101 on the Turkish deep state – Nokta (Istanbul)

Umit Kardas welcomes my colleague Ekrem and me in his office just off the main pedestrian street in the busy Beyoglu quarter of Istanbul.

The office is filled with books, a new version of the Turkish Penal Code, reformed in 2004, lies on the desk. Kardas smiles and offers us two glasses of Turkish tea. He is a mild-manner and very polite man. It is only when I begin to ask questions about the current political situation in Turkey that his smile disappears.

No wonder: Kardas knows more than most about anti-democratic attitudes within parts of the Turkish state administration.

Kardas served as a military judge during some of the worst periods in Turkey’s war against the PKK in South East Anatolia. There was a time, he noted, when most suspects brought to his courtroom bore signs of torture. He resigned. He has since turned into one of the best informed critics of official Turkish nationalism.

But has the situation regarding torture not changed fundamentally since the 1990s, I ask him?

“There is progress, yes, and there is less torture today. But this progress could be reversed if the general situation develops in the wrong way. Then there could even be a return to torture”

What would cause such a reversal?

“Turkey is not a country that has so far turned into a functioning democracy and the supremacy of the rule of law. A state based on the rule of law has not come into being. There is an ongoing struggle between the government and the Turkish armed forces. …

Now Turkey has come to a critical point. Either Turkey will stick with the status quo, close itself and turn into an anti-democratic, authoritarian country; or prodemocratic forces pushing for an opening of society, for a withdrawal of generals from politics, for an enlargement of civil liberties will prevail. Based on what I know I am a pessimist, but based on my desires I am an optimist.”

Umit Kardas

Umit Kardas

He goes on:

“The military is constantly interfering in politics, writing declarations, trying to influence politics. In a democratic country the government would send these generals into retirement. According to Turkish laws it is forbidden for members of the armed forces to interfere in politics.”

“Since 1980 the military has become used to exercising power which it now does not want to abandon. So on the one hand it acts like a political party, and on the other hand it does not run in elections, is not exposed to control and criticism but nevertheless is part of the government.”

“There is no change in mentality and basic structures. At least some things that one could not talk about in the past are now discussed openly. But this opening is not without risk as we see in the case of Nokta, or Semdinli.”

Nokta, Semdinli: for Kardas both of these events became symbols in recent years that forces of authoritarian nationalism have not yet been defeated in Turkey.


Semdinli is a place in the mainly Kurdish South East of the country near the border with Iraq and Iran.

On 9 November 2005 there was a bomb attack on a bookstore. One person died. The Van Third Criminal Court was later to decide that two noncommissioned officers were guilty of the crime. They were both captured on the spot by a furious crowd. On June 19 2006 the two noncommissioned officers, Ali Kaya and Özcan İldeniz, were found guilty and sentenced to serve 39 years and 10 days in prison.

Guns found in car in Semdinli

The court also noted that the group responsible could not have been set up or led by the noncommissioned officers and that they could not have carried out the act without the tacit approval, protection and involvement of more senior officers.

However, when Van Prosecutor Ferhat Sarıkaya implicated in his indictment (the current chief of general staff) General Yaşar Büyükanıt, together with some other top commanders, he found himself disbarred by a panel of judges set up by the Supreme Board of Judges and Public prosecutors. He lost both his job and his license as a lawyer.

Later the Semdinli case was transferred to a military court. This military court then released the two noncommissioned officers (NCOs) pending the outcome of the trial.

For more in the press go here:





In March 2007 the weekly magazine Nokta published an article about a confidential list by the Turkish military blacklisting journalists and press organs, a leaked report prepared by the Office of the Chief of General Staff categorizing journalists as “trustworthy” (pro military) and “untrustworthy” (anti military). While the military acknowledged the existence of such a list, they declared that the version published by Nokta was “only a draft”.

Later that same month Nokta published excerpts of a diary, alleged to have been written by admiral Özden Örnek, a former navy commander. The diary entries gave details of two plans for a military coup, discussed by the commanders of the army, navy and the air force, together with the gendarmerie chief, and aiming to overthrow the AK Party government in 2004.

Following these publications, the magazines’ offices were raided by the police in a three-day operation. Subsequently, the owner of the magazine discontinued its publication.

For Kardas both cases sent strong and negative messages to the Turkish public: the outcome of the Semdinli case discouraged prosecutors; “Who will dare to take on the military again in the near future?”, he wonders. And the outcome of the Nokta case discourages the press. There is a degree of self-censorship, he worries, and the taboos, what one reports on and what one remains silent about, have been reinforced.

It is a sombre picture of Turkish society, and a disheartening analysis of the balance of power between the forces struggling for control of the country that Kardas has to offer. And it feels strange to step out of the house where his office is into the bright sun on Istiklal street on such a bright spring day, to pass Gloria Jeans and Starbucks cafes and then to head for the bookshops in the centre of the city.

And yet, as long as there are people like Kardas liberalism and the European vision will remain alive in Turkey.

Kardas, in the meantime, returns to his job: preparing the defence of the former editor of Nokta, who showed courage when others did not, in a Turkish court.

A Turkish weekend

After 10 days of travel and research in Bulgaria and Brussels the plane from Sofia arrives back in Istanbul early on Saturday morning.

It is a glorious early spring day, warm and sunny. At 9 in the morning, as the taxi goes from the airport in the west of the city along the Byzantine walls towards the Golden Horn this metropolis is at its most attractive. There is little traffic, only some early pedestrians in the parks that stretch long the Marmara Sea. We cross the Galata bridge and continue along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast anywhere in Europe: from Ortakoy, underneath the first Bosporus bridge, to the affluent “village” of Bebek and further to the huge Ottoman fortress of Rumeli Hisari. We pass the fortress, turn left, and I am at home.

Mecidiye Mosque, Ortakoy

Mecidiye Mosque, Ortakoy (Istanbul)

Urban vitality 

There is a game I have been playing for the last years upon every return to Istanbul after a trip abroad: to discover what has changed in the city this time. In fact, I do not remember ever having lived in a place – not post-war Sarajevo in 1996, not post-communist Chernivtsi in Ukraine in 1993, not transition Sofia in 1994 – where the feeling of witnessing constant change in the immediate physical environment has been as acute as in Istanbul today.

Today it is new, red road signs have been put up in all of Rumeli Hisari (and, I notice later, elsewhere in the city) during the past 10 days: quite elegant signs that indicate not only the names of streets that I have walked for years without knowing what they were called, but also the specific quarter (in this case Rumeli Hisari mahallesi) and the municipality (Sariyer). The signs have come accompanied by new red numbers pasted onto every house. Having struggled to find my way around the centre of Sofia, looking for non-existant street signs, only a day before makes me appreciate this change.

And it is not the only one that has transformed my mahalle: the reconstruction of the facade of a prominent old house in the main street leading up the hill from the Bosporus has also been completed. The enlargement of the pedestrian promenade along the water has also advanced. And these are just the changes I notice immediately upon arriving. It is this reality of small but continuous changes that conveys the sense of being in the most dynamic city in one of the most dynamic countries in Europe: a vitality and restlessness that does not cease to fascinate (one could make a long list of the large number of changes just in Rumeli Hisari in the past year).

Political crisis

Unfortunately, excitement and surprises in Turkey are today not restricted to urban improvement. There is a second aspect of life here that is no less constant: witnessing the twists and turns in an unending and often merciless power struggle that lies beneath the astonishing social and economic developments visible on the surface. It is almost a certainty that after a few days of absence reading a daily paper or visiting a Turkish website brings one face to face with the latest existential social crisis, atrocity, political turmoil or bitter confrontation, facts that often shock and surprise even the most seasoned observers of local politics.

To illustrate what I mean let me list only a few of the recent crises that have appeared like lighthing on a clear sky in recent years: the apprehension of two military men, caught planting a bomb in a bookshop in the town of Semdinli in late 2005. The murder of an Italian Catholic priest in his church in Trabzon. Protests preventing the holding of a conference discussing Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. The assassination of a judge at the State Council in Ankara. The murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in the centre of Istanbul. The killing of a group of missionaries in Malatya. A speech by (former) president Sezer warning that Turkey has never been in greater danger from turning fundamentalist. A dire warning by the Chief of Staff to the same effect. The removal of a prosecutor (in Van) who indicated that higher levels in the military might have been involved in the bombing in Semdinli. A violent demonstration in Diyarbakir, ending with young people killed in the streets by security forces. A terrorist attack by the PKK. Another terrorist attack. Media frenzy over an impending invasion of Northern Iraq. Airstrikes. An actual invasion of Northern Iraq. A frontpage story in March 2007, published in an Istanbul weekly (Nokta) how leading military officers were planning coups in 2004. The closing of that same weekly, never to reopen, a few days later, following pressure from the prosecutors. The opening of a trail against its editor. The threat of military intervention delivered through an email (the e-memorandum crisis) in April 2007. Mass demonstrations against the government. The sentencing of an academic who dared to question some aspect of the life of Ataturk. Trials of writers and journalists. The trial of Orhan Pamuk. The dissolution of a town council in South East Anatolia for using “languages other than Turkish” when providing services to citizens. The indictment of a Kurdish local politician. More indictments. A move to prohibit the DTP (Kurdish party) represented in the Grand National Assembly. The discover of a plot to kill the prime minister and his advisors in Ankara. The discovery of a large number of handgrandes in a house on the Asian side of Istanbul in summer 2007.

And finally, to top everything, the arrest of dozens of individuals who form an underground terrorist right-wing network in January 2008 and who appear to be linked to a large number of the incidents just listed … As I write this list I realise that I can easily do so from memory, without any real effort. I certainly have forgotten a range of smaller “existential crises”.

Every time one leaves Istanbul for a few days one thus returns to find the city that appears a bit richer, a bit more beautiful and yet also a city where the wildest political fiction is regularly surpassed by the reality of Turkey’s dark power struggles. Turkey is a bad country for those who do not want to believe in conspiracy theories. So this is a typical Bosporus weekend: walking along the water, drinking tea, looking at the rays of sun dancing on the small waves, enjoying a sense of peace and harmony, beauty and promise. And then turning to the papers and experiencing the opposite reaction: bewilderment.

Just consider the amazing turn politics took this weekend. On Friday evening (14 March) the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, applied to the Constitutional Court to close the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), suggesting that it poses a threat to the secular order of the country. He calls for a ban on 71 of its leading members, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from politics for five years! Can this be true?

Turkish reactions

Most reactions in Turkey condemned the closure request. The daily Radikal titled on 15 March 2008: “It’s enough, anything else”, Taraf daily wrote: Put the Prosecutor on trail. On 17 March 2008 Sahin Alpay commented in Today’s Zaman: “The status quo fights back.” The Industrialist’s Association TUSIAD also criticised the motion: “In respect of Turkish democracy this trial is unacceptable.”

Instead of offering you my own analysis, let me quote a few of the local papers to share the full flavour of the local debate.

1. An article in Today’s Zaman:

“Left shocked by the lawsuit filed by the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals against the powerful ruling party late Friday, pundits in Ankara have already begun to ponder how this judicial coup attempt will end. According to the Turkish Constitution, there is no timeframe for the Constitutional Court to decide on a party closure file. But, in 1997, it took only eight months for the court to close the Welfare Party, the predecessor of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). This shows that there is not much time for the political engineers in the capital to direct developments to their advantage.

But what is more important then the timeframe is the member composition of the Constitutional Court, which has closed 40 different political parties since its foundation in 1961. Fikret Bila, daily Milliyet’s columnist, underlined this reality in his column yesterday but also drew attention to the fact that the parties were banned because of either acting against the unitary regime of the Republic or being a focal point of anti-secular activities. The ban of two political parties has been asked for: The AKP and the Democratic Society Party (DTP), Bila said, pointing out that the predecessors of these two parties were also closed down by the top court on the same charges.

Another point is that the general composition of the top court has not changed in the last 10 years. Political observers argued that the majority of judges in the Constitutional Court were appointed by former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist who was elected as president when he was the head of the top court in 2000. Out of 11 judges, at least seven of them would vote for the closure of the AKP, these observers claimed. Apart from these predictions, the court’s ruling last year to annul the presidential elections in Parliament with the votes of nine judges shows that life will no longer be easy for the AKP. But the court will signal its possible ruling on the closure of the AKP through another decision on the annulment of the recently approved constitutional amendments package that lifts the headscarf ban in universities, a move that sparked harsh accusation against the government from the judiciary and the military. Observers in the capital argued that if the court annuls the constitutional amendment on the basis of secularism principle of the Republic that will also send a strong warning to the ruling party.

In the event of the AKP’s closure, the ruling party will not only lose its chairman and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but also 41 seats in Parliament. The current government will collapse in the absence of its prime minister. But the AKP’s remaining 299 deputies could still form a new party, elect a chairman and of course the new prime minister of the country. Many observers argued that the party would face an in-house race for the party’s leadership but the new prime minister will be someone selected by Erdoğan himself. There are already names being mentioned in the capital for the leadership of the party such as Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, Interior Minister Beşir Atalay, Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan. Abdüllatif Şener who refused to participate in the July 22 general elections from the AKP ranks, is also seen a potential leader of the new party but Şener cannot be prime minister as he is not a lawmaker. Another possibility is that the country could face snap general elections as a result of the AKP’s closure depending on how long the file remains in court. The country will hold local elections next year in March, where general elections could also be held if the AKP’s possible successor decides to do so. The votes of 276 deputies suffice for calling a general election. Let them close us, we would get 50 percent of votes, Şahin told reporters in Antalya over the weekend. But there are more optimists among the AKP members. This time we’ll receive 70 percent of votes, said Bülent Arınç, an AKP heavyweight.”

2. An article by Fehmi Koru:

“We aren’t accustomed to having solely an “indictment,” written by the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, without a process — a process of a military intervention, prepared and executed by masters of psychological warfare. In 1960, after the army takeover, the military rulers brought all the politicians who had served the country in the proceeding 10 years before a specially designed tribunal, whose handpicked members tried them for misdemeanors. President Celal Bayar was accused of embezzling a gift horse. No kidding. The panel of judges later found that the horse had been delivered to a zoo together with a hound, also the gift of an Afghan king. The chairman of the panel waved a piece of ladies’ underwear in the face of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, accusing him of secret liaisons, but it was later discovered that the underwear had been planted by a friendly hand. Prime Minister Menderes was also accused by the same tribunal of fathering a child out of wedlock. In 1980, after the army intervened, the new military rulers opened up court cases against politicians and their parties. Soon afterwards they closed all the parties and banned the politicians from politics. Almost all the politicians were brought before special tribunals, and their miserable spectacle they presented during these trials gave away the reality that they had been subjected to harsh torture and mistreatment.

Mere indictment by a chief prosecutor for the closure of a political party is a new phenomenon in Turkish politics. No direct military intervention, no taking politicians prisoner, no sending political leaders to exile, not even any forcing of a government from power… Only an indictment written by the chief prosecutor… The chief prosecutor has obviously spent a lot of time on preparing the text of the indictment. The 162-page text is made up of accusations against Justice and Development Party (AK Party) politicians, including President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Parliament Speaker Bülent Arınç. The chief prosecutor collected all the utterances of AK Party politicians — the utterances he felt were against the secular foundation of the state — going back to the time they were members of the now-banned Welfare Party (RP).”

3. A comment by Sahin Alpay:

chief prosecutor has asked the Constitutional Court to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) for allegedly having become a center of activities threatening the secular regime. This move is surely a severe attack against democracy, the rule of law and stability in Turkey. It is a shame for the country. The accusations leveled against the AK Party are wholly unjustified and have no legal basis, only an ideological one. It seems that the self-appointed bureaucratic guardians of the state want to punish the AK Party for not only daring to elect Abdullah Gül, whose wife wears the headscarf, as president, but also for trying to lift the headscarf ban at university, which has long been the symbol of authoritarian secularism. One can only hope that the Constitutional Court rejects this provocation against democracy and that Parliament finally moves to adopt the necessary constitutional and legal amendments to bring regulations concerning political parties in line with liberal democratic norms.

The chief prosecutor had previously asked the Constitutional Court to ban the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) and now he is moving against the AK Party government, which received 47 percent of the national vote in last summer’s general election. These moves by the chief prosecutor indicate that the bureaucratic establishment in Turkey wants to uphold state policies adopted in the 1920s and 1930s under an authoritarian single-party regime. Those policies, drawn in line with the notion of modernity that prevailed in the founding period of the republic, essentially assigned the state the duty of secularizing society. This amounted to isolating society from the influence of Islam, which was regarded as the main source of the country’s backwardness. Identity policies adopted at the time were aimed at the forced assimilation of minority cultures into the majority culture.”

4. A comment by Bulent Kenes (columnist with Bugun and Today’s Zaman):

“Expecting this much from those who resorted to a midnight e-memorandum, those who provoked a certain segment of society to take to the streets while heaping all sorts of insults on the other segment, those who invented the problem of the “367 requirement” — at the cost of contravening the law — just to keep Sezer as president and those who tried to prevent the general elections by attempting to engage the country in a war in 2007 cannot be considered unreasonable. However, we are only human, and we are innately predisposed to looking at future possibilities optimistically, and we thought that this segment, however enraged it may be, would not dare to draw the country into a political turmoil and chaos it could not handle, thinking that they were on the same ship as us. But today what we understand from their efforts to have the ruling party shut down is that we have been a bit too optimistic.”

5. A comment by Yavuz Baydar (columnist with Sabah and Today’s Zaman):

“If the case is accepted, we shall have unprecedented case in world politics: The parties chosen by more than half of the voters will have faced an annulment of their political will, by the judiciary — the AK Party and Democratic Society Party (DTP), the latter earlier charged with separatist terror. Indictments question the legitimacy of some 360 seats of a total of 550 in Parliament. In other words, Turkey’s democracy is being led into a huge crisis with an unknown outcome.

In such a case the AK Party could, and should, take the lead: First, it should convene Parliament immediately and seek a consensus of urgent and comprehensive constitutional reform with revision also of the Political Parties Law. Second, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan should immediately visit Brussels and meet with major EU leaders in order to declare a national plan for democratic reform and a clear-cut road map for the rest of the year. It should immediately amend Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 301 to show its commitment to the democratic project in accordance with the EU. It is up to Erdoğan to convince the wide democratic opinion of Turkey that the AK Party will return to policies of change on a broader basis.

The AK Party’s only chance to save democracy is to again widen its circle of domestic alliance, re-embracing alienated non-AK Party segments for further reform and pressure Turkey’s friends in the EU to raise the level of support for a stable future. From today serious things are at stake, and hidden efforts will have a backlash.”

6. A comment by Mustafa Akyol (Turkish Daily News):

“The 21st century tactic is to stage coups via not the military but the judiciary. As I noted in my piece dated Jan. 24 and titled “The Empire Strikes Back (Via Juristocracy),” now the bureaucratic empire in Ankara attacks the representatives of the people with legal decisions, not armed battalions. If you talk to them, they will proudly tell you that they are saving Turkey from Islamic fundamentalism. You have to be a secular fundamentalist – or hopelessly uninformed – to believe that. The AKP has proved to be a party committed to the democratization and liberalization of Turkey, a process which, naturally, includes the broadening of religious freedom But that democratization and liberalization is the very thing that the empire fears from. If you look at the “evidence” that the chief prosecutor presented to the Constitutional Court to blame the AKP, you will see how fake all this “Islamic fundamentalism” rhetoric is. The anti-secular “crimes” of AKP include:

  • Making a constitutional amendment in order to allow university students to wear the headscarf. (Maddeningly enough, this bill was accepted in Parliament with the votes of not just the AKP’s deputies but also those of the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society party.)
  • Supplying free bus services for the student of the religious “imam-hatip” schools, which are nothing but state-sponsored modern high schools that teach some Islamic classes in addition to the standard secular education.
  • Naming a park in Ankara after the deceased leader of a Sufi order.
  • Not allowing the public display of a bikini advertisement.
  • Employing headscarved doctors in public hospitals.
  • Allowing one of the local administrators to issue a paper which has the criminal sentence, “May God have mercy on the souls of our colleagues who have passed away.” (The simple fact that he dared to mention God [“Allah” in Arabic and Turkish] in an official setting was considered as a crime.)

Yes, this is absolutely crazy. It is like defining the Republican Party in the United States as an “anti-secular threat” and asking for its closure based on facts such as that it has pro-life (anti-abortion) tendencies and that President Bush publicly said that his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ. The heart of the matter is that Turkey’s self-styled secularism is a fiercely anti-religious ideology akin to that of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies. And the AKP has been trying to turn Turkey into a democracy. That’s the party’s real “crime.””

7. Finally, a comment by a former Turkish ambassador to Germany and deputy leader of the major opposition CHP, Onur Öymen :

“The AKP’s members cannot expunge their guilt by blaming the judiciary for their actions. Everyone needs to respect the judicial process from now on. Parties need to respect the law.”

The opposition CHP noted that decisions by the courts “have to be respected”. Deniz Baykal, the CHP chairperson said: “the indictment is a legal one. It was not prepared with political aims and hostility; and it does not reflect emotional reactions. It was prepared objectively and within the borders of laws and responsibility.”

Peddling ideas around Schuman I (Brussels in January: Coweb)

For the past seven years I have come to Brussels every few weeks.  These trips are all similar: walking between the buildings which surround Schuman square,   the Charlemagne (home to DG enlargement), Justus Lipsius (home to the European Council), the Berlaymont (the refurbished headquarter of the Commission) and the Residence Palace (home to the European Policy Centre, EPC, and to many NGOs and international media); entering various cubicle offices, spending time between meetings in the Greek cafe behind Charlemagne, giving power point presentations. 

This three-day trip (Monday to Thursday) was no different.  However, having promised to describe how a think tank works in practice let me share the impressions of these days: an ordinary week in the life of a peddler of ideas.

I came to Brussels to give a briefing to Coweb (see below); to participate in a brainstorming organised by the European Policy Centre, an NGO; to meet EU officials to find out more about policy towards Turkey and the Balkans; to set up meetings with Olli Rehn and Javier Solana; and to work with Alex, my Brussels-based colleague, on the upcoming – and likely controversial – ESI report on the German debate on Turkey. 

Presenting, brainstorming, persuading, interviewing, drafting: this is the bread and butter of a think-tanker. 

Coweb and the Balkan Ghetto   

Coweb is a group where representatives of the 27-EU member states come together to discuss and harmonise policies towards the Western Balkans. Officials meet once a week in the Justus Lipsius building, currently decorated with photographs of Slovenia.  Meetings are chaired by the country holding the EU presidency, currently Slovenia.  

(Alex and myself also brought two heavy boxes with the most recent ESI reports for each of the 27 delegations: the recent report on Doboj, the discussion paper on police reform in Bosnia, and the report on “cutting the migration lifeline” in Kosovo. “Dissemination of ideas”, even in the age of the internet, is a sport that involves heavy lifting).

I had been invited to Coweb before; in fact, this was my sixth presentation since 2001.  The goal this time was make a case for progress towards visa-free travel for citizens of the Western Balkans. It is a cause which Slovenian officials want to see advance during their presidency.  It is also one which ESI has pushed for some years.  Now it looked like there was momentum for a real breakthrough.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament had published an opinion in October 2007 where it had used harsh words to describe the “draconian visa regime” imposed by the EU on the Western Balkans: 

“Rather than serving its original purpose, notably that of preventing local criminal networks from extending their activities outside the region, it has prevented honest students, academics, researchers and businessmen from developing close contacts with partners in the EU countries.  A sense of isolation, of undeserved discrimination, of ghettoisation has prevailed, particularly amongst the youngest, which has undermined their European identity.  Europe is a prosperous society to which they would like to belong but from which they feel rejected.” 

The text goes on to “question the very foundations of the visa policy which the Union has hitherto applied towards the countries of south-eastern Europe” and concludes:

“The European Parliament, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs in particular, strongly advocate lifting as soon as technically possible the visa requirements for citizens of the region. In our view this should be a tangible sign that their countries belong to Europe ….”

The European Commission has also become bolder in calling for change. In its enlargement strategy paper in November 2007 it had announced that it wanted to start a dialogue with each country with a view to establishing road-maps defining the precise conditions to be met for lifting the visa requirement. 

In a confidential draft of a “Communication on the Western Balkans” (to be published at the end of March), which it had circulated among member states, DG enlargement proposed to begin a  dialogue on visa liberalisation with each of the Western Balkan states right away, to conclude these talks by July 2008.  These talks were to lead to specific road-maps: 

“They will set out benchmarks for the countries to meet requirements in areas such as border management, document security, and the fight against corruption and organised crime … the speed of movement towards visa liberalisation will depend on each country’s progress in fulfilling the benchmarks. … Once the conditions for each country are fulfilled, the Commission will propose to the Council the lifting of the visa obligation for the citizens of the country in question, through amending of Council Regulation 539/2001”

Adopting such a resolution would be an important step forward. However, the proposal remained controversial, both within the Commission and due to opposition from some member states, notably Germany.  For these member states even cautious steps forward – such as setting out more clearly what countries in the region needed to do  – went too far.  Spelling out the conditions in EU conditionality appeared to them too generous a concession.  

So what, under these conditions, was the point of my presentation in Coweb?  I saw it as providing support for the argument that there was indeed an urgency for the EU to act.  We have long argued that it was in the EU’s own interest to give a “tangible sign to the region” that it belonged to Europe. The recent (and not surprising) turn of events in Serbia adds urgency to the message.

I first set out that the Balkans in 2007 was indeed a very different region from the Balkans in 1997, making arguments familiar from ESI reports: that there is no evidence that a country like Bosnia is “at the centre” of transnational organised crime, as is sometimes argued. That most outsider’s images about anarchy in Albania are outdated.  That introducing visa-free travel for Macedonians (2 million people), Montenegrins (600,000), Bosnians (less than 4 million people) or 3 million Albanians was taking a small risk indeed compared to granting it to Romania and Bulgaria in 2001 (which together have some 30 million inhabitants) … and that in the latter cases the importance of this step for their overall (successful) transformation cannot be exaggerated.  As Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, founder of the Romanian think tank SAR, once noted: 

“It was the lifting of the visa regime rather than the beginning of the accession negotiations that made it possible for the EU to earn the hearts of the citizens of the Eastern Balkans.” 

Compare this to the experience of most people in the Western Balkans trying to “reach Europe”: while Albanian citizens could watch the celebrations surrounding the elimination of the Schengen border between Germany and Poland and Austria and Slovenia in December 2007 on their TV screens, they were then told in January 2008 that one of the very few countries in the world to which they could still travel without too many problems – Macedonia – was planning to introduce a tougher visa regime, in the name of preparing itself for the EU!  In fact the Western Balkans are today one of the most isolated regions on earth in terms of travel restrictions. 

This is a strong (and  memorable) claim.  Here is the evidence: take a look at the Henley Visa Restrictions Index, a “global ranking of countries according to travel freedom their citizens enjoy“.  Albania comes 184 out of 192 countries in the world in terms of travel freedom! Or compare the freedom of travel of other Western Balkan countries with those of their fellow Europeans: 

“Finnish citizens can travel to 130 countries without visa (2006). Belgians to 127. Austrians to 125.  Hungarians to 101. Romanians to 73. Serbs to 32. Bosnians to 25.” 

What signal does this send to the region, to Bosnia 12 years after the end of war, to Serbia 7 years after the fall of Milosevic?  Nor will visa faciliation – which entered into force in January 2008 – change the fact that half of all applicants for a visa in Albania in 2006 were in fact rejected and that the process of obtaining a visa remains burdensome and expensive for citizens across the region.  For this I could refer to an excellent analysis done by the Tirana-based think-tank Agenda.

At the same time,  while some things are better than they appear from the outside, other problems – including the dramatic erosion of EU soft power in Serbia and the unchanged social and economic crisis in Kosovo – are worse than they look.  

Few EU policies have done more to undermine the attractiveness of the EU model of society than its visa-policy: both directly (few people from the Western Balkans can actually go and see how EU countries, including new member states, develop) and indirectly (by increasing frustrations and cynicism about the rhetoric of “steady progress towards integration”).  The political price for this can be witnessed in Serbia.  Unless something is done it is likely to rise across the region.  There is also a high economic price: compare the development just in the past few years in two very similar cities, Novi Sad in Northern Serbia and Timisoara in Western Romania; or look at the economic fortunes of two groups of people living next to each other in Central Bosnia (Bosnian Croats, who usually have a Croatian passport and need not aquire a visa to travel, vs. their Bosniac neighbours, who do not).  In Central Bosnia most of the businesses are set up by Croats.  Having interviewed many of these entrepreneurs it is obvious that their ability to travel freely to Europe is a key to their success. 

In conclusion I suggested to put all countries of the Western Balkans on the “white Schengen list” immediately with an asterix (*).  The same was done for Romania in 2001.  Under this proposal the asterix would indicate that once conditions defined in country-specific road maps were met visa free travel would follow.   

This would send a powerful political message at a moment when the EU needs maximum leverage in the region (and risked loosing it).  It would support those (in the Commission and among member states) who call for precise roadmaps to be drawn up soon. It would increase the incentives for Western Balkan governments to implement reforms that reduce crime.  It would provide civil society in the region with a tool to push their own governments to address specific shortcoming (such as the lack of a credible civil registy in Albania!). It is a win-win proposal which costs little.

The presentation was followed by 30 minutes of comments and questions. There was quite a lively exchange of opinion (which I cannot quote).  Overall, however, there was broad support among a majority of member states to do something.  There was also resistance from a few others.  By the time Alex and myself left Coweb we could hope to have added a small pebble to the pyramide of arguments needed to change opinions on this matter. 

A few months ago in Novi Sad (October 2007) ESI had co-organised a brainstorming with think tanks from across the region on how to mount a campaign on the visa issue, bringing together institutions working on this across the region. Now we are getting ready to launch this campaign. Coweb is a good way to start, even if the intellectual and political battle is certain to continue. 

…. Continue: go to Peddling ideas around Schuman II (Brussels in January: EPC)  

Las Ramblas in November (Barcelona)

Anybody who in their youth has read George Orwell’s book on the Spanish Civil war in Catalonia is likely to think of him when visiting Barcelona. Not that there is anything that reminds a visitor in November 2007 of the Spain in 1937 that Orwell evokes. His city was one in which armed guards roamed in the streets, in which bread was scarce, and in which people were arrested at random. An anarchist uprising had been defeated in 1937 and Stalinism was rearing its ugly head behind the Republican front-lines of the Spanish civil war: a dark moment in an even darker decade. As Orwell put it:

“It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time – the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. … the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only to natural in Barcelona.”

In fact, one can still walk down the tree-lined ramblas boulevard (today packed with tourists) to the Cafe de l’Opera which Orwell describes. One can also go in search of bullet holes in the walls in some hidden courtyards in the old town that (I was told) go back to the Spanish civil war.

When I worked here as a guide for Austrian tourists in the early 1990s I would present this beautiful city as the stage for a succession of bitter struggles throughout history, an epic story of its rise, fall, rise and fall (again) leading up to the 1930s. There are the monuments of the great medieval merchant city, centre of a Mediterranean Empire; the drama of Barcelona loosing its preeminence and prosperity at the beginning of the modern era (the destruction of its Jewish community being one of the reasons); repeated defeats in its struggles against the centralising Spanish crown; the 19th century rise of a new industrial power-house and the flourishing of Catalan modernity (the Barcelona modernista described by Cristina and Eduardo Mendoza); and then the bitter struggles, from anarchist terrorism to the confrontations in the Spanish civil war, ending in the deafening silence of another dictatorship. It is a riveting tale, worthy of the great epics. It also includes the most important element of a good Hollywood movie: a happy ending, sometime between the fall of Franco’s regime and the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992.

For my tourists the dark shadows of Barcelona’s past were, of course, safely remote: even the most tragic history was ultimately info-tainment. Certainly gruesome stories of the Spanish civil war were no obstacle to feel good at the end of the day, to retire to a 4-star hotel and enjoy a good Spanish, sorry, Catalan dinner. Groups like the ones I would lead through Barcelona (at least 5 times in the early 90s) had themselves become part of a new Barcelona story: the reinvention of the city as a place of European cool and elegance, a truly post-modern place in which historical narratives were used to attract tourists.

Of course, there were also those who regarded the city’s rising popularity with foreigners as suspicious. Post-modern Barcelona is the “prototype of a factory-town”, one local anthropologist complained: too perfect to reflect any real life, too superficial, in a way dishonest, hiding its true self. Attracting 4.5 million tourists in 2005, Manuel Delgado writes, has come at the price of “destroying all spontaneity, all rebelliousness, no disobedience goes without punishment.” There is even a book to celebrate an alternative “city of rebellions”, la Barcelona rebelde. The book tells a story of uprisings and protests and celebrates the revolutionary spirit of the place, recalling times when the strength of local anarchism had given Barcelona the name rosa de foc (rose of fire), referring to the large number of arson attacks. One of the most striking quotes in that book refers to the anarchist uprising of 1937, which plays such a prominent role in Orwell’s book. It is presented as the highlight in a long tradition of revolts: “perhaps Barcelona has not been in the hands of its citizens ever since that 7 March 1937” (the day the anarchist uprising was repressed).

1937 as the “good old times”? A narrative where everything has gone downhill since the 1930s and anarchism is a political philosophy worthy of admiration? Reading this made me realize how little I really knew about the Spanish debate. But I knew enough about Barcelona’s history to be skeptical: my walking tour on the ramblas always included an account of the anarchist who had thrown two bombs in the Liceu opera house in 1893, killing 22 people. In 1909 eighty churches, monasteries and convents were burned in one week when protests against a call-up of troops to go to war in North Africa got out of hand. How could anybody innocently celebrate a “culture of protest” in the early 20th century?

I also remember another disturbing experience. On one of my last trips as a tour guide I slipped out of the hotel one evening to watch a movie by Ken Loach (Land and Freedom) about the Spanish civil war. At one moment some people in the audience broke out into loud applause. The trigger for their joy was a scene where some unarmed Franco-supporters and clergy were shot. Some in the audience cheered the execution. Stepping out of the cinema I found myself again among the bars and pleasures of the beautiful Gracia quarter, disturbed and confused.

More than a decade has passed since then. What will the admires of Barcelona rebelde make of the fact that it is no longer George Orwell who most inspires young visitors from abroad but Xavier, a 25 year old French economy student looking for pleasure and distraction; not Homage to Calalonia but Xavier’s adventures in auberge espanole? Xavier and his film do not need an introduction, I assume? Judging by the huge number of foreign students I see in the streets and bars on this mild November day there is no shortage of young Europeans who seek to follow in his footsteps: unlike Orwell, they are not drawn by an ideological battle against evil. Instead they search for fun, friendship and amorous adventures in a Mediterranean setting.

I liked auberge espanole, but then I quite like happy endings. Those with a more tragic bent of mind will find the multi-national fraternity found there infinitely less worthy of interest than the multi-national army of fighters against fascism celebrated by Ken Loach. I do wonder, however, whether Orwell would not have been the first to welcome, rather than mourn, the recent transformation of Barcelona: the city which he left as a fugitive turning into a centre of innocent (and international) hedonism. Is this not another European miracle worthy of celebration? A city that has set aside its tragic history, turning it into a fairy tale of Barcelona modernista, Gaudi and Miro, Gothic churches and the FC Barcelona? Today websites discussing ‘”what is cool in Europe” no longer mention anarchism but coffee:

“barcelona is also fabulous, and the rambla is not really too dangerous – there’s just scammers. keep your wits about and you’ll have a great time. take the stairs in sagrada familia cathedral rather than the elevator, your legs will hurt but it’s worth it – like climbing a giant seashell with amazing views. the textile museum has a lovely cafe. the cafe del’opera bar is great for cava and people-watching. oh, and – spanish coffee is like crack. uno mas caffe con leche y sucre, por favor!”

It is a city – in a country – marked by material progress, a booming economy, a vigorous democracy, even a European model in terms of gender relations (as measured by the WEF’s gender gap index). If the price for all this is consumerism and some superficiality, so be it. A country, where even crazy people escaping from the mental asylum – Antonio Banderas kidnapping Victoria Abril in Tie me up! Tie me Down! – have a soft spot and a good heart is a civilised place indeed.

But the cheering in the cinema and the celebration of anarchism still made me wonder to what extent I understood what was going on. Had Spain really turned into the grand island of Circe so attractively depicted in auberge espanole? On one of my trips I had seen a book by Giles Remlett “The Ghosts of Spain – Travels through Spain and its silent past” which promised to offer some answers. I bought it to read it during an upcoming trip to Barcelona. An invitation in November 2007 to give a presentation on the Balkans provided the opportunity.

Ghosts of Spain

Cidob is one of the leading think-tanks in Spain, wonderfully located in an old town house in the centre of the city. It is close to the museum of modern art, surrounded by small boutique shops and cafes. My presentation is in the morning, the audience is a group of Catalan academics, journalists, business people. My host is the president of Cidob and former Spanish minister of defence, deputy prime minister and previous mayor of Barcelona, Narcis Serra. The topic is the future of the Balkans: Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, and the fact that in the Balkans the transformation and Europeanisation that Spain has gone through remains far from completed.

I report on new research from Serbia and Bosnia; on the struggles to overcome the legacies of the past in these places; on the achievements of the people of Ahmici (the scene of a gruesome massacre in Central Bosnia in 1993) and on the risk that some brave individuals in Serbia are still running today as they try to confront the legacies of the murderous 90s.

As always there are some in the audience who have difficulty to image the Balkans as part of modern Europe, who believe that while the rest of Europe is able to banish its ghosts this very same feat is beyond the Balkans, which are somehow condemned to be part of a different world for ever. Others in the audience are well informed. Some have even worked in the region in the 1990s (there was a lot of solidarity in Barcelona for war-time Sarajevo, a fellow Olympic city, shelled when Barcelona held its games in 1992). Narcis Serra, of course, knows both the Balkans and the difficulties of transition, having first reformed civil-military relations in Spain and then advised a number of other governments on this matter, including Boris Tadic, when the latter was minister of defense in Belgrade.

Following the presentation I retreat to a cafe near Plaza Catalunya and open my book, “The Ghosts of Spain”. It is a strange experience: sitting in this cosmopolitan, joyful city on a sunny autumn day, having defended the Europeaness of the Balkans, delving into the secrets of Spain, and suddenly discovering unexpected connections between recent events in the Balkans and here.

Giles Tremlett, the author of this extremely well written book, sets out to describe what he calls the surprising Spanish “relationship with silence”: the pacto del olvido (the pact of forgetting) that has marked Spain’s transition from Franco’s authoritarianism to today’s democracy in the 1970s and since, as well as its (very recent) unraveling. Tremlett describes how in 2000 a Spanish journalist went to the village of his grandfather in Leon to find the roadside grave where his grandfather, a civilian shot by a death squad of France supporters, had been burried:

“DNA tests, carried out by Spanish forensic scientists with experience in digging up much more recent mass graves in Chile or Kosovo, finally enabled him to identify his grandfather …. Suddenly, it turned out, there were graves all over the place. Spain was sitting on what campaigners claimed were tens of thousands of such corpses.”

This experience triggered Tremlett interest:

“As history erupted from under the ground, I decided to turn my back on Spain’s glittering, entertaining and enticing surface. I wanted to undertake what one Italian writer called ‘that difficult voyage, to travel through time and space across the country.'”

In fact, until 2000 a pact of silence (whose legal expression was the Amnesty Law of 1977) concerning the civil war and the crimes immediately following it by the victors was largely respected. Even very recently, when the Spanish parliament in 2002 approved a motion that agreed that local authorities could, if they wanted, set aside funds for exhuming bodies, it also told them to avoid “reopening old wounds or stirring up the rescoldo, the embers, of civil confrontation.” As Tremlett notes:

“That a European parliament should, at the turn of the twenty-first century, be passing motions about a war that finished sixty-three years before may seem surprising. That it should include in one of those motions a stern warning about reviving the embers of that confrontation shows that the Civil war still had the power to provoke fear.”

Tremlett points out that there are “still thousands of bodies in unmarked graves. The highest estimates talk of 30,000 unidentified corpses. Around 300 have now been recovered.” And he quotes the Spanish author Isaias Lafuente:

“Can a democratic country allow thousands of citizens murdered like animals by a dictatorial regime to remain burried in its roadside ditches? Can it tolerate this while a man who allowed and encouraged the mass killings rests under the altar of a Christian basilica? The answer is so obvious that it is almost an offence to have to ask the question.”

Tremlett concludes that the Spanish Transicion “was a success because Spaniards made a supreme effort to find consensus.” At the same time the transition was still very violent, with more than a hundred demonstrators killed by the police in its first five years and many more killed by ETA and other left-wing terrorist groups.

As I set aside the book and look around at the affluent young crowd in this Barcelona cafe on this November day in 2007 my thoughts wander back to the Balkans. Why is so hard for outsiders to show respect for the achievements of people there? Have we forgotten how hard the road to a democratic consensus, to stability and prosperity, was in our own countries?

In fact, it did not take Bosnians decades to answer the question posed by Lafuente: a sign of European maturity that deserves some recognition. And if we expect Serbs (I believe rightly) to confront the crimes of their recent past, to openly address atrocities committed in their name in neighbouring states and in Kosovo and to hand over those responsible for mass killings: should we not at least be more aware of the enormity of this challenge under conditions of physical isolation, economic turmoil and social crisis? The outside world reprimands Kosovars (I believe rightly) for not setting aside all feelings of hatred against former oppressors, for not turning a page and moving on. However, why are we not more prepared to accord respect for those efforts that are made in this direction?

Tremlett notes that “Spain will probably not be fully ready to confront its most bloody episode until all those involved are dead.” The people of the Balkans do not have this choice: they try to build new forms of consensus, stable democracies and prosperous economies while at the same time confronting the ghosts of their pasts. In the long run I believe that this could well be to their advantage: but in the short term it certainly requires a modicum of understanding – if not empathy – by outsiders for the challenges faced by the people of the region.

Or is there another way to read the Spanish experience? Certainly if you are interested in how countries – in the Balkans, Turkey, elsewhere in Europe – deal with their past I highly recommend The Ghosts of Spain. And do let me know, once you have read it, what, if any, the lessons of Spain in your view might be for the countries of the Balkans.

Jane Jacobs and the mystique of cities

Chain Bridge in Budapest

Any great city is a magic place, and the stories of great cities are the most concentrated version of the story of humanity. One should perhaps introduce a new subject at high schools across Europe, “Urban life – past present and future”, focused in particular on the history and functioning of European cities. Certainly, investigating how cities work in South East Europe today – from Timisoara in Romania to Gyumri in Armenia, from Tirana to Diyarbakir – will be at the heart of ESI research in 2008 as well.

For a largely urban European society, a one year course on urban life could be the liberal arts course par excellence: a combination of politics, economics, sociology, art and religion. For future researchers eager to work in think tanks and contribute to public debates through empirical research, it would be the perfect school as well. Maps, slide shows, economic and demographic tables, but also poems and novels would be the teaching aids. Students would explore the rythm of cities prospering and decaying in the past. They would study the feedback mechanisms between different economic sectors today. They would explore governance in an urban context through the ages. Then they would visit a three-dimensional website, offering virtual walks through the chosen cities. There would be hyper-links as one would (virtually) walk through these cities as part of one’s homework. These would point to background information explaining urban growth and decline. They would thus link the exploring student to all the sciences and arts that will help him make sense of a particular urban story, and see the wider meaning in the narrative of a specific town. One could probably encourage the publishers of guide-books and the cities themselves to support its creation.

(Dear reader, if you have an idea and the energy to take this concept forward, I would be delighted to explore this with you: just let me know).

The first step in the design of such a course would be to select some cities; the second would be to identify some excellent stories of cities that already exist; and the third would be to identify some of the essential background reading. Rome, Istanbul, Paris and Berlin would certainly be included: my own list would also include Barcelona (there is the rich city history by Robert Hughes), Cordoba (and the account of medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal), Sarajevo (and the excellent story by Robert Donia), and Thessaloniki, with Mark Mazower as guide to its past.

Notre Dame in Paris

Excerpts from Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations would certainly deserve to be included in such a course’s reading list. I do not know how widely read her little book still is today. However, while some of her concepts might not have convinced other social scientists, her overall approach – setting aside general macroeconomic theory in favor of an investigation of the forces at work in creative cities – remains both thought-provoking and inspiring. It has certainly influenced the work of ESI, as can be readily seen from our reports: beginning with our study of the small Bosnian town of Kalesija; our study of the West Macedonian city of Kicevo; our research on urban development in Pristina; our research on Kumanovo in Macedonia; and most recently our thorough study of economic innovation and development in the Central Anatolian city of Kayseri.

Some of Jane Jacobs’ concepts – such as the notion of “passive regions”, brilliantly evoked in the examples she cites, from the French village of Bardou to the Japanese village of Shinohata or Pickens County, Georgia (US) – have become part of the intellectual background to ESI reports. Her description of “regions workers abandon” (she points to Wales and Napizaro in central Mexico) – has inspired some of our research in the rural Balkans.

Jacobs encourages her readers to look for and understand concrete success stories. Citing the example of Boston after World War II she notes that genuine development

“depends on fostering creativity in whatever forms it happens to appear in a given city at a given time. It is impossible to know in advance what may turn up, except that – if it is to prove important – it is apt to be unexpected”

Jacobs calls successful development a “process of open-ended drift”, the opposite of “placing faith in the ready-made”. If this sounds slightly mystical then this is because it probably is. What saves her writing from being esoteric, however, are her illustrations. Let me just refer to one she likes a lot: the production of bicycles. In an early part of her book she describes the emergence of import-substituting cities in Japan:

“When Tokyo went into the bicycle business, first came repair work cannibalizing imported bicycles, then manufacture of some parts, finally assembly of whole, Tokyo-made bicycles.”

Later in her books she writes about the bicylce again:

“the many improvements in Europe and America that made it a practical vehicle instead of merely an awkward toy or clumsy curiosity consisted of a long, long series of improvisations, each added to imitations of what had already been achieved. Makers and tinkerers [emphasis added, GK], using the means at their command in their own economies at the time, came up with ball bearings, roller bearings, pneumatic tires, chain-and-sprocket rivers, differential gears, the tubular metal frame in place of the solid metal frame, calipher brakes, brake cables, drum brakes, and in sense they even partially reinvented the wheel itself, gaining unprecedented lightness and strength with unprecedented economy of materials from an unprecedented way of spoking the wheel asymmetrically. These improvisations developed for the bicycle turned out to have ramifying uses … “

Kayseri - view from hilton city walls


Now the skeptical reader, perhaps an economist herself, might question to what extent the bicylce can serve to explain any development in a modern economy, where innovation is organised in large research laboratories, technical knowledge is transferred across nations by trans-national enterprises, and most value added is generated in the service sector. But as we (ESI) tried to understand, for instance, the rise of a city like Kayseri, and the story of it turning into the furniture capital of Anatolia, we found a process very similar to the one described by Jacobs. Let me quote this Jacobsian passage in full:

“Today, there are more than 3,500 companies in Kayseri in the furniture business. Of these, some 400 use mass production techniques. On average, 20,000 sofa beds and 8,000 armchairs are being made on any given day. The Association of Furniture Producers in Kayseri estimates that 40,000 people are employed in the furniture and related sectors, making it a motor of the Kayseri economy. To understand where Kayseri has come from, and to assess where it is going, this sector is a useful place to start.

The market for furniture reflects the extraordinary economic and social transformation of Turkey since the 1950s. In the traditional Central Anatolian home, the central piece of furniture for sitting was the sedir, an elevated platform made of piles of mattresses, blankets and carpets on which guests were seated. Families would eat dinner seated on the floor around a low, wooden table, and sleep on mattresses stuffed with raw wool which were rolled up during the day. The blankets and carpets were woven by women at home on hand looms. The sedir was a symbol of rural self-sufficiency.

Between 1950 and 1965, Turkey’s urban population doubled, from five to ten million people. The town of Kayseri grew from 65,488 inhabitants in 1950 to 160,985 in 1970. Urbanisation changed lifestyles dramatically. In the new urban apartments, hand-woven carpets were replaced by machine-made products, mattresses became filled with metal springs rather than wool, and people took to dining on tables and chairs. Only in the town of Kayseri, there were 100,000 new apartments to be furnished by the end of the twentieth century.

In 1956, Kayseri municipality established its first (‘old’) industrial zone, just beyond the city limits, where all craftsmen were required to relocate (partly through fear of fire). This concentration of traditional industries proved a key factor in the city’s transition to industrial capitalism. In the close conditions of the Old Industrial Zone, new ideas and technologies passed quickly from one craftsmen to another, setting the scene for a technological revolution.

In 1959, one of the carpenters began to produce upholstered furniture, originally with dried grass as stuffing, and then later foam rubber. In the early 1960s, another company began to produce metal furniture – spring mattresses, bedsteads, frames for couches – drawing on metalworking skills introduced to Kayseri by state-owned enterprises such as the aircraft factory. New machinery, like staple guns for upholstering, was brought in from outside Kayseri, and before long these were also being produced locally. A number of wholesalers emerged to supply the growing furniture cluster. Close links between artisans and traders ensured the flow of capital and access to markets.

In 1976, a Dutch economist, Leo van Velzen, visited Kayseri to assess the region’s growth potential. Van Velzen counted 1,150 small workshops in the old industrial zone, of which 588 were engaged in woodworking and furniture production. The workshops ranged from 30 to 300 sq. metres in size, usually with no more than three workers and using “no more complicated mechanical aids than hammer, pliers and scissors.” Van Velzen traced the origins of this emerging cluster of furniture producers back to “a group of about 20 carpentry workshops that began operating in the 1950s, producing doors and window frames, and to some 10 wood traders with a broader commercial horizon.” His assessment of Kayseri’s growth potential was, however, guarded. He concluded that “at the moment there is no evidence to suggest that trade capitalism is caught up in a process of change which will yield industrial capitalism.” He quotes a saying which was popular at the time: “If you want to become rich, buy and sell. But if you want to go broke, produce and sell.”

In 1976, in the same year that van Velzen published his study, Mustafa Boydak and his brother went to Europe to visit furniture fairs and buy machinery. There they discovered the potential of industrial furniture production. Mustafa Boydak remembers that upon returning he told other local carpenters that they “needed to move on from the old way of making furniture by hand.” In time, their example – and evident commercial success – was to inspire others.”

Kayseri is far from the only example of “Jacobsian urban development” in recent ESI reports. In fact, my colleague Kristof Bender even came across the Jacobsian bicycle story in Macedonia:

“Sobim is a company belonging to the brothers Branislav and Marjan Angelovski, who began in business in the early 1990s with two clothing boutiques in downtown Kumanovo. One day they were offered five bicycles through a friend for a good price. They sold them quickly through their clothing shops, and ordered another 25. The following season, they ordered an entire container. The bicycle trade expanded rapidly, and by 1996 they abandoned the textile business altogether and focused exclusively on bicycles. In 1997, the brothers began to experiment with importing bicycle components and assembling them in Kumanovo. Soon they had constructed a production hall of 6700 m2 in Karpos, a new small industrial zone on the northern outskirts of Kumanovo. By 2002, Sobim began to replace imported components with its own manufacturing. It now produces bicycle wheels with the help of two sophisticated Taiwanese robots, and operates a production line to paint bicycle frames. Today, Sobim employs 100 workers and produces around 85,000 bicycles annually, most of which are exported to Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia.”

Piata Unirii (Unity Square) in Timisoara

Next year we hope to contribute further examples, as part of our new economic geography project: the story of the amazing recent industrial development of Timisoara, an account of recent developments in Thessaloniki, some insights into the causes explaining the absence of similar development in the South East Anatolian city of Diyarbakir. In all these places we will look for “makers and tinkerers”, in the footsteps of Jacobs, her little book in our suitcase.

Launch of ECFR – A Moldovan in Berlin


Berlin, city of ghosts: Landwehrkanal

Faust’s Metropolis is the title of one of my favourite books on the history of Berlin. Alexandra Richie writes there:

“It is impossible to escape the ghosts of history which hover above the Reichstag and over Göring’s intact Air Ministry and around the Brandenburg Gate. They waft around the remnants of the great brick and iron railway stations and the pieces of the Wall being ground to gravel on disused wasteland on the outskirts of the city; they linger in the pungent, mustard coloured hallways of the mountrous East German housing projects and in the remnants of the Hinterhof cellars where, during the last century, the poor workers died of typhus and cholera. History is in the Landwehr canal into which Rosa Luxembourg’s body was dumped in 1919 …”

In summer, Berlin’s tragic history appears remote. The city turns into an open-air recreation park, with outdoor cafes, swimming pools in the river Spree, naked volleyball players in the Tiergarten; a place of backpackers and young Germans enjoying life, sitting along the Landwehr canal or one of the many lakes. The lightness of being in Berlin was never sweeter than during the summer of 2006 (when I last spent two weeks here) and when the city hosted the football championship. What a party that was.

landwerkanal II

In autumn, however, the city sheds its green cloak. Now some old scars on its body become more visible again; its “empty spaces, windswept fields and vacant lots” appear even more empty and cold. The sky seems to be overcast for months.

But even in the middle of this rainy time there is one exceptional date. On the 9th of November Berlin remembers its most glorious moment, not one of innocent fun, like the football celebration last year, but an undiluted moment of political joy: the fall of the wall.

It still works on me, the spell of the Berlin story. As Joschka Fischer got up last Thursday in a suite in Hotel Adlon to speak about German memories of the 9th of November (the first coup attempt by Hitler in Munich, the terror against Jews in Kristallnacht in 1938, the memories of the fall of the wall in 1989) he had his small audience captured, Germans included.

fischer nicu mark
ECFR: Joschka Fischer, Nicu Popescu, Mark Leonard

One knows the stories, has heared many times about the strange fate of buildings in this town as regimes changed. Fischer recalls how his former place of work was first the National Socialist Central Bank, hosting the stolen Nazi gold, then the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party, finally the foreign ministry of a unified Germany. The story of Berlin in the 20th century is like one of those fairy tales a child likes to hear again and again to enjoy the happy ending, and get reassurance that in the end bad things turn out well. The difference, of course, is that the story of Berlin is real. I still remember a professor of mine and a lecture he gave in 1988 in Oxford: whenever he felt dispair at events in the world, he said, he would close his eyes and say “Spain, Portugal”. I would probably say “Berlin, Bulgaria”. (I hope one day I might be able to say “Turkey” as well.)

Telling European stories of success, working for more such stories to come true: that was the motivation behind the gathering in the Adlon Hotel on the 8th of November where Fischer spoke. The occasion was the launch of an institution – the European Council on Foreign relations – that seeks to restore the confidence of Europe in itself and as an actor beyond its borders. It involves as a first step gathering European politicians and former politicians, thinkers and business people (a total of 50, of whom some 30 have come to this meeting) to reflect how a confident EU might make a positive contribution to world developments. A gripping idea, but also at first sight a little presumptous: how could any gathering of a few dozen people have serious impact on the “future of Europe” beyond the walls of the rooms in which it takes place?

It takes a bit of funding to bring together a group of people, pay air fares, hotels and dinners; and somebody with a well-known name – such as George Soros, Martti Ahtisaari or Joschka Fischer – can usually persuade other people to come to a city like Berlin. However, to produce genuinely fresh and powerful ideas, that travel by themselves, become “sticky”, and change reality, is not about either money, connections or fame. It is about the ideas themselves, that can only develop through a commitment to open debate, openess to new perspectives and a healthy humility.

Following half a day of brainstorming in Berlin – first in the new French embassy on Pariser Platz and then in the Adlon – I am now full of confidence that ECFR could succeed in this hybristic mission. One of the main reasons for this confidence was the debate that took place following Fischer’s introduction.

The person of the evening was a young Moldovan who sat next to me throughout the dinner: Nicu Popescu. Together with the director of ECFR (Mark Leonard) he had written the first report of ECFR: A Power Audit of EU-Russia Relations. Still a PhD candidate at the Central European university in Budapest, Nicu grew up in Moldova. He studied both in Russia and in Budapest. I had never met him before joining ECFR. It was obvious, however, that his very biography brought a fresh and urgent perspective to any discussion of European power: to know what it means to look in from the outside, to see the huge promise the EU constitutes in its own neighbourhood, to despair at the frustratingly incoherent EU policy at times all come naturally to a Europeanizer in Moldova. And so it turned out that a report (co)written by a young Moldovan on how the EU might develop a more principled policy towards Russia came to dominate the launch of an institution which included former presidents, prime ministers and political stars who had shaped this new Europe. The commitment to an open Europe could not have been expressed any better through declarations …

Not only this: what also impressed me was the seriousness with which the report (as well as a set of ideas for draft conclusions on Iran policy) were discussed. I had seen Joschka Fischer at previous events in previous years, sometimes grumpy, impatient, reaching for his Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung whenever he felt some speaker was not trying hard to say something interesting. In the Adlon, however, and throughout the launch of ECFR, Fischer was at his very best form, analytically and as a personality moderating the debate, visibly committed to the principles of a serious think tank. Listening to a discussion on EU policy towards Russia from an informed Moldovan, Bulgarian, Czech, Finnish or Italian perspective, as took place in the Adlon that evening, was a genuine intellectual treat.

As for the report itself, it sets a benchmark for future ECFR publications. Two examples of this style and directness:

“Russia is emerging as an ideological alternative to the EU that offers a different approach to sovereignty, power and world order. Whereas the EU stands for an idea of order based on consensus, interdependence and the rule of law, Russian foreign policy is motivated by a quest for power, independence and control.”

Or one conclusion:

“Contrary to what many in Europe think, Russia’s neighbourhood policy is better developed, better coordinated and better implemented than the EU’s. Russia devotes more political, economic and even military resources to influencing its neighbourhood than the EU does. Indeed, Moscow has plenty of tasty carrots to offer its allies … ” (in this style it is easy to hear the echo of previous writings by Mark Leonard)

One has not heared such a voice in Berlin in years. Now, a serious debate might be launched not only here but across Europe.

The earlier discussion on Iran, on which many in the room had strong convictions, was no less interesting or impressive. Introduced by Tim Garton Ash, a variety of views were expressed and the conclusion reached that it might be too early to come up with a statement. On Russia, on the other hand, a consensus hardened that the simple but powerful insights of the Power Audit deserved to be made more widely known: conclusion one, that current EU policy towards Russia (and EU lack of unity) benefits no member state of the EU; and conclusion two, that any serious policy of the EU should be based on a sustained commitment to the most important common value underpinning European integration, the rule of law.

Here then are the makings of a potentially very influential institution: a forum of people such as Fischer, Ahtisaari, Belka, Emma Bonino, coming together and seriously discussing innovative, non -diplomatic analyses, prepared to be outspoken, not afraid to offend, oriented towards possible practical conclusions, and open to good ideas wherever they come from; and in addition a set of younger people and researchers from all parts of Europe with a variety of experiences and the conviction that good analysis can make a real difference.

The next day the Russia report was presented to a wider audience in the huge conference room of the German Foreign Ministry. It was the 9th of November, a good day to launch a European initiative in Berlin. It was cold outside, but the ghosts of the building were banished for good. Nicu seemed pleased, and he had every reason to be. It was a good start for a European initiative.

More reading:

A Power Audit of EU-Russia Relations

Nicu Popescu