Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Scenarios that led to the Turkish riots this summer.

In the beginning of this summer season, we witnessed another uprising of the people in yet another Mediterranean and Muslim state, Turkey. The riots that took place turned violent and they resulted to human casualties, but they also brought to light the reality of the country's politics and public opinion.

The riots seemingly started by an outrage at a brutal eviction of a sit-in at Istanbul's Taksim Gezi park protesting against an urban development plan. Subsequently, supporting protests and strikes took place across Turkey protesting a wide range of concerns, at the core of which were issues of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the government's encroachment on Turkey's secularism. (Wikipedia)

The timing of the protests coming in the same period with the Arab Spring and its aftermath, but also the Occupy movement elsewhere, place the developments as highly important for the greater Euro-Mediterranean region. And that because the whole region is engulfed by an economic, political and social crisis and upheaval that has not settled yet, therefore we haven't been able to draw conclusions or see any immediate results.

In the center of the Turkish protesters' anger was the country's Prime Minister Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, the AKP. They have been ruling Turkey since 2002 and have led the country out of recession, boosting its economic growth and placing the country in the G20 and the top economies of the World. But as this economic growth is mainly based on the construction industry boom, it remains to be seen if this boom is permanent or Turkey is going to follow Spain and Ireland in a construction industry meltdown.

That of course does not stop the country's leadership continuing with their plans and pushing their agenda, hoping to make Turkey a major player in the region. The country has paid off the loans that it received from the IMF and it is asserting itself in the Middle East and in the Balkans. But what about Turkey's EU membership bid?

It is true that the success and long term in power, have made Turkey's leadership overconfident for some people's likings. The recent spat with Israel for example and Mr Erdogan's passionate outburst on the alleged Israeli involvement in Egypt's military coup , confirms that. (Hurriyet Daily News). And that is not the first time that Mr. Erdogan spoke out against Israel, a country that Turkey had formerly very close relations. A few years ago, the incident of the killing of several Turkish activists on a aid flotilla destined for Palestine, strained the two countries' relations.

But it is not just people from outside Turkey who start feeling discomfort with Erdogan's leadership and increasing power or influence. Since 2011, the AKP and Mr Erdogan have been accused of driving forward an Islamist agenda, having undermined the secularist influence of the Turkish Army.

During the same period they also increased a range of restrictions on human rights, most notably freedom of speech and freedom of the press, despite improvements resulting from the accession process to the European Union. They have allegedly also have increased restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, internet use,television content and the right to free assembly. (Wikipedia)

So is there any wonder that these protests came at a time that seems to be a general upheaval, or perhaps a redesigning of the greater region of the Middle East, the Balkans, Southern Europe and the Mediterranean? Mr Erdogan himself has stated in a speech on 18 June that "internal traitors and external collaborators", prepared the riots very "professionally."

And he is not deluded by believing this. The whole region is being reshuffled according to some people/groups' interests. If Israel did not take part in Egypt's coup, certainly others have who didn't approve the Islamist oriented policies that the ousted former President Morsi pursued. Could Mr. Erdogan also be warned by foreign powers on his seemingly ever increasing Islamist agenda, by stirring protests that could shake his government?

Turkey under Erdogan became very confident, even to the point of scorning EU membership and pursuing to create a new Turkish-led block in the Middle East, in order to expand the country's influence there. One can actually doubt that EU membership for Turkey is seriously still considered by either the Turks or the Europeans.

By just being an EU candidate country, Turkey receives a vital lump-sum to push for the necessary reforms that are needed in order for any country to achieve full membership. Reforms that in Turkey's case are either not happening or they are proceeding in a very slow pace.

But in that way Europe does not close the door to Turkey for good and it keeps it under its influence. Turkey also receives not just funds, but also access in the European market with a lot of other benefits that it gains through various bilateral agreements. Will this relationship evolve into a full membership one day? It is doubtful under the current Turkish political reality, especially under Erdogan.

Since they receive much of what they would like from a full EU membership already, I doubt that they will proceed with total reforms in order to meet the criteria that Europe placed as condition to join EU. The Turks would have to alter the country radically and break a lot of their nation's traditions. Changing the role of the military's involvement in the country's politics for example, could prove very difficult to achieve.

Nevertheless Turkey continues to pursue its own interests in the Balkans and over Cyprus, knowing that some of their activities could hinder all of their efforts to join the European club. They made clear their objections over the Israeli-Cypriot collaboration for gas exploration in Cypriot waters. They invest in FYROM and support the country, building strong links and spreading their influence in a nation with a dispute with Greece, an EU member state.

They also promote their interests in the Muslim minorities all over the Balkans, from the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, the Muslim populations of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and of Greece, which are not considered to be all of Turkish ethnic background. Yet Turkey keeps the Pomak communities in Northern Greece, well under their sphere of influence.

Either the protests were indeed fanned by foreign powers or they were a protest of the citizens towards their government's policies, they were definitely used by the foreign press to damage the Turkish government's image. Not that they were wrong in doing so. The Erdogan government, perhaps knowing that the protests were not strictly what they seemed or being aware of the consequences that it would have to deal if the rioters were successful, used an overwhelmingly amount of violence in order to place it under control.

But what has been achieved by the protests so far and why the media stopped focusing on Turkey, redirecting their attention once again on Syria and Egypt? We haven't seen any results or closure from last June's Turkish protests. Maybe the Erdogan administration has compromised with the protesters or the media attention on the incident simply fizzled out, captured by events with a greater importance in the neighboring countries.

It will take more than one protests to change Turkey and the Turkish citizens, their governing elite, their NATO allies and European partners know that. It would be great if we saw the protests evolving into a real citizen movement, working for the democratization of the country. But will the Erdogan government and these "external collaborators" as he called them, allow such movement ever succeeding in its cause?

The greater region is very unstable and things are still shifting. Turkey is located in the region and one way or another it will be affected by the whole process. The question is how the Turkish people will be impacted and how can the international community help them in achieving a better country for themselves first, then perhaps turning Turkey into a fully democratic European country.

Closing this article I would like to express my deepest condolences to the families of those killed in the protests and my best wishes for those injured or affected by them in any way. 

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