Turkey Aflame

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

No one could imagine a few months ago that the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would return home from his triumphant trips abroad to salvage his ten-year-old rule and bury his Ottomanist dreams in the conflagrating protests at Taksim Square in Istanbul. Pretty soon the wave of protests extended throughout the country, but mainly at the major cities of Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Gaziantep.

Settled firmly on his throne, Mr. Erdogan was bullying Armenia, threatening Syria and pressuring Israel for an apology for the latter’s raid on Mavi Marmara Flotilla.

Turkey’s economic boom and regional superpower status — encouraged and aided by Western powers and Russia — had inflated Mr. Erdogan’s ego to supreme arrogance. Several countries in the region which were following Turkey’s rise with alarm had a legitimate concern to cut Erdogan’s imperial ambitions to size.

Through US mediation and blessing, Turkey had partnered with Israel to rule the Middle East through joint hegemony. But Erdogan took that position as a license to dictate his will even to Israel, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of his American sponsors.

At home he had managed to tame the military, which had ruled the country under authoritarian rule for many decades, since the days of Ataturk. Today many members of the military brass are waiting in jails for their day in court as conspirators bent on overthrowing Erdogan’s Islamist government. The Deep State was so deep that a backlash was not in Erdogan’s calculations. Despite the fact that the country was veering towards an Islamic rule with Ottoman caliphate in perspective, Erdogan continued to enjoy popularity because the prosperity he had brought to the country, until a spark at Taksim Square upended Mr. Erdogan’s political calculations.

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The protests began with an environmental issue of saving some trees on Taksim Square and degenerated and splintered into many issues, most importantly against Erdogan’s authoritarian style.

At first, Mr. Erdogan tried to use President Roosevelt’s tactic of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Negotiating with some of the leaders of the Taksim demonstrators in Ankara, he offered a compromise, to put the Taksim Square plan to a referendum. The original plan envisioned the destruction of Ataturk Cultural Center to pave the way for the construction of an Ottoman-ear barracks, a mosque and a shopping mall. But Erdogan used Roosevelt’s tactic in reverse order and sent the police to evacuate the square. In the scuffles, four people were killed and 5,000 were injured and many demonstrators were thrown in jail. Once again the prime minister’s intolerant character streak emerged. In the aftermath, the movement developed into a democracy struggle, moving away from its original goal. Erdogan accused the protestors as terrorists, encouraged by Western media. He did not mince words, mentioning some by name, such as CNN and Reuters. He knew which powers controlled the Western media, but did not go so far as blaming Israel for his miseries. He was aware that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had apologized a few months ago to Turkey in order to salvage President Obama’s trip to that country from the brink of catastrophe, would get back at him with a vengeance.

Although Turkey and Israel entertain the same goal of overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria, they diverge from each other in their perspectives; Erdogan would not mind seeing an Islamic fundamentalist regime emerge in Damascus, which is an anathema to Israel.

One has yet to identify a clear leadership and a platform of demands for the Taksim Square demonstrations, but all disgruntled groups are there to voice their demands or grievances. The Kemalists have joined the demonstrations to salvage their trampled secular values. There are trade unions and other minorities with slogans hostile to Erdogan and his meddling in Syria’s civil war, which has backfired.

The participation of Kurdish groups was negligible for obvious reasons. Mr. Erdogan and the jailed Kurdish leader, Abdullah Oçalan, have become strange bedfellows, shaping the future of Erdogan’s rule. Indeed, the Kurdish leader has foregone his dreams of independence, watering them down instead to cultural autonomy for the Kurds. In return, he has pledged to support Erdogan’s bid for presidency by implementing a new constitution, with the support of the Kurdish representatives in the parliament.

The other reason for the low Kurdish profile is that any demagogue, beginning with Erdogan, can galvanize and unite Turkey’s population against the Kurds, whose ultimate aspiration remains the fragmentation of Turkey’s territory.

Ironically, Armenians or supporters of Armenians were on hand with slogans never before seen in Turkey in the recent demonstrations.

It has been reported that police have used gravestones from the nearby Armenian cemetery to disperse the protestors. Indeed, Taksim Square was built on an Armenian cemetery designated as such by Sultan Suleyman I in 1560. The Kemalist protestors are against the removal of the Ataturk Cultural Center, which was built in the 1930s on top of the razed St. Hagop Armenian Cemetery and the adjacent Khor Virap Church.

The 16th-century cemetery occupied a space of 56,000 square meters and the church and other buildings an additional 500 square meters. In 1915, the cemetery was declared by the government to be abandoned property. In 1934, the Istanbul Court transferred the property to the city.

In 1938 and 1939, the cemetery and the church were destroyed to make way for the construction of Gezi Park. It is interesting that a Kurdish leader, Çengiz Alkan, has added some additional historic facts to the above information. In a statement this week, he announced that there used to stand a monument in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide at that location. His conclusion must have been more inflammatory to the fanatical Turks as he stated, “Those who visit Gezi Park must be aware that there was a Genocide memorial monument in place in 1919. We hope that someday in the future, another Genocide monument would stand.”

As to how a Genocide monument could exist at that time, we have to remember that in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Istanbul was under Allied occupation.

There were also other demonstrators in Gezi Park who were warning that one day Armenians would return to claim their cemetery. One young demonstrator shamed the government that Istanbul had a boulevard in the name of the murderer Talaat Pasha and yet not one in the name of Hrant Dink.

The Armenian aspect of Gezi Park seems to be the least of the worries for Mr. Erdogan, who has bigger fish to fry. His entire power structure seems to have been shaken from its foundation and there seem to be no end to the demonstrations, embarrassing Erdogan’s administration on the world scene, weakening the economy by a sharp drop in the Turkish stock market as well as the lira against the dollar.

It was precisely those economic achievements of Erdogan and the AKP Party which have enhanced the prestige of Turkey globally.

Despite all these adverse developments, Prime Minister Erdogan remains defiant. He bused 300,000 of his supporters to Ankara for a counter demonstration, a measure designed precisely to exasperate the situation and increase the polarization in the country.

Intoxicated by his party’s successes and his achievements, Erdogan believes nothing can destroy his government. And indeed, demonstrators — as violent as they are — lack the leadership and structure to dislodge the prime minister. All that can happen may be that domestically he has to tone down his rhetoric and authoritarian style and internationally, refrain from fomenting trouble for Turkey’s neighbors.

Therefore, Erdogan’s survival hinges on compromise, even if grudgingly. Otherwise, he can precipitate his demise faster than his opponents can fathom.