May 23, 2015

Erdoğan’s requests to shut down Turkish schools abroad perceived as patronizing

On the latest stop of his world tour to disparage Turkish schools abroad, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked Albanians to shut down schools that boast scores of Albanian alumni, accusing the institutions of being part of a terrorist organization.

Erdoğan's vendetta-driven campaign abroad, focusing especially on Africa and the Balkans, seems to have backfired, and his patronizing attitude is jeopardizing Turkey's relations with a range of countries.

Talking to Sunday's Zaman, Albanian politician from the opposition Democratic Party (DP), Ferdinand Xhaferraj, who served as minister of tourism, cultural affairs, youth and sports from 2009 to 2011, emphasized that there is a consensus in Albania regarding Erdoğan's request to shut down schools established by volunteers from the Hizmet (also known as Gülen) movement as unacceptable.

Challenging the consistency of Erdoğan's remarks, Xhaferraj asked why the Turkish government is willing to “imitate” the schools by promising to offer similar services if the schools have links to terrorism. In his opinion, Erdoğan's calls to shut down the schools is “in essence and in form an attempt to spread the domestic problems of Turkey abroad.”

In a public denouncement of Erdoğan's accusations, the president of Albania said in a televised interview aired on Ora News on Monday night: "There is no such terrorist organization in Albania. In my view, the Gülen schools pose no threat either to Albania or to Turkey.”

Similarly, Minister of Education and Sports Lindita Nikolla has said that the government has already closed a number of schools that were found to be unfit, according to criteria set in a recent education reform. There are no Turkish schools among the 13 that have been closed since last year.

Interestingly enough, on his way back from Albania, Erdoğan told Turkish reporters that he had discussed the "parallel structure" -- a reference to the Gülen movement -- with both the Albanian president and the prime minister. Erdoğan said the Albanian leaders responded to his concerns with support. Contrary to this claim, however, the Albanian president stated during his televised interview: “I told Mr. Erdoğan that Gülen's schools operate within the scope of the law and in line with the principle of secularism. They do not pose a threat to security and have modern infrastructure.”

When asked whether he could have prevented Erdoğan's remarks, the Albanian president said Albania could not restrict the content of a visiting guest's public speech, in a reference to an address Erdoğan made, lambasting the Gülen movement, at a ceremony celebrating the groundbreaking of a mosque in Tirana. "We can control what our officials say, but not visiting guests,” President Bujar Nishani stated. Nishani also emphasized that Albania does not interfere in Turkey's domestic politics and does not want to be involved in its domestic conflicts.

According to Xhaferraj, Erdoğan's request that the schools be shut down is an intervention in the domestic affairs of Albania. He said he is aware of the problems in Turkey's relations with its neighbors and that Turkey's foreign policy has left itself increasingly isolated. “What [Erdoğan] did in Albania is just the latest expression of his authoritarian attitude,” the former minister stated.

Balkan countries should be treated as equal partners

Commenting on the impact of Erdoğan's requests to close the schools worldwide, Dr. Önder Çetin from the sociology department of Fatih University, who pursued academic studies in the Balkans, has said that Turkey's attitude toward the region stems from a baseless overestimation of its own influence, explaining that while many Turks have a certain impression of the Balkans, those living in the region have no clear estimation of Turkey. Çetin continued, saying that it is a mistake not to treat Albanians as equal partners in bilateral relations, and urged Turkey not to repeat in the Balkans mistakes that it made Central Asia by adopting the role of a big brother.

Supporting Çetin's recommendations, reactions from Albanian politicians have been overwhelmingly critical of Erdoğan's patronizing attitude. On May 14, Ben Blushi, a deputy from the ruling Socialist Party of Albania (PS), which came to power in 2013, called on the government to reject Erdoğan's requests, saying that Albania is not a colony of Turkey. Speaking in the Albanian parliament, Blushi said, "No country's president can ask [for the civil society movement to be labeled a terrorist organization] while on a visit to another country.”

Indeed, the critical reactions from the Balkans are not the first as far as Erdoğan's patronizing attitude is concerned. In Nigeria, following Erdoğan's request to shut down Turkish schools in the country, journalist Vincent Kanayo wrote in the Leadership newspaper that Erdoğan seems to consider Africans stupid because the continent is underdeveloped.

Attempts to shut down Turkish schools abroad is the real treason

A former member of the parliament Emre Kocaoğlu has stated that although Erdoğan accuses these schools of treason, the real treasonous actions are the president's attempts to shut down these schools, which present the country in a positive light to the world. "The students who graduate from these schools become friends to Turkey,” Kocaoğlu told Sunday's Zaman, adding that calling these schools terrorist organizations is "no different from calling their local alumni terrorists.”

According to Kocaoğlu, however, Erdoğan's attempts to close these schools will not harm Turkey's relations with other nations in the long run, as it is only a subject for mockery. Still, he fears that Erdoğan's "orientalist" efforts in Africa, in the Balkans and in Central Asia will only lead to hatred of the president. Kocaoğlu believes that the world is aware of Erdoğan's personal problems with the Hizmet movement at home and will only ask for more schools to be built, in defiance of his attempts to close them. When asked why Erdoğan has launched the campaign abroad, despite the clear harm it does to his country, Kocaoğlu responded, “I am a politician, not a psychiatrist.”

Kocaoğlu says he knows, from his personal contacts within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the majority of diplomats are uncomfortable with Erdoğan's attempt to shut down the schools. "How are they supposed to argue that these schools are terrorist organizations when they praised them only a couple of years ago?” Kocaoğlu asked.

Sunday's Zaman asked a similar question to a senior Foreign Ministry official, regarding how those in the ministry can reconcile the attempts to shut down the schools that many have described as contributing positively to Turkey's soft power. The official declined to respond to this question, asking Sunday's Zaman to send an official request for a response to the ministry.

Speaking with Sunday's Zaman, an independent deputy who resigned from the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) after corruption investigations became public on Dec. 17, Haluk Özdalga, said Erdoğan has done “great damage to Turkey's interests by trying to close down the Turkish schools around the world.” According to Özdalga, Erdoğan's non-diplomatic attempts result from his desire for personal revenge for the corruption investigations [for which he considers the Gülen movement responsible].

Published on Today's Zaman, 23 May 2015, Saturday