< SWITCH ME >
On July, 15th a group of military officials unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Islamic-conservative AKP-government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which left 265 people dead. In the aftermath of these events, the Turkish government has declared a state of emergency and demands the extradition of the oppositional preacher Fetullah Gülen from the United States who is the alleged mastermind of the coup. Since then, the Turkish government has officially detained about 26,000 alleged Gülen-supporters. Moreover, several media channels lost their license, schools were shut down, and Erdoğan considered the reintroduction of the death penalty.
In response to this suggestion, Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini ruled out the possibility of a country that reintroduces the death penalty to become a member of the Union. Afterwards, the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım distanced himself from this proposal. Nevertheless, the relationship between Turkey and the EU remains strained. Germany in particular has been struggling to find a coherent strategy to deal with the authoritarian developments in Turkey as the following analysis will show. Partly due to the German guest worker policy in the 1950s, there are now about three million people of Turkish descent living in Germany, which is the basis for a traditionally close alliance between both Germany and Turkey and which makes it worth taking a look at the current state of the German-Turkish relations.
Facing tear gas and water cannons, Istanbul's youth gets creative over the Gezi Park events.
|Photo: Julia Schulte|
|Anti-Erdogan slogans on walls|
Recently, Istanbul's biggest Open Air Festival took place. For six days, young people turned the city's main square into a party area. There was camping, there were concerts and discussions. Families with young children joined as well as tourists, who took pictures on barricades and demolished cars, turning a revolution into a fun park site. The mobile traders, always business-minded, sold grilled fish and köfte, sesami rings, tea, coffee, water – and also diving goggles and simple face masks against gas attacks. You could get Turkish flags and Guy Falkes masks. The square was overcrowded during the day but even at about 4.30 am, when the Muezzin chants for the first time, you'd find people wandering around, chatting, eating. Also, someone always had to guard the barricades and claim territory by spraying new slogans on walls and streets. Starting with 'Tayyip istifa' (Tayyip resign) and 'Her yer Taksim' (Taksim is everywhere), people got more and more creative.
What started as a protest against the tearing down of a park and quickly became a nationwide uprising of Turkish youth is now brutally being cleared by the police.
After a weekend with a festival atmosphere at Taksim Square, the big hangover comes on a Tuesday. Clearing Gezi is a three step operation: very early in the morning on the 11th of June, the police start removing the barricades the protesters have built line by line in every street leading to the square. Soon Taksim is crowded again. I am told not to leave the house in Cihangir all day in order to stay safe. In the early evening I go out to get some food – and instead get my first load of teargas even though I'm one kilometre away from the main square. All night there are little explosions in the streets. Those who don't join the protests shut the windows to protect themselves from the gas and keep the curtains closed to avoid police spies. Anxiously, people follow Twitter posts, Facebook, and live cams of Taksim. At 1.30 am the noise grows louder: people flee down side streets, wait, rearrange their masks and goggles and run back. Until early morning you can anticipate the noise of the police attacks. After this night I flee to the suburbs.
Over the past weeks Turkey has seen a great number of street protests and demonstrations in its biggest cities, from Istanbul to Ankara, Izmir and Antalya. Starting from a small demonstration the protests have grown significantly in size and structure with passing days and have been violently repressed by the police force according to sources on the scene. E&M author Siri Warrlich interviews a young European who has experienced the incidents in Istanbul at first hand.
Two years ago Heidi Hart came as an Erasmus student to Istanbul. Today, she still lives there – and since last weekend, a mask and swimming goggles belong to her everyday attire.
"İstanbul'u dinliyorum, gözlerim kapalı. I listen to Istanbul with my eyes closed.“ That is the first line of a famous poem by Orhan Veli Kanik, Turkey's Shakespeare. Istanbul on Wednesday night, 5 June 2013, not with closed eyes, but via skype, sounds like this: Cars honking, singing, whistling… are those cooking pots the people are banging against each other? My friend Heidi Hart, 24, holds her computer through the open window. "Soon, I will join them," she says and shows me her mask and swimming goggles. A little more than two years ago, the two of us together started our Erasmus journey from Mannheim, Germany to Istanbul. Heidi stayed – and recently became part of the protests.
For the first time we crossed an actual border: passports, customs, vehicle check. It was all very exciting and we felt somewhat more abroad once we were on Turkish ground. Our first impressions? For one, nationalism showed its face right away with enormous flags at the border post. Then, we were surprised by how little developed rural areas are (even on the European side). And when we hit Istanbul we were overwhelmed by the culture, the size, and the contradictions of this city that is literally at the edge of Europe. (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)
Following our routine, we try to discover some fun facts about the upcoming country. Turkey's economy grew twice as fast as Greece's shrank in 2010, we read. Istanbul has doubled in population over the last 20 years; and the city was European Capital of Culture (sic!) in 2010. Since we are now leaving the EU, we also consider the German Federal Foreign Office's website. With regard to driving in Turkey it recommends: traffic rules are rarely respected. Behave defensively and don't get involved in fights as drivers might react agressively. We comply and drive carefully through the night, towards Asia.
During our two-day visit to Istanbul we have the privilege to be invited by Okan University and the Turkish Policy Quarterly for a discussion with Turkish students and professors. We are also able to talk to Mustafa and Eda, two friends of our host Jasper, as well as to a few young Turkish people in the streets of Taksim. We have Kebaps, fresh fish sandwiches, smoke a water pipe, drink chai, and cross the Bosphorus by ferry. Turkey on a shoestring. But what about our findings? What do young Turkish people think about the EU and the accession process? In a nutshell, there are three stories to be told from Turkey. The first one is about why Europe is crucial to the Turkish population, the second one is about why it is not. And the third one explains why Turkish politics is more complex than most people think.
With over 100 journalists and academics in jail, the human rights situation is anything but satisfactory. "There is no free speech, people are afraid," says Mustafa, a young law student. When he launched a political website a couple of months ago with a friend, the friend's phone began to be checked by the secret service. Mustafa is lucky to study at a private university where arguments can be expressed more openly. Similarly, the participants of our discussion at Okan University complain about imprisoned colleagues and the general lack of democratic standards. The Kurdish population continues to have a hard time, too, as the government refuses to accept them as a minority. Professor Ayakon describes the situation as a "deadlock". As a consequence of all the human rights assaults, Professor Alemdar argues that orientation towards Europe is definitely needed. "Europe can and should be a norm exporter," she says. There are numerous other examples of how the military, the judiciary, and the political elite abuse their powers in the supposedly secular, democratic state. As part of the accession process these questions must be addressed. So the first story is: the EU is important for Turkey because it has the capacity to push the country towards better human rights standards.
Turkey’s possible membership in the EU has caused widespread discussions across Europe. Whilst there are good reasons for the EU to say “hayir” (no) to Turkish membership at the moment, saying no on the basis of cultural differences, as seems to be happening now, does not only go against fundamental European principles but will create an unprecedented distance between Turkey and the EU.
Despite the fact that Turkey’s economy is seeing double digit growth, has a higher per capita income than Romania and Bulgaria, and ranks better in risk assessments than Italy and 10 other European states, Turkey’s democracy has still got a long way to go before it could be regarded as consolidated. On the one hand, of course, Turkey still has to deliver on many internal issues. The controversial article 301 that prohibits insulting the Turkish state has caused severe concern for press freedom. As journalists privately admit, they impose self-restraint because of fear over lengthy court cases and possible imprisonment for 5+ years.
Additionally, human rights and rights for minorities still pose challenges. The shaky state of Turkish democracy is further underlined by the troubled opposition that could indulgently be described as divided and lacking a clear plan, as well as the almost-ban of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the constitutional court over violating the secular principle of the Turkish state. If just one more judge had voted to ban the AKP, Turkey would have slipped into a crisis with an unforeseeable future for Turkish democracy.