To challenge the opposition nationalists, Turkey’s ever self-confident Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan alluded to the Ottoman eyalet system of semi-autonomous provinces and recalled that during the Ottoman era there were eyalets called Kurdistan and Lazistan.
Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Turkey’s arch-nationalist opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) that at times assumes a racist outlook, realized the message of reconciliation from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan that was read to more than a million people at Diyarbakir on March 21 could lead to a peace process and add much to Erdogan’s credibility. He decided to counter the process by organizing a series of public meetings.
The first such meeting was at Bursa, the nation's fifth-biggest city, in front of an impressive crowd. It's true that not everyone in the crowd was from Bursa and they might have been bused in from different parts of the country to bolster the crowd's size. But MHP’s skill in mobilizing such large numbers of people cannot be overlooked.
Loud alarm bells rang when the crowd chanted, “Tell us to hit, we shall; tell us to die, we shall,” and Bahceli responded: “Time will come for that, too.”
Bahceli, despite his extremely harsh rhetoric and his making an anti-Kurdish stance a yardstick of Turkish nationalism, has a well-deserved reputation for removing Turkey’s aggressive nationalist youth from the streets. But this time he did not stop at calling nationalists to the streets, and implied he could soon issue orders to attack.
His message was clear: an invitation to inter-communal fighting.
The PKK’s 30-year-old insurgency, despite its bloody toll that took the lives of 40,000 people, nevertheless has remained a conflict between the Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish state. It never went beyond those limits and had not become an inter-communal fight.
The mere thought of clashes between large segments of the society had always been a nightmare scenario. That is why the last remarks of Bahceli — which he reaffirmed at another occasion when he also renewed his threat — are an important polemical topic for Erdogan and government leaders to think about.
MHP’s logo is three crescents. Three crescents were the image on the Ottoman flag for centuries. The Ottoman flag, which in the eyes of the MHP was a Turkish empire, was adopted as one of the symbols of modern Turkish nationalism.
Erdogan, by referring to the Ottoman eyalet system, was also competing with the MHP for the support of conservative and nationalist constituents over the Ottoman legacy and to push MHP off balance by referring to "Kurdistan" and "Lazistan."
It is a fact that in the Ottoman times, the southeast of today’s Turkey and a part of northern Iraq were called Kurdistan. It is also a fact that along the shores of the Black Sea in the northeast of the Asia Minor the region extending toward today’s Georgia was called Lazistan. Ottomans had a different eyalet system from today’s Turkey. But since the establishment of Turkey in first half of 1920s as a nation-state in a rigidly centralized setup, such labels were banned or forgotten. To remember them or even to mention them were considered to be synonymous with separatism targeting the territorial integrity of the country.
While Turkey is still a country with a strange political culture in which words such as autonomy and federation are still perceived as separatism or partitionism, for a prime minister like Erdogan to recall the Ottoman eyalet system by using Kurdistan and Lazistan as examples is more than enough to drive Turkish arch-nationalists and Devlet Bahceli up the wall.
Erdogan did add that there is no need to use such terminology today. But be that as it may, he did let the genie out of the bottle.
Nevertheless, for Erdogan to mention the Ottoman eyalet system cannot be explained merely by his intention to rattle the MHP. Turkey's ever-confident prime minister has in mind a presidential system that will make him president for 10 years after 2014. A sideline to that aspiration is a yet-unnamed semi-federal system that in 2024, immediately following the 100th birthday of Turkey, will allow governors to be elected directly by the people, with increased power over regional administration. Interestingly, he doesn’t beat around the bush when he explains his vision.
Unless he loses momentum, next year Erdogan is likely to be the first president to be elected directly by the people. There is also a plan to draft a new constitution with increased powers for the president. If he can achieve all these without disrupting Turkey’s stability and economic growth, Erdogan is planning to be a president for two successive five-year terms. When he concludes his tenure in 2024 and realizes his dreams, Turkey will be a 100-year-old republic to be counted as one of the 10 most-influential countries of the world. And Erdogan, who will be just turning 70, will have made history.
Such an ambitious plan can be possible not only because of Erdogan’s growing self confidence but also the meekness of an opposition that would never be strong enough to pose an alternative to Erdogan in the foreseeable future.
For Erdogan’s total marginalization of the opposition the, PKK will have to not only silence but also bury its weapons in 2013. It seems if the Kurdish guns fall silent by the withdrawal of PKK’s armed elements beyond Turkey’s borders — to Iraq, Iran or Syria, as Erdogan said that he would not mind wherever they go, as long as they leave Turkey without their weapons — until the end of 2013, we will have a road map for Turkey 2014.
Once the Kurdish insurgency ends, it is hoped that the Turkish nationalism will recede. Nonetheless, Erdogan thinks the Ottoman imperial pride — with changes in the administrative system — may serve as a panacea.
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books (in Turkish), mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. He contributed to two Century Foundation publications: "Turkey's Transformation and American Policy" and "Allies in Need: Turkey and the US." He is currently senior columnist of Radikal in Istanbul. Candar was a special foreign policy advisor to Turkish President Turgut Özal from 1991 to 1993.
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