Thursday, June 13, 2013

A plan to cut down trees goes very badly

Gezi Park is not an especially memorable place. I can say this from first-hand experience, having visited Istanbul a couple times in the past, having almost certainly walked through the park, but having difficulty recalling precisely what it looked like. It is the sort of park you might find in any city – some lawns, walkways, rows of trees, a fountain… you get the picture. It’s not especially large, nor was it always a park; it used to be the site of a military barracks built by the Ottoman Empire. Until recently, it was notable simply for being one of the few patches of public green space in a bursting-at-the seams urban centre of more than 13 million people. Think of it – as many people live in Istanbul as there are in the entire province of Ontario. With that many people crammed into one city, you can imagine why many local people liked Gezi Park.

So, when the Turkish government announced last year that it was going to turn Gezi Park into a shopping mall whose exterior would resemble the former military barracks,  some citizens objected. Their first step was to start a petition, followed by a number of small protest walks and demonstrations in the park. On May 27th, a small group of about fifty protesters decided to set up a tent camp in the park, their core message being simply that Istanbul needs no more shopping malls but a lot more trees. For reasons that aren’t clear, Turkish police decided to use tear gas on the protesters and removed them with bodily force from the park. The following day, and almost every one since, growing numbers of people have gathered in Taksim Square, adjacent to the park, to voice their anger and frustration at Turkey’s ruling government. These protests have escalated steadily, with the police having using tear gas, water cannons and billy clubs to clear the square on several occasions. As I write, the situation remains tense and it is not clear what will happen tomorrow; Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has issued an ultimatum that protesters must stop coming to Taksim Square “or else”…

Many Canadians know very little about the geography, history or politics of Turkey or Istanbul. Canadian media reports on the Istanbul protests have tended to paint them as being similar to the “Arab Spring” protests that shook Egypt and Tunisia last year or seem to imply they may be a precursor to something like the Syrian civil war taking place to Turkey’s east. On CBC TV news I recently saw three reports strung together as a single narrated clip, starting with protests in Turkey, then moving to fighting in Syria, then a car bomb in Afghanistan – as if these events and places are somehow connected. Yikes!

Some important facts: Turkey is a democracy. It holds regular elections, just as do Canada, the US and all EU nations. Prime Minister Erdogan has been elected twice. The political philosophy of Erdogan and his party is a mix of religious conservatism and free-market capitalism. They have strong support in smaller cities and rural areas but are less popular among the educated middle classes. Istanbul is a very large bustling, busy, and cosmopolitan city. People there look and dress like people in other European cities. And yes, Istanbul is in Europe. Just as many people who work in Manhattan actually live across the river in New Jersey, many who work in the business district of Istanbul on the European side of the Bosporus (the channel connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea) live on the eastern, Asian side. Turkey has for years been attempting to join the European Union; were it to join the EU, Turkey would immediately become the EU’s 7th largest economy.

While Turkey is a democratic, fast-growing economy, it is far from flawless. Crony capitalism is rampant there, with political elites being heavily in cahoots with property developers in Istanbul. Corruption is a problem not only at the top, but at every level of the political system, all the way down to the people who work the toll booths along Turkish highways (which are nonetheless often in much better condition than stretches of highway 401 through Toronto). Turkey is earthquake-prone, and each quake inevitably leads to the collapse of shoddily constructed buildings, revelations that building inspectors turned a blind eye in exchange for kickbacks, and politicians promising to crack down (which they rarely do). The army has historically had a heavy hand in Turkish politics, although this has been lighter in the last decade or so. The Kurdish minority, whose traditional homeland spans eastern Turkey and parts of three neighbouring countries, has been in a decades-long struggle with the Turkish government for rights and recognition, with both sides committing violence against the other (although the violence has died down in recent years). When I say ‘recognition”, I mean this in the most basic of ways; for example, textbooks used in Turkish schools rarely mention Kurds by name, calling them “mountain Turks” instead.

In rural eastern Turkey, many people have social and religious practices that are considerably more conservative and traditional than those of the more urbanized, western part of the country, and there are well-founded concerns that Prime Minister Erdogan uses this social divide to his political advantage wherever possible. Erdogan is a bombastic, table-pounding type of a politician who would no doubt like to be a dictator, and is prone to acting like one at times. As seen by the response to the protests in Taksim Square, the government reacts quickly and harshly to anything it sees as a threat to its legitimacy, with the police happy to do its bidding.

All the same, I am a great admirer of Turkey and the Turkish people. I once spent a month travelling around the country, staying in small guest houses or with friends. I have traveled widely, in many countries, and can say I have rarely met a more welcoming and hospitable people. Regardless of their station in life or background, whether in city or country, Turks seem to take it as a personal and individual responsibility to ensure that a foreigner is made to feel welcome. It is an ancient country, with the oldest-known precursors to cities being archaeological sites there. When in Turkey, you follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Istanbul (then Constantinople) was the capital of Christianity after Rome fell to the Barbarians, and the Aya Sophia its greatest church (Emperor Justinian is reported to have said “Solomon, I have outdone you” when its construction was complete). The World War I battle of Gallipoli, which is still officially remembered in Australia and New Zealand for the casualties their armies suffered there fighting the much larger Turkish forces on their home soil, took place only a short distance from the site where the Trojan War Is believed to have been fought 3000 years earlier. Modern Turks know their history (even if, like all of us, they prefer to forget the parts where their own actions were less than heroic) and are proud to be custodians of it. Given that history, I can’t help but be impressed at what the modern state of Turkey has been able to accomplish. Lesser events have crippled lesser countries.

This month’s Taksim Square protests are serious, and could have serious implications for the stability of Turkey, and its neighbours in Europe and the Middle East as well. It is therefore important that we try to understand at least a little bit better what is going on there, and why. Turkey’s government is not a tin-pot dictatorship like those that were overthrown in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis, or the one that is using chemical weapons on its own people in Syria. Neither the Turkish government nor the protesters are wild-eyed religious extremists. The underlying reason for the protests is a general frustration felt by many Turks that their government has stopped acting democratically, and is in it simply to line its own pockets. This frustration has been in place for some time now, and the images of peaceful protesters being evicted from Gezi Park catalyzed the reaction. A more sensible politician than Erdogan would have immediately said publicly that what the police did was wrong, and apologized. Had he done so, this would have been over within a day or two. The fact that many citizens of Istanbul (and other cities as well) have taken to the streets to call him to task is, in my view, more comparable to Vietnam-era and civil rights-era protests in the US during the 1960s than it is to more recent events in Egypt, Libya or Syria.* It’s yet another big moment in Turkey’s long history, and we need to pay close attention as it unfolds.

*Columnist Gwyn Dyer has suggested the protests are more like those of France in 1968. I’m less familiar with those than I am the US examples. I should note openly that reading Dyer’s column inspired me to write my own 2 cents worth on this topic.

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