Turkey: minorities watch closely as election day approaches

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jul 20 21:09:40 UTC 2007

*Civil Society*:
Yigal Schleifer: 7/19/07

The Princes' Islands, a small archipelago about an hour's ferry ride from
Istanbul, are perhaps the last remnant of the city's cosmopolitan past. The
summer home of a large part of Istanbul's Armenian, Greek and Jewish
communities, the islands are one of the few places in Turkey where you can
still hear Ladino and Greek spoken on the street. Kinali, one of the smaller
islands, is a favorite among Istanbul's Armenians. Along its leafy main
street, markets sell Armenian delicacies, while down on the rocky beach, men
and women of all ages sun themselves while looking out upon the Istanbul

Despite the island's tranquility, the vacationers' minds are not at ease.
Turkey will hold parliamentary elections on July 22, and many members of
Turkey's small, but historic religious minorities believe these elections
are the most important in decades. On the one hand, Turkey's successful
government, led by the liberal-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP),
has been accused of trying to undermine the country's secular foundations
and to promote the role of Islam in public life. On the other hand, the
country's secular opposition has increasingly embraced rhetoric that is
nationalist and anti-Western, part of a wider nationalist surge that has
already turned violent. Last January, an ultra-nationalist teenager shot to
death Hrant Dink, an outspoken Armenian journalist, on an Istanbul sidewalk.
[For background see the Eurasia insight archive].
http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav012207.shtml A few
months later, a group of young men brutally murdered three evangelical
Christians in the Turkish city of Malatya. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive].

While in previous votes people sometimes didn't bother to leave the beach to
go cast their votes on the mainland, islanders say this election is
different. "This time, people are aware of the seriousness of these
elections. As minorities, these elections are very important for us," says
Nadin Papuccian, a 22-year-old Armenian sitting with friends at a waterside
café. Though small, numbering less than 100,000 in a country of 70 million,
Turkey's officially recognized minorities – Armenians, Greeks and Jews –
loom large in the country's imagination, and in how Turkey is perceived

Ankara often uses the minorities' continued presence to present Turkey as a
mosaic where different religious groups coexist peacefully. At the same
time, religious freedom is consistently one of the barometers by which
Turkey's progress on human rights issues and its ongoing European Union
membership bid are measured. Also, problems revolving around the minorities
– from the Armenian genocide debate to the Cyprus issue and the continuing
closure of a major Orthodox Christian seminary on Heybeli, another of the
Princes' Islands – continue to haunt Turkey domestically and in foreign
affairs. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The July 22 election comes in the midst of a raging debate over the role of
Islam in public life and the question of whether the AKP is committed to
maintaining Turkey's secular system. Despite that, it appears that a large
number of Turkey's Christians are supporting the party, which has worked
hard to portray itself as committed to democratization and human rights.
"The AK Party is more moderate and less nationalistic in its dealings with
minorities. The Erdogan government listens to us – we will vote for the AK
Party in the next elections," Mesrob II, the Armenian patriarch in Turkey,
told the German magazine Der Spiegel in a recent interview.

Meanwhile, Agos, the Armenian weekly, estimates close to 60 percent of
Turkey's 70,000 Armenians will vote for the AKP. "I'm a Christian, but I'm
not scared of the AKP. They are working for the good of the country, they
are respecting other cultures and accepting the rules of the EU," says Aret
Cavdar, an Istanbul steel trader who is summering in Kinali. "I don't know
if they are honest about this or not, but I haven't seen another government
working this well."  Mihail Vasiliadis, editor of Apoyevmatini, a
Greek-language daily newspaper based in Istanbul, says he believes Turkey's
miniscule Greek community – an estimated 2,000 people remaining from a
population that numbered over a million in the early 1920's – is also
backing the AKP. "[AKP leaders] are more liberal towards the minorities. I
do not deny that they are Islamists, but they are the only [ones] that will
guarantee Turkey's integration with Europe," he says.

Vasiliadis points out to a debate last year in parliament over reform-minded
legislation introduced by the AKP that would have liberalized the strict
rules governing minority-run foundations and would have created a mechanism
for returning minority property confiscated by the state. The bill was
strongly opposed by MPs from the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP),
Turkey's main opposition party. Opponents claimed the bill would give
foreign powers more control in the country. "When you look at the other
[Turkish political] parties, they consider minorities as part of another
nation. They see us as a cancer within the nationalist structure,"
Vasiliadis says.

In contrast, members of Turkey's 20,000-member Jewish community appear to be
leaning towards the CHP, currently the only viable secular opposition to the
AKP, despite the fact that the party has grown increasingly hostile to the
United States and the EU over the last several years and has a poor track
record when it comes to minority rights. The party has also hinted that it
might form a coalition with far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose
stance on minority issues is even worse.

Still, for many Jews, Islamism in Turkey has been synonymous with
anti-Semitism, and concerns about the AKP's Islamic roots and agenda have
not been allayed. Nisim Cohen, a textile merchant eating at a kosher
restaurant on Buyukada, the largest of the Princes' Islands, says he will
vote for the CHP, though he's not happy about it. "I don't like [the CHP],
but I don't have a choice," Cohen says. "The AKP shows a nice face, but in
their hearts I fear they want to make this an Islamic country. They will not
keep the Republic as it is."

Adds Viktor Kuzu, an advertising executive who is also a former columnist
for Salom, the Jewish community's weekly newspaper: "The last year put
questions in our mind. If [the AKP] could have the power to change the
educational system, the court system and the interrupt the way we live, then
that is not a good option."

"So let's have an AKP government that is still in charge, but has less
power. Hopefully that will be the scenario," Kuzu suggested. Members of
Turkey's religious minorities are keenly aware of the reality that they are
effectively, though not legally, excluded from top positions in public
service, politics and the military. No party, for example, is running with
any high-profile Christian or Jewish candidates. "In this country, Turk
means Muslim Turk," Baskin Oran, an Ankara University professor who is
running as an independent candidate for parliament in Istanbul, and who is
also expected to get strong support from Armenian voters, told the
English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.

Rifat Bali, an Istanbul-based independent researcher and historian who has
written extensively on Turkey's minorities, says despite some improvement,
the AKP's track record on minority rights is spotty. "I don't think they
tried to change the atmosphere regarding minorities," he says. "Take the
Malatya murders or the Dink murder: besides paying lip service, nothing was
done. There was no strong statement issued."

Critics have pointed out that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister
and leader of the AKP, continues to host on his private airplane writers
from Vakit, an Islamist newspaper that publishes rabidly anti-Semitic
articles. And when the mainstream media recently raised hackles after it
turned out that one of the foreign investors in a consortium that bought
Turkey's state-owned chemical company was of Armenian descent, the
government quickly stated that it would review the sale.

Bali suggested that there was a superficial quality to Turkey's EU-mandated
efforts to democratize society as part of the accession process, asserting
that the AKP has taken no action to curb both Islamist and ultra-nationalist
media outlets from promoting racist and anti-Semitic views. "It goes on as
before, with no one interfering," Bali said.

*Editor's Note*: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in

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