Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pashas in Toyland

After my recent post, "Obama and the Endless Quarrel," a reader wrote to inquire about the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), and specifically my assertion that with their acronymous companies, OYAK and TSKGV, they comprise the "third largest" capitalist entity in Turkey. He wanted to know more, an admirable desire in a world where Turkey is becoming an increasingly important nation. In fact, the TSK's "third largest" ranking is really an informed guess based on the assessments of other people. No one is quite sure of the exact rank of the two funds' holdings. Like the tides of finance, they ebb and flow, claiming new divisions while leaving others behind. Oyak Bank, for example, was recently sold to ING of the Netherlands, while they have made other moves with their steel operations. But there is little doubt, as the excerpt I am about to quote will make clear, that together they occupy a place in the very top echelon of Turkish corporations.

Any reader can find out more from this article in Fortune, or simply by Googling "OYAK Group" and scrolling through the vast hit list. OYAK (an acronym for Army Pension Institution) makes steel; it makes cars, roads, and buildings out of that steel; it makes portland cement for concrete, uses that concrete (and of course their own steel) to build hotels and businesses, runs the businesses themselves to make more money, uses their own banks to fund more businesses, builds golf courses, apartment blocks, and vacation villages for retired military officers, sells insurance to those businesses, builds and runs supermarkets, grows food for those markets, makes pesticides for the crops that it makes into food that it sells in its supermarkets--have you heard enough? They even own professional soccer and basketball teams. Oh, and all of their profits are tax-free.

Here, for example, is a snippet from the Istanbul daily Hurriyet, of September 13. "Oyak Cement Increases its Sales Revenue by 20%" reads the headline. Oyak sold, it reports, 2.9 million tons of cement domestically and 1.2 million tons abroad in the first quarter of 2008, giving them a 14-15% share of Turkey's cement production. "Abroad", remember, includes northern Iraq, where Oyak is a major player in the massive development activity now going on in Iraqi Kurdistan. ("In Iraq, OYAK is becoming a monopoly" reads a headline in one paper. Another, from Zaman says, "OYAK rides the gravy train in Northern Iraq." Thus we have the spectacle of the pashas' pension fund selling cement and construction services (hotels, airports, roads) to the Kurds of northern Iraq while, in the mountains, their F-16s are pounding the bejezus out of Kurdish villages and flocks--and the very rare PKK guerrilla.

TSKGV, the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation, is a bit less of an octopus, though not by much. They concentrate on arms manufacturing, including joint ventures with foreign firms. The generals love new weapons, of course, so every two years TSKGV sponsors IDEF, an international defense industry fair. The next one, IDEF09, is coming in April. As with OYAK, TSKGV's profits are tax-free.

Here's Eric Rouleau, former French Ambassador to Turkey in the 1990s, to give us a more complete rundown. This is an excerpt from his article, "Turkey's Modern Pashas," published in Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2000. See also this excerpt from another article by Rouleau, which is equally informative.

Power of the pashas

The constitution grants the armed forces a degree of autonomy that no
democratic state would tolerate. The chief of general staff takes
precedence over the ministry of defence and all the other members of the government. The prime minister comes first in order of protocol but wields less real authority in the most sensitive areas. Amongst other things, the chief of general staff decides appointments and promotions within the armed forces, supervises internal and external security, decides defence policy, and manages the production and purchase of arms, the cost of which does not appear in the state budget.

It was quite by chance, for instance, that we learnt from Defense Week of 14 February 2000 that modernisation of the armed forces would cost about $70bn over the next 15 years. Traditionally the budget for the army's running expenses (alluded to very briefly, despite the fact that it accounts for one third, or more, of state revenue) is approved without debate, by acclamation. The entire assembly [Turkish Parliament] then addresses its "congratulations" and "good wishes" to the head of general staff.

The constitution, and the corresponding laws, give the general staff direct or indirect control over higher education and most of the judiciary. Misdemeanours and crimes against the state are handled by the state security courts, with high-ranking military on the bench until recently. Legislators, university rectors, public prosecutors and judges are required to comply with the limited definition of freedom that appears in the preamble to the constitution: "no protection shall be afforded to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish national interests, [...] Turkish historical and moral values, [...] the principles, reforms and modernism of Atatürk."

Article 13 provides a more detailed definition of these values: "The
indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation, national sovereignty, the Republic, national security, public order, general peace, the public interest, public morals and public health". Article 14 goes one step further, "None of the rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution shall be exercised with the aim of violating the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation." The courts will not only punish acts, but also reprehensible "thoughts or opinions". Article 130 goes so far as to stipulate that "scientific research and publication" may be banned by university deans if contrary to the values quoted above. The electoral law, promulgated just after the 1982 constitution, and all the laws covering political parties, professional bodies and unions, contain restrictions that supposedly comply with Kemalist dogma.

The political power of the pashas would not be so deeply rooted if it did not also draw on substantial economic and financial resources. The army owns a vast holding, called Oyak, consisting of about 30 large companies involved in manufacturing, distribution and exports in sectors as varied as cars, cement, food, pesticides, oil, tourism, insurance, banking, property, supermarkets and high technology. These companies employ about 30,000 people directly, as well as giving work to partner companies. One of the group's star performers, Oyak-Renault, boasts an annual production capacity of 160,000 cars.

Oyak, which is one of the top three or four holdings in Turkey, is
generously funded. It takes a mandatory 10% of the salary of all members of the armed forces and reaps the profits from its own companies, reputed to be some of the most profitable in the country. This is hardly surprising for Oyak is exempted from all taxes and duties, a privilege that other organisations in the private sector no doubt view as unfair competition.

Major companies have, however, learnt to live with this arrangement, for Oyak has involved them in its activities, by interest and design. Taha Parla, a professor at Bosphorus University, has studied the subject and identified several powerful holdings among Oyak partners, including those belonging to the Koç and Sabanci families, known as the "emperors" of industry and trade, and the Taskent family, the "barons" of merchant banking. Private companies also give retired senior officers management jobs, as a reward for past services and a way of maintaining connections with officers in the regular army. In this way an tripartite alliance has been sealed between the military elite, big business (in Turkey and abroad) and state bureaucracy.

The TSKGV (Turkish Armed Forces Foundation), which also belongs to the
army, is Oyak's sister organisation. It comprises about 30 industrial
companies that enjoy the same privileges as Oyak. The foundation
concentrates exclusively on arms production, employs roughly 20,000 people and provides work for tens of thousands of other workers in subcontracting companies. Over 80% of revenue is paid into a fund thought to amount to several tens of billions of dollars. As Parla points out, this is an original way of accumulating (military) capital other than what is accrued by the (civilian) private sector.

The triumvirate formed by the army, big business and state bureaucracy is protected by a battery of constitutional and legal provisions. Its influence increases when the balance of political power leans in its favour, when opposition in society declines, or when - as has been the case in recent years - politicians are increasingly discredited. Under these circumstances the political parties, parliament, government and media merely acquiesce when the military disregard the rule of law.

They made no objection, for instance, when the pashas refused to show
parliament the texts of agreements with Israel. Nor did they react when
Turkish forces launched a massive incursion - without informing the
government - into northern Iraq to fight Kurdish nationalists belonging to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). [Note: This was in the '90s. -g.t.] Nothing was said when the pashas vetoed a postponement of the elections, despite the support of a majority of members of parliament. Similarly, the military met no opposition when they halted attempts to suppress articles in the penal code contrary to human rights or blocked enquiries into scandals (notably into particularly repugnant aspects of the fight against the Kurds) that might have tarnished the reputation of the armed forces. Appearances are saved, for these injunctions generally take the form of "views" or "wishes" expressed by a member of the general staff, which of course does not preclude less subtle forms of pressure behind the scenes.
Rouleau's entire article should be required reading for everyone in Washington. Note the opening sentence: "a degree of autonomy which no democratic state would tolerate." In fact, it's very hard to see why Turkey bothers to keep a Defense Minister. He has no power over the military: no power at all, really, other than the ability to shuffle people around within his own bureaucracy. Things have changed somewhat in recent years (see this article from Zaman); however, despite cosmetic changes made for the EU's benefit, the essentials remain. With this kind of arrangement obviously we are through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, and into Neverland. Turkey, as Rouleau describes it, is a dreamworld for tin soldiers; a paradise of "Mercantile Militarism," in the phrase of Prof. Taha Parla. It's also very obviously something else. I'm not a believer in the over-use of extreme labels; however, I fail to see that the essence of this situation is anything but capital-f Fascist.

Why is this important? Only because as human beings we are supposed to value truth. (OK, just a little bit, maybe?) Truth is not served by asserting, as does the U.S. Government, that Turkey is a "democracy" for other nations in the region to emulate. Nor is it helped by the bland hypocrisies of such as Faruk Logoglu (pron. Lo-oh-loo), former Turkish Ambassador to the United States, who, in a recent article in Hurriyet, gave advice to President-elect Obama and spoke of our two countries' "common values," such as, "Democracy, the rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms and market economy." No one, of course, with the slightest knowledge of modern Turkey gives any credence to such nonsense. (How many journalists can you throw in jail, how many people can you torture and kill before the world starts to take notice?) And truth is especially not served when Americans like Rahm Emmanuel give their unqualified support to Turkey's accession to the EU. As I wrote last May:
Turkey is not, cannot, will not be a truly viable candidate for membership in the EU as long as its government continues in its present form.
Unless the EU radically changes its Copenhagen criteria for entry, I see no reason why that assessment will change anytime soon. You might as well wait for the Blue Mosque to turn green.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Forty-four Sheep, One Kitty

By now you will have read the headline: "Villagers Sacrifice 44 Sheep to Honor Obama," or something like that. Yes, it's true: in the village of Cavustepe, in Van province, near Turkey's border with Iran, a group of Kurdish villagers was so overcome with joy at the election of Barack Obama that they sacrificed 44 sheep (because he's the 44th President, get it?), daubed Obama's picture with blood as a token of good luck, got out the zurna and the bass drum for a dance, then made speeches celebrating the end of racism and expressing their hope for world peace. Then they had lunch--non-vegetarian, of course. This linked article shows the festivities, including the kurban, or sacrifice. But the nicest part isn't the slaughtered sheep; it's the kitty that they're sending to the White House as a gift. It's a Van Kedi (cat)(links here and here), which (mashaallah! very auspicious!) has one blue eye and one yellow eye. This is indeed a gracious gift, and is certainly more appropriate and aristocratic than some "goldendoodle" puppy! (Picture of said cat above.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama and the Endless Quarrel

Talking heads agree: Barack Obama will be tested soon after taking office. One of his lesser problems--thorny enough, however, to become a major issue--is the nonbinding resolution, pending in Congress seemingly forever, which officially labels as genocide the series of expulsions, massacres, forced marches, and deliberate acts of mass starvation which, beginning in 1915, virtually wiped out the Armenian community in Asiatic Turkey. Turkey, long an ally of the United States and a nation which, because of its unique strategic importance, exerts influence far out of proportion to its size, has for years stubbornly fought against the use of this label. Despite recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the National Assembly of France, as well as by many other European nations, nothing is likely to change the Turks' attitude soon.

Already Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has come to Washington and warned Barack Obama against supporting a genocide resolution by Congress. Turkey and Armenia have in recent months made important steps toward reconciliation, and Davutoglu has warned that this process would be endangered by a genocide resolution. In other words, "It's not a good time." Of course, it's never a good time to tell unpleasant truths to Turkish nationalists.

Barack Obama, however, has renewed a pledge, previously made to the Armenian-American lobby, to support such a resolution. Clearly Obama will face a difficult choice. On one side will be historical truth as confirmed by millions of documents, eyewitness reports, and photographs, plus Armenian political pressure. On the other side will be semantic nitpicking ("Was it really 'genocide'?" "Did the Ottoman authorities authorize murder, or just removal?"), and massive political, bureaucratic, and diplomatic pressure from pro-Turkish forces.

Of these, the hardest to resist will be pressure by the Turks and their friends in the State Department and the military-industrial complex. Every year, as part of a relationship which goes back more than half a century, Turkey's generals purchase millions (often billions) of dollars' worth of high-technology weapons from the United States. They are good customers, and they can afford to be. The Turkish Armed Forces and their pension funds comprise the third-largest capitalist enterprise in Turkey. They retain vast holdings in steel, cement, construction, arms production, and a dozen other areas. They even write and submit their own defense budgets, which the Turkish Parliament approves without question. This keeps the process pleasantly free of civilian oversight, and since they own their own defense plants [non-unionized], the Turkish Army makes a tidy profit on items that they have ordered for themselves with Turkish taxpayers' money.

The Turks, of course, are famously nationalistic. The Armed Forces website even goes so far as to include a special link on its homepage to a series of documents purporting to disprove the Armenian Genocide. In a showdown over a Genocide Resolution, the Turks will call in their chits. Virtually every major arms contractor in the United States, and many minor companies as well, will line up with the Turkish government in their perennial attempt to prove that, with regard to the Armenians, two plus two equals zero. "It's not a good time," they will argue. And once again, Congress will probably go along.

There is, fortunately, a way to avoid this outcome. It means standing up for historical truth, of course. But also it involves an acknowledgment that truth is rarely pure and never simple. Finally, it requires drastically rewriting a genocide resolution that is at present far too wordy and full of special pleading.

First, we must acknowledge the fact that Turkey, too, is a nation largely composed of refugees. Many of Turkey's citizens, like Armenians (and Greeks), descend from people who fled from massacre and invasion to an alien land. Turkey's highest-ranking soldier, Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug, comes from a family who were refugees from Monastir, or Bitolya, in the forested mountains of Macedonia. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic, was born in what is now Thessaloniki, in Greece. Millions more came from Bulgaria, Albania, and the Caucasus, to name but a few. Turks are tired, understandably, of hearing about the deaths of Christian refugees when so many Muslims also died in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This fact must be recognized.

Second, the genocide resolution pending in Congress is simply inadequate. It is too long, too certain about uncertain facts, too absorbed in minutiae. It stipulates, for example, the figure of 1.5 million Armenians as casualties of the Genocide, a figure that is impossible to confirm and is, in fact, disputed by historical demographers. Later, it spends far too much time justifying use of the word 'genocide' by citing past Presidents and others who have used the word. Such details are unnecessary.

What is needed, I submit, is the distillation of a complicated history into the fewest possible words, and the forthright assertion, without apology, that the events of 1915 did indeed amount to the Armenian Genocide. Above all, this genocide resolution should aim for commiseration and understanding. Otherwise it will become a piece of propaganda made to order for a particular constituency, an act as important as the declaration of National Cribbage Week.

All the above is prelude to the following post, a draft resolution I have written which recognizes the suffering of the Armenian Genocide and calls for an understanding of the event's terrible context. It is unapologetically the work of an amateur, one who wrote it without input (or interference) from either of the parties involved. I have tried to make it as succinct as possible. Read it if you will; comment if you must. If you like it, link to it or send it on. Any Commenter who insists on reciting past grievances or abusing others' ethnicity will be summarily thrown out into the cyber-void. Please remember that this is an attempt to soothe a quarrel and move on, not to provoke the same self-destructive behavior that has led us to this impasse.

Draft Resolution (Armenian Genocide of 1915)

Draft Resolution (The Armenian Genocide of 1915)

Be it resolved, etc.

(1) By this act, the Congress of the United States recognizes the unique heritage of suffering borne by its citizens of Armenian descent, specifically those forced migrations and mass killings committed by authorities of the Ottoman Empire, beginning in 1915, that have come to be known throughout the world as the Armenian Genocide.

(2) While we recognize that signal event in the history of twentieth century, the Genocide of the Armenians, the Congress of the United States calls not only for renewed study of this terrible episode but for acknowledgment of, (a) the historical realities that foreshadowed it, and, (b) the context in which it took place. In this spirit we affirm the following: that no nation holds a monopoly on virtue, victimhood, or villainy; that the prelude, conflict, and aftermath of World War I brought suffering and death to uncountable multitudes in Anatolia, the Balkans, Greece, and Trans-Caucasia; that the war-aided dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, continuing throughout the nineteenth century and up to 1922, brought desperation, death, and exile to millions of Muslims as well as to Greek Orthodox, Assyrian, and Armenian Christians; and that many descendants of those refugees-from Anatolia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Macedonia, Crete, Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Thrace, Circassia, Chechnya, Daghestan, Georgia, Kurdistan, and Trans-Caucasia-are now citizens of the Republics of Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and thus bear their own heritage of suffering.

(3) The Congress of the United States, with this Act, appeals also for reconciliation. We applaud the Republics of Armenia and Turkey for their recent efforts at rapprochement, and we call upon the current Administration to take all appropriate measures to assist them in this quest. Finally, to those two great nations, Armenia and Turkey, we express our best wishes for Peace and Friendship in the future, and for a renewed appreciation of their common Anatolian heritage.