BLACK SEA BLOG: Turkey moves from tragedy to farce

By bne IntelliNews June 27, 2013

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -

It's a safe bet that few, if any, Turkish politicians are familiar with "Healey's first law of holes", the proverb attributed to former UK chancellor Denis Healey that states, "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." More simply, don't make an undesirable situation worse, by continuing to do whatever caused it.

For confirmation we need look no further than recent events in Turkey, where protests by a small group of young environmentalists against the imminent destruction of the tiny Gezi Park in central Istanbul, spiralled into countrywide protests that have seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets in demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which left five dead and thousands injured.

The destruction of the park quickly became a rallying point for opposition groups unhappy at what they see as Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian Islamist rule, which has all but gagged the media, and placed draconian restrictions on the sale and distribution of alcohol.

Sadly, instead of taking note of Healey's maxim, Erdogan and his officials have chosen instead to blame the protests on an "international conspiracy," with the PM personally embarking on a series of mass rallies around Turkey.

Sounding shrill

Employing a worryingly aggressive rhetoric spiced with references to the Sunni Islam of Turkey's majority community from which he draws his support, Erdogan has blamed the protests on "drunks and illegal groups" within Turkey, manipulated by a mysterious global conspiracy run by the international media and a previously unknown group he has described as "the interest rate lobby", utilizing Twitter.

As has often been observed with Erdogan, his rhetoric is aimed largely at the core support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), support that Energy Minister Taner Yildiz confirmed in a recent interview is not "well educated." In other words, a devout Muslim constituency that is unlikely to look favourably on "drunks", organisations that charge "interest" or indeed a foreign woman with the first name "Christiane," and are all too ready to believe in nefarious foreign conspiracies.

This is largely expected for Erdogan himself, but it could be hoped that senior ministers might opt to "stop digging." Alas, no.

The worst allegations were quickly repeated by several senior ministers and other officials both in speeches and, ironically, via their own Twitter accounts. As well as by much of Turkey's "mainstream media," which is either under direct government control, or owned by companies with close links to the government.

Allegations against the international media include Erdogan personally naming CNN and the BBC, Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek launching a bizarre Twitter campaign denouncing BBC reporter Selin Girit is a "British agent", and the daily Takvim printing a bogus interview with CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour, in which she "confesses" that CNN's editorial board was trying to "destabilize Turkey for international business interests".

Time to stop digging now perhaps? But no, this is barely scratching the surface, with senior ministers including Ali Babacan (deputy PM with responsibility for economy), Mehmet Simsek (finance minister) and Zafer Caglayan (economy minister) all repeating allegations that behind the protests lies the mysterious "interest rate lobby" - a group that none of the three has yet felt moved to identify.

Worse even than this has been the tweeting of senior ministers and officials clearly unaware of Healey's first law, with Simsek becoming involved in a series of increasingly bizarre "twitter spats," including one with Harvard Economics professor Dani Rodrick over whether Turkey's GDP had more than tripled in real terms over the past decade (Simsek) or was just 43% higher (Rodrick).

Stranger still have been increasingly shrill statements and tweets from Turkey's minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bagis. One statement released on June 17 in response to criticism by the European Parliament of the brutal tactics employed by Turkish Police in suppressing the protests claimed to offer reassurance of Turkey's continued commitment to the fundamentals of democracy. Instead, it offered the bizarre warning that, "We know the national and international players in this plot," and opining that, "Turkey has the most reformist and strongest government in Europe and the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world."

More bizarrely, Bagis chose to remind Turkey's European critics that, "Turkey is not a banana republic" - one of a shrinking number of criticisms which it appears has yet to be levelled. At 208,000 tonnes in 2012 (marginally up on 2011), Turkey's own banana production is minimal and the country is demonstrably not located in either central or South America, with which the term is normally associated. Unless of course he was referring to a broader definition of a banana republic, which might be one ruled by a politico-economic oligarchy that controls and exploits the country's economy for its own benefit, which again has yet to be suggested - at least by the European Parliament.

Again time to stop digging perhaps, but no Bagis chose to end his statement with a warning against the EU adopting a stance that "may lead Turkey-EU relations to an irreversible point." A statement that in terms of the Healey maxim could perhaps be described as hitting bedrock.

Other factors

As the mass protests against Erdogan's government show no sign of abating, it's worth bearing in mind that the AKP can rightly claim credit for stewarding the political and economic stability that has led to the most sustained period of economic growth in Turkish history; one achieved while much of Europe has been in recession. But it's also worth noting that the AKP did not instigate the revival, rather it inherited it in the form of the deal brokered with the International Monetary Fund by the then-outgoing economy minister, Kemal Dervis.

Nor are they responsible for the dynamism of the underlying economy, which can rightly be claimed not by the government but by Turkey's increasingly well-educated business and technocratic class, whose abilities and aspirations have been the driving force both behind the resurgence of Turkish industry over the past decade, and less obviously behind the recent protests.

A recent survey of 137 company CEO's by Turkey's Ekonomist magazine revealed that over 90% supported the protests to some extent and that almost half had themselves visited the core protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park, where as numerous other media reports confirmed they were joined by bankers, brokers, architects, engineers and others from across the spectrum of Turkish society.

A fact that Erdogan might do well to take note of and stop digging.

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