The Birth and Rebirth of Gezi Protests

A protestor looks on during clashes with Turkish police near Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan office, between Taksim and Besiktas, early morning on June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) Source.

A year ago, the Turks poured into the streets to voice their demands of freedom, justice, and their right to live in a non-concrete environment. Young and educated people had been fed up being constantly alienated, insulted and discriminated by the ‘pious’ rulers of the country. And they defied. In a great sense of solidarity, people of very different ethnicities, political thoughts and socio-economic backgrounds got together and stood against police brutality, oppression of basic rights. Gezi Park protests inspired songs, various artworks, documentaries, other protests in even faraway countries… It was elegant, it was colorful, creative and magnificently humorous. I daresay, even too post-modern for a country like Turkey. Gezi changed lives of many.

It was Gezi protests that prompted me to start to write this blog. I had always been a political person but the last summer was the first time that I felt compelled to write. Not in Turkish, as the Turks already knew what was happening. But in English, as I thought the world had to know about our perspective of the events, too.

I am not talking about a memory. Even as you read this, protesters are trying to get over the roads that are blocked by the police and access to Taksim Square. We are marking only the beginning of Gezi. It did not end and nor will it, any time soon. Because firstly, when you create something that beautiful and powerful, it will not die out easily.

And secondly, the problems that sparked the protests off remain unresolved. Actually, they got even worse. The PM who was accused of lacking sense of empathy in 2013, now goes to a disaster-hit town where 301 people died and physically attacks a mourner, turning what was supposed to be a solemn national mourning into a farce. He can interrupt a ceremonial speech, shout at the speaker and storm out. He can ignore court decisions and refuse to answer for strongly-substantiated corruption allegations. Now in this a country social media can easily be banned. There’s now a bigger deficit of empathy, understanding and tolerance. Compared to the Turkey 2013, we now face more authoritarianism, less justice, rule of law and individual freedoms…

We shouldn’t think Gezi didn’t achieve a great deal, though. It did. Things may get much worse before getting better. But we don’t have the luxury to fall into despair. To eventually prevail, right should at least be as persistent as wrong.

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Erdoğan’s War on Koç Empire: How It Really Started and How It Will End

Claire Berlinski, a prominent journalist and a political analyst, has suggested me to write about the squabble between Koç Group (KG) and the government. I have accepted the challenge. So, late I may be but here I am, keeping my promise. On October 11th, Claire sent me Svante E. Cornell’s article “Erdogan VS. Koç Holding: Turkey’s New Witch Hunt” on Twitter which drew the attention of Turkey’s Finance Minister Mehmet Şimsek who dismissed what the title suggests.

I only partly agree with S. E. Cornell. But I strongly disagree with the Minister. Here’s my take.

Genes of the Turkish Bourgeois
When the Turkish Republic was founded 90 years ago, it was in need of a national upper class to realize Atatürk’s plan to have a private sector based economy. Moderately rich trading families enjoyed state support, flourished and over years some of them turned into the conglomerates that are now the biggest players in the Turkish economy. So, Turkey’s billionaires are not 1789 type bourgeois class whose interests historically clashed with those of the ruling class/state. And as a result, they didn’t really develop a tradition of standing up to the governments. Koç Group (KG), the biggest conglomerate of the country, more or less fits to this profile, too. Seeing it challenging the government for people would indeed be a very unusual thing. Though, as I will try to explain, that is not the case at all.

Ali Koç, member of Koç Group's Board of Directors.

Ali Koç, member of Koç Group’s Board of Directors.

People’s Desperation, the King’s Paranoia and Threats
During massive Gezi Park protests, KG’s Divan Hotel opened its doors to the protesters who had been terribly gassed by the police. This immediately sparked indirect and direct threats by the PM Erdoğan to the KG. “We know who sent food supplies to Taksim Square, who sheltered whom at their hotel. We know who collaborates with terror, welcomes it in their hotel. They’ll be brought to account for this.” he said in a speech to his voters. He also pointed out that “it’s against the law to harbor criminals.” In fact, Divan Hotel only did what common courtesy required and helped people, offering them space to breathe and get medical attention. We say ‘people’ or the ‘protesters’ yet the PM has a slightly different terminology (!) For him Gezi protesters aren’t just normal citizens using their rights to assembly and protest but criminals, rodents, looters and modern bandits, therefore helping them was defying his legitimate rule…

Although what Divan Hotel did was just a little more than a common good deed, protesters tended to turn it into a kind of legend. Stories of how Ali Koç heroically said “I’ll fire you all, if you don’t help people” to the hotel’s staff –which he denied–, rumors of him getting into politics –which also turned out to be false–, circulated in social media for quite some time. As politicization in favor of AKP and Gülen Movement got even deeper in judiciary and the police force, and the media ridiculously failed the public; in desperation, people romanticized Divan Hotel story and perhaps, I daresay, they saw the KG as a house of power that could speak for them. This is surely another reason that stirred up the paranoia of the PM whose deputy chairman and top advisor openly expressed that Gezi protests were a coup attempt.

İzmit Facility of Tüpraş.

İzmit Facility of Tüpraş.

Rain of Lawsuits
Then came the lawsuits and inspections… First, a tax probe on Koç-owned gas firm Aygaz and oil refinery Tüpraş, the largest company of Turkey, was launched by the Ministry of Finance. The probe drove the shares of the Koç-owned firms down, causing a 900 million-lira (around 450$ million) fall only in Tüpraş’s value. The reports of the probes being unprecedented and carried out by an army of inspectors, were denied by Finance Minister Mehmet Şimsek and Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, who claimed the inspections on Koç firms were “routine” and not related to Gezi protests. Understandably, because of the timing, what the probes cost to KG and Erdoğan’s open threats, the wave of inspections was perceived by the public as a punishment.

Pro-government daily Star reported that Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs demanded 30 million lira for the land on which Koç University is located and would act against the university. But KG denied the report saying that the land was not rented. Also, the $2.5 billion MİLGEM national warship contract that KG’s RMK Marine won, was cancelled. The decision was made by the Defense Industry Implementation Committee presided by the Prime Minister himself. But I also should point out that even before Gezi Park protests there were signs that RMK Marine would lose the contract, like complaints by suppliers and cheaper offers from other competitors. Another lawsuit accusing Koç and Doğan Group of backing 1997 military intervention was filed. It was initiative of an individual. As I know, the government didn’t make a statement about the case. But we know Erdoğan thinks that KG had an undemocratic influence in Turkish politics. While slamming KG but without specifically giving its name, he said “They were used to the governments that could be controlled. They used to bring down or lift up whomever they want.”

I think it would be wrong to present every lawsuit or a negative report as evidence of a witch hunt, as the details, in some cases, don’t support that argument. So, although there’s enough evidence to suggest there’s great pressure by PM Erdoğan on the KG, the examples above are partly open to interpretation.

F-511 TCG Heybeliada corvette, manifactured by Koç Group's RMK Marine.

Turkish Navy’s TCG Heybeliada (F-511) corvette, manufactured by Koç Group’s RMK Marine.

What is to happen next?
So, how is this going to end? Will Koç Family be finished off like really shady Uzan Family? It’s highly unlikely. Because KG is simply too big to fail, as statement of Ali Koç reveals: “As Koç Holding, we make 9% of the Turkey’s GDP, 10% of (the country’s) exportation and 9.4% of total tax revenues of the government.” Erdoğan would surely not want to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. That’s why the “strategic investment” incentives, mentioned in Minister Şimsek’s tweet, were given to Tüpraş. Not because Erdoğan and his party like KG, but it was not wise to exclude the largest enterprise of the country that has a new expensive project to produce higher performing fuel, from incentives for strategic investments. Especially unwise if that enterprise controls all of Turkey’s refining capacity and the taxes on fuel constitute a big source of revenue for the government. So big that because of this over-taxation Turkish people use the most expensive fuel in the world.

Traditionally, business dynasties get on well with governments and that’s what Koç Family intends to do. Just after Erdoğan accused the KG of making moves against him, Ali Koç explicitly told “We have no goal or desire other than developing Turkish economy, making Turkey the leader of its region and an important player of the global economy.”

In short, Erdoğan’s paranoia made him punish Koç Holding over a humanitarian action of Divan Hotel’s management. It’s not likely that he’ll go further than punishment. But going this far is more than enough to suggest that freedom of enterprise –along with freedom in many other areas– is not sufficiently appreciated by him. He gave good deal of foreign investors second thoughts about Turkey. He revealed that, like the model of presidency in his mind, the way he wants to run the economy is also very Russian-style.

Turkey’s Protests: What Really Triggered Them and Why They Will Continue

Now the protests seem to have run out of steam. Although still clashes erupt occasionally, the country is much more calmed compared to first days of the protests. Yet the reasons that sparked this social explosion off, are still there. And they need to be understood and studied intensively as they could be pregnant to even more than what already happened.

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What triggered massive protests first was the police brutality that targeted peaceful protestors at Gezi Park (Which was a place hardly of national importance, let alone being worthy of global attention. Now everyone has heard of it.) To be fair, Erdoğan’s government made a lot of progress in ending torture and ill-treatment by the police, especially through passing EU reform packages. Police brutality during riots, however, remained a problem. It generally targeted protest-addicted leftist groups, sometimes labor unions and BDP (Pro-Kurdish Party), and the public, media mostly didn’t care what was happening to them. But when it happened to peaceful Gezi Park protestors who were perceived by urbanized Turkish middle class and upper middle class as their own, all hell broke loose. Angry urban youth, white-collar workers were all out in the streets. One can clearly see all this is the result of a lot of resentment accumulated over years and the attack of the police was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’d say the PM’s political language is perhaps the biggest cause of the protests, unfortunately this reason wasn’t sufficiently touched down in English-written analyses so far. The language of politics in Turkey has always been harsh and fierce. Before 2003, Erdoğan had actually promised he would change that. Indeed, in his first years, he used a more uniting language, seemed to embrace all the nation. But in his second term in office, he started to get in fights and wars of words. With who? Almost every segment of the society that didn’t support him: Diplomats, soldiers, students, academics, businessmen, doctors, journalists, labor unions, some non-governmental organizations and so on…

He makes long speeches frequently: Only in June 9, he made six speeches full of advertisement of himself, misinformation, alienation, threats and conspiracy theories. For a long time, they have been extremely unbearable for the half of Turkish voters who didn’t choose him. While presenting and talking about public investments and projects, he uses a language makes it harder to understand whether these are public investments paid by taxpayers’ money (largely by the upper middle and middle class he alienated) or his personal grants to the nation. He never avoids to call names, talk down, judge and divide people for their religious beliefs and lifestyles. Just after the big protests erupted, the country literally became a victim of this language. President Abdullah Gül, Deputy PM Bülent Arınç, İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş and Governor of İstanbul Avni Mutlu had all made very reasonable and empathetic statements. Everyone was expecting the PM to use a soft language, show a sense of empathy and soothe the people after returning from his North Africa trip. Instead, at the airport, he made one of those big stupid speeches liked by only his own base and his a few reconciliatory remarks in the speech naturally failed to calm the crowds. The protests were inflamed even more. All he had to do was to plainly apologize, or at least express regret for police brutality and say that protestors’ opinions would be taken into account. Now we face a price hard to calculate. Turkey’s one of the top ten most visited countries that uses its tourism incomes to cover its huge deficit, but the tourism sector now struggles with cancellations. Foreign direct investment and hot money flowing into Turkey are starting to have second thoughts. As the Turkish saying goes: Dilin cismi küçük, cürmü büyük. (The tongue is small but its villainy can be great.)

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Another matter frustrated the crowds is that he tries to micromanage people’s lives. He tells them what to drink, when to drink, how many kids to have, what docudramas to watch, what newspapers to read, what ways are appropriate to give birth… Upper middle and middle class Turks, according to my observation, chose to ignore him for a long time. But on May 31, they decided that ignoring was not enough to cope with this mentality that blatantly tries to get into even people’s bedrooms.

Though, in all fairness, Tayyip Erdoğan is not a dictator: He won three general elections fair and square. This fact, however, doesn’t stop him from having fears of a dictator. Even though, the main goal of the protests was never overthrowing his government or questioning his legitimacy as leader, he thought he was being challenged by forces seeking to unseat him. That’s why he has been holding a series of meetings called “Respect for the National Will”, and by “the national will” he means the will of the 49% that chose him; not the others who are more crowded, probably pay more taxes than his voters do and only want their opinions to be taken into account. He responded a post-modern movement that has post-modern demands with brutally classical ways. He still perceives every bit of opposition to himself as a setback to the country’s development and democracy. He still feels no remorse, takes no responsibility for the social explosion that rocked the country. Moreover, he refuses to understand the reasons caused all this mess. And that’s why, as Americans say, it ain’t over yet. So, continue to watch Turkey.

Surely there are many more reasons and some very important ones are not directly about the government but about low standards and unskillfulness of Turkish media, incompetence of the opposition, limited options of Turkish voters and so forth. Turkey is a complex country with its unique economic and cultural dualism. Thus, every little problem is surprisingly multi-layered. I just tried to explain a few things here. I hope that I have been useful.