Storm-tossed Turkey

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Democracies do not gas people for speaking out!" read the Facebook post from a Turkish protester in Istanbul. As thousands of young Turkish people learned this week, sometimes they do.

It is both puzzling and depressing when a government with strong electoral backing feels threatened by a few student protesters sitting in a park. But last weekend Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, which easily has won three elections in a row, unleashed a storm of batons, tear gas and water cannon on its own children.

They were protesting the development, by way of destruction, of a small park in Istanbul's Taksim Square and its replacement by what might be considered a symbol of today's Turkey: a combination shopping mall and renovated Ottoman barracks. The new development would showcase both the country's contemporary economic vigor and its historical glory.

Taksim Square is itself the symbolic and traffic hub of Istanbul and one terminus of Istanbul's equally famous Istiklal Avenue. On this pedestrian mall of upscale stores, museums and restaurants, people sit outside till all hours but, under a new law just passed, they can no longer be served alcohol there nor can they buy it retail after 10 p.m.

Therein lies the kindling for this spark. What began as opposition to de-greening a central gathering place gained support from those who worry that the government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan is determined to restrict their behavior on the basis of its view of Islam.

In addition to restrictions on alcohol sales and advertising, it proposed (then withdrew) a law criminalizing adultery. A recent subway authority announcement against "public displays of affection" prompted a "kiss-in" protest in Istanbul's subways. While Turks are 99 percent Muslim, their state, since it was founded by Ataturk, has always been secular, their lifestyle -- at least in the cities -- familiar to Europeans.

Erdogan insists that he and his party -- which was fined and nearly banned in 2008 for allegedly threatening secularism -- respect the Turkish state's tradition. The prime minister himself advanced most of the European Union's agenda for democracy, achieving, for example, civilian control of the military -- a major dimension of democratic governance.

But he argues that freedom and democracy also mean freedom to be religious (for example, for women in public service to be allowed to wear head scarves). His party speaks for religiously and socially conservative people, many from eastern Anatolia who feel their views deserve representation after decades of exclusion by the "Istanbul elite." When challenged, as he has been this past week, he threatens to put a million people of his own into the street.

Feeling safe from electoral consequences and no longer interested in pleasing an EU that does not want Turkey, the AKP government has also launched a widening and apparently unlimited search for alleged coup plotters, fined and intimidated media outlets and jailed more journalists than any other country. While a mobile water cannon was methodically moving down the ?stiklal on Saturday, pummeling protesters, shoppers and tourists alike, Turkish CNN aired a documentary on penguins.

Beyond social and media policy, a major concern is that in rewriting the country's constitution left behind by the military, Prime Minister Erdogan aims to create a new, stronger presidency that he, no longer eligible to be prime minister after his term expires, would hold. With the courts, the media and the military cowed and with no effective political opposition, the result would be, as Abba -- or maybe Vladimir Putin -- put it: "The Winner Takes It All."

Enjoying such a strong position, including more than 5 percent economic growth every year for the past 10, what is Erdogan afraid of?

In Turkey, as elsewhere, a powerful regime must also be competent. If it claims the sunshine, it rightly gets blamed for the storms -- some of which threaten to engulf Turkey. The regime's attempts over the last several years to gain stature and influence in the Middle East have not only failed but may have brought terror home. The bombing last month in Reyhanli, near the Syrian border, killed 52 people, most of them Turkish citizens. While the government has tried to spin the story -- and also blacked out media coverage -- Turks have been shaken by the spillover that comes with hosting the Syrian opposition and more than 400,000 refugees.

Demonstrations now have occurred in all major cities and the goal of saving Gezi Park in Taksim is now a minor chord. In the staunchly secular seaside city of Izmir, a party building was burned to the ground. Without media coverage, the opposition is making good use of Facebook and Twitter, causing the prime minister to brand social media, rather than police brutality, "the worst menace to society."

But this "Turkish Spring" is one of challenge and upheaval, not revolution. Erdogan is not Libya's Ghadhafi and he is not Egypt's Mubarak. He has elections on his side.

But those students his police gassed and beat are the children of Turkey's powerful middle class -- the same middle class that sends more college students to the United States than any other European country. They are prospering, traveling and enjoying the new, modern Turkey. They supported Erdogan's push to open up the economy, get the military out of politics and move toward Europe and its values. Will they support a leader who gasses their children at home while pursuing grandiose schemes of regional power?

As Ataturk might have put it: overreach abroad, overreach at home.


Ronald H. Linden, professor of political science and director of the European Union Center of Excellence/European Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh, is visiting Turkey on behalf of the center.


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