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Turkey gripped by student protests over university freedoms

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As he joined an intense week of protests at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, Enes Gozukucuk contemplated how much he had changed since joining one of Turkey’s most prestigious academic institutions.

Born to devout religious parents, he was, in his own words “homophobic” and “not so open-minded” on racial and ethnic equality. But this week he was on the front line of demonstrations opposed to the appointment of a government-chosen rector who has been accused of targeting LGBT freedoms.

“This university taught me how to be a good person, to respect other people no matter what,” said the 23-year-old. “This is why I’m protesting now. This university should stay like this. Turkey needs people like us.”

Protests have simmered at Bogazici’s central Istanbul campus since early January when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the appointment of Melih Bulu, a failed ruling party candidate, as the new head of the university.

Student Enes Gozukucuk: ‘This university taught me how to be a good person, to respect other people no matter what. This is why I’m protesting now’

More than 150 people were arrested on Monday as hundreds of students from Bogazici and elsewhere gathered for their fifth successive week of demonstrations. Further arrests followed in subsequent days at solidarity protests that rippled through Turkish cities.

Such public outpourings of discontent are rare in Turkey, where the government has become increasingly intolerant of demonstrations in recent years. 

Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based political analyst at the GlobalSource Partners consultancy, is watching to see if they gain momentum. “The length of these protests — and the government’s attitude — dispels one of the biggest fears of secular, urban, well-heeled opposition voters,” he explained. “This perception that if we go out on to the streets we’re going to be decimated is disappearing each day.

“This raises the odds of other groups, either in sympathy to Bogazici or for their own reasons, will stage demos.”

Turkish police make arrests as hundreds of students from Bogazici and elsewhere gather © Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

The protests began days into the new year after Erdogan, who in 2016 bestowed himself with the right to pick university chiefs, imposed his own choice of rector in opposition to the wishes of staff and students.

Tensions escalated sharply over the past week as the government seized upon a contentious artwork, displayed at a student exhibition, that showed Islam’s most holy site — the Kaaba — juxtaposed with LGBT flags. 

Students accused of organising the exhibit were detained, the university’s LGBT association was raided and senior government officials launched a torrent of homophobic abuse. 

Suleyman Soylu, interior minister, attacked “LGBT perverts who insulted the Great Kaaba”. Erdogan said there was “no such thing” as LGBT in a “moral” country such as Turkey and described the protesters as “terrorists”.

The harsh language, which comes at a time when the Turkish leader has promised democratic reforms and improved relations with the west, drew criticism from US president Joe Biden’s new administration. 

Turkish police detain protesters during a rally in support of Bogazici students © Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

It caused alarm among students and staff at a university that is proud of its reputation for liberalism, inclusivity and tolerance.

“It’s obvious that this guy has been put there to do whatever the government asks him to do,” said Can Candan, a film studies lecturer. “This struggle is not just about Bogazici, it’s about the whole system of higher education in Turkey. The right to a quality, free, independent, higher education — that is what’s at stake.”

A month after the appointment of Bulu, who has faced accusations of academic plagiarism that he denies, the two sides remain locked in a stalemate. The rector this week insisted he would not resign. He told Haberturk newspaper that he supported LBGT rights but defended the closure of the students’ association, claiming that material linked to a terrorist group had been found in their club room. Students and staff, meanwhile, say they will continue to protest until he steps down.

Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of the IstanPol think-tank, believes Erdogan has deliberately stoked the protests — and played up the divisive LGBT rights dimension — in an effort to rouse his religious conservative supporters at a time when many are suffering from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The government has been trying to mobilise its base and deepen polarisation in the country,” she said. But she added that the response of Bogazici students and staff had limited the effectiveness of that strategy.

Student Ece Sevik: ‘People of all different views believe that the appointment of the rector was wrong’

Those taking part in the demonstrations are conscious that the government is seeking to use them in a culture war that asks the nation’s religious conservatives to pick sides in a battle against godless pro-western liberals. They stress that Erdogan’s government is not their target.

Several groups of religiously devout students have pushed back against efforts by the government and its supporters in the media to use them in its campaign against the university.

A statement published in the name of “Muslim students” said that the Kaaba artwork was “offensive and hurtful” to them but called for the issue to be resolved internally and indirectly criticised the authorities’ interference.

“Of course we don’t represent all Muslims,” said one of those who helped draft the statement, who asked not to be named. But he added that the positive feedback that the group of about a dozen organisers had received showed “we weren’t alone”.

Ece Sevik, who is in her third year at Bogazici, said there was a wide range of students taking part in the demonstrations. “There are Muslims, atheists, conservatives, secularist. People of all different views believe that the appointment of the rector was wrong.” 

The 21-year-old emphasised that they would keep up their campaign even in the face of government threats. “We absolutely will not back down,” she insisted. “We’ll continue until we have a rector chosen through an election and Melih Bulu is gone.”



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Armenia’s prime minister claims military is plotting a coup

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Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the country’s military is plotting a “coup,” and taken to the streets with his supporters after senior army figures in the former Soviet republic called on him to resign.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced months of protests demanding he step down after the defeat of Armenian forces in a six-week war with neighbouring Azerbaijan that ended in November.

The army weighed in on Thursday, calling on the prime minister to quit after he fired the first deputy chief of staff for criticising him.

A letter to the prime minister signed by 40 senior officers warned Pashinyan not to use force against demonstrators, but did not say whether the army would act to remove him from power.

“The current government’s ineffective management and serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the officers wrote on Facebook.

Pashinyan later fired the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, ordered police to secure government buildings in Yerevan and told his supporters in the capital’s Republic Square to avoid violent clashes.

Demonstrators at an opposition rally in Yerevan demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. They cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead © Artem Mikryukov/Reuters

Describing the situation as “manageable” the prime minister denied he was planning to flee the country and said the army’s statement was an “emotional reaction” to a dispute over the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We have no enemies in Armenia. I am calling for calm,” Pashinyan said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “Of course, the situation is tense, but we need dialogue, not confrontation.”

He later took to the streets with several thousand supporters and a megaphone — an echo of the 2018 “velvet revolution” that swept him to power following a march across the country that galvanised popular support. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered at a different square and cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead.

Pashinyan has fought off calls for his resignation since signing a Moscow-brokered peace deal in November that cemented territorial gains for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated by ethnic Armenians who seized control after a war that broke out in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country and a close ally of Turkey, launched an offensive in September with the aim of retaking the entire enclave. Armenia’s army was ill prepared for oil-rich Azerbaijan’s modern drone fleet and significant backing from Ankara.

More than 3,300 Armenian soldiers died in the conflict, with a further 9,000 wounded. Thousands of civilians were displaced, including some who set their own homes on fire as they fled land now under control of Azerbaijan.

Russia, the traditional regional power broker and Armenia’s most important ally, remained neutral even as several previous ceasefires failed and has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to secure the region.

Pashinyan admitted the terms were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but argued the concessions were necessary to prevent further losses.

The devastating defeat sparked fury among Armenians who stormed the country’s parliament and attacked its speaker, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Pashinyan backtracked on a pledge to step down after snap elections earlier this month and remained in office in the face of opposition from Armenia’s ceremonial president, three parliamentary opposition parties, and key church leaders.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was “following events in Armenia with caution” but considered them “exclusively Armenia’s internal matter”.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Russia was “calling on everyone to be calm” and said “the situation should remain within constitutional limits,” according to Interfax.



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German accounting watchdog chief to step down in wake of Wirecard

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The head of Germany’s accounting watchdog is to step down following mounting political pressure over corporate governance shortcomings exposed by the Wirecard fraud.

Edgar Ernst, the president of the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel (FREP), said on Wednesday he would depart by the end of this year. He is the third head of a regulatory body to lose his job in the wake of one of Germany’s biggest postwar accounting scandals.

The collapse of Wirecard, which last summer filed for insolvency after uncovering a €1.9bn cash hole, triggered an earthquake in Germany’s financial and political establishment.

Felix Hufeld, president of BaFin, the financial regulatory authority, and his deputy Elisabeth Roegele were pushed out by the German government in January for failing to act on early red flags suggesting misconduct at Wirecard. Ralf Bose, the head of Germany’s auditors supervisor Apas, was fired after disclosing he traded Wirecard shares while this authority was investigating the company’s auditor, EY. The German government is also working to revamp the country’s accounting supervision and financial oversight.

Meanwhile, criminal prosecutors in Frankfurt are evaluating a potential criminal investigation into BaFin’s inner workings and on Wednesday asked the market authority to hand over comprehensive documents, the prosecutors office told the FT, confirming an earlier report by Handelsblatt. The potential scope of any investigation as well as the individuals who might be targeted is still unclear. BaFin declined to comment.

Ernst came under pressure as the parliamentary inquiry commission uncovered that he joined the supervisory board of German wholesaler Metro AG in an apparent violation of internal governance rules, which from 2016 banned FREP staff from taking on new supervisory board roles.

Last week, the former chief financial officer of Deutsche Post filed a legal opinion to parliament defending his move. He argued that his employment contract was older than the 2016 ban on board seats and hence trumped the tightened governance regulations.

The German government had subsequently threatened to ditch the private-sector body which currently has quasi-official powers.

In a statement published on Wednesday evening, FREP said that Ernst wants to open the door for a “fresh start” that would be untainted by the discussions around his supervisory board mandates. “FREP is losing a well-versed expert in capital markets,” the body said.



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Putin and Lukashenko’s ski fun shows cold shoulder to EU

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As news of new EU sanctions against Russia began to leak out of a meeting of bloc foreign ministers on Monday afternoon, Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko were discussing a different challenge to the Russian president.

“You can try to compete with Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lukashenko, in ski gear, said to his son, Nikolai. “But you probably won’t catch up,” he added, with a smile to Putin as the Russian leader pushed off down the slope.

Putin and Lukashenko are the men behind Europe’s two repressive crackdowns over the past six months, who have both jailed or exiled their most prominent opponents and seen their security forces violently assault and detain thousands of peaceful protesters.

But in a summit in the snow-covered mountains of Sochi, on Russia’s southern coast, they revelled in their twosome of leaders shunned and sanctioned by Brussels, in a calibrated message to the EU that the cold-shoulder was mutual.

For foreign policy experts there were few details to digest, despite the complex negotiations going on behind the scenes as the two post-Soviet states seek to recalibrate their future relationship.

Putin is keen to deepen integration on Moscow’s terms. Lukashenko is desperate for Russian investment and trade co-operation but is loath to relinquish sovereignty. Yet in place of diplomatic negotiations and policy pronouncements, photographs and video footage of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company were in full display.

At the outset, Putin, in jeans and an open-collar shirt and blazer, greeted his guest with a handshake and a hug. “Even our appearance, clothes and so on, suggest that these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes,” Lukashenko quipped. “It suggests that we are close people.”

Pleasantries exchanged, it was time for the salopettes and ski boots, and a shared chairlift to the summit. Putin, pushing off confidently, set off down the gentle slope, Lukashenko in his wake.

After a short ride on snowmobiles back to their chalets, discussions continued over more than six hours — and what appeared to be three different sized wine glasses.

“The optics for the international audience is that they have been able to maintain their positions and nothing can be done against them,” said Maryia Rohava, a research fellow at Oslo university specialising in post-Soviet relations.

“Now we’re talking not just about sanctions against Belarus but also against Russia,” she added. “And it seems like they look at that like, ‘Well, we don’t care . . . We’re just enjoying our winter break like autocrats do.’”

To be sure, the fun on the slopes was not wholly without power games. Putin was clear to underscore he was the senior partner, from wrongfooting his guest at the top of the ski lift to releasing photographs of their meeting showing Lukashenko scribbling notes as his host spoke.

But the mood music was in sharp contrast to Lukashenko’s last visit to Russia in September. Then, with protests raging and the Belarusian leader’s position looking shaky, Putin reprimanded his guest for mishandling the unrest and risking the toppling of an ageing post-Soviet regime that could weaken his own.

Then, in a businesslike and cold atmosphere, Lukashenko pleaded with Putin that “a friend is in trouble” and was granted a $1.5bn loan from Moscow — but not before his host remarked that Belarusian people should be given a chance to “sort this situation out”.

The absence of such language on Monday also sent a subtle signal to other illiberal regimes, particularly those on the outer rim of Europe who, like Belarus in the past, find themselves lured towards Brussels by economic opportunities but repelled by the reforms and democratic standards demanded in exchange.

The message to the likes of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Turkey is that Putin, whose relations with the EU are at rock bottom, is always ready to talk.



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