Trump calls Erdogan to congratulate him on contested referendum, Turkey says

The Washington Post reports: President Trump called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday after a referendum greatly expanding his powers, according to Turkish officials, despite a more circumspect State Department response to Sunday’s vote, which international election observers declared unfair.

Erdogan’s office said that he and Trump also discussed the situation in Syria, including the April 4 chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib province, and that Trump thanked Erdogan for Turkey’s support.

“The two leaders agreed that Bashar al-Assad should be held accountable for the actions he has taken,” said a statement from Erdogan’s office, referring to Syria’s president.

The White House confirmed that the two leaders had spoken, but would not describe the call.

As described by a Turkish statement, Trump’s comments differed in tone from those of the State Department, which urged Turkey to respect the basic rights of its citizens and noted the election irregularities witnessed by monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States is a member of the OSCE. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan has permanently closed a chapter of Turkey’s modern history

Steven A Cook writes: On Jan. 20, 1921, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu, or the Law on Fundamental Organization. It would be almost three years until Mustafa Kemal — known more commonly as Ataturk, or “Father Turk” — proclaimed the Republic of Turkey, but the legislation was a critical marker of the new order taking shape in Anatolia.

The new country called Turkey, quite unlike the Ottoman Empire, was structured along modern lines. It was to be administered by executive and legislative branches, as well as a Council of Ministers composed of elected representatives of the parliament. What had once been the authority of the sultan, who ruled alone with political and ecclesiastic legitimacy, was placed in the hands of legislators who represented the sovereignty of the people.

More than any other reform, the Law on Fundamental Organization represented a path from dynastic rule to the modern era. And it was this change that was at stake in Turkey’s referendum over the weekend. Much of the attention on Sunday’s vote was focused on the fact that it was a referendum on the power of the Turkish presidency and the polarizing politician who occupies that office, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet it was actually much more.

Whether they understood it or not, when Turks voted “Yes”, they were registering their opposition to the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu and the version of modernity that Ataturk imagined and represented. Though the opposition is still disputing the final vote tallies, the Turkish public seems to have given Erdogan and the AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state and in the process raze the values on which it was built. Even if they are demoralized in their defeat, Erdogan’s project will arouse significant resistance among the various “No” camps. The predictable result will be the continuation of the purge that has been going on since even before last July’s failed coup including more arrests and the additional delegitimization of Erdogan’s parliamentary opposition. All of this will further destabilize Turkish politics.

Turkey’s Islamists have long venerated the Ottoman period. In doing so, they implicitly expressed thinly veiled contempt for the Turkish Republic. For Necmettin Erbakan, who led the movement from the late 1960s to the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in August 2001, the republic represented cultural abnegation and repressive secularism in service of what he believed was Ataturk’s misbegotten ideas that the country could be made Western and the West would accept it. Rather, he saw Turkey’s natural place not at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels but as a leader of the Muslim world, whose partners should be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.

When Erbakan’s protégés — among them Erdogan and former President Abdullah Gul — broke with him and created the AKP, they jettisoned the anti-Western rhetoric of the old guard, committed themselves to advancing Turkey’s European Union candidacy, and consciously crafted an image of themselves as the Muslim analogues to Europe’s Christian Democrats. Even so, they retained traditional Islamist ideas about the role of Turkey in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

Thinkers within the AKP — notably former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — harbored reservations about the compatibility of Western political and social institutions with their predominantly Muslim society. But the AKP leadership never acted upon this idea, choosing instead to undermine aspects of Ataturk’s legacy within the framework of the republic. That is no longer the case.

The AKP and supporters of the “yes” vote argue that the criticism of the constitutional amendments was unfair. They point out that the changes do not undermine a popularly elected parliament and president as well as an independent (at least formally) judiciary. This is all true, but it is also an exceedingly narrow description of the political system that Erdogan envisions. Rather, the powers that would be afforded to the executive presidency are vast, including the ability to appoint judges without input from parliament, issue decrees with the force of law, and dissolve parliament. The president would also have the sole prerogative over all senior appointments in the bureaucracy and exercise exclusive control of the armed forces. The amendments obviate the need for the post of prime minister, which would be abolished. The Grand National Assembly does retain some oversight and legislative powers, but if the president and the majority are from the same political party, the power of the presidency will be unconstrained. With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot. It turns out that Erdogan, who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman. [Continue reading…]

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After referendum, Turkey is more divided than ever

The Guardian reports: The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has claimed victory in a historic referendum on a package of constitutional amendments that will grant him sweeping new powers.

However, disparities persisted into Sunday evening, with the opposition saying not all ballots had been counted and they would contest a third of the votes that had been cast.

If confirmed, the result of the referendum will set the stage for a transformation of the upper echelons of the state and change the country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, arguably the most important development in the country’s history since it was founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Republic.

Erdogan said he would immediately discuss reinstating the death penalty in talks with the prime minister and the nationalist opposition leader, Devlet Bahceli. The president said he would take the issue to referendum if necessary. [Continue reading…]

Simon Waldman writes: One rule of thumb in a healthy referendum is that the voting public should be asked a clear and concise question with a simple yes or no answer.

On Sunday, when 55 million eligible Turkish voters went to the polls in a nationwide referendum about constitutional changes that would effectively transform Turkey’s parliamentary system to an executive presidency, there was no question on the ballot. There was just a paper slip with the option Yes or No.

The Yes camp of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory – albeit a very narrow one.

The lack of a question on the ballot is just one example of the deficiencies, irregularities and misconduct during the whole process. Meanwhile, the manner in which the election took place was grossly unfair.

Since the failed military coup of July last year, Turkey remains under an extended state of emergency. Not only did this allow Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party government to purge hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state bureaucracy, but it also hurt the No campaign. It allowed the government to ban public rallies at a whim and make an emergency decree to allow private broadcasters to disproportionately air Yes campaign material without penalty.

The naysayers had no chance; they were playing with loaded dice. [Continue reading…]

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‘Journalism is becoming powerless’: Inside a nervous Turkish newsroom as the government closes in

The Washington Post reports: He was anticipating retirement, after nearly half a century as a journalist. Then Aydin Engin, 76, a columnist for the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, received a frightening visit from the law.

Eight policemen arrived at his Istanbul house early one morning last fall and took him into custody on terrorism-related charges. Across the city, police officers swept up a dozen of Engin’s colleagues, including the newspaper’s cartoonist, its editor in chief, a staff lawyer and Kadri Gursel, another noted columnist — the beginnings of a sudden and startling assault by the authorities on one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers.

Now, five months later, 11 members of the Cumhuriyet staff remain locked up, their portraits printed each day on the newspaper’s front page and its website in a plaintive protest. Engin and another columnist were released because of their age, but last week they were formally indicted along with their imprisoned ­colleagues on charges that included publishing propaganda for ­various terrorist organizations. Some could be sentenced to decades in prison. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s story tells the world just how fragile democracy is

 

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Americans’ right to protest is in grave danger under Trump, United Nations warns

Amanda Erickson writes: The right to protest is fundamental to American democracy. The country was born, after all, out of decades of civil disobedience by people angry about taxation without representation. (In Washington, FWIW, we are still angry.)

But according to United Nations human rights investigators, this very basic principle is under attack. Over the past few months, on the heels of a fresh wave of organizing by liberals, at least 19 states have introduced measures that would criminalize peaceful protest. In places such as Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have proposed laws that would stiffen penalties for demonstrators who block traffic. In North Dakota, GOP leaders are pushing a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill agitators, as long as the crash was accidental. In Indiana, conservatives want to instruct police to use “any means necessary” to remove activists from a roadway. Opponents worry this could lead to more brutal police response.

Colorado lawmakers are considering a big increase in penalties for environmental protesters. Activists who tamper with oil or gas equipment could be, under the measure, face felony charges and be punished with up to 18 months behind bars and a fine of up to $100,000. A bill pending in the Virginia state legislature would dramatically increase punishment for people who “unlawfully” assemble after “having been lawfully warned to disperse.” Those who do so could face a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

In Missouri, some lawmakers want to make it illegal to wear a robe, mask or disguise (remarkably, a hoodie would count) to a protest. Lawmakers in North Carolina want to make it a crime to heckle lawmakers.

Taken together, the United Nations warns, these bills represent an “alarming and undemocratic” trend that could have a chilling effect on activism. [Continue reading…]

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in court after arrest

The Guardian reports: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has appeared in a Moscow court a day after some of the biggest anti-government protests in years swept Russia.

Navalny faces up to 15 days in jail for organising protests across Russia on Sunday, which led to more than a thousand people being detained. He has declared his intention to run for president next year, an election in which Vladimir Putin is expected to stand and win a new six-year term.

A defiant Navalny posted a selfie from court on Twitter: “The time will come when we will put them on trial (but this time, honestly)” he wrote. He was upbeat during his hearing, asking the judge to summon [prime minister] Medvedev as a witness to “explain why so many people protested”. [Continue reading…]

NBC News reports: The United States said it was monitoring developments and called on Russia to release all of the protesters. Mark Toner, acting spokesman for the U.S. State Department, called the arrests “an affront to core democratic values.”

“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” Toner said. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports: Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has cemented his status as leader of Russia’s opposition movement by organising the largest unauthorised protest in recent years against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

The clean-cut lawyer, 40, who was arrested at Sunday’s demonstration in Moscow, is no stranger to clashes with the Kremlin.

He has spent time under house arrest and seen his brother jailed in a string of cases he has denounced as retribution for his challenging authorities and exposing the vast wealth of the president’s inner circle.

Late last year, in his most ambitious move yet, he announced he would run for president in 2018, an election that Putin is expected to dominate.

This month he posted a YouTube video tracing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s links to mansions, yachts and vineyards that has been viewed 12 million times. [Continue reading…]

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Putin picks Le Pen to rule France

The Daily Beast reports: Russian interference in the American elections last year was downright subtle compared to what we’ve seen this week in the run-up to French presidential elections.

The two-round vote on April 23 and May 7 could change politics, defense, and the economy in Europe more radically—and more in Russia’s favor—even than the chaos spawned by Donald Trump’s iffy triumph in the United States.

And on Friday, Putin endorsed his candidate: far-right-wing, anti-European-Union, anti-NATO, anti-immigrant, anti-American, pro-Trump candidate Marine Le Pen.

Of course, Putin said, “We don’t want to influence in any way the events going on [in France],” but his government received Le Pen as if she already were settled in as the head of state in Paris.

Olga Bychkova, deputy chief editor of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, said that the reception accorded Le Pen in Russia was impressive. “She first had meetings with the leaders of the Duma [Russia’s parliament], then she was taken to an exhibit devoted to France at the Kremlin, then she met with Putin. That is a kind of program Moscow organizes for state leaders,” Bychkova said. [Continue reading…]

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Bravery and simple humanity have shown Westminster at its best

Jonathan Freedland writes: There are certain places that cease to be places in the public imagination. They become shorthand for a loathed political establishment or distant, overmighty government. In America, that place is “Washington, DC”. For Eurosceptics, it’s “Brussels”. And in Britain, that reviled, imperial citadel is “Westminster”.

Yet today, as the airwaves and social media timelines filled with dreadful, violent news, “Westminster” began to lose those quotation marks. As the afternoon passed, it became seen not as the widely despised bastion of the political class, but a real place inhabited by office workers, tourists, security guards and groups of visiting schoolchildren.

On any other day, Tobias Ellwood might be seen as just another Tory MP. But then came word that he had given CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a policeman who lay wounded – and with it a reminder that the MP, a former army officer, had lost a brother in the Bali bombings of 2002.

Or there were those photos of MPs locked in the chamber of the Commons for their own safety, many of them on their phones, searching for news just like the rest of us but with an extra edge: they were worrying about friends, colleagues or their own employees. Everyone had the same thought: what if someone they knew or loved was among those hurt?

As it happens, I was in Westminster (though not in parliament) when the attacker struck, wrapping up a lunch meeting with an MP who was alerted to the news by a text from his wife, checking that he was safe. On television, he’ll look like just another politician. But if people saw him today, they’d have seen a human being.

And yet, when it comes to those involved in politics – the people who keep our democratic machinery functioning – it seems to take violent tragedy to remind us that those we elect to represent us don’t stop being people the moment we vote for them. Last year it was the murder of Jo Cox that reminded people an MP could also be a living, breathing, loving person. At that moment, many felt chastened about the way we speak about politics – so often using violent language to describe political argument. We held back for a while. But we soon fell back into the old habits. [Continue reading…]

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GOP takes up Russia-aligned attack on Soros

Politico reports: A group of congressional Republicans is teaming up with Russia-backed politicians in Eastern Europe with the shared goal of stopping a common enemy: billionaire financier George Soros.

Led by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the conservative lawmakers have signed on to a volley of letters accusing Soros of using his philanthropic spending to project his liberal sensibilities onto European politics. As Lee and other senators put it in a March 14 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Soros’ Open Society Foundations are trying “to push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”

It’s an accusation that’s being fomented and championed by Moscow.

Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and fled after World War II when it was under Soviet control, has been long a bête noire of the Kremlin, which sees his funding for civil society groups in former Soviet satellite states as part of a plot to install pro-Western governments.

For years, those complaints had generally fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

While Republicans have long regarded Soros as a mortal enemy when it comes to domestic politics (where he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and liberal causes), their politics were more aligned on the international stage. Soros’ efforts to boost democracy and root out corruption in former Eastern Bloc countries dovetailed with traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.

But things may have started changing after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in a presidential campaign during which he emphasized nationalist themes. Politicians with nationalist constituencies in several former Eastern Bloc states have become increasingly aggressive in seeking international support for their crusade against Soros, and they seem to have found at least some takers in the GOP. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan’s growing army of volunteer citizen informers

Financial Times reports: Browsing Facebook at home one Saturday, Bilgin Ciftci saw a post that made him chuckle. It was a montage of images of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed alongside Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. In the first, the president and the shrivelled inhabitant of Middle-earth shared a look of astonishment. The second showed both figures wide-eyed with wonder. In the third, Erdogan gnawed on a chicken drumstick while Gollum bit into a scaly fish.

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Ciftci, a doctor from the western town of Aydin, clicked “share” and thought no more of it. But a few weeks later, he was summoned to see the police and charged with insulting the president — a criminal offence in Turkey. He lost his job at a public hospital and became trapped in a legal ordeal that has so far dragged on for more than 18 months. At one stage, the judge appointed a panel of Tolkien experts to advise whether Gollum should be deemed good or bad (they ruled that he is good at heart).

Amid the absurdity, there was another, darker layer to the story. When he shared the meme, Ciftci, 48, believed he was only showing it to those in his private Facebook network. But the police had a screenshot of his page. They had not hacked his account or snooped on his computer. The truth was far more unsettling: he had been betrayed by someone he knew. Ciftci deduced that the culprit was the husband of one of his relatives. When he called up to confront him, the relative first denied it and then hung up the phone.

Ciftci’s ordeal reflects something bigger happening in Turkey, something that could come straight from the pages of a dystopian novel. On an almost weekly basis, stories emerge of friends, colleagues and even spouses reporting each other for a catalogue of offences. “This has become a phenomenon in our society,” says Ciftci from a café near Aydin courthouse, an institution now more familiar than he could ever have imagined. “There are people who are more royalist than the king. They become citizen informers.” [Continue reading…]

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Dutch prime minister claims victory over anti-Muslim candidate Geert Wilders

The Washington Post reports: The Dutch political establishment appeared Wednesday to fend off a challenge from anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders in a national election, according to exit polls, a victory that heartened centrist leaders across Europe who are fearful of populist upsets in their own nations.

The result confirmed Wilders as a powerful voice on immigration in the Netherlands. But it would leave in place Prime Minister Mark Rutte and do little to alter the fundamental dynamic in a country unhappy with the status quo but deeply divided among many political parties.

The vote in the prosperous trading nation was seen as a bellwether for France and Germany, which head to the polls in the coming months and have also been shaken by fierce anti-immigrant sentiment. The British vote to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, a skeptic about NATO and European integration, have cracked the door to a fundamental reordering of the post-World War II Western order. [Continue reading…]

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How the Netherlands made Geert Wilders possible

The Atlantic reports: In the 17th century, Dutch settlers flocked to the southern half of what is now Manhattan to establish New Amsterdam, a fur-trading post that would welcome Lutherans and Catholics from Europe; Anglicans, Puritans, and Quakers from New England; and Sephardic Jews who were, at the time, discouraged from settling in America’s other nascent regions. Though its English conquerors would rename the city New York, the values of diversity and tolerance that the Dutch introduced would remain the region’s hallmarks for centuries to come.

In the modern-day Netherlands, however, the Dutch Republic’s founding pledge that “everyone shall remain free in religion” will soon collide with the ambitions of one of the country’s most popular politicians.

“Islam and freedom are not compatible,” claims Geert Wilders, the Party for Freedom (PVV) leader who campaigns on banning the Quran, closing Dutch mosques, and ending immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. “Stop Islam,” the phrase that sits atop Wilders’s Twitter page, aptly summarizes his party’s platform. In December, Dutch courts found Wilders guilty of carrying his rhetoric too far, convicting him of discriminatory speech for rallying supporters in an anti-Moroccan call-and-response. Nonetheless, Wilders is a leading contender to receive the plurality of votes in the country’s parliamentary elections on March 15.

The nation’s peculiar path from “live and let live” to “Make the Netherlands Ours Again” (as Wilders recently said) has as its guideposts a changing definition of tolerance, some instances of political opportunism—and a pair of grisly assassinations.

From the mix of faith groups that inhabited New Amsterdam to the peaceful coexistence of Protestants, Catholics, and socialists throughout the Netherlands in the 20th century, the Dutch brand of multiculturalism has often been more “salad bowl” than “melting pot.” Each sect of society had its own schools, media outlets, and social groups; tolerance was the act of respecting those boundaries.

“Historically, Dutch tolerance has been more of a pragmatic strategy,” said Jan Rath, a professor of urban sociology at the University of Amsterdam. “Tolerance has been a way to contain oppositions or complications.” [Continue reading…]

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Wilders, Russia and Twitter bots: How social media is serving Dutch populism

Financial Times reports: Follower numbers are a commonly recognised indicator of social media influence. Snapshot counts of Twitter and Facebook followers reveal that, in contrast to most other party leaders, Mr Wilders’ personal social media following dwarfs that of his party’s accounts by a ratio of 330:1 on Twitter and 133:1 on Facebook. By comparison, sitting prime minister Mark Rutte’s followers are outnumbered by those of his party, VVD, by 1.5:1 on Twitter and 3.4:1 on Facebook. 

However, an examination of the rate of growth of Dutch party leaders’ Twitter followings reveals Mr Wilders’ to be growing comparatively slowly — which is to be expected given that hisis the largest among party leaders’ followings. More intriguing are the bumps in the growth rate of the Wilders following, several of which coincide with specific news events. In particular, Mr Wilders’ conviction for race-related discrimination offences on December 9 last year and the terrorist attack in which a truck was driven into a Berlin crowd on December 19 boosted Mr Wilders’ following, which may suggest a reactive component to the motivations of people following Mr Wilders on Twitter.

The accusations of election interference in France made by the campaign of Mr Macron prompted a denial by RT, which said in a statement that it “adamantly rejects any and all claims that it has any part in spreading fake news in general and in relation to Mr Macron and the upcoming French election in particular.” The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however, asserted in a January report that RT and Sputnik functioned as part of a Russian “state-run propaganda machine” that was deployed in an attempt to influence the outcome of the US election.

FT Data calculated the frequencies with which a random sample of 100,000 of Mr Wilders’ Twitter followers mentioned the accounts of RT and Sputnik (@RT_com and @SputnikInt), along with those of the top five Dutch news outlets over a six-month period. We compared these to a sample of the same size taken from followers of the office of the Dutch prime minister (@MinPres), a non-partisan governmental account.

Although Mr Wilders himself did not disproportionately share content from either outlet, his followers were 12 times more likely to mention Sputnik and almost eight times more likely to mention RT than followers of Mr Rutte, prime minister. Notably, Mr Wilders’ followers mentioned RT more frequently than they did the Dutch national broadcaster NOS (@NOS). [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump and the new dawn of tyranny

Timothy Snyder writes: The Founding Fathers designed the constitution to prevent some Americans from exercising tyranny. Alert to the classical examples they knew, the decline of ancient Greece and Rome into oligarchy and empire, they established the rule of law, checks and balances, and regular elections as the means of preserving the new republic. Thus far, it has worked. But it need not work forever.

We might imagine that the American system must somehow always sustain itself. But a broader look at the history of democratic republics established since our own revolution reveals that most of them have failed. Politicians who emerge from democratic practices can then work to undo democratic institutions. This was true in the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as during the spread of communism in the 1940s, and indeed in the new wave of authoritarian regime changes of the 21st century. Indeed, absent a truly decisive revolution, which is a rare event, a regime change depends upon such people — regime changers — emerging in one system and transforming it into another.

It is in this light that we should consider President Donald Trump and his closest advisors and spokespeople. Although they occupy the positions they do thanks to an election, there is little reason to believe that they support the American constitutional system as it stands, and much to remind us of authoritarian regimes changes of the recent past. A basic weapon of regime changers, as fascists realized nearly a century ago, is to destroy the concept of truth. Democracy requires the rule of law, the rule of law depends upon trust, and trust depends upon citizens’ acceptance of factuality. The president and his aides actively seek to destroy Americans’ sense of reality. Not only does the White House spread “alternative facts,” but Kellyanne Conway openly proclaims this as right and good. Post-factuality is pre-fascism. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s testy campaign over ‘executive presidency’ sows divisions at home and abroad

The Washington Post reports: So far in a rancorous election season, the Turkish government or its opponents have invoked Nazi Germany, terrorist groups, fifth columnists and a Latin American dictator.

And that was in the campaign’s first two weeks.

There is more than a month to go before a referendum in April that will allow Turks to vote on a series of constitutional amendments that could give Turkey’s dominating leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vast new powers and allow him to remain in office for more than a decade.

But already, the poisonous rhetoric surrounding the campaign has aggravated tensions in this sharply divided nation, raising fears about the aftermath of the vote — and surged beyond Turkey’s borders, upending its foreign alliances. On Sunday, as part of an escalating feud with the Dutch government, Erdogan warned that the Dutch would “pay a price” after Turkish ministers were prevented from visiting the Netherlands over the past two days, according to Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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