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The changing face of post-coup Turkey

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Sunset over Haydarpasa Station, Istanbul

The Place Brand Observer invited me to write about the July coup attempt in Turkey, and its implications for the country’s global reputation. 

Turkey has long been described as a country of contrasts. Ever since Ottoman times it has managed an image that has skilfully blended the best of the East with the strong points of the West.

There have been peaks and troughs but Turkey has overcome them all and emerged stronger. Until now, when the country faces what may be its biggest challenge yet, one that may see it losing favour in the eyes of the West.

On the evening of July 16, 2016 there was a coup attempt in Turkey. Military officers took over Istanbul and Ankara and for the space of a few hours the world watched with bated breath, unsure what the outcome would be.

In the end, the people overcame the putschists and the coup was foiled. Throughout that fraught night, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, addressed the Turkish public, calling for unity and a show of strength against the coup. The people rose to the occasion with panache.

In the wake of this dramatic event, there have been a number of repercussions affecting Turkey’s reputation. According to the 2016 Most Reputable Countries report from Reputation Institute, released just last week, Turkey’s reputation has dropped the most this year out of all the 70 countries surveyed in the report.

This dark shift is reflected in Turkish tourism, an industry that over the last year has reported some of its worst figures in decades. Foreign visitor numbers fell by 41% in June this year, according to data from the Turkish tourism ministry. It was the worst drop in tourist numbers on record.

The July coup attempt has surely done further damage. But this incident is only the final straw in a series of events over the last 12 months that have combined to cause significant damage to Western perceptions of Turkey.

Since summer 2015, Turkey has experienced terrorist attacks, ongoing civil war in the southeast, government crackdowns on press and academic freedom, and loss of certain civil liberties, while becoming subject to a constant stream of negative reporting in the international media. It is no wonder the country’s image has been damaged so severely.

In general, there are two main strands that contribute to forming overall negative perceptions of Turkey; the first, perceptions of the country as unsafe (due to numerous terrorist attacks during 2015/16), and the second, perceptions of its leadership as increasingly authoritarian.

It is worth noting here that Turkey and its government still enjoy widespread popularity among much of the non-Western world, where Erdoğan is still viewed as a strong and successful leader. In addition, recent polls have shown that anti-Western sentiment among Turks has flared up after the coup, with 70% of Turks believing America to have been involved.

If the Most Reputable Countries poll were to be conducted in the Middle East and Africa, we would probably see very different results for Turkey. Nation branding is first and foremost a Western construct, where countries tend to be judged according to Western standards of freedom, democracy, and tolerance. This is worth keeping in mind, lest our perceptions risk becoming too ethnocentric.

But in practice, the Western world holds most of the power. It controls much of the flows of tourism, foreign investment, talent, and diplomacy that determine the success or failure of any nation.

In light of all this, what’s next for Turkey? In a recent article, Efe Sevin writes that the current brand image crisis “should be seen as a prolonged crisis”. He stresses that an active communication campaign would be the best, and perhaps the only, way for Turkey to get its image back on track.

At present, the Turkish government is fully engaged in promoting an image of the country as unified, in opposition to outside forces that would seek to damage the nation. There is much talk of Turkey’s commitment to democracy, yet the West remains unconvinced. In fact, it grows ever more sceptical by the day. In particular, the post-coup response, which involves widespread purging of suspected ‘Gulenists’ from within the judiciary, military and academia, is hindering the ‘democratic’ image of Turkey.

The Gulen movement, or Hizmet, headed by reclusive US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, has now become public enemy number one, blamed for the coup attempt. But just a few years ago Gulen and Erdogan were close allies, and the global network of Hizmet schools were responsible for promoting a positive image of Turkey around much of the world.

In order to move forward post-coup, Turkey needs to acknowledge other factors causing its image problem and not simply resort to blaming everything on Gulenists (as Gulen’s followers are known), as this piece in the Hurriyet newspaper attempts to do. As Sevin points out, the Western media has largely made up its collective mind about Turkey and its government.

To salvage its image in the medium-term, Turkey’s best hope is to decide which audiences matter most, and figure out ways to reach them and get the desired message across.

This post was originally published on the Place Brand Observer

An imagined nation carving out its niche

Mardin old town

Kurdistan is an imagined nation that exists only in the minds of the its people. But the concept of ‘Kurdishness’ crosses many borders. The Kurds have been called the ‘world’s largest stateless nation’, although some have criticised this designation for its suggestion of homogeneity. In reality there are many differences between various Kurdish groups.

The Kurds number around 30 million people, spread across four neighbouring countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Despite having their own distinct languages, culture and history, the Kurds are still struggling to carve out their own space somewhere in the niche where those four ancient lands meet.

A Kurd may hold a Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, or Iraqi passport, but he or she will always identify as a Kurd first and foremost. The sense of national pride for a nation not yet born is nevertheless strong and widespread.

The problem of statelessness is not new for Kurds. Throughout history they have been engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition and independence. So far their dream of an independent state has not been realised. Iraqi Kurdistan may be the closest the Kurds have come so far to having an independent Kurdish state.

Officially still part of a federal Iraq, this Kurdish region is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), headed by its own president (Maasoud Barzani), and enjoys a certain level of freedom from Baghdad central control. Accordingly, the region has developed into relative prosperity, thanks to its oil wealth, and has become known as the most secure and stable area of a largely war-torn Iraq.

The Kurdish example illustrates our focus on the cross-border mentality in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, the whole idea of ‘Kurdishness’, is a concept that crosses borders, not just the four borders of the mountainous Kurdish homelands, but also internationally. This sense of Kurdish unity was consolidated and brought dramatically to world attention last year, when the plight of Kobane hit the news.

Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish city, came dangerously close to being overrun by Islamic State militants. But the city was saved, partly because Kurds came from all over neighbouring Turkey, and some from even further afield, to support their brothers and sisters across the border in the battle against IS.

It seemed that the sense of Kurdish solidarity had never been stronger than in the battle for Kobane. As a result, the Kurdish reputation garnered increased global support and attention as the media portrayed the Kurds as a brave force protecting the world from the IS onslaught. In this way, Kobane acquired a symbolic significance.

The story of Kobane has given the Kurdish national project a fresh and revitalised narrative. In particular, some experts in Kurdish affairs claim that the events in Kobane have given the Kurds increased international legitimacy.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty carved up the Middle East between the British and the French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The heavy-handed approach of the treaty showed complete ignorance of the region. It created many new borders that disrupted fragile religious, tribal and ethnic boundaries.

The violent repercussions of Sykes-Picot have been felt ever since. Fortunately, there may be a new approach. Economic cross-border cooperation, while keeping nation-states intact, may help end some of the region’s conflicts. Ironically, it is the Kurds and their long-time foe, the Turkish state, who are leading the way.

Iraqi Kurdistan produces a great deal of oil and gas. Baghdad lays claim to most of the revenue from this, depriving Erbil of what the latter says is its fair share. To out-manoeuvre Baghdad, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan came together to build an oil pipeline from Erbil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This cross-border endeavour has allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to access the international markets for its oil and gas, while simultaneously avoiding Baghdad seizing control over the revenues.

Collaboration such as this is still rare in the region. The Ceyhan pipeline is a groundbreaking attempt to transverse borders for mutual economic benefit. Cross-border economic initiatives like this one can potentially pave the way for greater understanding and mutual cooperation between states in the Middle East.

Climate of fear: Two years in Istanbul

istanbul

It is sobering and painful to imagine bad fortune befalling those places you hold dear; to know that the streets that you once frequented and the bridges you once traversed have become bit part players in a much larger tragedy.

I first discovered Istanbul during its calmer days. I arrived in the city in the autumn of 2013; my first encounter with the ancient cultural heart of an altogether unfamiliar country. Istanbul captivated me at once with its energy and quirkiness, with its fascinating and shambolic mingling of cultures, and with its passion and unrelenting buzz.

Admittedly, all was not entirely well in the Istanbul that I first saw. In the summer of that same year, the Gezi Park protests had brought the city’s various discontents into stark view. The heavy handed crackdown by Turkey’s government against those protests was an ominous sign of things to come. During the Gezi events the world saw a flow of images showing Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons turning on protestors with vicious intent. These images became a dominant motif for Turkey over the months and years that followed Gezi.

I will never forget one ordinary Saturday afternoon in late 2014. I was wandering Istiklal Caddesi with friends on a mildly sunny day. The avenue was busy with people young and old, families, and foreign tourists. Suddenly we were startled by people running in our direction. It turned out there were police hot on their tails armed with excessive amounts of teargas.

We were about to be caught in the crossfire and knew that a gassing could be really unpleasant. So we ran for the nearest side street and took refuge in a vehicle workshop, where the owners rushed to batten down the steel door and where together we all waited until the danger had passed by. Outside, the air was acrid with the lingering stench of teargas.

Since those early days there have been many more dramatic events in Istanbul and wider Turkey. Most notably, the ruling regime has stepped up its level of control, bolstered by another resounding win at the ballot box in mid-2015, when Turkey held its most recent general election. The leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure. At first I thought he was unpopular with most Turks, judging from the opinions of my liberal and mostly secular English-speaking Turkish friends, who never missed a chance to criticise him.

But as I got to know Turkey more deeply it became clear that the man had widespread popular support, just not from the demographic that constituted most of my social scene. On the contrary, Erdogan supporters came from the working classes, from the more religious and less well-educated sections of society. This is a general statement but one that largely holds true.

To understand Turkey better it is important to remember that Istanbul is not really Turkey, and Turkey is not really Istanbul. In fact, most of Turkey resides in the wider Anatolian regions, beyond Istanbul, where society tends towards the poorer, more conservative and more religious. These are the heartlands from where President Erdogan draws the majority of his support base. These are the voters that have kept the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in power for almost fifteen years.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a gifted politician. Although he may lack a university education (his degree is believed to be fake), he has used his time spent on the streets of Istanbul to learn exactly what makes the common Turk tick and he has leveraged this knowledge to great effect. He is ruthless too, as shown by his cynical manipulation of Turkish society to achieve his political aims.

In summer 2015 the tide shifted in Turkey. A challenger party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), won enough general election votes to give it a seat in parliament. This denied the AKP the majority rule it had expected to win. The result was a hung parliament amid calls for the ruling party to form a coalition. Anyone who knows Turkish politics and the personality of Erdogan himself knows how impossible this is. There was stalemate for a number of months until a second general election was called in November.

Between the first and second elections a number of unusual events befell Turkey. In July, not long after the first election result was announced, a truce between the ruling party and the PKK (Kurdish independence party, notorious for long-standing conflict with the Turkish state) suddenly fell apart. It was unusual, because this truce had been in place since 2013, with the goal to embark on a peace process. As a result, conflict duly resumed in the south-east between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Turkey was once again embroiled in a civil war.

Then, just before the November election was due, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves to smithereens amid a peace rally in the capital Ankara, killing 102 people, most of them young. They had been rallying for peace in the Kurdish southeast. The finger was pointed at Islamic State. But the militant group, normally so quick to claim responsibility for its actions, has so far remained silent on this attack.

Eyewitnesses at the Ankara event noted the surprising lack of security forces during the peace rally. It was almost as if the government wanted the rally to be attacked. Some have even gone as far as to claim the AKP deliberately orchestrated the bombing to tip the November election in its favour. Be that the case or not, it worked. The AKP won a landslide victory and regained full control in parliament. I was out of the country when the results came through.

All the while tensions were ratcheting up across Turkey. The feeling was palpable in Istanbul’s over-crowded subways and heaving streets; not only tension but also fear. The country had started to feel unstable. I was fairly shielded from the effects of this fear, as I lived far from the city centre at that time. The place where I lived was a low-key working-class suburb, where nothing except occasional boredom was a concern. But friends living in the centre spoke of their nervousness using public transport and being in busy enclosed spaces such as shopping malls.

Istanbul was changing.

The following year, things took a turn for the worse. There were two separate suicide bomb attacks, one in January in touristy Sultanahmet followed by a second in March in the heart of Istiklal Street. Both times foreign tourists as well as Turks were killed. These two locations were absolutely the most effective choices for destroying the tourism industry in Turkey, which indeed they did.

Another suicide attack in late June, a particularly brazen one targeting Ataturk Airport, cemented the climate of fear in Istanbul. It sent many people fleeing elsewhere if they were able to do so. Expats began talking seriously about leaving; while Turks entitled to foreign passports were trying urgently to secure them.

To their credit, the Turks had the airport up and running again within hours of the attack, which was convenient for some but rather alarming for others. Things felt normal when I flew out of that same airport just days after the attack, apart from the commemorative display in the arrivals hall where 42 people had been blown and shot to shreds.

This leads us up to the most recent news of this weekend’s coup attempt. It’s a time of high drama for Turkey. Erdogan has called on the US to extradite his arch-rival, elderly Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he has accused of orchestrating the coup via his many supporters in positions of power in Turkey. It makes little sense for Gulen to do such a thing.

What rings more true – alarmingly – is that the AKP somehow set up the coup attempt as justification for the subsequent arrest of thousands of judges and senior military figures – which happened within two days of the coup. How the wheels of so-called justice can move so fast is mystifying, unless of course the coup was expected, planned and carried out by those loyal to the AKP.

Now is a golden opportunity for Erdogan to make his final bid for total control. His dearest wish is to change the constitution to allow executive powers for the presidency. If this occurs, it could be a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey. The country will have transitioned into a dictatorship in all but name, just like its current civil war in all but name against the Kurds in the southeast.

There is no telling now what the future holds for Turkey. If it continues down this path Erdogan is likely to achieve unquestionable power. What that means for the common people of Turkey is as yet unknown. Now relegated to an observer instead of a more active participant, I can only hope that whatever comes next will avoid doing further damage to the city, country and people among which I spent some happy, formative and productive years. It feels like Turkey is descending into an abyss, but inshallah, as the Turks say, things will not be as dark as they seem.

No exit on the Bosphorus

View from Galata tower, Istanbul

“May you live in interesting times”

The quote supposedly comes from an ancient Chinese curse, in which the word ‘interesting’ can be substituted for ‘dangerous’.

It rings true now more than ever. Our times could scarcely be more interesting, or more dangerous. At least it feels that way.

First this week came news of a shocking tragedy in Nice. A man murdered over 80 people by running them down with a truck on the city’s popular Promenade des Anglais. The attack was the latest in a growing parade of similar ones aimed at France.

The day after, it was Turkey’s turn to grab headlines. The country has already suffered more than its share of terrorist attacks, even more than France. But the latest news was something very different. It started with a few tweets about the sudden closing of Istanbul’s Bosphorus bridge. Next came more tweets about army helicopters circling the skies of Ankara. After that, #Turkey was trending on Twitter and social channels were flooded with all kinds of chatter. What for? The Turkish military had staged a coup against the government and announced they had taken control of the country.

A coup is not unprecedented in Turkey’s history; in fact the country has seen many before. But there have been none since the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power in 2002’s democratic elections. He has remained popular ever since, backed by a core base of near-fanatical supporters.

On the night of the coup Turkey’s mosques rang out with an unusual call, not the call to prayer, but a call from Erdogan for the people to fight back against the military. Accordingly, Erdogan loyalists took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in their jeans and t-shirts to battle the coup leaders and protest the coup itself. Later the following day, it was announced that the coup had failed.

No one in their right mind would wish a coup on any country. But in Turkey, people have long been simmering under tensions driven by the authoritarian governing style of the AKP, in particular Erdogan himself. He is a divisive figure who brooks no opposition or even criticism. He regularly arrests people deemed to have insulted him, including foreign citizens outside of Turkey.

To make sure they don’t pose a threat to his control, Erdogan has comprehensively muzzled Turkey’s press and stifled its academic community. His obsession with bringing down erstwhile ally Fethullah Gulen has become a defining feature of his rule. Indeed, there are already murmurings going around that Gulen and his supporters orchestrated last night’s coup attempt. No doubt, the AKP is the source of such rumours.

Now it’s the morning after the night before and Turkey has a lot of cleaning up to do. 200 people are reported to have died in the course of the coup attempt. Whatever the reason for this turn of events it is certain that Turkey today won’t be the same as yesterday. The tourism industry is already decimated, reeling from the effects of eight separate terrorist attacks since last summer.

Some say the coup attempt was orchestrated by Erdogan insiders as a way to secure even greater power. It may sound far-fetched to the casual observer. But for those who know Turkey the idea will have an ominous ring of truth. If that’s the case then it proves Erdogan will stop at nothing to reach his goals. The coming days will reveal all. These dark times for Turkey could soon get even darker.