Student’s Dispatch: Hristo Alexiev on Turkey’s Taksim Square Protests

This is a reflective piece written by a REEEC MA Candidate who has recently lived in Turkey for an extended period of time. While this reflection is well-informed and provides a carefully articulated perspective, it does not necessarily represent the views of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center or the University of Illinois. The purpose of this article, as with most academic discourse, is to open the conversation in a respectful, informed manner.  We encourage comments and will moderate the discussion.

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Before I share my thoughts, I have to clarify that what I know about the current events in Turkey is what I have been able to learn from my friends, mostly through Facebook.

I do not have an explanation for how a government at the peak of its might (or at least with a reasonable amount of public support) can embark on such politically costly actions. It seems that at least three people have lost their lives in the clashes, two young men and an elderly person, who suffered a stroke. On a video posted on Facebook by one of my friends, I saw with my own eyes how a young man in his twenties was run over and killed by a police riot control vehicle (TOMA).

While in Turkey, I didn’t take self-censorship in the media as seriously as I probably should have because I did see some serious criticism of the government in newspapers and sometimes on TV as well. However, now I realize how true these claims actually were. Apparently, there was a complete blackout of the media with regard to the protests during the first days. Overall, media channels kept silent, broadcasting commercials and, in the case of CNN Türk, popular science programs. On 3 June Ali İhsan Varol, the host of the TV game show Kelime Oyunu (“Word Game”) on Bloomberg HT TV, supported the protests by crafting questions to which the answers (e.g. Twitter, gas masks, dictator, Taksim) contained veiled references to the governments failed crackdown on dissent and the ways in which the silence in the media was being circumvented by social media networks. Mr. Varol parted with his job soon after. Yet, his courage was remarkable and indicative of the movement. A previous attempt to express support for the protests into television shows involved Kenan Doğulu wearing an “Occupy Gezi” T-shirt on a Turkish TV show “Elidor Miss Turkey” (Star TV, 31 May).

The way I see the situation Turkish citizens are enraged by multiple issues: the government’s restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and internet use, the right to free assembly; its takeover of public space and the concomitant restrictions on public action; curbs on alcohol; kissing in public; the war in Syria; local environmental concerns, etc. Most of my friends in Turkey are pessimistic in that they believe that the government will stay no matter what. In my opinion, after such events, this government is doomed to a political death, even if the process takes some time. In addition, I don’t see how the situation could stabilize easily unless PM Erdoğan finds the wisdom to resign or washes his hands by punishing some police officials for the excess of force used. However, I have to say that I am not very optimistic about this perspective. I think that the situation is very unstable at the moment.

Turkish society is clearly in need of a serious change. I could sense certain tension in people when I was there. I did manage to organize a trip to Ankara in the last couple of months and I recall witnessing a lot of discontent with government policies. However, this unwise and completely unneeded act (the crackdown on peaceful citizens protesting against the destruction of Gezi Park) has shocked me. Apparently, it has also surprised and enraged a large portion of Turks. The crackdown on peaceful protesters has caused civil disobedience and mass rallies throughout the country. These have been particularly pronounced in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, hardly surprising given that this is where large a large portion of the secular and modern minded Turks have been concentrated for quite some time. It is hard to say, though, what exactly is happening in the rest of the country. There is less information about what is taking place in the peripheries with less immediate access to social media and the internet. It does seem, however, that the movement has spread across the state.

I have to note that the government does have political enemies that seek to take advantage of the situation. However, the reason for the government’s imminent political death will be that it alienated a large portion of the Turkish citizenry, including strongly religious people whose support it had in the most recent elections. As the Russians say: Поживём — увидим. We will soon see how things turn out. I believe that Mr. Erdoğan will never again be able to mass the support he has enjoyed so far. It is reasonable to expect some general instability in the country, including a possible economic crisis. Despite that, the outcome will be a change and, apparently, this is a change Turks have desired for quite some time.

Turkish society is structured along clusters of very different and often times very contrasting groups. Secularists differ little from modern citizens of France or other European countries. Often times highly educated and with very high income, they categorically oppose this Islamist government, especially its restrictions on the sale of alcohol or any attempts to introduce religion-related legislation. The religious but  very affluent industrialists and entrepreneurs have very strong and well-known links to the present government. The masses with moderate religious views, average income and good education are strong supporters of the government. In the provinces, citizens with strong but still moderate religious views and poor education express the strongest support for the government.  Average citizens with moderate income who are trapped between secularists and the different religious groups have previously had little influence on politics. This group is concentrated in large cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. They have strongly disapproved government policies in the last ten years but until now they have failed to find a political expression in a strong and reliable political force. Quite large, this group currently represents the backbone of the Taksim square protests. Average citizens with low income, admittedly largely pro-government have been gravitating towards supporting the protests. A lot of the people who have been supporting Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are now also disappointed by the government’s unnecessary use of brutal force. It is not clear from the media coverage, however, where citizens who have a low to moderate income and are similar in their outlook to Muslims from Pakistan or Afghanistan stand. I was shocked to see a neighborhood like Fatih where one feels he/she is really in another country; it definitely did not feel like modern Turkey. I saw not only women completely covered in black but also men dressed in special religious garments, which I previously thought were peculiar to Pakistan and Afghanistan. As it turns out, this is the traditional Muslim outfit. It really gives one the feeling of having returned 120 years or so back in time.

With its heavy hand in cracking down on the protesters the government has lost a considerable amount of support from many of the different social groups it has seen support from in the past.

Last Thursday night Erdoğan returned from a visit in North Africa and was met by what seemed to be a large crowd of supporters at the Atatürk  Airport. A friend of mine said that she couldn’t decide whether she should cry or laugh at the sight.  As you may see from this video and the accompanying article, the crowd is so busy shouting slogans like “Hit, hit, let them moan, let the looters listen!” that they missed a substantial part of Prime Minister’s speech. Despite the provocative character of the slogans, Erdoğan made no effort to stop them or even moderate the tone.

At the moment the protests are on-going in all the major cities, as well as in many of smaller cities and towns. According to a friend of mine currently in Istanbul, the Prime Minister’s Office in Beşiktaş is guarded by a huge police force numbering approximately 10,000 policemen backed by 10 riot control vehicles (armored heavy vehicles) and other security vehicles. The last footage from Taksim shows protesters in the tens of thousands, maybe more; the whole square looked literally filled with people.

Despite the government’s persistence in belittling the situation, it looks like a major change in Turkish politics is imminent. We can only hope and pray that the process goes without other major confrontations and bloodshed. The decision to deploy brutal police force on people who were simply protecting a small park may eventually cost the present government its power and serious loss of political credentials both at home and abroad.

On a more positive note, the protests also show that the Turkish public is demanding true democracy and demonstrating its readiness for a freer life. In the long run, this will likely help the country in its efforts for EU accession and its quest to occupy the place it deserves in international politics. The protest is not about religion but about the right to be free in one’s own country and will most likely improve certain aspects of Turkish democracy on the long run. It’s interesting to note that, according to The Economist, the current President Abdullah Gül does not seem to share Prime Minister’s taste for censorship and heavy-handedness with regard to the protests. It will be interesting to follow how this dissension unfolds.

This is my take on the situation, which is very unstable at the moment. Let us wish for peace and wisdom in Turkey.

Further Reference

The Monkey Cage: Joshua Tucker’s “A Break-out Role for Twitter: Extensive Use of Social Media in the Absence of Traditional Media”

The Daily Mail, “Turks Tango in Their Gas Masks as They Defy Orders of Prime Minister and Carry on with Protests”

BBC News: Jody Sabral and Zeynep Erdim, “Will Istanbul Protesters Have the Last Laugh?”

Forbes: Alex Konrad, “Full-Page Ad Inspired By Turkish Protests Is One Of Indiegogo’s Fastest Campaigns Ever”

Architizer News: “The Istanbul Protests and the Future of Public Space”

The New York Times: Michael Kimmelmann, “In Istanbul’s Heart, Leader’s Obsession, Perhaps Achilles’ Heel”

The Atlantic: Cinar Kiper, “Sultan Erdogan: Turkey’s Rebranding into the New, Old Ottoman Empire”

SSRC: Ates Altinordu, “Occupy Gezi: Beyond the Religious-Secular Cleavage”

Foreign Policy: Whit Mason, “Turkey’s Secular Awakening”

Reuters: Ralph Boulton, “Turkish Troubles Highlight Cultural Divide”

Gulf News: “Turkey Protests Unnerve Arab Islamists”

The Globe and Mail: Dirk Matten, “Turkish protest: Think Tehran in 2009, not an Arab Spring”

Hurriyet Daily News: “US Philosopher Chomsky Supports Gezi Park Movement with Video Message”

The New Yorker: Orhan Pamuk, “Memories of a Public Square”

Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek delivered his support to the protesters through Bülent Somay, member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party

Hristo Alexiev, a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, pursued Balkan Studies and East European and Eurasian Studies at the Sofia University, North Harris College, University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a graduate of the Music Department of Sofia University. Before being accepted to the MA program at REEEC on a FLAS fellowship in 2012, Hristo worked in Kosovo for five months in 2011 providing linguistic support to the US troops in KFOR. A recipient of the FLAS 2012 Summer Fellowship and the Boren Fellowship, Hristo studied in Turkey at Boğaziçi University during the 2012-2013 academic year. Currently, Hristo is attending a summer in Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian on FLAS from the University of Pittsburgh, which will be followed by a four-week abroad program in Podgorica, Montenegro. His acceptance of the Boren Fellowship includes an obligation to work for one year for the Federal Government. He hopes to pursue a career in the Foreign Service.

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