The Year of Turkey's Emancipation
How a conspiracy theory is spreading ahead of the 2023 elections
I’m now old enough to remember a time when conspiracy theories were quirky things on the fringes of political life.
No more. Today, politics in the the most powerful democracy in the world is overshadowed by "the big lie" and the QAnon universe of conspiracy theories. Similar theories are spreading across Europe, the UK, and beyond, having a significant impact on election results.
In Turkey of course, where the far-right dominates politics, conspiracy theories have long saturated discourse. As we approach the 2023 elections, however, the collective imagination of the Erdoğan government’s supporters is concentrating on one particularly powerful fiction: the belief that the treaty of Lausanne will expire on its centenary in 2023.
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The treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, is often referred to as "the title deed [tapu] of Turkey." After its victory in the war of independence, the government formed by Mustafa Kemal, represented by general İsmet İnönü, negotiated with the Western powers in the Swiss city of Lausanne. The treaty set the territorial foundations of the Republican Turkey, as well as its legal rights vis-à-vis the dominant powers at the time.
The conspiracy theory in question claims that there were secret clauses to the treaty only known to a handful of senior statesmen (plus, you know, your cousin's brother-in-law, people on YouTube/TikTok, etc.) and that these clauses prohibit Turkey from extracting its immense reservoirs of secret natural resources, ranging from hydrocarbons, to the mysterious, hyper-valuable "bor" mineral. Luckily, the treaty expires on the centenary of its signing, on July 24, 2023, which happens to be a month or two after next year’s election. Once this happens, Turkey will finally be able to extract its subterranean riches, shower its citizens with wealth, fortify its military, expand its territory, and "unshackle" itself from its overlords in the West.
Let's call this theory "L23." The people who inspired L23 will be familiar to the readers of this newsletter. It can be traced to a 1950 article by Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, and follows up on notions in Kadir Mısıroğlu pursued in his book “Is Lausanne a Victory or a Defeat?” Both make an effort to turn upside-down a foundational idea of Kemalist Turkey: that the Republic was founded on victory. They claim that while the war of independence was morally pure and represents the undying will of the Turkish people, the Kemalist regime squandered its gains at the negotiating table. It ceded far more territory and power to the Western powers than was necessary.
By claiming that the Republic was founded on concessions to the West, rather than victory against it, this alternative narrative sets up the country for revenge, a day of reckoning against the Western powers.
For most of its life, L23 would have been unfamiliar to the vast majority of people. In the early 2010s, when the Erdoğan government was becoming more confident, it broke into mainstream discussion. Columnists and TV shows began to feel the need to debunk it, but L23 only picked up more steam.
And that's what's so interesting about L23: it's incredibly resilient. Punch in something like “lozan 2023,” “lozan’ın gizli maddeleri” (Lausanne's secret clauses) into google or YouTube, and you will get innumerable articles, TV clips and social media entries that not only refute it, but also make fun of the people who believe in it.
In the lead up to next year’s elections, L23 is becoming even more rampant. I hear about it all the time. My barber recently asked me if it was true. It's also a regular feature of street interviews.
Below is one example. (For an introduction to Turkish vox pops, see my post here.)
The woman here is asking people about their political opinions, and is told that everything is going to change in 2023 because Lausanne is going to expire and the country is going to swim in natural resources. She tries to debunk them, challenging them to “prove it” by producing sources, which doesn’t go well. People end up getting angry and say that she's disrespecting their political beliefs.
Another interviewer just goes along with L23. Below is Arif Kocabıyık, a well-known street reporters, in a market in Antalya, talking to an elderly gentleman. Kocabıyık is from a pan-Turkic nationalist (Ülkücü) background and has a good feel for far-right circles. In this video, he sees that the man is sympathetic to the government and pretends to feel similarly in order to draw out more entertaining talk from him. The conversation gets into L23 territory pretty quickly.
Below is my translation of the conversation (which starts around 4 minutes into the video):
Kosabıyık asks the man what he thinks of the rapidly increasing prices. The man concedes that the prices are up, but that things are going to get better.
Arif Kocabıyık (AK): How are prices?
Man (M): Honestly my dear [kurban], there are no problems on my end. But -
AK: In general?
M: Well now, whether we like it or not, there’s some increases. And in whose hand is that? These things aren't done by Tayyip Erdogan, correct?
AK: Who's doing them [older] brother?
M: Who do you think is doing it?
AK: Outside powers.
M: Blessings to your father! They are doing everything so that we don't win 2023. Do you know what 2023 is to us?
AK: Our insurance.
M: It is our emancipation. We can't extract the gold, we can't extract the silver, we can't extract the oil, because there's the agreement.
AK: The secret clauses in Lausanne are preventing it all.
M: Blessings to your father and your ancestors! But glorious thanks to the lord, we are completing the hundred years.
AK: Exactly, exactly.
M: Why? Look diesel today is 20 lira to us all.
AK: It is said that after 2023, it will drop down to 3 lira.
M: I believe it. Because then we have found oil, we have found diesel, we have everything. Why? We have today found our gold, our silver. We have found Bor but can't process it. Why?
AK: We can't extract it (he's correcting the man, because in L23, Turkey has already found these resources but is banned from extracting them.)
M: We can't extract it. It's forbidden. There is an agreement.
Third man chimes in: he's right.
M: İsmet İnönü put down his signature. Mosul and Kirkuk belong to us, we are getting it back in 2023, because the term of use [of the people holding it now] is 100 years.
AK: They say Idlib is in it too.
M: Exactly, they are right!
AK: May it be auspicious! [hadi hayırlı olsun]
M: God willing, god willing.
AK: We are at the [diplomatic] table, aren't we?
M: We lost all these things at the table.
AK: And we will get them back at the table.
M: God willing. God has [given] this nation - look, the Syrians are coming, from the other side (Central Asia?) they're coming, do we have a place to go?
AK: No. (This refer to the idea that other nations have been abandoning their countries under invasion and/or foreign interference, but Turks never will. Kocabıyık probably really agrees with these parts.)
M: Nobody would accept it. We are the leader of the world. The leader of the world! Not as Muslims, look, but as Turks. Being Muslim is different and being Turkish is different. We have now built the [pan-Turkic] Turan state. That is why they are afraid of us in America, in Germany.
AK: Our guide is the Quran, our destination is the Turan!
M: May I be a sacrifice to your God! (a term of endearment) What is your name?
AK: Arif (meaning knowledgeable/wise in Arabic)
M: May you be of the wise [ariflerden olasın]! Your name is so beautiful. Who gave it to you?
AK: My grandfather.
M: May you always be of the wise! May god bless you for giving me this opportunity. May god give you success in your work!
AK: Amen, thank you.
M: What channel is this?
AK: İlave TV. It's on YouTube.
Note that the conversation starts on inflation. It might be that these theories exist to make up for the gap between two diverging realities: the increasing difficulty of daily life for most people, and the government's narrative of a powerful, prosperous country. Perhaps L23 is a way of bringing together those disparate realities. It gives people hope of civilizational revenge, power and prosperity.
I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a third of the Erdoğan electorate would be found to agree with core L23 claims.
The governing elite - journalists, academics, politicians and bureaucrats - know that L23 isn’t true, but agree with it in spirit. They understand that L23 is factually incorrect, that Lausanne is an international treaty, that it doesn't have an expiration date, and that Turkey doesn't have secret natural resources that will be “unlocked” like something in a video game. They do, however, believe that the Republic was built on defeat and undue deference to Western powers, and that this continued for most of Turkey’s Republican history. To them, Erdoğan’s leadership is about breaking free from that state of self-estrangement. I think L23 is simply a more literal outgrowth of those core beliefs, and it is spreading rapidly as the clash between felt and projected realities is intensifying.
I’ll be watching L23 in the lead-up to the 2023 elections. It’s more interesting than talking about polls all day.
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