Friday, 20 February 2009

El divo: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

I was not going to blog about this.
Say it again. I was not going to blog about this.
But when people make mountains out of molehills I get annoyed. So here it comes.

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stormed out on Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. That’s funny, of course and every Tom, Dick and Harry blogged about it. But I didn’t. No Sir.
But then I started reading what other people wrote and I started getting annoyed, predictably, at how so many commentators managed to royally miss the point. People always miss the point when it comes to Turkey. But that’s another story for another time. So here I am, blogging about the things I was not going to blog about. Bloody typical.

Anyone vaguely interested in geopolitics knows that Turkey has traditionally been an ally of Israel’s.
In practice, this translates into a strained security understanding that enjoys the full backing of the all-mighty Turkish Armed Forces while civilian authorities remain ambivalent. At times, politicians have even expressed open hostility. That never lasts long. The last prime minister to do so (the notorious Necmettin Erbakan) was summarily deposed (for a variety of reasons) by an army communiqué in 1997. No violence, no coup, no fuss. Just a bit of paper and a press conference. Job done. It as called a post-modern coup with no hint of irony.

My point is, Turkey's security bonds with Israel are strong. And although Erdoğan’s personal preference for the Arab world ahead of Israel is well documented, his outburst was not a sign that Turkey is breaking with Israel as the press reported. Nor is it a sign of latent anti-Semitism, as the Economist’s Amberin Zaman claims, out of left field.
For the millionth time: disagreeing with Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism. Millions of Jews disagree with Israeli policy. Israelis disagree with Israeli policy.

Still, I don’t mean to defend Erdoğan.
A grown man, a professional politician and a, now, seasoned Prime Minister should be sober enough to not storm out when things don’t go his way. But to accuse him of anti-Semitism is to miss the point of what happened.

Erdoğan is a religious man. That much is well-known.
What that means is hard to tell as current legislation prevents him from expressing extreme religious sympathies even if he harbours them. We know he is pious and devout; we know he has fallen foul of the secular authorities and served a short jail sentence for ‘inciting religious violence’ through the use of some patriotic verses written in a time when secularism was not yet in vogue. And we know Erdoğan seeks to bring Turkey closer to the Arab states for the first time in its history. What that means is, again, not clear because this is rhetoric, scoring points with the religious heartland at home, rather than a genuine foreign policy position.

But that’s what Erdoğan does: he says out loud the things everyone had hitherto whispered. That is what makes him popular even with people who don’t actually agree with him, especially those who don’t have to live with his policies: the Europeans. With every nod from Europe, Erdoğan is a little safer at home, and so it continues.

Yet his record remains mixed.
He has liberalised the penal code but imposed restrictive legislation on alcohol; he has strengthened civilian control of the polity but he has also politicised the judiciary and skewed the demographics of the civil service.
He has brought Turkey closer to Europe and that has ensured his survival. But the truth is, he is pro-accession because he has no choice: his religiosity can only survive under an EU-sponsored freedoms discussion and his personal politics can only be legitimised as by-products of EU membership efforts. The secularists scowl, the traditionalists cheer and he walks the political tight-rope with ease, agility and flair.

Of course many wonder whether he’s worth all this effort. Whether EU accession is compensation enough for putting up with him. Recently, the Courts came close to resolving this dilemma as they questioned the constitutionality of the ruling AK Party, but Erdoğan survived again. By the skin of his teeth. And that made him even more of a hero with his constituents. Of course.

So, for me, his dramatic departure in Davos was not an act of political defiance.
It was a primadonna moment.

A perceived pro-Hamas leaning in Turkey meant that Erdoğan’s meeting with Peres was never going to be easy. But it doesn’t follow that Erdoğan’s outburst signifies, as one writer put it, ‘Turkey’s shift away from the West’. Easy tiger. The West is currently telling Israel off just as much as Turkey is. Erdoğan is, for once, on message and in good company.

Equally, to read too much into his actions is to give him credit he has not earned. Zaman, Turkey’s most religiously-minded mainstream daily, ran editorial upon editorial suggesting that what Erdoğan actually meant is that peace-building requires an honest assessment of the corruption and incompetence on the Arab side, US and European naïveté when it comes to Israel and the simple fact that Israeli hard-liners always seem to carry the day in Israeli domestic politics.
I’d have a lot of respect for Erdoğan had he said all that. But he did not.

Of course he objected to the Gaza killings. And of course Peres pushed back. That much was expected.
But then Peres accused him of not knowing what actually goes on in Gaza. And then the moderator, David Ignatius, started tapping Erdoğan on the shoulder, so he would cede the floor. And without wanting to trivialise this, Erdoğan does not take kindly to any slight to his personal authority. Satirists, cartoonists, journalists have found themselves fined and tried for mocking Erdoğan. He is under EU caution for his intolerance to any slight to his authority. Tap taps on the shoulder and accusations of ignorance don’t sit well with him.

So is that why he stormed out?
I’d say partly. The other part being made up of a plethora of factors including his religiosity, personal dislike for Israel and commitment to his pro-Arab, Muslim brotherhood rhetoric.

This was not about Turkey’s radical repositioning on the geostrategic map. This was not a symbolic departure from the straight and narrow as defined by the acquis communautaire and EU lore. This is not even about Turkey breaking with Israel (although stranger things have happened and one never knows what tomorrow brings). This is simply a diplomatic blunder by a man who occasionally gets carried away by his own self-importance.

So here’s my two kuruş’ worth: there’s no massive political realignment afoot. Just a garden-variety case of over-inflated political ego and a bit of a temper.

Now let’s sit back and watch him spin this to his advantage at home.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Greece 2009: Welcome to the dark side

So I was in Greece last week.
I did the whole staying-up-till-six-am-eating-and-drinking-with-family. I played the let’s-see-how-much-caffeine-it-takes-to-kill-you game. I saw friends. I walked the streets of my youth. I spent time at home.
It was good.
But inevitably at some point, I turned on the TV. And, the Petroula debacle aside, in the space of the 10 minutes I lasted in front of it, I saw 3 things:

I saw the anchorman of a major channel battling with the news that the Prime Minister of Iceland is gay. Why that is news in the first place, I cannot say, considering it is neither newsworthy nor new. But they were announcing it still and the newscaster was struggling with his terminology. After half-starting on ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ he settled for ‘the PM of Iceland has… errr… special abilities’. Quite. X-ray vision and telekinesis, I’m sure. Pity I’m straight. But for a change in my sexual preferences I could be Wolverine.

So I flicked the channel in disgust and I got the news on a different one where the reporter had intelligently edited clips of a few ministers contradicting themselves drastically in public statements made within the last few days. My favourite was the minister for agriculture. On being informed that a group of disgruntled Cretan farmers were coming to Athens (with their tractors) to demonstrate, he said they would be welcome and a public debate would ensue. What actually ensued was a street fight complete with teargas and police violence captured on camera. The same man subsequently said that the state did what it had to do to prevent social unrest. So the state moves against protesting citizens, for their own sakes. How reassuring.

So I flicked the channel in despair and got three government spokesmen, ministers and under-secretaries, as well as a clip of the prime minister all saying the same thing ‘we have a plan to get the country out of the financial crisis’. ‘What is it’, ask the journalists. ‘We have a plan’ they repeat. What is it, I shout at the TV. ‘We have it and have had it since June’, Palli-Petralia (Minister for Employment and Social Protection) insisted. Yes but what is it? ‘We have it’.
Insolent citizens not taking the government’s word for it. Shame on us.

So I switched the TV off and turned to the newspapers. Asking for it, I know, but I am a news junkie and will never learn. So I discovered the following: I learned that the government’s popularity is waning (there’s a surprise) but the Prime Minister remains popular and is thought of as the stronger leader (God help us) – possibly assisted by the fact that the leader of the opposition seems to have no ideas whatsoever and an inability to string a sentence together without stumbling at least once.
I also learned that information about abuse in Greek prisons had been released again a few days previously, but no inquiry had been instructed and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. I read about the farmer strikes and road blockades (part of which was the Cretan farmers incident). I also read about the failing economy, the faint echoes of land-sale scandals implicating the church that are now old news and the odd report about financial irregularities and EU controllers. Business as usual, really.

And then it struck me.
How all this was reported as a matter of fact. As if chaos, disorder, narrow-mindedness, dishonesty, injustice and incompetence were given facts of life that we were all powerless against. As if all this was our fate and, although we can see right through it, there is nothing we can do about it, there is nothing that can be done about it. As if change is not an option, not a possibility. As if hope is all but dead even though criticism isn’t. As if we are all spectators in a football match we have no power over. We can shout and swear but can’t touch the ball. We can see all that’s wrong but don’t believe we can fix it, don’t believe a fix is possible.

So nobody acts.
So nothing changes.
So welcome to the dark side.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Chavez latest: calling a spade a spade

Have I or have I not already said that the essence of democracy is that it can vote itself out of existence at any time?
No need to search back through old posts. I have and it is.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t make it less painful to watch when it happens.

So Hugo Chavez has been given the people’s blessing (via referendum) to run again and again and again for President. Because the 10 years he’s already had in power are not long enough.

Mr Chavez is popular. He is charismatic, he is loudly anti-American and that always goes down well with the masses the world over. His socialist programme has moved many but the jury is still out on his effectiveness as a president. To put it mildly.
Nevertheless when he announced that he needs to stick around for another term after this current one expires in 2012, in order to consolidate Venezuela’s socialist revolution, the referendum was called and the people spoke: 54% backed an end to term limits. In other words, 54% chose ‘more Chavez’.

Chavez’s time in office so far has not been smooth and uncomplicated.
Removed from office for 2 days by an abortive coup, winning a recall referendum and several elections, you may say that his survival in office despite the hurdles is a sign of the people’s will and his own determination.
You may also say that this is not the first time he tried to ensure he can run indefinitely – a similar attempt in 2007 failed but that, evidently, did not put him off. And now, 2 years on, he got the constitutional amendment he was after in a vote that was described by observers as free and fair. Although critics claim that government funding and blanket TV coverage (a Chavez speciality) swayed the vote, no allegations of fraud have been made.

So the people have spoken and, in a democracy, the popular will wins the day. Right? Right.
And it is within the people’s power to scrap the limits on how often politicians can run for office, right? Right.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Democracy is all about voting and free choice, of course, but it’s also a system that relies on certain vital ‘mechanical’ elements in order to actually function. One of them is checks and balances. One of those is the limit on how many times someone can run for office.

So democracy can vote itself out of existence alright, but once it’s done that, let us not kid ourselves, it no longer exists.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

O tempora and all that

Early last week, when I was in Athens, I met an old friend for an overpriced beer and a long-overdue catch-up. As we were chatting, he got to berating the phenomenon that is Petroula. Obviously, I had no idea what he was talking about. But I could guess. Partly because he’s eloquent and partly because I know what Greek TV is like. Leggy, busty blondes is what prime time private Greek TV is made of. But still, I was curious, so I checked it out the next day and discovered that this particular specimen of television genius tells the weather in fur-trimmed lingerie. Feminist activists turned in their graves and my mum tutted in disapproval, as I explained that I absolutely had to watch this: it is a social phenomenon and I am a social scientist. Yes. That’s right.

So the phenomenon that is Petroula is half-naked, a gentle breeze ensuring the little she wears sways suggestively, and her language is loaded with innuendo. She meows the names of towns and islands, sighs the temperatures and mouths the wind directions. I am female and I am straight yet I still found it mesmerising for about two minutes, because it is so openly sexual that, surely, I thought, it has to be a double-whammy: a critique of the voyeuristic tendencies of Greek TV and the thinly disguised sexualisation of TV presenters and a simultaneous ‘tapping into’ the phenomenon they criticise. A bit like the black-eyed peas singing ‘my humps’ and having the people they were mocking buy their singles while the rest of us sniggered conspiratorially. Market smarts or artistic sell-out, you decide.

Only with Petroula there is no dilemma. There is no critique. The whole thing is a full-throttle indulgence in soft-porn aesthetics. So I watched – by way of sociological research, you understand – and it appears I was in luck: it was the prodigy’s birthday and she did a dance and everything. As she progressed to the pièce de résistance , her catch phrase, ‘I am Petroula and I just finished’, which in Greek carries the innuendo of sexual climax, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry.

I wanted to laugh because it’s funny. It is so bad, it’s funny.
But it is mindless and despite the fact that the girl has great legs, I failed to see why she has become a sensation in Greece ahead of others.

But I also felt a rising sense of despair.

I was not prepared for this. I expected to have a giggle and a shake of the head. But I was confronted with a summary version of Greece’s deadlock in a frilly nighty: Petroula, I discovered, started off on 50 euros for a 3-minute slot. Now she’s famous and her 'show' is longer, that figure must have risen. But 50 euros for 3 minutes of shaking your boobs and moaning in front of a camera is a lot of money, especially in a country where other people her age would be making about 500 euros per month. If they were lucky.

So rather than laughing, I found myself doing the maths.
People in their early 20s who are not Petroula, make a salary that is hardly a living. Most young people can’t leave home – and it’s not because of family values any more, it’s because they simply can’t afford it. So they live with their parents and their salary becomes their pocket money while mum and dad still pay the rent, electricity and grocery bills.
And then these 20-somethings spend the little they have on over-priced commodities in a country that is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive in Europe, with a cup of coffee costing as much as 8 euros in fashionable haunts.

And as I watched Petroula celebrate her 20th birthday on television, I got angry. Because all the people who should be engaging in politics, trying to change their fate and fighting for the future, were at home watching her too. People her age, who can’t afford to not live with their mum and dad. People her age who don’t realise that by living with their mum and dad they don’t just compromise their coming of age, they also create a long-term effect on the Greek economy, as their parents cannot retire and their savings are depleted while their offspring fail to become financially independent through no failure of their own.

O tempora. Yes. But morality? This has nothing to do with morality.

I had thought I’d have a laugh and I found myself immersed in gloomy socio-economic analysis. Because I looked at Petroula and I saw a generation that is stuck, truly stuck, in a financial black hole and doesn’t seem to realise that this way is not the only way. And they stay at home on their mum’s sofa and find Petroula hilarious.
Maybe I am reading too much into things. I often do. But Petroula, for all our scorn, is doing well for herself. And her peers, who find her condescendingly hilarious, choose to talk about her rather than their own predicament.
So she serves her purpose and the world carries on like before. And it’s only a matter of time before things get too dire and Petroula’s becomes a coveted career, a way to ensure a better life.

O tempora indeed. I fear we’ll be saying that a lot in the years to come.