We are only a few hours away from a critical step for the politics and also for the history of Turkey and the Middle East, given the current situation. This Sunday, November 1, there will be a general election, following the earlier of May, whose result has apparently not satisfied President Erdoğan. The new elections follow the massacres of Suruç (July 20) and Ankara (October 10), caused by bombs placed by unknown and which have took away the lives of 33 and 97 people, supporters of the party HDP, to speak the party that overcoming the barrier of 10% in the May elections has made vain the hopes of an absolute majority of Erdoğan.
I present below an interview released last September 18 to Daniele Ceccarini, a friend who is conducting a research on Turkey.
Therefore at the time, the massacre in Ankara had not yet been accomplished, several hundred offices of HDP had not yet been set on fire or assaulted, dozens of journalists had not yet been arrested and the candidate for prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had not yet promised, in case of victory, that would have helped personally Turkish singles to find a wife.
But somehow we imagined a bit all these things as early as September, because the subjects in the field we saw them grow up from close in all these years and it seems easy to see where they lead.
I also invite you to listen here to the concert given by the turkish group Kara Güneş on November 7 2014, almost a year ago, at the auditorium "Demetrio Stratos" of Radio Popolare Milano within the tour "Between barbarism and Revolution", in which I participated as bassist and band member. The concert is interspersed with some questions asked by Claudio Agostoni on the group and on the situation in Turkey. I did not know that about a year later, one of my considerations made during the concert would prophetically have been fulfilled.
Q: What is the role played by the West in the conflict between Armenians and Turks? And is it right to talk about genocide? What is the political relevance that is behind this strategy? What is the relationship today between Turkey and the Armenian community?
A: The role of the West in the conflict between Armenians and Turks is important, as I believe that the atrocious episodes of repression against the Armenians have become the subject of speculation by the West especially following the events that took place. Speculation on these facts which after all continues even today. It seems clear that when France, the US and even the Vatican speak of "Armenian genocide" they do so in an instrumental way. Which is not to deny or not the facts. But the approach of the statements is often suspect, indicating an unspecified national responsibility of Turkey which I believe should be carefully analyzed on its merits.
The debate whether to make use of the word "genocide" or not, personally I'm not passionate about. I think the answer is up only to historians and unfortunately the poisoned atmosphere around this issue does not allow definitely to deliver these facts to an historical narrative universally valid. My personal idea, derived from available sources to which I have drawn and from the stories of people directly involved in genealogy come from that time, it is that if it was not a genocide, it was still something very similar.
However, unfortunately, all this has no value in an instrumental debate. I think that in this matter comes heavily into play the vision of each other that the two worlds have, I refer to West and the Middle East. Being Christian Armenians projected onto them an identification by the West that is still unfounded. As often reminded by Hrant Dink (Armenian writer and journalist murdered in Istanbul in 2007), the Armenians are a Anatolian people like any other, also if with Christian faith. The case therefore should be seen in the historical and political reasons that caused the conflict. The Ottoman Empire for decades was going through a structural crisis on which many powers in Europe were putting their eyes. Moreover, after the fall of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, it was convenient to many that the last great empire that overlooked the Mediterranean had fallen. Among the great powers of that time there was Russia (which we don‘t consider consider the West), the historic enemy of the Ottoman Empire, which aimed to annex new territories, both for pure expansionism but also to move further and further the border for security reasons. The Armenians were just a pretext, as Christians. On the Armenian question the Russians therefore have played their game to destabilize the Ottoman Empire supporting an Armenian nationalism which then triggered the conflict. On the contrary, at the same time, the German Empire, using the opposite strategy, had strengthened support and friendship pacts with the Ottoman Empire, providing technology and services in exchange for greater influence. In those years German companies were building the Berlin-Baghdad railway. The German Empire sought access to the wealth of Anatolia and the Middle East and the Mediterranean. And this news alerted all the other powers, Russia on the one hand, France and the United Kingdom on the other, which in turn fomented Arab nationalism as an anti-Ottoman movement (the famous Lawrence of Arabia). The difference between the two events I fear it was the fact that the Armenians were a people of Anatolia, then perceived as a load-bearing part of the empire and not a province to date lost, as was the Middle East. The Armenian community in Istanbul was one of the richest and most powerful. The destabilizing effect was therefore very deep and unleashed not only the resentment of the citizens, but also pushed the generals of the army to assume the evacuation, which then often became elimination of millions of people. There are also not certain sources that I know that explain fully what they are and whether there are responsibilities of the German generals operating in Anatolia at that time, yet often I think it's a legitimate question to wonder what the relations between the two armies were at the time, knowing for certain that the German army units were stationed in Anatolia. There is also a link, at least moral, between the extermination of the Armenians and the Holocaust, it was discussed, as saying Hitler had a previous unpunished case at his disposal at the time to launch his criminal plan. But it might not be the only link between the two incidents. Therefore, assuming that it is correct to define "genocide", but I think if you delve into the causes without prejudice or instrumental approaches, we see how the responsibilities should be divided between different subjects.
For these reasons, when I hear talks of "Armenian genocide" that are aimed t attack the Turkish society itself and Turkey as a country, I can not consider them but instrumental. The Armenian community in Turkey today, although not in the numbers of the time of the Ottoman Empire, is an integrated community. Certainly still perceived with suspicion by nationalists and even some religious fanatic, but must be pointed out the contribution that keeps on giving in the political debate especially on the left, being one of the key factors of the process that led to the birth of HDP, which is no longer a Kurdish party but the party of the peoples of Turkey. In fact, many have noted that the atmosphere of brotherhood and unity breathed in Gezi during the days of protest resembled much to that you breathe every year in January, in the anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink, when you gather tens of thousands of people and march to the site of the murder, in a definition that makes all citizens before any ethnic, religious or social differences they can bring. So I think it is clear that there is a wire from the Armenian writer and intellectual Hrant Dink, that goes to the uprising of the park Gezi and reaches up the 13% of votes won in the last election in May.
Q: What is the conflict on ethnic Kurds in the balance in the Middle East? What lies behind the West's solidarity to the Kurdish people? There is the risk of creating new imbalances in a reality complex as such?
A: The Kurdish issue is complex starting with the fact that the Kurds are scattered in four different countries, each of which has internal dynamics very different. Unfortunately I see in the Kurdish question the a risk it can repeat the "Armenia effect". The dynamics are often similar. First, in Anatolia and the Middle East to make speeches on ethnic means (just as it was for Yugoslavia) fuels the fire and only creates troubles. Not because they are special atavistic hatreds; I never believe this kind of explanations. I shall digress: it demonstrates it the common path of Kurds and Armenians in the constitution of HDP, when the army units that actually oppressed Armenians were composed essentially by Kurdish soldiers and the main cities of the so-called turkish Kurdistan were predominantly Armenian cities in the past, starting with the most populated today, Diyarbakır. Today, at least among the Armenians remaining in Turkey and the Kurds of Turkey there is no more resentment, rather they are frequent episodes of public requests for forgiveness by the latter. However it seems clear that some powers are playing with the Kurds a game very similar to the one that occurred a century ago for the Armenians. The Kurds of Iraq are faithful partner of the United States for over a decade. While the United States has set the stage for a total autonomy of the region, which granted them the privilege to negotiate their oil without accounting to Baghdad, the Kurds in Iraq have made a faithful adherence to the US political and military agenda in the region. With the siege of Kobanî then we have made a breakthrough, because the risk of being swept away pushed the local main Kurdish parties, traditionally leftist, to accept the poisoned offer of the United States. Although the pro-Kurdish rhetoric so-called revolutionary in Europe tends to minimize if not to omit this particular, the re-conquest of the territories of northern Syria by the YPG on Isis was made possible thanks to a decisive intervention of American aviation and through the intercession of Masud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, a staunch ally of the United States. A similar agreement is unthinkable that it was possible without the backing of the PKK, given its influence on politics and the Syrian Kurds and the not hostile relations with Barzani, that is allowing them to organize themselves in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. If Europe did not give much attention to these dynamics, the Turkish nationalists didn‘t miss how at least in military terms there is an alignment between Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds, the PKK (which means potentially a large part of the Turkish Kurds) and the United States. And that, today as a century ago, is fueling phobias and suspicions of the turkish establishment, not only the AKP of Erdogan, but also other parties in parliament except for HDP, beginning with the nationalist MHP but also the base of the more moderate CHP.
As for HDP is interesting to note that the statements of Kurdish politicians are often running counter to the statements of PKK. While the statements of the leaders of PKK, and above all their actions against the turkish army seem provocations aimed to raise the level of conflict, HDP promotes peace marches and appeals for calm. Moreover, after passing the electoral threshold of 10% for the first time in the last election, thanks to the merger with other progressive forces in the country, they have everything to lose from the pressure of events that could lead to exceptional measures in an anti- democratic key. However, this between HDP and the PKK, is a dialectic which so far has not produced a real conflict within the Kurdish community in Turkey, but it often co-exists even in the minds of people, in the balance between the two positions.
It seems not out of place to point out in this dualism swing the very identity of the Kurds in Turkey, millions of whom now live no longer in deep Anatolia, but for generations have moved in search of work to the big cities of the west of the country such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, becoming an integral part of the country to the point that new generations hardly speak Kurdish. Talk to these young people about Kurdistan is often like talking about a mythical and distant land. They claim the right to be Kurds, but they feel citizens like everyone else. A little bit as in Italy the descendants of the southerns that 50 or more years ago emigrated to the cities of northern Italy to look for work. These Kurds, in case of open conflict, have nothing to gain.
On the other hand, that foreign interference is creating imbalances I can also see it here in Berlin where I am. Recently there have been incidents of clashes in the city between Kurds and Turks. To exasperate the latter there are not only the facts mentioned earlier, but also the fact that Germany is among the largest sellers of weapons to the Kurds. Therefore this support from United States and Germany to Kurds consolidated in the last year, marks a painful defeat in the foreign policy for Erdoğan's party who finds himself increasingly isolated internationally and victim of his own paranoid conspiracy. Exactly the ideal mix to lead us to the saddest scenarios.
A: Is it right to identify the Kurdish people in Turkey with the demands of PKK? What consequences can be on the turkish political balance the result of pro-Kurdish party HDP, led by Selahattin Demirtaş, which managed to exceed the 12%?
Q: No, it is not right. It would be a crass judgment. For the reasons I mentioned earlier. Incidentally, there is also a Kurdish population that perceives itself deeply Islamic and therefore feels under-represented by the PKK because of their Marxist and materialist faith. Usually this electorate gave its preference to AKP, the Islamic party that especially at the beginning presented itself as a moderate party which aimed to balance the secular turkish nationalism linked to the army, to be clear what has fueled the war in the 90s between the PKK and the turkish army. Although it is indeed true that the authoritarian drift of President Erdoğan has convinced much of this electorate to abandon the Islamic-democratic perspective, at least momentarily, to reward the HDP, new party, secular but not anti-religious, non-nationalist and pluralist and where the Kurdish component is well protected constituting the backbone. In addition, the armed conflict is really something to which all citizens of Turkey now feel mostly rejection, without distinctions. Except today the AKP, which secondarily sees the possibility of raising greater control over the society in view of the early elections of next November 1st (but that past which I do not think they will want to feed) and except for the PKK in a brader Middle East context may be inclined to consider military involvement of Ankara as a sign of weakness from which to profit, especially with your back relatively covered by Barzani and the United States.
Therefore overcoming the barrier of 10% by HDP in the last election in May is paradoxically a destabilizing power for Erdoğan‘s hegemony much more than the PKK itself, given that the purpose of both is a democratization of Turkey and the defense of civil rights of minorities. If the objectives were not the same on the other hand, in the medium to long term the PKK may point to an independence of turkish Kuridstan, but also depending on the other scenarios in the Middle East, and always at the cost of bloodshed. Because it is true that as long as Erdoğan will be in charge, a normalization of the Kurdish issue will be difficult at this point, but today the entry of HDP in parliament and the subsequent need for the party of Erdoğan to form a coalition government, it push AKP to the corner much more than PKK can do, whose attacks on the contrary push closer the AKP and the MHP united by a wounded nationalist pride. The AKP then it is not a monolithic party and has already gone through in the last two years a deep internal turmoil resulted in the expulsion of all the followers of Imam Fetullah Gülen, which is still not completely metabolized. An AKP party forced to form a coalition in parliament would be a party forced to seek a dialogue with the outside world, in this case with a partner of the government, and then forced to open up the political space inside AKP and outside, now under the strict control Erdoğan, who, I remind you, is now President of the Republic and therefore he should not involve himself, as the constitution says, in the parliamentary dynamic. Unfortunately it is not so, we know. Erdoğan recently said that Turkey is in fact a presidential republic, as it is not. The aim of changing the constitution and transform the country into a presidential republic was not reached and among three opposition parties there is not one that logically would endorse this mad desire of Erdoğan. Thus a coalition government would mean the defeat of the policy of Erdoğan, a reduction of its influence within the party and the opening of a new political era in Turkey eagerly awaited by all, even by many supporters of the AKP. This is why the outcome of the election in May was largely rejected by Erdoğan who as President has now called for new elections. I do not understand why, after six months, the HDP should lose percentages, since the electorate is satisfied with the work of the party. If the HDP again exceeds the barrier of 10% is primarily represented the same stalemate and this time Erdoğan will have more problems to recall elections for the third time in a year on the basis of mere political speculation and not in the national interest. Unless the country falls into chaos and this would provide the pretext to launch exceptional measures and essentially suspend the democratic course. Of course, everyone else will be watching and I think if this was the strategy of Erdoğan, as now plays the position of President of the Republic, will get in a bind after which he will pay dearly for his arrogance but alas then he will also make the country pay. I am convinced that the PKK is conducting its own agenda speculating on the contradictions and difficulties of Erdoğan. And strategically one can not blame them. But this means to charge a high price for the population. I would say on the contrary that the agenda of HDP has opposite priorities starting with the social peace for the good of all.
Q: In Turkey, what is the situation of freedom of expression for artists and journalists? As an artist who has worked in Turkey you think that there is the risk of an illiberal drift?
A: Turkey is among the first countries in the world for the number of journalists in prison. This fact contrasts with the image of being modern, stable and in economic growth for years that the government is building. It's true, Turkey has never had a history of attention to civil rights, but I believe that in the growing of the AKP we have to find the reasons for a renewed crackdown on free and discordant voices. This is because not only the political action of the party now in power has always made its way through an ambiguous message tended to hide the true authoritatian ambitions (and they could not do otherwise having to win a majority in a democratic dynamic), but also always had a power management based on patronage. This establishes the logic, for nothing new, that the consent in the elections authorizes to manage the "power" unilaterally, detached from the common rules. Thus the one who tells the other side of power, made of patronage and personal use of resources, is in fact an enemy. For this principle, hundreds of courageous journalists in Turkey are now in prison.
An exaple is what happened in December 2013, while I was in Istanbul. By the judiciary and the police (or by some sectors of these organs then still not fully under the control of Erdoğan) it was put to sign a raid that involved twenty people linked to AKP accused of offenses including corruption and appropriation of public money. Just in the hours when the raid was in progress, Erdoğan‘s phone was under interception (actually violating Turkish law, this to understand the kind of conspiracies that still move in the shadows to put a stop to the excessive power of the President). The tape recordings a few months later were uploaded to Youtube, which was regularly obscured in Turkey for the following weeks; still all Turkish citizens had the opportunity to listen to them. In these intercepts Erdoğan, nervous and worried as you can imagine, recommended in a hurry to one of his children to move a certain amount of money from one bank to another. Aside from the awkward circumstance that Erdoğan remedied by this episode, his own words seemed to show that he also has to do with dirty money. The result? The survey is locked (and its recovery is one of the conditions requested by all other parties to take part in a coalition government with AKP), the recording was removed from Youtube and about 2,000 police officers and magistrates were removed from their charge in the following weeks.
In my small way I can tell another episode. During the days of the Gezi protest I shot, along with Güvenc Özgür, a documentary entitled "Gezi'nin ritmi - The rhythm of Gezi". It‘s the story of a band of samba of Turks that on the barricades animates the protest with the sound of drums. The documentary was officially presented in Turkey almost a year later at Uluslararası İşçi Filmleri Festivali (International Film Festival of Workers) in Istanbul, one of the few festival which had the audacity to present works on the Gezi protest, since a Directive of the Government forbade its spread. Obviously then the documentary was presented in many other cities of Turkey. But it is interesting that only a dozen are the documentaries made by Turkish productions on the Gezi protest. If you search on YouTube you can find thousands of videos uploaded from people‘s mobile perhaps by those who were in the streets, but few have had the courage in Turkey to officially present works on the subject.
Illiberal drift is therefore already underway. I just want to mention one last episode: the headquarters of the popular opposition newspaper "Hurriyet" assaulted by thugs in Istanbul last month. I have no reason to believe that this was the spontaneous action of a group of citizens. Or the Director of Zaman, another opposition newspaper, who was sentenced in June to 21 months in prison. The effort to control public opinion in Turkey has now assumed Orwellian character. Usually these are only the basis for the establishment of a regime. Almost all Turks had noticed it, many of the same supporters of Erdogan. What does Europe is waiting for?
Q: What have been the effects of the events of Taksim Square? There have been political and cultural consequences in Turkey?
A: Let me say first that the mobilization for Gezi, the park adjacent to Taksim Square, the most important of Istanbul, broken out in the last days of May 2013, is not something you can arrange overnight. Since 2007, when I started attending the city, I was struck by numbers, by the vastness of this metropolis and the forms of socialization that people had to build in order to respond to this huge chaos. Istanbul, a city of 15 million inhabitants or more, is a metropolis as we do not know in Europe. After the progressive urbanization of the 50s, 60s and then to follow, mainly families of Anatolia in search of employment, the city now also attracts hundreds of thousands of students, not only Turks but also many foreigners, who move to Istanbul to study in the prestigious universities of the city. If we then consider that the average age in Turkey is 25 years, we can make an idea of the critical mass that in the last decade has built its way to socialize, to share routes, create networks. Istanbul, therefore, acts as a sponge, capable of absorbing water in large amounts without any trace and at some, if squeezed, releases a burst. The liveliness and the awareness of politicized people, even among young people, it may not be greater in percentage terms than in Europe, but if called to gather in one place it can quickly produce really great events of participation. Not only that, with the protest of Gezi occurred another phenomenon that until then was almost never happened in the Turkish history. People known as the "left" took to the streets shoulder to shoulder with the supporters of the CHP and the MHP in some cases. The parties were kept outside by the organizers of the protest, but it is clear that the social background of those who participated in the protest drew from the basin of a large cross-fault of the society, now together to form an opposition to authoritarianism and the forced Islamization of country implemented by Erdoğan. The issue related to the history of the park (which they wanted to eradicate in order to expand the square and make way for a huge shopping center) was only the spark in an already heavily stressed context but with people already aware of what was at stake. This sudden marriage in the streets of different sectors of society has produced, in a matter of hours, a mass of protesters which surprised the police who could not help but withdraw from the park (after they have evicted it the previous night ) and leave the field open (just one year later, on the anniversary of the protest, to prevent the repeat of such facts, the police, however, deployed 25,000 agents at the same time!).
So I think the protest of Gezi certainly was an important step in the recent history of Turkey. A transition that marked the moment when all Turkish citizens who do not vote AKP have felt compelled to join forces putting aside the divisions of the past and that still remain, but it is mainly the result of ground work, a desire for change in society, especially in a big city like Istanbul full of youth, which for too long was being suffocated by an authoritarian and obscurantist attitude of power, clearly incompatible with those new generations who now from Istanbul, world metropolis, could look out on the world.
If we want we can also say that the protest of Gezi made feel urgent the creation of a political path that points to merge numerous segments of society that, despite sharing similar situations, had not previously been able to find a common path. I refer to the experience of HDP and sectors that animate it: minorities, the young and all those citizens who do not fall into the idea of monolithic citizen-subject set by Erdoğan nor give discounts to those traditional parties that still carry the historical responsibilities of the conflicts of the past. Thus the result of the last election, exceeding the threshold of 10%, can be considered a tangible result of the process that has found in Gezi a kind of memorandum, but still comes from very far away, at least from the people of Hrant Dink.
In the ODTÜ University Campus in Ankara, last May.