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How To Win Turks' Hearts

  • Abbas Djavadi

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the G20 summit in Antalya in November 2015.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the G20 summit in Antalya in November 2015.

Prominent Turkish satirist and comedian Gulse Birsel was just in Europe -- this time for five days. She writes how "bored" she was, and how she couldn't wait to return to her beloved Istanbul.

"Enough Parisian croissants and European monotony, we are addicted to adrenaline," she writes in the daily Hurriyet. "How can Europe make us feel happy? Within seconds following an argument, she says of Turks, "we hug and kiss each other, cry out of happiness.

"Then we start discussing politics, and fight and insult each other again."

She's right. Forget about Turkey's EU-accession talks, which are on hold anyway. Forget about Turkey's membership in NATO, boasting the second-largest army in the alliance. Things in Turkey are not so cut and dry as to take cooperation as a sign of future unity.

As satirist Birsel describes Turkey, from the top down many of its people can be seen as emotional, unpredictable, and not so reasonable and calculated, at least not in the Western sense (and much like Italians or Greeks might have been perceived 50 years ago). This characterization seems to fit whether you are talking about the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is well-known, respected (in Turkey), and feared (abroad) for being "autocratic," or the lowly grocer around the corner.

Let's not look away and pretend we were not aware of this. The average Turk is now suspicious of the West, especially of the United States. Many think Washington was behind the terrible, bloody coup attempt in July. Don't ask why. They feel they have tons of proof that U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen is the mastermind of the coup. And the United States' purported reluctance to immediately hand him over to Ankara as requested, and following of protocol that passes the case to American courts -- which could take years -- means the Turks are angry at their Western and NATO friends.

Many Turks are concerned about the territorial integrity of their country because they see it as being threatened by Kurdish insurgency both within Turkey and across the border -- in Iraq, but especially in Syria. And they are angry because they think the United States and Europe are not doing anything to counter it. On the contrary, they believe, the United States is even helping the Kurdish "terrorists" in northern Syria. Turks generally have no objections to the Kurds fighting in northern Syria as long as they stick to defeating Islamic State (IS) extremists. But many believe this is not the case, that the Kurds are fighting to expand their territory, and that Kurdish involvement is bad for Turkey because the Kurds fighting in Syria are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- which is banned in Turkey and which many Western states consider to be a terrorist organization.

On August 7, hundreds of thousands of people attended a huge Democracy And Martyrs rally in Istanbul to promote unity among political parties and to honor those killed during the failed coup attempt.

It was not only Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that mobilized people to attend the rally. A majority of the other political parties, NGOs, and nonpoliticians showed up to show their opposition to the coup and their support for parliamentary democracy -- even those critical to Edogan.

Again, let's not look away, assuming that Erdogan is just appealing to the masses in an attempt to strengthen his power base. Yes, he is. But this time around it is clear that the masses are with him -- he is not alone, or backed only by supporters within his own party, but by many Turks from across the political spectrum.

Ask around 50 people in Turkey, as I did in the last week, and this reality becomes obvious. And it is not only the average person -- this is what I am seeing in the Turkish media, and in the words of political and public personalities.

To win the hearts of an old friend -- in this case, Turkey -- one would have to address their needs. For Turks this means extraditing Gulen from Pennsylvania to Turkey to stand trial as the mastermind of a coup that brought Turkey to the edge of complete collapse, and actively helping Turkey reduce the danger posed by Kurdish insurgency, especially in northern Syria, which is seen as an existential threat.

I know this is easier said than done, and involves a litany of legal issues over Gulen's extradition, strategic issues with Syria, IS, etc., etc. But let's not forget Turkish satirist Birsel's brilliant description of how her countrymen fight and/or agree with foes and friends.

I am afraid the West's adrenaline-addicted friends in Turkey will not wait too long for their demands to be met.

In the aftermath of the huge show of power and support exhibited in Istanbul on August 7, Erdogan is set to leave for St. Petersburg, where he will meet a friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Turkish president will likely be doing some comparison shopping as he seeks foreign backing. And Putin can be expected to be more open to agreement with Erdogan -- with fewer caveats -- at the moment than the West.

But the Russian president won't have much to offer his newly regained Turkish friend in terms of immediate help, either.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.

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