Main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu passed a crucial test and strengthened his grip over the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Sunday as party delegates gave him a de facto vote of confidence in a stormy extraordinary convention, opening the way for him put into practice what he calls "the new CHP."

Although the convention, marred by occasional scuffles and tension, dealt a serious blow to the intra-party opposition, the dissidents fought hard, showing that they would not go down easily. Dissident leaders Önder Sav, the former secretary-general, and Deniz Baykal, the party's former head, shunned the convention.

Triumphant against the party's old-guard veterans, Kılıçdaroğlu stood by his discourse of a "new CHP" while dismissing criticism of an ideological shift. While the dissidents huddled at a hotel, İsa Gök arrived as their representative in the convention hall to submit a formal objection. His appearance provoked the delegates and led to scuffles and booing.

"I want you to be confident that no one can stop our march with the people. A CHP that has embraced democracy and freedom will be always up on its feet," Kılıçdaroğlu said amid the fuss.

Challenge to Dissidents

"No one has the right to break peace at this convention. They demanded statutes [amendments], here are the statutes. If you want [a chairmanship] election, we will hold it, too," Kılıçdaroğlu said.

According to Gök, only 380 of the 1,200 delegates signed the attendance book and the remaining signatures were forged. The convention board retorted with an announcement that 948 delegates had signed in, dismissing his petition.

Leaving the hall amid jeers and plastic bottles flying at him, Gök said: "I was violently forced to leave. They tore my jacket. Those who are not party members have usurped the party."

Soon afterward, a tough-talking Sav held a press conference at the dissidents' hotel, warning the party leadership that "the boomerang of illegal action will one day return to hit them" and that he would not allow the party to be "pillaged" by newcomers. "We are the landlords and they are the guests," he said, as his loyalists chanted "Down with Kemal."

"Those who want to know more about the new CHP should look at the amendments on the party statute," Kılıçdaroğlu said, underlining that it would devote more emphasis to women and youth, as well as the oppressed. No political party has ever expressed an intention to democratize its party statutes other than the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu said.

"We have begun democratization of Turkey from the CHP. The new CHP will always push for more democracy and freedoms," he said.

Addressing the crowd of roughly 20,000 party members, Kılıçdaroğlu said the CHP would not waste its energy on intra-party struggles after amending the statutes, which, he said, would become the most democratic in Turkey.

Promising more democracy, rule of law and justice for the country if he comes to power, he urged the government to abolish special authority courts and resolve the problem of lengthy pre-trial detentions.

"The lawmakers who were elected by the will of the people must not remain behind bars. Let's abolish all anti-democratic laws that are products of the Sept. 12 [1980] coup. Let's abolish the election threshold and let's create an independent judiciary. This is the CHP's democracy appeal. Turkey will be normalized if we accomplish this," Kılıçdaroğlu said, also calling for resistance to "the post-modern dictatorship" of the ruling party.

Prime Minister Back to Work in Time for February 28 Anniversary

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was expected to attend the meeting of the National Security Council, or MGK, Sunday, to be held on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the council's historic meeting in 1997, which led to the resignation of Turkey's first Islamist-led government and profoundly reshaped the country's political landscape.

The MGK meeting coincides also with the first anniversary of the death of Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister whose government was unseated in the so-called "post-modern coup," and Erdoğan's political mentor.

Erdoğan has been in Istanbul since Feb. 10, where he underwent a second operation on his digestive system, which officials have described as the final phase of his treatment for an intestinal ailment. On Monday, he was expected to make a speech at the parliamentary group meeting of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in which the "February 28 process" is likely to figure prominently.

The turbulent process took its name from the Feb. 28, 1997 meeting of the MGK, at which Turkey's then omnipotent military imposed a series of tough decisions on then prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, aimed mainly at curbing religious schools and Islamic education in the face of what was perceived at the time as a growing threat to Turkey's secular system.

Backed by the bureaucracy and much of the media, the army kept Erbakan under pressure, forcing him to resign in June. Erbakan's Welfare Party, to which Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül belonged, was outlawed for anti-secular activities several months later.

Government Gives Green Light to Opening of Seminary

The government is not opposed to the opening of a seminary to raise Christian clerics provided it is subsumed under the authority of the Higher Education Board, or YÖK, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said Sunday.

"The theology faculties in Turkey are opened as a part of the universities and operate according to the rules of YÖK," Bozdağ told the Anatolia news agency. "There are no laws in Turkey against opening a seminary to raise Christian clerics; the state will also support such a move."

Turkey's Greek Orthodox has long demanded the re-opening of Halki Seminary on Istanbul's Heybeliada island. In a recent meeting with Parliament's Constitutional Conciliation Commission, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew demanded a "constitutional guarantee for the domestic education of the clergy."

Seminary's Status

The patriarchate seeks vocational school status for the seminary under the supervision of the Education Ministry. Bozdağ said the government proposed to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate that it open the seminary as a faculty of a university.

"The main debate is on the status of the school, it is not about permission," Bozdağ said, giving the example of Germany, where all seminaries are part of universities
The Greek Orthodox seminary was a main center of theological education for more than a century before Turkish authorities closed it in 1971 under a law designed to bring universities under state control. The international community, including the European Union and the United States, has long asked Turkey to reopen the seminary to prove its commitment to human rights.

In a patriarchate report presented to the parliamentary commission, the difficulty of educating the clergy within the framework of the present Constitution and laws was highlighted. The holy office also emphasized that because the Treaty of Lausanne was not fully implemented, the church was experiencing problems.

The patriarchate further outlined its problems on the religious education of minority community members and demanded constitutional guarantees on religious education. The patriarchate also emphasized that foundations of citizens and foundations of communities belonging to minority religions were another problematic area. The report also demanded that a new constitutional order be introduced on property issues.

Turkey's Hard Line on Syria Questioned Back Home

Once regarded as a friend and ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not only called on him to step aside, but charged that his administration "mercilessly murders its own citizens."

Although Erdoğan himself was absent for health reasons from Friday's first meeting of the "Friends of Syria," his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will join the meeting of Western powers and Syrian opposition groups in Tunis.

Public opinion toward the Assad regime has also hardened in Turkey after a busload of Turkish pilgrims returning from the Hajj in Saudi Arabia came under attack by gunmen in Syria, but influential voices say the government's policy is short-sighted and has sacrificed its leverage over Damascus by siding so openly against it.

Academic Gokhan Bacik raised eyebrows by recently challenging the official line in an article published in a pro-government daily titled: "Did Turkey Misfire in the Syrian Crisis?"

Speaking to the AFP, Bacik said the government had not thought through the consequences of its actions.

"Turkey was too quick to put all its cards on the table. It acted in haste, without thinking," he said. "For now, the Syrian regime is not ready to quit or to be toppled... (But) Turkey no longer has means to influence the Syrian regime."

Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said the government would be better off trying to keep dialogue going, not only with Damascus, but also reach out to countries such as Iran and Russia, who are known allies of Syria.

"Turkey could make a serious opening if it convenes a meeting in Istanbul with both the Syrian opposition and representatives of Assad, as well as Russia and Iran," he said in an interview with the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. "An intervention in Syria could stir up not only Syria but Turkey as well, and leads to serious disturbances in the Middle East. People are worried whether the global playmakers are really on the side of human rights."

During the initial phase of the Syrian uprising last March, Turkey pursued a policy of engagement, urging the Damascus regime to end the deadly crackdown and pave the way to political reforms. But Assad failed to pay heed to such calls, prompting the Turkish government to cut off ties in September and open its doors to a growing number of dissidents.

Turkey's hard line against Damascus has irked two of its other neighbors, Iran and Iraq, both of which are allies of Syria. Like Iran, Iraq is ruled by Shiites; Syria is led by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Turkey is largely a Sunni Muslim country.

In contrast, Turkish policy now overlaps that of the United States, to the obvious satisfaction of Washington.
As a U.S. diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "Both countries, members of NATO, are on the same line on Syria and call on President Assad to quit."

In his column in the daily newspaper Today's Zaman, columnist Sahin Alpay praised the administration's "sympathy" toward Syrian opposition, but cautioned against Turkey allowing itself to sucked into any kind of military intervention.

Turkey did not take part in the NATO air campaign against Moamer Kadhafi's regime, but did provide logistical support. Turkey should "stay away from any unilateral or multilateral military intervention in Syria, which may lead to not only a civil war but a regional armed conflict," Alpay said.

Turkey Urges Syria Regime to Cooperate With Annan

Turkey called Friday on the Damascus regime to cooperate with former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, the new international mediator on Syria, in a bid to find a way to halt almost a year of bloodshed there.

"All sides, particularly the Syrian administration, should cooperate with him fully for Annan's goodwill mission for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria to be carried out effectively," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Turkey is ready to cooperate "to the best of its ability" with Annan, the ministry said, describing him as "a wise man with great experience".

Annan has been appointed UN and Arab League envoy for the crisis in Syria, where activists say more than 7,500 people have been killed in 11 months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Turkey shares a long border with Syria, but Ankara broke its former alliance with Damascus following what it branded "atrocities" committed by the regime in its crackdown against the opposition protesters.

All Options against Syria on the Table

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, commenting on the international conference on Syria held in Tunis last week, said the international community debated all possible courses of action for ending the ongoing violence in the neighboring country, including the possibility of a military intervention.

Wrapping up talks after the first meeting of the Friends of Syria in Tunisia on Friday, Davutoğlu said Turkey would take part in international initiatives against the Syrian regime, adding: "All possible scenarios, including military intervention, have been discussed by a number of countries as a solution [to ending the bloodshed] in Syria."

"Even though Turkey does not want to see Syria in a situation similar to the Libyan civil war [following the NATO intervention in 2011], the upcoming period in Syria poses many risks for the region," Davutoğlu continued, adding that Turkey should be prepared for any possible decisions made by the international community.

"The international community should not hold back from taking initiatives to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Syria, even though the UN Security Council has been blocked from providing a solution due to Russia and China's vetoes," Davutoğlu said. The Feb. 4 decision by Russia and China to veto a UN resolution calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside angered the international community.

Davutoğlu highlighted that Turkey has started to strongly voice its opinions on diplomatic issues over the last decade after taking a back seat on regional and global issues in the past, including the Minsk process, an Azerbaijani-Armenian reconciliation process over Nagorno-Karabakh; the Dayton peace process, reconciling Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina; and talks on the future of Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein period.

During an international conference in London over the future of Somalia on Thursday, Turkish aid initiatives in the East African country were lauded. Turkey will host the second conference on the famine and terrorism-stricken country in June. Davutoğlu also said the second Friends of Syria meeting will take place in Turkey, while a third is planned to take place in France. Turkey, along with Tunisia and France, chaired Friday's meeting on Syria's political and humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, UN General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser hailed Turkey's stabilizing role, claiming it has acted as a peaceful negotiator with regard to regional conflicts, during a joint press conference with Davutoğlu, which followed a UN-backed conference on the peaceful mediation of international disputes in İstanbul on Saturday.

"The conference in Tunisia is the first step to ending the bloodshed in Syria, as the UN has been rendered ineffective due to the current polarization in the Security Council," Nasser added in remarks that paralleled Davutoğlu's.

The Friends of Syria conference held in Tunisia on Friday gathered together countries supporting the Arab League's position and calling for a democratic transition in Syria. The United States, European Union governments, Arab League countries and Turkey were all represented by delegations at the conference.

According to Reuters, Assad's forces have intensified their crackdown on the 11-month revolt against four decades of Assad family rule. They have been shelling rebel-held areas of Homs for 20 straight days, killing hundreds and gutting buildings.

Turkey Could Consider Tobin Tax to Fight Risks

Turkey's Central Bank could consider implementing a Tobin tax to help cut risks deriving from hot money flows into the economy, according to a prominent economics professor from the University of Massachusetts.

"The Turkish Central Bank has some alternative instruments at hand, but still, a Tobin tax could be considered as an alternative method to prevent hot money flows," Professor Gerald Epstein told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.

A Tobin tax, suggested by Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, was originally defined as a tax on all spot conversions of one currency into another. The tax is intended to penalize short-term financial round-trip excursions into another currency.

"There is stamp tax in some countries to stop the flow of hot money, and a Tobin tax might work in that sense," Epstein said, noting that France was currently discussing implementing such a tax.
According to the Central Bank's payment balance data from earlier this month, some $12.4 billion worth of dubious monetary entered Turkey last year.

Tighter Financial Controls

Epstein said the global economic crisis was heading in "a dangerous direction" as the austerity plans for Greece, including cuts in wages and pensions, would trigger a downward spiral that could drive the economy into a worse situation. However, Epstein said he believed the only way out was greater financial regulation in global markets.

"Before the crisis, there were already some signs all along the way," Epstein said. "After each crisis, the government would come and bail out the banks and the financial sector instead of regulating them more. Finland had a banking crisis in the early 1990s, and Turkey had its own banking crisis in 2001," he said, adding that both countries had succeeded in sheltering their financial systems against the shocks of the current economic crisis through "tighter financial regulations."

The post-crisis economic environment in Europe will be different than today, according to Epstein. Recalling Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's Feb. 2 remarks that China would consider helping shore up Europe's finances, Epstein said: "It would not be surprising to see Chinese companies acquiring European debt-hit firms. The U.S made enormous foreign direct investment in Europe after World War II, and this helped the developments in the European economy."
The professor also noted that technocrats in charge of the European economy today did not have a democratic base or political legitimacy.

Turkey Not Considering Afghan Withdrawal Unlike UK, NATO

Despite Britain temporarily withdrawing its civilian mentors and advisors from Afghan government institutions in Kabul, and NATO withdrawing its entire staff Saturday after two of its advisors in the interior ministry were shot dead, the Turkish Foreign Ministry told the Daily News that Turkey was not considering withdrawing any of its staff from Afghanistan.

Turkey, which has the second largest standing army in the alliance, currently has 1,600 soldiers serving in International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. Unlike other European members of ISAF, Turkey's mission is limited to patrols and its troops do not take part in combat operations.

Afghanistan's interior ministry said Sunday that one of its employees is suspected of shooting dead two U.S. officers.

"An employee has been identified as a suspect and he has now fled. The interior ministry is trying to arrest the suspected individual," it said in a statement.

Afghan security sources identified Abdul Saboor, a 25-year-old police intelligence officer, as a suspect in the shooting of the Americans at close range deep inside the interior ministry. The Taliban has claimed that the shooter was one of their sympathizers, and that an accomplice had helped him get into the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burnings.

Turkish Cyprus Leader Not Hopeful on Talks

There will be no use continuing negotiations with Greek Cyprus after July 1, the day southern Cyprus assumes the European Union's term presidency, if a solution to the island's division cannot be found before then, Turkish Cyprus' President Derviş Eroğlu said.

"If we cannot reach an agreement before July 1 then there will be no meaning in us continuing negotiations," Eroğlu told a group of journalists visiting him in Nicosia Saturday. "The United Nations and the Security Council should come to a conclusion. They have a set target and they failed to realize it. The main reason for the failure has been the approach of Greek Cyprus."

With Greek Cyprus assuming the term presidency July 1, Turkey has already announced it will not join activities organized by the presidency and will suspend political dialogue for the duration of the term. Equally important is the fact that Greek Cyprus will hold presidential elections in early 2013, and if current President Demetris Christofias is willing to run for a second term, he will have to make electoral alliances with other political parties.

"His possible allies are very strongly advocating the withdrawal of Turkish troops and are against the rotating presidency. He will have to accept their conditions if he wants to be re-elected in the second round of elections. Which means a complete change of parameters in the process we have started with Christofias," Eroğlu said.

Turkish Cypriots Tired of Talks

This is already Christofias' tactic, Eroğlu said, adding that the Greek Cypriot believes suspended talks would be revitalized one or two years later, upon pressure from the international community.

"Turkish Cypriots are fed up with unending peace talks. Decades-old unsuccessful rounds of talks only increased the hopelessness and uncertainty over their future," Eroğlu said.

Because of that, Eroğlu plans to address Turkish Cypriots on July 1 and call on them "to [protect] the state formed in 1983." Reluctant to talk about a "two-state approach" in a more open way or withdraw from negotiations, Eroğlu said discussing other options while there was still room for an agreement would not be right, even though the possibility of a solution is becoming more remote by the day.

Having returned from New York, where he held intensive talks with Christofias under the auspices of United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Eroğlu outlined the upcoming phases of the reunification talks. In the first phase, Ban is expected to report to the UN Security Council on recent developments. Then his representative, Alexander Downer, will write an assessment report in late March to express his findings on the two parties' performances in the discussions on three vital issues of reunification: power-sharing and government, citizenship and property.

International Conference Difficult

If the report is positive, Ban will invite the two parties to hold an international conference, where a draft agreement will be finalized. As such, the conference appears to be most significant but the two sides differ in their ideas for the format of such a meeting as well.

Turkish Cyprus believes that aside from the two communities, the three guarantor countries, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom, should also join, but southern Cyprus wants to expand the scope and include the European Union and members of the UN Security Council as well.

"They also want to have a representative from the Republic of Cyprus apart from the two communities, which, of course, is not acceptable for us," Eroğlu said.

Tens of Thousands Remember Victims of Khojaly Massacre in Istanbul

Tens of thousands of Turks and Azerbaijanis were out in force in İstanbul to stage what they called "an unprecedented massive rally" to mark the 20th anniversary of one of the most tragic massacres in modern history.

The crowd overflowed from İstanbul's central Taksim Square, chanting: "We will not forget Khojaly."

The mass protest is by far the largest to have been staged outside Azerbaijan to remember the 613 civilians killed in a single February night two decades ago that still haunts Azerbaijanis in their traumatic and troubled history of war, violence and bloodshed with neighboring Armenia.

The demonstration marked what organizers hope will be a watershed moment to call on the international community to avoid turning a blind eye to the massacre. They say it is a consciousness raising effort to call attention to the tragedy that has largely gone unnoticed over the last two decades.

Turks and Azerbaijanis all around the world also staged protests and rallies to remember the victims of Khojaly. Tens of thousands of people also marched through Azerbaijan's capital on Sunday to commemorate the Khojaly massacre.

President Ilham Aliyev led the march in Baku, which ended at a monument to the victims of the Khojaly massacre. Officials said 60,000 people took part. Tens of thousands also turned out for rallies in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.

Turkish Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin made an impassioned speech at the rally, which organizers said was attended by an estimated 100,000, underlining the deep tensions with neighboring Armenia, even though fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh ended with a 1994 cease-fire. The final political status of the enclave has not been worked out yet.

The protesters, including members of labor unions, nationalist groups and Turkish-Azerbaijani associations, filled Taksim Square to denounce Armenia and express solidarity with Turkey's ally Azerbaijan. Thousands of Turks, waving Azerbaijani flags, also staged similar protests in Ankara and several other cities across Turkey.

Azerbaijani authorities say 613 Azerbaijanis were brutally killed and hundreds are still missing when Armenian troops rushed into the village of Khojaly on Feb. 26, 1992. The attack appalled Azerbaijanis and became a symbol of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan.

Armenians have not denied the attack, but insist the death toll is exaggerated. Turkey and Azerbaijan have called for world recognition of the killings as a crime against humanity.

International rights groups have been uncertain about the exact death toll, but condemn the killings and consider them the worst massacre of the war that broke out between the two neighbors as the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

"Murderers, cowards spilled the blood of 613 people, including innocent women and children," Şahin said in an address to the protesters in İstanbul. "This bloodshed will not remain unpunished."

Şahin's remarks illustrated a prevailing sense of anger reigning among demonstrators who chanted slogans against Armenia, whose armies currently occupy 20 percent of neighboring Azerbaijan. Fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh has killed at least 30,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis.

A 2009 agreement between Turkey and Armenia, meant to open the way to diplomatic ties and the reopening of their border, foundered over Turkey's demand that Armenian troops withdraw from the Armenian-occupied enclave in Azerbaijan.

"Only Turkey supports us; 600-700 had been murdered in Khojaly, but the international community is still silent on the massacre," an Azerbaijani woman who attended the rally said.

İstanbul police dispatched heavy security to the French Consulate on İstiklal Street, where demonstrators were marching, fearing possible attacks on the building. The French National Assembly recently endorsed a bill making it a crime to deny the World War I-era killings of Armenians constituted genocide. Turkey and Azerbaijan protested the bill, claiming that it restricts freedom of speech.

Karabakh Azeris 'Need to Go' Home

The Azerbaijani government has made significant progress in caring for the 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forcibly evicted from the Nagorno-Karabakh region by Armenian forces two decades ago, but the ideal solution to the problem is the return of IDPs to their original homes, the International Crisis Group's latest report stated.

The report, "Tackling Azerbaijan's IDP Burden," praised government policies in dealing with IDP needs, but emphasized that much more needed to be done, with the problem itself putting pressure on the Azerbaijan leadership to prepare for the possibility of a new war.

"The status quo is neither acceptable nor safe. The right to return for people displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh has yet to be upheld, or an alternative formula agreed, for example based on compensation and exchange. This increases pressure on Azerbaijan's leadership to threaten military action to retake lost sovereign territory. IDPs consider return their priority and say they are ready 'to take up weapons to retake our homes' when 'Baku gives the word,'" the report said.

"Azerbaijan now claims to spend more proportionately than any other country on its IDP population, 7 per cent of the total population, which itself is one of the highest percentages of IDP populations in the world [...] Though much more is needed to ensure that IDPs lead dignified lives while they await the chance to return to their homes. They (IDPs) should be more effectively integrated into decision-making about housing, services, and other community needs, as well as contingency planning for emergencies and confidence building measures," it added.

Policy Prescription for All

The report claims there is little likelihood of progress in confidence building measures in 2012 due to elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries (France, Russia, U.S.) However, it advises that the Azerbaijan government, authorities and international community take necessary steps to facilitate greater IDP engagement in policies related to their lives.

"The government should involve IDPs as much as possible in housing decisions, and streamline processes for reporting incidents of corruption or violations of state law regarding IDP issues. It should also allow IDPs, while their villages and towns remain occupied, to vote for municipal councils in their places of temporary residence," the report said.

The report includes a section on conditions for those approximately 128,000 IDPs and permanent residents living in close proximity to the 180 kilometers-long line of contact (LoC) that marks the 1994 ceasefire between the opposing forces. It envisages an expanded interim OSCE monitoring role to remove snipers from the LoC and to set up an incident investigation mechanism.

"Azerbaijani authorities should agree with the Armenian government and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to an expanded interim OSCE monitoring role to remove snipers from the LoC and to set up an incident investigation mechanism, as well as to immediately cease military exercises near the LoC," it said.

The international community should facilitate the creation of an incident investigation mechanism, including the operation of a hotline between the sides to discuss ceasefire breaches and develop more on-the-ground confidence-building measures to create an atmosphere of trust.

"The very existence of 600,000 Azerbaijani IDPs – still prevented from returning to their homes and land two decades after fleeing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – is a clear demonstration of why it is urgent to renew international efforts to facilitate an agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia," it concluded.

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