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President Erdoğan is seen at the Presidential Palace in Tarabya, Istanbul on March 24, having a tele-cabinet-meeting with his ministers. (Photo: Presidency)


President Tayyip Erdoğan made a surprise appearance on all television channels late on March 25, probably in response to questions on why he hadn’t had any public appearances until that time. The president reiterated a summary of what Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, and Education Minister Ziya Selçuk said just a few hours ago. It all comes down to the same: “Stay home!” The message is correct but Erdoğan seems to be insisting on not implementing necessary measures to make sure the people comply. It’s unrealistic to ask that “everyone declares their own state of emergency.” When Erdoğan had — rightfully — banned smoking in indoor public spaces, had he settled for a mere “people should freely decide not to smoke”?
The footage was pre-recorded. From the background, we were able to estimate that the video was shot at daytime at the Presidential Huber Mansion in Tarabya. There were parts that had obviously been edited and reassembled, even though the Presidency does have teams that can seamlessly do such jobs, as well as the necessary equipment. Mansion. Furthermore, as he spoke, the president was looking at -probably- a simpler prompter compared to the one that they usually use; at parts, he was finding the text difficult to read and had to give a half stop.
Erdoğan looked tired on the screen. He looked more tired than when he came into the coronavirus meeting on March 18 and gave a speech. He also looked tired as he was applauding healthcare professionals from his balcony on March 20, and when he posted a video of himself talking in front of a closed curtain in an undeclared place on March 21. But in yesterday’s speech, he gave the impression that he looked exhausted, as though he was not fully rested just yet. This doesn’t mean that the president has contracted the coronavirus, otherwise he would have been in quarantine. But he’s not. The president is clearly minimizing social contact for precautionary purposes and is practicing semi-isolation. Maybe his tiredness stemmed from this, or form the meeting held on the same day on whom shall be released from prisons due to COVID-19.
Because he looked relatively fitter and more jovial at the cabinet video-conference meeting held the day before, again at the Tarabya mansion. The photo at the beginning of the article is from that meeting, and it’s the photo that we’ll be examining in detail in this article.

Those at the table, those on screen

The meeting table at the Huber Mansion is arranged to have a giant screen right in front of the president. Erdoğan’s two close colleagues, Defense and Foreign Policy Chief Advisor and Spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, to his right, and Communications Head, Fahrettin Altun, to his left, are both located not one but about two meters away from him. But the two other people present in the room are sitting at a normal distance from Kalın and Altun. So, even his closest colleagues stand at a fairly cautious distance to Erdoğan in particular — which is natural. The person sat next to Kalın is Zafer Çubukçu: one of chief advisors to the Presidency who, according to insiders, has previously run operations that current Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank used to deal with. Next to Altun, we see Serkan Topaloğlu, the president’s doctor. He’s also present at the president’s meetings with ministers, which is probably normal under such circumstances. Chief of Cabinet Hasan Doğan, who is usually by the President’s side at all times, doesn’t appear in this picture. He may have been on another mission at that time, or he may have stayed in Ankara, in Beştepe.
The screen is there for members of the Presidential Cabinet, including Vice President Fuat Oktay. Erdoğan speaks to his ministers, takes notes, asks questions and gives orders. In fact, cabinet members are constantly connected to the system; Altun is the one controlling who will be onscreen next from the tablet in front of him. The interesting detail here is that not all ministers where alone when they faced the President via video-conference. For example, in this photo we’re analyzing, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and three senior ministry officials are seen onscreen: Deputy Ministers Faruk Kaymakçı, Yavuz Selim Kıran, and Director General for Consular Affairs, Hatun Demirer could clearly be seen; Deputy Minister Sedat Önal was also present.
We don’t know whether the subject is a serious foreign policy issue, a gratifying development in the issues related to the EU, the U.S., Russia or Syria; perhaps the Coronavirus is regressing or perhaps the ministers and the President are just making pleasant small talk, but at the moment the picture is taken, they all look like they are enjoying themselves. We’ve gotten the answers to these questions once we watched the video recording: it turns out Çavuşoğlu was asking for a bigger building for the Ministry, which was all that joy was about.
However, it’s with noting that during the meeting with Zümrüt Selçuk, the Minister of Family, Labor and Social Services, who was alone in the video conference with the president, the faces appeared to be rather sullen. Likewise, not much joviality was noticed during the meeting with the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Fatih Dönmez, and his team.

What is Kremlinology? What is it for?

Why are we talking about these things? Why are we trying to dig into photos distributed by the Presidency and analyze every single thing about them?
Because as a nation, we’re striving to understand what’s ahead of us, and we perceive that the questions in our heads aren’t answered adequately by the official statements. Whether this perception is real is secondary. Because politics, after all, is built on perceived reality more than on reality as it is.
If the state administration is not transparent enough or is perceived as such, some start rumors, others resort to counter-propaganda or empty statements, and some try to make sense of the situation by making the most of the crumbs of information available like in this article.
In reality, it’s not really right to call this Kremlinology. The Kremlin is the Presidential Complex located on the Red Square in Moscow. But the term Kremlinology actually refers to the methodology used by Western intelligence agencies who, when the Soviet Union was run exclusively by the Communist Party in almost zero transparency, were trying to understand Moscow. Who’s standing by Brezhnev at the May Day parade? Who turned their back on the balcony speech during the October Revolution anniversary? Why did Andropov side-eye Aliyev during such and such inspection? Which self-professed leader’s which statement was on the front page of the Party newspaper Pravda? Westerners used to try to understand what was going on with such observations, almost like fortune-tellers. And Moscow would keep up the illusion that it could save its decadent system by closing in as much as possible.

The need to see what’s ahead

Turkey is not the ex-USSR. There’s no single-party government. There is the presidential Government system. Despite all enforcement powers being concentrated in the hands of President Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), he can only continue his governance thanks to the support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli — his secret coalition partner. And yet, here we are with a governmental transparency problem. For example, when 34 soldiers had fallen in Idlib, Syria Erdoğan spoke to almost all world leaders but informed neither other party leaders (except for Bahçeli) not the Assembly afterward. Similarly, the Coronavirus pandemic emerges, threatening the whole world, yet the Assembly is informed only very late and not more than what’s said to the media.
However, people today have a need to understand what’s going on and see what’s ahead. People who were already anxious from unemployment or threats to lose their jobs, students, teachers, grocers, industrialists, farmers and so many more were already afraid, and now, on top of it all, there is this virus. So, we need to see what’s ahead, see through this veil of uncertainty. For example, we want to understand why the mission to stop the spread of the disease, which necessitates social isolation, has been left to the mercy of the people who oftentimes don’t understand the workings of how the disease is contracted and spread around. Not everyone has more than one house and the possibility to do video-conferences.
That’s why we make Kremlinology analogies and try to make political and economic analyses using crumbs of information.
Am I making myself clear?