Is the Kremlin learning from Turkey’s anti-minority laws?

The pending closure of Dmitry Zimin’s Dynasty Foundation is the latest episode in the Kremlin’ campaign against independent NGOs. True to the principle of rule by (as opposed to of) law, Putin has badgered them with two recent bills, on foreign agents and on undesirable organizations. “For our friends, everything; for our enemies, the law” is a Latin American saying but the Kremlin may have also learned from Russia’s southern neighbor.

Edward Luttwak’s latest article in The London Review of Books outlines Turkey’s use of NGO legislation to keep down minorities, Armenians most notably:

…the persecution of the Armenians didn’t start in 1915, and wasn’t a First World War event… there had been massacres of Armenians before then, notably in 1894-96, leaving some fifty thousand orphans. And, more important, the persecution didn’t end with the First World War, but continues to this day. Its current form, aside from occasional non-state violence such as the 2007 murder of Hrant Dink… is Turkey’s artfully drafted legislation on non-profit trusts and foundations.

The Ottoman Empire, says Luttwak, had a sensible law on religious trusts (vakf, or waqf), which Greece and Israel also adopted as independent states. But the secular Turkish state replaced it with more craftily drafted, pseudo-Western, discriminatory legislation:

One such law of 1967… defines foundations in the usual way… But then it adds: ‘Formation of a foundation contrary to the characteristics of the republic defined by the constitution, constitutional rules, laws, ethics, national integrity and national interest, or with the aim of supporting a distinctive race or community, is restricted’ [emphasis added] – which actually means that it is forbidden, because there are no provisions for exceptions.

What about pre-existing trusts and endowments? At first, they were allowed to go on but not for long:

…in 1974 new legislation determined that non-Muslim trusts couldn’t own property that hadn’t been registered under their name in 1936. With that, some 1400 churches, schools, residential buildings, hospitals, summer camps, cemeteries and orphanages were deemed illegal and seized by the state…

During Turkey’s dalliance with Europe, the laws seizing old Armenian property were reversed in 1986 but a 2001 decree by a government agency gave the state control over all remaining properties, supposedly “abandoned”: no data on the titles to the property confiscated before 1986 could be disclosed, so reclaiming it was next to impossible.

Such seemingly technical administrative measures have sufficed to prevent the opening of any new church (Armenian or otherwise), synagogue or non-Muslim school since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

All of that happened before Erdogan (Erdoğan, to be precise: the “ğ” is mute) took over. Kemal Atatürk’s secularism limited full citizenship to Muslim Turks, or perhaps more accurately, to those who were at least nominally Muslim, spoke Turkish and bore Turkish names (Luttwak does not discuss religious or ethnolinguistic conversion and assimilation). Erdogan’s Islamists are happy to keep this discriminatory feature of Kemalism while dismantling its secularist foundations.


  1. Good article by Luttwak. I particularly loved this bit:

    One small irony in Erdoğan’s sensitivity about the term ‘genocide’ being deployed against the Turks is that he himself has used the word lightly, accusing the Chinese of genocide for their repression of the Muslim Uighurs and the Israelis of systematic genocide of the Palestinians. (He rejects International Criminal Court charges against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir because ‘no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.’)

    It’s “Islamophobic” to point out that Muslims have engaged in massacres of non-Muslims.

    Luttwak also mentions Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. I knew the Turkish government had lobbied hard to stop Hollywood producing a film adaptation. The Wikipedia article has some fascinating details, especially the Turkish ambassador alleging the movie was part of a Jewish plot:

    We will have to take our own steps in case the Jewish people fail to bring the Jewish company (MGM) to reason… The Forty Days of Musa Dagh presents the Turco-Armenian struggle during the World War in a light hostile to the Turks. Its author is a Jew. This means that MGM, which is also a Jewish firm, utilizes for one of its films a work by one of its companions… Declare a boycott against pictures by MGM… Jewish firms which maintain commercial relations with our country will also suffer if they fail to stop this hostile propaganda.

    The novel was publicly burned in both Berlin and Istanbul (where the Turks forced the Armenian and Jewish communities to burn copies to show their loyalty).

    One of the reasons for downplaying the Armenian Genocide, evinced by Bernard Lewis and others, is that acknowledging it would somehow undermine the Turkish republic, held up as a model for the rest of the Muslim world. However, as Luutwak makes clear, concern for democracy and human rights has frequently been only skin-deep and if the whole process ends with a clown like Erdogan, you wonder why they bothered.

  2. Putin and Erdogan were made for one another but, amusingly, there are a lot of inconvenient obstacles which prevent their romance from blossoming fully, e.g. the issue of Armenia, the Crimean Tatars and (maybe) the Chechens.

    Everything Erdogan does in foreign policy seems to go wrong in a similar fashion. He used to holiday with Assad. Now Assad accuses him of supporting ISIS. Likewise, the Arabs see his promotion of Neo-Ottomanism as nothing more than neo-imperialism.

    Erdogan is an obnoxious clown, but relatively impotent, at least internationally.

    • Erdogan, unlike Putin, had a legitimate democratic mandate initially. Putin has never won a free, fair, competitive election.

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