the Fenerbahce court case, Berkin Elvan, Medeni Yildirim, the countless ‘unsolved murders’ in the southeast, and the Constitutional Court: the head of the Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, spoke out against a wide range of injustices in Turkey’s present and past. Erdogan got extremely upset and didn’t hide it. He had better think again: he may need people like Feyzioglu one day.

As a foreign journalist, in the last couple of months I have been spam mailed several times by a huge group of Fenerbahce fans. They send all foreign journalists in Turkey thousands of emails about the unjust treatment their sports club is getting, and for some reason they think annoying foreign journalists incessantly helps to get attention for their case. First time ever I heard of the Fenerbahce base. They speak out when injustice is done to them, but not when it’s done to others.

Ergekenon trials

The CHP has spoken out time and time again against the Ergenekon trials and against the violations of justice that were obviously part of the trials. Kemal Kilicdaroglu visited suspects in prison. Did he ever visit jailed KCK suspects? Or speak passionately on behalf of the families of the people who were murdered in the nineties and whose murders are still unsolved? No he did not.

Did the BDP ever defend the highest military leaders on trial in Ergenekon, or against injustices done to Fenerbahce? No. They have been vocal during the aftermath of the Van earthquake, and they speak out about the Uludere/Roboski massacre, but not about injustices done to their opponents.

In short, Turkey is full of groups who advocate mostly their own rights. The bar association, in the person of Metin Feyzioglu, showed itself differently.

In Feyzioglu’s speech, not only the government is reminded of its responsibilities, but others too had a mirror held up to them. The army, for example, must have applauded the bar head’s criticism of the several trials pending against them, but I hope they realized that by naming the Uludere massacre and other ‘unsolved murders’ Feyzioglu was addressing the army too.

Into trouble one day

This makes the speech apolitical. The bar association’s head would have been engaging in politics if he had only spoken out against one particular injustice. He did not: he mentioned so many, done to so many different groups in society, that he rose above politics – which perfectly suits a lawyer, of course.

Erdogan should applaud this. He may himself get into trouble one day. He and his party may be no longer in power and his political opponents may want to get back at him. What if a trial against Erdogan and other AKP politicians is opened because of the corruption allegations? What if those trials become a political theatre? Who, besides AKP supporters, is going to speak out on behalf of Erdogan if his rights are violated in a court case? The only one he might be able to count on is Feyzioglu, or a future bar association head. That wouldn’t be political either, but purely a matter of defending Erdogan’s rights. Will Erdogan then feel ashamed of his behaviour towards Feyzioglu and apologize for it?

PKK has no expectations anymore from the government

The one year old peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government seems to be leading nowhere. The ceasefire is holding, but the government has taken no steps towards democratization and is now distracted by accusations of corruption. The KCK, the umbrella organization of Kurdish groups that also represents the PKK, has stated that they are running out of patience. Beaconreader went to PKK controlled area in the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan and talked to Rıza Altun, one of the founders of the PKK and currently a member of the executive board of the KCK. Altun: ‘We have no expectations from AKP anymore.’

PKK's Rıza Altun during the interview.
PKK’s Rıza Altun during the interview.

All things considered, the peace process went wrong from the very beginning. At least that is the conclusion that can be drawn from an exclusive interview with Rıza Altun, member of the executive council of the KCK. Altun: ‘The AKP is not representing the peace process anymore. No expectations are left.’

The interview with Beaconreader took place on 23 March, two days after Newroz and exactly one week before the local elections. The day trip to the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan started early in the morning in the Kurdistan capital of Erbil. READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE ON BEACONREADER.

Censorship is freedom

‘In my view’, President Gül tweeted, ‘in principal no freedom should be curbed. Everybody who wants to should be able to surf the internet freely’. That was on 28 May 2011. It may give some people hope that Gül will use his veto right to stop the new internet law from taking effect. But I doubt it.

The bill passed parliament last Wednesday and caused a wave of criticism both inside Turkey and abroad. The biggest problems with the new measures: bureaucrats can now block access to sites without a court order (and you need to go to court to try to get the decision reversed), they can block access to specific pages on sites, several techniques to get around the new regulations will be illegal, and last but not least: the privacy of internet users is violated because data about online activities of web users can be stored for two years and be made available to the authorities upon request.

Read more about the bill in this article.

Technicalities

Human Rights Watch has now started a campaign to urge President Gül to use his veto to stop the law coming into effect. Of course it is worth a try, but I don’t think Gül will do so. He has been called upon to use his veto before, for example to not sign the bill that bans medical professionals in certain circumstances from helping wounded people (read: protestors), and earlier a bill to re-organize the education system. He never did.

Gül has only rarely used his veto power  since he became president in 2007, and mostly over technicalities concerning laws that don’t arouse any public debate, like a law concerning rules for accountants and financial consultants in 2008, and in 2009 a bill about social security. The last time he reportedly used it was last December, when he rejected proposals PM Erdogan made for a cabinet reshuffle and Erdogan had to come up with new names for several posts – but this veto is unconfirmed and doesn’t concern any law.

But how then can the president not veto a law that restricts internet freedom when he so openly stated he thinks everybody should be able to surf the internet freely? First, it seems the president doesn’t use his veto power on matters of principle but more on technicalities. But second, it could be that he actually thinks this new law does not curb any freedoms, and in fact enhances freedoms.

Adultery in secret

At least, that is how the government explains the bill. It has stressed several times that the bill is not increasing censorship and violating privacy, but on the contrary is protecting people’s privacy. How? Access to sites and pages can be blocked if people’s privacy is being violated. An example often used (not by the government though) is the infamous ‘sex tapes’ that caused the fall of several politicians from opposition parties CHP and MHP in 2010 and 2011. If you explain the law that way, you can claim to be pro freedom on one hand and at the same time introduce restrictions.

Not that I am convinced, by the way: it’s like the AKP government standing up for people’s right to commit adultery in secret. And one of the first bans is already in force: access was blocked to a YouTube video allegedly broadcasting a conversation of the Prime Minister’s daughter negotiating the purchase of a villa. Many people don’t doubt the law will be used to try to prevent leaking of all kinds of videos and phone conversations that get the government into trouble, and even articles.

Turkey is a country of mind-boggling contradictions. I have seen many in the years since I have been here. Leftists being ultra nationalists. Feminists being against broader rights for women. Democrats being in favour of military coups. And now possibly freedom advocates approving serious internet restrictions. To fathom the line of thinking of these people is an intriguing way to understand Turkey better.

A basket stuffed with rotten apples

The corruption affair is still shaking Turkey. It’s a week ago now that the sons of three Ministers and some businessmen, among whom the filthy rich real estate magnate Ali Agaoglu, were taken into custody, suspected of corruption. That was followed by a wave of policemen getting fired: the government sees the affair as a political game and aneffort to damage the power of the government and the position of Turkey in the world.

Problematic of course, for the AKP. The party won its first elections in 2002, partly because of the promise it would deal with the wid-spread corruption in Turkey. This message was even in the name of the party, which is officially not AKP but AK Party, with AK meaning ‘pure’, ‘clean’.

In that year, 2002, Turkey was at 64th place on the corruption list of Transparency International, together with Thailand: a worse score than China but just a bit better than Senegal. During the next general elections, in 2007, Turkey was still at 64th place, but was doing slightly better during the elections of 2011: place 61. In 2013 Turkey made it to53rd place.

A huge traffic fine

These are not hard statistics about how much corruption there really is in a country, the ranking is based on ‘perception’ and is thus about how much corruption people experience. In that respect, it’s going in the right direction in Turkey. But there are different kinds of corruption. It can very well be that the people experience less corruption because it occurs less on a level that bothers or helps people. You don’t have to slip some money to a civil servant anymore to get a passport quickly, and the days that you can pay a cop some money so he will tear up a huge traffic fine are also over. But what if the corruption has removed itself to the level at which a normal citizen doesn’t notice it? To the highest posts in the government, to the richest businessmen?

I think that’s exactly what’s going on. Turkey has turned into a ‘constructocracy’ over the last decade: politics is dominated by the construction sector. With amazing speed everywhere in the country TOKI complexes have appeared: groups of concrete apartment blocks, often on the outskirts of cities, for middle class incomes. TOKI is a government project and there are unimaginable amounts of money at stake. And TOKI is only a small part of the building fever of the AKP government.

Not a soul

Two whole new cities will be built on the coast north of Istanbul, a sort of second Bosporus will be dug in the western part of the city, the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus has started and there will be a third airport, and the metro tunnel under the Bosporus was opened recently. Add to that the dozens, no hundreds of shopping malls appearing everywhere in the country, including where I live, in Diyarbakir – not a soul comes to any of the shops and only the fast food restaurants in the malls seem to do good business, but who cares, the leaders of the constructocracy got their money.

And the sons of which ministers are now suspects in the corruption scandal? Those of the Ministers of Environment and Urbanisation, of Interior Affairs and of Economy.

It is exaclty this overload of construction works that triggered the protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities in the spring and summer of this year: the construction bosses have, directed by the AKP, taken over the cities, and people are fed up with it. The motto of a big demonstration a few days ago in Istanbul made that clear again. It was: ‘The city is ours!’ But also this was, until now, not really linked to corruption, which doesn’t directly affect people’s daily lives like the everlasting and immense construction sites, the disappearance of parks and cultural heritage and the total lack of power that the people have over the development of their cities.

‘I am AKP’

So, this scandal must be a blow to the AKP? The party that said it would fight corruption has now totally fallen out of grace with its supporter base? Well, no, I don’t think so, actually. The local elections of 30 March 2014 will make things more clear, but for now it seems many AKP voters still support their party.

A few days ago I read an article about reactions to the scandal of AKP voters in the daily Radikal. The owner of a small shop said that not the whole government can be blamed for what’s happening: ‘There are rotten apples in every basket’. But what also drew my attention is that he didn’t say that he voted for the AKP, but ‘I am AKP’. For him the AKP is not just a party to vote for, but an identity.

And I think that counts for many AKP voters. They are often members of a group that was close to invisible before the AKP came to power: devout Muslims who were ignored by the Turkish establishment and who had no political or economic power. The AKP changed that. The economic policies of the party brought these people and the Anatolian cities they live in (Kayseri, Gaziantep, Konya, Denizli, etc) prosperity, they got more religious freedom and the old establishment (among whom the staunchly anti-religious army) were sidelined. These people identify themselves with the party, and see the leaders of it as sincere Muslims who live by Islamic morals and only want the best for the country.

Sixth ship

It’s quite something, I reckon, to then admit that there are not just a few rotten apples in the AKPbasket, but that the beautiful shiny healthy apples are actually the exception. That it’s not even worth the trouble to take the untouched apples out, because the many rotten ones in the basket no doubt give the good ones stains too. To admit that the religiousness of the AKP is just keeping up appearances, and that under the surface it’s all only about money and power.

Why would it be that Erdogan doesn’t clean up his government by sacking the tainted ministers and state that he will continue with a clean team? Why does he fire the cops that are involved in this investigation, and why does he propose a law that arranges that policemen from now on need permission from their superior for any corruption investigation, even if that superior is the subject of it? Is it possible the current scandal is only the tip of the iceberg? And would the sixth (!) ship the son of Erdogan recently bought shatter on that iceberg?

Homeless and disregarded

And imagine that the AKP voter does open his eyes, then where can he go, politically? There is no alternative. The biggest opposition party, CHP, represents the old elite that looks down on AKP voters, and is not even for CHP voters a real choice because they lack an alternative. The smaller ultra nationalist and also religious MHP is an option for some AKP voters, but they are too nationalistic for others, and they are also too small to break the power of the AKP. The pro-Kurdish BDP is still regarded by many Turks as close to terrorism, and the party is also not attractive for AKP voters because it doesn’t care much about religion.

And see how this corruption in Turkey starts touching the daily lives of normal, average Turks again. Another group in society that, when it has the guts to open its eyes, becomes politically homeless, and doesn’t get represented but is on the contrary deeply disregarded.

Power struggle, or: off the shelf

On Thursday, daily Taraf revealed a document from a National Security Council (NSC) meeting at which it was decided that the movement led by the influential Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen should be finished off. The signature of Prime Minister Erdogan is on the document, which dates back to August 2004.  A long time ago, you would say, so is it actually still relevant today?

Representatives of the government, like Erdogan’s advisor Yalçın Akdoğan and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc, have admitted immediately after Taraf’s scoop that such a document exists, but claim that the government never took any action on it. It was just an ‘advice’ from the NSC, a monthly meeting at which representatives of the army and the government discuss current affairs.

Fethullah Gülen
Fethullah Gülen

I don’t find that hard to believe. Turkey was quite a different country in 2004 than it is today. Erdogan’s AKP had been in power for only two years, and was not as firmly in the saddle as it is now. The party was deeply distrusted by the army because of its Islamic  roots, and the AKP had to take that into account: the days of military coups, with or without tanks in the streets, was not yet over at the time.

In 2003, the National Security Council, established after the military coup of 1961, was reformed. The authority of the NSC had been expanded after the 1980 coup, and till 2003 the government had to follow up on the ‘recommendations’ it gave. The balance between military and civil representatives in the NSC (five members from the military: the Chief of General Staff, and the commanders of the air forces, land forces, navy and gendarmerie, and five from the government: the president, the prime minister, and the ministers of internal affairs, foreign affairs and defence) had only been a balance in numbers. And in 2004, Necdet Sezer was president of Turkey, a man of the old guard, who opposed the AKP just as fiercely as the army did.

Huge election victory

Since 2003, the government doesn’t have to follow the NSC ‘recommendations’ anymore. And it’s very likely that this specific recommendation was not carried out, because the relations between the AKP and Gülen were still very good at the time. The followers of Gülen helped deliver the AKP a huge election victory in 2002, after the party was established in 2001. The AKP’s economic policies helped the businessmen in Anatolian cities who voted for the AKP. The Gülen movement, in which education plays an important role, got the opportunity to open private schools, both for regular education as for private prep schools for, amongst others, the university entrance exam. And slowly the ‘Gülenci’s’ were rewarded for their loyalty by getting increasingly important posts in the bureaucracy.

The document with Erdogan's signature, source: daily Taraf
The document with Erdogan’s signature, source: daily Taraf

In the summer of 2011, the AKP dealt an important blow to the military power, which is now largely (but certainly not fully) under civilian control, and the army is now lead by a man loyal to the AKP. That, along with the closure case against the AKP that the party survived, made the AKP free, or, more precisely, confident. Very confident. We all know by now what that lead to: Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly authoritarian and tries to dictate his conservative values to society, either by law or by publicly scandalizing people with a different lifestyle.

Tremendous changes between the time of Erdogan’s signature on the NSC document in 2004, and now. Old powers have been marginalized, and that has given space to a new power struggle: between the AKP and the Gülen movement. It first started to surface in February 2012, when Gülen followers in the judiciary tried to incriminate the leader of the national intelligence service, Hakan Fidan (an Erdogan confidant) by connecting him to the banned Kurdish organisation KCK. Ever since, relations between the AKP and Gülen have deteriorated.

Education is crucial

The latest low is a fierce discussion about the prep schools that the Gülenci’s had opened all over the country in the last decade: the AKP wants to close them down. Prime Minister Erdogan says attending the prep schools shouldn’t be necessary to be successful in the university entrance exam, but the Gülenci’s see the attempt to close their schools as a direct attack on their movement. Education is crucial to them: there they educate their young followers, there they keep them inside the movement by housing them in their own student accommodation, and there they make them ready for the highest  possible positions in society.

The power struggle between the AKP and the Gülen movement seems to have everything to do with the presidential elections scheduled for August 2014. Although not announced officially, nobody doubts Erdogan wants to run for the position. The other less certain but still anticipated candidate is the incumbent President Gül (who was present in the NSC meeting in 2004 as Minister of Foreign Affairs). The latter has, as is widely assumed, always been closer to the Gülen movement than Erdogan. If Erdogan breaks the movement, he may lower Gül’s chances for presidency.

Erdogan may have had no reason to follow up on the National Security Council’s recommendation in 2004. But it looks like he never forgot about it, and has now taken it off the shelf.

Papers should fire ‘wise men’

It was another victorious week for Prime Minister Erdogan: he managed to get the Turkish media further under his control. And the media are not even protesting. On the contrary, they are willingly and with a smile accepting Erdogan’s proposal to make propaganda for the peace process that the government is (supposedly) initiating. At the same time yet another columnist was fired for expressing her opinions, this time Amberin Zaman, who wrote for daily HaberTurk.

Erdogan has installed a commission of ‘wise men’, whose task it will be to inform the people about the peace process, of course from the government’s perspective. The first meeting of the Prime Minister with the commission’s 51 men and 12 women has been held already, but nobody quite knows yet in what way these 63 people are going to inform the public, and not even about what exactly – the peace process, and especially the government’s contribution to it, remains totally vague.

But we do know the names of all these wise men and these few wise women. A staggering 21 of them, exactly one third, are working for big national papers, most of them as columnists, a few as reporters and one even as editor in chief. They work for the papers HaberTurk, Milliyet, Hürriyet, Star, Yeni Akit, Radikal, Taraf, Zaman, Bugün, and Yeni Safak.

Important opinion leaders

Like I said, most of them are not reporters, but columnists. They have another job besides contributing to newspapers, and most of them are first and foremost academics. They are no doubt wise in their own fields of expertise and respected in (certain segments of) society. But I think their appointment as ‘wise men’ is incompatible with being a columnist. They apparently couldn’t resist taking the prestigious wise job, but they should now have the guts to quit writing for national papers. If they don’t, the editors in chief of their papers should fire them. The one editor in chief on the list, Oral Calislar of Taraf, can’t fire himself, so his editors or the readers, should urge him to step down.

Columnists are important opinion leaders in Turkey, often called ‘journalist’ but they don’t do the work that is in general considered journalism. They don’t write interviews, reportages or background articles, they analyse and comment on developments in politics and society, based on their (in most cases) academic knowledge. Should they be subject to the same standards of independence as journalists? Yes, in this case I think so.

Contribute to the peace process

Turkish media are part of the issue that needs to be addressed through this peace process, the Kurdish issue. By their nationalist, pro-state and anti-Kurdish writing (and broadcasting), they have been largely responsible for painting a picture of the Kurdish issue as being a matter of terrorism – more about mechanisms in Turkish media in this previous article I wrote. If they want to contribute to the peace process, what they should do is distance themselves from the state and the government and try to promote a journalism as independent, free and unbiased as possible. By allowing their columnists and reporters to accept prestigious government jobs, they are doing just the opposite. The media are coming under firmer government control, which only adds to the problem.

From columnists, readers should be able to trust as much as possible that their contributions are based on their expertise as academics and that they are not just writing to please the government. From reporters, we may expect that they base their (choices for) stories on journalistic criteria, not on what the government would like to read. An editor in chief’s job is to lead his paper with only journalism in mind, and not his task as an officially recognized ‘wise man’. What Turkey needs, what the peace process can’t do without and what the people of Turkey are entitled to, is good journalism, not more spokespersons for the government in the national media.

In the name of peace

Of course, this is all typical of Erdogan. When he started this peace initiative, he straight away called on the media to ‘support’ the process, in other words, support and, more than that, not criticize the government’s line of action. One of the first to say he would give that support was Aydin Dogan, business tycoon and owner of some of the biggest and most important papers and TV stations. For those who hoped that would naturally mean more space for good, independent journalism, well, their naive dreams are shattered now.

But mind my words, none of these columnists and reporters will get fired, and Oral Calislar (nota bene the editor in chief of one of the few Turkish papers not owned by a business tycoon or Erdogan confidant) will stay put. The ‘wise men’ will also be interviewed about their new tasks, thus more pages will be filled with government propaganda. Hardly anybody will ask critical questions, afraid of being accused of being against peace.

And dissidents will be tolerated even less. HaberTurk’s Amberin Zaman is the most recently fired columnist who did dare to write openly, who did not censor herself under pressure from her paper’s boss and who continued to criticize the government till her last published column. She will definitely not be the last to lose her job in the name of ‘peace’.