—Istanbul
By Erden Kosova
Authors
  • Erden Kosova

    Erden Kosova is a critic and writer living in Istanbul. He contributes to the e-journal magazine red-thread.org as a member of the editorial board. Kosova has been active in Ortak Müfredat, an initiative that is set to study and discuss current problematics of art education. He also participated in the field research activities of Siyah Bant, a project, which has the objective of mapping out cases of censorship within the cultural sphere in Turkey. He wrote two monographic texts on Aydan Murtezaoğlu and Esra Ersen (published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları).

Without doubt, the uprising following the Gezi protests in Istanbul last June signified the most important civic mobilization that Turkish society has experienced in recent times. The reckless state violence, the loss of five young souls and the suffering of those injured, the terror of millions of people exposed to the widespread use of different sorts of teargas on the streets and in their homes caused profound anger; but the energy of the protests was channeled more constructively through the organization of forums in neighborhood parks nearly every night throughout the summer. An astonishing number of publications (books, magazines, photo-albums, documentary films) reflecting upon events immediately took their places on the bookshop shelves. Yet, the rising temperature of the summer and the coming of Ramadan seemed to diffuse the tension. Now, as the colder months arrive, with students returning to universities and the discipline of everyday life resumed, the political atmosphere has conversely started to heat up once again. Earlier this Fall, the police exercised their brutality this time in Kadıköy, the biggest district of the city and one of the heartlands of the secular bloc in which mass demonstrations took place peacefully back in June. Different tactics and different weapons were deployed by the police this time, but the same macabre, and increasingly audacious, scenes played out, such as illegal raids into apartment flats and close-range shooting with plastic bullets.

In the meantime, Erdoğan and his apostles decided to tone down their aggression and arrogance as part of a new PR campaign 1A very careful campaign that does not want to repeat the fallback at Gezi: informal interviews in which he open-heartedly talks about love and football, TV concerts in which he accompanies folk singers, photographs passed to the press from his footballer years, advertisement bombardment for the coming local election in which he is portrayed as a loving father and a loyal son, etc., as well as further manipulation of the press and counter-organization in social media. There have been additional reasons for presenting a lower profile and reinforcing defensive strategies. The gradual isolation of Turkey as the most enthusiastic actor in favor of military intervention in neighboring Syria , and the only government to maintain full support of the deposed Morsi administration has been absurdly celebrated by the spin doctors of the AKP as a kind of ‘precious loneliness’, proof of the party’s integrity. Only a few years ago the foreign secretary declared his government’s policy of ‘zero problems with our neighbors’. Erdoğan’s stance against Israeli policies in Gaza and his subsequent popularity among Arab societies briefly contributed to the image of Turkey as a rising actor in the region this image was shattered by internal contradictions and his arrogant ambition to take the leading role in a Sunni bloc. As a result, Turkey has at the moment no seat in any political negotiations in the region. Logistical support given to extremist groups among the opposition forces in Syria has destabilized the sectarian balance in the country and quickly alienated the Alevi population. Clashes between these groups and the Syrian Kurds have raised more yet suspicions about the commitment of the AKP government to the ongoing peace process with PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla group. Indeed, in September, the PKK declared that they had halted the course of their withdrawal from Turkey as a result of the AKP’s disinclination to take any steps towards peaceful negotiations. Consequently, Erdoğan has been forced to introduce a reform package, a ‘democratization’ program comprised of mainly cosmetic changes. Furthermore, the recent decision of the US Federal Reserve to end its massive liquidity injections into the global markets has had a damaging impact on the Turkish economy, which was already having serious difficulty managing its current account deficit. The steady growth rate in the economy over the last decade has thus far allowed the AKP government to solidify its public support and front like the region’s big brother/main player. But now as industrial output is receding and growth maintained only by artificially inflating the construction industry, it will be hard for the AKP to extend its golden decade. The government since tried to mend its shattered image and gain some political credit by bidding to host the Olympics in 2020 and attempting to get the national football team qualified for next year’s world cup in Brazil, but both moves failed.

Despite, or because of, these setbacks, Erdoğan studiously launched the vengeful counter-attacks he had promised during the Gezi uprisings. Journalists who voiced criticism to his policies have been purged from their positions – a high profile victim of this campaign was Yavuz Baydar, who worked as the reader’s editor of the popular daily newspaper Sabah, in addition to having been President of the International Organization of News Ombudsmen and later their board member 2See New York Times, July 19, 2013. Neither was the soft criticism of Gülen movement, a giant religious network which has acquired immense power within state mechanisms owing to its support for right-wing governments over the last two decades, and especially the AKP, spared either.

In his never ending speeches during the uprising, the prime minister singled out groups and individuals he was ‘going to take care of’. One of the groups included the cast of certain Turkish TV shows, some of whom became spokesmen for the Gezi protesters in public announcements and negotiations with the government. These actors and actresses are considerably popular, not only in Turkey but also in the Balkans, the Middle East and Russian-speaking countries and their involvement in the uprisings contributed to the shattering of Erdoğan’s image in the region. Something had to be done. In August, fifteen actors were arrested on suspicion of drug consumption and trafficking. Not all of them had shown their sympathies with the Gezi protesters in July. But the message was clear enough, and duly Turkish State Television (TRT) terminated some of its series without explanation, firing any personnel who shared pro-Gezi messages on social media.

Another target on Erdoğan’s revenge list was the Koç family, one of the country’s richest family. They had established themselves after the Second World War, mostly through investments in the motor industry, alongside a partnership with Ford. As one of the main actors of the status quo preceding the AKP’s rule, they flirted with the anti-AKP bloc for a while. But, they attracted the prime minister’s wrath when they kept the gates of their Divan Hotel, just next to the Gezi Park, open to the victims of the police. Now, the family’s business dealings are under siege. Their accounts are being scoured for wrong-doing, their contracts for several enterprises have been terminated, and they are kept from bidding for public contracts. The AKP pursued the same strategy with Doğuş Holding. Garanti Bank, one of the biggest financial companies belonging to the group, was exposed to an exaggerated inspection, its owner left alone only when he fired several of the left-wing journalists working for his news broadcast channel NTV, which was notorious for playing cookery shows during the events at Gezi. 3See New York Times, June 7, 2013

Another recent controversy relating to the Koç family was the interview Kutluğ Ataman gave to one of the pro-government newspapers. The famous video artist accused the family of sabotaging his solo show, forcing his gallery to cancel the exhibition because of the stance he took during the uprisings (he was among the mediators who met Erdoğan). Ataman had been critical of the left in Turkey for a while but as the interview indicates, this critical stance seems to have transformed into fully-fledged anti-leftism, in which he goes so far as to define all of the Gezi participants categorically as plotters of a coup d’état and to accuse secularists of planning ‘concentration camps’ for the AKP’s sympathizers.

ODTÜ (Middle East Technical University, established in Ankara in 1956) 4For the detailed analysis on the university, you can read Övül Durmuşoğlu’s text in WdW-review, has been a focal platform of political dissent throughout its history and it maintains its rebellious character still today. Demonstrations organised by leftist students at the campus earlier this year arguably paved the way for the Gezi spirit to emerge. The idiosyncratic mayor of Ankara, a Twitter addict and a skillful provocateur, had already expressed grumblings against the university on various occasions in the past. Since the protests, he put a suspended plan into operation: building up a highway that would pass through ODTÜ’s campus, uprooting numerous trees and destroying the adjacent working class neighborhood which provides cheap accommodation for students. Police raids and clashes have, inevitably, ensued. The police’s brutal response in June was so excessive and irrational that the AKP team had to conjure up absurd pretexts for it, demonizing the protestors with accusations of drunkenness. After a night of heavy clashes, a number of injured people had to be carried to a nearby mosque of historical importance, Dolmabahçe Valide Sultan Camii, to be treated by medical volunteers. A couple of days later, the prime minister alleged that alcohol was being consumed at night in the mosque. The mayor of Istanbul claimed that they had visual evidence of desacralizing acts. What came out was a single photograph of a young guy holding a Coke can. The AKP was desperate for scandal. Though put under immense pressure, the imam and the muezzin of the mosque said they could not lie, they had not witnessed any such indecent behavior that night. As punishment, both they and the muftu of the district were transferred to peripheral posts.

The polarization of society, the cruelty of AKP and its police state, the destructive consequences of its neo-liberal policies, the deteriorating state of the national economy and the fragility of Middle Eastern politics makes it a difficult time for the opposition as much as the government. While it seems that the government’s reckless plans for a complex at Gezi Park have been halted, destruction is being wrought all over the country. The green reserve in the north of Istanbul, which has resisted urbanization so far, has become a site of construction for the third Bosporus bridge as well as the city’s third airport; consequently hundreds of thousands of trees are being felled. While the government is engineering an atmosphere of normality, and with the local elections next March, imposing a more conventional political agenda, it will be hard to maintain and foster the sense of experimentation that surfaced last June. There has been no dramatic change in the shares of votes but there is a prospect of a change in power at the level of the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul, in the case of the establishment of an opposition bloc, which would mean the first real defeat for the AKP. But should this block the routes to a modest but more radical critique? This seems now to be the focal point of debates, as well as further dividing the components of Gezi.