Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Arınç's Washington visit and limits for tolerance

“Why did you ask this [question]?” Bülent Arınç, Turkish deputy prime minister, who is known as the number two figure in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, dressed down a reporter following a question on “whether he met with Fethullah Gülen,” a leader of Turkey’s largest Muslim movement, while he was in the United States.
Apart from the fact that the question appeared to be well-justified, since Gülen is one of the most discussed names in Turkey recently and the minister’s visit to New York and Washington was in close proximity to Pennsylvania, where Gülen resides, I happened to witness an unusual exchange, or more of an interrogation of a minister in front of cameras.
Arınç visited Washington this week for two days after signing a cooperation protocol between Turkish state-run TRT radio & television and the United Nations Television in New York. Arınç did not request to meet with U.S. officials before the Washington leg of the visit, but only talked with several think tanks and newspapers editors.
The AKP, and its democracy advocate top officials, for years came to Washington to talk about their freedom-oriented vision for Turkey while drawing their differences with other Turkish parties. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in his first years in office, was promising during his Washington visits that his party was serious and very decisive in moving from top-down hierarchical leadership and process to bottom-up participation as well as bringing better democratic standards as a whole package to Turkey.
When we look at today’s Washington and how the AKP delegations are greeted, we see that the narrative has greatly changed and the suspicion about the AKP’s ability or sincerity to fulfill those promises is greatly increased. Arınç, while he himself admitted that he is unsure in which city his candidacy can be submitted in coming general elections of June, if at all, had a hard time satisfying cynical questions about the rapidly deteriorating democratic standards of Turkey. After all, what sort of a standard is he defending, as one sharp Turkey observer in Washington stated, when even his candidacy for the elections is a mystery to himself, a decision that is absolutely tied to a word that will be uttered by the lips of the absolute ruler in the party, Erdoğan.
Arınç, one of the AKP’s most soft-spoken voices, spent much of his precious Washington time as a statesman not discussing how Turkey can contribute best to what is taking place around the globe, but simply digging deeper to shield Turkey’s worsening record on freedom-related issues over and again. Therefore, the visit proved once more that the latest arrests of the journalists and raids to confiscate a draft book not only stain Turkey’s image in Western capitals, but these developments also greatly impede Turkey’s ability to present itself and its foreign policy vision as an effective player in such significant meetings with policy analysts and observers.
At the German Marshall Fund, too, nobody in the audience appeared to be very much interested in listening to Turkey’s potential role related to changing world history; the majority of that audience, some of whom I had a chance to chat with, was already very much aware of the reports like the Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s latest bit on “democracy index,” which classifies Turkey as a “hybrid” democracy, one level above “authoritarian regimes,” and behind “flawed democracies” along with Uganda, Pakistan or Tanzania.
On his second and last day in Washington, Arınç invited Turkish press to the Turkish embassy where he held the press conference. Arınç first refused to give any information about what kind of questions he was asked by various places he had meetings with, a simple and basic question about the nature of any visit.
And when the second question came which was whether he met with Gülen, then an annoyed Arınç started contra follow-up questions, just like an aggressive journalist. Arınç appeared to be very much determined to reveal the intention behind that question. Arınç, who was a lawyer for 25 years in the past, justified his follow-up questions by asking more questions to the same reporter: “Do I ask you whom you met with, which streets you traveled or whose tea you drank today? I don’t. Because I don’t feel such a need. I, more or less, can understand why you are asking this question to me.”
Even though these angry exchanges were somewhat scary, I felt brave enough to do a follow-up question related to Gülen once more and asked Arınç to comment on co-president of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, Hélène Flautre’s reported statement, in which she claims that there is big pressure from the Gülen movement on the Turkish judiciary, but especially on the media. I asked him if, as a seasoned politician, he had such a feeling that Gülen indeed exerted such pressure on such bodies. Arınç said he didn’t hear about the statement, then said: “... if someone who is so high an official at the EU gives such a statement about Gülen’s pressure on the judiciary so easily..., then if there is such a worry over the issue, there things should be done to satisfy those worries,” without responding whether he, himself had any experience or impression to share about the effect of the movement after decades of experience in politics.
After a couple of questions, Arınç once more picked another fight with another reporter who started a question with the acronym of the ruling party, AKP. Arınç did not let the reporter ask the question until he made sure that the reporter got the wording right, before the question could be completed.
I, nevertheless, felt lucky to find a chance to ask Arınç why Turkey had not fulfilled its obligation to freeze the assets of members of the Moammar Gadhafi regime, as United Nations Security Council’s 1973 resolution foresees, and if he could kindly comment on it. It proved that it wasn't that easy. Arınç briskly and coldly rejected to answer my question and said a plain “no,” then moved to the next. No other explanation or reason was given for the rejection of answering my question.
Arınç, who, just a day ago at the GMF was defending his party’s record on the freedom of the press and trying to prove how perceptions about it have been misplaced, was interrogating a day later about the ulterior motives of a reporter, then snubbing another one by simply rejecting to answer, then not permitting another reporter to ask a question until his wording was in order. It was a telling exhibit for the limit of tolerance in terms of which questions can be asked and how by an AKP official.
After several other attempts, Arınç finally and unwillingly admitted that the matters surrounding the OdaTV raids and the confiscation of a book were questioned during his other meetings and that they had provided necessary information.
While history is being written in the greater Middle East region, where Turkey has a lot to be concerned about and must use every instrument to make its arguments heard, one of its top official’s visit to Washington was mostly exhausted by defending Turkey’s press freedom record before dressing down those Turkish reporters the next day, in the same city.
Many, including myself, wished to listen to Arınç, as a cofounder of the ruling pro-Islamic and conservative party in a vastly secular system, talk about, for instance, whether Islam, historically and culturally, can offer the best prospects for Western-style democracy among the non-Western-style civilizations in the world.
Instead, Washington witnessed a wasted visit by a Turkish top official who spent his time to vindicate Turkey’s now-shameful democracy records which is recognized by many reputable reports and classifications around the globe.
What a waste indeed it was for Turkey's reputation that was spent. And what a telling story of an top AKP official's tolerance to "annoying" press questions, given that he was someone who was supposed talk and convince the Washington audience precisely otherwise.

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Guest - janissary
2011-04-12 20:10:10
  except, ilhan, that as you know, flautre denied making such comments and they turned out to be fabricated by cumhuriyet. maybe you should check your facts better next time you ask a question.  

Guest - Cautious
2011-04-11 17:37:49
  Good article -it's the journalist responsibility to ask the tough questions - if the govt doesn't respond or lashes out then it's the journalist responsibility to write articles saying so.  

Guest - Jeannine
2011-04-09 16:44:08
  Next time no journalist should appear to such a useless and frustrating press conference. Maybe Arinc "top Akp official" would have preferred to hand out a sheet with questions and anwers acceptable to him - so much more relaxing!  

Guest - Me
2011-04-09 02:39:03
  Typical Turkish AKP mentality. Why call a press conference if he wasn't prepared to answer any questions?

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