Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Piercing the Veneer in Turkey

The past two weeks or so have seen an interesting shift in the perception of Turkey as a country, and Prime Minister Erdogan as a leader. As I wrote back in March, Turkey seemed on the brink of major success, what with the unprecedented peace negotiations with the infamous Kurdistan group the PKK, potentially ending a 30-year war that claimed 40,000 lives. Furthermore, thanks to a strong economy, large army and incessant pestering, it appeared that Turkey was closer than ever to joining the European Union once and for all. The significance of this would have stretched past Turkey itself - joining the E.U. would have sent a signal to the Middle East that Turkey, a bastion of secularization and democracy, was worth emulating in many regards. Prime Minister Erdogan has been applauded around the globe for being a democratically elected Muslim leader who has brought his country to this level of achievement in just over a decade.

Perhaps I was overeager in my commendations. The meretriciousness of Erdogan's "democracy" has quickly faded in the last few weeks, as peaceful protests brought on a fierce backlash from the Turkish police force, bringing the casualty toll to 5,000 injured and 4 dead, as of today. The decision to raze Gezi Park, one of the only green spaces in Istanbul, was poorly calculated - replacing green space with a mall (shaped like an Ottoman-era barracks!) in a nation where just 1.5% of urban areas is still green space was very obviously not going to sit well with the citizens of Istanbul. But the decision to quash peaceful protests with violent police officers was not calculated at all - it was a brutal authoritarian streak from a Prime Minister who otherwise has never seemed like such a bad guy.

But perhaps Erdogan isn't all he seems. This move comes from a Prime Minister who has vociferously urged Asad in neighboring Syria to solve his civil unrest diplomatically, through talks. In an oddly similar fashion, Erdogan agreed to talks with only certain protestors on Monday - the talks were scheduled for today - only to secretly sent droves of police to Gezi Park last night, armed with tear gas and water cannons, who fought until dawn to remove every last protestor from the park. Furthermore, Erdogan has continuously blamed the unrest on foreigners, something his counterpart in Syria has done time and again for two years now.

As a quick briefing on Turkish history, the Republic of Turkey as it stands today was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Turkish population at the time wanted a return to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, yet Ataturk denied them this and instead pushed Turkey towards a western secularization. The country has stood out amongst Muslim countries in that regard since its founding, ultimately leading Turkey to the position it is in today. Erdogan, despite his democratic facade, has spent the past decade seemingly attempting to reverse that. Recreating the army barracks of Taksim Square (where Gezi Park is located) only reiterates this point. Since Erdogan took office, press freedom in Turkey has continued to decline, and in 2012, Reporters Without Borders, who manage the Press Freedom Index, put Turkey at 148 out of 179 - just ahead of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq (and below Russia and Colombia). Turkish television is filled with glamorous shows depicting the Ottoman Empire in all its glory from the 14th and 15th centuries, and Erdogan has moved to restrict the freedoms of Christians, Kurds, and others in recent years, bolstering his support amongst the Islamic constituency at the cost of what many consider brazen human rights violations.

It is unclear how this will unfold, but the prospects for the protestors do not look good. In a certain context, this fight is not just over green space, but over the future and the past - Erdogan seeking to bring back the glorious Ottoman persona to Turkey, and the citizens of Istanbul looking towards a brighter, freer future. The bloodshed is certainly not over, but I think it is safe to say the E.U. opportunity has passed for the time being. Let's just hope Taksim Square doesn't become another Tahrir Square. 

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