Monthly Archives: March 2009

Lack of coordination in Turkish foreign policy?

Lack of coordination in Turkish foreign policy, or the revival of a familiar division of labor?

by Daniella Kuzmanovic.

Friday the 27th of March brought to the fore two contrasting answers to the question of the Turkish stance on the issue of whether Danish Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is to become general secretary of NATO.

First, President Abdullah Gül used his visit to Brussels to express that Turkey had no particular objections to any of the persons mentioned in relation to the NATO post, and that Mr. Rasmussen had served well as prime minister of Denmark. President Gül, hence, gave the impression that the reluctances, previously expressed by both anonymous Turkish officials and by senior AKP official Suat Kiniklioglu, were no longer standing in the way of Mr. Rasmussen taking up the NATO post. In other words Gül gave the clear impression that Turkey was now ready to fall in line with all other NATO allies, and support Mr. Rasmussen.

Later in the evening, however, prime minister Erdoğan came out on Turkish news channel NTV and claimed that he would have great difficulties telling his fellow countrymen how come Mr. Rasmussen would be such a good candidate, given his lack of diplomacy during the cartoon crises and given the inability of the Danish authorities to deal with ROJ TV, which Turkey accuses of supporting PKK terror. Erdoğan, thus, gave the impression that the Turkish government is still considering a veto against Mr. Rasmussen, is he to announce his candidature, and that the party in office has not at all decided whether they will fall in line.

What are we to make of these two contradicting statements? Does it simply reveal a complete lack of foreign political coordination between the office of the prime minister and that of the president? Or could there perhaps be some sort of explanation for these various statements? Even though Abdullah Gül is now president of the republic, and hence no longer officially part of the AKP, one must assume there to be some sort of communication between the president and the prime minister. Not least given that these two persons have been key figures and worked closely together with regard to the establishment of the AKP, and with regard to shaping AKP policies.

From 2002, when AKP took office, until 2007, Gül was foreign minister for AKP and thus the face of the party in office on the international stage. During those years an interesting division of labor could be observed on several occasions. Erdoğan would primarily concentrate on what he does best, namely domestic policies and voter mobilization in Turkey, whereas Gül would concentrate on what he is good at, namely international diplomacy. The two men each has his characteristic political personality and qualities. Erdoğan is the populist able to rally support in large sections of Turkish society, Gül is rather the diplomat able to cater and communicate to Western audiences.

An example of this division of labor could be seen during the Turkish attempt to achieve access negotiations with the EU in the period 2002-2004. Erdoğan was the one telling international diplomacy how the EU clearly had double-standards with regard to Turkey, and was the one up on the barricades when too much was demanded of Turkey from the EU. Gül was the one who then smoothed things over, when Erdoğan had stirred things up and upset the European countries.

This kind of double signaling was also an attempt to cater to various political audiences. At home AKP could not be seen as simply putting their heels together and accepting whatever demand the EU made. This would upset a number of skeptical voters and the opposition, who would accuse the AKP of not being able to look out for national interest and of looking weak vis-a-vis the European countries. As AKP was simultaneously attempting to develop ties with a number of Muslim countries in order to play a role as a moderator between the West and the Muslim world, display of weakness and a too-eager-to-please stance could also make Turkey look too Western and much too less Muslim. At the same time, however, Turkey still needed to remain on good foot with both the European countries and the US. They also needed to show to the various European publics that Turkey belonged in the European realm by mastering the art of diplomacy and compromising. In such a context the Erdoğan-Gül combination of hard talk and diplomatic soothing had some effect.

With this in mind, one could ask if Erdoğan and Gül are attempting to do something similar in relation to the issue of who is to be general secretary of NATO. At least, one could claim, Turkey is facing equally many and diverse political audiences with stakes in this issue. At home simply falling in line and not looking out for national interest is never popular. Moreover, a majority of Turks were indeed insulted by what they believe to be Mr. Rasmussen’s lack of diplomatic skills when it came to handling the Cartoon crisis.

Turkey, it must be said, is heading towards local elections (to be held on 29th of March). The campaign, though, has been much more related to issues pertaining to the national political agenda rather than concerned with local questions, and Erdoğan has moreover put himself centre stage in the campaign in order to duplicate the success of the national elections in 2007, where AKP received 47 percent of the votes. In order to repeat the 2007 success he has to keep his voters mobilized. A critical stance towards Mr. Rasmussen in the current situation helps in this regard.

At the same time a critical stance towards Mr. Rasmussen, as I have written in an earlier article on this blog, is crucial in order for the AKP to maintain a good reputation in the Muslim world, where Mr. Rasmussen is not particularly popular. At the same time, however, Turkey still has to remain on good terms with their Western allies including the US, particularly if they envision an entrusted role for themselves as moderator and facilitator between the West and the Muslim world. They therefore must at the same time display willingness to be part of international diplomacy and the culture of compromises.

In other words, one could ask whether a familiar division of labor between Erdoğan and Gül is being revived in order to cater to the many political audiences listening in on the ongoing debates over who is to be the next general secretary of NATO.

Who is a reformist and what is principle-ism?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Khatami’s recent withdrawal from the Iranian presidential elections came as a shock. The question now is what will happen to the ‘reformists’ before the elections slated for June 12.

However, the debate is obscured by the fact that the terms ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’ are increasingly inappropriate simplifications of the much more complex and confusing reality of Iranian domestic politics. Indeed, it might be that the ‘reformist’ candidates are not reformists at all; that the ‘conservative’ candidates can attract ‘reformist’ votes; and that everybody wants to be a ‘principlist’!

It is time to review the terminology – and maybe even the mentality behind – when talking about Iranian politics.

The Ubiquitous Principlist
Ever since Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997, Western media and scholars have described him and his allies as ‘reformists’ or ‘moderates’. While ‘moderate’ obviously depends on the observer’s subjective view, ‘reformist’ is interesting since that is how most of Khatami’s allies describe themselves. During his presidency, Iran scholars constantly emphasized that Khatami was only interested in reforming, and not overthrowing, the Islamic Republic. Yet some Western media portrayals nonetheless indicated that Khatami not just represented a liberal interpretation of Islam, but also a gradual secularization. This was reinforced in the portrayal of Khatami’s Other, his rivals, called ‘conservatives’ or ‘hardliners’. Such terms seems to signify this segment’s views on ideology, cultural values and their interpretation of Islam. To the common reader in the West, a picture thus emerged of a rift between a rigidly Islamist ‘conservative’ group in Iranian society and an open-minded, tolerant ‘reformist’ group. While such a picture is not completely devoid of legitimacy, it is not sufficiently nuanced. Indeed, several factors have complicated the use of terms such as ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’.

The 2005 campaign showed that the ‘conservatives’ were definitely not a united, uniform bloc. Thus, the term ‘neo-conservative’ was coined, mainly to denote the ‘second generation’ of politicians associated with Ahmadinejad. The current president is, however, a self-styled osul-garâ, a word that has led to the rather awkward translation ‘principlist’ or ‘principleist’. Osul-garâ‘i – ‘striving towards principles’ – could also be translated ‘fundamentalism’, as it refers to the fundamental tenets of Khomeinism. However, to avoid confusion with the Sunni fundamentalism of, say, Wahhabists, it seems that ‘principlist’ is now common use. Crudely put, ‘principlist’ became synonymous of the (neo-)‘conservatives’ around Ahmadinejad. The only problem is that it is not just Ahmadinejad who defines himself as a ‘principlist’. After Ahmadinejad adopted the term, other politicians soon declared themselves ‘principlists’, including those ‘conservatives’ who were opposed to Ahmadinejad; and now, even the main ‘reformist’ candidate appears to be a ‘principlist’!

Confusing? Indeed. Let’s look at recent developments as examples of the diverse, interlaced discourses of factional identification prevalent in Iranian domestic politics. The aim is not to re-classify or invent new categories, but rather to nuance the discussion of Iranian politics.

Is The Reformist a reformist?
It seems as if Khatami stepped down since he had promised to do so if another candidate – Mir-Hosein Musavi – would join the race. Musavi dragged his feet, but on March 9, he announced his bid. One question that bothers many now is of course: why did Musavi join the race at all, thus causing the allegedly popular Khatami to step down? A possible explanation is that Khatami knew that he would meet formidable obstacles that Musavi, with his outstanding credentials and political background, could avoid. However, as usual, conspiracy theories abound, one of them being that Supreme Leader Khamene‘i ordered Musavi to join the race in order to force Khatami – a severe challenge to Ahmadinejad and a nuisance to Khamene‘i and his ‘conservative’ clergy allies – to withdraw. The fact that such conspiracy theories exist first of all shows what many Iranians feel about the political game; but it certainly also has to do with the person of Musavi.

Originally a painter, architect and university lecturer, Musavi served as Iran’s last prime minister from 1981 to ‘89, when the position was eliminated. He is recognized across the political spectrum as an impeccable servant of the nation. His time as prime minister and close aide to Khomeini coincided with the bloody war between Iran and Iraq, and Musavi is praised for his attempts to keep Iranian economy alive despite the devastating war. Musavi represented the ‘left wing’ (another obscure term) of Iranian revolutionary politics: he was in favor of a state-regulated economy with a central role for collective cooperatives (ta‘âvon). Musavi could also be termed a ‘radical’ in the sense that he belonged to this ‘left wing’, which, among other things, challenged the historical Shi‘i clerical stance on the sanctity of private property.

Around the death of Khomeini, ‘the right wing’ – primarily based around the traditional clergy and the bazaar merchants naturally opposed to state ownership – finally ousted their foes on ‘the left’ and abolished the prime ministry. Musavi withdrew from politics and devoted himself to the cultural scene. Now that Musavi is the main ‘reformist’ presidential candidate, it is interesting to read his (hitherto very few) statements. After Khatami’s withdrawal, Musavi wrote Khatami a letter, stating that

You know that I too believe that the correct way is reforms alongside a return to the principles…

The use of the word ‘principles’ (osul) is not a coincidence: Musavi is aiming to use his political record and image to attract ‘principlist’ votes. In a recent interview, Musavi elaborated:

I believe that ordinary people are both principlist and reformist in a true sense. For example, the people do not like a politician who will back down on the issue of nuclear technology… [but] the people rejoiced at the launch of a space satellite… [Such feelings] can be seen as ‘principlism’. At the same time, the people do not like it that the state interferes in their personal affairs, or limits their legal liberties, or that the state closes down one newspaper after another for petty mistakes. It is possible to call such a feeling and tendency ‘reformism’… Amongst ordinary people, principlism and reformism are not separate. I think of principlism and reformism just like the people do.

Thus, Musavi is simultaneously laying claim to Ahmadinejad and the ‘neoconservatives’ ’ rhetoric of ‘principlism’ and Khatami’s ‘reformism’. Together with his quasi-socialist discourse of social equality and justice that might succeed in ‘stealing’ from Ahmadinejad’s core voters, the poor masses, this seems to be Musavi’s main message. He might already have attracted support from some unusual corners: former Revolutionary Guard commander and so-called ‘moderate conservative’ Mohsen Reza‘i is rumored to back Musavi’s bid. Musavi recently appeared at a commemoration for a famous martyr of the Iran-Iraq War, alongside Reza‘i and Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Reza‘i is certainly not a ‘reformist’ – yet he supports Musavi’s bid for presidency, maybe due to their background as colleagues during the war.

It is also very possible that other similar figures might follow suit, as indicated by recent remarks from conservative critics of Ahmadinejad in Parliament and by other former Revolutionary Guards commanders. It is even rumored that Nateq Nuri – who was Khatami’s ’conservative’ opponent in the 1997 elections – has been secured a place in the future cabinet if Musavi is to be elected. That would seriously undermine the idea of a ‘conservative’/’reformist’ dichotomy: would such a cabinet, including ‘conservatives’, be ‘reformist’ at all? Indeed, some proponents of ‘reformism’ argue that Musavi should not be seen as a ‘reformist’ – at least not in the ‘Khatamian’ sense. Khatami recently stated that

We have never claimed that Musavi would enter the [presidential race] as the epitome of reforms.

This ambiguous statement indicates that Musavi’s policies will not be anything like those of Khatami’s. An observer recently wrote on the reform-minded website Khordâd that

Mir-Hosein Musavi has plainly declared that he is ‘not a reformist’ … and a few months ago, during a private meeting with [reformist groups], he denied any relation with these [groups]. Mir-Hosein Musavi’s actions and words clearly send a message that he does not want the vote of such reformist groups in society nor the problems associated [with such a vote].

Zahra Eshraqi – Khomeini’s granddaughter and wife of Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the former president’s brother – has also stated that “Mir-Hossein Musavi is a principlist”. It is interesting to note that the political bazaar today is filled with rumors of Mohammad-Reza’s possible candidature. In such an event, we will probably see Mohammad-Reza capitalize on Musavi’s ambivalent political rhetoric and present himself as a true ‘reformist’.

Two sides of one coin

Thus, Mir-Hosein’s currying of favor with the ‘moderate conservatives’ and the ‘principlist’ discourse can easily have a boomerang effect. Despite Khatami’s endorsement, it now seems far from certain that the majority of reformist voters will back Musavi.

According to the daily Ham-Mihan, a public survey institute recently found that 57% of Khatami voters in Tehran would instead vote for Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf – currently the capitol’s mayor, who is often described as ‘a moderate conservative’ but has not yet announced his candidature. Only 29% would vote for Musavi while 14% still hadn’t made up their mind. Even though opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Iran, the report does point to a significant fact: that the idea that Iranians are divided between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ is somewhat obsolete. Indeed, the whole story is turned upside-down when we take into consideration a recent article in Tehrân-e emruz, a daily connected to Qalibaf. In it, an editorialist wrote that

an analysis of the view and executive-administrative approach of Mir-Hosein Musavi and Mahmud Ahmadinejad reveals the close resemblance of the two

In the piece, titled ‘Two sides of one coin’, it was also stated that Musavi’s candidature was “one step ahead, two steps back”; that Musavi is also a “man of rationing” (referring to Ahmadinejad’s controversial economic policies); and that Musavi has not made clear exactly how he differs from the current government. Sarcastically, the editorialist wrote:

Today, the policy of fattening the state is being executed, the cues [of people waiting for ration coupons and subsidized groceries] have returned to the streets and the most important government debate is how to target subsidies and promote a lessening of consumption … so why has Mir-Hosein, in such circumstances, suddenly rung the bell of danger?

The point is that Musavi’s policy of ‘Islamic Economy’ bears resemblance to that of Ahmadinejad – and, implicitly, that Qalibaf’s differs from these.

However, there are further aspects to this discussion. Qalibaf has presented himself with a ‘modern’ image: he is dressed in chic clothing, sports fashion sunglasses and appears as a suave, cool and youthful type. One of the controversies over Qalibaf was when he allowed Benetton to open a store in Tehran, and allegedly gave Mr. Benetton a private helicopter tour over Tehran’s skyline. Ahmadinejad’s supporters among the Basij militia criticized Qalibaf for being morally corrupt and facilitating the Western cultural invasion. On the other hand, figures such as Ahmadinejad and Musavi present themselves as austere ascetics, dressed in simple, locally produced clothing and living in humble residencies amongst ‘the people’. While Qalibaf’s constituency is the young and affluent, the private entrepreneurs and the globalized elites of northern Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s constituency consists of low-paid public employees, the unemployed masses of south Tehran, the poor in traditional, rural areas – as well as segments of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij.

Another sign that Musavi is tapping into Ahmadinejad’s constituency was his choice of venue for his first speech as presidential candidate. Naziabad is a poor area of southern Tehran. Musavi used to live here and even as a prime minister and despite Iraqi missile attacks during the war, he stayed here. Now, Musavi is looking for support among the ‘dispossessed’ and pious peoples of Naziabad – and other similar destitute areas throughout Iran. Furthermore, Musavi’s regular use of religious, revolutionary and wartime language underpins that he will not be seen as a candidate for the secular-minded liberals.

Thus, the categories of ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ once again fails to grasp reality: that a so-called ‘conservative’ (Qalibaf) might eventually score the allegedly ‘reformist’ vote of some liberal-minded Tehranis; and that a so-called ‘reformist’ (Musavi) might score votes in what is traditionally seen as ‘conservative’ areas. This political site is not about ‘reformist’ or ‘conservative’: it is a question of culture and class.

However, facing Ahmadinejad on home ground is not the only challenge facing Musavi. It seems he is lacking broad-based support from a very crucial segment: the students. First of all, the generation born in the 1980s does not know much about Musavi except that he is a ‘man of the system’. Secondly, they have still to see an original and far-reaching agenda for change. Musavi’s old-fashioned rhetoric and his cautious criticism of those in power is simply not an approach that appeals to this section of the electorate.

After Khatami’s withdrawal, an emergency meeting of the youth divisions of Khatami’s organization revealed a lack of support for Musavi. Rather than Musavi, some of the young activists pointed to a visitor at the meeting as their candidate – Abdollah Nuri. Nuri was one of Khatami’s trusted aides and served as his Interior Minister and vice-president. He was sentenced to five years in jail in 1999 for insulting Khamene‘i, ‘disturbing public opinion’ and advocating links with the US. Nuri has not yet announced whether he will join the presidential elections but nothing can be ruled out in the coming weeks and months.

Old wine in new bottles
So, how about the second ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi? Always a controversial figure, Karubi too belonged to the ‘left wing’ of Iranian politics in the 1980s where he was a key parliamentarian. In 2005, he split with the ‘left wing’ clerical body Majma‘-e rowhâniyun-e mobârez (Clerical Combatant Assembly) in order to create his own ‘party’, E‘temâd-e melli (National Trust). It seems that the 71-year old cleric is a candidate for every election, every time – but never wins.

Some facts are, however, in favor of Karubi: a decent result in the 2005 elections (17%); a steady following among some of Iran’s ethnic minorities; vocal criticism of Ahmadinejad and his government’s repression of students, artists, Sufi dervishes and the opposition; support from some of Khatami’s former aides; and his populist promises of cash handouts to all Iranians if he is elected. However despite all this, Karubi is not widely seen as a potential winner. He too seems to lack the broad-based support of the younger generation. And again, there is the question: is Karubi a ‘reformist’ at all?

In Iranian cyberspace, it seems that some do not believe so. A renowned ‘reformist’ blogger, ‘Bahman Aqa’ recently wrote:

In my point of view, Karubi isn’t a reformist. He is one of the leftist clerical leaders of the 1980s who was thrown out of power in the 90s and now wants to come back in. He is very brave and outspoken. He writes a letter to Jennati and tells him everything he wants to tell him

This refers to Karubi’s controversial letter of 2007 in which he severely criticized the high-ranking Ayatollah Jennati for praising Ahmadinejad. ‘Bahman’ continues:

But the fight between Karubi and Jennati is just the continuation of the fight between the [leftist] Combatant Clerics Assembly and [rightist] Combatant Clerics Society of the 1980s. Then, the Supreme Leadership supported those of the ‘Assembly’, today it supports those of the ‘Society’

This view is indicative of the fact that for many Iranians, the intra-clergy and factional struggles are basically irrelevant: there is no significant difference between most of these candidates and even in name, their organizations sound similar. Terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ are in constant flux and prone to opportunist abuse from all sides.

The bottom line is that all candidates are loyal to the fundamental ideology of the Islamic Revolution and the fundamental framework of the Islamic Republic. The second common characteristic is that they all utilize populist slogans in one sense or another, even though ‘the people’ to whom they address their rhetoric are from different socioeconomic and cultural strata of Iranian society.

This piece should of course not be seen as an indictment of Iran scholars and observers. I have used (and will continue to use) somewhat simplistic terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ when describing Iranian politicians. As analysts working with a controversial field of some interest to public opinion, we are obliged to talk in a plain language with a minimum of exotic words and complex neologisms. We need to describe the general currents in a multifaceted and often ambiguous, obscure political landscape.

Yet, it seems evermore important today to exert caution when choosing words for describing political trends and presidential candidates in Iran. It is evermore important that we refrain from clear-cut labeling and binary definitions of ‘reformist’ vs. ‘conservative’. Iranian politics is dynamic and unpredictable. We might see a ‘conservative’ come to power in the guise of a ‘reformist’ – just as we might see a professed ‘principlist’ reform the country in a direction away from the ‘principles’.

New piece on Iranian student politics

by Rasmus Christian Elling

I have a new piece on the recent martyr burials in Amir Kabir University, the student activist milieu and election politics in Iran. It is featured on MERIP Online here.

Even ‘Wheel of Fortune’ spins into politics

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

One of Turkey’s most well-known celebrities and host on the Turkish edition of the popular game show Wheel of Fortune (Çarkıfelek), Mehmet Ali Erbil, used Monday evening’s show on Fox TV to display his dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs with regard to politics in Turkey. Allegedly for the first time ever Erbil voiced his own political opinion live on TV. ‘Oh, these are small things, but they are filling our bellies my friends. Will we go back to the one-party period, I wonder? Well if you become like sheep, we will go back, I swear it depends on this. Not everyone can tell this, I mean squeeze a little, squeeze and squeeze. But we know, my brother. We respect the laws. We fear Allah. The important thing is that everyone has to have such feelings inside. You will respect the laws. You will respect the rights of others, but unfortunately look at how it is. Hard days awaits this country’

Erbil’s warning was clearly aimed at the current ruling party, the AKP. His warning stemmed from a recent experience during a weekend outing to the Turkish ski resort Uludağ near the town of Bursa. He and his family went by ferry. On board they soon discovered that Kanal 24 was the only available channel on the TV set. Kanal 24 is known for its pro-AKP stance and has previously been warned on several occasions by the national TV and Radio board for broadcasting what was considered to be pro-AKP broadcasts in the period leading up to the national elections in 2007. Not even TRT could be picked up on the ferry, Erbil added, not to mention any of the popular, major TV-channels in the country. TRT is the state-sponsored TV in Turkey, seen as synonymous with the outlook of a Kemalist statist elite, and hence just as biased as Kanal 24 only serving another master. Many Turks can still remember a time when only TRT was available to the Turkish audiences. But even TRT would, if one is to believe Erbil, have been preferable to the mouthpiece of the AKP.

Things then seemed only to turn from bad to worse during the Erbil family outing. The ferry departed 20 minutes late. The reason for the delay, Erbil tells, was that the ferry awaited the arrival of the AKP election campaign bus. Local elections are to be held at March 29, and campaigning is right now intense from all parties. ‘Was this multi-party democracy?’ Erbil asks, and then goes on to wonder if (human) rights are shaped so as to fit the needs of the AKP, or if the ferry will also wait for the MHP (right wing nationalist party) campaign bus? ‘I ask you’, he continued, thus urging the audience to reflect upon the current state of affairs, and whether things like the occurrences on the ferry should indeed be a normal state of affairs, something acceptable.

Since the 2007 elections, in which the AKP was re-elected with 47 percent of the Turkish votes, the party has increasingly been criticized for behaving as if they had been granted imperial rights to rule. One cannot help but to think back upon the 1950ies experience of the Democratic Party (DP). This was the party, which broke the power monopoly of the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), the ruling party during the one-party period that Erbil warns his audience of. But DP was also the party that became increasingly anti-democratic, repressive and authoritarian throughout the 1950ies, and was in the end removed by the Turkish Military in the first coup in modern Turkish history on May 27 1960. No doubt DP, due to their large electoral victories during the 1950ies, believed that the public had to an extent given them a mandate to act the way they did. How members of the current ruling party in Turkey then perceives their room for maneuver, given the 47 percent mandate they received, is what is observed and evaluated at present.

What Erbil sees, and openly criticized, is the AKP’s attempts at a gradual establishment of a propaganda and power monopoly in Turkey. Erbil’s motives for voicing his opinion are unclear, though. It very much depends on who you ask in an increasingly polarized country. What we do know is that it was time for him to spin the wheel.

Turkish Reluctance

Turkish reluctance towards Danish prime minister as head of NATO – The symbolic significance of public dissociation

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

Turkish government last week publically announced their reluctance towards the idea of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen becoming head of NATO. They even went so far as to threaten to veto his possible candidacy. How come this overt display of reluctance, when the implications could easily be that Turkey upsets a number of significant NATO allies?

In order to understand this, one of course has to take into account concrete reasons stemming from the somewhat strained relationship between Turkey’s current AKP led government and its Danish counterpart. But in my opinion a far more significant reason is to be found in the current foreign political outlook and vision of the ruling party in Turkey, in which a rapprochement towards the Arab world plays a significant role. Due to active Danish participation in the US led alliance in Iraq, and the so-called Cartoon Crisis, a majority of countries in the Middle East  would probably rather see anyone but Fogh Rasmussen as head of NATO. Through their public dissociation from Fogh Rasmussen Turkey has clearly signaled that the concerns of the countries in the region have been heard.

There are several concrete reasons why Turkey’s government is opposed to Fogh Rasmussen’s possible candidacy. First, there is the issue of the Kurdish TV channel, Roj TV, broadcasting from Copenhagen. The Turks have repeatedly asked that the TV channel be closed by the Danish authorities, since Turkey accuses the channel of supporting, both in words and financially, the PKK. During a visit to Copenhagen in November 2005 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to speak and then left a press conference due to the presence of a reporter from Roj TV. The Danish response has been staunch in the sense that the Danish government has informed the Turks that their claims against Roj TV lack substantial evidence, and that the TV channel is therefore allowed to continue to broadcast from Copenhagen protected by the rules of free press. Second, there is the issue of the so-called Cartoon Crisis. Also the Turks were upset with the firm stance of the Danish prime minister during the Cartoon Crisis. He was seen as unwilling to listen to the concerns of a number of Muslim countries, hence displaying lack of diplomacy. Particularly with regard to Turkey, this became obvious in the eyes of the Turks when Fogh Rasmussen flatly refused to take into consideration a letter from the then Turkish ambassador to Denmark urging him to stress to his public the responsibility of the media with regard to depicting Islam. Third, the Danish prime minister is seen as displaying a great amount of reluctance towards the idea of Turkish EU membership, and has among other in a debate article in a large Danish newspaper, stated that EU has to carefully consider further enlargements of the European Union, not least Turkish accession. Finally Denmark is part of the US led alliance against Iraq, a war Turkey strongly opposed. In 2003 the Turkish government refused US troops access to Northern Iraq through Turkey.

Each of these reasons gives ample ground for Turkish reluctance towards Fogh Ramsussen as head of NATO. But the question is whether they provide the key to understanding how come the Turks publically display their strong disliking of the Danish prime minister? In order to comprehend this I suggest we must also turn to the foreign political ambitions and vision of the AKP in general. Throughout the past couple of years it has become increasingly clear that the current Turkish ruling party envisions a grand role for Turkey on the foreign political stage. A role where Turkey is a key strategic partner and central political player in the wider Middle East, but also a role where Turkey stands out as able to act independently and on its own and not only as part of a Western alliance. This is what has been named a Neo-Ottomanist Turkish foreign policy. The diplomatic activity of the Turkish government, not least the rapprochement between Turkey and a range of Muslim countries, indicates the presence of such visions. Turkey has thus attempted to present itself as a possible moderator in talks between Israel and Syria, Iran and US, just to mention a few of the current relations topping the political agendas, and has throughout the past years on several occasions hosted meetings between Muslim countries in Turkey. Traditionally, relations between Turkey and Arab-speaking countries in the region have been strained, given that Turkey has been a key US ally, has had extensive relations with Israel, not least with regard to defense cooperation, and does not share a history of being colonized but rather used to be the colonizer in the region. Particularly, relations with Syria have been tense. In order to develop a role as a key player on the foreign political stage in the wider Middle East, though, Turkey needs to stay on good terms with the various countries of the region. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s display of anger against Israel in a session on Gaza during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in late January 2009 gave him some street credit if not points for diplomacy.

However, in order to reaffirm the Turkish position as an independent and significant foreign political actor with good ties to traditional Western allies, i.e. the US, but sympathetic to concerns of Muslims countries, dissociating from Fogh Rasmussen in public is a fruitful way of signaling this position. It, on the one hand, allows the Turks to signal their independence and willingness to speak out against what is held to be the wish of major Western alliance partners. This plays well at home, where Fogh Ramussen is not a popular choice, and where displays of Turkey as being a significant and independent foreign political actor are welcomed by many Turks. On the other hand it also allows Turkey to signal to the wider Middle East that Fogh Ramsussen was never their choice for head of NATO even if he should eventually become so, and that they are thus in effect in line with a range of other countries in the Middle East when it comes to him. Hence, their newly established credentials among other countries in the Middle East are kept intact. At the same time the Turks might even be able to use the prospect of an eventual, reluctant accept of Fogh Rasmussen on their behalf as a bargaining chip with regard to advancing their position in relation to some of the issues high on their agenda. Should Fogh Rasmussen not become head of NATO the Turks can even claim that they have some amount of influence with significant countries, most notably US, within NATO. Why else should Turkey be the first Muslim country Barack Obama is to visit, if it was not seen as a significant strategic partner?

Stakes are high, since Turkey’s clear public dissociation from Fogh Rasmussen will obviously annoy a number of countries within the NATO alliance. On the other hand the Turkish government has a lot to gain from such a public display of opposition to possible candidacy of the Danish primeminister both at home and abroad.

The Hariri tribunal could spell end of quiet for Lebanon

by Sune Haugbolle.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon – the international court established to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri – opened on March 1 in The Hague.

We shouldn’t expect too much dirt to materialise for a while. But in the long run, what will the tribunal mean to regional politics? And how will it influence Lebanese politics leading up to the June elections. Here is my analysis.

The UN Security Council unilaterally set up the tribunal in 2007 after the speaker of the Lebanese parliament refused to call a session to ratify the statutes to create it.

It is housed in the Netherlands, which already is home to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and International Criminal Court, primarily for security reasons.

As the first Middle Eastern court of its kind, the tribunal will use Lebanese law applied by a mixture of Lebanese and international judges. Its heaviest punishment is life imprisonment.

The court’s first act is likely to be a request for the Lebanese government to hand over four generals held in custody since 2005, as it has been given 60 days to transfer all arrested suspects from Beirut to The Hague. On February 25, three other suspects were freed by the Lebanese judicial authorities in Beirut. The three are considered ‘small fish’ who may have assisted in carrying out the crime but, unlike the generals, played no alleged role in planning it. Although they may later be summoned by the court, letting these potentially incriminating persons go is widely seen as a gesture by the Lebanese government towards Syria.

Hizbollah has called for the four generals to be released on grounds that the investigation is unfinished. This claim was rejected by the Lebanese investigating judge Sakr Sakr as well as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The spat over the suspects last week signals the re-emergence of mounting tension brought on by the Hariri tribunal as Lebanon looks ahead to parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7. So far, the country has remained remarkably quiet. Since the Doha Accords in May, President Michel Suleiman has been largely successful in subduing the feud between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, which threatened stability in the country several times between 2005 and 2008. This quiet period could now be over.

Days before the launch of the tribunal, Saad al-Hariri signalled that his Future Movement will not share power in a unity government if Hizbollah and its allies win the election. Although other March 14 leaders may still favour a power-sharing agreement, Hariri’s remarks suggested that elections are unlikely to produce a repeat of the broad unity governments that have dominated in Lebanon since the 2005 elections.

March 14 leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea have openly stated their expectation that the tribunal will lead to incrimination of Syrian top officials. The return of fiercely anti-Syrian rhetoric to Lebanese politics comes after a period when many leaders appeared to be accepting a Syrian-Lebanese rapprochement. It will have a polarising effect on Lebanese politics.

As the court begins its work, political comments will provide fuel for disagreement and add to the expected rise in sectarian tensions surrounding the elections.

In a worst-case scenario, victory for a Hizbollah-led coalition in the June elections could put the Lebanese government’s full support for the tribunal in jeopardy. The court has a budget for this year of 40.3 million euros (50.7 million dollars) of which Lebanon pays 49%. If Hizbollah was indeed to abandon Lebanese support for the tribunal, it would spark a serious political crisis. However, it is probably more likely that Hizbollah would stick with the tribunal. 

The first UN investigator to investigate the assassination, Detlev Mehlis, has recently, in an interview with al-Hayat, restated his belief that the plot’s complexity suggests that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. In contrast, his two successors as chief investigator, Serge Brammertz and Daniel Bellemare, have revealed little about the progress of the investigation. However, since a date was set for the court’s opening by Bellemare, who now assumes the role of general prosecutor, it has been clear that the investigation has gathered enough material to begin the process, which will eventually lead to hearings and trials.

Despite the politically explosive content of the case, the actual workings of the court look set to be slow and arduous, for the following reasons:

- The court’s work is likely to take at least four years to finish, and progress may be slow. Robin Vincent, the tribunal’s registrar, has made it clear that formal charges or trials should not be expected before 2011.

- No judges have yet been named and the court still has no rulebook for prosecutors and judges. The appointment of Lebanese judges has been extremely controversial and remains unfinished.

- Syria is unlikely to cooperate and freely hand over suspects, which could slow down the proceedings considerably. Vincent has said that the tribunal could hold trials in absentia, but it is questionable how effective such trials would be.

Despite its likely slow progress, the Hariri court will inevitably throw negative light on Syria. That is particularly troubling for Damascus as it seeks to make real the many promises of a speedy thaw with the new US administration.

Western powers expect Syria to work actively against the court and have in response formed an ‘administrative committee’ consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France and Japan, to ward off diplomatic pressure on the tribunal. The Syrian leadership, for its part, will continue to reject all charges while maintaining a semblance of cooperation with the UN.

While the Hariri court may weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s image as a moderate whose central position is vital to US Middle East policy, he will seek to balance the pressure by stressing Syria’s ties to Hamas, seen as crucial for Palestinian reconciliation and a renewal of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; to Hizbollah, which will emerge in a new and more official role in charge of Lebanon’s government if it wins the June elections; and to Iran, whose nuclear file tops the Obama administration’s list of pressing issues in the Middle East. Syria, as always, will play the “centrally placed” card. And get away with it, most likely.

The more troubling question is how polarising the tribunal will be in Lebanon here and now. Certainly, the results of the Hariri tribunal will not materialise for several years, and only when they do can we start to debate its regional influence. But there is a strong chance that its effects in the short term will be to polarise Lebanese politics and hinder the formation of a unity government after the June elections.

UPDATE, 4/3

For those of you in Copenhagen, I will be speaking about truth and reconciliaiton in the Middle East today, here.