Turkey’s New Minority Foundations Regulation Perpetuates State Control
After 9 years in limbo, the government in Turkey has finally created regulations for minority foundations – the institutions governing churches, schools, hospitals, and synagogues belonging to non-Muslim communities – to have elections for their boards. While the new regulation is certainly an improvement to the de facto ban on elections, it continues state control over minority affairs and denies communities any meaningful autonomy over their lives.
Minority foundations are still not given the same legal status as all other associations and organizations; those founded by Turks, in other words. These institutions predate the establishment of the Republic and were grandfathered into the Turkish legal system with the Treaty of Lausanne, which is supposed to guarantee minority communities’ right to run their religious and social institutions. This has clearly not been the case. In fact, the lack of equal status with other organizations still hounds them. Minority schools and places of worship are the lifeblood of the shrinking Jewish and Christian communities. Yet the state-run General Directorate of Foundations (VGM) retains control over various aspects of their governance.
The most recent problem began with the 2013 cancellation of the existing regulation on elections. The public has still not received a clear answer as to why this was done. The cancellation of the regulation meant these institutions could not hold elections, essentially ending democratic accountability within minority communities. People who were elected on a board in the late 2000s have held the same positions, shutting out younger generations from community governance. The only stopgap measure the government put in place was to allow boards to appoint a new member in case of death or resignation.
The next question the government has to answer is why it took nine years to create a new regulation. The political calculus that went into shutting down democratic life within minority communities has to be accounted for. It is clear that for eight and a half of those years, there was not a concrete attempt to write new rules. It was only in the fall of 2021 that state actors began consultations with a select group individuals and institutions they perceive to be friendly under instructions that no information reach the public. All discussions about what the regulation should look like took place behind closed doors. After a completely non-transparent process, the new regulation was sprung onto a basically unsuspecting minority public (the wider Turkish public has so far shown very little interest in the topic).
The regulation that came out of this closed process leaves much to be desired. On the issue of democratic rule, the most problematic provision in the new rules is Article 10, which lays out how minority foundations can hold elections. Foundations must ask the VGM in writing at least 60 days prior to hold an election. After reviewing documents such as who is on the election committee and who are on the voter rolls of the foundation, the VGM issues a certificate of authorization for the foundation to hold an election. Thus, the democratic activities of minority foundations are now subject to state permission, an overreach that did not exist in 2013. In fact, if the VGM decides it is not satisfied with the documents submitted by a foundation seeking an election, it asks for rectification within a week, and if it is still not satisfied, subsection 3 of Article 10 empowers the VGM to take over the election process entirely. The local outfit of the VGM, a state institution, can form an electoral commission and run the elections of a minority foundation. This is a complete perversion of minority rights and self-rule over communal institutions.
The creation of electoral areas in minority foundation governance is another aspect of the new regulations that will make life more difficult for minority communities. For those in Anatolia and Thrace, the problem is straightforward. There are many towns with numerous minority properties whose foundations need to be administered by people in Istanbul since smaller cities have tiny minority communities. For the Jewish community, this could be properties in Canakkale or Edirne, Gaziantep or Manisa. The regulation does allow for a request to the VGM to expand the electoral area to the entire country but there is no guarantee that this would be accepted. For Istanbul foundations, this is even more of a headache because they are not even allowed to submit such a request. The regulation splits Istanbul into three, applying the electoral districts of parliamentary elections to minority foundations. This means someone living in one Istanbul district cannot vote or run in elections for a foundation located in another district. For example, Greek properties such as schools are concentrated south of the Golden Horn, but the population mostly resides in the northern part of the European side. The many community members left on one side are now barred from governing the institutions they rely on. The electoral district split will certainly impact governance of properties on the islands of Istanbul as well. Many minorities live in the islands for the summers only, meaning their residence will often be in the European districts, and not the Anatolia district that covers the islands. This would disqualify most of the people using and administering institutions such as the Buyukada Synagogue. This electoral division is at best a major oversight, if not a purposeful logjam inserted to hamper democratic governance of minority foundations.
The new regulation does not bring minority communities freedom or finally allow foundations to be run democratically. It extends state control, and sometimes authorizes direct intervention into minority affairs. While a meeting between the VGM and communal leaders is imminent, it would be naïve to expect major changes. Minority foundations need to be governed not by regulations concocted by an opaque agency like the VGM, but through a law debated in parliament. Legislation must give minority foundations equal legal status to other organizations, whose internal processes are not as directly monitored by the state. The current regulation, while an improvement to the almost decade long legal limbo, falls short of guaranteeing treaty rights.
*Nesi Altaras is an editor of Avlaremoz and holds an MA in political science. His writing in English, Turkish, and Ladino has been published in various outlets. He lives in Montreal.