The Geziversary: Taksim Square and Turkey one year later

Saturday, May 31, 2014

As many of you know, today marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Gezi Park conflicts. The actual sit-in began earlier in May of last year, but May 31 was the day that the police cleared the park for the first time, setting the stage for the counter-attack by the protesters and three weeks of a cop-free zone in the city-center districts of Taksim and Beyoğlu. 

Long-time readers of the Borderlands will remember that I was in Istanbul at this time last year, and wrote quite a bit about the protests and police riots that took place in the ensuing weeks. Even as the protests were taking place last year, I had mixed feelings about what happened. A year later, my attitude towards the events is still pretty ambiguous.   
On the one hand, this blog has often been critical of the policies of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Indeed, one of the reasons I started posting here in earnest was due to my frustration with what seemed to be the fundamentally incompetent treatment of Erdoğan's administration by most of the US and European-based journalists, bloggers and experts writing on Turkey at the time. 
In particular, I felt galvanized to write about Turkey while the Ergenekon trials were taking place. The trials struck me early on as deeply politicized even as they were being presented at face value by many outlets. 
Meanwhile, the then-AKP cheerleaders at Today's Zaman seemed to be trying to co-opt a series of foreign journalists and academics working on Turkey--people who may have been more naive than opportunistic in writing for this paper, but who at any rate apparently had no problem associating themselves with what was at that time an obvious but covert government mouthpiece. As for Ergenekon, the idea that thousands of individuals--including not only military officers, but also university rectors, journalists, civil society-types and others--would be involved in a terribly intricate and centralized coup plot seemed preposterous to me. I felt that anyone who'd spent any amount of time in Turkey should be able to see through it. But the English-language coverage about the trials seemed so superficial and bereft of commentary alluding to the obvious contradictions in the nature of the trials, that I felt like somebody had to point them out. 

Now, of course, it's common in the English-language media to describe Erdoğan as a dictator. What's less commonly seen is much appreciation for the degree that the Prime Minister is a product of the authoritarian political system of the Turkish Republic itself. Where, after all, did Erdoğan learn to silence his critics with tactics such as these? Who made the laws that allow Erdogan to personally sue his critics? For how many decades have weapons like police violence, torture and murder been employed to prevent freedom of expression in this country, particularly as far as the press was concerned? I'm sorry, but these things didn't begin with Erdoğan. Indeed, the obviously unfair and soul-crushing policies of this administration are much milder than the methods of political suppression that have been implemented--in certain instances--since this country was founded.

The difference now, as I've mentioned elsewhere recently, lies mainly with the victims. Today's victims (especially the Gezi Park protesters) tend to be much more photogenic and appealing to international audiences than was the case in decades past, when oppression was being carried out in the name of a secular-nationalist project (or an anti-communist one) that the international community--and many of today's anti-government protesters--more often than not felt comfortable with. Rather than watching Turkish police fire rubber bullets at a screaming Kurdish teenage boy throwing rocks, we see attractive young people in T-shirts and jeans--people who speak English well and can talk to the international media--feeling the heat of government oppression. So now we care about authoritarianism in Turkey.

Stone throwers in the southeast and Gezi Parkers last year. Who do you think is going to receive more sympathetic treatment from the international press?

I'm not saying this just to be the turd in the Gezi Park punch bowl. None of what I've written above changes one thing about the despicable way that Erdoğan acted during the crisis last year, or the value and importance of the criticisms that the protesters were making--and continue to make--about the government. People are fighting for their right to protest, among other things. While most of the Turkish media constantly shows images of a few people throwing Molotov cocktails at the cops, such instances are few and far between, and quite possibly organized provocations. Last year, at any rate, what the protesters were generally doing was collecting in a spot and making noise because they felt they should have the right to be heard without fear of getting shot by teargas cannisters, water canon, or rubber bullets. Are these not causes worth defending and standing up for?

Moreover, when it became clear last year that the Prime Minister was willing to risk anything--even wide-scale civil conflict in the country--in order to silence the protesters, the Gezi Parkers silenced themselves. They stepped back when they could have stepped forward towards real conflict. They took a breath when Erdogan seemed more than eager to keep the fight going. The protesters were taking on a street fighter who had long lost any semblance of self-control, and they behaved with admirable restraint.

But Erdoğan isn't Hitler. Nor is he a dictator, even if he is quite dictatorial. He's a populist who constantly appeals to his followers' sense of resentment. Watching his campaign-style speech in Cologne last week (Turks living abroad can vote in parliamentary elections at foreign consulates), I was struck by how often he finds it necessary to remind his followers that the 'elites' look down on them. In that respect, the man is spot-on. For decades, the better-educated and better-connected in Turkey did tend to look down on the people who are voting for Erdogan today. People haven't forgotten that, and for as long as the economy here holds out, Erdoğan's AK Party will likely remain as the largest party in the country. 

What was fascinating to watch during the protests last year was the sense of possibility they opened. For several years through Ergenekon and other undertakings, Erdoğan had sought to re-constitute the authoritarian model under which he'd been raised to suppress the very elites who'd created and protected this authoritarian model for decades. Suddenly, however, people were speaking out--they had temporarily lost their fear. Not everyone, of course--the penguin media still had too much money invested in the country's booming construction industry to really cross Erdoğan. But a sizable portion of people began to speak out, encouraging others to make a gesture

For almost three weeks last year, Taksim was a cop-free zone

At the same time, however, I was admittedly shaken by what I saw in Taksim during the weeks that the district was a police-free zone. While I understood why the protesters had overturned buses--they were blocking the major arteries into Taksim, rather than simply destroying property for the fun of it--I (perhaps selfishly) wondered what would happen to Istanbul and Turkey if this conflict continued. Was this just a snapshot of things to come?
 My sense is that this summer, things will be quieter in general. There will definitely be protests, but I think the AK Party's big victory at the polls in nationally-held municipal elections in March really took the air out of the protesters' balloons. As I've written recently, I believe the best move now for Erdoğan's political opponents would be to first fix their own parties, and then come to terms with the fact that Erdogan's authoritarianism has arisen from the very Kemalist system that many of today's protesters embrace. Political authoritarianism in Turkey transcends Erdoğan. It's time that Erdoğan's opponents acknowledged this fact. Taking this step, rather than focusing exclusively upon Erdoğan, will be the fastest way for the opposition in Turkey to lead themselves out of the political abyss into which they've fallen.
As for today, who knows what will happen. For my part, I'm happy to be far away from it all and enjoying aspects of Turkey that have nothing to do with politics. For those of you interested in watching what transpires, however, I'd recommend this HalkTV live link--not for the ridiculous and smug political commentary (in Turkish) that often accompanies it, but rather for the mere fact that this will be one of the only channels that will actually show the events--if there are any--as they transpire. It's an opposition channel, so they'll show--and hype--any developments that take place. There will also be a lot of silly romanticizing about the protests of last summer, which nevertheless shouldn't take anything away from the fact that the protests did in fact represent something real and important.
I have no dog in this fight. My opinion is a simple one: people in this country need to find a way to live together somehow. As a historian, however, I can't help but look to the past as a means for discussing the present and future. For everyone who will be shaking their fist at Erdoğan today, I hope they'll manage to think seriously--once they've rubbed the tear gas out of their eyes--about where exactly this Prime Minister came from.
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