Democracy boost for minorities in electing leaders

Published 26.05.2017 22:06
Updated 26.05.2017 22:08
Members of the Armenian community attend the opening of a restored church in Istanbul. The city is home to the majority of Turkey's non-Muslim minorities.
Members of the Armenian community attend the opening of a restored church in Istanbul. The city is home to the majority of Turkey's non-Muslim minorities.

The head of a state-run authority overseeing foundations said that they were working on regulations allowing non-Muslim minorities to elect administrators of their foundations. The move is a major democratic initiative for minorities that have been tightly supervised by the state in the past and have suffered discrimination

General Directorate of Foundations head Adnan Ertem said his agency is working on a set of regulations to allow independent elections in minority-run foundations. If approved, it will mark a milestone for non-Muslim minorities that conduct their daily affairs and preserve their heritage through foundations. It will give broader freedom to communities that are mostly concentrated in Istanbul after decades of discriminatory policy and tight control by the state. "We would like (minority) foundations to have the same status as other foundations. We want them to elect their own administration independently, and we will only act as observers," he told Anadolu Agency. Non-Muslim minorities in Turkey were long treated as second-class citizens in the 20th century.

The controversial wealth tax imposed in 1942, targeting rich non-Muslims, a pogrom in 1955 and the deportation of non-Muslim Turkish citizens in 1964 added to "a fear of the state" among non-Muslim minorities. The "democratization package" announced by the government a few years ago looks to change the state's view of minorities and restore their rights. Then-prime minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in 2011 that hundreds of properties that were confiscated from minorities over the years would be returned and compensation would be paid for properties later sold to third parties. Though no comprehensive laws exist to restore property rights, Turkish courts are gradually returning properties to minorities that prove ownership.

The election issue is a matter overshadowing democratic rights for minorities. Although the minorities are free to elect their own foundation members, they are still subject to inspection by the state and need the approval of the authorities.

Ertem said they were working on viable alternatives to current regulations for 167 foundations run by minorities, including the Armenian, Greek, Jewish and Assyriac communities. "The main idea is decreasing intervention by the Foundations Directorate in elections. In the end, it is the directorate that faces lawsuits when problems arise in elections," he said. "One of the options is that our directorate will be merely an observer inspecting results. Every foundation will have its own administration, its own election system. This may be implemented through a law or regulation," he said.

During the late Ottoman period and in the early years of the Republic of Turkey, foundations belonging to non-Muslim minorities were able to hold their own elections, but a set of changes in later years hindered the election process, critics say. In 2013, Turkey suspended regulations on elections to create a new one with cooperation between minority representatives and the state. The move was praised for cooperation with minorities, something rare in the history of the Republic.

Foundations control the properties of minorities, a main source of income for small-sized communities, and their administrations largely consist of influential figures of those minorities. In a way, they head an entity that is almost the sole representative of their minorities.

In an interview in February with Anadolu Agency, Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak whose area of responsibility covers foundations said that foundations have been part and parcel of the Republic of Turkey since the Lausanne Treaty granted them rights in 1923. "(The ruling) Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments took important steps about minority foundations, such as the return of seized properties," he noted. Kaynak said a decline in minority populations posed a challenge for elections in areas hosting only a small number of community members. Due to past discriminatory policies and changes in economic conditions, members of minorities left where they and their ancestors lived for centuries. As most foundations are based in Istanbul, and the city has the highest number of minorities, the elections are allowed only within the limits of certain districts. Kaynak said they have been working on the status of minority foundations since last year, but the July 15 coup attempt thwarted the process.

Supporters of new regulations call for a comprehensive change in the status of foundations, such as broadening their constituencies. Speaking to Daily Sabah last October when the planned regulations were on the agenda again, Toros Alcan, a representative of the Armenian community, said their communities had to handle their affairs with regulations and other temporary measures and were in need of a law that would grant their foundations firm legal status. "The foundation certificate" is another key issue for Jewish, Armenian, Greek and Assyriac communities, as this document grants any foundation a firm footing in supervising their own affairs. A 1936 regulation mandated "minorities" establish foundations via charters and included a list of the properties owned by them was followed by an unofficial ban on foundations to acquire properties other than those on the list, dealing a blow to close-knit communities dependent on revenues. Alcan said every community had its own dynamics, and while some have many members and few foundations to address their social and financial needs, others have many foundations and few members.

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