Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent most of the last year deflecting his administration’s responsibility for everything from corruption scandals to the riots that have rocked the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. It’s become clear that unless he steps down or makes major alterations to policy, Turkey’s protest movement will continue to grow.
Erdogan’s decision to bulldoze Istanbul’s popular Gezi Park last year led to a series of bloody clashes that ended up spurring a nationwide resistance movement. As scarce as green space may be in Istanbul, observers quickly grasped that protestors were angry about more than the planned paving of a patch of grass. When police reacted to the Gezi demonstrations with excessive force, killing eleven protesters and injuring more than 7,500, the result was an explosion of anti-government sentiment across the country.
Protests have continued nearly non-stop ever since the Gezi Park uprising, and Erdogan has responded with an aggressive campaign of repression that has targeted not only protestors but members of the news media.
In fact, Turkey has jailed more journalists over the past two years than any other country in the world — 443 of them, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Outdoing China and Iran on this score is a dubious accomplishment, but the ostensibly democratic Turkish state has somehow managed it two years in a row.
At a large demonstration in Istanbul on Saturday, VICE contributor Deniz Agah was surprised to see police turn and shoot a row of local and foreign correspondents with plastic bullets at close range. He immediately took photos of their injuries with his cell phone.
But if Turkish citizens have been justifiably concerned for the welfare of its reporters, they were absolutely infuriated when the government passed a restrictive new internet law in earlier this month that allowed it to arbitrarily block websites. Parliament formulated the restrictive law following coordinated police raids in mid-December of government allies, which were part of an investigation into alleged graft and corruption.
On Tuesday, wiretap recordings leaked that appeared to catch Erdogan instructing his son to hide millions of euros ahead of one of the police raids that occurred in December.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, played the tapes during a speech he delivered to his colleagues. “Either you take a helicopter and you flee abroad,” he said of Erdogan, “or you resign.”
Erdogan insists that the recordings are a “shameless montage” created by unspecified enemies.
The internet law was complemented by the subsequent passage of a statute that granted the legislature greater control over the judiciary, lending these developments the air of a power grab. As a result, protesters have hit the streets with an energy not seen since Gezi last summer.
The resistance movement is continuing to build momentum. A large protest took place on Tuesday in Ankara, where students at Middle Eastern Technical University (METU) opposed the unveiling of a new highway that the government decided to situate in the middle of their campus, clearing nearly 3,000 trees in the process. (The University’s website notes that its campus “has been forested entirely through the efforts of the University employees and students since the early 1960s,” which makes the state’s act of clear-cutting seem doubly inane.)
Police disperse METU protesters in Ankara
As with other demonstrations, the damage inflicted on the campus has come to reflect deeper antagonisms within the country. VICE News spoke with a METU student who insisted on remaining anonymous because he was afraid of being imprisoned for talking to the media.
“The protests have superficially been about protecting the thousands of trees that would be cut down to make way for the road,” he said, referring to earlier rallies against the project. “Both sides know this is not the case. Students are protesting against the authoritarian model of economic and social development represented by the AKP” — Erdogan’s political party. The student believed that Monday’s METU rally shared the same impetus that animated the Gezi Park demonstrations: “environmental concern serving as a lightning rod for wider political and social dissent.”
Like Gezi Park, METU has become a potent symbol of the protest movement in Turkey. VICE News discussed this with Ankara sociologist Mehmet Kaya, who explained that METU has always been a leftist university, and very secular. “It has never been sympathetic to the AKP and similar parties,” he said. “METU supported the Gezi protests as well, so many believe that the government is trying to break this resistance.”
Dogancan Aksoy, a journalism student at METU, described a police incursion on campus over the weekend in which police cut fences surrounding the dorms to enter the forest. “They attacked students from there,” he said. He believed that the use of incendiary tear gas by police had even caused some forest fires.
It seems as though every move Erdogan has made over the past several months has served only to piss his people off. He hasn’t absorbed this, however, choosing instead to blame his troubles on a bewildering series of lobbies that he insists control a “parallel state.”
In a speech delivered on Tuesday, Erdogan preposterously referred to an “interest rate lobby;” a “robot lobby;” an “international lobby;” a “media lobby;” a “war lobby;” an “international lobby;” and a “preacher’s lobby.”
Erdogan’s paranoid conspiracy theories have so far done nothing to help neutralize the fever of resistance that has gripped Turkey.
Photo via Flickr