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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: 186 - (26/02/13)

Summary: There are a number of major political debates underway in Turkey. Negotiations with the Kurdish separatist party, the PKK, responsible for a 28-year-long armed uprising are a significant step forwards. We also have the matter of Prime Minister Erdogan’s plans to change the constitution in order to afford the presidency wider executive power. The reason for this would be that next year he will have no choice but to give up his role as Prime Minister and seeks to continue manning the helm of Turkey from the presidency instead. The means he is using to go about this are drawing criticism from numerous quarters. Debates around EU accession seem to be moving, as changes in European countries stimulate reinvigorated discussion. Journalists’ and women’s rights continue to suffer.

There has been a considerable amount of political movement in Turkey over the past month. The predominant issue is that peace talks with the Kurdish insurgency, via its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, are now underway. Whether they will prove successful remains to be seen - commentators have compared the situation to that of Westminster’s struggle with the IRA, and it is clear that this kind of process is rarely solved overnight. The key point on Mr Erdogan's horizon is the elections. In 2015, parliamentary elections will take place in which the premier will not be able to seek another term as he is currently on his third, therefore constitutionally last term. What he hopes for, however, is to switch to the presidency, but a presidency newly invigorated with widened executive powers hat he will engineer through changes to the constitution. An ambitious plan, which has earned him accusations of authoritarianism from many corners.

To begin with the issue of Kurdish separatism. The outlawed PKK, or Kurdish workers party, has been fighting for greater autonomy for Kurds since 1984 in a conflict which has claimed more than 40,000 lives. Attacks on Turkish targets intensified greatly last summer and the insurgency is also gaining strength as a result of unrest in Syria, where the domestic Kurdish movement is gaining steady ground in the civil war. Erdogan recently took the unexpected step of opening talks between Turkish intelligence officials and the movement's imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in solitary confinement since 1999, a step which some would have viewed as unthinkable in recent years. The peace process would involve a cease-fire, and then the withdrawal of PKK fighters (of whom there are around 2000) from Turkey. The Kurds, for their part, will be hoping for decentralisation, Kurdish language education, constitutional changes to secure greater equality and reform of an anti-terror law. The latter has seen vast numbers of Kurds arrested with little cause on vague and nebulous terrorism charges. Many of those imprisoned, among them students and journalists, complain that their only crime is of wanting to be allowed to express their cultural identity. Human Rights Watch has echoed the importance of this last step. The NGO noted: "If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step."

So far there is evidence of some progress. Firstly, Turkey's parliament passed a law allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court, ostensibly allowing them a better opportunity to defend themselves. However Kurdish politicians were disappointed with the law, claiming it was inadequate as the ruling only allowed Kurdish twice during the spoken defence in court and not in the written defence or during the pre-trial investigation. Nonetheless, in a cabinet reshuffle, Erdogan's decision to appoint a new interior minister from Mardin in the mainly Kurdish southeast, has been seen welcomed as an attempt to address the matter. Pitfalls however remain. Firstly a lack of trust on both sides will doubtless be deleterious to negotiations. Acts of sabotage by those who oppose the peace process (such as last month's assassination of three female Kurdish activists in Paris), also threaten to derail the process, with tragic results. Even if a level of dialogue can be achieved, in practical terms the decommissioning of the 2000 PKK fighters in Turkey's southeast would be a major undertaking. Add to this a further 6-7,000 in the Quandil mountains in northern Iraq, where many PKK leaders are based, and the task appears gargantuan.

Analysts have also wondered whether Ocalan still has the authority to order the dismantling of the movement he built. Others have put this idea to bed. "If Ocalan is convinced, those in Qandil will be convinced. Those in Qandil could not and would not resist an Ocalan who is clearly determined," said Cengiz Candar, author of a think-tank report on ending the conflict. It is unclear whether the talks will go according to plan. The media reported earlier this month that according to the timetable of the peace process, Kurdish militants would announce an end to hostilities with the Turkish state this month. The end of the month is steadily approaching, yet no news of this importance has emerged.

This is not just a story of an insurgency, many say, it is the story of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political career. Some analysts were surprised to see the volte-face in policy on the Kurdish issue. Others, less so. NewNations many months ago observed that a politician with his authority and ability should surely resolve the Kurdish question before seeking to win the presidency. We hope that is true.

Erdogan hopes to change the constitution to widen the powers of the presidency. He would like it to be put to a referendum. It requires between 300 and 367 parliamentary votes to authorize a referendum. The ruling AKP party is confident that it would gain enough votes, yet with the backing of the Kurdish BDP, with its 36 seats in parliament, it would have a much stronger chance of securing a majority for the plebiscite. His critics have accused him of unabashed cynicism in using the Kurdish issue for his own political ends. Interestingly it has also been suggested that he is attempting to improve relations with the military. Erdogan spearheaded a campaign to destroy the political authority of the military with a large number of reforms and wide-scale arrest of military officers and generals, whom he alleges are behind the "Sledgehammer" plot to overthrow the government. He has been unsparing in his attacks on this sector of the state. Now however, he seems to have backtracked somewhat. On January 26, he criticised the lengthy pre-trial detentions to which many officers were subject, suggesting they were destroying the army's morale and affecting its ability to fight a Kurdish insurgency. "This disrupts the entire morale of the Turkish armed forces. How can these people then fight terror?" he asked, a question also on the lips of many analysts over past months. As the situation in Syria has worsened, such a zealous de-fanging of the military may retrospectively appear somewhat injudicious.

In an even more surprising move, on February 10, Erdogan went to visit retired General Ergin Saygun in hospital after heart surgery. Saygun, who was convicted of involvement in the Sledgehammer conspiracy, was released on health grounds earlier this month. He and his family have lamented on several occasions that those who are incarcerated in pre-trial detention have their health needs scorned and many suffer terminal illness with no access to medical intervention whatsoever. Erdogan's visit was, critics say, a PR stunt designed to suggest that the Prime Minister in no way condones the abusive treatment of those awaiting trial, and that is simply the fault of inept and prejudiced prosecutors. Erdogan has realized, say critics, the limitations of his aggressive stance on the military, not just because the armed forces may be necessary if unrest in Syria continues, but also in an attempt to propitiate all sectors of society before he begins his next drive to attain the presidency. In the meantime, however, anger within the military remains vocal. In January Turkey's number-two naval commander Admiral Nusret Guner resigned in protest, he said, over the "shameful" jailing of hundreds of colleagues on coup plot charges. And the trials continue. On February 14, four retired Turkish generals were jailed for alleged involvement in the conspiracy.

The arrests of others also continue, as do terrorist acts. On February 1 a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at the entrance of the US embassy in Ankara, killing himself and one other person. The Obama administration immediately described it as an "act of terror". According to Turkish daily Radikal, the suicide bomber was Ecevit Sanli, a leftwing activist and member of a leftwing organization, Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front. The group did take responsibility for the attack. In a crackdown on the Marxist group, 55 people were arrested, among them 11 reporters. Whilst the movement is designated as a terrorist operation by the European Union and the US, it has been said that the arrests of so many people including members of the press, reflects the way Turkey uses antiterrorism laws indiscriminately to attack the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists responded by calling on the Turkish authorities to "halt their practice of jailing journalists on vague anti-terror charges and allow the local press to report freely without fear of imprisonment or harassment." Five were later released, the remaining six imprisoned. Those released said they had been beaten by guards. It is little surprise that Turkey is labelled "the world's biggest prison for journalists" by Reporters Without Borders.

Turkey & the EU
Attacks on the press are one aspect of the regime that prompted European enlargement sceptics to warn against the potential accession of Turkey to the EU. Turkey's bid to join the European bloc has been stalling for a number of years but the nation's EU negotiator, Egeman Bagis, has made continual attempts to convey the nation's ongoing commitment to joining. In a speech in London in February, the diplomat reiterated Turkey’s commitment to joining the European project, but also added, "If there's one principle of the EU I would like to criticize it's the unanimity principle ... One single member country, the Greek Cypriots, can block the opening of the energy chapter," he said, accusing Cyprus of holding the EU "hostage". Change may be afoot in Cyprus however. Nicos Anastasiades appears to be the front-runner in the island's presidential election, currently underway. At one time he supported a UN plan to reunify the island which was accepted by the Turk-Cypriots. Analysts have suggested that he could be more pliant to the idea of negotiation on certain chapters. The island’s most pressing issue is that of potentially submerging in eurozone debt, so relations with Turkey are not necessarily a priority. Nonetheless, change may come.

In addition, France, which had previously been a vocal opponent of Turkish accession (due in part to clashes with ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy on the Armenian genocide) has proved more open to the idea under new President Francois Hollande. France has indicated that it will unblock membership talks on one of the chapters. On February 16, however, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that the eurozone crisis means Europe is incapable of contemplating "the membership of a country of Turkey's size". Germany is apparently keener to see that "promises should be kept.“ The matter is, Bagis says, one of national pride as much as anything. He recently told the press that no country has been kept in the EU "waiting room for 54 years."

Ankara has, many say, proved itself so financially successful that EU membership, certainly in the current financial climate, has lost its lustre. Whilst the country can boast high economic growth rates (even last year’s disappointing performance came in at 4-5%), the same cannot be said of its population. A problem that has recently reared its head again is that of demographic deficit. The government has in both rhetorical and tactical terms offered numerous incentives to increase birth rates. It now intends to offer free fertility treatment in an attempt to combat its dwindling birth rate. A more worrying side to this programme however is plans, mooted last year and now gaining traction, to limit access to abortion. Abortion was legalised in 1983 due to high numbers of women dying in backstreet abortions. According to the Turkish Doctors Union Women's Health Branch, only 2% of pregnancy-related deaths are the result of unsafe abortion methods today, while the number stood at 50% in the 1950s. Erdogan has in the past expressed opinions that have shocked women’s rights advocates, describing abortion as murder on several occasions. It seems now that women’s groups have good reason to express misgivings about the government's policy on reproductive rights. A new draft bill on reproductive health and child abuse will not affect the legal limit for abortions. However, it will make it much harder to have abortions approved, as they will only be permitted if carried out by obstetricians in hospitals, as opposed to certified practitioners and local health clinics, as the case is now. Selin Dagistanli of the campaign group Abortion Is a Right says, "While there is no legal ban, these measures will make abortion ‘de facto’ unavailable."

A worrying trend for this nation whose political character is constantly evolving. Many have argued that any actions of recent months on Erdogan's part (be it negotiations with the Kurds, or propitiating the military) have their roots firmly in realpolitik. They are, some might say, self-serving. The Prime Minister has many obstacles to his goal of attaining the presidency, not least with the Kurdish issue, which is extremely thorny. Not only will negotiations prove difficult, but the Turkish population at large remains unconvinced as to the idea of negotiations with terrorists. Perhaps the greatest worry is the lingering authoritarianism implicit in Erdogan's plans to change the constitution. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the social democratic Republican People's party, the main opposition party, spoke for all government critics when he accused the premier of acting like an "elected dictator".


 

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