The smoke from the fires lit in Istambul’s Taksim Square by the rioters and from the police gas canisters, has been hiding Turkey’s two real problems of Turkey for two weeks. The first is that negotiations for the country joining the European Union are so stagnant that it would not be surprising that the Turks, mostly Muslims, want to leave the project of becoming part of a mostly Christian nations club.
The second is that Turkey is losing Syria in favor of Iran. Three years ago, Prime Minister Erdogan’s Turkey was one of the few countries, apart from Russia, with influence over Damascus. Today Erdogan is not only seen as an enemy by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, but Ankara has a foreign policy issue with its neighbours that is ending with its hopes to restore Turkish historical influence on the region.
Turkey declared a few years ago that it didn’t believe in the nuclear ambitions of Tehran, against the opinion of its Western allies. Ankara’s diplomatic project involved maintaining a benevolent duopoly with Iran maintaining peace in a region in spite of sectarian rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis. The civil war in Syria has broken this project, and Tehran and Russia are helping Damascus to crush its internal enemies, while Turkey is reduced to only to offer asylum to opponents and refugees of the Syrian President, since it is not receiving more than a lukewarm political and military support from its Western allies.
The concerns of Turkey because of the Syrian crisis are shared by Israel. Tamir Pardo, head of the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, met with his Turkish colleague, Hakan Fidan, on June 10 to discuss the role of Iran in Syria and close positions about the peace conference to be held next July.
On Friday last week Erdogan expressed his frustration with Europe in a Conference of ministerial Affairs with the EU. “We expect those in the EU who deal with Turkey access to the Union to make self-criticism,” he said. “The EU must cease violating the promises made to Turkey. Turkey is not a country you can make to wait at the door.” Erdogan complained bitterly of the visa regime imposed by the Union to Turkey.
“The EU must honestly explain why it has not accepted Turkey. The Turkish people must be informed of why this process is taking so long,” the Prime Minister continued complaining. However, Erdogan acknowledged that in some respects Turkey was in a better position with respect to the Union than some countries that legally belong to it. In terms of economic expectations, no doubt he is right.
The main obstacles for Turkey are a product of its territorial conflict with Cyprus. Ankara recognizes and protects the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which for the EU is only a secessionist region of Cyprus. The discovery of major gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean creates a potential conflict over maritime jurisdictions and the continental shelf between Turkey, Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, which the European Union is not in a position to mediate.
Police violence in Taksim Square was the subject of harsh criticism in a session of the European Parliament on Wednesday, where some were in favor of denying Turkey access to the EU.
Aware of its ceiling of glass in Europe, Turkish Prime Minister came out this Wednesday 12 to contain the fire: he convened a group of representatives of culture, journalism and the University, and justified its initiative to reshape the Gezi Park, which has served as an excuse for the protest movement. This remodeling, Erdogan recalled, had been included in his electoral program. Also, other reforms in the vicinity of the plaza, such as the construction of the Sheraton hotel and the Koc University had resulted in the cutting down of thousands of trees without causing a single tumult.
Is clear that a popular movement that has gathered between 5,000 and 10,000 people many times in almost every city of the country does not respond to a marginal cause as the cutting of a few trees in a small park.
The movement should be primarily seen as a cultural clash, full of symbols. Gezi Park project involves the construction of a building of Ottoman military appearance that will hold a shopping arcade and a mosque. The action on the Gezi Park took place just weeks after a new law restricted the consumption and sale of alcohol. These initiatives are perceived by a broad layer of the population as attacks on secular and nationalist legacy that inspired the nature of constitutional regime from the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. It is symptomatic that the demonstrations that have accompanied the clashes with the police have been nourished both by youth activists and Republican People’s Party supporters, who are secular and pro Kemal legacy. But this doesn’t explain it all.
In the past three years Erdogan and the Government of the justice and Development Party (AKP, its acronym in Turkish) have inflicted hard setbacks to two of the strongest supports of Kemalist tradition: the judiciary and the military. For greater insult to these two groups, Erdogan has launched talks with Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the independence movement that over many years has committed numerous acts of terrorism causing the death of a countless number of soldiers. Erdogan has been long negotiating the return of political and linguistic rights to the Kurds with the Peace and Democracy party, a democratic branch of the Kurds. Any peace attempt through negotiations would perhaps need the return to Turkish territory of great number of guerrillas of the PKK, refugees mainly in the North of Iraq and Syria, an idea that Republicans deplore.
Another cause for population discontent with Erdogan, even in his own party, is the project of converting the Turkish constitutional regime from a parliamentary Republic to a presidential one with Erdogan as head of State, of course, once a new parliamentary majority would vote a Constitution that would allow Erdogan to run for the Presidency.
And one more source of opposition to the political ambitions of Erdogan is Gulen, a large organization of religious inspiration but strictly civil enforcement, which in the past gave their support to Erdogan but today is wary of his ambitious projects. Zamam newspaper, a regular spokesperson for this movement, has severely criticized the management of the Taksim Square crisis.
The business community, which has invariably been behind Erdogan because he has brought many years of economic stability, which enabled a rapid development of the country, begins to show some concern. The CEO of Garanti Bank, Ergun Özen, has expressed support for protesters in Taksim.
However, all these verifiable facts should be contrasted with others no less verifiable: the popularity of Erdogan in the traditional and pious layers of the population, who are still the majority, especially in the interior of Anatolia.
From this perspective, Turkey protests of Taksim Square are representative of some changes, and have given some good material for television. But they cannot certainly be called a revolution or even, as someone said, a turn of the tide.