It is the same story everywhere in the world. Increasing state repression against protesters who try to defend one of the last green spots which is intended to be replaced by a shopping mall, turned out to be a massive expression of resentment against a neoliberal world order where there is no value other than profit. In the last decade ?stanbul, which used to be known as a city sui generis, is being redesigned to reflect the imagining of the capitalist world system, and for ordinary citizens, the city is becoming more and more suffocating, resembling just any city in the world where the power of capital transforms into a juggernaut.
The inner-city districts of Istanbul has been under a process of gentrification and the dwellers of these old-but-now-valuable districts are expelled from their homes and neighborhoods to the outermost skirts of the city where carbon-copy new developments are stuffed with people who have been indebted to pay for the housing they are forced to move.
The bids for building a new bridge and a new airport is recently finalized, and these huge construction projects will finish off the last forests in the north of Istanbul when about 2 million trees will be cut for constructing the airport runways and highways.
To someone who just passes through Istanbul staying for a few days, the “vibrant city” seems to reflect a “flourishing economy” with new high-rises and shopping malls, if they just ignore the traffic which causes the shortest trip in the city to take at least an hour.
The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is proud of this “booming economy” mostly oiled by speculative real estate profits and huge construction projects and the “hot money” poured into the country for short term speculative investments. With inflated self-confidence during its 12 year rule and with increasing poll rates, Prime Minister Erdogan assumes that he can micro-manage every corner of the country, including deciding which park in Istanbul is replaced by a shopping mall.
The Turkish economy is said to be “doing well” despite the global economic crisis, registering a “spectacular growth rate of 5.2% per annum during 2002-2011, although the growth rate has fallen sharply to 2.2% in 2012 and is still falling. One of the priorities of the government is to provide “stability” for the country and the economy for investment. Of course besides the gainers, there are losers in this boom, and every opposition should be crushed as soon as it is sprouting, since there is a huge potential that the resentment of the losers may explode into a full scale riot. The AKP government has mastered crushing every kind of opposition with police brutality.
Since there are no summary executions of dissidents, as had been a common practice of state terror in the 90’s, Turkey now seems to be relatively democratic state who observes human rights, but this is just an illusion. The police have now technologically advanced surveillance systems and riot control measures that many repressive states do not have.
The police mastered their capabilities on Kurdish activists in the last decade. The prisons are full of dissidents charged on the basis of “anonymous eyewitnesses” and taped conversations. The Kurdish regions of the country are relatively silent nowadays after the call of PKK leader Ocalan to the guerilla forces to withdraw outside Turkey’s borders to enable a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question. The government responded positively to this call by declaring that it is not going to chase the withdrawing guerillas. However the process is very fragile and the next step is expected from the government, which seems to have no intention of making any move towards more democracy unless popular demand is pushing for it.
The AKP government is always claiming that it pays attention to the popular demands, and acting accordingly. The popular demands that it claims to represent is nothing but those of the most regressive elements of the Sunni-Turkish segment of the society, which I believe is only a small fraction of the party’s electoral basis. The AKP government’s last moves, including an attempt to ban abortion, the enactment of a law restricting the sale of alcohol, alienation of the large segments of the society that does not belong to Sunni Islam, and the social engineering projects to homogenize the society resulted in an explosion of riots that started at Taksim Square in Istanbul and spread to other cities across the country.
The riots were ignited by a small group of ecologists and leftists, but then spread to middle classes who thought that their secular lifestyles are under threat. As in every protest that resists police brutality, there are some provocateurs within the protesters that aim to topple the government by undemocratic means like igniting chaos, then calling the military for a coup d’état. However, the riots are a truly democratic movement in character resisting against state repression. In a relatively democratic country where free elections are possible, the governments should go through electoral processes and yet, a government should also learn that despite being elected with a 50% majority vote, it has no right to micro-manage people’s lives.
The politicians of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) tried to distance the party from the mass protests, although the electoral basis is in the streets fighting against police brutality. The reasoning behind this ambiguous political stance is the belief that weakening the AKP government by the mass protests is endangering the peace process. It is true that among the protesters there are some elements that are anti-Kurdish and whose resentment against the AKP is based on a claim that the process is an AKP-PKK plot against the foundations of the Turkish Republic. This is just a big distortion of the reality on the side of Turkish nationalists, considering that still 4000-5000 Kurdish activists are kept in jail, and the AKP has no intention for a genuine democratization unless it is forced to by popular pressure. Actually what we see on the streets of cities in the west of Turkey has just been a few-day enactment of what has been happening in Kurdish cities and towns for decades. Police brutality is out of control, and tear gas canisters are shot to protester’s heads from a short distance, blinding them, cracking their skulls. Arrested protesters are beaten inside police buses.
Real democratization of Turkey is possible only when the middle classes who now feel under threat understand that this repression has been the fate of Kurds for decades, and Kurdish politicians understand that there will be no change unless they have a say in this popular uprising.
I was on the streets on the first night of riots, and collected the teargas canisters thrown on us. What was really hurting was to read on the canisters that they are produced in Brazil. Brazil is supposed to have a progressive government and we, Turkish people support the Brazilian team in every World Cup I remember, mostly as a sign of third world solidarity. Now I guess it is time for the progressive forces in Brazil, as a sign of solidarity, to organize to put a pressure on their government to ban teargas exports to Turkey.