After Mustafa Koç and Joe Biden

After Mustafa Koç and Joe Biden

When he passed away after a heart attack on Jan. 21 at the age of 55, Mustafa Koç was head of the top industrial group in Turkey. Koç Holdings, the only entry from Turkey in Fortune’s Top 500, represents nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP, 14 percent of its total exports (45 percent of the country’s total automotive exports) and employs more than 80,000 people.

Koç was the third generation leader of his family after grandfather Vehbi Koç, a representative of the first generation of industrialists after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Vehbi’s son, Rahmi, transferred all offices to his son, Mustafa, in 2003 who developed the company further.

Subject to criticisms due to being the biggest capitalists in Turkey, the perception of the Koç group and the family dramatically changed during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in June 2013. When a group of protesters trying to escape from water cannons and pepper gas of the police, some with injuries, tried to seek shelter in the nearby Divan hotel (which is a Koç-owned hotel) where they were not turned away and even given basic treatment. 

That had infuriated then-prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government and pro-government media then targeted the Koç group, particularly Mustafa Koç. Important infrastructure and defense tenders that Koç had won were cancelled. It took some time for the relations to be recovered. President Erdoğan said the night before his death, Mustafa Koç visited him to talk about defense projects; other than his family and aides, Erdoğan was the last person Koç talked to.

What happened next was spectacular, in a sense: A wave of sympathy grew for late Koç among the many diverse layers of Turkish society, as shown with the queues formed in front of his father who was accepting condolences in the Divan hotel’s reception hall over the weekend and the crowd (besides the government protocol) attending his funeral yesterday on Jan. 24. The sympathy was not only for Koç, who was known as a good father and a philanthropist who pushed for gender equality among other fields. It was also a silent demonstration of those Turks who would like keep living in a  pluralistic democracy, with  rule of law and their secular way of life, but who are unable to express themselves as freely as before without being labelled as a traitor.

Freedom of expression was one of the issues highlighted by the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s three-day visit to Istanbul Jan. 21-23.

Before meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan on Jan. 23, Biden met with different representatives of Turkish society and put a strong emphasis on the freedom of expression and on rights and freedoms. He met with members of Turkish parliament from both the government party and opposition parties to talk about the Kurdish issue and make a point about the academics under fire from the government and pro-government media due to signing a petition criticizing the government. He even met with journalists who lost their jobs due to the general atmosphere currently dominating the media, including a meeting with the wife and son of Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, who has been in prison together with the paper’s Ankara Bureau Chief Erdem Gül for nearly two months under espionage and terrorism charges because of a story about alleged weapons sent to Syria from Turkey.

Obviously he wanted to make a point before talking to the government on key security issues, perhaps in response to criticism by disappointed Turkish liberal and democrat opposition that the West, the U.S. and the European Union have been turning a blind eye to the human rights violations in Turkey in order not to discourage the government from cooperating more on Syrian refugees and the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

Those security issues include not only stepping up the fight against ISIL, but the Syria conference scheduled for Jan. 25 that is unlikely to take place on time. One of the most serious problems regarding the anti-ISIL fight is whether the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria will attend the conference. Ankara considers the PYD as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey and is seen as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the EU.

Biden in Istanbul said Turkey had the right to fight against the PKK, which he considers the same as ISIL, but asked that the PYD be treated differently, because of its ground support in Syria and Iraq against ISIL. PM Ahmet Davutoğlu, on the other hand, said the PYD was taking orders from the PKK and if the U.S. and Russia insisted that the PYD have a place in the conference, the party should be on the delegation of Bashar al-Assad because of the government’s belief that the PYD is actually cooperating with Damascus.

Both the PYD issue and talking about rights and freedoms publicly were so sensitive for Erdoğan that a joint press conference after the meeting was cancelled.

Despite knowing that whenever the U.S. and EU respond to voices from Turkey regarding the violation of basic rights it is usually to ask for something big and political and/or security related from the Turkish governments, liberal and democratic Turks cheered up because Biden raised the issues of press freedom and academic freedom, hoping that it would ease the pressure they feel upon them.

Perhaps that is the common point between the passing away of Mustafa Koç, Turkey’s strong industrialist, and the visit of Joe Biden from the world’s biggest power: Liberals and democrats of Turkey who are worried about their way of life and cannot raise their voices as much as before, take every opportunity to make their points heard in indirect and subtle ways.