It began innocently enough, it seemed, when a plan to turn Istanbul’s Gezi Park – located at Taksim Square – into a shopping mall spurred a small group of environmental activists to occupy the park in protest in late May of 2013. Within a week, a wave of urban uprisings had spread across the country, involving hundreds of thousands of protesters, in dozens of cities, met with massive state repression and violence, resulting in a few deaths and thousands of injuries and arrests. The world is now watching Turkey – the connecting landmass between Europe and Asia – once home to the Ottoman Empire, and now home to a profound lesson for the world’s people in a struggle for democracy against inequality, oligarchy, oppression and tyranny.
The Spark in the Park
Small protests began on May 26 attempting to prevent bulldozers from destroying Gezi park in Istanbul after plans were announced to turn the small park – one of Istanbul’s lone green areas – into a shopping center. As Bloomberg explained:
Gezi Park itself is small. Imagine if Manhattan had no Central Park, and authorities decided to cut down the few trees in Union Square to build a mall on it. New Yorkers might have something to say. They might even protest and try to stop construction. And they would probably be upset if President Barack Obama told them that what they thought was irrelevant and sent in riot police to clear them.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has led the country since he was elected in 2003, and is himself a former mayor of Istanbul. As the occupation and protests about the planned destruction of the park continued, Erdogan expressed his sentiment toward the actions and ideas of the protesters, saying on May 29 that, “Whatever you do, we’ve made our decision and we will implement it.”
That day, protesters at Taksim Gezi Park set up tents and engaged in a sit-in, even getting support from opposition politicians in the Turkish government, braving the advances of riot police and tear gas. On top of the plans to build a shopping center, the government was proposing plans to rebuild an old Ottoman barracks on the land. As protesters entered their third night of occupying the park on May 30, riot police were sent in with tear gas to disperse the crowds, removing tents and sleeping bags. The number of people in the park had swelled to thousands.
The courage of the occupiers inspired more to come down to support them, as one Turkish citizen stated, “I saw it on TV last night, saw that there were people, young people taking ownership of the environment. I wanted to support them, because I think not supporting them is inhumane.” A 21-year old architecture student commented on the government response to the protests, “Gas, gas, gas, it is the only way they deal with problems.” Demonstrators in the park began chanting, “this is only the beginning, our struggle will continue,” and Michelle Demishevich, an activist member of Turkey’s Green Party commented: “This is an uprising, a protest against the increasing bans,” referring to the recent upsurge of restrictions imposed by the government, “Perhaps just like we saw the Arab Spring, this will be the Turkish Spring.”
A week prior to the protests, the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation that would place restrictions on alcohol sale and consumption in the country, worrying many retailers and small business owners, among many others. As one resident of Istanbul’s busy Beyoglu district (largely known for its night life) commented, “If Turkey really is a secular state, then the government should not have the right to tell me when and where to drink alcohol… As long as I don’t harm others, drinking is a matter of my own personal freedom.”
Haydar Tas, the owner of a bar in the district commented: “The AKP government wants to control what Beyoglu looks like, and who can be here. In the future, there will be no room for alternative places like ours. All leftist opposition groups, associations and cultural spaces will be rooted out, and the only place to get a drink will be expensive luxury hotels and restaurants. It will be the end of Beyoglu as we know it.” His bar is not merely a place to drink, but also serves an interesting social function, with postings and flyers supporting LBGT rights and environmental issues scattered on tables next to a stack of feminist magazines. Tas stated, “Places like ours do not fit in the AKP’s vision of Istanbul… And restrictions on alcohol consumption will make things harder for us.”
On May 30, as police dispersed protesters at the park with tear gas and water cannons, they even began setting fire to the tents put in place to facilitate the popular occupation. Construction workers immediately moved in to begin work, tearing down trees – some of which were torn down a few days prior, but re-planted by the protesters. One protester even stood in front of a bulldozer to prevent its advancement into the park.
On Friday 31 May, the protests reached a new level, with thousands of people coming out into the streets as Gezi Park sparked a wider general opposition to the government. Thousands of people protested in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square, where there was “an assortment of tear gas canisters everywhere.” As police moved in and began arresting dozens of people, an Al-Jazeera reported stated that, “the protesters are saying that this is not about trees anymore.” As protests continued throughout the day, several people were hospitalized with head injuries, over 100 more were subjected to other injuries, some even lying unconscious on the ground.
In the Turkish capital of Ankara, solidarity protests erupted with over 5,000 people gathering in a park only to be met with riot police and tear gas. Many of the protesters chanted, “Everywhere is resistance, Everywhere is Taksim,” referring to Taksim Square in Istanbul as the main center of protest. One reporter noted that in Istanbul, “We saw a lot of tourists running to different directions. People are trying to take refuge at coffee shops and the homes around the area. Police have been firing tear gas in different directions,” also adding that several protesters were throwing rocks back at the police, though, “the predominant complaint here is that police are firing teargas indiscriminately.”
At Taksim, police used tear gas and chemical spray to disperse the thousands of protesters. What was just days prior an environmental protest had “become a lightning conductor for all the grievances accumulated against the government.” Protesters brought home-made gas masks and called for solidarity protests across the country, while police surrounded the park and enclosed it “under clouds of gas.” The ruling AKP party with Islamist roots represents a “conservative Muslim bourgeoisie” which rose to prominence since the continued neoliberal economic reforms of the 1980s onwards. After having spent more than a decade in power, the AKP has accelerated neoliberal reforms and privatizations which have “led to accelerated inequality, accompanied by repression.”
One protester who attended the 31 May demonstrations in Istanbul commented, “I’ve been in the protests since yesterday afternoon, it has been a long couple of days for us. Now we’re protesting not because of some trees, but because we’re sick of this oppression and this police brutality against people.” Critics began to compare the Taksim Square protests to those that took place in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011 leading to the fall of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.
A former Turkish diplomat who is now with the American think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated, “The movement in Tahrir targeted removal of the regime, whereas the reaction in Turkey is against the government’s ruling method. The similarity is the sense of self-empowerment. Until today, ruling as it wished didn’t have any consequences for the government because it kept thinking it can override the opposition, but these protests might be a turning point.” Thousands continued to call for Erdogan to resign in what the Wall Street Journal called the “fiercest antigovernment protests for years.”
Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Bosphorus University stated, “We do not have a government, we have Tayyip Erdogan… Even AK Party supporters are saying they have lost their mind, they are not listening to us,” and added: “This is the beginning of a summer of discontent.”
A local court in Istanbul suspended the project to uproot the trees of Taksim’s Gezi Park, but as images and word reached wider Turkish society regarding the use of excessive police force, thousands more poured into the streets to protest the increasingly authoritarian nature of the government. The protests spread to over a dozen cities across the country. The U.S. State Department issued a statement declaring: “We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association, which is what it seems these individuals were doing.”
Within Turkey, there was very little television media coverage of the protests, reflecting the “self censorship” exercised by the media, with journalists also being targeted by riot police at the protests. The head of Turkey’s lawyers’ association, Metin Feyzioglu, stated: “The people are demonstrating against the government’s intolerance toward demonstrations… The government must display understanding and immediately stop the violence against the demonstrators.”
As many Turkish journalists complained that they were being pressured to censor the news, one local journalist stated, “Gezi Park is the new Tahrir of the region.” Another journalist tweeted, “Occupy Gezi is the explosion of anger against the hubris of one man whose ambitions for power are unmeasured.” Adding to the anti-government anger were plans announced in the same week to build a new $3 billion bridge over the Bosphorus named after the 15th century Ottoman Sultan Selim. Erdogan stated, “There might be some petty unpleasantness but our security forces act proportionately.”
An architecture historian participating in the protests told the media, “The real problem is not Taksim, and not the park, but the lack of any form of democratic decision-making process and the utter lack of consensus. We now have a PM who does whatever he wants.” Sparking further anger on Friday, one politician from the ruling AK Party tweeted, “It looks like some people needed gas… If you go away, you will have a nice day. One has to obey the system.”
Amnesty International issued a press release which demanded that the “Turkish authorities must order police to stop using excessive force against peaceful protesters in Istanbul and immediately investigate alleged abuses.” Observers from Amnesty International who were at the protests were even gassed and hit with truncheons, prompting an Amnesty director to state: “The use of violence by police on this scale appears designed to deny the right to peaceful protest altogether and to discourage others from taking part… The use of tear gas against peaceful protestors and in confined spaces where it may constitute a serious danger to health is unacceptable, breaches international human rights standards and must be stopped immediately.”
Turkey: The World’s Worst Jailer of Journalists
In December of 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report which accused Turkey of being “the world’s worst jailer” of journalists, with 49 behind bars for writing or publishing pieces the government dislikes. Turkey was ahead of both Iran and China, with worldwide imprisonment of journalists reaching a record high in 2012, “driven in part by the widespread use of charges of terrorism and other anti-state offenses against critical reporters and editors,” tallied at 232, an increase of 53 from 2011. An Istanbul-based editor commented that, “the government does not differentiate between these two major things: freedom of expression and terrorism.”
A special CPJ report on Turkey noted: “Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship.” As the Guardian commented in 2012, “modern, secular, western-oriented Turkey, with its democratically elected government, has locked away more members of the press than China and Iran combined,” with nearly 100 journalists behind bars, according to numbers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). And it wasn’t just the press which was a major target: “students, academics, artists and opposition MPs have all recently been targeted for daring to speak out against the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party.” An Al-Jazeera journalist visiting Turkey was harassed and detained by police, who went through his possessions and, while reading a news transcript, voiced their objections to describing Turkey as having an “increasingly authoritarian government.” As the journalist later wrote: “Who says that Turks don’t do irony?”
Press freedom continued to decline into 2013, and despite rhetoric from the government years earlier to allow for a more “open” society, Turkey’s respect for freedom of the press and freedom of expression has declined under the rule of Erdogan. Internet freedom under Erdogan has also “largely disappeared,” with the government passing legislation to facilitate “mandatory filtering of content.”
In an interview with the German publication Deutsche Welle in early May 2013, Turkish journalist Ragip Duran commented on the decline of press freedom in his country: “In the past, our colleagues were killed, newspaper offices were bombed out, the military used repression, there was censorship. Today, journalists are no longer killed. But while in the past we had to go to our colleagues’ funerals, we now have to visit them in prison or attend trials in court. There is a lot more censorship, self-censorship and pressure on media outlets and on journalists in comparison to 20 or 30 years ago.”
Students, Scholars, and Dissidents
Scholars and academics have also come under extensive repression. As one journalist noted: “the number of people charged, mostly under anti-terrorism legislation, for some ‘crime’ that has a political angle, be they journalists, elected deputies, protesting students, human rights activists or environmentalists — with many languishing in prison — almost matches the number of people in a similar situation under military rule in Turkey in the past.” One Amnesty International researcher referred to the number of intellectuals imprisoned in Turkey as “staggering.”
In December of 2010, hundreds of students protested Prime Minister Erdogan as he met in Ankara with officials at the Middle East Technical University. Turkish police used batons and tear gas to disperse the student protesters, arresting roughly 50 students at the demonstration. As students then protested against the excessive use of force by police, the police responded by pepper spraying them. One female student who threw an egg at a State Minister during a protest in Ankara was facing up to two years and four months in prison as “an attack on a public official’s honor, pride and prestige.” Among her immense crimes was that she apparently ruined the left shoulder of the minister’s jacket.
In 2010, when three students attended a public meeting help by Prime Minister Erdogan, they unveiled a banner reading, “We want free education, we will get it.” Two of those students were then sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for “membership of a terrorist organization” while the third was sentenced to two years and two months in prison for “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
In 2013, an internationally renowned Turkish pianist was sentenced to ten months in prison for a Tweet which the government considered a violation of the law against “publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation.”
In August of 2012, the Turkish Ministry of Justice revealed that there were 2,824 students who had been arrested since the beginning of the year, with over 1,700 of them charged with a crime, and over 600 of which were charged with “being a member of an armed terrorist organization.” A month earlier, the Solidarity with Arrested Students Platform reported that there were 771 students in prison across the country. As one university academic commented: “None of the students have exerted violence against anyone. Most of them are not members of any illegal organization, although they are charged with making propaganda for them. The issues they are charged with are asking for free education or education in Kurdish. According to a decision by the Supreme Court in 2008, one can be charged with making illegal propaganda for participating a protest held by an organization.”
Politically active students had been subjected to dramatically increased state repression under Erdogan. The Turkish Minister of Education reported that in 2010 and 2011, “a total of 7,043 college students have been subjected to disciplinary investigations at their colleges. 4,602 of them have received suspensions while 55 have been expelled.” A group of university faculty even set up a white board outside a prison in Northwestern Turkey as a symbolic lesson to the students held captive inside, with one participating professor beginning the lecture by saying, “We came here for our students under arrest. This is not their place, they should be at their classrooms.” As students were increasingly detained under draconian anti-terror laws put in place by the Erdogan government, students and other members of society held solidarity protests with the imprisoned youth.
As Erdogan was advancing his program for the privatization of university education, over a thousand students protested in the streets in late December of 2012, met with over 3,000 police officers using tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets.
In recent years, Turkey has imprisoned thousands of political prisoners for associating with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), which the Turkish government considers to be a terrorist organization because it advocates for the rights of Kurdish citizens. Among the thousands arrested under anti-terrorism measures for associating with the BDP were writers, academics, parliamentarians, mayors, and students. Some academics were arrested simply for delivering speeches to the BDP, prompting Amnesty International to condemn the government.
In January of 2013, the Turkish government arrested 15 human rights lawyers “known for defending individuals’ right to freedom of speech and victims of police violence.” Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey, Andrew Gardner, noted: “The detention of prominent human rights lawyers and the apparent illegal search of their offices add to a pattern of prosecutions apparently cracking down on dissenting voices.” Gardner added: “Human rights lawyers have been just some of the victims in the widespread abuse of anti-terrorism laws in Turkey. The question to ask is: who will be left to defend the victims of alleged human rights violations?”
Human Rights Watch also spoke out against the arrests, with the lead researcher on Turkey commenting, “Police raids against lawyers at 4 a.m., their arrest and imprisonment are part of a wider clampdown on those who oppose the government.” The researcher, Emma Sinclair-Webb, added: “What makes the latest arrests particularly disturbing is that these lawyers are well-known for acting on behalf of those whose rights have been violated by the state.” Official figures revealed in May of 2012, Sinclair-Webb said, “suggest that many thousands are in prison for terrorism offenses, many of them political activists, students, journalists, and human rights defenders… Most have committed no offense that could or should be described as terrorism under international law.”
Turkey: A “Model Democracy”?
When Barack Obama spoke to the Turkish parliament in 2009, he referred to Turkey as a “strong and secular democracy,” and that the country was “a critical ally” of the United States, emphasizing his “commitment to our strong and enduring friendship.”
In an article for Christian Science Monitor, Reza Aslan, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that following several constitutional reforms in 2010, Turkey had taken “another step toward solidifying its position as the new superpower of the Middle East: the shining model of what a modern, Muslim-majority democracy can achieve if given the opportunity.”
As Hosni Mubarak, the military dictator of Egypt, was facing immense opposition in the streets of Tahrir Square and elsewhere across the country in February of 2011 – as the Arab Spring was spreading across the region – Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stated, “No government can remain oblivious to the democratic demands of its people… There isn’t a government in history that has survived through oppression. Know that governments that turn a blind eye to their people cannot last long.”
As Time magazinenoted, with the unrest spreading across the region in early 2011, many commentators were pointing to Turkey’s “successful melding of a largely Muslim population with an officially secular and working democracy as a role model for what might come next.” In September of 2012, Erdogan declared that, “We called ourselves conservative democrats. We focused our change on basic rights and freedom… This stance has gone beyond our country’s borders and has become an example for all Muslim countries.”
In light of the Arab Spring, Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group stated that, “Turkey is the envy of the Arab world… It has moved to a robust democracy, has a genuinely elected leader who seems to speak for the popular mood, has products that are popular from Afghanistan to Morocco — including dozens of sitcoms dubbed into Arabic that are on TV sets everywhere — and an economy that is worth about half of the whole Arab world put together.”
On May 24, 2013, a few days prior to the current protests and police repression erupting across the country, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Besir Atalay, spoke at the 38th Congress of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), declaring: “We enhanced suspect and defendant rights and custody conditions. We based our solutions for all problems, including terror, on more democracy, freedom and pluralism. We have lifted the legal barriers on free expression of non-violent and non-threatening thoughts. We have made great efforts to normalize Turkey.” He also explained that Turkey “used to have problems” in regards to human rights problems, but the country has “changed a lot.”
Apparently, two days later, it changed back.
No Stranger to Atrocities
Turkey’s horrific human rights record is most revealed by its treatment of the large Kurdish ethnic minority, with a 30-year war between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which killed upwards of 40,000 people. Those within Turkey – whether academics, journalists, or politicians – who support nonviolent Kurdish resistance are considered by the government to be “terrorists” and are often jailed.
As the Turkish government undertook a massive counterinsurgency program against the PKK specifically and the Kurdish population of Turkey more generally, tens of thousands were murdered, tortured and imprisoned. At the height of Turkish state atrocities, the country was a major recipient of U.S. military aid. A 1995 report from Human Rights Watch concluded that: “the U.S. is deeply implicated in the Turkish government’s counterinsurgency policy and practices through its provision of arms and political support, and is aware of the abuses being committed, but has chosen to downplay Turkish violations for strategic reasons.”
In the decade between 1985 and 1995, the United States had supplied Turkey with nearly $8 billion in military aid, putting the country just behind Israel and Egypt as the largest recipients of American military subsidies. In a civil war that began between the PKK and the Turkish government in 1984, atrocities were committed on both sides, however, with U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter jets, the Turkish government was able to destroy entire Kurdish villages, displace millions of people, and killed tens of thousands of Kurds. As the Turkish war against the Kurds escalated in 1992, “American military aid to Turkey… escalated as well.” As the New York Times reported in 1995, the United States “provide[d] 85 percent of Turkey’s arms imports and 90 percent of its military aid.”
Between 1984 and 1999, the Turkish war against the Kurds claimed upwards of 37,000 lives, mostly Kurdish, as well as the destruction of roughly 3,000 Kurdish villages. In that same amount of time, the United States supplied Turkey with roughly $10.5 billion in U.S. weapons, according to a 1999 joint report from the World Policy Institute and the Federation of American Scientists.
A 1999 report from the U.S. State Department read: “Turkey is vitally important to U.S. interests. Its position athwart the Bosporus – at the strategic nexus of Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Caspian – makes it an essential player on a wide range of issues vital to U.S. security, political, and economic interests. In a region of generally weak economies and shaky democratic traditions, political instability, terrorism, and ethnic strife, Turkey is a democratic secular nation that draws its political models from Western Europe and the United States. Turkey has cooperated intensively with the U.S. as a NATO ally and is also vigorously seeking to deepen its political and economic ties with Europe.”
In 1992, President Bill Clinton pledged “to reduce the proliferation of weapons of destruction in the hands of people who might use them in very destructive ways.” In the first six years of the Clinton administration, the United States supplied Turkey with $4.9 billion in U.S. weapons, “more than four times as large as the entire value of U.S. arms transfers to Turkey during the 34 years from 1950 to 1983.”
Even in 2007, the United States continued to help Turkey in providing intelligence and other support for attacks against Kurdish separatists. In early 2009, the government of Turkey announced a “Kurdish Opening,” relaxing restrictions on rights to Kurds and allowing for amnesty for PKK fighters. Later that year, when Kurds held a parade for returning PKK militants, the government changed its mind and in October of 2009, the Kurdish “opening” was closed. In 2010, an American journalist was arrested and deported for writing about the plight of the Kurds.
In March of 2011, inspired by events taking place in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) called for a “civil disobedience” campaign against the Turkish government in support of Kurdish rights. Beginning with a 20,000 strong sit-in strike, a BDP representative stated, “The government will not solve this problem… We want the process to be intervened in through civil politics, the democratic power of the people and civil-disobedience actions.” The demands they were asking for included “education in mother tongue, the release of political prisoners, an end to military and political operations [against Kurds] and the elimination of the 10 percent [election] threshold.” They further emphasized that all their actions would be “democratic and peaceful.”
As the Kurdish protests continued through April, one BDP representative stated, “Our struggle is not just for our rights, but to bring democracy to Turkey.” In May of 2011, Erdogan declared that, “There is no longer a Kurdish question in this country. I do not accept this. There are problems of my Kurdish brothers, but no longer a Kurdish question.” By late May, it was reported that more than 2,500 activists engaging in civil disobedience for Kurdish rights had been “taken into custody” over the previous 50 days.
As Erdogan won another national election in June of 2011, the BDP threatened further civil disobedience if their rights were not recognized in a new constitution. As pro-Kurdish protesters marched in Istanbul in late June, they were met with riot police and tear gas. Protests sparked up once again in December of 2011 following the government killing 35 Kurdish civilians in an airstrike, mistaking them for militants. In early January of 2012, the government said it would compensate the families of the 35 Kurdish victims for killing the wrong people.
In November of 2012, roughly 700 prisoners in Turkey had gone on hunger strike in support of Kurdish rights. However, a few weeks later the hunger strike ended after a jailed Kurdish PKK leader called for an end to it. In February of 2013, Kurdish protesters clashed with Turkish riot police once again. By March of 2013, a ceasefire was announced between the government and the PKK. However, major issues remain, as Turkish law “still equates Kurdish identity politics with abetting terrorism,” and there exist “8,000 or so pro-Kurdish political activists held in pretrial detention under Turkey’s sweeping antiterrorism laws.” In the previous year and a half, violence between the Kurds and Turkish government had been the worst in more than a decade with over 900 people killed, and it was in that same amount of time that roughly 8,000 Kurdish journalists, politicians, and activists were imprisoned, and remained so by May of 2013.
Clearly, the struggle for democracy in Turkey has to include the Kurds front and center.
Neoliberalism and the Economic Oligarchy in Turkey
The grievances in Turkey are not simply the result of the plans to demolish a park, or the lack of democracy and heavy-handed police repression, but also of the economic reforms which often go hand-in-hand with democratic decline. Indeed, Turkey’s economy is dominated – like most countries – by a very small oligarchy, which is itself highly integrated with the global state-capitalist oligarchy of bankers, corporations and policy-makers.
Following the decline and demise of the Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, establishing the ideology of ‘Kemalism,’ which sought to modernize Turkey along the same lines as the Western European powers. Nationalist elites arose through the 1920s and 30s, directing Turkey’s state capitalist order, where “the state bureaucracy operated as the original source of capitalist accumulation.”1
The Turkish state then “literally created big private businesses within a society where a self-developed business class had been absent.” With the onset of the Great Depression, “Turkish industrial and commercial entrepreneurs rushed to engage in speculative activities that adversely affected the national economy,” leading to increased hostility toward business interests. Corruption and profiteering became rampant within Turkish industry, especially during World War II. Legislation was even introduced in 1942 to punish war profiteers.2
The Kemalist state pursued a state monopoly from the 1920s onward largely by nationalizing major sectors of the economy, including “the railways, telecommunications, port facilities, and mining and textile corporations, most of which had been in the hands of foreigners.” Following World War II, the capitalists revolted against the one-party rule of the Kemalist People’s Party and installed “a pseudo-democracy under the leadership of the Democratic Party (DP), which represented landlords and capitalists.”3 With some outside pressure coming from the United States to allow for “multi-party politics,” the government caved to the U.S. and the Democratic Party came to power in 1950, with the party and Prime Minister Adnan Menderes “committed to the demands of private business.”4
At that point, the country began a process of economic development through import substitution industrialization (ISI), whereby the aim was to reduce dependency on foreign imports by focusing on domestic production of industrial goods. This helped facilitate an export boom, “and triggered the explosive growth of urban industrial centres.” As John Lovering and Hade Türkmen wrote in the journal International Planning Studies, this process “lead to the consolidation of a set of protected industrial corporations, a new state-industrial managerial elite, the growth and urbanization of an industrial working class, and the institutionalization of one-way rural-urban migration.”5
The major Turkish conglomerates which arose maintained family ownership of the firms and their subsidiaries through the formation of large holding companies, the first ones of which were established in 1955, the Deva Holding and the Sinai & Mali Yatirim Holding. The political instability which resulted from the “state-business collusion under pseudo-democracy” led to the May 1960 military coup. The military arrested the prime minister, president, cabinet members, and took control of key government posts. These original holdings collapsed without the support of the DP. As Ingyu Oh and Recep Varcin wrote in the journal Third World Quarterly, “the new top-down Mafioso state bred and protected new holdings,” much larger than those established under the DP government. Notably, in 1963, the Koc Holding was established, owned by the Koc family.6
In 1971, another military coup took place, though the major holdings remained, “mainly because of their sheer size and market power in the Turkish economy.” These holdings then formed an interest group called the Association of Turkish Industrialists and Employers (TUSIAD), which consisted of the membership of the large holding companies of Koc, Sabanci, Tekfen, Eczacibasi and Yasar.7
Founded in the same year as the military coup (1971), TUSIAD’s “members sought to increase the legitimacy of private enterprise as an acceptable endeavor and path towards development.” The members of TUSIAD “owed the success and even existence of their firms to state contracts and subsidies that they had managed to obtain through informal access to officials and government.”8
Throughout the 1970s, squatter areas in the cities – in large part created by the massive urban migration of the rural poor in previous decades – had led to increased tensions and conflicts, as these “areas of the cities became battlegrounds fought over by nationalist, fascist, Maoist, Guevarist, anarchist, socialist and Islamist factions.”9 These “antagonistic class relations” had begun “to undermine corporatist state-labor relations and to weaken the position of the oligarchs.”10
In 1979, as Turkey was in economic trouble – along with much of the rest of the ‘Third World’ – the TUSIAD flexed its political muscle and published newspaper ads “criticizing the reluctance of the then Prime Minister Ecevit in the full adoption of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) measures.” Some observers credit this letter with leading to the military coup that took place in 1980.11
When the new military government came to power, TUSIAD openly endorsed it, rather than supporting the previous democratically-elected government which the business organization had criticized. In fact, the owner of Koc Holding – the largest Turkish conglomerate – Vehbi Koc, “sent a letter to the new military leaders to publicize his support.” Other major holdings even appointed military generals to their boars of directors. In Turkey, “frequent military coups further reduced the military’s grip on the economy, while the Holdings could cash in on political instability by continuing to expand through co-opting each new set of military leaders.”12
Immediately following the coup, the military government attempted to restore order to Turkey “by dissolving the parliament, the political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations and by banning the party leaders from re-entering politics.” The only major organization which was not dissolved or co-opted by the military dictatorship was TUSIAD.10 The process not only involved “dissolving” the groups, but also purging them of membership, as the army “imprisoned and killed activists and trade unionists, replaced suspect academics with complaint ‘Pyjama Professors’ appointed overnight, and drew up a new and less permissive constitution.”9
The overthrow of the democratic government and its replacement with a military dictatorship in 1980 marked the beginning of the neoliberal era in Turkey. One of the most influential figures during this period – Turkey’s equivalent of Thatcher or Reagan – was Turgut Ozal. Having risen through the state bureaucracy responsible for economic management in the 1960s and 1970s, he then went to go work for the World Bank. Between 1973 and 1979, Ozal returned to Turkey to work in the private sector, including holding a top position at the Sabanci Corporation, one of Turkey’s largest family holdings. As the government began negotiations with the IMF in 1979, Ozal was appointed as the main figure responsible for implementing the IMF’s demanded reforms in 1980. When the civilian government that appointed him was overthrown by the military, the new government kept Ozal on, and the interim government elevated him to the position of Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Economic Affairs.13
Ozal had to resign from his post in 1982 due to a scandal, but at that time, he began to organize a new political party, the Motherland Party (ANAP). When the military government held elections in 1983, the ANAP won a majority and Ozal became Prime Minister. He would later be re-elected in 1987, and would become President in 1989 until his death in 1993. Thus, “from January 1980 to November 1989, albeit with the interruption of a brief period, Turkey experienced extraordinary continuity in economic leadership.”14
As Prime Minister, Ozal implemented policies of trade liberalization, opening up Turkey to foreign markets, and even made steps toward encouraging the privatization of state owned enterprises (though this would not accelerate until later). Ozal also implemented austerity measures, reducing public spending and increasing various taxes on the population. At the same time, his government provided tax rebates and major subsidies to Turkey’s large holding conglomerates, providing “incentives” for the companies to export more, and to establish subsidiary “foreign trade companies” with the purpose of transitioning Turkey into “an export-led economic order.” Thus, in 1980, Turkey’s exports were valued at $2.9 billion (U.S.), and in 1989 this increased to $12.9 billion. Ozal was able to implement these neoliberal reforms precisely because the military government prior to his administration had already banned the opposition parties and political elites, and “the armed forces violently suppressed trade unions and leftist groups in order to safeguard the unpopular reform measures in the face of bottom-up pressures.”15
In the late 1980s, Ozal had to bow to popular pressure and allow other political elites and parties to return to the process, and following the 1989 election, he became president of the republic. His policies over the previous decade “disproportionately benefitted the established family business oligarchs.”16
At the same time Ozal became President of the Turkish Republic, leadership changed within the business organization TUSIAD, where in the 1980s its focus was almost exclusively on economic issues, under the direction of Cem Boyner in 1989 it “began to focus on political issues again,” publishing reports into the 1990s promoting various rights and local government privileges. In 1997, TUSIAD published the report Perspectives on Democracy, promoting various democratic reforms within the country. Many within TUSIAD were interested in advancing their relationship with the European Union, which would require specific reforms to join, and throughout the 1990s many of the big conglomerates were “becoming increasingly international and were moving towards more capital-intensive sectors of industry.” Thus, they needed access to new technologies and foreign investment, as well as the creation of a qualified labour force and domestic market. These interests “required the kinds of institutions found in democracies, such as the rule of law, and also went hand-in-hand with the more social aspects of democracy.”17 Though, of course, there are limitations to how far oligarchs are willing to reform.
The post-Ozal governments through the 1990s, however, failed to advance the neoliberal agenda as well as their predecessor, reverting to more familiar patterns of corruption (and not to mention, waging a massive war against the Kurds). This led to the emergence of new Islamist parties “that were able to present themselves as comparatively untainted by corruption,” as well as being “pro-market.” In the mid-1990s, many Islamist governments were taking control of local governments and cities.18
With the concentration of economic power in so few hands, and with an increased focus on financialization instead of industrialization, Turkey experienced an economic crisis in 1994. At this point, the IMF was called in and established a program with Turkey calling for austerity measures and various other structural reforms.19 The result was predictable: income distribution accelerated its shift from industrial sectors and labour/wages toward financial sectors, controlled by the large conglomerates. In the aftermath of the crisis, wages for workers in manufacturing sectors declined by 30% in the private sector and 18% in the public sector. In 1995, “growth” was restored to Turkey in the form of more financial speculation, leading to the next economic crisis from 2000-2001, which again forced labour markets to suffer in response to the crisis.20
With the 2000/2001 crisis, the IMF came to the “rescue” once again, and this time, the Turkish technocrat responsible for implementing the ‘reforms’ was Kemal Dervis, who had a long career at the World Bank. Many segments of the population, however, “identified him as an agent of the IMF, transplanted to Turkish politics by external forces… a representative of the transnational capital and narrowly-based Istanbul elites.”21 Dervis went on to head the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and is currently a vice president at the Brookings Institution, a major American think tank. He is also a senior adviser to Sabanci University and is on the international advisory board of Akbank, one of Turkey’s largest banks.
The international advisory board of Akbank is made up of a collection of prominent global plutocrats, including Josef Ackermann, former chairman and CEO of Deutsche Bank, currently the chairman of Zurich Insurance Group who sits on the boards of Siemens, Royal Dutch Shell, and Investor AB, as well as holding leadership positions with the World Economic Forum and the Bilderberg Group.
In 2002, a new political party was formed by the former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the main representative of the ‘Muslim business class,’ Abdullah Gul. The new party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), “was able to present itself as fresh, democratic and economically rational, especially to global audiences.” After winning the election that year and coming to power in 2003, Erdogan and the AKP “picked up the neo-liberalizing agenda begun two decades previously, at the same time tightening control over the media and educational appointments.”18
Erdogan’s AKP government was the first Turkish government to successfully and rapidly advance the privatization agenda. Since the creation of the privatization agency under Ozal in 1985 until 2002, privatizations had only generated $9.5 billion. Yet, between 2002 and 2012, with Erdogan at the helm, privatizations generated over $34 billion, “with most sales occurring in the fields of energy, telecommunications, mining, sugar and tobacco.” The levels of foreign direct investment (foreign corporations entering the Turkish market) also increased, reaching $20 billion in 2007.22
The AKP government actively sought the support and participation of the major family conglomerate holdings represented by TUSIAD. The government pursued reforms which were demanded in order to gain possibly entry into the EU, as well as initially continuing to implement the reforms demanded by the IMF. TUSIAD lobbied for support to join the EU, organizing visits with European leaders, and in the first few years of the AKP in power, “both Erdogan and TUSIAD made conscientious efforts to establish direct contact with each other,” and one TUSIAD member even served as an economic adviser to Erdogan.23
As Ziya Onis wrote in Third World Quarterly, Erdogan’s AKP party “proved to be highly committed to extend the path of Turkey’s neo-liberal integration to the global economy with a new wave of economic reforms.” Among them were efforts – in the early years of AKP rule – to pass legislation which protected the ‘rights’ of foreign investors, such as the 2003 Foreign Investment Law. Domestic conglomerates were also better positioned “to participate in Turkey’s privatization experiment,” since many of these firms had transnationalized, and were often able to form “strategic partnerships with foreign firms [which] rendered the job of the government easier for legitimizing a large-scale privatization program to the public.”24 One such strategic partnership was established between the world’s largest corporation – Shell – and Turkey’s largest conglomerate – Koc Holding – in the privatization of TÜRPAS, a major Turkish oil refining complex.25
TUSIAD has increased its membership from 140 in 1975 to roughly 600 in 2008, but “it still remains the voice of the few families who own the largest holdings in Turkey,” and the way in which it is structured and managed by its High Advisory Council and board of directors “reflects an attempt to safeguard the control of key families.” As Devrum Yavuz wrote in the journal Government and Opposition, “in a context where a pro-business party is lacking, business associations can work to give members of capital a more legitimate and less reactionary way of participating in debates,” and thus, “TUSIAD works as the bourgeoisie’s ‘party’ and its more informed members help formulate its ideology.”26
TUSIAD’s High Advisory Council was chaired by Vehbi Koc from the organization’s founding in 1971 until 1979. His son, Rahmi Koc, joined the High Advisory Council in 1989, and was chairman from 1990 until 1994. His eldest son, Mustafa Koc, chaired the council from 2005 to 2010. The Koc family have also been fairly consistent members of the board of TUSIAD, as well as honourary chairmen.
In 2010, the Koc family had a wealth valued at more than $10 billion, making them Turkey’s richest family, with Koc Holding being active in the automotive, energy, petrochemical, retail, food and finance sectors. Other prominent Turkish dynasties, such as the Sahenk and Sabanci families also topped the list of the country’s wealthiest people. These families have been able to dramatically increase their wealth through directly or jointly owning large banks, with the Sahenk family partnering with Garanti Bank, the Sanbaci’s with Akbank, and the Koc family with Yapı Kredi Bank, of which Mustafa Koc is chairman.
As Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister of Turkey in 2003, Koc Holding’s then-chairman Rahmi Koc handed his position over to the eldest of his three sons, Mustafa Koc. As he took up his new position, Mustafa Koc expressed confidence in the newly-elected AKP government, explaining, “the people who propelled Mr Erdogan to power were voting against the old guard of corrupt politicians. If he deviates from secularism, they will bring him down.” Mustafa added: “We have excellent relations with the prime minister… and he listens to what we have to say.”
As of early 2013, Koc Holding “owns all of Turkey’s oil refining capacity,” and like the Rockefeller family in the United States, they have imprinted their name and influence across all sectors of society, with five museums and galleries established by family members, “and hospitals, schools and universities all bear their name.”
Today, Mustafa Koc is the quintessential example of a top representative of a national oligarchy who is deeply integrated with the global oligarchy. Not only is he chairman of the board of Turkey’s largest conglomerate and honorary chairman of TUSIAD, but he is also a member of the international advisory council of the world’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, as well as sitting on the international advisory board of Rolls Royce. Mustafa sits on the Global Advisory Board of the most influential think tank in the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations; he is a member of the Steering Committee of one of the world’s most influential international think tanks, the Bilderberg Group, and is on the advisory board of Monument Capital Group. He is also a former member of the international advisory board of the National Bank of Kuwait.
At the June 2013 Bilderberg Meeting, taking place in the midst of the mass protests in Turkey, Mustafa Koc participated alongside several other Turkish members, including a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper, as well as Ali Babacan, the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Financial Affairs; the president of the Retail and Insurance Group of Sabanci Holdings; Soli Ozel, a lecturer at Kadir Has University and columnist with Habertürk Newspaper and Safak Pavey, a member of the Turkish parliament for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Koc and the other Turkish participants met at Bilderberg with prominent members of the global plutocracy, including top executives and board members of Deutsche Bank, Zurich Insurance Group, Barclays, BP, Investor AB, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Royal Dutch Shell, as well as top European Union officials, heads of state, elite academics, think tanks, media conglomerates, and the heads of international organizations like the IMF.
In 2006, Prime Minister Erdogan attended the 80th anniversary celebration of Koc Holding, shortly following honourary president Rahmi Koc having made a statement about Turkey’s “stable” economic environment as being owed largely “to the success of a one-party government.” Sources informed the Turkish media that “the cordial relations between the most powerful company in Turkey, Koç Holding, and the government were continuing.”
As Bloomberg reported in 2010, Erdogan’s economic policies had helped fuel the rise of a “new elite” in Turkey, which potentially “threaten to overshadow the business dynasties that have dominated Turkey for decades,” though the “old guard” still managed to do very well under Erdogan. In just four years, the Sabanci family’s Sabanci Holding saw revenue rise by 86% to $12.6 billion in 2009, while revenue for Koc Holding doubled between 2004 and 2006. Nahit Kiler, one of Erdogan’s “new elite” and owner of Kiler Holding, whose personal wealth reaches between $500-750 million, credits his success story in construction and energy markets to Erdogan’s government: “We have started these investments with confidence in the government’s decisions… A single-party government without opposition speeds things up.”
In December of 2011, Erdogan met privately in a meeting closed to the press with Rahmi Koc at the president’s palace less than two weeks after Koc publicly complained about the “strain” some economic policies were putting on his business. The meeting also reportedly discussed the possibility of producing a national automobile. Mustafa Koc later publicly came out against the government’s idea of creating a distinctly Turkish car, claiming it would be “commercial suicide.” Koc Holding, which is the largest automaker in Turkey, primarily works through joint ventures with major international automakers such as Ford, Fiat and Renault. With resistance to the government’s idea coming from members of TUSIAD, as well as various criticisms from the members toward Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian government, relations between the organization and the government grew tense. Erdogan has even threatened in late 2012 to boycott TUSIAD, and in April of 2013, TUSIAD’s new chairman complained that they had been unable to have a meeting with the prime minister, “We demanded an appointment with the prime minister… We are the party that has demanded the rendezvous.”
TUSIAD, however, met with several other government officials, including President Abdullah Gül, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, and several opposition figures. TUSIAD was recommending that the government consider three primary measures to add to the constitution: “judicial freedoms, universal rights and freedoms and a change in the democratic representation system.” With these reforms, TUSIAD stated, “then we can be more hopeful about the future of the country.”
Finally, in early May 2013, Erdogan met with TUSIAD leaders in a closed session. Following the meeting, the TUSIAD president Yilmaz stated, “We are on the even of making a quantum leap in prosperity, bringing peace to the country and society.” When Erdogan went to the US in mid-May to meet with President Obama, TUSIAD members also went to meet with their American counterpart business organizations.
TUSIAD’s criticism of the Erdogan government and its advocacy for ‘democratic rights’ should not be mistaken for an interest in genuine democracy. Remember, when it has suited their interests, TUSIAD and the major family conglomerates have always supported coups and dictatorships, so why would they suddenly become strong advocates of ‘democracy’? This is derived from their advocacy of a narrowly defined concept of democracy and democratic rights, one which grants the rule of law and private property rights and thus, prevents governmental interference in their privileges, and out of an interest to join and integrate with their plutocratic counterparts in the European Union, which demands certain democratic rights as a pre-requisite.
Further, in the midst of popular protests and urban rebellions, plutocrats and oligarchs are interested in the maintenance of ‘stability’ and ‘order.’ It is well understood that societies which allow for dissent – even if it remains marginalized and ignored – achieve longer-term stability, for it creates a release valve through which discontent at the social order could reduce its pressure, somewhat akin to opening the flood gates of a dam so as to prevent the dam from breaking. Thus, in the midst of the mass protests against the Erdogan government, TUSIAD issued a public statement declaring: “The disproportionate force used against… the protests have not only harmed the public conscience, they have had demoralizing effect on any efforts over reconciliation.”
So plutocrats may come into conflict with politicians in petty squabbles for power, but ultimately they are playing a game between and with each other – in competition or cooperation – but the main consistency is that power is exercised above and over the actual population as a whole. Erdogan’s government has even run into conflict with the Koc family and Koc Holding.
In December of 2012, as part of the government’s ambitious privatization agenda, Koc Holding won a bid for a 25-year highway concession, the country’s second largest ever privatization, in cooperation with another Turkish conglomerate, Yildiz Holding and a state-owned Malaysian engineering company, UEM. The concession would grant this consortium of three companies to “operate and maintain a network of 1,975km of highways, including the toll roads on two bridges that cross the Bosphorus.” In February of 2013, the Turkish government cancelled the $5.7 billion deal “because the price tag was not high enough.” However, all was not lost for Koc Holding, as in a meeting chaired by Erdogan the previous month, the Turkish defense procurement body agreed to begin talks with the Koc Holding over a $2.5 billion contract for the company to build six warships.
Is Turkey an “Economic Miracle”?
While Turkey’s power politics between plutocrats and politicians may grab headlines, the reality is, as economics professor Sumru Altug of Koc University in Istanbul noted, “When it comes to economy, Erdogan’s politics have always been pragmatic and progressive and that’s what is being acknowledged by all business people, regardless of their political or religious attitudes… At the end of the day, money is money and business is business.” Indeed, under Erdogan’s government, both old and new conglomerates have profited immensely from what is termed “Turkey’s economic miracle.”
Like all self-proclaimed economic “miracles,” it’s only miraculous for a very small minority within society, and it tends to be increasingly difficult for most of the rest of the population. The Istinye Park shopping mall “is an emblem of Turkey’s economic boom,” drawing in the Istanbul elite “with its valet parking and chic boutiques.” Just behind this high-end establishment is a large Istanbul slum housing migrants from the countryside who came to the city in search of work. According to Sinan Ulgen of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, based in Istanbul, the wide disparity in Turkish society has been fuelling “alienation and disenfranchisement.” Among the 34 rich countries of the world which comprise the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Turkey has the third highest levels of income inequality (that is, the third highest divides between the rich and poor), even though the country had been experiencing annual economic growth of 3.5% between 2007 and 2011.
Turkish economist Mustafa Sonmez stated: “The social state is missing in Turkey. The highest amount of taxes is collected from the middle and lower classes… For the equal distribution of income you need strong labour unions, but this right has been scaled back since Sept. 12, 1980,” when the military overthrew the government and dissolved unions and killed union activists. Sonmez added: “Workers don’t have a say in income distribution.” Women are especially vulnerable, with restrained access to higher education and where many are encouraged not to work. As of 2011, roughly 30% of Turkish women and 40% of Turks aged 15-24 were employed or actively looking for work. An opposition politician in charge of economic policy for the Republican People’s Party warned: “If the hope of the young to reach the desired living standard gradually fades… Turkey may face serious social issues.”
Turkey has an extremely unequal tax system, as most countries do, whereby “the rich pay only a tiny fraction of their income,” as distinct from their overall wealth, while “about 60-70 percent of the employed and especially poor people’s incomes go to the state as taxes.” According to the most recent stats from the OECD, the top five most unequal countries on earth – in descending order – were Chile, Mexico, Turkey, the United States and Israel, all of which are major examples of neoliberal “success stories” rooted in deeply violent and militaristic societies run by small oligarchies.
The “economic success story” of Turkey, which has tripled the size of its economy over the last decade of Erdogan’s rule, has also featured “a deepening income gap and crimped workers’ rights,” according to a report in EruasiaNet. The Ministry of Family and Social Rights revealed in 2012 that “nearly 40 percent of Turkey’s population of over 75.6 million lives at or below the monthly minimum wage of 773 liras, or about $415.19,” while roughly 6.4% “live below the designated hunger line” at $237.95 per month (or 430 liras). At the same time, according to the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, “63 percent of the country’s bank deposits belong to a mere one-half of a percent of all account holders.”
In other words, while 40% of Turkey’s population lives in poverty and 6.4% live in hunger, a tiny 0.5% of the population control 63% of the country’s wealth (in bank deposits). Even a columnist at a pro-government newspaper warned in late May of 2013 that, “There is [a] big social gap between rich and poor. Poverty is getting deep[er] every day.” An official with the United Metal Workers Union stated that: “Prices are going up every day, the cost of living is becoming very expensive and workers are in no position to demand extra pay.” Thus, he explained, “what they have to do is work longer and longer hours… It is not even considered overtime anymore.” The OECD even noted that roughly 46% of Turkish employees work “very long hours” compared to the average for OECD countries, where roughly 9% of employees across the 34 OECD countries work ‘very long hours.’ Since the AKP came to power with Erdogan in 2002, “labor union membership has fallen from 9.5 percent of the country’s workforce of 28.9 million to 5.9 percent.”
As Human Rights Watch noted, while the government of Turkey lifted a ban on state workers joining unions in 2004 (under pressure from the EU), the government has continued to persecute union activists under its anti-terror laws, with 67 labour unionists in prison in 2012. Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch warned: “In all of these kind of operations, when you go after labor unionists as terrorists, although you have no evidence of them committing violent activities or inciting violence, it essentially has a chilling effect for the workforce more widely.” Sharan Burrow of the International Labor Union Confederation (ITUC) warned that “the situation is getting worse,” noting: “Workers can’t operate openly, they can’t hold [a] public assembly, and major companies can use laws against workers to choose which unions operate.”
On 1 May 2013 – internationally known as ‘May Day’ marking labour protests – Turkish protests in Istanbul turned violent when riot police used water cannons and tear gas on workers and supporters who defied a ban on protests to demonstrate in the streets. Thousands of police were dispersed into the streets, while government officials refused to give trade unions the right to protest in Taksim Square, “saying construction work there would make any gathering of protesters there too dangerous.” Roughly 72 arrests were made and at least 28 people were injured by the police. May Day protests had been banned for decades in Turkey, though they were officially reinstated in 2010. While tens of thousands of protesters defied the ban and attempted to breach the barriers on the streets established by police forces to prevent entrance to Taksim, heavy-handed repression was used to keep them away, with some protesters reacting by throwing rocks. Several protesters were admitted to hospitals with head traumas and respiratory problems brought on by the tear gas and police assaults.
Erdogan: Barack Obama’s “Outstanding Friend”
Roughly two weeks after Erdogan’s government violently crushed the May Day protests at Taksim, and less than two weeks before he would begin crushing the much larger mass protests across the country, Prime Minister Erdogan went on an official state visit to the United States to meet President Obama on May 16.
Following their meeting, the two heads of state gave a joint press conference, where Obama stated, “It is a great pleasure to welcome my friend, Prime Minister Erdogan, back to the White House,” adding that the U.S. values its relationship with Turkey as being of great importance, “and I value so much the partnership that I’ve been able to develop with Prime Minister Erdogan.” Further, explained Obama, “I want to make sure that we also keep deepening our economic ties with Turkey,” adding: “the progress that Turkey’s economy has made over the last several years I think has been remarkable and the Prime Minister deserves much credit for some of the reforms that are already taking place.” Noting that the United States “has stood with you in your long search for security” (leaving out the part about supplying tens of billions in arms while Turkey killed tens of thousands of Kurds), Obama then said, “we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.” Presumably, Obama forgot about the thousands of imprisoned journalists, union activists, intellectuals, politicians, students, Kurds, lawyers and human rights activists.
At the same press conference, Erdogan stated that, “I am here with close to a hundred business people, and they are holding meetings with their counterparts in the United States,” noting that in the previous ten years, trade between Turkey and the United States had increased from $8-20 billion, but that, “this amount is still not sufficient. We have to increase the amount of trade between our two countries.” Erdogan suggested, “we need to strengthen this relationship with free trade agreements and other agreements.”
In January of 2012, President Obama explained to Time’s Fareed Zakaria that, “the friendships and the bonds of trust that I’ve been able to forge with a whole range of leaders is precisely – or is a big part of what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy.” Obama then went on to identify five world leaders with whom he has established especially ‘friendly’ and ‘trusting’ relationships: “I mean, I think that if you ask them – Angela Merkel [in Germany], or Prime Minister Singh [in India], or President Lee [in South Korea], or Prime Minister Erdogan [in Turkey], or David Cameron [in the UK] would say, we have a lot of trust and confidence in the President. We believe what he says. We believe that he’ll follow through on his commitments. We think he’s paying attention to our concerns and our interests.” Of course, that’s not to be confused with the ‘interests’ of the people of those countries, but rather the ‘interests’ of the political and economic elites of those countries: oligarchic interests (precisely the same interests Obama serves within the United States itself).
On June 3, several days into the mass protests and state repression and violence, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the United States “supports full freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to protest,” and added that the administration believes “that the vast majority of the protesters have been peaceful, law-abiding, ordinary citizens exercising their rights.” Carney then urged “all parties to refrain from provoking violence.” Carney said that Obama had not spoken to Erdogan since the protests began, but when asked how important stability in Turkey was to Obama, Carney replied: “Turkey is a very important ally. And look, all democracies have issues that they need to work through and we would expect the government to work through this in a way that respects the rights of their citizens.”
On the same day, Secretary of State John Kerry took the same talking points, saying that, “the United States supports full freedom of expression and assembly, including the right of people to peaceful protest,” but that “we are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police,” and added that, “we urge all people involved, those demonstrating and expressing their freedom of expression and those in the government, to avoid any provocations of violence.” Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to the American-Turkish Council, said that, “Turkey’s future belongs to the people of Turkey and no one else. But the United States does not pretend to be indifferent to the outcome.”
The Urban Uprisings Accelerate
Following the first week of protests at Gezi Park and the massive police response which took place in May 31, the protest movement rapidly accelerated and spread across the country, followed closely by massive state repression.
On May 31, the protests had spread to the cities of Izmir and Ankara, while police used water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray to attempt to suppress the crowds, arresting dozens and even sending people to the hospital. Overnight, police had begun to use helicopters to drop tear gas canisters on the protesters below, and at half past one in the morning of June 1, the city of Istanbul was wide awake with people banging pots and bans, blowing whistles, and flashing their lights on and off in solidarity with the protesters.
In the capital of Ankara, protesters lit fires to counter the immense levels of tear gas used by police, and in Istanbul large bonfires were lit alongside overturned vehicles as protesters battled with riot cops. In more than 90 separate protests across the country that day, roughly 1,000 people were arrested. More than a thousand protesters were injured in Istanbul alone, along with several hundred more in Ankara. Helicopters continued to launch tear gas into residential neighbourhoods, and one protester was hit by an armored police truck as it drove through a barricade. One protester stated, “It’s about democracy, and it’s going to get bigger,” while a 60-year old participant explained, “All dictators use the same methods, oppressing their people.” Erdogan arrogantly proclaimed: “If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.”
On June 2, as the protests continued, Erdogan stated, “I am not going to seek the permission of the [opposition] or a handful of plunderers,” referring to his plans to demolish Gezi Park, adding: “If they call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator,’ I have nothing to say.” Erdogan also claimed the protesters were being “manipulated by the opposition,” calling them “marauders and extremists,” adding that he suspected “foreign powers” were behind the protests.
Most of the protests were organized and publicized through social media, as Turkey’s media failed to cover the protests at all, or downplayed their significance. In the early days of the major protests and clashes with police, CNN Turk was playing “a three-part documentary about penguins rather than cover what is arguably the biggest news story inside Turkey for decades.” Nina Oginanova of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – which has been highly critical of Erdogan’s jailing of journalists in recent years – commented: “What we’re seeing now is really the product of what has come to be seen as a timid local media, a repressed local media that has made everyone unhappy in Turkey. This is the product of the government’s policy toward the press, particularly the high hostility from the very top toward critical media, toward individual journalists and columnists who have criticized the policies of the AKP.”
As the protests continued for days, NTV, one of the country’s largest television networks (and a partner of MSNBC), officially apologized for its failure to cover the protests. Other media outlets began following in step, increasing their coverage of events. One student protester explained, “There has been too much blood shed and they’ve only just now apologized. It’s too late… I’m done with them.” Asli Tunc, professor and head of the Media School at Istanbul Bilgi University commented: “I think there is pressure coming from the grassroots level now, especially from young people who don’t buy newspapers or watch TV news now. They’re just looking at Twitter or blogs. Things are changing rapidly. The way people consume media, especially young people is changing so the media has to adjust, otherwise it will lose all of its advertising revenue.”
It’s no surprise then, that Erdogan stated on June 2 that, “Now we have a menace that is called Twitter… The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Erdogan has thus joined the list of Arab and Middle East dictators who have lashed out against social media, and specifically the use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube in organizing and documenting protests and revolutions. As Erdogan declared he didn’t need “permission” from “marauders” and lashed out against the “menace” of social media, Turkish protesters using social media reacted. One tweet declared, “He’s a dictator… He sounds like Mubarak,” and another in response said, “He’ll end up like him, too.”
On Sunday 3 June, the third major day of protests across the country drew tens of thousands of people into the streets, with more than 200 demonstrations in 67 cities, with hundreds of injuries reported. Erdogan referred to the protesters as “a few looters.” It was reported that over the course of the weekend, more than one thousand protesters in Istanbul and 700 in Ankara had been injured, according to the Turkish Doctors’ Association, while roughly 2000 people had been arrested. Barack Obama’s White House called for “calm” and for the Turkish security forces to “exercise restraint” in crushing the protests.
Exercise “Restraint”: The Softer Side of State Repression
While U.S. statements called for “calm” and “restraint” – including urging restraint among the tens of thousands who are being repressed by the security forces – the U.S. has been a leading supplier of Turkish arms and various “crowd control” equipment to Turkey. In 2009 alone, Turkey purchased $1.5 billion in U.S. arms.
At a major international arms dealer convention in Abu Dhabi in February of 2013, several companies from the US, Europe and around the world were encouraging Middle East and North African countries to increase their purchases of arms, especially in light of the Arab uprisings in recent years. A representative from Paramount Group, a major South African defense and security corporation stated, “Every country must invest in the correct equipment for crowd control.” He continued: “The riot catastrophe in Egypt, for example, was greatly exacerbated because police were using inappropriate equipment,” he said, referring to the Egyptian uprising as a “riot catastrophe.” Paramount Group was displaying its new riot control equipment at the arms dealer bonanza, alongside a prominent Turkish company, Otokar, which was displaying the latest in riot control vehicles. The Paramount Group representative went on, explaining: “Appropriate and better-quality anti-riot vehicles and equipment increases police safety, thus reducing the pressure they feel in conflict situations.”
Steven Adragna of the US-based Arcanum defense firm stated, “If a given state lacks the means, the doctrines, and the training for homeland defense and internal security missions, that government is more likely to use lethal means that are disproportionate.” Thus, he suggested that anti-riot gear could “maintain order,” adding: “If an individual policeman is trained on how to use those devices,” such as batons, shields, shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, “I think they are perfectly legitimate.” A Brazilian arms dealer noted, “Rubber bullets come with instructions.” An Italian arms dealer proudly explained, “Egypt is a big customer. Egyptian police have several thousands of this” M3 shotgun, used for “crowd control.” He added: “In the past two years, we had a big increase in purchase orders from the Middle East.”
The Turkish-based Otokar defense firm received a contract from the Turkish government in April of 2013 “to provide tactical armored vehicles to the security forces.” The company has also been seeking to increase exports of its armored vehicles to countries around the world. Incidentally, the largest shareholder in Otokar is Turkey’s largest conglomerate, Koc Holding, which owns almost 50% of the company’s shares.
Over the past 12 years, Turkey has purchased $21 million in tear gas and pepper spray, primarily from firms in the United States and Brazil, including 628 tons of tear gas imported between 2000 and 2012. This is hardly surprising, considering that in 2013 alone, the government of Egypt purchased $2.5 million worth of teargas from the United States, consisting of roughly 140,000 teargas canisters. The U.S. is a major exporter of various “crowd control” and “riot control” devices to dictatorships and repressive regimes around the world, including the sale of high-tech “sonic weapons” to the repressive regime in Azerbaijan.
In 2012, the Obama administration decided to resume arms sales to the dictatorship of Bahrain as it continued to crush its domestic popular uprising, leading to serious human rights violations. In recent years, the U.S. has been increasing its sale of arms, armored vehicles, as well as chemical and riot control equipment (including teargas) to countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Peru, all of which have been increasingly repressing demonstrations within their countries. However, the United States isn’t the only major power doing so, as the UK has been selling ‘crowd control’ equipment to ruthless and repressive regimes as well. Still, the United States remains – by far – as the world’s largest arms dealer.
On June 3, as Turkish police continued to use excessive force and even fired teargas into apartment buildings, protesters managed to set fire to the AKP headquarters building in the city of Izmir. Police were firing teargas canisters at unarmed protesters from close distances, as images and videos of indiscriminate police violence against protesters were increasingly making their way through social media networks. For the hundreds and thousands of protesters arrested, many were denied access to lawyers, with their photographs and fingerprints taken, while some were denied medical access for up to 12 hours. Many protesters were beaten while in detention, and police also attacked NGO-run infirmaries used to treat wounded protesters.
The hacktivist group Anonymous announced that it would launch attacks against specific Turkish websites in what was called ‘#opTurkey’ in reaction to the government response to the protests. The group released a statement declaring: “We have watched for days with horror as our brothers and sisters in Turkey who are peacefully rising up against their tyrannical government [have been] brutalized, beaten, run over by riot vehicles, shot with water cannons and gassed in the streets.”
Workers Join the Struggle for Democracy
On June 4, the Turkish Public Workers Unions Confederation – with an estimated 240,000 members – joined the protests for a two-day strike in response to “state terror implemented against mass protests across the country,” as Erdogan’s government had “shown once again… enmity to democracy.” An Al-Jazeera reporter in Istanbul noted: “They are trying to send a message, that this is not just youth on the streets, this is not just about a park or individual demands – this is about something bigger.” However, she added, “It has to be said that unions are not that strong in Turkey. This is going to be a test to show that they are able to deliver on what they say.”
The protests had by that time resulted in the deaths of two demonstrators, as Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation reported that more than one thousand protesters had been subjected “to ill-treatment and torture” by the police forces. Erdogan had left the country the previous day to go on an official visit to Morocco where he claimed the situation in Turkey was “calming down,” rejecting any discussion of a “Turkish Spring” and calling the demonstrators “vandals.” He added: “On my return from this visit, the problems will be solved.”
In the midst of the protests, Turkey’s stock market experienced its largest fall in a decade, plunging 10.47% “over investor concerns the unrest could damage the country’s economy,” with Turkish finance minister Mehmet Simsek commenting, “This mischief making naturally affects financial markets. Their aim is to make our country weaker but the macro fundamentals are solid.” Erdogan added, “It’s the stock market, it goes down and it goes up. It can’t always be stable.”
More unions quickly announced that they were joining the protest for a public sector strike on June 5, with the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK) announcing, “The power stemming from production will take its place in the struggle.” The Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB) and the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) also announced they would join the strike, along with left wing parties and civil society groups, who converged for a mass peaceful protest in Ankara’s Kizilay Square. The government announced that security forces were urged to use restraint, and so demonstrators didn’t hesitate to join the protest with families and children, but in the early evening the government undertook a “rapid and sudden intervention” and began using water cannons and tear gas on the crowds, clearing the square and calling on the rest of the protesters to “disperse.”
As Erdogan was due to return to Turkey on June 6 from his trip to North Africa, protesters gathered in mass numbers the night before. In the previous six days of protesters, two people had been killed and more than 4,000 had been injured across roughly a dozen cities. While Istanbul was relatively quiet that night, while police kept their distance, the government crackdown accelerated in other cities across the country. With more unions having joined the protests, hundreds of thousands of workers filled the streets, banging drums, holding banners and chanting for Erdogan to resign.
Democracy and Diversity
The protests were drawing an increasingly diverse group of people together, with groups convening in Gezi Park to discuss what the nature of their movement was: not yet a revolution, but was it “an awakening, a renaissance or a citizen’s revolt?” United in their opposition to Erdogan above all else, the diversity of the protesters was impressive. One young demonstrator commented on how Erdogan sparked a much larger movement: “His understanding of democracy is you vote and that’s it. But that’s not how democracy works… There was a protest by a few tree-huggers not wanting another shopping mall being built. The police met this with huge force. Suddenly these pent-up tensions building for a long time exploded.” Some complained about the increasing turn to legislating Islam in a secular country, “In the past, the army would step in if the government abandoned secular values,” said one demonstrator. “They can’t do it any more. Most of the generals are in jail. So people have realized they have to voice their own concerns. There is no other way to change [things] than ourselves.” Some spoke out against Erdogan’s foreign policy, notably in reference to his active support and arming of certain rebel groups in neighbouring Syria. Many chants and posters depicted Erdogan as an “American stooge” or “as a puppet held by Barack Obama.”
One report in the Globe and Mail commented on the diversity of the protesters taking to the streets:
Office workers in business suits chant anti-government slogans alongside pious women wearing Muslim headscarves. Schoolchildren and bearded anarchists rub shoulders with football fans, well-heeled women in designer sunglasses and elderly couples donating food.
With 3,300 people have been arrested in the previous six days, what began as an environmental protest had “burgeoned into the most widespread unrest Turkey has seen in decades.” A representative from the group Anti-Capitalist Muslims commented, “We were in Taksim Square to resist against the authoritarian governance, police violence and to protect our park.” One businessman commented, “I saw the awful images on the Internet,” referring to the violence at Gezi Park, noting that the protesters “were there having a picnic, protecting the trees, but their tents were burnt and they were forced out with pressurized water, which can be lethal… My conscience was hurt.”
An online survey conducted by two academics from Istanbul Bilgi University over June 3 and 4 noted that the majority of protesters who convened at Taksim, “do not feel close to any political party and have said the prime minister’s authoritarian attitude caused the ongoing protests across the country.” Only 15.3% of those who took the survey said they identified with a specific political party, with 7% saying “the political party they were a member of influenced them in joining the protests.” A large percentage – 92.4% – credited Erdogan’s “authoritarian attitude” as the most influential reason to join the protests, and 91.3% also credited “the police’s disproportionate use of force” as influential. The violation of democratic rights was viewed as influential by 91.1% of respondents, and the silence of the media was seen as a significant motivator by 84.2%, while just over half – 56.2% – said the plan to cut down Gezi Park’s trees was a significant motivator.
The primary demands of protesters, according to the survey, were to bring “an end to police violence” (with 96.7%) and “respect of liberties from now on” (from 96.1% of respondents). Only 37% of survey respondents demanded a new political party be formed, and 79.5% said they did not want a military coup to intervene, with 6.6% wanting a military coup. A majority of the protesters – approximately 81.2% of the survey respondents – described themselves as “libertarian” (not to be confused with the American brand of ‘libertarianism’). Roughly 64.5% of protesters described themselves as “secular,” with 75% saying they were not “conservative.” Approximately 63.6% of the 3000 survey respondents were between the ages of 19 and 30.
While some right-leaning libertarian forums in the United States have happily endorsed the report of 81% of protesters describing themselves in Turkey as “libertarian,” the reality is that the type of libertarian identified in Turkey is more in line with how the term used to be defined and is better understood elsewhere in the world (outside the United States), referring more to left-libertarian, libertarian socialist or anarchist. American libertarians kept the anti-state rhetoric of original libertarianism, but in recent decades adopted the pro-market rhetoric of neoliberalism, a radically different form of what libertarians tend to identify themselves as in the rest of the world.
The French media more correctly interpreted the term as ‘liberal.’ Again, it is important to note that while 81% of survey respondents identified themselves as ‘libertarian,’ almost an equal percentage (75%) indicated that they were “not conservative,” while libertarians in the US tend to identify as conservative.
As some Middle Eastern reporters covering the protests in Turkey noted, the month of May “will go down in Turkish history as a truly memorable chapter,” beginning with the May Day protests of workers, union activists and leftist groups, and ending with the current unrest. The reporter noted that those who went into the streets “were predominantly the young – with a mixture of seculars, socialists, Marxists, Kemalists, anarchists, nationalists, Alevis and Kurds – who manifested high emotions and resolve against what they saw as an insufferably authoritarian way of managing affairs.”
While some Western media – such as the New York Times – framed the protests as a struggle between secularism and Islam, this “misses the point completely,” noted one demonstrator, who explained: “Sure, there are hardcore secularists in the crowds. But there are also feminists, LGBT activists, anarchists, socialists of various stripes, Kurdish movements leaders, unionized workers, architects and urban planners, soccer hooligans, environmentalists, and people who are protesting for the firs time!” A reporter with the Turkish publication Radikal noted, “Demonstrators all want different things from this protest… But right now all have united against police violence. Most importantly, they all want to practice their rights to assemble in the streets and squares, to assemble and to protest in peace.”
A reporter with Vice Magazine noted that at the protests one would see “Turkish nationalists next to Muslim anti-capitalists and even Kurds,” as well as “women in head scarves, football hooligans, and anarchists.” Like at any protest, the reporter added, “you see socialist flags and anarchist flags, but… this is clearly not a protest with [a] specific political agenda. Above all, this is a protest about human right, freedom of speech, and democracy.”
A first-person account from the protests in Istanbul noted that the AK Party “is strongest in rural parts of Turkey and resistance to the government has been strongest in the traditionally socially liberal, left-leaning, and more European cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.” Further, the author noted, “[t]he Turkish Left is larger than anything I’ve ever experienced in the [United] States or the UK and appears to be dominated by Leninists. An anarchist presence seems negligible at best.”
Uprising Turns ‘Markets’ Against Erdogan
By Thursday, June 6, the day of Erdogan’s return to Turkey, over 4000 protesters had been injured and three killed. Erdogan blamed “terror groups” for manipulating the protesters, adding, “We are against the majority dominating the minority and we cannot tolerate the opposite.”
In the city of Izmir, 33 protesters had been arrested for posting what the government defined as “misinformation” on Twitter, though the government decided to release them after the news spread. Protesters, meanwhile, demanded that governors, senior police officials and others “responsible for the violent crackdown be removed from office,” as well as demanding the cancellation of the plan to level Gezi Park. The “Taksim Solidarity Platform” was formed as a leaderless group of academics, architects and environmentalists in order “to protect Taksim Square from development.”
The New York Times reported that the middle class population whom Erdogan’s government “created” is now challenging the government, as they are “committed to individual freedoms.” Thus, college students, primarily of middle class backgrounds, were a major “organizing force in the demonstrations,” as they “set up makeshift clinics, provided legal counsel for those demonstrators arrested and established hot lines for injured people.” The New York Times presented this as “proof” that “economic development leads to more democracy,” ignoring the fact that the most rapid declines in democratic rights and liberties occurred as the economic boom accelerated. If anything, it’s evidence that the Turkish people are simply no longer willing to accept living under military dictatorships, or inauthentic ‘pseudo-democracies’ directed by and for economic oligarchs, or seeking to reverse the declines imposed by the acceleration of neoliberalism, among many other motivating factors. The New York Times article went on to praise Erdogan’s “free-market economics, successfully privatizing Turkey’s moribund public-sector companies,” though unmentioned was the repression of workers’ rights and increases in income inequality and poverty that went with that process.
Indeed, much of the Western media has been confused about how such massive protests could be experienced in the country given the credit of being an “economic miracle.” As one CNN headline declared, “Despite economic boom, Erdogan targeted by protests.”
The growth of the middle class in Turkey was largely facilitated by increasing reliance upon “dependency on external debt, which, at a moment of crisis can leave a country dangerously exposed to market volatility and the whims of investors.” In short, Erdogan’s “Turkish economic miracle” – like most self-proclaimed ‘economic miracles’ – are miraculous illusions, concentrating economic power in a few hands, creating debt-fuelled consumption booms and exposing the country to the diktats of international banks and investors (what a former US Treasury official referred to in the Financial Times as the “global supra-government”). Thus, Turkey’s prosperity “relied on speculative investors from abroad,” with its external debt standing at $413 billion (or 51% of GDP), leading Goldman Sachs analysts to describe it as one of the most indebted economies “in the emerging-market universe.” A Turkish columnist noted: “The influx of foreign capital and growth gave the perception of stability. Now that stability is under question, which puts the influx under question, and throws the ‘economic miracle’ in doubt.”
While the protests have been increasingly drawing out people who are dissatisfied with Erdogan’s economic policies, including a Muslim anti-capitalist group, international investors also expressed worry at Erdogan’s stance toward the protesters, with the chief economist at Finansbank in Istanbul telling the Wall Street Journal that Erdogan’s “combative tone has disappointed the markets,” as the “possible resumption of heavy-handed police response could undermine lira-denominated assets.” In short, as investors note that the protest movement is largely directed against Erdogan himself, they were increasingly wary of continuing support for him and critical of his response to the protests. A managing director with a New York political risk advisory firm, Teneo Intelligence, noted: “Usually Erdogan takes very pragmatic steps and the market likes that. But these protests are unprecedented, he has been cornered like never before and he also faces a different opposition, a weird coalition without leaders… Politics is potentially entering a new phase. It remains to be seen if it will be a phase where political stability is affected and as strong as we have enjoyed in the last six years.”
The Financial Times noted that, “European equity markets fell as investors sold off stocks with exposure to Turkey after a sharp fall on the Istanbul Stock Exchange.” European companies with large exposures in Turkey were experiencing declines in stock value, such as ING, UniCredit, Allianz, and Fiat, which is partnered with Koc Holding. As the New York Times noted, it was “not often that the rock-throwing street protester and the seasoned bond investor see eye to eye.” Fears were mounting among some investors that the “economic boom” in Turkey, which was “built on a mountain of debt… would reach a painful end.” While these warnings “were ignored” in the recent past, the massive protest movement has prompted ‘markets’ to react nervously. Indeed, as London and New York traders look at the scenes of protests and police repression, they do not see a struggle for democracy among repressed peoples – something to be hopeful and encouraging of – but rather, they view them as “scenes of mayhem” which may prompt them to begin “redirecting their money to safer havens.”
Erdogan remained defiant on June 6, declaring: “Public property was damaged during the Gezi Park protests. The Taksim [Square] project is a project that will make Istanbul more beautiful,” referring to the destruction of a park and replacing it with a shopping center (apparently, more beautiful than nature).
Amnesty International again called on the Turkish government “to end the use of excessive force on peaceful protestors which has seen at least one protestor die and over 4,300 people injured.”
The Turkish People Teach the World a Lesson in Democracy
Protests have been held across the world in solidarity with the demonstrators in Turkey, including 150 people in Chicago, further demonstrations in San Diego, hundreds of people gathered in New York at Zuccotti Park (home of the Occupy Wall Street protests), another rally took place outside the White House in Washington, D.C., with other protests in Paris, in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, as well as in Geneva, and with significant Turkish populations drawing larger crowds in Berlin and as many as 300 in Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, and significantly, roughly a thousand Greeks marched in support of Turkish protesters, chanting slogans such as, “Authoritarianism is broken on the street, solidarity with the Turkish people,” and “From Taksim Square to Athens, we fight poverty and hunger.” Roughly 500 people showed up to a solidarity protest in Boston with people championing the neologism “Resistanbul!”
Erdogan called for an immediate end to the protests, having arrived back in Turkey only to be met by a pro-government rally of supporters chanting slogans such as, “We will die for you, Erdogan” and “Let’s go crush them all.” As he spoke to the crowd of supporters, he declared, “I call for an immediate end to the demonstrations, which have turned into unlawfulness and vandalism.” He further added, “Among the protesters, there are extremists, some of them implicated in terrorism.” As one protester told the media, “It’s all up to Erdogan and what he says right now. He will decide the fate of the resistance, whether it will calm or escalate.”
As an observer from across the other side of the world, I can only say that I hope the fate of the resistance will be – and remain – in the hands of those resisting. There is a great deal to resist against, and the struggle for democracy is not a short one. It is yet to be seen if this will be the ‘Turkish Spring’ or a true uprising or even revolution, but what is clear is this: the Turkish people have arisen en masse like never before, years of isolated struggles for rights and freedoms have come to the center stage of Turkish society, have inspired much of the population, the youth, and the world.
The people are raising their voices and expressing their frustrations, and the world is listening, even if their ‘leaders’ aren’t. The world watches as Turks teach the rest of the world a valuable lesson, a lesson in what democracy really is. Democracy is not voting in occasional elections for competing factions of political elites who serve the same economic oligarchy – both nationally and globally – but rather, democracy and freedom is in the action. In a country with so many jailed journalists, intellectuals, hundreds of imprisoned students, and now thousands of protesters having been injured and arrested, they continue to go out into the streets and struggle for the rights that the state denies them.
Turks are teaching the world that liberty and democracy is not something the state can give – it is something the state takes away – but the only way to gain those rights, liberties, and achieve democracy is to use those very rights you are denied, and thereby, expropriate your freedom from the state. Turks are denied rights to freedom of expression, speech, and assembly, and they express their dissatisfaction with those policies by assembling and speaking, and even though they are met with massive state repression… they continue.
Erdogan has learned his lessons from those he has criticized in the past, from Mubarak and the other Arab dictators. Back in 2011, Erdogan referred to Mubarak in Egypt, stating: “No government can remain oblivious to the democratic demands of its people… There isn’t a government in history that has survived through oppression. Know that governments that turn a blind eye to their people cannot last long.” Erdogan would do well to take his own advice.
For the people of the Western world where our nations are responsible for arming and supporting the brutal tyrants in the rest of the world, providing the equipment and diplomatic support for them to repress their own populations, we would do well to learn some lessons from the Turkish people. The best thing we can do to help the Turkish people in their struggle for liberty and democracy is to take that struggle home, to take it to the beating, pulsing heart of empire.
Let us learn a profound lesson about what liberty and democracy really is, and the type of courage and perseverance it takes to be and act freely and democratically.
Thank you to the people of Turkey for teaching the rest of the world about democracy.
- Roy Karadag, “Neoliberal Restructuring in Turkey: From State to Oligarchic Capitalism,” Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Discussion Paper 10/7, p 6. [↩]
- Sükrü Ozen and K. Ali Akkemik, “Does Illegitimate Corporate Behaviour Follow the Forms of Polity? The Turkish Experience,” Journal of Management Studies (Vol. 49, No. 3, May 2012), p 523-524. [↩]
- Ingyu Oh and Recep Varcin, “The Mafioso State: state-led market bypassing in South Korea and Turkey,” Third World Quarterly (Vol. 23, No. 4, August 2002), p 719. [↩]
- Roy Karadag, p 12. [↩]
- John Lovering and Hade Türkmen, “Bulldozer Neo-liberalism in Istanbul: The State-led Construction of Property Markets, and the Displacement of the Urban Poor,” International Planning Studies (Vol. 16, No. 1, February 2011), p 80. [↩]
- Ingyu Oh and Recep Varcin, p 718-719. [↩]
- Ingyu Oh and Recep Varcin, p 720. [↩]
- Devrim Yavuz, “Testing Large Business’s Commitment to Democracy: Business Organizations and the Secular-Muslim Conflict in Turkey,” Government and Opposition (Vol. 45, No. 1, 2010), p 73, 80-81. [↩]
- John Lovering and Hade Türkmen, p 77. [↩] [↩]
- Roy Karadag, p 13. [↩] [↩]
- Devrim Yavuz, p 81. [↩]
- Ingyu Oh and Recep Varcin, p 720-721. [↩]
- Ziya Onis, “Turgat Ozal and his Economic Legacy: Turkish Neo-Liberalism in Critical Perspective,” Middle Eastern Studies (Vol. 40, No. 4, July 2004), p 115-116. [↩]
- Ziya Onis, p 116-117. [↩]
- Roy Karadag, p 14-15. [↩]
- Roy Karadag, p 16-17. [↩]
- Devrim Yavuz, p 81-83. [↩]
- John Lovering and Hade Türkmen, p 78. [↩] [↩]
- Roy Karadag, p 18. [↩]
- Erinc Yeldan, “Neoliberal Global Remedies: From Speculative-Led Growth to IMF-Led Crisis in Turkey,” Review of Radical Political Economics (Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring 2006), pages 199-200. [↩]
- Ziya Onis, p 117. [↩]
- André Bank and Roy Karadag, “The ‘Ankara Moment’: the politics of Turkey’s regional power in the Middle East, 2007-2011,” Third World Quarterly (Vol. 34, No. 2, 2013), page 293. [↩]
- Devrim Yavuz, p 84-85. [↩]
- Ziya Onis, “Power, Interests and Coalitions: the political economy of mass privatisation in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly (Vol. 32, No. 4, May 2011), p 12-13. [↩]
- Ibid, p 15-16. [↩]
- Devrim Yavuz, p 89-91. [↩]