Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan was live on Turkey’s public broadcaster TRT on the night of June 8, 2020. Erdoğan was delighted when the moderator asked her pre-ordered question about his telephone call with Trump a few hours ago. According to Erdoğan, upon hearing Turkey’s coronavirus statistics, Trump had said “wow” in surprise. They then spoke of how far Turkey has come in Libya. No, they had not talked about the S-400 missiles that Turkey had purchased from Russia and the U.S. ousting Turkey from the F-35 program. He said that he had also informed the US President of the collaboration between Antifa and the PKK/YPG. Antifa is participating in the anti-racist protests, and Trump considers them terrorists. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, are the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian branch, and allies of the US in Syria. And it seems Trump responded that he “didn’t know” about it, that his team “hadn’t informed” him and that he’ll “look into it straight away.” The President said that this call was to transform US-Turkey relations. Great! Erdoğan was recounting these breathless. But somewhere during his answer Erdogan took a pause, and “of course”, he said, “we exchanged some pleasantries too, but let’s not get into that.” Those in the studio hadn’t asked anyway.
But I do want to ask. What “pleasantries” might Erdoğan have exchanged with Trump, whom the world criticizes due to the violence with which he suppresses his people?
Pleasantries despite Trump’s letter
But another detail keeps me wondering before that. It’s that slight grin on Erdoğan’s lips as he deliberately brought to our attention the pleasantries, he said he didn’t want to get into. What was the meaning of that? Did that vague smile stand for “Look at me, all friendly with the US President, no less?” Was it an expression of repletion upon how far he has come? Did it express triumph over Trump who dared to tell him not to be a “tough guy” and “a fool” in his intimidating October 2019 letter, only to now come around?
During his arrest, police officer Derek Chauvin suffocated an unarmed black person named George Floyd to death on May 25. Protests erupted as a result. In the following days, the US government was using violence to suppress these protests, while Trump was signing an order to control social media. As a comment on these issues, an experienced diplomat Namık Tan posted a tweet. “As we thought Turkey would become Little America, America turned into a Bigger Turkey.” Transforming Turkey into a “little America” was the slogan of the Democratic Party (DP) governments in the 1950s. Tan used to be the Turkish Ambassador to Washington between the years 2010-2014. Because he was reluctant to volunteer the Erdogan’s government orders to help the Fethullah Gülen congregation there, the government had pulled him back and he had asked for his retirement.
Little America into bigger Turkey”
I hope Tan will write an article to explain what he meant a little clearer. But what I understood was the following. Trump is executing a textbook example of using violence to suppress a social justice movement. And as the world is despising him for it, his status is elevated in the eyes of a country leader who was already doing just that. It’s clear. From Russia’s Vladimir Putin to China’s Xi Jinping, from India’s Narendra Modi to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, many world readers approve of Trump’s recent moves. They had already been treating their people this way for years, yet US authorities were criticizing them. Now their cruelties are on even ground.
I wonder what pleasantries Trump and Erdoğan exchanged in their current states. Trump is saying now that he “barely contains his supporters” from firing back. Not to draw any sordid comparisons but could Erdoğan have recalled his 2013 clamor following Gezi protests, that he “barely contained the 50 percent” waiting in their homes? Did the two leaders joke about slapping the terrorism and coup-plotter labels onto any movement of dissent? This is possible since Trump declared Antifa to be terrorists. And as the state of emergency measures didn’t suffice, there are now talks of applying the Insurrection Act. So? Well, Trump is preparing to unleash the military onto the streets. Trump also declared the Democrats are “radical left.” And in American right-wing lingo, this is akin to calling them “communists” or “terrorists.” I’m really curious about what pleasantries could be going back and forth between Erdoğan and Trump, who is not famous for his refined sense of humor.
More pressure on opposition and media
The Turkish National Assembly re-opened on June 2 following the Covid-19 interval. And ever since, every day, we witnessed new steps to strengthen Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). There are also new steps to increase the pressure on both the opposition and the media.
The Watchmen Law was the first of these to come up in the Assembly. But why does AKP, which has spent the last 18 years in power, constantly produce new armed state forces? Who do they want to protect against whom, when we already have the army, the police forces and the gendarmerie already?
And then came up the idea of stripping three MPs who have jail sentences to send them to prison without waiting for the end of the legislative term; namely, social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP Enis Berberoğlu and Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MPs Leyla Güven and Musa Farisoğulları. But that fell through after CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s warning that “The government is trying to make us take to the streets to declare a more oppressive state of emergency.” HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan said that they were also aware of the provocation so toned down their reaction plans. Right after that, two journalists, Müyesser Yıldız and İsmail Dükel were detained.
Hagia Sophia failed to divert the attention
When the results of recent polls by respectable research companies showing AKP and MHP in decline started to be released, MHP leader Bahçeli took the stage. In a long statement requested that “the Muslim prayer must will be heard in the Hagia Sophia, not church bells.” No church bells had tolled in the Hagia Sophia for the last 567 years when Sultan Mehmet “the Conqueror” took İstanbul and ended the Byzantium Empire anyway.
It has been a cliché tactic of almost all right-wing parties in Turkey when they have problems in domestic politics to campaign for the opening of the landmark site for Muslim worshiping; it has the status of a museum since 1934.
Perhaps Bahçeli and Erdogan had expected CHP to respond as No to prayers in the Hagia Sophia Museum.” But the opposite happened. CHP came forth to say that “It all depends on the approval of a single man, Erdoğan. Nobody’s stopping you, go ahead and do that.” CHP’s ally the center-right Good Party (GP) submitted a proposal to the Parliament on the 9th for the opening of Hagia Sophia for Muslim prayers, seeing the bluff. CHP seconded it. But it was with the AKP votes the proposal was rejected. Was it because of an ongoing court case or simply because of not losing this profitable tool of the Turkish right forever? Not clear yet. But a propaganda attempt by AKP and MHP was badly backfired. And maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Erdoğan opened the Hagia Sophia, now a well-recognized symbol of using religion for political ends, to worship, so that we’re over and done with this.
No talk of unemployment or inflation
The real issue seems to be that we don’t talk of the economy. Just look at it. Erdoğan was boasting the economy figures before the coronavirus hit on national TV. The same day the government has extended the ban over firing workers for another three months in order not to face the real employment figured after Covid-19. He also gave some good news: Turkey would close the deficit caused by coronavirus in traditional tourism with health tourism. Has anybody told the President that the 2020 deficit in the tourism sector is estimated at 25 billion dollars? Erdoğan said that had called up his friend Putin, who remains against Turkey in Libya and Syria, and whose country is one of the worst affected by Covid-19, to send over Russian tourists. Putin promised, apparently. Germany and the UK, which is among the worst-hit countries as well, were resisting but would come around eventually.
One wonders. Did Erdoğan also ask for US tourists while exchanging pleasantries with Trump? As it stands, we have a goal of reaching an annual trade volume of 100 billion with the US. Perhaps we, in Turkey, can rehabilitate the protesters subjected to police violence in the US, who have no health insurance.
Erdogan and Trump have a chemistry
The true dimensions of unemployment after Covid-19 have not yet come to the surface. We don’t know yet how many of the small businesses will survive. Estimates on how much the economy will shrink range from 3.5 to 5 percent. But we are not supposed to talk about these. We are expected to talk about early election scenarios, even though early elections would be considered political suicide with the current economic aspect alone. We are expected to blabber on about cabinet changes of no importance except for 3-4 names. And here is the last lifeline to distract us from the present situation: the Hagia Sophia. But when the CHP told the government to “open it to worship ASAP”, that also fell through.
What’s next? Erdoğan and Trump have a good chemistry, just look at them exchanging pleasantries merrily. As a courtesy, we are expecting some distraction to chew on from him, too.