Istanbul park sit-in turns into furious anti-government protest

Turkey protests flag_smaller.jpg

A sit-in against plans to demolish a park in Istanbul sparked the fiercest anti-government protests in recent years over the weekend in Turkey. The EU and the US expressed concerns about the use of force by the police as the protest spread to more cities. EURACTIV Turkey reports.

The protests initially began as a peaceful occupy-style movement in reaction to plans to demolish a park as part of a wider re-arrangement of the central Taksim Square in Istanbul, but evolved into a general expression of discontent with the government, which spread to other cities.

By Saturday evening, the government announced that  53 civilians and 26 police officers had been wounded during the protests. However, the exact number of injuries is unclear and believed to be much higher than the official numbers.

Amnesty International reported claims of two deaths and more than a 1,000 injuries. The number of those arrested are close to 1,000 as well.

Started as an environmental issue

The protests began early last week when a few hundred people started gathering and camping in Gezi Park, which is planned to be replaced by the replica of historical barracks that existed there until the 1940’s.

Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony of the third bridge over the Bosphorus on Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an snubbed the protest, saying “Whatever you do, we have made our decision and will go on with the plans.”

The third bridge itself is also a controversial issue in Turkey, not only because the roadway will run through the forests and cause environmental damage, but also because of its name. Without any prior public debate, the government announced the bridge’s name as “Yavuz Sultan Selim” (nicknamed Selim the Grim in English), after a 16-century Ottoman sultan infamous for the massacre of Alawites in Anatolia.

Following Erdo?an’s comments on the occupy-style event, even more protestors flocked to the park. After a couple of attempts by the police to disperse the campers, on Friday there were widespread clashes between the protestors and the police around the Beyo?lu district, where the Taksim Square and Gezi Park are located.

As the crowd in Beyo?lu grew bigger, the use of force by the police escalated to the point that on Saturday morning even helicopters rained tear gas on the crowd, as seen in a video posted on YouTube.  The protestors set up barricades at several places around Beyo?lu and threw rocks and bottles to the police, calling on the government to resign.

The escalation caused the protest to spread to other cities in Turkey and soon gained international attention. On Saturday, Interior Minister Muammer Güler said there were more than 90 protests in 48 cities. There were also reports of widespread violence during the protests in other cities than Istanbul, most notably in the capital city Ankara.

As the police began retreating  on Saturday afternoon, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Taksim Square and the protest returned to a peaceful nature once again.  However, clashes in the neighbouring Be?ikta? district continued into Saturday evening.

On Sunday, protestors were voluntarily cleaning the litter on Taksim Square, with people returning to the square in the afternoon. There were also reports of sporadic violence in other cities on Sunday.

International reaction

The  European Commission voiced concern about the issue as early as Friday. "We condemn all excessive and disproportionate use of force," the Commission said in a statement to the newspaper Today's Zaman.

“We recall the importance of guaranteeing fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Any limitations should be strictly within the limits as defined by the ECHR and the jurisprudence of the ECHR,” the statement read.

Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, who is due to visit Turkey on Thursday and Friday for a conference on EU affairs, tweeted that he is “concerned by the images from Taksim Square”. He supported the call for restraint by the Turkish President Abdullah Gül.

Egemen Ba???, the Turkish minister for European Affairs, criticised the Commission's statement, saying Brussels should not "misinterpret" the situation in Istanbul, according to state-run Anatolian news agency.

Ba??? claimed that the protestors were “marginal groups” who are “against European values”, reported ?hlas news agency.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman also voiced concern about the violence in Turkey.

On Sunday, the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, called the prime minister to make an apology.

Turkish media reported that people in several European cities gathered to express their support of protesters in Turkey, as well as in the US.

Turkish PM says Europe should 'look at itself'

In his first response to the protests, Erdo?an on Saturday admitted that there was excessive use of force by the police and that the government was investigating these reports.

Speaking at the plenary of Turkish Exporters Assembly, Erdo?an gave a lengthy account of the environmental policies of his government and during his term as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. He said that there were not any final decisions about what the planned barracks replica at site of Gezi Park will serve as, denied the protestors’ claim that it will become a shopping mall, and hinted that it could become a museum. But the Turkish prime minister insisted that the structure will be built anyway.

Speaking at another event later, Erdo?an responded to international criticism by calling on the critics “look at themselves first”.  “We know what is happening in Britain, Spain, and the US,” said the prime minister, without elaborating.

Series of hasty action on divisive issues

The incidents at Gezi Park followed a series of government initiatives that were often taken without prior public debate and proved to be highly divisive in Turkish society.

There were also widespread and violent clashes between protesters and the police earlier this year, when the government refused to allow the May Day celebrations to take place at Taksim Square, saying the ongoing re-arrangement there was posing security risks.

The site has a symbolic importance in relation to May Day in Turkey and the unions claim that the government wants to ban the celebrations there indefinitely, calling the re-arrengement just a pretext.

The government’s hawkish policy towards Syria also drew heavy criticsm from the opposition. On 11 May, two car bombs exploed at the border town of Reyhanli, claiming 52 lives. The government blamed the Syrian sercet service for the terrorist attack, which was the deadliest in Turkey’s history.

The so-called “peace initiative” launched late last year, which involves negotiations between the state and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish movement PKK, is also a highly divisive issue in Turkey with nationalists fiercely opposed to this process. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US, and has fought for an independent Kurdish state for three decades. But last March, Öcalan called for the end of armed action and dropped the claim for an independent Kurdish state.

In May, the government also hastily introduced restrictions against the sale of alcoholic drinks. The issue is highly controversial in Turkey, as the secularists accuse the governing  Justice and Development Party (AKP) of trying to impose a conservative way of life on the country.

The Islamist-rooted AKP party has been in power in the since 2002 in Turkey and won the last parliamentary elections in 2011 by winning just under half of the votes.

Erdo?an has new plans for Taksim

However, Turkish prime minister seems to be defiant in the wake of most furious protests against his policies.

Speaking at an event on Sunday afternoon, Erdo?an said that in order to build an opera house the state will demolish the symbolic Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) in Taksim, which is a controversial issue among secularists. Erdo?an also announced the construction of a mosque in Taksim Square, which is also a controversial debate dating back to previous governments.

"Yes, we will build a mosque too. I will not ask CHP chairman's permission for this. I definitely will not ask a bunch of plunderers' permission for this. Those who voted for us already gave us the mandate,"  Erdo?an said.

Turkey officially obtained  the status of candidate country for EU membership in 1999 and negotiations opened  in October 2005.

But a number of stumbling blocks have held up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.

Out of 35 negotiation chapters, so far only one chapter (science and research) has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.

The opening of another 11 chapters has been blocked by France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.

In 2010, the EU, in a gesture of goodwill towards Turkey, opened another chapter in the accession process, increasing the total number of opened chapters to 13. The chapter covers sectors related to food safety, veterinary standards and phytosanitary requirements.

Subscribe to our newsletters