Turkey turmoil could lead to new flash points

The turmoil in Turkey entered a new stage Sunday, with riot police tearing through residential neighborhoods in Istanbul to clear streets of protesters as Prime Minister Recep Tay­yip Erdogan delivered a fiery speech to tens of thousands of supporters on the city’s outskirts.

As thousands of protesters who had been pushed out of central Taksim Square a day earlier tried to return, many said they would stay in the streets, and five major trade unions declared a general strike starting Monday. And with Erdogan on Sunday telling his opponents that the proper place to challenge him was at the ballot box, residents said other ongoing controversies could spark new protests in the lead-up to local polls next year.

The conflict over Gezi Park, Istanbul’s last central green space, quickly transformed into a broader outpouring of frustration about what critics call Erdogan’s campaign to reshape personal liberties in a more conservative Islamic fashion. With new alcohol restrictions set to take effect within months and plans for vast infrastructure projects that could inspire similar opposition, protesters said they would not fade quietly into a society that has been dominated by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party for 10 years.

“We are embracing our nation,” Erdogan told a cheering crowd in Istanbul, at the same moment that riot police were firing canisters of tear gas to clear protesters in the leafy, bohemian neighborhood of Cihangir, about a mile from Taksim Square, the site of the park at the center of the demonstrations.

“The parks cannot be under occupation. And now my patience is done,” Erdogan said. “Taksim Square is evacuated right now. And it’s given to the nation. The Istanbul municipality cleared Gezi Park, and now we are planting flowers. Now the real environmentalists are doing their job.”

As he has previously, Erdogan blamed foreign governments, media and the “interest-rate lobby” for stoking unrest, calling on supporters to hang the red-and-white Turkish flag from their windows to show their love for their country.

As Erdogan spoke and security forces cleared Istanbul of protesters, residents of Cihangir shouted from their windows at riot police.

“Will you come and take us from our homes next?” one ­middle-aged man yelled.

Clashes there continued for hours, with riot police making repeated sweeps, firing tear gas each time. Protesters set up makeshift barriers with potted trees. By early Monday, some protesters had started to throw rocks at police.

Opposition groups that on Saturday had been considering standing down said Sunday that their demands were unchanged and that they would work to press Erdogan harder than ever.

“There’s a new page opened in Turkish history,” said Eyup Muhcu, a leader of the Taksim Solidarity umbrella group, who met with Erdogan on Friday, a day before the Taksim Square crackdown. “Everybody will pour into the squares in every park of Turkey for their rights and demands.”

Perhaps seeking to avert that, security forces on Sunday cordoned off not only Taksim Square but also smaller neighborhood plazas across the country that could be used for demonstrations. Clashes between protesters and police broke out in many Istanbul neighborhoods that had previously been quiet, probably because clearing Taksim dispersed demonstrators across the city.

Dark-green military vehicles also took part in the efforts, an important sign that Erdogan retains control over the armed forces. With Turkey’s history of military coups during periods of civil unrest, the apparent coordination between the civilian government and the military indicates that Erdogan’s widely praised efforts to subordinate Turkey’s army to civilian control have succeeded.

The protests over Gezi Park were sparked, in part, by concerns that Erdogan is altering the dense physical fabric of Istanbul, a city of 13 million, with little input from residents. Erdogan hopes to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks on the site of Gezi Park, which along with adjoining Taksim Square is a major crossroads.

But many other projects could serve as flash points for renewed unrest. Last month, Erdogan received proposals for a third airport for Istanbul, and he broke ground on a new bridge across the Bosporus that he unilaterally named after the 16th-century Ottoman sultan Selim I, who vastly expanded the empire and was known for his persecution of the Alevi minority group. Alevis — and many others who value minority rights — viewed the name as a poke in the eye.

“It’s horrible,” said Huseyin Ekinci, 49, an Alevi who works at a plumbing shop in the working-class Tarlabasi neighborhood near Taksim Square. “It’s very possible that there will be more protests over the name.”

Tarlabasi is in the throes of redevelopment, with a large block of historic buildings being cleared away to make room for a massive luxury apartment and shopping complex. Many Kurds and other minorities live in the neighborhood, and there were small protests before the project got underway.

“After Gezi, we will have more capacity to mobilize the population against the local urban projects of the government,” said Ahmet Insel, a professor of development economics at Galatasaray University.

In Tarlabasi, residents said they expected more protests.

“They will continue to resist,” said Osman Tasdogen, 42, a barber who was giving shaves with a straight razor to Tarlabasi men. Referring to the environmental concerns that set off the Gezi Park protests, he said, “These trees are only the symbol, but everyone has their own issue. The summary is the reaction to Tayyip” Erdogan.

At least 5,000 people have been injured since the start of the protests, according to a medical association. Five people have died, including one police officer. And on Sunday, clashes erupted between Erdogan supporters and opponents in the conservative Anatolian city of Konya, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported, the first between the two sides since the crackdown started Saturday.

Police detained about 350 people in Istanbul over the weekend, the Istanbul Bar Association said.

Asli Sozbilir contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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