Turkey’s Tumultuous Days

March 26, 2021

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence,  known as the Istanbul Convention, was opened for signature on 11 May 2011, in Istanbul. Turkey was the first member state to ratify it.

Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day 2021. In a message President Erdogan said:

“… To carry our country forward, to achieve our objectives, we shall keep walking, women and men, shoulder to shoulder as a nation.

“We are proud of our women who throughout history have remained at the forefront in every aspect of life, and who set examples with their struggle and achievements…

“I condemn, in strongest terms, every kind of physical and psychological violence against women, which I consider a crime against humanity.”

Turkish women, though mostly doubtful, if not distrustful, of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) approach towards women must have seen the message as a reassurance. After all, in 1934 during Atatürk’s time, they were among the first in Europe to achieve the right to vote and run for elected office through a constitutional amendment.

On March 13, Turkey’s State Council decided that Ataturk’s relief should be removed from state medals.

The same day, the State Council also decided to end the reading of the student oath from elementary schools. The student oath is  only a few lines. It starts “I’m a Turk” and ends, “How happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk’ ” I took that oath every day when I was in the elementary school. It only  reflected a commitment to our hard-won independence, Turkey’s Republican values and to progress.

In both cases, State Council’s relevant chambers had previously decided otherwise. In the former case the Presidency, and in the latter one the Ministry of National Education had appealed against the chamber’s decision. And the State Council’s Assembly overturned the decisions of its chambers.

On March 17, Turkey’s chief prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court to ban Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the main pro-Kurdish opposition party.

The same day, HDP deputy Gergerlioğlu was stripped of his status as a member of parliament as the Speaker read out the Court of Appeal decision upholding a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. The Court of Appeal’s decision is now being challenged before the Constitutional Court.

On March 18, the 106th anniversary of the Gallipoli Victory, President Erdoğan issued a message expressing gratitude to Ataturk and to those who lost their lives in that epic battle.

On March 20, Turkey withdrew from the İstanbul Convention by a presidential decree which said that the Convention was “nullified” with respect to Turkey. Whoever wrote decree, must have thought that  the word “nullify” is a more defiant expression than the timid “withdraw”. In Turkey, “null and void”, “of no consequence”, are widely expressions used by government officials in rejection  of European Court decisions or advice by our “traditional allies”.

The withdrawal decree triggered a debate regarding its constitutionality because the Convention had been ratified by the parliament unanimously in 2012. It provoked reaction from the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU, and Turkey’s “traditional allies”. But who cares? They are of no consequence. The chief imam of the Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque approved the nullification.

Turkey’s withdrawing from a major international convention, simply referred to as the “İstanbul Convention” was appalling if for  nothing else, its title. Mehmed the Conqueror, women heroes of our history must have turned in their graves.

The same day, Governor of Turkey’s Central Bank was fired after 132 days in office. As Governor his first act had been to raise interest rates. As the Asian markets opened, the Turkish currency hit record lows against the euro and US dollar, losing 10% of its value.

The chief imam of the Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque tweeted, “The reduction of interest rated, and their eventual elimination is a dictate of both Islam and wisdom. In strong economies, interest rates vary between 0-1 %. This is why, fighting  usurers is a dictate of Islam.”

On March 24, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) had its annual party congress in Ankara. In remarks to the congress as party leader, President Erdoğan elaborated at length on JDP’s accomplishments and mentioned the challenges ahead. On foreign policy, he notably said, “… We are determined to turn our region into an island of peace in the period ahead by increasing the number of our friends and putting an end to animosities.” His words must have reminded some of former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors”.

Hopefully, Mr. Erdoğan’s new regional vision would not suffer the same fate.

In his references to Turkish history, President Erdoğan mentioned Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Empire, Süleyman Shah and his grandson of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed the Conqueror. He mentioned late prime ministers Menderes, Özal, Erbakan and the founder of his coalition partner Alpaslan Türkeş. He did not mention Atatürk.

Finally, on March 25, Speaker of the Parliament, Mustafa Şentop during a tv interview said that President Erdoğan can withdraw from the Montreux Convention and other international instruments as he withdrew from the İstanbul Convention. The constitutionality of his view aside, his reference to the Montreux Convention was appalling. If a slip of the tongue, it was an unfortunate one. If not, even worse.

As I said in an earlier post, “In the light of the diplomatic and military history of the region, ambitions of major players, strategic rivalries, and the evolution of the global landscape, one can say with certainty that putting the Montreux Convention at risk would have most negative political and security implications for Turkey. As a polarized and diplomatically isolated country with a more than fully loaded foreign policy agenda, this would be last thing we need.”[i]

So, even a reference to  withdrawing from the Montreux Convention runs counter to Turkey’s highest national interests, period.

The foregoing are the developments of only two weeks of disarray, confusion, and wobbling. They raise more questions than provide answers. They show that the country has lost direction; that despite the fine talk it is polarized. But this much is clear: JDP’s Islamization of Turkey, its undermining of Atatürk’s secular, progressist Republican legacy continues unabated, nearing the point of no return. Had secularism been embraced by Middle East leaders and peoples, the region would not have suffered decades of fratricide enabling external powers’ selfish interventions. But who cares so long as an Islamist public discourse brings in votes, leads to submission?

Middle East leaders who were jealous of Turkey’s progress under Atatürk’s leadership but did not have the courage to follow his example and preferred an easier path to perpetual power must be delighted. Turkey’s “traditional allies and partners” should also be happy because they would prefer Turkey becoming just another Middle East country to its remaining on Atatürk’s path. After all, it was Atatürk who said, “as they have come, so they will go” and forced them to retreat and  to shelve their centuries-old projects.

Only five more days to celebrate April Fools’ Day…


[i] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2020/01/28/the-montreux-convention-russias-perspective/

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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