Are institutions in developing economies doomed?

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In late November 2015 academics, journalists, politicians and members of various civil society organizations from several countries that are characterized as emerging markets came together in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss the life-span of institutions, and whether they can be saved or defended under attack from authoritarian systems or otherwise changing conditions.

Participants who attended the event organized and sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) hailed from Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India and South Africa: all underdeveloped markets most of which also struggle with issues of democracy, such as populist governments and sometimes not so subtle authoritarian tendencies. Several members of parliament from South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) also participated in the discussion.

The birth, life and death of an institution

Turkey was represented by myself from P24, Berk Esen from Bilkent University’s international relations department; Zeynep Alemdar, head of Okan University’ international relations department, Economist Emre Deliveli and Aret Demirci from FNF Turkey.

The example shared by the Turkish delegates in the conference on the making of an institution was the creation of the Constitutional Court as a powerful institution, some of whose rulings have at times stopped governments from riding roughshod over constitutional provisions, but at the same time have started a tradition of shutting down Islamist, Kurdish and communist political parties.

To illustrate how an institution was destroyed, the Turkish team described the recent erosion of the influence of Turkey’s Central Bank through increasingly harsh and sometimes humiliating attacks and veiled threats aimed at undermining the credibility of its Governor, coming from Turkey’s powerful autocrat, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The example the Turkish team chose to present as an example of how the media, under relentless attack from the government, is looking to defend itself through the rise of a higher-quality digital media as a replacement institution that can be a platform for dissent and a source of good journalism, hope and encouragement as well as jobs for journalists, intentionally chosen by the delegation to end the stories of Turkey’s institutions on a positive note.

How the other half lives

Participants from other countries also discussed the successes and failures of their own institutions.

The dismantling of an elite police force, which was initially established to fight corruption in South Africa was given as an example of how an institution was destroyed; the creation of the educational system in Mexico which eventually turned into a major apparatus for imposing official ideology was put forth as an example of how an institution was created. Other examples included, among others, the recent abolishment of India’s state planning agency; the creation of a civil society organization which became an effective voting monitor in Argentina; the creation of a region-specific new development plan in South Africa;  the devising of an urban development plan in Brazil to guarantee private property rights to all, and the establishment of a sound an independent judicial system also in Brazil.

As FNF is a foundation for liberal politics, the conference was essentially a meeting of liberals, who certainly represent an incredibly wide array of diverse beliefs about political systems and life from both ends of the political spectrum, but regardless of their differences, all participants agreed on one rather unweberian point: institutions are extremely hard to build, but they are fairly easy to destroy, come the right time and circumstances. Institutions often fall victims to the destructive actions of circumstances or other institutions they have helped create. They are like the trees in the Stereophonics song, which has the lyrics, It takes one tree to make a thousand matches but only takes one match to burn a thousand trees.

Doomed to failure, or not?

But why are institutions so easy to destroy? Are they failing us are we failing our institutions? This is a hugely important question for less developed markets with fledgling democracies.

How can we ensure that our good institutions remain strong and sound that so whatever it is that we need them for — be it fighting crime or corruption; ensuring checks and balances in our political systems; making sure that nobody goes hungry or that atrocities of the past don’t repeat in the future? The same question could be reversed: how can we fortify our good institutions, but at the same time have the flexibility to improve or get rid of the bad ones? Can we have the best of the both worlds? Or is it simply preferable to have fragile institutions, if that means that those working against us can also be easily brought down?

On the other hand, these questions are undoubtedly more relevant and vital in emerging markets. Some wealthy Western democracies have been able to do a good job of maintaining their well working institutions. But even in some of those countries, today we see that some institutions are beginning to crumble in the face of nearly a decade long economic crisis followed by the one of the greatest refugee crises in recent history. Populist parties — which are notorious for undermining good institutions– are coming to power even in nations where center left or right parties have historically held majorities.

Stories of different institutions from the world’s top six emerging markets suggest that not all institutions are perhaps doomed to fail, but they are all vulnerable, precisely because their destruction serves for the erosion of collective memory about the past. Turkey, which has seen every institution including its basic understanding of rule of law, which was never too strong in the first place, eroded, undermined, attacked or turned upside down in a little over a decade is burning proof of that.

Originally appeared at http://platform24.org/en/articles/332/are-institutions-in-developing-economies-doomed

Kill the Buddha, but not 10-year-olds

Kill the Buddha, but not 10-year-olds

   Mehmet Erdoğan, a 75-year old who was shot dead in Cizre allegedly by Turkish security forces, made only TL 10 a day.

The world has broken our hearts badly over the past two weeks.

Of course, I am firstly referring to what the sea has brought.

I haven’t really had a decent night of sleep since the little body of Aylan Kurdi washed up about 10 days ago.

And as if that wasn’t enough, recently, there was more news of child deaths on social media (as the Turkish media has long stopped covering the news) this past week; this time in Turkey’s Southeast.

In Cizre, a district of Turkey’s Şırnak province, pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) youth were digging trenches around neighborhoods saying those areas had now become self-governing units. The Turkish state’s response was brutal: They announced a 24-hour curfew and a shoot-on-sight order for anyone who defied it.

Several people died in the weeklong curfew.

They include a 35-day-old baby, who died because an ambulance that arrived to take her to the hospital hadn’t been allowed into the street where the baby’s family lived.

The mother of a toddler who dared to go out onto her apartment’s balcony was also shot dead, allegedly by Turkish Special Operations officers, although of course state officials say all the civilians who died in Cizre last week were killed by the PKK.

Another victim was 74-year-old Mehmet Erdoğan, who, according to his neighbors, was a “soft-hearted man.” He made a living (earning about TL 10 a day, according to Hürriyet) reselling paper and metal scraps he collected from the city’s garbage containers. “He gave any food he found in the garbage to stray animals,” the same neighbor said of him.

The elderly man was killed with a single bullet to his forehead, the “fine work” of a sniper positioned cunningly to ensure that nobody defied the curfew. (Or a PKK member, if we are to believe the state).

Another victim was 10-year-old Cemile, who was also shot by a stray bullet. Her family had to keep her lifeless body inside a refrigerator because they couldn’t leave the house due to the curfew. And this — that she couldn’t be buried for a long time — found more place in the news than the fact that she had been killed.

Amid all the macabre poignancy of this month’s deaths, Elif Şafak, a Turkish writer, who had been silent about both the migrant and Cizre deaths on social media, tweeted that it was unacceptable that the Turkish authorities had banned Buddha statues from being displayed in yoga centers in Turkey.

Bu ne kadar tuhaf,anlamsız bir karar.Niçin bu yasakçı zihniyet.Bu korku? Yoga merkezlerindeki Buda heykellerinin&müziğin kime ne zararı var? —  Elif Şafak / Shafak (@Elif_Safak) Sept. 10

Rightly, she came under fire from social media users because of sounding so detached from the country’s realities and so insensitive to the recent shared grief of the world. Yes, it is a stupid move to ban statues of Buddha, a central figure for the yoga-minded, and it really doesn’t make sense, but it beats me why someone who has stood silent in the face of attacks on secularism that are far more offensive than this one would take issue with this.

Enough trolling here, though, on my part. The real reason why I am talking about this is as a part-time Buddhist and the only blogger for Today’s Zaman who has talked or will ever talk about yoga, is I feel like I should be the one to say something about the statue ban.

Some of our readers might know a famous koan (attributed to great Zen master Linji), which says, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” This might mean different things to different Buddhists, depending on their spiritual development (or even their current mood); but it is generally accepted that you don’t need to follow a “great leader” to develop as a Buddhist, because you already are the Buddha. We all are. To know thyself, you have to kill the Buddha instead of following him.

There are many other koans where Buddha statues are destroyed or used as (in the case of wooden ones) fuel for the fire to help shivering monks in cold temples on mountaintops warm up a little bit. Of course, these koans and stories have deeper meanings, but their most practical quality is to show non-Buddhists that Buddhism is not a religion of idol-worshipping. Really, the Buddha statues don’t mean much to many Buddhists (or yogi, or atheists who have a spiritual appreciation for the Buddha).

Let me put it differently: When the Taliban destroyed the great Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, it didn’t hurt just one bit, compared to the hurt and heartbreak the killings of Aylans, Cemiles and other children have caused, at least in my case. And I am sure that many Buddhists would agree with me.

Buddha statues at Turkey’s yoga centers are the least of our concerns. And unfortunately, they will likely remain so for a long, long time. The outcome of the November election is the only thing that can change, and I do hope that more Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters will join us this time in telling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP that they are no longer wanted.
This article originally appeared at http://www.todayszaman.com/blog/e-baris-altintas/kill-the-buddha-but-not-10-year-olds_399211.html

Erdoğan in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin

The similarities between the strong men of Turkey and Russia are not limited to their love for lavish places and dislike of alcohol

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not there when Russia celebrated its Victory Day on May 9 this year with a military parade overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdoğan wasn’t the only one who missed the event since Western leaders mostly boycotted the ceremony, protesting Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Erdoğan had a slightly different reason: He was a no-show because Putin had attended ceremonies to commemorate the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan on April 24, in spite of Ankara’s diplomatic advice not to do so.

It is unlikely that Putin’s attendance in the Yerevan event or Erdoğan’s absence on May 9 will affect bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia. The two men had found themselves in disagreement many times before, for example, on Syria or Crimea. But they are united by other traits, such as their shared anti-Western stance. It is also no secret that the two men happen to act despotically at times and they both have a tendency to befriend other strongmen.

Turkey and Russia, located in the purgatory betwixt East and West, seem to be increasingly converging towards a common fate, and the mental and emotional resemblance between their leaders is striking. For example, Putin and Erdoğan have often used the exact same words in response to very similar situations.
Time and again, they have asserted that there are “no political prisoners in Russia” or “the imprisoned journalists in Turkey are not in prison because of their journalistic activities.” People in jail who are political activists or journalists also happen to be tax evaders or terrorists and coup plotters, according to the Turkish and Russian leaders.

With great power comes great responsibility and, of course, a – not always healthy — dose of paranoia. Both Putin and Erdoğan have taken actions that clearly were based on fear following anti-government protests, or after being confronted by what might be a semblance of organized opposition. Putin faced mass protests against his rule in 2011, and later in 2012, although the latter were a bit less enthusiastic. Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Protests changed Erdoğan’s (and everybody else’s) life.

Measures had to be taken!

Erdoğan’s government responded by introducing a new domestic security law, which gives superpowers to Turkish police. Putin also used new legislation to crackdown on civil society in new and inventive ways. To quote a Human Rights Watch report, some of the changes introduced in 2012 and after that year include the “Enforcement of the ‘foreign agents’ law [which has] led to an unprecedented, nationwide inspection campaign of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Dozens of groups are fighting the prosecutors in courts, refusing to register as ‘foreign agents’.”

In today’s modern world, strict Internet censorship laws are what set a functioning dictatorship apart from the rest. Both countries now duly have “internet filters,” that supposedly allow one to choose between a family filter and a default  “unfiltered” access, not to mention draconian internet laws or web site access bans.

The two men also share a distaste for booze; a hallmark of today’s health-conscious autocrats. Erdoğan has introduced several restrictions on alcohol. In Russia, beer was declared an alcoholic drink for the first time under Putin. Both countries now have laws restricting alcohol sales near schools and after a certain hour.

Religion has also been a strong weapon of choice both for Erdoğan and Putin, and both Russia and Turkey have seen the boundaries between state and religion get increasingly blurred over the past decade. Erdoğan has taken steps to specifically Islamize the country’s education system. Two years ago, Putin signed a law imposing sentences of up to five years for publicly “insulting the feelings of religious believers.”

This list can no doubt be extended, but of course what really unites the two men is their taste for lavish palaces, preferably built (‘’allegedly,’’ of course) through the improper use of state funds.

Erdoğan’s Palace, built in the middle of the Turkish capital, in spite of court orders declaring it illegal, is called “Kaçak Saray” (literally, the illegal palace, and a pun on the word Ak Saray (White Palace) used by Erdoğan to define his new home).

Although it was built as the “prime minister’s residence” initially, it became Turkey’s new presidential palace after Erdoğan’s election as president. The cost of it has never been revealed officially, but on May 5, Erdoğan said the most “exaggerated number” he could give for the cost of the palace would be 1 billion dollars. The utility bills related with the palace, the monthly expenses to maintain the palace and questions around those have been unanswered by state officials.

The good news is, judging by “Putin’s Palace”, Turkish citizens should simply be happy that there are no known “ownership” issues with Ak Saray.

Putin’s Palace, a luxurious compound on the Black Sea coast, which also cost 1 billion dollars and allegedly was built using state funds, belongs to somebody else on paper. Putin’s unofficial ownership has been well-documented though, by what remains of Russia’s independent media as well as an open letter by a businessman. (It is from this letter that we know Putin’s Palace also cost 1 billion dollars).

Of course, even at his current pace, Erdoğan’s rule pales in comparison with Putin’s classically oppressive regime.

Although it is hard to speak of an independent media in Russia, the country’s most important critical newspaper has seen six of its journalists assassinated over the past 15 years. The most shocking development in the country was the murder of Boris Nemtsov in February this year. The assassination was largely taken as a message to the anti-Putin camp.

Compared to Russia, Turkey has had a longer experience with democracy, first transitioning to a parliamentary monarchy in 1876 (which was also the country’s first parliamentary experience). In the first decade of the 21st century, Turkey became a relatively more democratic society, effectively shaking off the military tutelage system and introducing many pieces EU-compliant legislation. Russia, hoewever, could never take a serious step towards democratization in the post-Soviet era.

Putin enjoys wide public support: 63 percent of voters supported  him in the 2012 elections, compared with Erdoğan’s 52 percent in Turkey’s last presidential election.

Although Erdoğan’s alleged support for ISIS remains an issue that he and his regime need to account for, its consequences have been much less impactful than Putin’s troublesome use of former Chechen rebel and current head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, accused of severe human rights abuses in the Chechen Republic. Most importantly, the Turkish leader so far has not been implicated in suspicious deaths of political rivals.

Still, if Putin’s example is any indicator of what an autocrat of his caliber is capable of, it becomes even clearer why an even stronger Erdoğan will mean for Turkey. It is also why the elections in June are so crucial for the country.

Although he has recently proven his disrespect for the rule of law, Erdoğan is still confined by the silhouette of what once was a more or less functional parliamentary system. Putin is the president in an actual presidential system.

Corruption, greed and power held by strong leaders often have disastrous consequences for societies, but even a minimal check on autocratic power can make a big difference; render ferocious dictators less dangerous.

Originally published  at: http://platform24.org/en/articles/279/erdogan-in-the-footsteps-of-vladimir-putin

Lessons from GISWatch 2014

Lessons from GISWatch 2014

The cover of GISWatch 2014 on state and corporate mass surveillance in communications. Photo taken from website of Hivos.

Living in a Middle Eastern dictatorship, one tends to think her government is keener on Internet surveillance, online spying, censorship and profiling than everybody else’s governments (except for the US government, maybe). This is actually a misguided view, but we tend to forget to look at or fail to see the general picture, distressed about how much our own lives have become fearful under totalitarian governments and the ever-growing terrorist threats in our region, and surprised that we still have it better than many others in this part of the world.

The Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2014 report, introduced at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in İstanbul in early September, was prepared jointly by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos). It has helped me put things in the online freedom area in perspective a little bit. I am not going to lie to you, I am one of the contributors of the report, but I am not writing about it for that reason! Because the book was launched in Turkey, I had a chance to see a printed sample before anybody else (except the printing house probably), and I have actually read most of it. GISWatch 2014 contains several thematic reports and 57 country-specific reports (including one on our little banana republic here, which doesn’t really have a significant banana production). It is an absolute must-read and most of its writers aren’t high-brow academics but fearful citizens like you and me (probably more fearful than you and me, as most of them are rights activists, which also makes them braver than us). This is by no means the gist of it, but it shows clearly that all governments everywhere do their best to track and retain user data — both for surveillance and censorship (which are essentially the same thing technically) — and will likely use it against you whenever they can. The reports also show clearly that city closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras (we call them “mobese” here, but unfortunately we don’t pronounce that word like obese with an “M”) don’t help you when you have been attacked, robbed or killed, but they will get you when you are in trouble (i.e., in trouble with the authorities). Another slightly relevant point I learned during the IGF and its alternative Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF) is that Right to Information Acts never work anywhere, yet governments pass them.

GISWatch 2014 is also a good example of how growing networks of solidarity and collaboration between like-minded people and activists are producing solid results. It is hard to take on the big guys by yourself, but we can do it together, and we will be seeing a lot more cooperation among citizens of different countries. And we don’t really have to do any of this alone.

Yes, the challenges are the same and yes the Internet binds us all to a common fate (which increasingly appears to be a depressingly panoptical and Orwellian one), but there are also action steps and, in GISWatch 2014, the authors offer recommendations on how to deal with surveillance issues with regards to a specific country. They show us what our options are and that is a good place to start for all of us. Every citizen of the Internet should understand that we have options, and that it doesn’t have to be like this. GISWatch 2014 can be helpful in seeing our options and knowing who our friends are, which in turn will make the world in the age of digital surveillance a bit less scary and make us feel a bit less lonely.

This post was originally posted as TZ Blog Post at http://www.todayszaman.com/blog/e-baris-altintas/lessons-from-giswatch-2014_358835.html

Erdoğan’s new paramilitary force

Erdoğan’s new paramilitary forceThe Trust Force, with their baseball caps, batons and backpacks, actively contributed to efforts to block the Gezi anniversary protests on May 31.
Our banana republic, it turns out, now has a team of regime guards, which Turkish columnists (for some reason very few have written about this), have likened to Iran’s Basij. Ours are called Güven Timi, which can be translated as the “Trust Force.” We saw them actively intervene in the Gezi anniversary protests last Saturday and beat up protesters.

They appear to be plainclothes officers, but with a twist. They are mostly bearded men. On Saturday, they were all sporting blue baseball caps, the same type of backpacks (black with vertical white stripes in front) and wielding (the same) batons. They did not have any insignia or any other official indicator suggesting that they work for the police force.


According to Wikipedia, Basij in Iran “consists of young Iranians who have volunteered, often in exchange for official benefits.” Although the Trust Force in Turkey was founded in 2009 as part of the Police Department, anything can happen here as we live in one of the least transparent countries in the world. These teams were, according to a quote from the Public Safety Unit’s Deputy Director Dursun Güneş in 2009 [featured in a post by T24 blogger Aram Ekin Duran], set up to “not look like cops,” and their primary target was to catch pickpockets red-handed.


But on May 31, Saturday, they were beating up young people instead of chasing pickpockets in Taksim in addition to 25,000 riot police and 50 water cannon trucks deployed in the area to stop the protesters.


Hopefully, we will know more about them if and when the opposition submits a parliamentary query about our own mysterious Basij.


Also during the protests, CNN’s Ivan Watson was detained live on camera while reporting from Taksim. One commentator said this was a clear message to the rest of the world that our government really doesn’t care about what the rest of the world really thinks about Turkey. (I am not trying to hide the commentator’s name, I just don’t remember who it was). Disturbing as it is, I think this is the only logical explanation behind the detention of Watson and his crew.


On June 2, Monday, the lifeless body of a young man  was found in the Gezi Park — where the Turkish government doesn’t allow access to anyone who is not on the police force. The dead man was not a police officer. He was identified as 27-year-old Tuğrul Turnalı. The cause of his death wasn’t clear at the time of my writing this blog post, but there were reports suggesting that he died at the end of an epileptic seizure; asphyxiated by his own tongue. One cannot help but think that this was another protest related death. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or a seizure triggered by tear gas, but it is highly unlikely for anyone to die as a result of a coincidence at a park where no civilians are allowed.


Just last week, the police shot a man dead as he waited outside a cemevi (an Alevi place of worship) to attend a funeral. Seven people were killed in the Gezi protests of last year, most of them due to police brutality. Now the Trust Force is out on the streets, freely beating people.


Could it really be that, Erdoğan’s exit plan out of the corruption charges he is facing is to start a civil war? Only time will show. For now, with a higher number of cops on the streets and the latest addition — the Trust Force –, all we can be sure is that the country has never been more dangerous.
This blog was originally published in Today’s Zaman’s Blogs section.

Erdoğan’s kingdom for 12 trees

Erdoğan’s kingdom for 12 trees
This undated photo made available on Monday Feb. 4, 2013 by the University of Leicester, England, shows the remains found underneath a car park in Leicester, which have been declared “beyond reasonable doubt” to be the long lost remains of England’s King Richard III, missing for 500 years. (Photo: AP, University of Leicester, File)
Richard III is my favorite villain. These days, I find myself thinking of Shakespeare’s criminal tyrant often. His manipulative schemes to get to the throne, his increasing paranoia and cruelty that knows no bounds are peculiarly familiar. He is perhaps best known for crying out, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” after a climactic fall from his horse in the final battle for the crown. Could Richard have saved “his kingdom” if he hadn’t fallen off his horse? I doubt it. Shakespeare makes the point that the people resent him increasingly, and that England is ready to welcome anybody who isn’t Richard. Did Richard really think he was losing his kingdom for a horse?

That feeling held by the common people behind the palace walls must be close to what non-AKP voters feel like in today’s Turkey. Possibly, the resentment is stronger, since people can actually vote in today’s society, but still end up with rulers who act like kings.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an autocrat, one who is currently working hard to increase polarization in Turkey to consolidate his voters. He is facing serious graft allegations. He will answer for any crimes eventually, tomorrow if not today. One day his days in power will come to an end and the sycophants around him will abandon him. He will be all alone, just like Richard at the end of Shakespeare’s play. He knows it too. This is why he sharpened his polarizing language even further after the Gezi protests last year.

Never has he been a democrat, but life got much tougher for Erdoğan’s critics and opponents after a handful of people staged a sit-in, which, in a matter of days, turned into a massive anti-government movement.

It was the first time the other half of the nation, those who don’t vote for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), came together. Kemalists were together with Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) supporters, hipsters hand in hand with devout Muslims. It was the first time so many people came out to the streets and told Erdoğan: “You are evil. And we hate you.” This is my understanding of Gezi, a process which is ongoing.

Yet Erdoğan’s interpretation was radically different. To him, it was “all that vandalism and violence over 12 trees,” the number of trees in Gezi Park according to him. The man is no tree lover, he orders forests cut down whenever he notices one. He likes selling forested land, and he has even implied that trees are a sign of primitiveness while asphalt is the symbol of civilization. So it is not a surprise that people demonstrating to defend trees must have been pretty shocking for him. But what the 12 trees stood for was a denunciation of the government’s greed that is costing us our forests, our people, our workers and children, a condemnation of Erdoğan’s exclusionary policies that don’t take into account anybody who is different from the majority.

After Gezi, Erdoğan increased his attacks on every non-AKP segment of society and upped the tone of his polarizing rhetoric. Nothing has been the same since Gezi.

Really, it is never about a horse, or trees, for that matter.

This post originally appeared under TZ Blogs section published at http://www.todayszaman.com/blog/e-baris-altintas/erdogans-kingdom-for-12-trees_348996.html