Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

A Time for Diplomacy to Triumph

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th November, 2015

Turkey Russia SyriaThe downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey earlier today is potentially a dangerous escalation of the febrile situation in the Middle East, though it need not be, if handled correctly. I agreed with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, when he tweeted that normally one might fire a warning shot at a plane allegedly violating one’s airspace, not shoot it down. The situation has been made worse by the fact that the Russian pilot and co-pilot have, according to some reports, been either killed or captured by anti-government rebels in Syria, who are vehemently opposed to Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Anyway, one cannot undo the shooting down, now that it has happened, and NATO will be having an emergency meeting in Brussels tonight — at the request of Turkey — to discuss the situation.

Russian jetThe Turkish government meanwhile is being rather macho about it all, saying that it reserves the right to take any measures necessary to preserve its national sovereignty, but this rather obscures the fact that the last thing the Middle East needs is a head-on conflict between NATO and Russia, which could conceivably happen if Turkey were to press ahead with its invocation of Articles 4 & 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, according to which all NATO members are obliged to come to the assistance of a member state that has come under attack. Instead, what is needed is some rapid but determined international diplomacy, to take some of the tension out of the situation. It was Churchill who famously said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and that is certainly the case in this instance. It is to be hoped that Britain and other senior members of NATO will work with the Turks to find some face-saving measures that could take off some of the heat. Otherwise what some observers are already seeing as a proxy war in Syria by outside powers could all too easily disintegrate into the real thing.

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Ahmet Altan on Politics and Writing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st August, 2015

Philippe Sands and Ahmet AlkanEndgameFresh from the Edinburgh Festival, the Turkish novelist and erstwhile columnist for the liberal newspaper Taraf, Ahmet Altan, was in London last night, being interviewed by the international lawyer and academic Philippe Sands. The event was hosted by English PEN, on whose Writers in Prison Committee I sat for many years, at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, right in the centre of Dalston’s recent regeneration. Like most Turkish writers, journalists and publishers who have produced anything complimentary about the Kurds, for example, Ahmet Altan has fallen foul of the law on occasion; freedom of expression is repeatedly under attack in Turkey and the country often has more writers and journalists in prison than any other. But as the novelist said last night, every writer in Turkey is expected to be an expert on everything, including politics, and their opinion is constantly sought. His own political journey has been interesting, as he initially supported Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party as they successfully ensured that the military stayed in their barracks — having previously intervened with coups d’état — but as Mr Erdogan’s self-aggrandisement has increased, with the clear aim of wanting to be an all-powerful president, so he has lost the support of Ahmet Altan and many others. The novelist is, however, confident that Mr Erdogan will be denied his desired absolute majority in the rerun of this year’s general election scheduled for 1 November.

The reason Ahmet Altan has until now been so little known in the UK is that none of his ten novels had been translated into English, but that has now been rectified with the publication this week of Endgame by Canongate (£12.99). Described as a detective story that has been stood on its head (as one knows the killer at the beginning but not the victim) it was lauded by Philippe Sands. Moreover, there were clearly many fans of Ahmet Altan in the audience last night; the Arcola was founded by a Turk and is in the heart of Turkish-Kurdish London. One young woman was persistently curious as to how the novelist writes about women so well. Ahmet Altan pointed out that a novelist has to get into the skin of every character, has to become them. And he quoted the example of Gustave Flaubert who, when asked about his début novel Madame Bovary “Who is Mme Bovary?”, replied “I am!”

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Turkey to Have a “War” Election?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th August, 2015

imageYesterday the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, resigned his mandate to form a new government having failed to come to any coalition agreement with opposition parties. This morning, President Erdoğan declared that the country is heading rapidly towards new elections; his AKP failed to get an overall majority in elections earlier this year, for the first time in a decade. Calling for a new vote is understandable, maybe even necessary, under the circumstances, but the worrying thing is the context in which any new election will be fought. The country’s armed forces are now engaged more directly in the fight against ISIS, but more importantly the uneasy ceasefire between the Turkish government and the banned Kurdish guerrilla movement the PKK is well and truly over. Turkish planes have bombed PKK forces within Iraqi Kurdistan (causing some civilian collateral damage) and the number of Turkish soldiers and policemen who have been killed by PKK sympathisers inside Turkey has risen sharply.

imageThe reconciliation process between Ankara and Turkey’s sizeable Kurdish minority is firmly on hold. This means that President Erdoğan will be tempted to call an election which the AKP will fight on a war footing, declaring that national security and the very unity of the country are at stake. His aim in doing so will be to get an overwhelming parliamentary majority, which will then enable him to push through his thwarted plans to move Turkey towards an executive presidential system, consolidating his own power. In the meantime, in any such “war” election, the predominantly Kurdish HDP — which broke through the grotesquely high 10% threshold barrier earlier this year, giving it a body of MPs for the first time — is bound to be unfairly stigmatised by the AKP and its compliant media as being allied to terrorism. That would be a serious step backwards for Turkey’s troubled democracy. But whereas a few months ago there was reason to be optimistic about the direction in which Turkey was heading the opposite is true now.

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Turkey’s Most Important Election

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th June, 2015

imageimageTurks are going to the polls today in what are probably the most important parliamentary elections the country has seen in a generation. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while not a candidate himself, is hoping his AKParty will obtain a two- thirds majority, which would enable a constitutional change bringing in a powerful executive presidency, in which he would have sweeping new powers. Given the way Mr Erdoğan has already exceeded normal authority, first during his decade as Prime Minister and lately as President, this possibility is viewed by most foreign onservers, including friends of Turkey such as myself, with alarm. Curbs on political dissent, reduced media freedom and the flagrant misuse of courts to harass or punish the president’s critics have grown exponentially. Mr Erdoğan still enjoys a lot of support, notably from the rural poor, as he has presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, though some of the new infrastructure projects (including his enormous new presidential palace) are grotesquely grandiose. The problem is that the main opposition party has been unable to offer a leader or a package of policies that offer a persuasive alternative. Instead, oddly, the best hope for a brake on Mr Erdoğan’s ambitions comes from the predominantly Kurdish HDP and its attractive leader, Selahattin Demirtas. It is touch and go whether the HDP will manage to cross the 10% threshold now needed to win representation in the Turkish parliament, but many Turkish liberals will be voting HDP in the hope that they do. Otherwise I fear Mr Erdoğan will get his mandate as Turkey’s Sultan, ever more remote from reality and European political norms.

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Media and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2015

imageBefore leaving London for Lisbon, I was one of two guest speakers (alongside my friend and colleague Lawrence Joffe) at a seminar on media and democracy at the House of Commons for visiting students from Turkey. I argued that without a free and diverse media than can be no true democracy; hardly original, I know, but particularly important in the context of modern Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is overseeing an assault on much of the Press — not just the Zaman media group affiliated to s ears thine friends but now major critics, the Gulen MovemeNt but really any last form that dares to challenge the orthodoxy that what the President does is right. In a few days time, Turkey will go to the polls, and although it is expected that the AKP will fall back a little it’s support is still strong in the rural areas especially, where people’s main source of information is the staterun television! which gives an un realistically rosy picture of events (as was shown graphically in its non-coverage of the Gezi Park protests a while back). Turning to the recent UK election I said that TV leaders debates are here to stay, and even if some of the content was superficial the fact that so many people watch them underlines their significance. Of particular relevance for an audience of school pupils, however, was the role of social media which, I maintained, offer people a way of engaging with politicians and holding them to account. Certainly no politician worth his or her salt can afford to ignore them.

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An Historic Moment for the Kurds?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th February, 2015

Thousands of Kurds from across Europe gathered in Strasbourg this afternoon for a rally by the city’s stadium. As one of their foreign guests I gave the following short speech in English, simultaneously translated into Kurdish:

image We are gathered here under the Strasbourg sun at what I believe may be an historic moment in the long struggle for Kurdish cultural and political rights in Turkey. Yesterday, a petition with more than 10 million signatures, calling for the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, was delivered to the Council of Europe in this city. It was a remarkable tribute to the determination of the Kurds and to the growing solidarity from people across Europe.
Tomorrow, 15 February, in Ankara, the HDP and AKP are due to publish the framework of an agreement for a settlement of the Kurdish question and to declare their intention to move towards making Turkey a genuinely democratic republic, with a new constitution. If this does indeed happen it will mark a giant stride forward.
Of course, we cannot take success for granted. There have been so many disappointments as well as hopes regarding Kurdish rights. At times it has seemed that the government in Ankara was taking one step forward and then one step back. But an agreement is possible, with sufficient good faith on all sides.
I know that from the experience of my own country, Britain, where decades of
political strife and violence in Northern Ireland were largely laid to rest by the courageous Good Friday Agreement, which integrated the IRA and its political arm Sinn Fein into the mainstream, with an agreed ceasefire, power-sharing and the release from prison of militants. So it can be done.
Finally, I would like to send two messages to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Firstly, Mr President, please carry forward measures to ensure that Turkey’s Kurds enjoy full cultural and political rights in the future. And secondly, Mr President, please release Abdullah Ocalan so that he can sit at the negotiating table with all the dignity of a free man.

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Kurds Petition for Abdullah Ocalan’s Release

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th February, 2015

imageKurds from all over Europe — including many who had matched long distances — converged in Strasbourg today to mark the handover to the Council of Europe of a petition signed by more than 10 million people calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the banned PKK, who has been in prison on an island in Turkey since his capture and rendition by the CIA in Kenya. The PKK figures on the list of terrorist organisations in several European countries, but many Kurds believe that is unjust. Though there was a bloody war between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces for decades, the AK Party government that has been in power in Ankara for over a decade has conducted a stop-start peace process with the Kurds, granting certain cultural rights after long years of oppression. But some of the international speakers who were present at a press conference this morning to highlight the petition handover argue that just as the release of Nelson Mandela was an essential element in the move towards reconciliation and more racial justice in South Africa so the release of Abdullah Ocalan is a prerequisite to a permanent settlement of Turkey’s question. It was pointed out that PKK fighters fought alongside Peshmerga forces in liberating the town of Kobane in the Kurdish area of Syria recently, scoring an important victory over Islamic State, which maybe might help a review of how the PKK is viewed. As someone who lived through the years in Britain when IRA bombs were a feature I know how important it was for the British and Irish governments to talk to former terrorists in order to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. As has often been said, one does not make peace with one’s friends. And if there is going to be a Kurdish settlement in Turkey it seems crucial to me that Abdullah Ocalan should be a full party to the negotiations, however difficult some Turks might find that to stomach.

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Turkey: Drifting away from Europe?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th December, 2014

imageSince the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has tended to look westwards to Europe. That was certainly the intention of Kemal Ataturk, who believed that Ottoman traditions and Islamic religiosity were impediments to progress. So it was no surprising that Turkey applied to join the European Union; in principle there should not have been any problem, when one considers how far into South Eastern Abd Eastern Europe the Ottomans stretched. Besides, Turkey was an early and valued member of NATO. But the passage to EU membership has not been as smooth. Some current EU member states were worried about Turkey’s relative poverty and large population. The former has been changing fast; the latter continues to increase. But then it became clear that some EU states were reluctant in principle, Germany largely for reasons of labour migration, Austria, more controversially, because Vienna sees the EU as an essentially Christian club. But Turkey continued to adjust its nature to meet EU demands, not just on economic and trade matters but also relating to multi-party democracy, abolition of the death penalty, respect for human rights, etc. So far, so good. But over the past decade, Turks have understandably got fed up of being on the EU’s waiting room and wonder whether it’s all worthwhile. Technically, the government in Ankara still thinks so. But at the same time, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly paternalistic rule, Turkey has started to drift away from a European destiny, apparently feeling more comfortable in a Middle Eastern context. Worryingly, the government has been cracking down on expressions of political dissent and press freedom — both essential elements of the European matrix. As a regular visitor to Turkey, I am aware how the atmosphere is changing, and not necessarily for the better. President Erdoğan is increasingly establishing himself as the moral arbiter of the country, and when I was in Istanbul earlier this week I met several people who are nervous about expressing their views. I cannot escape the impression that Turkey is drifting away not just from the EU, but also from European, liberal and secular values. I find that very sad, but only Turks can realistically do anything about it.

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Abdullah Gul in London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th November, 2014

Abdullah GulI was pleased last night to return from the ALDE Congress in Lisbon in time to attend the launch of Gerald MacLean’s new book, Abdullah Gul and the Making of the New Turkey*, at the Turkish Embassy. A particular draw was the subject himself, who was in London on what he said was his first foreign trip since ending his term as Turkey’s President. Gerald said in his own remarks that the volume is not hagiography, though there was a degree of cooperation with Mr Gul, his wife, friends and family. I shall reserve judgement until I am able to read it. Also present last night was Jack Straw, who said that he and his wife had forged a close friendship with the Guls while he was Foreign Secretary. Mr Straw lamented the fact that Turkey had effectively been kept out of EU membership by the strong opposition from states such as Austria, though many of us who follow Turkish affairs closely feel that in fact Ankara has recently been drifting further away from rather than nearer that objective. Mr Gul himself was in nostalgic mood, recalling his own university studies in Britain (at Exeter University). As he has been Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President of Turkey I guess the next stage would be some international role. He could of course write his memoirs, but he might feel Gerald MacLean has stolen his thunder on that.

* OneWorld, £35

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Censorship by Satellite Jamming

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th March, 2014

MEMOsatellite jammingYesterday I attended a seminar organised by Middle East Monitor on satellite jamming — the how and the why and some thoughts about how to overcome it. The day was particularly focused on Egypt and how both Hosni Mubarak and the current interim regime in Cairo have used jamming (directly or by proxy) to stifle TV channels of which they don’t approve, thereby adding another layer of censorship and the stifling of free expression on top of station closures, the arrest of journalists (such as those from Al Jazeera), and so on. I chaired the afternoon session that looked at issues of International Law, in which the Iraqi President of the Arab Lawyers Association UK, Sabah al-Mukhtar, gave an excellent presentation outlining the challenges involved. In my own remarks I said that maybe Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needs finessing, as new technologies of which people in 1948 could not even have dreamt have totally changed the nature of media, not least twitter, YouTube,etc (hence the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to shut them down). Perhaps what is needed is an elaboration of the concept of free expression to take into account access to information as a fundamental human right. That would give a solid basis on which an area of International Law could evolve; at present, only such precise things as genocide and war crimes can be the basis of international tribunals. Of course International Law develops slowly and different parts of the world have different domestic legal systems, but it should be possible to develop a plausible ad effective framework in which governments or leaders who censor media through deliberate jamming or in other ways could be held accountable.


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