It is becoming harder and harder to stand up against the tide of oppression in Turkey. It's time for the west to interveneby Tan Pinar / November 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
First, they came for the Kurds, then for the judges, then for the journalists. Then for those advocating human rights and peace. The trajectory is precipitate, and last week’s indictment of Osman Kavala a reminder of how far Turkey has travelled into the abyss.
Kavala, shaggy and lanky, has lived in the fast lane. In the early 1980s, he was plucked from master studies in New York—he had graduated in economics from Manchester—to take over the family trading company. The early death of his father, Mehmet, thrust him into the hustling with bureaucrats which characterised 1980s Ankara. His father had at one time been in the same league as Vehbi Koç, whose grandsons now run the largest company in the country, and he left a solid legacy. Osman brought charm, youth and energy to the family group, supporting the efforts of Prime Minister Turgut Özal to open the long-closed Turkish economy, and turning this into some major contracts. As an executive of the Kavala Group, he invested in the Kavaklıdere vineyards in central Ankara and put together the finance and team to build the modern hotel the capital needed—though soon found his Sheraton’s 311 rooms jousting with the 309 rooms of the neighbouring Hilton.
Everything seemed to represent an opportunity—and this was where his problems started. Some of the projects he launched were visionary, not least his founding shareholding in Turkcell, now Turkey’s leading mobile operator. Others did well for a time, such as the launch of a Turkish edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Many helped the progressive group he had assembled around him, including the publishing house, İletişim, a force on the left, and, later, the newspaper BirGün. He loved the creative side of business, but was not good at the drudge of implementation and, rarely saying no to his friends’ ideas, spread himself thinly. By the early 2000s, he had put business largely aside and started devoting himself to what had always driven him, the desire to help the downtrodden. In this, though not in the funds available, he has indeed been a Turkish Soros.
In 2002, he set up Anadolu Kültür, an NGO to support the production and sharing of culture and art in cities across Turkey and abroad. It aimed to overcome regional differences and prejudices. Anadolu Kültür’s website describes its “dream of a society that has managed to shed its prejudices, that finds nourishment and enrichment through differences and where cultural diversity is not perceived as a source of conflict but of wealth.”
Arts exchanges with the remote border town of Kars in Turkey’s north east, support for film festivals in Diyarbakır, workshops after bombs in the Kurdish populated town of Şemdinli, workshops on popular identity in Bursa, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep and İzmir, working with Syrian and Yazidi children in İstanbul schools—his record in the past two decades is striking. As Nurcan Baysal, a founder of the Diyarbakır Political and Social Research Institute told the independent T24 after his arrest:
“Over the years, from Kars, Mus, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Antioch, Mardin, Yerevan, to Central Anatolia, Çanakkale, Bursa, I have witnessed people from different parts of the country who could not sit at the same table come together for culture and art. And not only culture and art but children’s rights, the victims of land mines, work for poverty and development, the rights of LGBT people, and dialogue to solve the Kurdish problem, the Armenian question, democracy, freedom and the establishment of justice… In the summer of 2014, while hundreds of thousands of Yazidi were fleeing from ISIS, Osman Kavala set out to meet the needs of the Yazidi camps. We established a school together… In the same way, Osman Kavala was always active for Syrian refugees.”
Kavala was on his way back to Istanbul with members of the Goethe Institute when he was arrested. He worked on cultural exchange programmes with the European Union, being a Turkish partner of Tandem, an initiative of the European Cultural Foundation (Amsterdam) and MitOst e.V. (Berlin). And on musical and other exchanges with Armenia.
Cursed are the peacemakers for they shall be called appeasers, runs one of the many rewritings of the Seventh Beatitude—and Kavala has certainly found the truth of the ninth: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
“We will stand up against those who try to shoot this nation from inside,” the Art Newspaper quotes Erdogan as saying about Osman Kavala’s detention. Pro-government newspapers accuse Kavala of financing terrorist groups and running a criminal organisation that supported the Gezi Park coup attempt in July 2013. As Amberin Zaman, a journalist writing from Washington for Al-Monitor, writes: “the slander campaign against the prominent businessman and philanthropist is continuing full blast. Aydin Unal, a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Safak, wrote: ‘It is quite clear that Kavala, just like Fethullah Gulen, is one of the baby-faced, masked as peace-loving, humanitarian-seeming tools collected internally to carry out the west’s operations on Turkey.’”
Kavala has been charged with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” a catch-all accusation under Turkey’s notoriously loose Anti-Terrorism Law of 1991. He was always too tall a poppy in the paranoia following the failed coup of July 2016, and that this coup took place at the same time as a human rights symposium on Büyük Ada, the sleepy Prince’s Island where Trotsky wrote his History of the Russian Revolution, caused the authorities to pounce on this year’s follow-on event. It was an apparently harmless meeting, a training workshop organised by Amnesty International. The authorities arrested the ten participants, including İdil Eser, AI’s Turkey Director, Veli Acu and Günal Kurşun of the Human Rights Agenda Association and the German, Peter Stüdtner. Taner Kılıç, AI’s Turkey Chairperson, had been arrested a month earlier. All except Kılıç have now been released. The pro-government Sabah alleges that Kavala is under investigation because of such meetings.
Bonn was enraged by the arrest of Stüdtner, as it had been by that of Deniz Yücel, the German-Turkish correspondent of Die Welt, in February. President Erdoğan accused Yücel of being a spy. Yücel’s real fault seems to have lain elsewhere. He had published an article on the trove of material obtained by the contrarian hacker group RedHack and published by WikiLeaks as “an authoritative, searchable archive of 57,934 emails from the personal email address of Berat Albayrak.” Albayrak is the son-in-law of President Erdoğan, and all this was getting close to the writhing financial activities of the president and his family.
Erdoğan is on record as describing the coup attempt last year as a “gift from God.” It has allowed him to complete the round-up of potential critics and the destruction of what checks and balances remained after his previous assault on the police and judiciary in December 2013. That had been triggered by the launch of criminal proceedings against leading members of his government alleging corruption. These led Erdoğan in Ankara to telephone his seemingly obtuse younger son, Bilal, in İstanbul instructing him to dispose of the funds in a safe to various of his cronies, according to an apparent recording of the five relevant calls. In one call, Bilal said he had disposed of most of the funds but still had €30 million to deal with.
In 2013, Erdoğan needed to wrest control of the police and the judiciary to stop investigation of his alleged corruption. Four years on, with further revelations emerging, such motivations are more relevant than ever. His post-coup assault on the parliamentary opposition, the press and civil rights organisations at least in part reflects his need to prevent investigations of his own activities. As one European Investigative Collaborations dataset shows, his close friend, Sıtkı Ayan, is a partner with Tevfik Arif, a Kazakh-Turkish businessman whose company Bayrock partnered with Donald Trump in the construction of the $440 million Trump SoHo and at least three other projects.
How should the west handle the Putinisation of governance in Turkey? The response to the arrest of Kavala has been limited. France’s Foreign Ministry called Kavala “one of the most important and respected figures of the Turkish cultural scene and civil society.” The US State Department said Kavala’s detention was a further example of a “very alarming trend” that “chills public debate.” The EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy spokesperson, Maja Kocijančič, said Kavala’s detention was “worrying,” urging a swift resolution. But basically the Turks are on their own and, with the arrests—and often torture—continuing, it is becoming harder and harder to stand up against the tide of repression.
As the Lutheran Martin Niemöller—and later Bertholt Brecht—concluded his lament: “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”