The prime minister’s denial and authoritarianism is hindering several freedoms in Turkey
Thirty-first of May this year saw the first anniversary of the show-down between police and protestors attempting to prevent the destruction of one of the last green spaces in Istanbul – Gezi Park. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had insisted that a mock-Ottoman building, housing yet another shopping mall and some luxury flats, would be built over this iconic site off Taksim Square. However, it was not only ‘”tree-huggers” who set up camp: lawyers, teachers, doctors and nurses joined students, taxi-drivers and market stall-holders in common cause to preserve this splash of green.
Something gripped the imagination of those defending the park and the occasion marked the coming-of-age of dissent in Turkey as people took the opportunity to exorcise their many grievances against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its dictatorial leader. Pharaonic building projects that are proven to be ecologically fatal include a third bridge over the Bosphorus which will be completed at huge environmental cost to the city; the country’s largest mosque (a 15,000-square-metre plot holding 30,000 worshipers) which is to be built on Üsküdar’s highest hill, Çamlıca, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul; a second Bosphorus, a parallel canal carved from the Black Sea to the Sea of Mamara, through which commercial shipping will by-pass the city leaving the original Strait for ferries, fishing and floating about; a third Istanbul airport with vastly more capacity than the country’s current foremost hub, Atatürk Airport, along with duelling of all A-roads, and a trans-Turkey high speed train project to add to the tram and underground systems already completed in Istanbul.
More to the point is the involvement of the prime minister in these developments in the teeth of reasoned resistance. A million trees are wasted? So, what. People get injured or killed? Happens all the time. In response to criticism, Erdoğan bridles, branding opponents to his will, describing them as terrorists manipulated by foreign forces, hooligans or anarchists. He defends his democratic right to dictate on the basis of repeatedly winning elections – the last being the municipals this March that gave his AKP another landslide.
Three million people hit the streets of Istanbul and other major cities across Turkey last May in defence not only of a scrubby bit of urban greenery, but of the right to protest, freedom of association, religious tolerance, free speech and equality. What started as a local, environmental issue became a bush-fire fanned by state-sanctioned police brutality of astonishing violence and, in particular, the prime minister’s astonishing authoritarianism. Street conflagrations erupted like beacons across the country during two weeks in which eight people died, 8,000 were injured (104 of whom sustained serious head injuries) and 11 lost an eye as a result of plastic bullets fired by the police.
Turkish police wielding batons and firing tear gas canisters broke up groups of demonstrators last Saturday (31 May) as they tried to make their way to Taksim Square to mark the anniversary of the “Battle for Gezi Park” that had claimed those eight lives last year.
Erdoğan had warned anyone planning to mark the anniversary: “Don’t think about trying to do what you did last year. But if you insist on coming, then the police have been ordered to do everything against you, from A to Z.”
In the year between the Gezi demonstrations, a different kind of disaster occurred to test the government: an explosion in a coal mine in Soma, south-western Turkey, claimed the lives of 301 miners. What would be the reaction of most civilised governments to such a disaster? Certainly, disasters can shake governments to the core and even bring them down, especially if they reveal issues of preparedness, regulation and empathy that have not been answered in a way that satisfies the grieving people concerned. The mine catastrophe in Soma looks like it is going to join text-book examples (Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima) of “what not to do”.
Five company officials, including the mine’s operating manager, Akin Çelik, have already been arrested on charges of causing death by negligence as part of an investigation into the disaster.
What of Erdoğan’s reaction? A slap in the face of a protestor shortly after the prime minister’s arrival in Soma, for starters, followed by a bizarre speech combining regret for the disaster with ill-timed and ill-tempered remarks about how heavy loss of life in coal mining is “inevitable”, citing the numbers of British and French miners who have died in accidents since 1862. “These,” Erdoğan noted, “are normal things.”
Last week, the two events came together. Uğur Kurt, a 34-year-old cleaner and father-of-one who lived in the Okmeydani district of Istanbul, had been attending an Alevi funeral near his home (22 May). Unfortunately for him, some 15 or so students happened to be protesting nearby. These protests were in response to the deaths of the miners and the eventually fatal wounding of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who had been hit by a tear gas canister fired by police last year.
Injured in the neck and face by a stray bullet, Kurt was taken to hospital where he later died before the operation to remove the bullet could be successful. Angry crowds attended his funeral too and were treated to the usual ubiquitous and oppressive police brutality.
Erdoğan still accuses “Gezi provocateurs” of plotting against Turkey: “[After the protests] the stock exchange started to drop and interest rates went up,” he complained at a recent AKP meeting. “They vandalised the streets. They pretended that terror reigned everywhere. The opposition poured gasoline onto this fire. MPs distributed provisions and money…For what? For 12 trees!”
According to a report in The Guardian (30 May): “Incilay Erdoğan, a doctor who volunteered in makeshift clinics during the unrest, thinks the Gezi protests taught the Turks more solidarity across ethnic, religious and class lines. ‘When we used to do press declarations on workers’ rights, there were usually a few dozen people if at all,’ she says. “But after [the mine disaster in] Soma, there were several thousand.’” (See also Gareth Jenkins’s report in The Sunday Times, 1 June 2014.)
Erdoğan is no more bothered by the death of an innocent funeral-goer or that of a passing 15-year-old boy than he is of the 301 miners murdered by officially sanctioned incompetence and criminal negligence. He certainly does not give a moment’s thought to the consequences of tearing up just “12 trees”. Cemal Özay, 68, was head gardener in Gezi Park for 20 years and remembers every tree he planted. “What is it with this government’s love for concrete?” he asks. “When I started, this park was a huge garden, green and full of flowers I had grown myself. They don’t like trees because trees don’t generate a profit.”
Erdoğan’s ego and megalomania do not profit from people who protest or criticise, either. He cites election victories in mitigation for his high-handed manner of governance. What he declares to be his democratic right is, to more and more Turks, evidence of a dividing line through Turkish civil society. And the more he divides, the more he thinks he rules. He is almost certainly going to stand for the presidency this August: one he has already tailor-made for himself, arrogating increasingly far-reaching powers to the position. It’ll take more than a new canal to wash his hands of the Turkish blood in which they are steeped.
Image from: http://www.aol.com/article/2014/05/14/death-toll-in-turkey-mine-disaster-rises-to-232/20885516/
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