The “Gezi Park” protests enabled many to experience, often for the first time, the value of direct action and participation. A process that will have lasting consequences on the relationship between citizens and power. Our interview to professor Kerem Öktem
Among the issues at the root of the protests erupted in Taksim Square, you recently highlighted an increasingly problematic Turkish foreign policy. Does the recent military coup in Egypt reinforce this issue? Is it the end of the great project of the AKP to turn Turkey into a centre of attraction and a model for its neighbours?
It's a rather complex issue. The vision of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has always played a very active role in this area, has developed towards more directions over the years, including one called "neo-Ottoman", in which the Balkans play a central role.
One of these, which I would call "Islamic political solidarity", targeted the Islamic countries of the Middle East and northern Africa and was linked to the emergence of a block of governments led by "pro-AKP" formations in the region, from Tunisia to Egypt (but with less success in Libya). This approach, however, seems now in serious trouble, and the coup in Egypt could definitely put in crisis the whole scaffold.
It has been repeatedly stressed that Taksim Square is not Tahrir Square. Do recent events and trends confirm this reading?
Unlike what happened in Egypt, in Taksim there was no request for a change of regime, and especially no desire for a military intervention. From this point of view, Turkey has taken decisive steps forward, effectively excluding the army from political dynamics – a major difference between Turkey and Egypt today.
What unites the two squares is the fact that they have been activated by internal dynamics in the process of capitalist globalization which, however, had very different effects in the two countries. In Turkey, it has led to unprecedented growth and, despite a growing gap between rich and poor, to a widespread improvement in living conditions. Exactly the opposite has happened in Egypt, where the protest was triggered by the collapse of the local economy, with citizens forced to queue for basic necessities.
Will events in Egypt impact in an important way on the Turkish internal political debate?
In Turkey, of course, we tend to read the Egyptian crisis through the prism of our internal situation. It should be noted that across the political spectrum there was horror at the intervention of the army, not even the Kemalists have shown support for the military coup.
A reflection on the important internal debate may come from the strengthening of the "international conspiracy syndrome" through which the Prime Minister Erdoğan interprets the events of Taksim and Gezi Park. According to this reading, protests in Turkey would be the product of an international conspiracy aimed at damaging the economic and political development of the country, and as a reflection of a possible new attempt of coup d'etat of the "deep state".
Countries such as Egypt and Tunisia were the pillars of the "modern, Islamic Middle East" model pursued by the AKP. Also in this case, the government in Ankara sees recent developments, especially in Egypt, through the prism of an international conspiracy, including the United States and the "Jewish lobby", that would bring turmoil into the "friendly" area built in recent years by Ankara's foreign policy. Ultimately, I believe that the Egyptian crisis will make Erdoğan's position more rigid, and probably political unrest in Turkey more polarized.
In recent years, Turkey has become a much richer country, and the AKP has significantly improved social services. Is the protest driven by those who remained excluded from economic growth? Or is the issue not just economic, and protests also a challenge to the cultural model proposed by the government?
There is surely an element of challenge to the cultural model of "marriage" between economic neo-liberalism and social conservatism proposed by the AKP. However, it is not only those who remained cut off from economic growth that protest. The growing middle class, for example, has largely taken advantage of the growth of the last decade, but can not feel represented by the conservative social policy promoted by Erdoğan.
It's true, the AKP has substantially expanded social services such as healthcare and education, which is appreciated by the whole Turkish society. Yet, the new social services – universal and centralized – are increasingly being used as an instrument of control and imposition of a particular cultural and social model. Schools are better equipped than ever, but there is an increasing number of hours of religion teaching, sometimes not even optional, but mandatory. This is true also for the healthcare system, which collects a lot of information on citizens: there have been cases where women who wanted an abortion have found themselves face to face with their family, warned by officials.
The debate on neo-liberalism is global, and certainly not confined to Turkey alone. Do you think new proposals and models are coming from Taksim?
Honestly, it is still early to tell. The important thing is that discussion forums are born, where everyone can discuss what kind of future and society they want in Turkey. It's a very horizontal process, involving people with very different backgrounds who, for the first time, find a way to communicate. In a sense, the protests are bringing Turkey and Turks to discover their own complexity, helping people to get out of the small ghettos where they lived until today. It is, however, a process which is still in its infancy...
Will the protests in Taksim have lasting consequences on the relationship between citizens and power in Turkey?
Perhaps not in the short term, as at the moment we are witnessing a witch hunt by the government against those who protested, in the attempt to separate a "democratically legitimate" protest from one that, according to the government, would have exploited it for non-democratic or even terrorist goals.
The younger generation that occupied Taksim has often been called "post-political", indifferent to party dynamics in their current form. After protests, however, hundreds of thousands of people have been able to experience, often for the first time, the value of direct action and participation. This "school of politics on the street" is a process that continues in the forums where new forms of debate are explored and issues such as the role of the Kurds in Turkey or the freedom to express one's sexual identity are addressed. This process delves into this new form of collective political consciousness.
From here to immediate political results there is certainly a long road, but I think protests have transformed many people at the personal level, leading this generation to live a more political dimension and re-empowering those who were already active, but believed that Turkey was doomed to follow Erdoğan's path of growing authoritarianism.
Is there now a force capable of shaping the political energy expressed by Taksim Square? In case no one will be able to give voice to the questions of the square, is there a risk of radical and violent fringes emerging?
Surely the current opposition has little to offer to those who protest, as the CHP is still deeply divided between a social democratic wing and another old-fashioned, Kemalist, nationalist and xenophobic one, and is currently being blocked by the internal clash between these two factions. The Gezi protests could help the reformist wing take control of the party, but this is not very likely, nor is it inconceivable that the party will end up splitting.
About radicalization, I do not think there is an immediate danger. Turkey has a long history of radical and violent political responses, but it seems to me that the people of Taksim do not have any interest in this type of solution.
Do the protests in Taksim represent the final divorce between liberal Turkey and the AKP?
This divorce, in fact, took place well before the general elections of 2011, although the liberals have needed time to realize this. The issue is more complex: the current AKP leadership has disillusioned and ousted not only the liberals, but also part of their core electorate.
Many members of the AKP are unhappy with the authoritarianism in the party, but do not express their dissent because, in contrast to what was happening until some time ago, the AKP has become simply the power apparatus of Erdoğan. The discontent, however, exists and grows: the internal force closer to the religious-economic movement of Fehtulla Gulen, for example, shows increasing aversion to Erdoğan's authoritarian style. The AKP is divided today, although today this division is not yet visible.
Many parallels have been drawn between the protests in Taksim and the protest movement of 1968 in Western Europe. Are they too easy? Do you see more elements of similarity or difference?
All the large protest movements have traits in common, with young people in the streets, the organization of the masses, and the explosion of social dynamism. But I see big differences between Taksim and '68. In 1968, there was an ideological project defined in the direction of socialism-communism, and the masses that took to the streets felt part of this narrative, even if that experience turned out influencing very different aspects, like the sexual revolution and social and family relationships.
In Taksim, instead, we talk about a post-modern, post-political event without ideological connotations, which makes it somewhat more interesting because, in a sense, those who protest are still trying to find the questions before embarking in the search for answers.
On the other hand, however, this means that it will be much more difficult to turn Gezi into a structured political project. I think that at the heart of the process there is a reflection on the quality of democracy, on the future of pluralism. People want to discuss how the system impacts on the life of each one, although at the moment there are no alternative models to liberal capitalism.
At least in the Western media, women have been a central symbolic element in the protests. Do you believe there is also a gender issue at the basis of what happened in Taksim?
In all conservative political projects, the female body becomes one of the main targets of political initiative. Even in Turkey, at the centre of Erdoğan's conservative discourse is the idea of the family as the pillar of society and woman as the pillar of the family. This emerges in his statements about women as "mothers of children" (at least three), the debate on abortion, and the morning-after pill.
I believe the protesters in Taksim were clearly aware of this setting, something confirmed by the recent gay-pride in Istanbul, which gathered 50,000 people – 30,000 more than last year. It is now more evident that the attempt to confine women's role and body and the marginalization of the "sexually different" are linked to the same policies of social conservatism.
You have a long experience in Turkish foreign policy in the Balkans . Do you believe that the reactions to the protests in Taksim in the region represent a political litmus test of the investment made by the AKP in this decade?
In the Balkans there were demonstrations of support for Erdogan in Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia. In Albania and Macedonia, organizers were clearly "client-groups" of the Ankara government. In Bosnia the situation is more complex, as demonstrations were organized by the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), that is not precisely an AKP client. In this case, bearing in mind the political affinity and long-term relationships with the Turkish government party, I rather think that the new SDA Muslim elite felt instinctive closeness to AKP and therefore the need to support Erdoğan.
The demonstrations in the Balkans have definitely represented an interesting element, which I think shows the limits of the AKP foreign policy in the region. The reactions of the past few weeks have indeed shown that support networks in the Balkans are now confined to communities, groups, and parties with a clear Muslim identity, without reaching the rest of society in the area.
This, as long advocated, is the most obvious weakness of Turkish foreign policy in the Balkans – to have real impact, you have to reach the majority, that in the Balkans is not Muslim.
This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page: Tell Europe to Europe.
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