Friday, 9 January 2009

The future is what you make of it

2009. Not a nice round number.
Still, the Turkish press celebrated its arrival as the ‘make or break’ year for Turkey’s EU membership aspirations. Again.
Turkey seems to be having such ‘make or break’ years quite often since 1965 – when attempts to join the European institutional family first started. Since then, each year is make or break. Only it never is.
Granted. There have been good years. Customs union was achieved in 1996. That was a huge step. But not the breakthrough some had hoped for. And while Turkey was striving for membership, the EU was itself changing dramatically, becoming an increasingly complicated institution. And making membership increasingly harder. So Turkey was chasing a moving target. And in 2001 a decision was made to go all out in its pursuit.

2001. Not a nice round number. But a momentous year. Because a collective choice was made by the public, parties and state agencies to channel all creative energies on an unconditional drive towards membership. This consensus was long coming and it made unlikely bedfellows of politicians, generals, activists and academics who shared the EU membership aspiration, albeit for different reasons.
2001 was a momentous year for Turkish politics, civil society, domestic reform.
But make or break, it wasn’t.

Eight years on and this reform drive, having achieved a lot but not its stated objective, is faltering as fatigue and disillusionment are setting in. Reform has gone far, but not far enough. Change has been rapid, but not rapid enough.
And although a lot has changed, Turkey’s fundamentals remain unchanged. Its system (the foundation of the laws, the cornerstone of the polity) remains collectivist, nationalist, secular. EU-sponsored individualism, multi-culturalism and freedom of religion have coloured many laws but not the legal system. They have informed much change, but have not changed Turkey’s political core.

Part of the problem may well be that the system works.
The EU is made up of liberal democracies. Some members started off that way. Others were taken in after the end of bloody dictatorships or after the collapse of communist regimes. All were ready for a new start, all were keen to be guided into EU-sponsored liberal democracy.
Turkey is different. It is membership it covets, not a new political system. And as it is becoming clear that one without the other is not an option, the question is will 2009 be a make-or-break year after all?

Turkey already has a customs union.
And as financial handouts and free movement of people within the Union are restricted for new members, the practical appeal of membership is not all that great any more for Turkey.
After years of crushing humiliation and rejection, the feel-good factor of being accepted in the European club is losing credibility fast as well.
And the Europeans don’t want Turkey. After the longest negotiation in the Union’s history, Turkey is still out in the cold and many within the EU still clamour for ‘privileged partnership’ but not membership.

So many in Turkey are saying ‘enough is enough already’ – 2009 is the time to make or break this one for ourselves.
But what about the reforms?
The EU drive has allowed much-needed reforms to take place, protecting freedom of speech and expression. Without the EU drive, will all this die in the water?

NGO statistics show human rights abuses being on the up in 2008. Legal reform has been wide-ranging but not far-reaching and the amendments made to specific laws have had little effect on the realities of the courtroom. Reform is not yet consolidated and if membership negotiations buy the reformists time, then at least they are good for something.
Yet the debate around freedom of speech is robust. Change is taking place. And a lot of it is self-referential. It is not about the EU. It is about Turkey.

So 2009 may be a make or break year after all. Membership or no membership, it may be the year when the balance tips and reform picks up pace again, not because the EU decrees it but because civil society demands it. 2009 could be the year of consolidation. EU or no EU.
If people put their minds to it, this could be Turkey's last ‘make or break’ year.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Uncle Weber and the pumpkin state

Whenever you need to understand something, turn to Uncle Weber, that’s my motto.

Max Weber, all-round genius and (sadly) not my uncle, is the intellectual version of a fairy Godmother minus the glass slipper: he has the answer to every question. So while Greece is falling apart, I turn to Uncle Weber who tells me that a state is a state when it satisfies two basic criteria:
- A given territory, in the shape of clearly identified and protected borders
- Monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force within said territory

Enter Greece.
According to uncle Weber, corruption, lack of political accountability, a failing economy coupled with a total lack of economic vision, ailing health and education services, unfair taxation and high unemployment make Greece a hard place to live in but no less of a state.
Well that’s a relief. So. Back to his criteria.
‘Given territory’. Check. More or less. There is the odd dispute with Turkey over the continental shelf, uninhabited rocks, national waters and corresponding airspace but mostly, yes, check. Definitely.
Apart from the ‘protected’ bit. As Greece’s northern borders are a bit of a sieve and if someone wants to come in… well… they do. Still, these are individuals rather than invading armies so, yes, ‘given territory’. Check.

Monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force should be an easy one.
The state has an army and a police force legitimised through the procedural soundness of the political system, in Greece’s case, the Republican structures and democratic process. And nobody else within Greece has an army or police force.
Only not right now.
Right now there is no monopoly over the use of force, what with large-scale rioting and kalashnikovs being fired at the police rather regularly these last few weeks.
But this wouldn’t be too bad, from a definitional point of view, if the state retained monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Legitimacy here being the operative word.
But with a young boy lying dead by the hand of an agent of the state and hundreds of public buildings and private businesses left ravaged through the inaction or absence of the agents of the state, legitimacy is as leaky as the country’s northern border.

Cue, uncle Weber, who tells us that legitimacy is not just about legality. It is also about building and sustaining faith. Faith in a government, state or person to fulfil their office in accordance to the values and principles the office, government, state and people stand for.

Meanwhile the Greek government is whistling uncomfortably, issuing the odd statement, thinking of, maybe, reshuffling its ministers and changing the wallpaper.
When the fundamentals of what a state is all about are crumbling before our very eyes. When anything and everything the state or government are involved in is failing. And when government officials, state agents and citizens alike look at the failures, shrug and shake their heads because nobody expects success any more.
So this much is clear.
The Greek state may soon turn itself into a pumpkin. And there will be no spell to bring it back. Because spells need faith in order to work.
And nobody seems to have any faith left.

‘Believe me when I say to you, I hope the Russians love their children too’

Not a word you associate with Athens. But things are changing.
On Christmas eve, members of an organisation called ‘Revolutionary Struggle’ fired kalashnikovs onto a police vehicle. Last night, allegedly the same weapons were used against a policeman guarding the Ministry of Culture. The man, on routine guard duty in central Athens, was shot 20 times and is now in a critical condition.

The wave of violence that followed the unforgivable murder of 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by a police officer is taking a more sinister turn.
The hate-chants, the stones and home-made Molotov cocktails thrown against police in the heat of passion, in the midst of riots, during confrontations that were, in theory at least, about something other than the clash itself have now ceded their place to cold-blood drive-by shoot-outs.
This did not even make front page news.
But police officer Diamantis Matzounis’ condition is critical and he may not make it. Is his life cheaper because he was wearing a uniform? Because he is someone else’s child?
He is only 21.

Alexandros was cruelly murdered.
People mourned him in their thousands. Hundreds sought to avenge his death.
But if this 21-year old boy dies, Alexandros’ murder is no less horrible, no less unfair, no less futile and brutal. And one more family is steeped in mourning.

Everyone is someone’s child and two wrongs don’t make a right.
The mathematics of violence make no sense.
And there is no hope for any of us unless ‘the Russians love their children too’ as the song goes. But nobody seems to be loving anybody’s children in Athens right now.
Not the police. Not the members of ‘Revolutionary Struggle’ and their supporters. Not the government, that are yet to do anything more than issue statements about the resilience of democracy. Not the citizens who shake their heads, bemoan the chaotic conditions they live in and change the channel.
Because Alexandros and Diamantis are someone else’s children.
As if we are not all someone’s children.