by Daniella Kuzmanovic.
Wednesday, October 14th, it was once again time for the yearly assessment of Turkish efforts to meet the political and economic criteria in relation to the EU membership negotiations (http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2009/tr_rapport_2009_en.pdf). With regard to the political criteria all the usual critical issues are, as could be expected, mentioned in the report: Minority issues, the Kurdish problem, human rights, equality with regard to gender, sexual orientation and disabled people, children’s rights, labor and union rights, the role of the military in politics, administrative structural problems in the bureaucracy, anti-corruption initiatives, the structure and functioning of the judiciary, the Ergenekon case, freedom of expression, and the lack of action with regard to the Cyprus issue and the question of opening Turkish ports for Cypriotic vessels. This year, in the light of the on-going tax case against the Doğan media group, and the accompanying verbalized attacks against the group’s media and journalists from members of the ruling party, concerns regarding freedom of speech were, as could also be expected, particularly emphasized.
My attention, though, was immediately drawn to a couple of smaller sections of the assessment report (page 20) dealing with civil society. This should perhaps not come as a surprise, since civil society in Turkey has been my object of research for some years. The role of civil society and input from civil society is frequently mentioned in the report. But on page 20 there are a couple of paragraphs that deal with some of the many challenges civil society faces in Turkey. One deals with the issue of funding, another with the issue of state – civil society relations:
“Some legal provisions place an undue burden on the operations of associations. There are high fines or severe punishments for failing to comply with the Law on Associations [note 23 inserted: In the event of failure to keep the necessary records of an association, the executives of the association are liable to imprisonment of between three months and one year.] The legal obligation to notify authorities before receiving financial support from abroad places a burden on associations. Negative portrayal in certain media and at times disproportionate inspections of NGOs receiving funds from abroad, including EC funds, remain a further cause for concern.”
“There is a growing awareness in public institutions and in the public at large about the crucial role played by civil society organisations, including in the accession process. However, some difficulties encountered with the consultation procedures reflect the lack of trust between State institutions and civil society organisations. The legal framework for collection of donations and tax exemptions for NGOs needs to be strengthened, in line with EU good practice, to improve NGOs’ financial sustainability.”
To take up the latter first, for sure one of the main obstacles with regard to an enhanced role for civil society in Turkey is the lack of trust between state authorities and particular sections of civil society. That is to say those sections which have traditionally perceived themselves as being in opposition to the statist elite and the authoritarian state tradition in Turkey, and which have used the idiom of civil society to express this opposition from the mid 1980ies onwards. Having stated this, I have also stated that the lack of trust, among other, has to be understood with reference to the events of September 12, 1980 (i.e. the military coup) and the subsequent clamp down of state authorities on a range of civic political and intellectual forces, but particularly leftists. The result of the 1980 coup were also a number of highly restrictive laws with regard to associations (dernek) and foundations (vakıf), associations being more heavily controlled than foundations, though, since associations were associated with leftist activities. In addition the lack of trust must also be understood with reference to the events of February 28, 1997 (the so-called postmodern coup) particularly aimed at pro-Islamic forces. These two sections are in fact two prominent sections of that part of civil society in Turkey, which aims to influence the political developments and decision-making processes. Many of the NGO’s that have the attention of the EU are indeed part of a broader leftist tradition.
The restrictive laws on associations and foundations have in recent years finally been revised. However, building trust between state authorities and civil society takes more than legal revisions and strengthening of procedures. Yet the wording in the progress report makes it sound as if the issue of trust is a technical issue, rather than stemming from those broader historical experiences of the past decades that still influences state- civil society relations. The EU does in fact support trust-building measures with regard to state-civil society relations in Turkey, but the report fails to mention this.
The first of the quoted paragraphs touching upon the issue of funds from abroad for civic activities, deals with the way in which the influx of foreign support for civic activities is perceived in Turkey by state authorities and by “certain media”. As a matter of fact, foreign funding for civic activities is also a major issue of debate among civic activists themselves. For several reasons accepting foreign funds is viewed with suspicion by some segments of civil society, and those organizations that do receive funds from the EU, the Soros Foundations or alike thus make themselves a liable target for critique from various other segments of civil society. One of the main aspects of this critique pertains to a firm belief that funds do not come with ‘no strings attached.’ They are part of a political-ideological ambition (or plot as some would prefer) to establish ideological and economic dominance in Turkey. Not least US funding has been read with such a perspective in mind, the Soros Foundation being seen as a prominent example of how a US neo-liberal, pro-Israeli segment is gaining influence in Turkey. A book entitled ”Project democracy”: Sivil örümceğin ağında (Project democracy: In the web of the civil spider) (Ankara: Ulus Dağı Yayınları) is a prime example of such thinking. Other aspects of the critique pertain to a desire among civic activists to dissociate themselves from western values and influence more generally speaking, in order to state that their organization does not adhere to such values.
The issue taken up in this section of the progress report is in fact a complex issue pertaining yet again to the way in which various historical experiences form part of civic activism in Turkey. One pertains to the question of Turkish sovereignty, which is close to the heart of both traditional Kemalist civil society organizations that hold on to the notion of Turkey as ‘threatened’ by foreign powers, as well as to those leftists who see themselves as involved in a global anti-imperialist struggle. Another pertains to the struggle between western modernity including political values, and what not least a number of pro-Islamic organizations perceive as ‘local’ (read: authentic) forms of civic activism. That was just to mention a few of the aspects of the issue. Again the report barely hints at the variety of historical experiences, which are involved in constituting the critique in certain media and the general suspicious attitude towards foreign funds. I stress the importance of this outlook and sensitivity towards the historical experiences in play in order to underline how technical solutions aimed at transparency, alterations of legal structures and bureaucratic procedures is only one aspect of supporting civic culture in Turkey. This has also been pointed to in numerous reports on civic culture in Turkey, such as those from TÜSEV. I just wish, the sections in the EU progress report had also shown even greater sensitivity towards the issues at stake.