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Eastern Promises Squandered

[Image via reubensilverman.wordpress.com] [Image via reubensilverman.wordpress.com]

In the days following the 1 November election, Turkey’s pro-government newspapers have depicted a bright future for the nation. Writing for Yeni Şafak, one columnist explained that the government could now move forward with constitutional and economic reforms, albeit vaguely defined ones. In Yeni Akit, another columnist echoed these sentiments, pointing out that the exchange rate had already begun to fall, stocks were rising, and anticipated investments could now begin again. Voicing a general sentiment, a Sabah columnist enthused that, “In Turkey, the leader best able to analyze politics and take the electorate’s pulse is President Tayyip Erdoğan. Despite political conspiracies and coalitions of hate, Erdoğan has firmly sealed his place in the nation’s heart.”

The government has not relied solely on elections to confront the “conspiracies” Sabah described. On 26 October, with less than a week remaining before the 1 November elections, a civil court in Ankara ruled that the holding company Koza-İpek and its subsidiaries should be placed under trusteeship while the firm was investigated for involvement in “FETÖ,” an allegedly sprawling terrorist organization headed by Fethullah Gülen, an imam living in the United States and currently on the Turkish government’s list of most wanted criminals.[1] Among Koza-İpek’s most prominent properties are Bugün (a newspaper) and Kanaltürk (a television station), both critical of the government; among the list of trustees are many names connected with Turkey’s ruling party (AKP) and with media groups that support it.

At home and abroad, the Turkish government’s transparent repression of its critics in the media has been criticized as an attack on press freedom, but that is too limited a critique: these events are symptomatic of a larger problem. Over the past several years, the ruling AKP has shed any vestiges of concern for the safety and security of the public—either economic or physical.

As late as 2011, a major magazine like Time could channel the international consensus by describing Turkey as “Democratic, economically ascendant and internationally admired: as political templates go…pretty irresistible to people shaking off decades of authoritarian, impoverishing rule.” Now, with the election finished and the prospect of “stability” returning, there may be a return to this past rhetoric: on 2 November, the rating firm Fitch announced that Turkey’s investment grade may increase depending on the composition and independence of the new economic team. Yet naming a figure like Ali Babacan at the top does not solve the foundational problems. The political-economic relations undergirding AKP rule are resulting in increasingly negative outcomes: in the space of just eighteen months, Turkey has experienced both its deadliest industrial accident and its deadliest terrorist attack. These tragedies were consequences of active government policies, and their details help make sense of the attacks on opposition media like Bugün in the run up to the elections.

On 13 May 2014 in the town of Soma, a mine fire led to the deaths of 301 workers. Soma is a company town: the mine belonged to Soma Mining Inc. The general director’s wife, Melike, both worked as its administrative director and served in the provincial legislature as an AKP member. One defeated opposition candidate alleged that Soma Mining Inc. trucks had been used to distribute “care packages” to voters before the election. And, in case residents of Soma forgot whose largesse they depended on, she established a recreation center with her name on it.

According to testimony from miners, Melike hung up AKP posters around the offices and, in return for her efforts, mine officials like her husband received warnings in advance of inspections. Following the deaths, opposition deputies formally asked the government to specify whether Soma Holding had received loans from government banks (and at what rates), whether AKP parliamentarians owned shares in its subsidiary companies, and whether its owner had contributed to TÜRGEV, a charitable foundation run by the prime minister’s son. According to some accusations, administrative workers were forced to attend AKP campaign rallies. During his trial, Melike’s husband acknowledged that the company had bussed its workers to AKP rallies when new government contracts were being tendered—but, he observed, so had its competitors, often more successfully.

Tight connections between companies and the government they depend on are hardly shocking, and to a large extent these close relations have allowed the AKP government to promote economic growth in Turkey over the past decade. A mutually symbiotic relationship has long existed between the government and a number of the country’s largest holding companies. To take a prominent example: President Erdoğan’s daughter Esra is married to Berat Albayrak, who has been serving as member of parliament since the June 2015 elections. Previously, Albayrak worked as a general director of Çalık Holding. Çalık owned several of Turkey’s most popular pro-government news outlets until 2013, when these were packaged up as “Turkuvaz Media” and sold to another pro-government firm. Albayrak’s brother serves on the Turkuvaz board of directors.

Such inside-baseball details of Turkish politics matter: if the government has friends in the media, it also has enemies. And the outlets it deems enemies are increasingly under pressure. The most prominent anti-government media outlets are centered around Aydın Doğan and Fethullah Gülen. In addition to publishing several of the most widely read national newspapers, the Doğan Media Group serves as the local affiliate for CNN. A powerful influence on governments in the 1990s, Doğan has long been a target of the ruling party’s vitriol. Over the last decade, the government punished him through bureaucratic methods: in 2009, his company was hit with the largest tax fine in Turkish history.

Recently, however, new means have been employed to silence the opposition. On the night of 7 September, the Doğan paper Hürriyet summarized a quote by President Erdoğan and tweeted it with a hash-tag linking it to a recent attack by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that had killed sixteen soldiers. Within minutes of the tweet, a columnist from Sabah (a pro-government paper owned by Turkuvaz Media) was calling for people to give Hürriyet a “democratic response.” By late that night, a crowd of two-hundred had gathered in front of Hürriyet’s headquarters, carrying sticks and stones, chanting the president’s name, egged on by Abdurrahim Boynukalın, an Istanbul representative and head of the AKP’s youth organization. Before the police intervened and dispersed the crowd, protesters broke windows on the lower levels of the building.[2]

The following day, a columnist for the newspaper Star (another pro-government paper, owned by a prominent AKP member) called out Doğan Media, and television host Ahmet Hakan in particular, accusing him of supporting the PKK and stating, “We could crush you like a fly. Until today we have been merciful.” Boynukalın chimed in that he had thought about going to Hakan’s house in the posh neighborhood of Nişantaşı and waiting for him. Hakan sued the columnist and dared Boynukalın come and try. On 1 October, Hakan was attacked while returning home; he was left with broken ribs. Seven suspects were detained. Papers close to the government suggested the suspects who had beaten Hakan (ostensibly for his PKK sympathies) were linked with the PKK, while the anti-government newspaper Zaman alleged they were members of the AKP.[3]

Zaman is part of the larger Feza Publications Inc., which is closely associated with Hizmet, an Islamic movement that looks for leadership to Fethullah Gülen. For many years, Erdoğan depended on the organization and dedication of Hizmet members to aid in his struggles with the army and entrenched secular bureaucracy. For over a decade, judges and prosecutors linked to the movement were given largely free rein to arrest military officers on half-baked charges. When the movement turned on Erdoğan over the course of 2013, attempting to indict both government ministers and Erdoğan’s own family members on corruption charges, the government moved fast to quash the investigations. Officials with potential sympathy to the movement were replaced with AKP loyalists. In Istanbul for example, the police chief was replaced by Selami Altınok, an obscure provincial governor.

As for Gülenist media outlets like Zaman, they have come in for increased scrutiny from government regulators and police. In December 2014, police arrested Zaman’s editor and several other Feza employees, alleging they were involved in a conspiracy to frame a rival Islamic movement.[4] In September 2015, the editor of Zaman’s English-language version was arrested for insulting the president.

Koza-İpek Holding also came under pressure. Primarily a mining company, the firm was forced to halt various operations, submit new paperwork, and undergo an investigation for misreporting gold exports.[5] In March 2014, its television channels lost their national broadcast rights. In early September 2015, its media offices were raided by the police, leading to the outright seizure in October. In light of these developments, Koza İpek Holding’s share prices have plummeted.

Media outlets and their parent holding companies are not the only Gülen-linked firms the government has targeted. The most important is actually Bank Asya, Turkey’s largest Islamic finance institution. Between February and May 2015, the government transferred control of the bank to Turkey’s Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency with the intention to sell it off to a new owner.[6] Where once the Turkish government was seen to be “pro-business,” now it merely seems vindictive: attacks on banks and media are complimented by bans on Twitter and YouTube. Where once the government seemed willing to maintain economic orthodoxy in the interest of long-term growth, now it follows easy money: Erdoğan has consistently pushed for low interest rates in the hope of keeping the lira weak and Turkish exports competitive. A weak lira, however, disadvantages domestic firms with holdings in lira and keeps the government’s borrowing costs high.[7] It also keeps inflation high: over seven percent throughout 2015.

Then again, the cost of vegetables only matters to the living, and even that fundamental right is at risk. According to the opposition paper Cumhuriyet, between the June elections and mid-October, 208 civilians have been murdered in political violence. When police (62), soldiers (80), village guards (3), and PKK militants (341) are included, the number rises to 694.

The 208 civilian deaths include thirty-four activists killed by a suicide bomber in the border town of Suruç on 20 June as they were on their way to assist Kurdish organizations in northern Syria. In response to these killings (attributed to ISIS), the PKK executed two police officers it claimed had been assisting ISIS. Following the bombing and the executions, the government announced its plans to fight the twin challenges of the Islamic State and the PKK. Yet at the NATO meeting it subsequently called—and in its military operations—the government has mainly focused on killing members of the PKK and arresting Kurdish politicians it claims to be linked to the organization.

As military operations continue and more soldiers come home in body-bags, the AKP accused the Kurdish party (HDP) of being merely a front for militants. Beyond rhetoric, it has given tacit permission for national groups to target Kurds and the HDP. Whereas left-wing groups are promptly halted in their marches up Istanbul’s main pedestrian boulevard and small groups of protests find themselves surrounded by police as a matter of course, national groups were allowed to gather for mass protests on the night of 8 September, march down streets unimpeded, and set HDP offices on fire in cities like Ankara and Alanya.[8]

Both the Suruç and Ankara bombings are said to be the work of ISIS. Though the leader of the Syrian Kurdish rebels has accused the Turkish government of supporting ISIS directly, hard evidence is lacking. The government has, however, gone out of its way to target and deny assistance to groups (like Syrian Kurds) who are directly engaged in fighting with ISIS. The activists murdered in Suruç were there to aid the Kurdish border town of Kobani, which had been resisting sustained attacks from ISIS fighters. The Turkish government would rather have ISIS forces on its borders than Kurdish ones.

This preference for groups actively engaged in worsening (or ending) the lives of Turkish citizens extends to economics as well: the government would rather undermine the credibility of the country’s largest Islamic bank, largest newspapers, and largest corporations than provide economic stability. Though its supporters continue to argue that the AKP is choosing such fights in order to root out the powerful vested interests that have long been leading the nation astray, the example of Soma suggests otherwise: not only are the new government-backed companies being empowered no better than their predecessors, they are responsible for the single greatest mining accident in Turkish history. As for the 102 people murdered in Ankara on October 10,[9] while ISIS is likely responsible, no government minister has resigned for failing to prevent the attack—even considering that newspapers were calling on the government to investigate the prime suspect as early as July. Though opposition leaders have demanded that the Interior Minister resign, this has yet to happen—certainly not until the next cabinet is announced.

As it happens, the Interior Minister in question is Selami Altınok, the once low-level official entrusted in 2013 with scuttling corruption investigations.

NOTES

[1] See “Koza-İpek Holding neden kayyuma devredildi?Sabah, 10/27/15; “Court seizes control of Gülen-linked industry, media group,” Hürriyet Daily News, 10/26/15.

[2] See “Hürriyet Daily Attacked after the Clashes in Dağlıca,” Bianet, 9/7/15; “Hürriyet Dünyası'na saldırının adım adım detayları,” Radikal, 9/7/15; “AKP Gençlik Kolları Başkanı: Seni başkan yaptıracağız,” BirGün, 9/7/15.

[3] See “Ahmet Hakan'a saldıranlar HDP ile bağlantılı!Sabah, 10/2/15; “AKP Sözcüsü Ömer Çelik: Ahmet Hakan'a saldıranların 3'ü partimize üye,” Zaman, 10/2/15; “Ahmet Hakan’a saldıranların gerçek yüzü,” Akşam, 10/5/15.

[4] See “'Operasyon' başladı: Polis Zaman gazetesinde,” Hürriyet, 12/14/14; “Tahşiyeciler kimdir, Tahşiyeci nedir?Milliyet, 12/17/14.

[5] See “Koza'ya ikinci şok,” Cumhuriyet, 1/4/15; Gülcan Demirci, “Koza Maden'e çifte kıskaç,” Sabah, 12/3/14; Mesut Hasan Benli, “MASAK Koza-İpek'in altın üretimini inceledi,” Hürriyet, 9/1/15.

[6] See Isobel Finkel and Ercan Ersoy, “Turkey’s Erdogan Exerts Power with Seizure of Bank Asya,” Bloomberg, 2/3/15; Emre Peker, “Turkish Authorities Seize Bank Asya,” The Wall Street Journal, 5/31/15.

[7] See Constantine Courcoulas, “Turkey Giving Up Byzantine Interest Rates Policy as Lira Sinks,” Bloomberg, 7/30/15; Piotr Zalewski, “Interest rate rise: Turkey companies fret over lira’s dive,” Financial Times, 9/8/15.

[8] See “HDP Genel Merkezi’ne gece baskını!Sözcü, 9/8/15; “Alanya'da HDP binası yakıldı,” T24, 9/9/15.

[9] Also available in English: “Stories of Those Who Lost Their Lives in Ankara,” Bianet, 10/13/15; “Ankara Bombing death toll rises to 102: Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office,” Hürriyet Daily News, 10/16/15. 

[This article was first published on the author's blog.]

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