19th Mar 2018


The future of European Turkey

  • 'No friend of Turkey wants to see the country descending into violence' (Photo: svenwerk)

On Saturday night (15 June), central Istanbul descended into apocalyptic scenes of unfettered violence. The police targeted tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets at protestors, and stormed a hotel near the park, which had set up a makeshift clinic to treat children and adults caught up in the events.

Among those trapped in the hotel was the co-chair of Germany’s Green Party, Claudia Roth, who is an avid follower of Turkey’s politics, a witness to the decade of violence in the 1990s in the country’s Kurdish provinces, and politician who supported the Turkish government’s democratic reform process.

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Shaken and affected by the teargas fired into the hotel lobby, she described her escape from Gezi Park, which she had visited in a show of solidarity. "We tried to flee and the police pursued us. It was like war." She added the next day that it is the peaceful protestors in Gezi Park and elsewhere, braving police violence to stand up for the democratic right to speak out, who are providing the strongest argument for advocates of the future European integration of Turkey.

Only a few hours before Roth’s initial statement on Saturday, the protestors in the Gezi Park and Taksim Square were discussing the results of a meeting of their representatives with the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan seemed to have made some concessions and accepted part of the requests of the protestors to reconsider the construction scheme on Taksim and wait for a pending court decision.

The Taksim Platform, the closest there is to a representative body of the protestors, had decided to take down the different tents of trade unions and political organisations and only leave one symbolic tent. Most protestors were getting ready for a final weekend in the park, before returning to their lives as usual. True, the prime minister had delivered a warning for the park to be cleared, but such warnings had been made before and passed without decisive action. The mood among the people in the park was to wind down the protests and consider new ways of political mobilisation. So hopeful was the spirit on Saturday that families took their children to the park to plant trees and flowers and get a sense of what has arguably been Turkey’s largest and most peaceful civil society movement ever. No one was expecting a major crackdown. They have been proven terribly wrong.

Turkey's EU minister

Should they have listened to Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s EU minister and chief negotiator? On Saturday, well before the evening raid, he not only scolded international news channels like CNN and BBC for having made a “big mistake” by reporting the protests live and accused them for having been financed by a lobby intent on “doing everything to disturb the calm in our country.” He also declared that “from now on the state will unfortunately have to consider everyone who remains there [i.e. the Gezi Park] a supporter or member of a terror organisation.”

In the last three weeks of the Turkey protests, we have already witnessed the prime minister turning to progressively belligerent rhetoric for reasons of his power-political calculus. Now it appears that the minister responsible Turkey’s European future has not only been aware of the massive police brutality that was to be unleashed on the peaceful protestors, but also that he fully endorsed it.

No European politician, no representative of any European institution will be able to meet Mr Bagis from now on, without taking into consideration his justification of the breakdown and his rhetoric confusing citizens pursuing their rights to free assembly with terrorists.

Within only a few hours, the government of Prime Minister Erdogan destroyed all hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, which is now spreading all over the country. Yet no friend of Turkey would want to see the country descending into violence. So what remains as a possible way out of ever deepening polarisation?

In recent weeks some members of the Justice and Development Party have publicly expressed their dismay at the unfolding events and the polarising rhetoric of Erdogan. President Abdullah Gul has voiced concern too. But he has stopped short of condemning the police violence and criticizing the prime minister openly. Gul is a respected politician and enjoys considerable public sympathy. Many have praised the president’s conciliatory style of politics. The time has come for him to show statesmanship and to speak out clearly and forcefully against the abuse of power.

In particular the president should oppose the witch hunt against protestors and against the doctors and lawyers who have supported them. Such action may yet avert the country’s deterioration into further violence and polarisation. The president would also do a great service for those - Turkey’s citizens and many European friends alike - who continue to believe in a common European future.

Gerald Knaus is a chair of European Stability Initiative, Berlin. Kerem Oktem is a scholar at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

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