Friday, November 8, 2013

The abrupt and violent end of ERT: some thoughts/Ο ξαφνικος και βιαιος θανατος της Ελληνικης Ραδιοφωνιας Τηλεορασης: μερικες σκεψεις

An English language version of this text can be found below

Μερικες 'αβολες' και μαλλον καθυστερημενες σκεψεις με αφορμη τα γεγονοτα στο κτηριο της ΕΡΤ...
Τα αισθηματα μου για την ΕΡΤ ηταν παντα αναμικτα. Δεν μπορω ουτε καν να απαριθμησω τα ποιοτικα πενιχρα προγραμματα, τους υπαλληλους φαντασματα ή τουριστες, τις στιγμες που η ελλειψη ανεξαρτησιας απο την εκαστοτε κυβερνηση την εκανε ξεδιαντροπο εργαλειο δημοσιων σχεσεων πολιτικων παραταξεων, υπουργων και βουλευτων. Ομως μπορω να απαριθμησω (λιγες αλλα οχι ασημαντες) στιγμες (το παλιο Τριτο, το οτι η ΕΡΤ αποτελεσε το μεσο επαφης με το ποιοτικο θεατρο και μουσικη για ανθρωπους παγιδευμενους σε νησιδες πολιτιστικης, και συχνα υλικης, ενδειας, ιδιαιτερα στο τελος της δεκαετιας του 70 και στις αρχες του 80, την ορχηστρα της και λιγοστες αξιοσημειωτες παραγωγες που η ιδιωτικη ραδιοτηλεοραση θα θεωρουσε οικονομικα ασυμφορες). Ακομη και τοτε, οφειλω να ομολογησω πως θα δυσκολευομουν να κατανοησω πως εργαζομενοι που μεχρι προ τινος 'επαιζαν το παιχνιδι' και θωπευαν τις πολιτικες ηγεσιες υιοθετουν τις δραματικες στιγμες της εξωσης τους απο το ραδιομεγαρο λογο που παραπεμπει σε ιστορικες στιγμες οπως η τελευταια εκπομπη του Ραδιοφωνικου Σταθμου Αθηνων πριν την παραδοση της πολης στους ναζι, και ο ιστορικα φορτισμενος αποχαιρετισμος 'ψυχη βαθια' πριν το προγραμμα σιγησει.
Παρ’ολους αυτους τους ενδοιασμους, η ανιστορητη εισβολη των ΜΑΤ στην ΕΡΤ χωρις καμμια αμφιβολια αποτελεσε στιγμη ντροπης για μια πολιτεια που θελει να αυτοχαρακτηριζεται ως δημοκρατια και που προσπαθησε να ξεπερασει τετοια τραυματικα βιωματα του αυταρχικου της παρελθοντος. Βεβαια, η μεθοδευση της κυβερνησης, απο το ξαφνικο κλεισιμο της ΕΡΤ, στην παντελη ελειψη σχεδιασμου και κυριως δημοσιας συζητησης για τι ειδους δημοσια ραδιοτηλεοραση προσδοκα η κοινωνια  προδιδει εναν γενικοτερο επικινδυνο αυταρχικο τυχοδιωκτισμο. Η καταληψη και το κλειδωμα με χειροπεδες ενος χωρου ταυτισμενου με εναν θεσμο ο οποιος αν και υπολειτουργησε συμβολιζε την σημασια της δημοσιας ραδιοτηλεορασης ως κοινωνικου αγαθου αποτελει μια θλιβερη και απαραδεκτη στιγμη και προδιδει ελλειψη συναισθησης του ατοπηματος μιας κυβερνησης που εχει εθιστει στο να κανει σπασμωδικες κινησεις στα ορια της νομιμοτητας και ερημην των πολιτων.
Το μηνυμα της σημερινης ημερας ειναι ιδιαιτερα καταθλιπτικο. Η πολωση μεταξυ των υποστηρικτων της κυβερνητικης αποφασης για την επεμβαση των αστυνομικων δυναμεων στο κτηριο της ΕΡΤ και των υποστηρικτων της αναπαραστασης του αγωνα των εργαζομενων στην ΕΡΤ ως εθνικη αντισταση και συνεχεια του εμφυλιου, καταδεικνυει την ολισθηση της κοινωνιας σε λυσεις ωμης καταστολης απο την μια πλευρα και εξωθεσμικες μορφες αντιπολιτευσης απο την αλλη και αποκαλυπτει την διαβρωση του πολιτικου συστηματος – την ανυπαρξια χωρων δημοκρατικης συνυπαρξης, συννενοησης και διαπραγματευσης. Στην κυβερνητικη ταση να αντιμετωπιζει τα προβληματα με συμβολικη και υλικη βια αντιτασσεται ενας λογος που παραπεμπει σε εμφυλιες διενεξεις, σε λογικες του ή ολα ή τιποτε.





As Greek riot police cleared the headquarters of the former state broadcaster ERT, using tear gas to gain entry and arresting several people I thought of collecting here some uncomfortable and overdue thoughts ...

I have always had mixed feelings about ERT (Greek Radio Television). Low quality output, absentee employees, the organization's dependence on the government of the day which often degenerated to subservience to political parties and personalities are some of the reasons behind my misgivings. On the other hand, ERT was the only institution that had the resources and the largely unfulfilled potential of going against the grain of the logic of the commercialization and tabloidization of Greece's mediascape.  Over its career, there have been positive moments of quality programming that none of its private sector competitors were prepared to produce and one should not forget that back in the 1970s and 80s, ERT provided a window to theatre, music and the arts to people who were marginalized and had no alternative means of accessing these.


Having said that, as the police was entering the public broadcaster headquarters, I must admit that I found it difficult to understand how the journalists and technicians who were still continuing broadcasts despite the summary decision of the government to close down ERT back in June, who in the past were complacent or at least silent about the subservience of the public broadcaster to the government, switched so easily to the role of protectors of the public interest and of free radio and television. What I found striking was their adoption during the dramatic moments of their eviction from the studios of ERT of a discourse referring to historical moments laden with painful memories such as the last broadcast of the Athens Radio Station before it was taken over by the occupying German forces in April 1941 warning listeners that future broadcasts will be serving the occupiers.
This notwithstanding, the sight of armed police forces storming the premises of the public broadcaster betrayed a brazen disregard for media freedom and a lack of historical sensitivity and awareness. It constituted a shameful moment for a polity that claims to be a democracy and that was supposed to put such moments behind it. Of course, the government had signaled its cynicism and disregard for 'inconvenient details' such as respect for proper procedure and dialogue back in June when, without warning and definitely without a trace of public consultation it moved to close down the public service broadcaster. The police occupation of a space symbolizing public radio-television, despite the imperfections and shortcomings of ERT, the securing of the gates with a pair of standard issue police handcuffs constitutes a sad and unacceptable moment and betrays a government that is out of touch and has been used to move at the threshold of legality and in disregard of the public feeling.     

Overall, the message of the day is depressing and alarming. The polarization between those who support the government decision to order the police to storm the ERT building and those who support the message that this is a struggle against an occupying force demonstrates the emerging appetite for solutions relying in the exercise of crude force (police violence, summary decision making processes) on the one hand and reveals the erosion of the political system - the lack of spaces of democratic coexistence, negotiation and mutual understanding and the increasing popularity of extrainstitutional forms of opposition.

To the tendency of the government to resort to symbolic or material violence in order to deal with its problems one can see the juxtaposition of a discourse that refers to the resistance to occupation and to the bitter divisions of the civil war.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stories from 'the time of the monsters'

This is a true story ... A story that sometime ago I would have thought was part of some sort of dystopian fiction. As time passes, I cannot shake away the feeling that it increasingly looks and feels like a nightmare that returns night after night with more intensity and power and from which one finds it more and more difficult to wake up. 

It happened at Ayios Ilias, part of a long stretch of sand dunes on the west coast of the Peloponnese, just over eight weeks ago, on what would have otherwise simply been just another hot sunny summer day. The beach - a popular destination for groups of young people and families seeking a quiet place by the sea to spend their summer days, was fairly crowded. Built at the point where the sand dunes met the road, the local tavern was also crowded with companies having a late lunch after a day at the beach. In the midst of the terrace, one could see a group of six men in their thirties, all dressed in black. I did not pay much attention at what, admittedly and with hindsight, constituted an obvious paraphony, something like a black ink blot staining the colourful canvas made up by the clothes, towels and bags of the other customers.

Suddenly, a woman in her mid-forties, apparently in shock, rushed out of the tavern, through the terrace and clumsily run the twenty meters of sand that separated her from the sea, looking right and left, calling for help. As she drew closer I could hear that she was asking people to save 'the girl' in the tavern.

Not thinking that much, I run into the tavern to join a dozen of other people outside and inside the kitchen where four of the black-clad men were being held back by one of their friends. To my right, a distraught young woman was crying and her hands - in fact her whole body - was trembling. The owner, an elderly woman, upset but also barely able to disguise her fear, had gripped the woman's arms and was shaking her violently, shouting at her to leave her restaurant. The younger woman, clearly upset and disoriented was almost catatonic, unable to respond or establish eye contact. Having scanned the room, I slowly turned my head towards the men and confirmed what my earlier glance had registered. They were wearing a sort of uniform, with black tee-shirts with the Golden Dawn logo on their back and the Greek flag on one of their sleeves - I cannot remember which one- complete with combat fatigue bottoms and army-type boots. They were hurling insults at the shocked girl while one of them, barely kept in check by one of his comrades, was threatening he was going to do unspeakable things to her. I had recently read that 'units' of Golden Dawn men had been formed to 'patrol' the beaches and tourist hotspots making sure that the places were kept 'clean' of undesirable (mainly west African and Pakistani) street vendors, often to the delight of local shop-keepers, and I was in no doubt that these men were tasked to intimidate, terrorize and hurt. As I was told later, the young woman could not bear the presence of the uniformed gang and, ignoring the advice of her friends who chose to remain silent, decided to approach them and ask them to leave. Apparently, the six men challenged the young woman, and she told them that their presence next to families with young children was unacceptable and accused their theories of racial purity as racist and dangerous. The men started threatening her and and one chased her into the restaurant. The woman entered the kitchen and run to the owner telling her that the men's presence was unacceptable and asking her to tell them to leave. 

I, impulsively, together with three, maybe four others positioned ourselves between the girl and the gang. When we asked the gang to leave, they arrogantly retorted they were 'ordinary' customers and insisted that they expected to be treated as such. I probably hesitated, thinking through the repercussions of challenging them, but before I finished weighing the pros and the cons of intervening, I heard myself say to them that their 'uniform' suggested otherwise. It carried with it the message of an organization that was spreading hatred and fear. They did not respond as they were fixated on the young woman that, alone, had dared to confront them, to pass on the message that what they represented was not unopposed. A bystander who had until then claimed to be the voice of moderation, trying to soothe the angry men saying that what the young woman had said to them was not 'a big deal', certainly not a reason to get that upset, turned to me and said he found my comments unacceptable and provocative. He reproachfully told me that I exaggerated. He suggested that I read too much into the way these people dressed – after all they had the right to dress as they saw fit. Shocked by what I was hearing, I retorted that their 'uniforms' were conveying a message of hatred against foreigners and dissenters, that they terrorized people and constituted a means of gaining authority, in fact usurping it. He was unimpressed as were many more bystanders.

In the meantime, some people took the young woman to the side of the restaurant and were trying to convince her that this was not the way to deal with the Golden Dawn. The restaurant owner, clearly shaken, went to great lengths to appease the Golden Dawn men, then turned to the young woman and started shouting at her that she had no right to demand the removal of the men. Another woman mustered all her courage and managed to whisper that there was nothing wrong with the reaction of the young woman and that the presence of the six men offended the customers. No one paid attention. As the situation deescalated, the men and the woman left the restaurant and so did I along with the many people who had congregated there. Eventually, the six men returned and sat briefly at the terrace table they had previously occupied, only to leave a few minutes later walking over a bed of flowers and plants.

With the protagonists of this episode gone, there was little left to remind the encounter of the young woman and the Golden Dawn 'militia'. The sun was shining, the sea was inviting as usual, people returned to the beach or back to their tables at the tavern and did their best to forget what had happened. I, too, welcomed the relative calm, the soothing sound of the waves washing the shore. But I could not ignore what had just happened. I got an opportunity to recall, possibly fully realize, the barely suppressed apprehension, not that different from fear really, that I felt when I run into the tavern, the young girl's courage to do what no one else was prepared to do and face alone the monster. In snapshot-like flashbacks I saw the sheer undiluted hatred in the expression of the six men, but also the apathy in the faces of many bystanders who seemed unable or unwilling to understand why their day at the beach had to be spoiled by the whim of a girl. I also recognized the fear in the eyes of the restaurant owner, a fear that dictated looking the other way and, when necessary, appeasing the monster in our midst, even taking its side. I realized that this potent mixture of hatred, apathy and fear was in fact everywhere around me. 

At the beach where most people had already 'forgotten' what had transpired, in the villages, and the cities where Golden Dawn has managed to become a feature of daily life because of the misplaced zeal of its blackshirt minions enjoying the illusion of power and, yes, even respectability, because of its apologists who are happy to justify the poison it spreads as they secretly share its murky vision, because of those who are prepared to turn a blind eye to avoid any discomfort standing up to the monster they are nurturing entails. As day after day violence becomes entrenched in society, as the basic rights of migrants, minorities, critics, of anyone who is deemed to be different are routinely ignored and violated, as human life becomes more and more expendable, the future seems gloomy. And like in those horror films where you think the monster has been defeated until, in the final frame its shadowy figure can be seen lurking in the background - a reminder that evil has not been defeated and awaits another chance, even if the evil organization is dissolved or fades away, the monster will still be lurking in the most dimly lit corners of a society that has got so accustomed looking into its eyes and eventually got to recognize itself in them.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Turkey after Gezi - Call for Justice and Respect

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Taksim Revisited

This is a second effort to comment on the recent protest in Turkey. This 'second take' is informed by having had the opportunity to talk over the past couple of days to a number of people in Istanbul with diverse opinions on the situation  .

In an article I wrote back in 2007 on the events of the summer of that year in Turkey, I had tried to develop a reasoning that countered the way in which the military-bureaucratic establishment in Turkey framed Islamism in general, and the AKP in particular, as the ‘Other’, as an outsider to the Turkish body politic that threatened to destroy the achievements of the secular, modernizing forces that had built the Republic. I was arguing then

it is evident that, contrary to the attempted simplification of the current political situation into one characterized by the irreconcilable conflict between a monolithic and fundamentalist Islamist camp bent on introducing Şeriat (sharia law) and Turkey’s secular forces, the reality is much more complex. Political Islam in contemporary Turkey is an incredibly diverse phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the traditional label of religious fundamentalism. In this vein, the AKP should be seen as a multifaceted, internally diverse movement that comprises old Islamist political forces, to be sure, but increasingly, the new middle class and business elite that emerged in the 1980s due to the transformation of the official Kemalist discourse into one that had room for Islam and, indeed, depended on the latter for its own legitimacy and effectiveness. As such, it purports to represent both the urban and provincial poor who see in Islam the promise of social justice and of what Tuğal (2002: 101) has called ‘moral anticapitalism’ and the aspiring economic elites who consider that the party’s Islamic discourse has room for what Tuğal once more calls alternative, or ‘moral capitalism’. As it has also been pointed out, (Cornell 1999; Sofos 2001: 259) Islamic political forces have been very successful in attracting the young, especially those disaffected with the impasses of Turkey’s tutelary democracy, corruption and Turkey’s state bureaucracy. It is this, additional, dimension of political Islam in Turkey, its ability to attract considerable numbers of young and disgruntled voters and to articulate their disenchantment, that has been largely ignored by commentators and politicians alike.

Within a few years, the AKP, and Prime Minister Erdoǧan in particular, had presided over a sea change in Turkish politics. The military had been tamed and slowly abandoned its intervention reflexes, a fossilized opposition had started to consider embarking on a long and painful process of renewal, and secularism was being redefined in ways that did not discriminate against citizens who faced the dilemma of compromising their religious beliefs in order to participate in the public arena (I am primarily, though not exclusively, thinking of the relaxation of the restrictions imposed on covered women entering in education or employment in certain areas of the public sector). A lot of its achievements have been controversial. The investigation of senior army officers for corruption and conspiracy has attracted accusations of fixed charges and has been likened to a witch-hunt. The number of journalists that faced government obstructionism and lack of transparency or even were incarcerated has increased dramatically. The AKP and its leader have grown arrogant and have started marginalizing their secular, liberal and leftist critics in ways that are reminiscent of the marginalization of their constituency by the 'Kemalist' establishment.

The events that started at the Gezi Park in late May have been interpreted in substantially different ways by the different parties involved. The protesters - not a homogeneous group - have, at least temporarily, been brought together through what social movement researchers call 'the construction of shared injustice frames'. In simpler words, they perceive themselves increasingly ignored and marginalized by an arrogant government and Prime Minister. Some of the people I talked to describe the protest as a 'White Turk Revolution'. If this means the political coming of age of relatively young and hitherto relatively apolitical Turks, the label 'White Turk' is accurate. If this means that the events have set in motion of a long, arduous process of political realignment of the political system, then the term 'revolution' is also accurate. Some of the protesters I talked to are passionate secularists and some are nostalgic of the 'Kemalist era' meaning the time prior to the political ascendance of the AKP, although they have little or no memory or experience of it. 

Others have been more irreverent towards the Kemalist heritage - protesters in Taksim put fruit in the hands of the statue of Mustafa Kemal on the İstiklal Anıtı (Independence Monument) whereas others covered the facade of the Ataturk cultural center with banners and flags. And, next to the secular or liberal or leftist youth one needs to recognize the Alevis who have been increasingly worried about an increasingly assertive AKP and all sorts of different political minorities with other particular concerns.
On the other hand, the very few AKP supporters I managed to talk to gave me an insight to the fear of becoming marginalized again under an aggressive secularist system that would draw legitimacy from the secular educated middle and upper classes. Some argued that the 'Kemalists' ' contempt towards 'them' could be described as racism. Which reminded me, incidentally, a discussion I had a few years ago with a major Leftist intellectual whose name I would not divulge who had said, referring to the AKP's Anatolian strongholds, 'Anatolia is a factory of ignorant fascists'. Against this background, the arrogance of some in the leadership of the AKP notwithstanding, one can understand (not though justify) the fierce and brutal reaction of the government. 

The paradox of this situation is that the protesting youth in the street are the product of a period of economic development and increased educational and employment opportunities created by the model of development adopted by the AKP. Although its paternity may be unclear as it built on the economic plans of Kemal Derviş, their paternity is complex and points partly to the AKP. As I suggested in another note, the protests constitute an alarm call for both government and opposition. They should bring home to the AKP the realization that Turkish democracy, all its deficiencies notwithstanding, has come of age. The streaks of majoritarian authoritarianism inherent in the AKP governmental record are increasingly becoming unpalatable to half of the electorate that had remained sceptical of the AKP’s pre-election assurances that it was not intending to pursue a strategy of creeping islamization. Arrogance and contempt can generate powerful emotions and solidarities and the past few days have made this abundantly clear. The opposition’s irrelevance during the protests is bearing bad news for its leadership. Although some of the slogans used during the protests such as the popular ‘we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’, at first sight reflect the endurance of the Kemalist ideology shared by CHP, the major opposition party, along with many other smaller political forces, the secular, democratic and grassroots outlook of the protests has very little to do with the fossilized, elitist and statist version of Kemalism revered by opposition parties.

If one had to resort to catchwords to describe Turkish society today, the words that come to mind are post-Kemalist and post-Islamist. To be more accurate albeit still simplistic, it is a society where secular modernity (including its political-democratic components traditional Kemalism has been so ill-at-ease with) intersects and interacts with conservative, often religious values, expressed by particular factions within the AKP, in so many possible ways. The messages conveyed by the popularity of the AKP and the vibrancy of the ongoing protests are unambiguous: the contradictions of Turkish society call, not for political and social polarization, but for the search of a modus vivendi, one that needs to be painstakingly invented and continually recalibrated, based on democracy, tolerance and compromise. It means that the fears of the protesters and those of the supporters of the AKP need to be addressed. And this will require a government and an opposition that are prepared to ‘listen’. I still maintain that whether the political class of the country is prepared to embrace the challenge of renewal is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

mixed messages from the balkans




The protests that spread from the relatively small and rather underused Gezi park in Istanbul to a host of cities and towns throughout Turkey are not likely to overthrow the AKP government. As I was pointing out in another note, the demonstrations had a dual effect. On the one hand they were an indictment of the the arrogance and contempt for dissenting opinion displayed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and an expression of increasing unease at the way the party has been introducing issues of public morality in the political agenda as new alcohol regulations and the Ankara Metro protests indicate. And, it is becoming increasingly clear that they constituted a condemnation of the alliance of the AKP with particular corporate elites that seem to benefit from the capitalist development model the party has promoted. On the other hand, they inadvertently exposed the irrelevance and lack of vision of the opposition parties.

The protests are likely to fizzle out, the AKP will probably stay on to complete its full term in office but the events will have left an indelible mark on the Turkish political system; different factions (and personalities) within the AKP but also within the 'secular' opposition will be reflecting on this outburst of social protest and the reaction of Turkey's political class to it.



At the very same time Turkey was experiencing the shockwaves of grassroots politics, Bosnia-Herzegovina was witnessing the emergence of a protest movement that was largely overshadowed by the magnitude of the protest in Turkey. Sparked by the case of baby Belmina Ibrisevic, whose life was endangered as obstructionist tactics in the parliament meant that legislation necessary for the production of the documents that would allow her to travel abroad for treatment was not forthcoming Bosnia's Baby Revolution stirred the stagnant waters of the country's byzantine politics. Within days several thousand protesters were outside the parliament demanding that their representatives abandoned grandstanding and passed this and other legislation that would start addressing some of the pressing needs of the citizens.  Just as in Turkey, a 'localized' issue became the rallying point for a broader protest movement which, notably, has transcended ethnic lines. The Sarajevo protests were followed by protests in the towns of Prijedor, Banja Luka, Mostar and Zenica conveying the message that ethnic politics and divides can be overcome by a sense of common citizenship forged in the process of the pursuit of solutions to common problems and challenges and, ultimately, of a better future.

The mood in nearby Macedonia, on the other hand, is not upbeat. The governing VMRO-DMPNE is preparing for the grand finale of its Skopje 2014 transformation of the country's capital. I have commented elsewhere on the controversial character of the project, so I will just point out that the project does not possess only an aesthetic component as the government often suggests but constitutes an intervention in the social imaginary of the country as it constitutes a veritable exercise in grafting a particular kind of memory, of history, in the physical space upon which social imaginaries are built. In a way reminiscent of Turkey, after over a decade in office, VMRO-DMPNE has grown arrogant and has sought to discredit and criminalize dissent and opposition at every opportunity. Recent examples include the new law on abortion, welcomed by the Orthodox Church and placating ultra-nationalist factions within the party, concerned at the demographic decline of the Macedonian nation which was passed by the narrowest of majorities, and the storming of a Skopje City Hall municipality by supporters of the government-approved plan to build an imposing Church in Skopje's Centar after rumours that the city's new, opposition, Mayor, Andrej Zernovski was planning to demolish it. The polarization of Macedonian politics was echoed in the slogans used by the mob who called the mayor's supporters “Communist Scum!” and “Muslims!”.

But here the analogy with Turkey's political turmoil ends. Despite the inventiveness of grassroots movements in Macedonia, the prevailing mood is one of resignation. There is no sign of a robust response to the massive and ambitious intervention of the government ideologues in everyday life and the erosion of spaces where dissent and difference can be articulated.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Taksim: a protest like no other

Taksim Meydanı has been a focal point of political protest in Turkey for the best part of the last one hundred years. It has also seen its fair share of violence and destruction: the Kanlı Pazar (Bloody Sunday) of February 1969, the Kanlı 1 Mayıs (First of May massacre) of 1977 are the most well known such examples. Traditionally the location of choice for the celebration of the 1st of May for the Left, it was off limits this year as the May Day events were not allowed to take place there. As a result, small scale skirmishes between Left-wing activists and the police took place in the surrounding streets a month ago but the area was soon back to normality. 
So, earlier last month, no one would have imagined that Taksim would once more become the arena of the violent events of the past few days. The few protesters that started gathering and organized a sit-in at the site of Gezi Park in the run-up to 26 May to protest against the destruction of Gezi Park and the rebuilding on its site of the Ottoman Halil Paşa Artillery Barracks as a museum-cum-shopping centre had probably not imagined that they were going to become yet another addition to Taxim’s turbulent history of protest. Even more so, little did they imagine that their action was to become the springboard for a broader and viral protest movement throughout the country. Yet, in the early morning of 30 May the police attacked them displaying unprecedented brutality, using chemicals and water cannons - to the extent that one can safely deduce they acted with explicit and unambiguous government approval.

The initial protest was described by many as an effort to save the park that stands at the centre of the proposed development. Indeed, this is not an implausible explanation as Gezi park is probably the only notable green area in the vicinity, and one that should have been protected had not the developers expertly used regulations for the protection of historical and cultural heritage (read the museum to be housed in the rebuilt Halil Paşa Barracks) to overcome the statutory development restrictions in a green space. Indeed, many protestors are concerned at a host of major infrastructure projects that are going ahead without effective consultation such as a third airport, a new mosque that will dominate the Istanbul skyline, the opening of a ship canal in the Marmara area. Leaving aside the environmental concerns and the increasing public expressions of reservations of the pervasiveness of the market logic in the AKP leadership vision of a modern Turkey which I intend to discuss in a separate note, the governing party has managed to alienate several relatively young and upwardly mobile parts of its electorate who had invested, not in its Islamic credentials, but in its democratic promise against the tutelary democracy promised by its political adversaries. Indeed, eleven years after the AKP’s first landslide victory at the polls and its uninterrupted and virtually unchallenged hold to power, the political atmosphere was quite charged as the government had paid lip service to the accountability it had promised to uphold in the last elections and has introduced controversial measures such as the new regulations restricting alcohol sales near schools and mosques which, to many secularists, augured what many called ‘islamization by stealth’.

Within this atmosphere of suspicion and doubt, Gezi park almost instantaneously became the focal point of a massive and intricately networked popular movement. On the ground, people converged to the park to express a diffuse sense of unease and dissatisfaction, although, at least initially, no one could give it a clear shape or content. Despite the reluctance of television channels to relay news from Gezi park, news traveled fast to other cities and towns across Turkey, largely, though not exclusively, through the help of social media. Local protests were organized in various other urban centres and information and expressions of solidarity flowed through cyberspace between the various localities hosting their own protest events. As the police had not anticipated this transformation of an originally small and fairly localized protest into something so large and unprecedented in Turkish politics, it reacted with more violence. Local and national politicians were also unprepared for such an event and ill-equipped to make sense of it and articulate an appropriate reaction. Prime Minister Erdoǧan, described the protesters as ayyaş (alcoholics) and capulcu – slang for thug, punk or troublemaker. His reaction was arrogant and threatening as he warned them that he had his own supporters and he should not be provoked. His response was not untypical of his style of government which has attracted criticism for frequently shunning criticisms and reservations expressed by opponents . It reflected his puzzlement at how he, who had presided over a long period of economic prosperity and regional hegemony was at the receiving end of the ire of a nationwide protest movement that had just added in its demands his resignation. Erdoǧan, an otherwise astute politician who had changed the face of the country in his ten years in office by taming the country’s military that had seen fit on several occasions to brutally suspend party democracy on the grounds of the need to protect the country’s Kemalist heritage, by modernizing the country’s Civil Law and by bringing Turkey at the threshold of a historic peaceful settlement of the country’s Kurdish question, was unable to comprehend his sudden transformation into a villain. Other members of his party with less abrasive manners tried, once they became aware of the dimensions of the protest movement, to adopt more conciliatory positions: Abdullah Gül, President of the Republic conceded that freedom of expression and protest is part and parcel of democracy and assured the demonstrators that he had taken on board the message of the protest while Bülent Arınç, Deputy Prime Minister, offered to review the Taksim project in consultation with all parties and suggested that violence was not the appropriate response to the protests. The opposition parties and their leadership were also unable to make sense of what should have normally been a gift for any political force aspiring to end the AKP’s hegemony over Turkish politics. The so-called ‘secularist’ political forces have not had a notable role in the events of the recent days and the fact that their traditional supporters are almost certainly over-represented in the ongoing protest movement should not be interpreted as a sign of the return of the opposition from the wilderness. The current protest is not a party-led movement as the 2007 anti-AKP demonstrations which the opposition had organized in 2007 - its much more protean structure and discourses and its grassroots character indicate that the opposition parties may no longer provide a vehicle for alternative voices and the expression of political disagreement and dissent.

The protests constitute an alarm call for both government and opposition. They should bring home to the AKP the realization that Turkish democracy, all its deficiencies notwithstanding, has come of age. The streaks of majoritarian authoritarianism inherent in the AKP governmental record are increasingly becoming unpalatable to half of the electorate that had remained sceptical of the AKP’s pre-election assurances that it was not intending to pursue a strategy of creeping islamization. Arrogance and contempt can generate powerful emotions and solidarities and the past few days have made this abundantly clear. The opposition’s irrelevance during the protests is bearing bad news for its leadership. Although some of the slogans used during the protests such as the popular ‘we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’, at first sight reflect the endurance of the Kemalist ideology shared by CHP, the major opposition party, with many other smaller political forces, the secular, democratic and grassroots outlook of the protests have very little to do with the fossilized, elitist and statist version of Kemalism revered by opposition parties. If one could use catchwords to describe Turkish society today, the words that come to mind are post-Kemalist and post-Islamist. To be more accurate albeit still simplistic, it is a society where secular modernity (including its political-democratic components traditional Kemalism has been so ill-at-ease with) intersects and interacts with conservative, often religious values, expressed by particular factionjs within the AKP,  in so many possible ways. The messages conveyed by the popularity of the AKP and the vibrancy of the ongoing protests are unambiguous: the contradictions of Turkish society call, not for political and social polarization, but for the search of a modus vivendi, one that needs to be painstakingly invented and continually recalibrated, based on democracy, tolerance and compromise. This will require a government and an opposition that are prepared to ‘listen’. Whether the political class of the country is prepared to embrace the challenge of renewal is yet to be seen.

Friday, April 26, 2013

IN SEARCH OF A MODEL FOR THE MIDDLE EAST: RETHINKING THE TURKISH AND NORDIC EXPERIENCES


English translation of an article originally published in http://www.sydsvenskan.se/opinion/aktuella-fragor/tala-om-modeller/


IN SEARCH OF A MODEL FOR THE MIDDLE EAST: RETHINKING THE TURKISH AND NORDIC EXPERIENCES

På Spaning Efter En Modell För Mellanöstern: … Av Turkiska Och Nordiska Erfarenheter

Umut Ozkirimli är professor i samtida Turkietstudier och verksam vid Centrum för Mellanösternstudier vid Lunds universitet.

Spyros A. Sofos är gästforskare vid Centrum för Mellanösternstudier vid Lunds universitet.


The “Arab Spring” caught everybody off guard. Almost overnight, autocratic regimes have been toppled, social and ideological fissures have emerged, and conflict has become the order of the day, sometimes crashing hopes for freedom, democracy and dignity. But political change is like the Swedish winter, long and replete with challenges. Transition to democracy requires a national consensus and a new social contract based on respect for human rights, recognition of difference and reduction of socioeconomic inequalities. Given these challenges, it is not surprising that many in the region and the West have looked upon models to emulate, ready-made frameworks to be adopted without much consideration of the historical and cultural specifities of the Middle East.

Two countries that have often been mentioned in this kind of model talk are Turkey and Sweden. Turkey has been widely seen as an attractive model for the Middle East with its booming economy, its success in finding a balance between secularism and Islam and its vibrant civil society. Sweden, on the other hand, or more broadly the “Nordic” region has been recently hailed as the “next supermodel” by The Economist, an example to be followed not only by the transitional societies of the Middle East, but also by the ailing European Union. Yet how can we present Turkey and Sweden, two countries with markedly distinct nation- and state-building experiences, as models to the Middle East and beyond? Isn’t this like comparing apples and pears, simply because they are both fruits?

We believe not. First, the way the two countries have historically responded to modernity are quite similar. Both Kemalist Republicanism and the Swedish Social Democracy are perfect instances of “social engineering”, designed to create a particular kind of (modern) citizen. Second, in both countries the state plays an important role in shaping and regulating society, leading to what Lars Trägårdh and Henrik Berggren have called “state paternalism”. Third, and following from the first two, they experience similar difficulties in state-society and state-individual relations. Hence one can see the cohabitation in Turkey of democracy and a certain form of “majoritarian authoritarianism” where the rights of minorities are overlooked and in Sweden of notions of individual autonomy and a political culture which is characterized by deference to the state.

These similarities should not blind us to the differences between the two countries and the divergent outcomes of their processes of modernization. Moreover, there are serious problems with the uncritical and patronizing use of the notion of the “model”, and the way the “model” talk simplifies the complexity of social experience and the various inadequacies behind “perceived” success stories. In fact, both the attractiveness as well as the weakness of the notion of “model” lies in its ambiguous character that makes its articulation possible in a number of different discourses and agendas. This multiplicity of meanings constitutes a real challenge that needs to be taken into account in the discussion of models and their applicability.

Still, the situation in the Middle East is critical. There is urgent need to develop culturally appropriate pathways to sustainable transition that will not replicate earlier mistakes (Iraq, Afghanistan), that will respect democracy, pluralism and human rights without sacrificing social cohesion and national unity. We believe that it is important to unpack the historical trajectories of Turkey and Sweden in a systematic way and examine whether there is any experience that can constitute the subject of a constructive dialogue between these two “models” and the Middle East. This dialogue, we argue, should be one which is based on “mutual learning”, not on top-down policy planning or elitist attitudes which frame the Turkish and Swedish experiences as “better” or “superior” to Middle Eastern polities and cultures. We thus need to look more closely into the “model societies”, distinguish between good and bad practice, achievements and mistakes, and problematize the terms democracy and democratization. We need to focus not so much on what experience can be transferred, but on the processes of exchange and interaction between actors and institutions in the so-called models and the Middle Eastern societies. Only this could foster democratic transitions on a local, grass-roots level and strengthen a strong, pluralist civil society. After as Ingmar Bergman once put, “only he who is well prepared has any opportunity to improvise”.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Kosova/Serbia: Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations

The First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations between Kosova and Serbia was signed today. The text is deliberately vague so that it can satisfy both those who want to see the sovereignty of Prishtina over the North recognized and those who want to see some sort of recognition of the predominantly Serb municipalities of North Kosovo, nevertheless, it constitutes a breakthrough in the turbulent relationship between Serbia and its former province.
The agreement opens the way for the start of EU accession talks of the two countries - it is expected that Serbia will be invited to start accession negotiations as early as next week.
According to Kosovo's Gazeta Express the basic points of the agreement are:
1. There will be an Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo. Membership will be open to any other municipality provided the members are in agreement.
2. The Community/Association will be created by statute. Its dissolution shall only take place by a decision of the participating municipalities. Legal guarantees will be provided by applicable law and constitutional law (including the 2/3 majority rule).
3. The structures of the Association/Community will be established on the same basis as the existing statute of the Association of Kosovo municipalities e.g. President, vice President, Assembly, Council.
4. In accordance with the competences given by the European Charter of Local Self Government and Kosovo law the participating municipalities shall be entitled to cooperate in exercising their powers through the Community/Association collectively. The Association/Community will have full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning.
5. The Association/Community will exercise other additional competences as may be delegated by the central authorities.
6. The Community/Association shall have a representative role to the central authorities and will have a seat in the communities’ consultative council for this purpose. In the pursuit of this role a monitoring function is envisaged.
7. There shall be one police force in Kosovo called the Kosovo Police. All police in northern Kosovo shall be integrated in the Kosovo Police framework. Salaries will be only from the KP.
8. Members of other Serbian security structures will be offered a place in equivalent Kosovo structures.
9. There shall be a Police Regional Commander for the four northern Serb majority municipalities (Northern Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic). The Commander of this region shall be a Kosovo Serb nominated by the Ministry of Interior from a list provided by the four mayors on behalf of the Community/Association. The composition of the KP in the north will reflect the ethnic composition of the population of the four municipalities. (There will be another Regional Commander for the municipalities of Mitrovica South, Skenderaj and Vushtrri). The regional commander of the four northern municipalities will cooperate with other regional commanders.
10. The judicial authorities will be integrated and operate within the Kosovo legal framework. The Appellate Court in Pristina will establish a panel composed of a majority of K/S judges to deal with all Kosovo Serb majority municipalities.
11. A division of this Appellate Court, composed both by administrative staff and judges will sit permanently in northern Mitrovica (Mitrovica District Court). Each panel of the above division will be composed by a majority of K/S judges. Appropriate judges will sit dependant on the nature of the case involved.
12. Municipal elections shall be organized in the northern municipalities in 2013 with the facilitation of the OSCE in accordance with Kosovo law and international standards.
13. Discussions on Energy and Telecoms will be intensified by the two sides and completed by June 15.
14. It is agreed that neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side’s progress in their respective EU path.
15. An implementation committee will be established by the two sides, with the facilitation of the EU

The Greek affliction

Serbia and Kosovo have concluded their own version of an interim agreement today. Although the fate of the Greek-Macedonian Interim agreement suggests we should be cautious in our assessment of what has been achieved today, this EU-brokered rapprochement, despite its provisional character and vagueness, represents a very positive step, albeit short of full recognition.

Not for Greece though, as its ambitious agenda 2014 of a forward looking Greece in a forward looking Southeastern Europe is a faint mirage of what could have been. Instead, Greece is probably the only country that continues to follow the previous Serbian policy of non recognition of Kosovo. It is probably a symptom of a chronic affliction, of dwelling in a past forever gone. It reminds me of the Greek Communist Party's inability to realize it inhabits a world that has left Stalin's Soviet Union behind at a time that those who lived through it have long moved on. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cyprus: one more chance?

The political system of the Republic of Cyprus, even after the de facto partition of the island after the invasion of the Turkish armed forces back in the summer of 1974 is a system built on deliberation and compromise. Presidential elections are an intricate affair that can often lead to unlikely bedfellows sharing between them the key political positions of the small state and the power these entail. The likelihood of gaining positions of influence in the state apparatuses, as well as personal rivalries are usually important factors in determining the composition and shape of alliances, especially in the second round of the presidential poll. These are often shortsighted attempts to gain advantages that maintain and reproduce a clientelistic system and perpetuate the "relevance" of political parties that would have otherwise become obsolete. In such a context, the notions of Left, Centre and Right are not able to convey recognizable messages to the unsuspecting observer that has not got a grounding in the politics of the island.
It is no wonder therefore that we have rarely witnessed in Cypriot politics programmatic agreements that are inspired a vision of the future, that look forward beyond managing the present, to meeting the challenges that Cypriot society is facing in terms of building a healthy economy, deepening democracy and finding a viable and equitable solution to the Cyprus issue. With the possible exception of the 1998 presidential election, when Glafcos Clerides and George Vasiliou decided to put aside their differences and work together towards the dual goal of achieving a solution to the Cyprus issue and securing the Republic's accession to the EU, most presidential elections focused on much more short-term goals. 
The glimmer of hope for a solution of the Cyprus issue that followed the succession of nationalist TassosPapadopoulos by AKEL's Dimitris Christofias as president and interlocutor of the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who was elected on a pro-solution ticket, soon faded away as Christofias decided to maintain his tenuous grip to power through the support of  Marios Garoyian's Democratic Party and Yiannakis Omirou's Movement for Social Democracy that were sceptical of, or inimical to a solution along the lines of the Annan Plan. The master tactician of Cypriot politics who had publicly expressed his ambition to bring about the reunification of Cyprus was overcome by his desire to cling to power, first as Leader of the Commons under President Papadopoulos and, then as President himself, and wasted a probably unique opportunity to achieve it.
As the Republic of Cyprus has been hit by the economic crisis and is especially vulnerable due to its exposure to the frail Greek banking system and its dependence on Russian, Serbian and Arab capital of dubious provenance, the Cyprus issue has not dominated this presidential election. Interestingly, after the obstructionism of the Papadopoulos presidency, the rejection of the Annan plan despite official Greek Cypriot expressions of commitment to it at the time, there is very little international interest in reviving a process that the Greek-Cypriot leadership had stopped in its tracks.
Nevertheless, the first round of the presidential election indicates that the front runner, Nicos Anastasiadis, is almost certain to be returned as the winner. To be sure, Anastasiadis will need the support of the 45.5% of the electorate that has voted for him in the first round as he faces unique challenges. First, he will need to finalise the protracted negotiations with the EU, the ECB and the IMF over receiving bailout funds that the outgoing President Christofias, has not been able to secure - he will need to overcome the credibility deficit that his two predecessors had created when they rejected the Annan plan and opted for a populist style of leadership, based on complacency and the spread of conspiracy theories. He will also need to confront the offspring of the populism of the past decade, expressed in the nationalism of one of the contenders for the presidency, George Lilikas, whose rhetoric echoes the conspiracy theory-inspired discourse of his Greek counterpart Panos Kammenos, head of Anexartitoi Ellines. He will finally have to fight the defeated and divided AKEL, which after ten years of disastrous policies and lack of inspired leadership is trying to expunge its past and project its failures to its opponents; as a well informed Greek commentator points out, AKEL is likely to forget it presided over a government that requested EU and IMF funds for the bailout of the Cypriot economy and will almost certainly engage in uncompromising rejectionism on that front. 
Anastasiadis, following the example of his predecessor at the helm of his party, Glafkos Clerides,  has managed to unify its members behind the banner of the reunification of Cyprus, despite the fact that one of its constituent elements hails from the nationalist right. Unlike Christofias, he has unequivocally supported the Annan plan at some cost. He has been pushed into the political wilderness through the concerted effort of AKEL and its centrist/anti-unification allies but has consistently pursued a solution agenda. In the current political landscape of the Republic, he is the only political personality that has got the commitment and resolve to work towards that goal. 
But the current conditions, both nationally and internationally, are not as favourable as they were at the time the Annan plan was on the table. The Republic no longer has the ability to provide the financial incentives and the much needed transfers of funds for the development of the North that would make a reunification solution viable. The Turkish Cypriots may still be relatively isolated but have benefited from the relaxation of policies that sought to bring them to the negotiation table. Turkey has developed a more diverse foreign policy and, while still seeking EU membership, is in no hurry to join until the EU confronts its current political and financial challenges. Internally, he has to address the shift in Greek-Cypriot public opinion that the 'No' campaign against the Annan Plan and the subsequent vindictive witch-hunt of those who begged to differ have brought about. He has to articulate a new vision of a united Cyprus against all those who will resort to similar tactics to frighten the Greek Cypriots, to create and capitalise on public resentment on foreign conspiracies to undermine Cypriot sovereignty with imposed Annan plans, bailouts, or attempts to restrict Cyprus's sovereign right to determine its EEZ and exploit the natural gas deposits in it. 
Perhaps this is a tall order. An Anastasiadis presidency though may be the last hope for the reunification of the wounded island. The 25th of February will provide some clues as to the future of Cyprus.