June 14, 2024

Turkey

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People in a crowd waving Turkish flags and looking upward.When Yasemin Oz, a lesbian lawyer in Istanbul, heard President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claiming victory after a runoff election on Sunday, she said she feared for the future. In his speech, he declared “family is sacred for us” and insisted that L.G.B.T.Q. people would never “infiltrate” his governing party.

They were familiar themes, heard often throughout Mr. Erdogan’s campaign for re-election: He frequently attacked L.G.B.T.Q. people, referring to them as “deviants” and saying they were “spreading like the plague.” But Ms. Oz said she had hoped it was just electioneering to rally the president’s conservative base.

“I was already worried about what was to come for us,” said Ms. Oz, 49. But after the speech, she thought, “it will get harsher.”

The rights and freedoms of L.G.B.T.Q. citizens became a lightning-rod issue during this year’s election campaign. Mr. Erdogan, facing the greatest political threat of his two decades as the country’s dominant leader and seeking to woo conservatives, repeatedly attacked his opponents for supposedly supporting gay rights. The anti-Erdogan opposition mostly avoided the topic for fear of alienating some of its own voters.

That left many L.G.B.T.Q. people fearing that the discrimination they have long faced by the government and conservative parts of society could worsen — and feeling that no one in the country had their backs.

“People are scared and having dystopian thoughts like, ‘Are we going to be slashed or violently attacked in the middle of the street?’” said Ogulcan Yediveren, a coordinator at SPoD, an L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group in Istanbul. “What will happen is that people will hide their identities, and that is bad enough.”

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim society with a secular state, does not criminalize homosexuality and has laws against discrimination. But in recent conversations, more than a dozen L.G.B.T.Q. people said they often struggled to find jobs, secure housing and get quality health care as well as to be accepted by their friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrating his victory in Istanbul on Sunday.
An aerial view of a mosque and an election poster for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kayseri, Turkey in April. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim society with a secular state.

In recent years, they said, they have encountered new restrictions on their visibility in society. Universities have shut down L.G.B.T.Q. student clubs. And since 2014, the authorities have banned Pride parades in major cities, including in Istanbul, where crowds in the tens of thousands used to participate.

That tracks with Mr. Erdogan’s vision for Turkey.

Since the start of his national political career in 2003, he has increased his own power while promoting a conservative Muslim view of society. He insists that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and encourages women to have three children to build the nation.

Rights advocates say that as Mr. Erdogan has gained power, his conservative outlook has filtered down, encouraging local authorities to restrict L.G.B.T.Q. activities and pushing the security forces to crack down on gay rights activism.

Anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric was more prominent during this election than in past cycles, even though there are no looming legal changes that would expand or limit rights. No political party is trying to legalize same-sex marriage or adoption, for example, or expand medical care for transgender youth.

Instead, Mr. Erdogan and his allies use the issue to galvanize conservatives.

“What they want to impose on society in terms of other values is full of hatred and violence toward us,” said Nazlican Dogan, 26, who is facing legal charges related to participation in pro-L.G.B.T.Q. protests at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It was really ugly and it made us feel that we can’t exist in this country, like I should just leave.”

A group of people laughing around a table.
Bambi Ceren, right, and other members of a Pride week organizing committee gather in an apartment in Istanbul.
Nazlican Dogan, who is facing legal charges related to pro-L.G.B.T.Q. protests at a university, in Istanbul last week.

During his campaign, Mr. Erdogan characterized L.G.B.T.Q. people as a threat to society.

“If the concept of family is not strong, the destruction of the nation happens quickly,” he told young people during a televised meeting in early May. “L.G.B.T. is a poison injected into the institution of the family. It is not possible for us to accept that poison as a country whose people are 99 percent Muslim.”

In April, his interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, went even further, falsely claiming that gay rights would allow humans to marry animals.

SPoD, the advocacy group, asked parliamentary candidates during the campaign to sign a contract to protect L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Fifty-eight candidates signed, and 11 of them won seats in the 600-member legislature, said Mr. Yediveren, the coordinator.

His group has also tried to expand legal protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people.

While certain laws prohibit discrimination, they do not specifically mention sexual identity or orientation, he said. At the same time, the authorities often cite vague concepts like “general morals” and “public order” to act against activities they don’t like, such as Pride week events.

“This week is very important because we don’t have physical locations we can come together as a community to support each other,” said Bambi Ceren, 34, a member of a committee planning events for this year’s Pride week, which begins on June 19.

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A drag performer surrounded by a group of people.
A drag performer who uses the stage name Florence Konstantina Delight at a club in Istanbul.People socialize at Ziba, a gay-friendly bar in Istanbul.
Last year, the police prevented Pride events and arrested people who gathered to take part, committee members said.

SPoD runs a national hotline to field queries about sexual orientation, legal protections or how to access medical care or other services. The group can solve most issues related to services, Mr. Yediveren said, but most callers’ problems are social and emotional.

“People are feeling very lonely and isolated,” he said.

Transgender individuals struggle to find jobs, housing and proper medication and care. And gay men and lesbians are sometimes forced into heterosexual marriages and fear coming out to their families and co-workers.

Worrying about, “‘Will I be caught one day?’ causes a lot of stress for them,” Mr. Yediveren said.

And the threat of violence is real.

Some L.G.B.T.Q. people said they had been beaten by the security forces during protests or met with indifference from the police while being harassed on the street.

A survey last year by ILGA-Europe, a rights organization, ranked Turkey second-to-last out of 49 European countries on L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Another group, Transgender Europe, said that 62 transgender people had been killed in Turkey between 2008 and 2022.

Many L.G.B.T.Q. people fear that the demonization during the campaign will make that threat more acute.

A queer university student from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who grew up in a smaller city with no significant L.G.B.T.Q. presence, said she feared that bad days were ahead.

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People spraying painting prints on a building wall.
Members of a Pride week organizing committee spraying graffiti in Istanbul.
Berat, an openly gay architecture student, works as a hairdresser in Istanbul.

People who would not normally commit violence might feel empowered to do so because the government had spread hatred for people like her, she said, claiming they were sick, dangerous or a threat to the family. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being attacked.

Despite the increased danger, many L.G.B.T.Q. people vowed to keep fighting for their rights and maintaining their visibility in society. To deal with the fear of random attacks, they plan to look out for each other more to ensure they are safe.

In Istanbul, a 25-year-old drag performer who goes by the stage name Florence Konstantina Delight and uses gender-neutral pronouns called the new attention unsettling.

“In the whole history of queer life in Turkey, we could never be that visible,” they said in an interview. “But because of the election, everyone was talking about us.”

They described growing up in Turkey as “full of abuse, full of denial, full of teachers ignoring your existence and what happened to you, like your pals bullying you.”

At age 16, Florence accepted their sexual identity, attended a Pride parade and set up a Facebook account with a fake name to contact L.G.B.T.Q. organizations and make friends, eventually stumbling upon someone at the same high school.

They later moved to Istanbul, where they perform weekly at a rare L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly bar.

Mr. Erdogan’s win on Sunday caused Florence despair.

“I stared into space for a while,” they said.

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A woman dancing in a bar.
A woman dancing at a lesbian bar in Istanbul in front of an image of Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, who lost to Mr. Erdogan in the presidential election.

Erdogan cements his power with a victory in Turkey's presidential runoff election

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-decades of dominance over the country’s politics will continue after a win in Sunday’s election. Known for his combative populism and for reshaping the country’s laws to consolidate his power, Erdogan now looks ahead to another five-year term and ongoing concerns about the country’s direction and democracy.

Erdogan won 52.14% of the vote while 47.86% went for his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu, according to Ahmet Yener, the head of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council.

“It is not only us who won, it is Turkey,” Erdogan said, in a victory speech at the presidential palace in Ankara. “It is our nation that won with all of its elements. It is our democracy.”

Now the focus is on the state of that democracy and the country.

Turkey has played an increasingly robust and sometimes contentious role on the global stage as a key NATO member and major military power in the Black Sea.

At home, he still faces soaring inflation, a highly-criticized, sluggish response to massive earthquakes in February and concerns that he’s creating one-man rule.

Erdogan won votes by hyping threats to the country’s stability

Erdogan, 69, led a divisive campaign in which he tapped into the public’s fear of instability following a 2016 coup attempt and multiple conflicts. He accused his opponent of having ties to Kurdish militants, who conduct attacks against Turkish security forces in the southeast. He reminded people of the ongoing civil war next door in Syria. He employed religious, nationalist rhetoric in promising to make the country a global military and industrial power – even working a Turkish-built electric car into his campaign.

That apparently helped counter widespread dissatisfaction with an economic crisis that has seen high inflation and a weakened currency — apparently aggravated by Erdogan’s emphasis on maintaining low-interest rates. And the government’s poor building code enforcement and slow response to February’s earthquakes are still blamed by many for the high death toll — some 50,000 lives lost in Turkey.

Erdogan still benefits from memories of previous governments’ elitism

Two decades ago, Erdogan came into office as a champion of working-class people and religious conservatives who felt neglected and repressed by previous secular governments. For many years, women who wore headscarves were banned from attending schools or working in jobs. Erdogan changed those laws and to this day many people, conservative women in particular, see him as someone who looks after them.

At a polling station in Istanbul on Sunday, a mother and daughter cast their votes for Erdogan.

Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday.

Emrah Gurel/AP

“I don’t really think he will make anything better, but I have other reasons. I think he is more respectful of my choices and my freedom,” said the mother, Sabiha Dogan, meaning the headscarves she and her daughter wore.

As they entered the polling station, two women who supported the opposition made derogatory comments about their headscarves. Dogan and her daughter Hulya, felt validated in their choice of candidate.

“They only want democracy for themselves and not everyone, they won’t respect our freedoms,” said 24-year-old Hulya.

The survival of Turkish democracy is still at stake

For the millions who voted against him, Erdogan is seen as an authoritarian. He has stacked the judiciary, monopolizes the media and jails perceived opponents — including journalists and critics on social media. He’s accused of allowing corruption to flourish, leading to shoddy, unregulated construction that collapsed in the quakes. He’s replaced opposition mayors even though they won local elections.

This election was hardly a fair fight. Erdogan has near-total control of Turkey’s broadcast media. And while Erdogan made frequent and lengthy appearances on TV, his challenger, Kilicdaroglu, had to make do with social media and YouTube to get his message across. Erdogan also took advantage of government resources to hand out benefits to millions of citizens and raised the minimum wage several times in the last year.

But the election did seem to energize a surge in the country’s democratic culture. Turnout was high — 84% — and many Turks volunteered as citizen witnesses to ensure the safety of ballots. Many vow to continue efforts to push back on any abuses of power.

There are concerns that Erdogan will continue amassing one-man power. And many women and LGBTQ activists worry their freedoms will further decline in the next five years. During his campaign, Erdogan made several comments attacking Turkey’s LGBTQ community.

Rights organizations and activists are calling for unity to protect civil freedoms.

Some Syrian refugees see Erdogan’s win as cause for relief

Syrian refugee Ahmad Al-Ahmad, center, husband of Naziha Al-Ahmad, comforts his daughter as they bury Naziha in a cemetery after she died during an earthquake, in Elbistan, southeastern, Turkey, on Feb. 10, 2023. Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war were once welcomed in Turkey out of compassion. But as their numbers grew, so did calls for their return.

Francisco Seco/AP

Many of Turkey’s nearly 4 million Syrian refugees were among those celebrating Erdogan’s win. A decade ago he oversaw an open-door policy for refugees escaping war in neighboring Syria — though life for many of the refugees has still been difficult.

As the Turkish economy faltered, many began to see refugees as a burden. Opposition politicians, including Kilicdaroglu, scapegoated refugees and Erdogan’s refugee policy, leading to a rise in discrimination and hateful attacks. Kilicdaroglu ran an openly anti-refugee campaign. His promise to send all Syrians back to Syria was one of the most repeated slogans.

Erdogan also gave in to public pressure on the refugee issue. While he condemned Kilicdaroglu for his inflammatory language, the Turkish government has deported hundreds of Syrian men and Erdogan said he would build housing in Turkish controlled parts of Northeastern Syria to “resettle” 1 million refugees voluntarily. But many refugees still see him as being more sympathetic to them.

Erdogan will probably keep playing to East and West in international issues

Turkey is in NATO, sits close to the wars in Ukraine and Syria and often frustrates western powers in how it negotiates those conflicts.

Erdogan has maintained close ties with Russia and refused to participate in Western sanctions, while also supplying weapons to Ukraine. Analysts say Erdogan may eventually approve Sweden’s membership to NATO — which is important to the west in order to counter Russia — in exchange for F16 fighter planes from the United States. He showed Turkey’s usefulness to the West in helping broker a deal with the United Nations between Ukraine and Russia, to allow Ukrainian grain exports through a Russian blockade.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talk to each other on the sidelines of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia summit, in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 13, 2022.

Vyacheslav Prokofyev/AP

Meanwhile, he’s also expanded the Turkish military’s reach and control over areas in northern Syria — a concern to Kurdish groups allied with the U.S. in the ongoing fight against ISIS remnants.

The next five years will likely see a continuation of Erdogan walking a fine line and his transactional approach to foreign policy.

“There’s absolutely no reason to think that [Erdogan] would reverse course or soften his approach,” said political analyst Selim Koru.

“There is sort of a Western bloc that is broadly geopolitically aligned, and the Bloc wanted Turkey to be in its camp. Turkey essentially has said no, it wants its own camp and isn’t interested in participating in any kind of geopolitical alignment where it isn’t the boss,” said Koru.

Will Erdogan’s Victory Soften Turkey’s Opposition to Sweden in NATO?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, invoking themes of Turkish nationalism and counterterrorism, has been the main obstacle toward Sweden joining the NATO alliance after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His fierce public opposition played well in his reelection campaign. So did his role as a power broker, vital to NATO but also as an intermediary, able to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine.

Now safely reelected Sunday as president of Turkey, Erdogan is expected to project the same image, by tightening his grip on power at home while balancing between his allies inside NATO and his economic dependency on Russia.

But with renewed nationalist credentials, he could feel freer to mend ties with the United States, analysts suggest, and could approve the membership of Sweden into NATO, as he already did with Finland, perhaps in time for the alliance’s yearly summit in July.

To underline U.S. support for both Sweden and Finland in NATO, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit both countries this week as part of a trip to attend an informal alliance meeting of foreign ministers in Norway.

Acquiescing would have benefits for Erdogan. Sweden’s entry into NATO may unlock the sale of American F-16s and kits to upgrade Turkey’s older models. Those sales have been blocked in Congress, where many legislators are angry about Erdogan’s ties to Russia, his purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system and his crackdown on dissent.

“His victory is meaningful for Turkish society and politics, but less disruptive for foreign policy,” said Ian Lesser, a Turkey expert who directs the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. “I don’t see a troubled relationship getting worse.”

Turkey is a vital member of NATO, as a major military contributor that controls the Black Sea, a territory critical in Russia’s war in Ukraine. But Erdogan, increasingly unpredictable and authoritarian, relies on Russia for energy, trade and injections of hard currency and has refused to apply Western sanctions on Moscow or on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, Turkey has provided Ukraine with military drones and has been an important intermediary in getting Russia to agree to allow the export of Ukrainian grain while being an early host of failed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.

His military occupation of northern Syria — to keep down Kurdish forces he associates with a guerrilla group that has fought a decades long insurgency in Turkey — also troubles allies. While Turkish troops have protected some Syrian dissident enclaves, Erdogan has simultaneously engaged in a rapprochement with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. Erdogan wants his help to restrain the Kurds and take back some of the 4 million Syrian refugees that Turkey has been hosting in the name of Islamic solidarity.

Erdogan may disappoint those who hope for a more emollient, more Western-leaning Turkey, however, and Turkey is not the only ally becoming more authoritarian. Hungary and Serbia are doing the same, and Poland, though fiercely anti-Russia, is, like Turkey, undermining the rule of law, judicial independence and press freedom.

Erdogan’s reelection “will open a larger debate about how we engage with allies and strategic partners with whom we have declining affinity, and Turkey won’t be the only one,” Lesser said. Europe will have to find new ways of appealing to the more democratic opposition in these countries and engaging better with society, he said.

That drift away from democratic values and the rule of law will mean little progress in long-frozen talks on accession to the European Union. For Brussels, said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, it is a kind of relief — a win by the democratic opposition would have meant that Brussels would have had to take Turkey’s accession negotiations more seriously, including a revision of the agreements on customs and visas.

“The European Union will be able to talk the talk of values, slamming Turkey’s authoritarianism — over which it has no influence — while cynically walking the walk of a purely transactional relationship with an unabashedly transactional leader,” she wrote for Politico, expanding her thoughts in an interview.

While regarding Erdogan as an autocrat, she said, Europe “was rather successful in negotiating nasty deals with him on migration,” paying Turkey to house refugees and asylum-seekers and prevent them from coming to Europe.

His domestic needs are likely to influence his geopolitical moves. Inflation remains stubbornly high in Turkey, and the surge in government spending before the election has only added to the pressure.

Emre Peker, who studies Turkey for the Eurasia Group, a risk-analysis firm, said he thinks Erdogan, after his biggest electoral challenge, will tighten up at home, aiming to overturn opposition victories in big cities in elections next year.

Economic difficulties mean that Erdogan will be more careful abroad, Peker said. “He can’t afford the wheels to come off” while seeking investment and aid.

“Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and the EU will remain transactional and tense,” Peker said, but Erdogan will want to avoid Western sanctions over Russia, restraining Turkish banks and companies from doing major trade deals with Moscow. “Ankara is likely to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership this year, in return seeking to finalize F-16 purchases from the U.S.”

Mark Esper, a former U.S. secretary of defense, said on a visit to Finland that Turkey’s ratification of Sweden for NATO was key to better relations. If Erdogan does not announce his approval soon, and membership lingers past the NATO summit, “we lose energy,” Esper said, “and I’m afraid it gets dragged on from there.”

After decades of military nonalignment, both Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO nearly a year ago, with great fanfare from the Biden administration. Almost from the outset, Erdogan was the sticking point in the process.

The Turkish president claimed the Nordic countries were soft on terrorism, especially toward Kurdish exiles and refugees affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. “These countries have almost become guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan has said. “It is not possible for us to be in favor.”

Finland got Erdogan’s approval in March to join NATO by making relatively minor policy changes, including tightening its anti-terrorism laws and lifting an arms embargo on Turkey. He has continued to hold out on Sweden, although he can justifiably claim credit for a tough new anti-terrorism law that will go into effect in the country June 1.

Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official who is now executive director of the McCain Institute, said, “If Sweden is not admitted as soon as possible, that will dilute our strong response to Vladimir Putin, our strong response to Russia’s aggression, and Putin will take it as some kind of a victory.”

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Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki.