What Georgian’s need to know about the protests in Turkey
06 June, 2013
The protests in Istanbul were a surprise to most. Turkey is a big successful regional power but people had mainly gotten used to thinking of it in terms of its relations to Syria, to NATO and the EU, to Palestine and Israel. Things seemed quiet at home. Then they weren’t. The geographical and emotional center of Istanbul is a big square called Taksim.
When you take the bus in from the airport, that is where it drops you. In the
square is a small park called Gezi, a nice little park with six hundred trees, it is the only park left in central Istanbul, and the government has plans to do some building there. To build a mall but also a copy of a historical military barracks that once stood there.

A few people didn’t want the shopping mall there, they liked the park and started peacefully camping out. At dawn police came and very violently tried to force them to leave and sent in workers and heavy equipment to cut down trees and begin destruction. Word spread and people came, the police continued beating people and using tear gas and more and more people came. It has become the biggest demonstrations of this generation in Turkey.

This is a trend growing in many parts of the world, often called urban activism. It is usually fought over common space. It can be for the rights of pedestrians fighting against cars parking on sidewalks, or people who don’t want parks destroyed or trees cut down. Traditionally demonstrations were over big ideological issues, labor rights, human rights, that sort of thing, but more and more around the world the trigger is small things that symbolize bigger issues often urban public space. Georgia has had similar problems, the destruction and shrinking of so many parks as the government has sold and privatized public park space over the years. Interestingly the biggest ongoing protest in Georgia in recent years was the move to prevent destruction and development of Gudiashvili Square in Tbilisi.

Like the previous government in Georgia, gradually Turkish Prime Minister Erdoðan and his Justice and Development Party have over their time in power turned more and more into fans of very large development projects, often with not very transparent financing. These are good for economic growth figures but often don’t do much for most of the population and also can have very adverse effects on the quality of life for most people. Over the last decade both Georgia and Turkey has seen growing inequality with the poor staying as they were and not really sharing in the economic growth, and a fairly small class of wealthy people, some connected to the government, receiving most of the benefits. 

Erdoðan personally does not have a reputation as a gifted listener. He knows his mind and suffers from a problem so common in Georgian politics on all sides, of thinking that not only are people who have different ideas than him not worth listening to, but also that they are dangerous and subversive. He has already made comments about these demonstrators showing that. But these original demonstrators were peaceful and only wanted to keep their park. Later demonstrators were demonstrating against his response and the response of the police as well as Erdoðan’s arrogant bullying than they were demonstrating to save the park. He turned it into a symbol. 

Perhaps the most shocking thing was the lack of coverage of the press in Turkey. Few realized how completely under government control the press was. They reported nothing for days and only now are beginning to discuss the issue, and in that case have a clearly pro-government view. No better way to enrage a population than by having them come out in force and the media is silent about it.

There is also a religious component. The role of religion in Turkish politics is the subject of many books and a long history. Ataturk was a gifted general and in many ways the person who invented the Turkish nation out of the decaying but multi-ethnic Ottoman empire. He ended the caliphate, and created societal amnesia by changing the alphabet from Arabic to Roman. He was aggressively secular and made the military the guarantor of secularism. But over time that system became corrupt . No democracy wants a military hanging over its head. Erdoðan changed that over the years so that the military is no longer a force in Turkish politics. At the same time his party is somewhat Islamic and everybody has noticed step by step the weaker the secularizing force of the military seemed to become, the more laws were passed relating to perceived Islamic doctrine, about abortion, alcohol, women’s clothes, etc. All this was step by step but the most secular in Turkey had had enough. They have also noted that the military barracks that will be rebuilt was the scene of some islamists being killed in the first part of the century and fear that it will become some kind of islamic shrine.

The situation with religion in politics in Georgia is different but there are parallels. The Georigan Orthodox church is the most popular institution in the country and as we saw recently is increasingly entering politics and making its views known on political issues. Both Turks (as well as citizens of Turkey that are not Turks) and Georgians (and citizens of Georgia who are not Georgians) need to decide how much church doctrine they want in their politics. The spectrum goes from the completely secular like the US, most of Europe, China and Japan on the one hand, to Iran on the other.

These protests show a divide that is very common in Georgia, in Turkey, in Lebanon, in the US. To speak very generally there are the educated, urban, western oriented people in one group and there are the less educated, less western oriented, less urban in another group. Generally if these groups stay divided the less western oriented tend to dominate. But if those in the cities will engage in a real and sustained dialogue with the other group, rather than telling them they are stupid, their views will in the long term probably prevail.