Monday, January 22, 2007

TRABZON, Turkey — Few were surprised in this Black Sea coast city when a local youth confessed over the weekend to the shooting death of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, the latest incident to darken Turkey’s international reputation.

“I bet that’s the work of a local man” was the instant reaction to news of Mr. Dint’s death in the mind of Mehmet Akcelep, a city councilor who has grown used to seeing his hometown in the news for the wrong reasons.

It was here, last February, that a 16-year-old boy fatally shot an Italian priest in the local Catholic church. It was also here, in May 2005, that four students distributing leaflets about prison conditions narrowly escaped death at the hands of a 2,000-strong lynch mob.

Mr. Akcelep did not have to wait long to see his fears justified. Arrested Saturday on an overnight train, 17-year-old high school dropout and amateur soccer player Ogun Samast turned out to be from Pelitli, a suburb of Trabzon.

“I said my prayers and then I shot [Mr. Dink],” Ogun reportedly told interrogators. “I feel no remorse. He said Turkish blood was dirty blood.”

Nationalism always has been a fundamental ingredient of Turkish society. As a political movement, it has traditionally been strongest in the towns south of the 13,000-foot-high mountains dividing Trabzon from the bleak Anatolian interior.

Now, Trabzon has become a leading center of militant Turkish nationalism, and locals said the phenomenon could spiral out of control.

“What you have here is a headless monster, a nursery for potential assassins,” said Omer Faruk Altuntas, a lawyer and local head of a small left-wing party.

“You may not like its policies, but at least the MHP controls its followers,” agreed Mehmet Akcelep, referring to Turkey’s biggest extreme nationalist party, the National Movement Party. “But Samast and hundreds of others like him aren’t party people; they’re free particles.”

Locals say the sources of what one Turkish commentator has labeled “banal fascism” in Trabzon are partially economic. Surrounding villages used to be prosperous; then the hazelnut market collapsed and farmers fled to the city in the tens of thousands.

Ogun’s district of Pelitli is made up of former villagers forced out of their homes by floods and landslides. Youth unemployment is high and most teenagers while away their time in one of two Internet cafes, or playing soccer.

Those deep-seated grievances have been stoked by the belief that Trabzon has suffered more than its share of casualties in Turkey’s 25-year war against Kurdish separatists.

The May 2005 mob attack on four students occurred in an atmosphere of national hysteria triggered by an attempt by two Kurdish teenagers to burn the Turkish flag. Turkey’s top general called the flag-burners “so-called citizens.”

Critics of developments in Trabzon blame all local authorities, but reserve their harshest words for the press.

“Three or four times, they’ve pretty much invited people to take out their guns and start shooting,” said retired teacher Nuri Topal. The lynch mob formed after local television stations ran news flashes saying the students were separatists.

In most Anatolian towns, few people watch local television or read local newspapers. In Trabzon, both are immensely popular and influential, mainly because of the town’s obsessive relationship with soccer.

The only non-Istanbul club ever to win Turkey’s soccer league, Trabzonspor is a central part of the city’s identity. The club has long been rumored to be close to local mafia groups enriched by Trabzon’s key position in Black Sea human-trafficking networks. Many think its influence on local society is negative, too.

“Trabzonspor and its supporters associations have become a semiofficial channel for nationalist thought,” said local human rights activist Gultekin Yucesan.

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