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Last Week in Turkey

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The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles.  During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.

The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014.  Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.

On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction).  Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.

On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.

Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond.  However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water.  Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media.  The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.

On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court.  It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.

On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad.  She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.

On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.

On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.

Environmental Degradation
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014.  The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land.  Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.

A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.

On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development.  The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

Gender Equality
2014 was the year of President Erdogan and the AKP making decidedly illiberal and downright silly statements about relations between the sexes.

The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.

The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014.  A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK.  Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools.  Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State.  While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid.  The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State.  The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas.  Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested.  There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.

On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.”  According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear.  It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament.  Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.

On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.

International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014.  Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where.  True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.

After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia.  Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.

Terrorism
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014.  The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.  However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.

On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.  The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack.  However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.

On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode.  It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.

What’s Missing
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.

What’s in Store for 2015 
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix.  Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well.  There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.

The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul.  It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber.  There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack.  This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying.  Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility.   These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly.  Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.

The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling.  The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS.  If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey.  IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey.  Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border.  If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them.  Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border.  Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey.  As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.

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What Lies Ahead for Turkey

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The massive storm of scandal that has enveloped Turkey for the last several weeks has finally begun to ebb.  In its wake it has left three ministerial resignations, a handful of defections from the AKP, a massively reshuffled cabinet and over a thousand dismissed or reassigned law enforcement officials.  Analysts seeking to predict what lies in store for Turkey in the months ahead have focused primarily on two questions: Will Erdogan ultimately survive this scandal? (see here and here) and Will this incident end up strengthening or weakening Turkish Democracy? (see here here here and here)

It is indisputable that in the short term, Erdogan isn’t going anywhere.  He has utilized the same defensive strategy with which he rode out the Gezi Park protests; namely blaming foreign conspirators and agitators for sparking the incident while viciously clamping down on any public protests.  However Erdogan has not been successful in convincing all party members to echo his talking points.  One former minister who was not implicated in the scandal but who recently resigned from the AKP out of protest harshly criticized the Prime Minister’s interference in construction projects, saying that ” he never really quit the Istanbul mayor’s office.”  The Minister for Environment and Urban Planning, who was forced to resign as part of the scandal, went so far as to directly implicate Erdogan and call for his resignation.

Despite these damning words from former allies, not to mention the fact that his son has been caught up in the inquiries as well, Erdogan has loudly maintained his strategy and refused to quit.  We shouldn’t expect anything less.  Erdogan is nothing if not tenacious and stubborn.  He remains convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he has a precedent to rule and he is acting in the best interests of the Turkish people.  Even if evidence is uncovered that directly implicates him in construction bribery and graft, Erdogan will simply remain consistent in his blame of foreign plots and deep state actors.

The million dollar question is how will the events of the last several weeks affect the health of Turkish democracy.   Though undoubtedly the rampant corruption and collusion between the AKP and the Turkish construction industry needs to be addressed, some have expressed concern about the fact that the Gulen Movement is likely driving the current probe.  The Gulen Movement is believed to count among its members a significant proportion of the Turkish police and judiciary.  The firing and reassignment of hundreds of police officers involved in the scandal investigation is just the latest effort of the current government to purge the Movement from positions of power.  Though the Gulen Movement’s penetration into the Turkish government is hard to accurately ascertain, the fact that the government has been able to punish with impunity so many law enforcement officials for pursuing this corruption investigation leads me to believe that Gulen’s power has been over estimated.  It is certainly a poor sign for Turkish democracy that this investigation was at least partly motivated by revenge against the government by a shady private organization.  However, at this point I believe that it is even more concerning that every attempt to further the corruption investigation is immediately shut down.

Unless we see another dramatic twist in this saga, for better or worse the Gulen Movement probably will not serve as an outside check on the AKP government.  However, like many Turks, the Movement may be putting their faith in the upcoming election cycle to do the job for them.  Turkey has held free and fair elections for decades and over the next year and a half or so there will be 3 important votes.  The first, coming up in March, is for local governments and is widely expected to act as a much needed gauge of the AKP’s current popularity.  This summer the first popular election for the important but largely ceremonial office of President will take place followed by parliamentary elections next summer.

Though much to Erdogan’s chagrin the presidency still does not wield significant power, the race for this office will in some ways be a crucial junction for the AKP administration.  According to AKP party rules, Erdogan cannot serve another term as Prime Minister.  However, it is eminently clear that he does not want to give up power and go quietly into the night.  Since his plan to become an “American Style” president has failed, Erdogan has two options if he wants to stay in power: he can run for President or change the party rules and serve another term as Prime Minister. Health of Turkish democracy will be able to be gauged by the challenges or lack thereof that Erdogan will face when embarking on either of these paths.  Current President Gul, who more popular among the Turkish citizenry than Erdogan, has not given any clear indication as to what his future political plans are.  If both run for President or Prime Minister another nasty intra-AKP war is likely to break out.  However, given that the lack of current significant challengers to the AKP, this kind of fight could ultimately serve to break the AKP’s current hegemony.  The highly respected scholar of Turkey Erik Zurcher recently wrote a convincing piece arguing that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the AKP.  A Gul challenge to Erdogan could facilitate this and, in a best case scenario, lead to a new conservative party purged of many of the more extreme elements that have poisoned the party’s once admirable platform in recent years.  Even if it does not come from Gul, a challenge to Erdogan must come.  There is no need to elaborate on the fact that allowing Erdogan to change the AKP party rules and continue to remain Prime Minister would be a very bad blow to Turkish Democracy.

The possible retrial of those convicted in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases* adds a wild card to this already complex mix.  Erdogan is trying to poison the reputation of the Gulen Movement by placing blame for all the shady elements of the trials on them.  He is also using the possibility of a new set of trials as a public demonstration that the AKP no longer needs the help of the Gulen Movement in order to keep the secular establishment at bay. However it is anyone’s guess as to whether the retrials will happen and, given the recently proposed law which would effectively muzzle the  judiciary, what the outcome will be.  I worry that Erdogan may under the illusion that he can convince the military that Gulen Movement acted without the knowledge of the government.  I think the possibility of a fully reinvigorated military remains remote, but it would be dangerous to assume that the leash on the military could be loosened without it attempting to reestablish at least some of their former power.

An investigation into the unholy relationship between the AKP government and the Turkish construction sector has been a long time in coming.  Any savvy Turk or Turkey watcher will tell you construction graft and bribery have been an open secret for years now.  The government reaction to the scandal has seriously undermined the independence of the police and the judiciary, and in following the at least temporarily tightened the AKP’s hold on power.  However, Turkey has faced far worse challenges in much more fragile periods of its democracy and yet has continued to slowly but surely progress in its political development.  2014 is going to be a tough year for Turkey but the demonstrated resilience of the Turkish people and their commitment to democracy should make even the most hardened cynic pause before diagnosing a mortal wound to Turkish democracy.

*The AKP and Gulen movement are generally believed to have worked together during these cases in order to neuter the secular-military establishment.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 8, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Erdogan gets it wrong, again

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The fight for public input into “public” projects has moved from Gezi, Istanbul to ODTÜ, Ankara.  For the last several months the Middle East Technical University (acronym ODTÜ in Turkish), has been the scene of fierce protests against the construction of a road by the Ankara municipality through its campus.  Paralleling Gezi, the ODTÜ protests have centered around the environmental destruction the construction would cause, specifically the clearing of a large number of trees.  The ODTÜ protesters have also been subject to violent police intervention.

Over the weekend the struggle between the protesters and the local government escalated to a new level.  The University administration had joined the fight against the construction of the road, attempting to legally appeal the construction plans.  The University was apparently assured that construction would be halted until the appeals process was completed.  However, it appears that Friday night the municipality began clearing the forested area where the proposed road will run without notifying the University.  The University has issued a statement outlining its interpretation of the events and threatening legal action.  The AKP mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek claims that the Friday night construction blitz also came as a surprise to him.  However, he went on to defend the construction, stating that there were no legal obstacles to its continuation.

PM Erdoğan has also become involved in the controversy.  Discussing the issue on Tuesday he stated that “Everything can be sacrificed for roads, because roads are civilization. But those who are not civilized do not know the roads’ value. In our values, roads do not recognize any obstacle. Even if there is a mosque in front of a road, we would demolish that mosque and rebuild it somewhere else.  We won’t stop because somebody says so. Bandits used to block roads in the past, now modern bandits are blocking the roads.”

Erdoğan’s statement reveals that he still believes that he is facing an uprising of the old Kemalist secular elite.  However, later on Tuesday,  #direncami started trending on Twitter in Turkey.  The term diren (resist) became the term used for protesting or “occupying” during the Gezi uprisings.  The tag #direncami (resist mosque) is a twitter protest against the theoretical threat of Erdoğan to destroy a mosque in order to build a road.  The Turkish tweeters were signalling that Erdoğan missed the point entirely.  The protesters at ODTÜ are not calling for equal opportunity destruction but a cessation of all arbitrary destruction.

Whether or not Erdoğan would actually support the destruction of a mosque in order to build a road is largely beside the point (though I seriously doubt he would).  However, this statement should be a wake up call to his conservative Muslim supporters.   Erdoğan is willing, at least in theory, to sacrifice a symbol of the values that he supposedly holds most dear to the god of “progress.”  With his latest statement the Prime Minister has provided further proof that the popular uprisings in Turkey are not an example of secularists fighting against an encroaching Islamism, but about civil society fighting against an encroaching authoritarianism.

Gezi in the Greater Context

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I recently watched the documentary Urbanized with my aspiring city-planner spouse.  Toward the end of the movie there is a segment on the Stuttgart 21 project, a highly controversial urban renewal project centered on Stuttgart’s central train station.  The purpose of the project to improve ties with the greater European transportation and economic networks through a major renovation and expansion of the Stuttgart train station.  Those opposed to the project centered their attention on the project’s destruction of a public park and the 100 year old trees it was home to.  The movie featured video from a police intervention during one particularly large protest:  tear gas, water cannons and fleeing crowds.  Seeing the eerily familiar images of the anti-Stuttgart21 (S21) protests led me to consider what now seems like a glaringly obvious hypothesis: Gezi belongs to a wider phenomenon of public-space centered protests in democratic nations.

Analysts and journalists have been struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to relate Gezi to other recent protest movements.  Especially at its onset, Gezi was often falsely categorized as part of the “Arab Spring.”  As the ongoing crisis in Egypt most dramatically demonstrates, Gezi’s relationship to other recent regional protest movements is superficial at best.  Despite what some would argue are Erdogan’s desires to the contrary, Turkey remains a largely stable democracy.  In Turkey, there were vociferous calls for the “dictator” Erdogan to resign, but only the most naive considered this to be a serious possibility.  In contrast, the leaders who were the target of the Arab spring were true autocrats who, with the exception of Assad, many but not all of whom were eventually ousted as a result of the protests.  In a historic change, the unrest in Turkey also failed to materialize any serious calls for a coup.  For better or worse (and I would strongly argue the “better” outweighs the “worse”) Turkey’s civilian government has simultaneously stripped the military of its former political power while building up its own authority.

In the first few days of the movement, the Gezi protestors began to adopt the terminology of the “Occupy” movement that began in New York in 2011.  Although the association of Gezi with Occupy is more accurate than the Arab Spring, the two movements in some ways also make a strange partnership.  Despite their signature tactic of “occupying” a space, the Occupy movement was largely a protest about wealth inequality and government coddling of the banking industry rather than the destruction of public space.  In contrast, Gezi began a movement to save a public space and morphed into a protest against government repression and authoritarianism.  As varied as the motivations of those who joined in to the Gezi movement were, there was a distinct lack of economic complaints.

Of the large-scale protest movements that have captured the world’s attention in the past 3 years, the recent events in Brazil are the most clearly analogous to Gezi.  Both center around a lack of public input into large scale construction projects and government encroachment on public spaces.  The anti-Stuttgart 21 fits this pattern as well.  Throughout the democratic world, there have been a number of largely overlooked local protests aiming to curb construction in urban public spaces.  Defining Gezi as a public-space centered movement, as opposed to anti-government movements like the Arab spring or economic protests like Occupy, allows us to locate it within a greater context and compare it to similar protests.  The anti-S21 protests provide a particularly useful example for comparison as it is slightly older than Gezi and therefore its impact has had more time to solidify.

One of the most superficial conclusions we can draw from the pervasiveness of public-space centered protests is that city dwellers are increasingly opting for quality of life and community over economic development.   Even those in low income areas or informal settlements who are most likely to be the victims of development are increasingly able to express their discontent through the use of new media.

Though they are more likely to have their voices heard than in the past, protesters are at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to stop planned construction projects.  This is true in both developing and more mature democracies.  In Stuttgart, the S21 project had undergone a public review and approval process for a number of years before the protest movement began.  The government therefore countered the protests with the assertion that the public has already been given the chance to weigh in on the project.  In the case of less mature democracies such as Turkey and Brazil, the government is less likely to seek public approval prior to beginning a project but will subsequently use an appeal to majoritarian politics and sheer force to “argue” their case.

Despite their de facto advantage, governments often feel threatened by these protests, especially when they draw large crowds, and tend to use excessive force in attempts to break up demonstrations.  This is true even in a “mature” democracy like Germany, though notably the forceful suppression of the anti-S21 only happened on one occasion as opposed to the dozens (and counting) police-protester encounters related to Gezi.  I would posit that the violent government reaction stems from the fact that these type of protests threaten state monopoly over the control of public space.  Public space provides a home for dissent (through protests) as well as less “desirable” and more volatile elements of society such as the poor, the homeless and young people.  Protests against building up and “sanitizing” such public spaces are therefore not just a threat to the viability of an individual project but existentially to the government itself.

It unfortunately appears inevitable that a modern state will need to reassure itself that it maintains a “monopoly on violence” and from time to time end up acting against its own people.  The test of a true democracy is if there are consequences for doing so.  In the case of S21, the party that had championed the project was summarily voted out of power in the next local election and took a major hit in the state elections as well.  The political consequences of Gezi have yet to be seen and most likely will be small initially.  However, as I have previously argued, I believe that largely young supporters of Gezi will soon begin to make their mark politically and change Turkish politics for the better.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm