Erdogan manages to outrage Australians… “condemnation, not patronage”

Australians care deeply about human rights — and wrongs. We worry about past injustices committed against Indigenous people; about the act of colonisation itself. We’re troubled by Indonesia’s invasion of Timor and its brutality in West Papua. We’re standing firm on China’s military expansionism in the South China Sea, its bellicosity over Taiwan, the global tendrils of its Belt and Road project. And, of course, we’re standing with the people of Hong Kong.


So why on earth do thousands of Australians make the Anzac ­pilgrimage each year to Gallipoli? The gesture, though touching, serves only to boost the prestige of an autocratic regime and malignant actor in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Turkey is not our friend. Turkey is not a friend of the West. Its leadership is actively collaborating with Russia to thwart Western influence in the Middle East — a key reason for Turkey’s vociferous condemnation of the new United Arab Emirates-Israel accord. In fact, Mossad head Yossi Cohen, according to a BBC report this week, regards Turkey as a bigger threat to regional — and hence global — stability than Iran.

The European Council noted last year, apropos of Turkey’s desire to join the EU, that Ankara “continues to move further away from” the EU. At the same time, the council expressed “serious concerns about the respect for the legality and integrity of the electoral process” in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

Under Erdogan, the media is tightly controlled and journalists are routinely tried for subversion. At least 93 journalists are believed to be languishing in Turkish prisons. And in the past few days, footage has emerged of a Greek journalist being harassed while on air reporting live from Istanbul.

Turkey is illiberal at home, and adventurist abroad. The present stand-off between Athens and Ankara over Turkish gas exploration off the Greek island of Kastellorizo is an important wake-up call about Turkish economic, strategic and territorial ambitions. In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey now pursues an expansionist naval policy called Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, that is rather like China’s own expansion in the South China Sea.

Kastellorizo, little more than an outsized boulder with a pretty harbour, lies barely 2km from Turkey’s famed “Turquoise Coast”. I visited the area several times for book research between 2004 and 2010. On my last visit bar one, a waiter at my hotel in Kas, a Turkish tourist town, showed me the view of Greek Kastellorizo from the top floor before taking aim at the island with an imaginary ­machine gun and opening fire on its inhabitants — in mime.

His performance distilled, in dramatic fashion, Turkey’s attitude to Greece. I suspect the young man harboured prideful cultural memories of the Turkish massacre in 1922 of Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna, now Turkish Izmir, a four-hour drive north from Kas.

The Turkish atrocities in Smyrna, which brought to a head the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal extermination of Christian minorities under the cover of the Great War, were committed under the direct command of Mustapha Kemal — the same Kemal, or Ataturk, whose words stir Australian sentiments every Anzac Day: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.”

When we honour Kemal’s fine phrases, we are tacitly sanctioning the massacre of up to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna. Turkey rejects any attempts to recognise or commemorate its earlier and more broad-based massacre of Armenians, Greeks and other Christian communities, but the facts are not in dispute.

Turkey is in denial, but the world is awake. In 2010, the Swedish ­government passed a resolution retrospectively condemning the Armenian genocide. The resolution explains: “It was the dream of a large Turanic Empire, Great Turan, which caused the Turkish leaders to (want to) ethnically homogenise the remains of the ­decaying Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th century. This was achieved under the cover of the ongoing world war, when the Armenian, Assyrian/Syrian/Chaldean and Pontic Greek population of the empire were, almost entirely, annihilated. Researchers estimate that about 1,500,000 Armenians, between 250,000 and 500,000 ­Assyrians/Syrians/Chaldeans and about 350,000 Pontic Greeks have been killed or disappeared.”

This is the same Turkey whose economy we Australians — and Kiwis — boost, and whose political legitimacy we bolster when we flock to the Gallipoli battlefields to mourn our losses in war and simultaneously fuel, year upon year, the fire of Turkish military pride.

A few days after arriving in Kas, I took a boat to Kastellorizo captained by a Turk who, when asked why he was in this line of work, confessed that he could always find his favourite pork dish on the Greek side of the Levantine Sea — a pleasure denied him in his Muslim home. Sitting on a seat in the harbour was a fisherman wearing a Richmond beanie mending a net: Kastellorizo has strong ties with Australia and Kazzies regularly ­return for the summer months.

Back in Turkish Kas, reflecting on the young man’s mock machine-gunning of Kastellorizo and its many Kazzies, I recalled another visit to Turkey a few years earlier during Turkey’s Canakkale Naval Victory Day, on March 18 — a rather more triumphal celebration than we are accustomed to of the tragedy in the Dardanelles.

Whereas Anzac Day, which marks a defeat, is saturated in the pathos of war, the Turkish version is both nationalistic and militaristic: the two adjectives that best describe contemporary Turkey’s foreign policy posture. For many Australians, the tragedy of Gallipoli expresses war’s pointlessness. But for Erdogan, Turkey’s triumph in the Dardanelles underlines war’s enduring purpose.

This year’s Gallipoli celebrations in Turkey were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Australians should rethink their future participation in the ceremony on Turkish soil. It draws a veil of normality across an increasingly hostile and expansionist Turkey, at the same time obscuring the Ottoman’s Armenian genocide of 1915 and the massacre of Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna under Ataturk.

An alternative to Gallipoli might be the Greek island of Lemnos, the forward staging post for the Gallipoli landings of 1915. As the conflict dragged on through that broken year, some 4000 Diggers returned to convalesce on Lemnos and, often, to die. The remains of many British, Canadian, French and Indian soldiers also rest on the island. It’s a fitting place to celebrate Anzac Day, close by the Dardanelles and close enough to toxic Turkey for the gesture to serve as a protest against the living tradition of military aggression.

This is hardly a pacific stretch of water. In his history of the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC, Herodotus of Halicarnassus traces the East-West aggression to a time before the Trojan War, which he believed to be a historical event. No side has been without blame. But it’s important that we see contemporary Turkey’s power play with a clear gaze. Erdogan’s regime deserves our condemnation, not our patronage.