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Turkey Notebook

The Turkish Coup Attempt, Russia, And The West

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (combo photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to St. Petersburg on August 9 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They will focus on improving cooperation in two main areas: the effort to find a shared and joint solution to the Syria crisis, and in business and energy, including a full resumption of tourism from Russia to Turkey, trade, and construction projects that were halted during a monthslong spat between the two nations.

Both sides, it appears, are using the recent Turkish coup attempt to mend their relations.

This is Erdogan's first visit to a foreign country since the July 15 effort to overthrow his government. The coup attempt was rebuffed by a majority of Turks and clamped down by security forces. It was followed by the detention, arrest, and dismissal of tens of thousands of people accused of being members or sympathizing with Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher who has been in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. He is accused by the Turkish government of building a secret network infiltrating the army, the justice, education, and media sectors, and the business world.

The St. Petersburg visit will also be the first meeting between the Turkish and Russian presidents since Turkey downed a Russian attack aircraft near the Syrian-Turkish border in November. Erdogan strongly defended the action at the time, saying that the Russian aircraft -- which was participating in Russia's bombing campaign in Syria -- had violated Turkish airspace.

In the Syrian conflict, Turkey started in the early 2010s to support armed rebel groups, including extremist Islamists, against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia took sides with the Assad government and actively entered the war in September, 2015. This created a regional confrontation between Russia and Turkey, who had to that point enjoyed good relations.

Following the incident, relations between the two countries reached a historic low. Putin called the downing of the Russian aircraft -- which led to the killing of its Russian pilot after he parachuted to the ground in Syria -- a "war crime" and demanded an apology by Erdogan. Russia also initiated a number of punitive measures against Turkey -- including ones preventing Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, and a ban on Turkish food imports -- that strained Turkey's economy.

Then, in an about-face, Russia announced in June that Erdogan had sent a letter of condolence to Putin over the downing of the Russian jet and the two sides agreed to resolve their issues, find common ground in the effort to end the Syrian crisis, and improve their relations.

Formidable sticking points remain, however, particularly when it comes to Syria and the future of Assad.

Speaking about Erdogan's upcoming visit, Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for the Turkish president, said that Turkey wants "to work together with Russia to find a political transition [of power] for Syria, a democratic and pluralist political structure acceptable to all Syrians." However, he added, "such a solution, that is in the interest of both Russia and Turkey, will be not possible with Assad remaining in power."

It seems the resumption of better economic and energy relations is already in progress. The delivery of Russian natural gas to Turkey was never interrupted in the first place, so not much ground was lost. The resumption of Russian tourism to Turkey is trickier, in part due to the deadly terrorist attack against the Istanbul airport in June as well as the recent coup -- both of which badly damaged Turkish tourism during high season.

Foreign policy seems to be at the top of the upcoming Erdogan-Putin meeting. Obviously, Syria policy is to be a main part of the two leaders' discussions. A "goodwill coordination of positions" on Syria would seem to be a potential rebuff to U.S. efforts in support of armed groups and Kurdish rebels in Syria against Assad, a scenario that would be complicated by Russia's own support for the Kurds.

But Russia also appears to be using two issues related to the recent coup attempt to deepen the current Turkish-U.S. and generally Turkish-Western atmosphere of accusatory distrust, and bring Turkey closer to Russian foreign policy coordinates.

From the beginning of the coup attempt, Turkish officials and media have maintained that the West -- notably the United States, a NATO ally -- has been slow and reluctant in condemning the coup attempt. Erdogan and many other Turkish politicians and media have not shied from public claims that the West, notably the United States, was behind the coup attempt. Secondly, the Turkish government has been insisting on the extradition of Gulen -- who is considered to be a terrorist by Ankara and who Turkey accuses of being the mastermind of the coup attempt -- from the United States to Turkey. Washington, while dismissing accusations that it had any role in the coup attempt, has asked for "concrete evidence of Gulen's personal involvement in the attempt" and said that the government will act on the extradition request based on the final legal assessment -- a process that can take years.

Meanwhile, Moscow is presenting itself to Turkey as a good "friend" who condemned the coup attempt from the beginning and offered Erdogan its full support. Russian lawmakers have claimed that the "U.S. will never extradite Gulen because the CIA was behind him and his coup attempt," and bombastic politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky went so far as to say that "Gulen and the U.S. are Turkey's enemies."

Despite Erdogan's initial defense of the downing of the Russian jet, since the coup attempt Turkey has tried to blame the incident on pilots who are alleged to have been Gulen sympathizers. Even more, just on the eve of the Erdogan-Putin meeting, rumor-based "reports" are making waves in Turkish media that the Gulen movement was trying to provoke a "Russian-Turkish war" and that this alleged "CIA-MI6-Mossad plan" was hatched to distance NATO-member Turkey from establishing close relations with Russia. A French newspaper report is frequently quoted as a "reliable Western source," claiming that on the night of the coup attempt "U.S.-supported jet fighters tried to bomb Erdogan's hotel, where he was on vacation, while Putin ordered his Russian jet fighters to defend Erdogan."

It seems that apart from the effort to develop a common Turkish-Russian position on Syria, the meeting will be cause for celebration -- with Erdogan thanking Putin for his support following the failed coup attempt, and Putin assuring the Turkish leader of future Russian support.

Analyst and columnist Kadri Gursel summarized it this way, "In order to frighten the West, Erdogan will show that Turkey is getting increasingly closer to Russia."

In reality, however, Russia does not have much to offer to Ankara in terms of investment, technology, defense, and trade. Turkey has a deep and interdependent relationship with the West. A Turkey decoupled from the West is bad for NATO and bad for the West, but much worse for Turkey itself.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's use of informal Turkish to berate his opponents has altered the way political debate is conducted in the country.

Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed a top U.S. general using words and a tone of voice that the Turkish public is familiar with when their president talks, but quite unusual for the president of any country talking about an ally, let alone a major NATO ally.

Speaking about the failed coup attempt of July 15, Erdogan picked on General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, who had expressed concern that mass purges in the Turkish Army could weaken the NATO member's military capacity and the ongoing fight against Islamic State (IS).

“You should be ashamed," Erdogan said. "Do you think you are at a level to make this kind of decision [on purges]? Who are you? First, you have to know your limits! First you have to know who you are!”

Erdogan and the Turkish government have alleged that "the West," notably the United States, was behind the coup attempt. As part of their "proof" for this claim, they point to the U.S. residency of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Ankara blames for masterminding the coup. Gulen has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Ankara has requested Gulen's extradition to Turkey. In response, Washington has asked for "legitimate evidence" of Gulen’s personal involvement in order to look into that request.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, soon came to Ankara to soothe strained Turkish-U.S. relations. He clearly and strongly condemned the coup attempt and rejected the Turkish accusation of U.S. involvement in it. He met only the prime minister, Binali Yildirim, and the Turkish chief of staff, Hulusi Akar, who tried to somehow calm the bilateral tensions. Dunford even expressed his satisfaction with the positive tone of his talks with Turkish officials, which he described as "not accusatory at all."

Erdogan did not waste any time. Just one day after the U.S. general left Turkey, the president quickly let it be known how he viewed the situation. "Unfortunately, the West is supporting terror and standing by the coup plotters," he said, condemning "those who we imagined to be friends"

Picking Fights

Shortly before the barrage against the United States and the West, the Turkish president had also criticized German democracy.

His remarks were triggered by the situation surrounding ethnic Turkish Erdogan supporters in Germany who had planned a demonstration in Cologne against the coup attempt and in support of Turkish democracy. The event's organizers had invited Erdogan to address their meeting via a satellite video link.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for calm and warned that it was "unacceptable that anyone would bring internal political tensions from Turkey to Germany and intimidate people with other political beliefs."

German police refused to grant permission for Erdogan's televised speech because they feared it would incite tension. The Turkish government protested against the move but a German court confirmed the ban as valid.

"Bravo! The courts in Germany work very fast," Erdogan said. "Is that the democracy you want to teach us?"

Erdogan's ministers and loyal media followed his lead. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said: "And where is your democracy, your freedom of speech? We have no lesson to learn from the West. We can teach them democracy!"

Until recently, such fiery, offhand rhetoric never had a place in the traditional, established tone of Turkish diplomacy, or even in the country's internal politics.

Turkey is the successor state of the vast Ottoman Empire that existed for 600 years. After the establishment of the modern republic in 1923, the country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and all his successors -- presidents and prime ministers such as Ismet Inonu, Adnan Menderes, Suleyman Demirel and Bulent Ecevit -- were models of traditional Turkish etiquette in public life and international diplomacy, even when it came to the president or prime minister talking to opposition leaders.

This code of behavior was also respected by Turkey’s traditional opposition parties and politicians.

All of this started to change, however, after Erdogan introduced "street slang" into political discourse when he came to power in 2002.

This transformation is not something that can be reflected in English translations of Erdogan's speeches.

He started to address his domestic adversaries using the personal pronoun "sen" -- or "you" in the singular form, which is an impolite way of talking to respected or senior people in Turkey.

A Clear Sign

Recently, when Erdogan was talking about Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and ironically asked the question: "Who are you?” (“Sen kimsin?” in Turkish) using the singular pronoun for "you" ("sen"), it was a clear sign of disrespect.

In English, there is no longer any distinction between "you" in the singular or plural forms. In Turkish, however, the word "sen" is an informal form of address used among family and friends or when talking to children (like the pronoun "ty" in Russian or "du" in German).

On the other hand, "siz" (corresponding to "vy" in Russian and "Sie" in German) is the formal, polite way of addressing somebody, especially at work or in an office setting. It is also part of the language of government and diplomacy.

Previously, it was always considered rude and a "sign of being uneducated” to use the pronoun "sen" when talking to officials or people you didn't know (although there are some people on the streets who have always used it when shopping or talking to strangers) .

In the last two decades, employees in government agencies, the police and military, airlines, banks and other private businesses were instructed or advised to be formal in their official dealings with others and to use the polite pronoun "siz." This development was publicly viewed as a "sign of improvement" and widely welcomed.

When Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2002, this social trend remained unchanged but the Turkish leader personally began using the "impolite" version of "you" whenever he was criticizing or attacking his opponents.

Soon afterwards, he even started using it when addressing foreign leaders and dignitaries. It wasn't long before Erdogan’s ministers and even his opponents in parliament and other politicians adopted his aggressive style for their own interactions with each other.

It wasn't just the pronoun that changed however. The entire tone of criticism and debate became increasingly impolite, personal, combative, and rude.

When people first started hearing the president and other politicians using this language, they began to wonder how they would feel about talking to each other in such a rude manner.

They soon got used to it.

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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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