On a bridge over the Bosporus Strait are two signs, one on either end. On the western end, the sign reads “Welcome to Europe,” and on the eastern end, the sign reads “Welcome to Asia.” Since the time of Emperor Constantine, Turkey has represented the link between the Eastern and Western worlds. The nation has served as the physical juxtaposition of Slavic Europe and the Middle East, where European and Islamic philosophies are openly contrasted and blended. This has been reflected in recent years, as Turkey has distinguished itself as the only “true democracy” in the Islamic community.
However, recent riots and government crackdowns threaten to destroy the international reputation that Turkey has struggled for so long to build. As street protests rage for the fourth consecutive week, Turkey’s authoritarian past and potential democratic future are being put to the test.
On Tuesday, Turkish police arrested at least 20 people in Ankara, the nation’s capital, on suspicions of attacking the police during a recent round of unrest in Istanbul. The protests started on May 28, when a peaceful sit-in at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, aimed at blocking the park’s demolition, became bloody as the police violently evicted the demonstrators.
The interior minister, Muammer Guler, reported Sunday that protests are currently ongoing or have occurred in 67 cities and towns, with more than 1,730 people arrested.
Protests against the police brutality sparked supporting protests that called attention to issues with the freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and secularism within the Turkish government. When the police withdrew from Taksim Square on June 1, the protesters took over the area and set up a tent city complete with medical facilities, a library and a media center.
Political posturing in light of popular unrest
“We will not yield to a few looters coming to that square and provoking our people, our nation, based on their misinformation,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech carried live on television.
The night after the protesters retook the park, police met them in the nearby neighborhood of Besiktas with tear gas. The police tear-gassed protesters in Ankara and Izmir that night, as well.
Similar to Arab Spring and Occupy, the protests are leaderless and centerless. Coordination is done via social media — particularly Twitter. Erdoğan takes extreme issue with this point. The protests have been sparsely covered by the Turkish media, and most of the news about the protest — as well as unproven speculation — is coming from the messaging service, in which Erdoğan himself has 2.5 million followers.
“Now we have a menace that is called Twitter,” he said. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
This aggressive posturing threatens to destroy everything that Turkey has been working for in the last decade. Criticism from Germany, Austria and Holland about Turkey’s crackdown have all but frozen the momentum for Turkey’s admission into the European Union.
Allegations that the individuals arrested belong to a “terror organization” have solidified the notion that the arrests and police actions were politically influenced. However, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, attempted to play down the frustrations with Turkey, saying that his conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday was “really good, constructive.”
Europe’s Turkish headache
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele predicts that Turkey’s application to join the EU will be canceled due to the protests, but he feels that — if Turkey is to join the European Community — it must maintain values of freedom and fundamental rights. He calls for a “swift and transparent” investigation and for those responsible to be held accountable.
“Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for groups to express their views in a democratic society,” he said. “Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
Erdoğan, in response, feels that the Western powers are holding Turkey to a standard they themselves are hesitant to meet. He holds that while his government is open to “democratic demands,” it will not accept “terrorism, violence and vandalism.”
“Similar protests have taken place in Britain, France, Germany and bigger ones in Greece,” he said.
Formal talks on Turkey’s entry into the EU began in 2005, but the effort was vetoed in 2010 by France and Cyprus in part because of concerns of major human rights violations and in part because normalized diplomatic relations have not been established between the two nations and Turkey.
If Turkey joined the European Union, it would constitute the second-largest bloc of voting members in the European Parliament, surpassing Germany. Turkey has a population of 73 million, but only 3 percent of its landmass is actually located on the European continent.
In addition, Turkey has not consented to the effort to apply the Additional Protocol of the Ankara Association Agreement — which grants preferential trading status to European Community members — to Cyprus. In response, eight of the negotiation chapters that Turkey needs to complete to secure EU membership have been denied the nation, and the nation is not permitted to close any completed chapters, effectively denying Turkey EU membership. Turkey refuses to negotiate with Cyprus, as only the southern half of the island, Greek Cyprus, was admitted into the EU. The upper half, Turkish Cyprus, has been excluded — as much of the international community condemned the occupation of Cyprus by the Turks.
However, in light of the impending collapse of the eurozone, Turkey’s economic stability is sparking desperate campaigning in favor of adding the country to the EU — particularly by Germany. Turkey is the largest economic power on the Black Sea, and rivals Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the Middle East. It is second only to the United States in military force in NATO and controls massive natural resources. It also has trading ports on the Mediterranean, Caspian and Black seas in addition to inland routes to Southern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Almost all of the region’s natural gas and petroleum pipelines pass through Turkey, and the country is a key military staging area for not just the United States, but for EU nations, as well.
A “true democracy”
But the recognition of Turkey’s potential must be accompanied by a realization of Turkey’s limitations. Democracy is pluralistic — there is no one flow of ideas in a democratic system. Ideas come from all directions at all speeds; some crash together spectacularly, others cruise together — helping each other to pick up speed — while others never get off the starting line. Since gaining office in 2003, Erdoğan pushed his nation forward in an unflinching march of progress, speaking the language of plurality. But his opposition to abortion, allegations of lack of protection for women, his aggressive response to the southern Kurds, and now his response to the Gezi Park protesters reveal the authoritarian behind the mask.
“Mr. Erdoğan has to accept that if he cannot change his perception of reality, he will damage the democratic image of Turkey and its prestige in the international arena, which he has been trying to build up for the last decade — if it hasn’t already been damaged in the last three weeks,” wrote Arzu Kayu Uranli, a blogger that covers Turkish affairs for the Huffington Post. “We don’t need worn-out conspiracy theories to read the situation or old-fashioned political vision to see what’s going on. Instead, we have to count on a new generation and listen to them. Our youth wants more dialogue and freedom and less paternalism.”
“Unfortunately, the prime minister’s tough and uncompromising attitude irritates people and generates anger in society. There are also some in the crowds who contribute to hatred and violence. Ironically, while Bulent Kenes, Today’s Zaman’s editor-in-chief was mobbed by AK Party supporters last week because Today’s Zaman’s published a poll that showed disapproval of the AK Party, a Zaman America correspondent was attacked at New York Gezi Park protests for being a representative of a ‘pious civil society Hizmet newspaper,’” Kaya Uranli concluded.
This already may be seen. Istanbul is a finalist to be the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics, along with Madrid and Tokyo. Some feel the recent protests may have destroyed Istanbul’s candidacy.
“We have now entered the final stages of the 2020 Olympic (bidding),” Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas said. “If these (incidents) continue and there are problems, the 2020 games will be nothing but a dream,” he added. The (Turkish nation) stands to lose, Istanbul stands to lose. We all know who will gain.”
Turkey’s road toward true democracy lies in finding a way to bring the protesters into the national discussion, instead of suppressing them. While it is true that the Turkish government is more participatory than it ever was, a nation that jails journalists, attacks the businesses of political enemies and clamps down on art and open expression cannot call itself a democracy.
“Those masses that took to the streets on May 31 have shown the country and the world that Erdogan’s Islamic conservatism pressures will henceforth backfire and cause instability,” wrote Kadri Gursel for al-Monitor. “The dilemma Turkey now faces is this: Turkey will either continue on its way as a ‘secular democracy’ and cope with needed political changes, or the Turkish regimes will undergo an authoritarian transformation.”
Turkey stands at the crossroads of its future and its past. No one can predict yet in what direction it will travel.
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