This Week: Penguins in Turkey, and a new format for the Dispatch
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for May 28 - June 9!
Starting with this Dispatch, I’m switching up the layout. I started the Dispatch to help me improve my writing and my analytical skills. It’s worked well for a year and a half, but I’m finding myself without enough time to write anything in-depth. To more closely align this project with my other goals, I’m changing the format - I’m going to keep the world briefing, though it’ll be a bit shorter, and I’m going to start including a longer, more in-depth essay every other week. I’m hoping this will give me the chance to explore a variety of issues more deeply while still offering value to you, the reader.
As always, let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!
The Guardian and the Washington Post this week published two documents illustrating the scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. The first is a court order instructing Verizon to turn over all call records to the agency; the second a set of powerpoint slides describing a system called Prism which purports to give intelligence agents access to all customer records from a variety of web companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and more.
The companies mentioned in the Prism program have all issued similar denials, stating they A) have never heard of Prism, B) don’t give the government a “backdoor” into their systems, and C) only comply with legal requests. None of that’s particularly reassuring: Prism is an internal NSA codename, the slides are sparse on technical details, and, as the Verizon court order shows, a request being legal doesn’t make it a lot less concerning. Some transparency might help the government make its case: it’s possible, as the President and several members of Congress asserted, that the program is limited, focused only on specific threats, and both useful and necessary to national security − but right now, all we’ve got to go on are a handful of slides and an alarmingly over-broad secret court order.
The EU failed to renew an arms embargo against Syria, opening the door for Britain and France to supply weapons to the uprising. Both countries have said they will not do so, though, unless peace talks fail. Opposition leadership announced they would not participate in talks, though, until they got resupplied with weapons and ammunition.
The announcement by the UK and France was designed to put pressure on Assad ahead of the peace conference. The last couple weeks, though, have been particularly bad for the opposition - Hezbollah and Iran have helped the Syrian army with its most successful offensive to date, forcing the FSA to abandon a key city entirely and putting the rebels in their weakest bargaining position in more than a year. Neither the rebels nor the Assad regime are placing any real stock in the peace talks - why on earth anyone else is remains a mystery.
The Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gangs, the two most violent gangs in Honduras, declared a cease fire with the government in exchange for help rehabilitating their members.
This is extremely similar to a truce last year in El Salvador between the two street gangs, both of whom were originally LA-based street gangs whose members were deported back to Central America. If the overall peace holds, it could be a significant change, both for Honduras, which has the worst murder rate in the world, and for drug trafficking through Central America.
Prices rose more than 6.1% in Venezuela in the month of May alone, raising the annualized inflation rate to 34.2%.
Most of the price pressure is due to economic mismanagement during Hugo Chavez’s presidency and rampant government spending leading up to the 2012 election, but it’s Chavez’s already unpopular successor Nicolas Maduro who will have to pay the bill. Back in April, I predicted a rough few years for Maduro - his United Socialist Party has secured its support largely through government-funded social programs and widespread subsidies, but the inflation they’re producing is becoming a huge drag on the economy. Maduro has neither the charisma nor the rising oil prices that kept Chavez afloat; he’s going to have to choose between Chavez’s “21st century socialism” and a functioning economy.
Penguins in Turkey
On May 31st, after four days of protests over park redevelopment plans, Turkish police stormed Taksim Square, attacking protestors with water canons and tear gas. News of the crackdown on what’s quickly become the largest protests in recent Turkish history spread quickly on Twitter and international media, but inside the country, CNN Turkey showed a documentary on penguins. The penguins have since become a symbol for the protests, showing up in graffiti, internet memes, and even on the shirt of an actor interviewed on CNN Turkey. There’s a reason the penguins have become such a symbol: CNN Turkey’s penguin documentary, more than the park itself, represents what these protests are really about.
A Bit of Turkish History
The modern Turkish state was founded in the 1920s out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire. The Turkish Republic is the brainchild of its first President, Mustafa Kemal, later given the honorific title of Atatürk, or Father of the Turks. Atatürk designed Turkey as a modern, secular nation-state abolishing the Sultinate, establishing a representative democracy, and pressing for equal rights and representation for women. He is still celebrated today as the father of modern Turkey. In the decades that followed, though, the repression of Islam, the oppression of the Kurdish people, widespread corruption, and a series of repeated coups have cost the Kemalists much of their support among the people.
The rise of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP), a center-right Islamic party, in 2002 was largely seen as a repudiation of the Kemalists. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been Prime Minister for 12 years now, and the AKP has won every election since with nearly 50% of the popular vote. For his part, Erdoğan has made good on his mandate: Turkey’s GDP has grown rapidly last decade, a series of court cases against generals seem to have blunted the threat of military coups, the peace process with the Kurds is starting to show fruit, and Turkey has been taking a much more active and prominent role in the world stage. So how does a popular, democratically elected government with a strong performance record wind up facing the sort of protests we’re seeing?
There’s no one thing which has turned Turkey against Erdoğan. Even though almost all of Turkey identifies as Muslim, the AKP’s attempts to impose a moral code on a nation accustomed to a secular, modernist lifestyle have rubbed many the wrong way. A recent law banning alcohol sales at night or within 100M of a mosque or school met with annoyance by many Turks. Even in a country where 80% don’t drink, the law seemed paternalistic and overbearing. Erdoğan’s decrees encouraging women to have at least three children so the nation can grow strong and attempts to outlaw abortion came off ham-handed and out of touch. The rapid redevelopment of Istambul is another component of the anger. Erdoğan’s government has concentrated on construction as a driver of economic growth, and several protestors expressed their anger over the number of shopping malls being developed without public input. In a particularly tone-deaf move, a bridge over the Bosphorus strait is now being named after an Ottoman Sultan responsible for a massacre of Alevis, a group that makes up about 10% of the Turkish population. The common thread across all the protestors’ complaints is what is seen as Erdoğan’s attempts to shape Turkey in his own image as an Islamist nation.
This is where the penguins come in. Until the police crackdown, the protests at the park were relatively minor. The attack by the police, though, and the accompanying media blackout, have become a focal point for the anger in Turkey against Erdoğan. The proper lens for the Turkish protests is Occupy, not Tahrir: the protestors aren’t looking to overthrow the government, they’re protesting a government they don’t feel is listening to them. Erdoğan has said that he could put a million supporters in the street if he wanted, which is completely beside the point: there’s hundreds of thousands of people already protesting, and their main complaint is that a democracy isn’t supposed to be winner-take-all.
Erdoğan or the Nation
Erdoğan has been defiant since the protests began, vowing to go forward with the redevelopment plans. He threatened to send his own supporters into the street, has called the protestors “looters” (a phrase they now wear with pride), and has spoken ominously of “running out of patience” with the protests. Should he succeed in ending the protests by force, it will be with chilling effects on Turkey’s democracy. The Taksim protests are larger and more widely supported than the Occupy protests ever were. They represent the legitimate grievances of a large portion of the Turkish population and a serious push-back against a growing authoritarianism on the part of the government. There’s no way to end these protests by force and still have a representative system afterward.
Any peaceful end to the protests will have to involve the AKP. There’s simply no other legitimate opposition to speak of - many of the protestors even voted for the AKP. Fortunately, while Erdoğan may be the face of the AKP, the party is not monolithic. Others in the party have taken a more conciliatory tone, most notably Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s President. Gul is a cofounder of the AKP (along with Erdoğan) and was responsible for having the the police pulled out of Taksim Square after the initial crackdown. He gave a spirited defense of the right to protest shortly thereafter, and has been working to try to calm the situation. Gul and others in the AKP represent the best chance for both a peaceful end to the protests and the political change required to prevent their re-emergence.
I suspect this will end with Erdoğan backing down. He has a lot of support, but he doesn’t have the sort of support either inside or outside the government to be able to end the protests by force. My guess is that the rest of his party will pull enough support from him to force him to back off or to resign. Turkey is still a democracy, and Erdoğan is not a dictator. The other remaining wildcard is the military. While Erdoğan largely brought them to heel, it’s unlikely they’d sit idly by and watch Erdoğan steamroll the protestors. For the AKP, then, the choice is either bring Erdoğan back into the fold or face the possibility of another coup. I suspect they’ll choose option 1.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the Dispatch this week, and I hope you like the new format. My intention right now is to publish the brief news summary weekly, and to have a longer essay attached every other week. I’ve found a week’s news is easier to summarize than two, but one week’s a pretty quick clip for longer-form writing. As always, I welcome feedback!
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!