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Bagis pours oil on troubled waters

2 August 2013

In an attempt to smooth ruffled feathers and perhaps to save face, Turkish European Union Minister Egemen Bagis, has written a letter to the New York Times. This was in response to an earlier letter published in The Times by international celebrities that condemned the government for its harsh responses to the recent Gezi Park protests.

The letter said:

“If there is one major reason behind the recent peaceful protests, it is because a vibrant civil society has flourished in Turkey, thanks to the opportunities we have provided to our people.

Unquestionably, Turkey has been undertaking the necessary steps for further democratization by expanding the rights and liberties of its citizens. During the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule over the last decade, millions of people have moved into the middle class. Socioeconomic transformation has been going hand in hand with democratization. People with different issues started to claim their rights as a consequence of this enormous socioeconomic change,” the letter read.

Besides, be it for environmental issues or individual freedoms, protesting against a democratically elected government without resorting to violence I believe proves Turkish society’s European identity. Turkish people from all walks of life have opted for the AKP in the last three elections because people from different backgrounds had the chance to express themselves more openly. We, as the government, will continue to ensure the sustainability of a democratic environment as in other European democracies, where different voices can be heard in a peaceful manner,” Bagis’ letter added.

It is difficult to agree with Bagis’ assertion that Turkey has a European identity. He completely blanks the fact that five people died during the protests. No mention of the muzzling of the press and the sacking of 59 journalists who had the courage to cover the protests either.

He makes the point that it is the AKP party that has furthered the cause of a new democratic society. If this is so, it would appear that the appearance of democracy has now reached a dead-end, Gezi Park being the watershed. Hopefully though, democracy in Turkey is still a work in progress.

One journalist makes the point that democracy in Turkey is still in its infancy and that it will take a long while, before democracy takes on the more recognisable appearance that westerners are used to.

Erdogan’s response to criticism was that since he had been voted in by 50% of the population, democracy was clearly in action. He appears to have little appetite to develop the notion of a wider democracy, that is to say, allowing press freedom and civilians to voice their opinion even if contrary to the government’s views. Erdogan was apparently heard to say, and this is a paraphrase: “When one is on a train one does not necessarily remain on it until it reaches its destination”. Which essentially says that the PM feels that his government is democratic enough.

While accusations of being a dictator are being leveled at the prime minister, perhaps we need to bear in mind that national and cultural perceptions of a democracy are somewhat individual. More liberal-minded protesters in Turkey will need courage to stand their ground and push for a more roundly democratic society. However, it is interesting to see what protests and their oppression can spawn.

Britta Ohm, writing in online publication ‘Open Democracy’ says this:

“This was the first time that it was not about pushing forward the demands of one particular group or of something abstract, an ideology that you either subscribe to or you don’t. It was about something we all knew and increasingly missed in our daily lives: trees. Very concrete, something we could all touch and that we connected with life and our future. It sounds so naïve, but it is what brought us together, so it’s not naïve at all. Imagine, it made ulusalcılar (laicist ultra-nationalists) and Kurds talk with each other, they sat under these trees and spoke and listened!”

So, an unexpected fallout out of the Gezi park protests which began around the government’s proposal to build a shopping mall on the site of the park, and the violent reception offered up by the police, was that people from very different backgrounds and ethnic origins found a common cause. Indeed, it was said that even some of the more conservative voters were repelled by the police violence. Could this be part of the evolution of democracy in Turkey?

In the most recent turn of events, the disturbing news is that plans exist to jail ringleaders of protests for life. Erdogan is now using oppression by legal means to silence the public. How will Bagis explain that away to the EU and the rest of the world? A tall order at best.

Erdogan may have been voted in by half the voters, but what of the other half who did not vote for him?

Egeman Bagis’ response to the now infamous letter published by the New York Times, fooled no-one. We all saw what happened during those protests. However, perhaps someone was bound to come up with a more soothing kind of response, other than PM Erdogan’s knee-jerk reaction of threatening to sue the NY Times. After all, the Turkish government’s reputation has been badly damaged by these events.

Prime Minister Erdogan took the protests and criticism surrounding police action and now ‘The Times’ letter very personally. Indeed his reactions are already polarising the nation. The more liberal-minded electorate want the right to free assembly, free speech and freedom of the press to report what is happening. It has also galvanised into action, groups who at other times may have made strange bedfellows. For instance both the authority and a significant income source of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) will be severely limited by a late-night legislative proposal of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proposed on 9th July. The transfer of the TMMOB’s authority to issue permits and visas for mapping, planning, etude and projects – a key source of the association’s income – to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning in the proposal has been widely interpreted as “revenge” against the association’s support of the Gezi Park protests.

Indeed, many commentators say that he has unraveled any progress he made for Turkey in the past 10 years. Nevertheless, there are many conservatives who share his mind-set, harking back to the grand days of Ottoman rule. What will come next?

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