By Julian Dierkes
The late July apparent attempt to kidnap a Gülen-affiliated educator in Mongolia is still animating a lot of discussions one week later. The most pressing questions still surround the cooperation that some Mongolian authorities must have given to Turkish efforts, but no revelations around that topic have come and judging by past similar events, we may not ever quite know who might have been involved.
But here, I want to look at the mobilization in “defence” of Veysel Akçay.
The international perception of what happened on August 27 reinforced perceptions of Mongolia as a “scrappy democracy in a tough neighbourhood”.
[I almost wonder if we need an acronym here? SDiaTN? Any other suggestions? #гэнээ]
Journalists and other observers (including myself) saw the fact that the abduction was prevented as a triumph of either the rule of law, or civil society, or both. Matthias Müller (Beijing correspondent of the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung) thus entitled his article “Mongolian Rule of Law Denies Turkish Arbitrariness” (Der mongolische Rechtsstaat trotzt türkischer Willkür) for example.
Similar, Niels Hegewisch (country manager for the German Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation) subtitled his report “How the abduction of a Turkish teacher from Mongolia was defeated by resistance of civil society” (Weshalb die Entführung eines türkischen Lehrers aus der Mongolei am Widerstand der Zivilgesellschaft scheiterte)
Protesters could perhaps be grouped into three categories: 1. people close to Akçay, 2. current and former students, 3. officials and other voices that amplified initial protests.
1. Protesters with direct ties to Akçay
Two people in particular spoke directly to the Mongolian public through social media channels, Ganbat, a colleague of Akçay, and Meryem Akçay, Akçay’s wife. Both were eloquent in their appeal, but their involvement is not very surprising as they were personally and directly effected.
2. Mobilizing current and former students
There are five Turkish-Mongolian high schools in Mongolia. [Of course, technically, these are no longer Turkish-Mongolian schools but operated out of Germany under the “Empathy” brand, but most people seem to continue to refer to them as Turkish schools.] They were started in 1994, their alumni are thus all under 40 years old.
According to a number of alumni that I was able to ask, these students were mobilized through direct, person-to-person contacts via social media. It does not appear to have been the case that there was any kind of quasi-universal appeal for help, but instead A told B what was happening and how to protest, B passed this on to C, etc.
Alumni of the schools do not seem to be particularly well-organized or unusually loyal to their schools or to Turkey. They seem to continue to appreciate the strong English and STEM curriculum at the schools, but connections to Turkey are remote for high school students. Many of the students and their families do not seem to be aware of the political battle between the Erdoğan government and the Gülen-movement, nor is there much of an indication from the former students I corresponded with that the schools are obvious conduits for Gülen ideology.
There is also no strong sense of the perspective of the many Mongolians who have studied in Turkish universities. Many of them have received scholarships, but for many of them, that interaction might have been before the Erdoğan-era, but there seems to be very little mobilization protesting changes in Turkey or supporting these among these alumni.
Instead, people who protested themselves emphasized that they protested on behalf of Akçay in recognition of his status as a charismatic and beloved teacher who has been teaching in Mongolia for a long time. Put bluntly, these protesters might not have mobilized to defend the rule of law if Akçay had been a recently-arrived minor figure at one of the schools.
3. Other voices amplifying protests
After this initial mobilization that was focused directly on Akçay himself, other voices amplified the protests, and these voices emphasized the rule of law and the importance of preserving Mongolian sovereignty more explicitly. Two prominent examples of such voices would be MP Lu Bold who drove to the airport to observe and film the private jet, but also NUM legal scholar O Munkhsaikhan. Bold has frequently spoken about human rights in the past and thus lent the considerable weight of his long time in politics to such causes. Munkhsaikhan has also been a frequent academic voice on rule of law questions.
Another MP, O Baasankhuu also spoke up, but he does not have much of a history of activism on human rights or rule of law.
Their support of the thrust of protests, i.e. to prevent the departure of the private jet with Akçay on board, is more directly linked to the perception of a defence of rule of law. It may have also been the prominence of these voices that forced other parts of the Mongolian government to respond to the initial mobilization.
4. Some Voices that We Did not Hear From
While these were some of the groups that made themselves quite conspicuous in the events, there are a number of actors that might have reacted, but did not.
The relative youth of graduates of the Turkish-Mongolian schools means that few of them have moved into positions of influence, yet. The only MP who has such a link is T Ayursaikhan who graduated from a Turkish university with a BA. However, he is a first-time populist Ulaanbaatar MPP member of parliament who has not even bothered to fill out the template for his parliamentary website (note the conspicuous and telling “your name here” at the top of the page and the photo of M Enkhbold as a placeholder). He does not appear to have commented on the events in the past week.
Other civil society groups like Amnesty International did not seem to join the fray on this particular issue, though AI did issue a statement on the evening of the 27th.
The Turkish embassy obviously remained silent during this time, but other embassies also did not weigh in. For many Western embassies, the fact that Turkey under Erdoğan remains a member of NATO continues to make confrontation problematic and the murkiness of the Gülen-movement and its political and religious status surely also keeps many countries from taking a position.
Yes, it does seem like civil society mobilization may have saved Akçay from abduction. But it seems like that mobilization occurred more spontaneously and centred on him as a person, rather than larger political issues surrounding the rule of law.