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A rebellious pawn, or a Syria-Iran ally?

Is Turkey turning its back on the West? The president tweets about his government’s new cyberspace restrictions. Clashes with Kurds are escalating. Plus, a macho sport that involves tons of olive oil. And is Metallica a Mossad plot?


Top News: In the aftermath of the disastrous flotilla incident Turkey analysts have been working full throttle trying to answer the golden question: has Turkey been lost to the West? The more conservative of the experts are arguing that Turkey, long seen as a critical bridge between East and West, has reoriented itself away from the U.S. and Europeand towards the likes of Iran and Syria. Those on the other side of the debate believe that Turkey is merely asserting itself against the long outgrown role of compliant pawn. If the West won’t give Turkey a seat at the table, they argue, then it’s only natural for this politically confident country to be forging its own path.

Israel, it seems, is not the only country in the region fond of blockades. The Turkish government has heightened its own walls, around the internet. After tightening a ban on YouTube and cutting access to various Google-owned sites, the government is facing widespread anger and attacks. As the AP reported, “Turkey’s communication minister has accused the Internet giant of waging a battle against Turkey and dodging taxes,” but frustration at the censorship is reaching a new peak. In an ironic use of web technology, Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke out against the ban in a series of tweets. Courts have blocked access to YouTube since 2008 after Greek users posted videos alleging that Ataturk was homosexual.

Turkey is embroiled in an escalating cycle of violence between its army and Kurdish fighters that has claimed over 40 lives in the last 10 days, according to official figures. Two bombings in Istanbul over the past few weeks were especially shocking – the conflict has primary been fought in the mainly-Kurdish southeast, rarely migrating to Turkey’s largest city. The present bloody situation is a dramatic turnaround from last summer when the government announced a “road map” for peace aimed at tackling the decades-old Kurdish problem.

Ankara made a few gestures towards reconciliation, lifting its ban on the Kurdish language being spoken in public settings and inaugurating a Kurdish-language TV station. Most of the democratization efforts, however, have largely stalled. In the face of the rising death toll the government is again searching for ways to stem the violence, but their greatest roadblock to a solution may be the opposing politics within their own party. With no end in site and the PKK threatening to scrap a year-old ceasefire, the country is bracing itself for what looks to be a long, bloody summer.

Money: It usually pays to be on good terms with your neighbors. For Turkey, it pays a lot. Exports to neighboring countries rose 9.6 percent from January to April this year, for a grand total of $4.7 billion.

Foreign trade with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Bulgaria, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Greece has grown by 445 percent between 2000 and 2009 and a new deal is set to improve trade even more. Earlier this month Turkey signed a deal with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum to establish a free trade zone among them. It may not be the E.U., but it’s a start.

A meeting in Ankara this past week between Turkish President Abdullah Gul and his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono raised hopes for better trade farther afield. The two men left the meeting promising to step up their bilateral trade from its current US $2.1 billion to US $5 billion over the next few years.

Elsewhere: It’s the oldest and most macho sport in the world. The dramatic finals of the ancient Kirkpinar oil wrestling tournament took place this weekend in northern Edirne. While the tradition reaches 700 years into history, the rules have changes little. Drench yourself in olive oil (three tons are consumed at each year's tournament), fight hard, win the respect of your countrymen. The Hulk Hogan of this year's tournament was 24-year-old Mehmet Yesilyesil, who successfully defended his title for the second year in a row.

If oil wrestling wasn’t enough, Istanbul was also host to Sonisphere this past weekend, bringing together for the first time the “big four”: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax, not to mention a dozen other rockers. If you were thinking this was going to be a simple matter of bridging the east-west gap through come hard-core rocking out, however, think again. In an article published the opening day of the festival the Islamist Vakit newspaper took some vast journalistic liberties and outed Sonisphere for what it really was – a Mossad plot to mock Turkey.