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TURKEY


 

 

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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 237,972 182,848 147,700 21
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,790 2,500 2,530 92
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 185 - (26/01/13)

Summary: Some major developments are underway regarding Turkey's long-standing problem of Kurdish separatism. Instability in Syria and a looming election amongst other matters have, it would seem, prompted dynamic Prime Minister Erdogan into a new chapter of relations with the PKK characterised by negotiation and dialogue. Violations of media freedom continue unabated, with television shows, both international and home grown, also sparking criticism from the PM. The use of anti-terror laws to incarcerate journalists, students, Kurds and a new faction of lawyers are worrying international NGOs.

The past two months in Turkish politics have been marked principally by new developments in Ankara's dealings with the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party. The Kurdish separatist movement led by the PKK, inter alia, has been waging war against the government for just under two decades in a conflict which has claimed 40,000 lives. Last summer saw attacks intensify and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reason to fear that instability in neighbouring Syria could galvanise a pan-regional Kurdish uprising. Talks with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, are now underway, indicating that the Turklsh government is willing to enter into a political dialogue with the separatists. Meanwhile Turkey's perpetually worrying record on press freedom has reared its head with several dismaying episodes of censorship. In World Audit’s just published Democracy audit the country is placed in the third division, 55th out of 150 countries in terms of its democratic standards. In terms of press freedom, however, it is considerably lower, holding the 80th position, a reflection of a woefully intolerant stance on the media.

Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's leader, was seized by Turkish special forces in 1999. He has spent the past 13 years in solitary confinement on Imrali island. The fact that talks are now underway between Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and the imprisoned leader have been heralded as a major breakthrough on the Kurdish question. In January, authorities allowed a group of Kurdish politicians to visit Ocalan on Imrali island for the first time, fulfilling a principle demand of the separatists. Why has Mr Erdogan decided to comply with some of the demands? Whilst making some overtures towards Kurdish civil society he has otherwise been hawkish on the issue of the insurgency. The answer ,many would say is Syria. Last summer beleaguered President Bashar Assad allegedly armed militants from the PYD, an ally of the PKK, and gave them control of a number of towns in Syria's North. Ankara's nightmare would be the Kurdish movement mushrooming wildly thanks to support from former ally, now sworn foe Assad, and benefiting from the instability across the border. With an election coming in 2014 in which Erdogan will be aiming for the presidential seat, the PM is now hoping that Ocalan could be persuaded to deter the Kurds from siding with Assad, with laying down their weapons altogether as the ultimate aim.

Question marks remain over how successful this strategy will be. Some observers doubt that Ocalan can really exert authority over fighters who have been developing tactics without him for 14 years, whose absence has defined their campaign demands for a considerable amount of time. He would only be able to stamp his authority by being stringent in his negotiations with the government. Others suggest that his authority has never been impugned - he recently ordered the halt of a hunger strike by Kurdish prisoners and was instantly obeyed. There are of course other obstacles to the process towards a ceasefire. Turkish citizens are apparently by and large reluctant to see concessions made to the terrorists. There are also ongoing episodes of violence. A dramatic moment occurred in Paris on January 10, when three female Kurdish activists were murdered in what appeared to be a professional hit at the city's Kurdistan information centre. One of the women killed, Sakine Cansiz was a founding member of the PKK. The other two victims were Fidan Dogan, 28, of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNC) and Leyla Soylemez, 25, a Kurdish activist in Paris. The incident is, some observers suggest, likely to have an impact on the progress of the peace talks. Having confirmed the attack, Erdogan suggested it might have been "an internal reckoning", implying that there may be internal divisions within the PKK. Others speculate it could be the work of discontented Turkish military or intelligence factions, which have been undermined by Erdogan's prolonged campaign of deconstructing the once omnipotent armed forces. Otherwise it could be opponents of any attempts to reach a peace deal. The circumstances remain highly mysterious. The reality is, unfortunately, that the path towards peace is likely to be strewn with thorns.

Erdogan has made de-fanging of the military one of the hallmarks of his tenure as Prime Minister, and has received considerable criticism for blanket large-scale arrests of individuals, allegedly involved in coup plotting. Sweeping anti-terrorism laws have been used, or misused many would have it, to justify arrests and pre-trial detentions. Lawyers have been a recent target of this trend of incarceration. In November 46 lawyers, who had at one point or another, represented imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, appeared in court on terrorism charges. It was recently reported by Tony Fisher, of the Law Society's human rights committee, who was observing the trial, that practices used by the Turkish authorities contravene 'fundamental elements of legal professional privilege'. In a report, he stated that the 'routine recording of privileged interviews' by the authorities 'is perhaps the most fundamental breach of the lawyer/client relationship.' In mid-January, a series of apparently illegal raids across Turkey resulted in the arrest of 15 human rights lawyers who were arrested under the anti-terrorism charges. Amnesty International has decried the events. "Human rights lawyers have been just some of the victims in the widespread abuse of anti-terrorism laws in Turkey. “The question to ask is: who will be left to defend the victims of alleged human rights violations?” wonders Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey.

Another group to have suffered immensely from the anti-terrorism laws are the press. In a report by the New York-based press freedom watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has the worst record on press freedom across the globe. The report noted that Turkey has 49 journalists behind bars, with dozens of Kurdish reporters and editors held on terror-related charges. A number of other journalists are detained on charges of involvement in anti-government plots. The use of anti-state laws, such as anti-terrorism acts, have been particularly instrumental in restricting the activities of the press. Self-censorship is an increasing trend, and many writers find themselves simply unable to continue their line of work. In January it was reported that the editor and deputy editor of the government-critical daily, “Taraf” has resigned, despite already the newspaper having survived one libel case. Free speech organisation PEN Turkey is now under investigation for 'insulting the state" after condemning the prosecution of musician Fazıl Say as, a 'fascist development'. Six members of the committee have been questioned by police. If found guilty they could face a prison sentence of six months to two years under Article 301 which prohibits the insulting or "public denigration" of the state. Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, has urged justice minister Sadullah Ergin "to repeal Article 301 and to drop the investigation against PEN Turkey at the earliest opportunity". On January 19, a memorial was held for Armenian-Turkish reporter Hrant Dink, who was murdered five years ago, an act widely believed to have been connected to his work as a reporter. The commemoration served as a sober reminder of the tragic and dangerous conditions reporters in modern Turkey face.

It is not merely the print media that finds itself under pressure. Human Rights Watch has reported that 22,536 Internet sites are currently blocked in the country, including Google and file sharing sites, under the contentious Internet Law 5651, which places control of the Internet in the hands of the Telecommunications Directorate, with little external control. The highly popular US animated series “The Simpsons” has also caused a controversy. Privately owned TV station CNBC-e was ordered by radio and television watchdog RTUK to pay a fine, after it broadcast an episode of the show (which has been on in Turkey for ten years) which showed God receiving orders from the devil'. In addition a soap opera has attracted the personal criticism of the Prime Minister. “Magnificent Century”, a wildly successful show portraying the life of Suleiman I, has been accused of focusing on the Sultan's achievements as a lothario rather than a leader. The result of the scandal is that one MP, with Erdogan's backing, is proposing a law to ban shows that "denigrate, insult, pervert or misrepresent historical events and personages".

There are occasional signs of improvement. At the start of January the government lifted a ban on thousands of books which have been outlawed for decades, among them the Communist Manifesto. At the same time however, some educators are seeking the ban of certain books, for inappropriate content, among them John Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men” and “My Sweet Orange Tree” by José Mauro de Vasconcelos. Education Minister Omer Celik has however spoken out against criticism of these texts, as has Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay. The former has asserted that neither book would be censored or removed from the ministry’s recommendation list. This sign of support from the government, is regrettably, a rare defence of freedom of expression.

A punitive attitude towards the media is one aspect of the Erdogan regime which justifies EU enlargement sceptics' hostility towards the admission of the Islamic state. The country's failure to adhere to European standards of tolerance and press freedom, as well as its attitude towards Cyprus, mean it is, opponents to enlargement say, irreconcilable with European values. Many others would argue that Turkey, with its booming economy and its regional clout now has little interest in joining a debt-mired union struggling immensely with its own internal economic and political issues. Nonetheless, Ankara has taken pains to state that EU membership has not entirely fallen from view. Egemen Bağış, the minister for EU affairs, in a December 22 editorial in the Guardian newspaper, argued that, 'Almost unnoticed, remarkable advances in Turkey's integration with Europe are taking place every day in Istanbul and at grassroots level across the length and breadth of the country, far away from the stuffy negotiating rooms of Brussels and Ankara.' He cites a national programme to raise awareness of the EU reform process and also the fact that every region has an EU department to oversee the reform process as part of a city-linked initiative, connecting Turkey's urban zones to cities in other EU states.

What we have seen in recent months in Turkey are attempts to calm a regional situation, rife with instability. These initial gestures towards achieving some kind of settlement with the Kurdish separatist movement are a highly significant step, and one that will require continued close observation. Meanwhile, with the on-going crackdowns on journalists, many have wondered if Erdogan is leading the state of Turkey away from the modern, secularist, democratic path that he himself sought to forge. What is certain is that he is committed to ensuring that Turkey retains and augments its status as a major regional, if not quite yet a global, power. It was recently reported that Turkey is attempting to have a large number of artefacts restored to its museums from various global institutions. Ankara apparently plans to take its demands for their repatriation to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, on the basis that "Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions." Whether or not the court will rule in Turkey's favour remains to be seen, but what is sure is that Erdogan is absolutely committed to ensuring that Turkey's status, rights and objectives are properly respected, and is willing to use all legal means possible in pursuit of this aim.

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