Democracy Lab

Here's What You Need to Know about the Clashes in Turkey

Has the government of Prime Minister Erdogan finally succumbed to the authoritarian impulses that doomed so many other Turkish leaders before him?

ANKARA, May 31 — As I write these words in my Ankara hotel in the early morning hours, I can still hear the distant voices of massed demonstrators chanting slogans a few blocks from the presidential palace and the prime minister's residence. Thousands of people are continuing to protest the government and its deeply undemocratic actions. The TV is showing images of the brutal police attack against peaceful demonstrators that took place earlier today in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

The clashes in Istanbul go on as I write: Emergency rooms in the hospitals near Taksim are struggling to cope with the hundreds of people injured by the police. Earlier today in Ankara, where the protests have so far remained largely peaceful, I've watched protestors linking arms to form human chains blocking the streets. What struck me the most was the reaction from ordinary people. Rather than protesting the snarled traffic caused by the demonstrators, Ankarans passing by in their cars supported the protestors by honking and waving victory signs from their windows.

Over the past few weeks I've been taking some of my students from the United States on a trip around Turkey. The aim of our trip has been to explore the pros and cons of the country's development experience. We started with the early days of the republic (overshadowed by the war for independence, ethnic cleansing, authoritarianism, forced cultural modernization, and economic failures) and have worked our way up to the challenges that shape the country today (democratization, the Kurdish conflict, the rise of the current Islamist government, and the tensions between secular Kemalism and religious politics). I've done my best to help my students see the forty shades of blue separating the empty half of the glass from the part that's full.

There's no denying that Turkey is now a thriving emerging market economy with a vibrant civil society. Istanbul last year attracted more tourists than Amsterdam or Rome, ranking right behind London and Paris in the number of tourist arrivals. There are more arts concerts in Istanbul in a given month than in a year in most E.U. member states. On the economic front, the inflation rate has been brought down from 100 percent just a few years ago to below 10 percent today. Public debt is down to manageable levels; this month Ankara paid back its last remaining loan to the IMF. Interest rates are at record lows. More than 98 percent of all Turkish exports are in manufacturing products, and Turkey now ranks among the top producers of household durable goods and automobiles in Europe.

On the political side, Turkey has been now more than 30 years without a full-fledged military coup, and the country has had free elections (despite the generals' interventions) since 1950. The military appears to have finally returned to barracks for good, and its leaders show little inclination to return to the past. The Ergenekon trials, which have seen once-unaccountable generals compelled to defend their actions in court, are a welcome sign for those of us who have long pushed for Turkish society to adopt the political and legal norms worthy of modern democracies. I've supported efforts to reform the judicial system, making judges and attorneys more aware of their responsibility to defend individual freedoms rather than the interests of a small military-bureaucratic elite who see themselves as the true owners of Turkey.

As for the current government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his performance does earn a top grade in at least some respects. Without question his greatest achievement has been his opening to the Kurds. Erdogan's AK Party has passed more laws than any previous governments recognizing the rights of Kurds in Turkey, including opening a Kurdish channel on public TV and starting Kurdish language and literature programs in universities. Yet even these positive steps pale in regard to his dramatic negotiations with the Kurdish guerilla group PKK -- a truly groundbreaking event. Today's Turkey, in short, is very far indeed from the state that was once known, almost proverbially, as the "sick man of Europe."

Recently, however, these positive developments have been overshadowed by less promising trends that are causing citizens to feel increasing anxiety about the future of the country. When I started the trip with my students just a few weeks ago, I was still, on balance, positive about the prospects for Turkey. But now that's changed.

With no public consultation or discussion, the Erdogan government decided earlier this month to approve a project that would transform Taksim Square into a shopping center, rerouting the traffic that now passes through this vital hub on the European side of Istanbul through tunnels underneath. The news of the project has generated a flood of angry responses from the public, all of which the government has uniformly ignored. Among other things, the proposed redevelopment plan will wipe out one of the few remaining greenspaces in the densely packed area -- the latest in a long series of similarly insensitive urban design schemes.

The Taksim plan follows another controversial plan to build a gigantic and spectacularly ugly new bridge next to the current site of the Galata Bridge, one of Istanbul's longest-standing architectural landmarks. The bridge project is the brainchild of Istanbul's Islamist mayor, an Erdogan ally, who designed it himself. The almost-completed bridge has already completely transformed the silhouette of the old city. Apart from the fact that this is the mayor's sole attempt to dabble in architecture, the complete absence of any public consultation or competition for the project has confirmed, for many Turks, Erdogan's seeming aspiration to crown himself as the new sultan of Turkey. The ruling party's misguided ambitions for Galata and Taksim come after a series of demolitions of 500-year-old Istanbul neighborhoods such as Sulukule, Tarlabasi, or Balat that have fed public discontent -- particularly since many of those who benefited also appear to have unseemly links with the ruling Islamists. Just to make matters worse, last month the government also finalized a contract for a  new nuclear power point despite mass public opposition to nuclear power throughout the country.

Erdogan's decisions regarding a proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus and a new Istanbul airport have followed similar lines. The government announced that construction of the bridge and airport will entail the destruction of one of the most important green spaces of the city -- including the loss of more than 300,000 trees. Just this week the president and the prime minister unilaterally announced that they have decided to name the bridge after one of the most controversial Ottoman sultans in Turkish history, Yavuz Sultan Selim. Selim is remembered, among other things, for ordering the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of members of the Alevite sect, who today comprise Turkey's biggest religious minority.

All of these issues added up to a highly flammable brew of discontent -- which the government then ignited by declaring a de facto state of martial law in Istanbul in order to ban people from celebrating May Day in Taksim Square. The police and the governor of Istanbul stopped all ferry travel on the Bosphorus, raised two bridges on the Golden Horn, stopped all bus and metro service to and from the Taksim neighborhood, and unleashed waves of tear gas on the roughly 3,000 demonstrators who still managed to reach Taksim square for the protests that day. Erdogan justified his decision by saying that those who went to Taksim aimed only to protest his government, not to celebrate May Day -- as if this somehow justified his actions.

Just to make everything worse, the prime minister announced last week a new set of strict restrictions on the consumption and sale of alcohol in Turkey to "protect new generations from such un-Islamic habits" and raise them according to the Turkish and Islamic culture. While Erdogan's many fans among the Turkish electorate probably welcome such measures, it has aggravated the many others who prefer a secular lifestyle and reject the imposition of religious rules on a diverse society.

But there's another issue that has is making many Turks wary of the current administration's policies. For a long time now the government has been providing direct (though undisclosed) support to Syrian opposition groups -- support that has taken a variety of forms short of supplying the rebels with actual weaponry. Though Turks have little sympathy for the government in Damascus, that doesn't mean that they automatically sympathize with those fighting against it. Many Turks correspondingly view the two car bomb attacks that killed 51 people in town of Hatay close to the border with Syria on May 11 as evidence that Erdogan's policies may be drawing Turkey into the war. The Turkish government responded to the bombings all too characteristically: by imposing a ban on any press coverage of the incident.

The tipping point in this long series of disconcerting events came when Erdogan announced the plans for Taksim. He has personally pushed the development project forward despite the disapproval of the government's own regulatory agencies, who have cast doubt on its legality, and even some potential investors, who have decided against participating in the scheme due to the widespread public opposition. The current clashes are, quite simply, a grassroots response to the top-down actions of the Erdogan government. The general discontent has now morphed into the anti-government demonstrations that are now being suppressed by tear gas and police batons in Istanbul and Ankara.

I am afraid that the government of Prime Minister Erdogan, like so many others before him in this country, has finally succumbed to the siren calls of dictatorship. Social engineering and authoritarian decision-making have now become the government's top policy tools. The Islamists  seem to have replaced the Kemalist dreams of authoritarian modernization with their own dreams of authoritarian Islamization. But perhaps there is a bright spot in all of this. I suspect that the current protests in Ankara and Istanbul will soon spread to other cities. If that happens, it could very well mark the beginning of the end of Erdogan's ambitions to govern against the will of his own citizenry.

ADEM ALTAN/Stringer

Dispatch

Karzai's India Gamble

Pakistan isn't helping the Afghan government end its standoff with the Taliban -- so Karzai is looking to India instead. 

KABUL, Afghanistan—Before he set off for India with a wish list of military hardware, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave negotiations with Pakistan one last chance -- at least in principle. On April 24, he traveled to Brussels for a trilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's chief of Army Staff, whose cooperation is seen as essential for any post-2014 peace deal with the Taliban. The protocol screw-ups were telling: A photo-op from Truman Hall, the residence of the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, shows a startled looking Kerry (standing in front of the wrong flag) betwixt the stonefaced Afghan president and his effective counterpart in Kayani. Pakistan's civilian foreign secretary, also present on the trip, was not even in the frame.   

Already strained over how to approach negotiations with the Taliban, the relationship between Kabul and Islamabad had reached a new level of intransigence in April over Pakistani plans to build a military gate on what the Afghan government considered its side of the border. Karzai had responded by ordering Afghan troops to remove the gate and any other "Pakistani military installations near the Durand Line," the contentious British-mandated border between the two countries.

Against this backdrop, it's little surprise that the Afghan president had given up on Pakistan before he even touched down in Belgium. In trying to resolve the conflict with the Taliban before he leaves office next year, Karzai has repeatedly bent over backward in hopes of securing Pakistani cooperation -- often risking political capital at home, where anti-Pakistan sentiment is on the rise. Now, it seems, Karzai no longer wants to wait at Pakistan's mercy.

According to a source close to Karzai, Kayani actually agreed in the talks to help push the Taliban toward publicly agreeing to negotiate with the Afghan government, but the offer was evidently not trustworthy enough to dissuade the Afghan president from looking to Pakistan's archrival for assistance. (The July deadline for a similar offer -- made at a previous summit in Britain -- for a "peace settlement" with the Taliban to be reached "over the next six months" is fast approaching with no progress.) Kerry summed it up aptly before jetting back to Washington: "We are not going to raise expectations or make any kind of promises that can't be delivered."

Pakistani observers say support for ending Pakistan's historically interventionist policies has grown within the government -- and to a lesser extent, within the military establishment -- in recent years. But there has been little in the way of concrete change: The militant sanctuaries in Pakistan still go unmolested and the Taliban, long rumored to have close ties to Pakistan's military establishment, have remained resolutely opposed to talks with the government in Kabul. Many believe that Pakistan, ever fearful of encirclement by India, wants to keep Afghanistan unstable after the withdrawal of NATO troops at the end of 2014. 

In sharp contrast with his vocal optimism following previous dialogues, Karzai remained hushed after the Brussels meeting. Soon after he returned home, the border dispute with Pakistan turned deadly, as Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with Pakistani border guards. One Afghan soldier was killed and several Pakistani guards were reportedly wounded. In response, Karzai met with the family of the soldier who died in the clashes and declared him a national hero. The presidential palace then issued a statement on behalf of tribal elders Karzai had met, claiming that Afghan territory extends "as far as Attock," a city located deep inside Pakistan that borders its Punjab province. For its part, the Afghan media -- which mirrored public sentiment -- portrayed the events as if Afghanistan were at war with its neighbor. (The Pakistani press, by contrast, hardly mentioned the event, preoccupied as it was with its own historic election.)

Then on May 21, Karzai dealt Pakistan the ultimate snub by travelling to New Delhi in search of military equipment that, according to Indian media included 105 mm howitzer artillery, medium-lift aircraft, bridge-laying equipment, and trucks. No public statements have been made specifically addressing Karzai's request for hardware, but sources close to the Afghan president suggest that India is sending a military mission to assess Afghanistan's needs and will most likely provide some of the equipment. After a decade of limiting its $2 billion in assistance to development and reconstruction so as not to irk Pakistan, India seems willing to up the stakes. In New Delhi's calculation, respect for Pakistani sensitivities hasn't protected Indians from attacks in the past. Even building a highway cost India 135 casualties -- "one human sacrifice...for every kilometer and a half constructed," as the country's foreign minister put it.

Other government sources, both Afghan and Indian, however, say that Karzai's request poses a number of problems, one of which is logistics. India would have to cooperate with Moscow in order to supply the Afghan government, since some of the hardware --like Antonov An-32 aircraft -- is manufactured in Russia. It would also have to consult both Moscow and Tehran for transit routes in order to deliver the weapons to landlocked Afghanistan. This gives Pakistan two potential pressure points from which to exert influence over the deal. (Both Russia and Iran have their own fears about allowing arms to be sent to a volatile country so close to home.) Training and maintenance poses another challenge as hardware cannot be simply handed over to inexperienced armed forces.

In public at least, Pakistan is downplaying fears that it will try to derail the arms shipments. "As a sovereign country Afghanistan can pursue its own policies," Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jillani told reporters last week. "But we hope that it would mind the overall peace and security situation."

On the other side of the Durand Line, officials are eager to portray the deal as a positive regional development. Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, Ershad Ahmadi, told Foreign Policy that Pakistan is misguided in its assessment of threats to regional peace.

"It's not our relationship with India and our effort to strengthen our army that is threatening regional stability and security," Ahmadi said in an interview. "It is the presence of terrorist sanctuaries, the indoctrination and training of militants across the border in Pakistan that is the number one source for instability."

Over the past ten years, Afghanistan has tried to maintain constructive, independent bilateral relations with Pakistan, Ahmadi said. "But they have refused to see us beyond their lens for India."

Karzai is walking a fine line in asking for military aid from India. Some sources in the Afghan government interpret the president's move as simply an effort to pressure Pakistan into producing results on Taliban talks. (They cite short notice and the fact that Karzai is in his final year in office as evidence that the request is just a political ploy.)

But others say the urgency of a looming foreign withdrawal has genuinely forced the president's hand. While NATO and the United States shoulder the burden of equipping and training the Afghan security forces -- and the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States currently being hashed out will solidify that commitment -- there is a fundamental disagreement between the two countries about what the vision for the Afghan forces should look like. NATO and the United States are willing to equip Afghan forces for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, but Karzai wants more -- particularly for defending Afghan borders.

The urgency for Karzai to acquire such weapons -- particularly air support and the 105 mm howitzers that are effective at up to 11,000 meters -- stems from the belief that Taliban militants are playing a waiting game at the borders. Once the foreign soldiers leave, Karzai fears, insurgents holed up in the border areas will start crossing in large numbers to test the government in Kabul. After 2014, the war could very well escalate, as the recent battle in Sangin -- reportedly involving hundreds of Taliban and lasting several days -- indicates. It could conceivably even turn into trench warfare -- which Afghan soldiers are woefully underequipped equipped for. Even with NATO and the United States actively involved, Afghan soldiers routinely bleed to death from treatable injuries because they lack air transport.

Nonetheless, Karzai and India are taking a considerable risk in testing Pakistan at such a vulnerable moment for Afghanistan and the region. Days after Karzai's return from New Delhi, a squad of suicide-bombers besieged a central part of Kabul for almost an entire day. The Afghan government blamed it on terrorists "supported by the intelligence of countries in the region" -- a common euphemism for Pakistan. Some observers have already connected the incident to Karzai's overture to India.

Mosharaf Zaidi, a former policy advisor to the Pakistani foreign ministry, says that over the past couple years "most sensible people in the government" have come to realize that  "Pakistan's interventionist policies" have come back to haunt the country.  Nevertheless, the political environment is such that the new government in Islamabad won't be able to turn a blind eye toward Afghanistan if the arms request goes through.

"If it came down to India providing hardware, when the guns are turned in Pakistan's direction, it just plays very negatively in the Pakistani domestic political sphere --particularly for a new government," he says.

Still, Ahmadi sees an opportunity in Pakistan's newly elected civilian government. "Pakistan's policies over the past ten years have depleted the tremendous goodwill Afghans had for them, particularly for sheltering our refugees," says the Afghan deputy foreign minister. "But, with the new government in Pakistan, there is an opportunity for reset."

But ultimately -- as the photo-op in Brussels makes clear -- future cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan over peace with the Taliban depends more on the tone set by Kayani and the Pakistani military establishment than by anything the government in Islamabad does. It will also depend on whether Karzai holds firm on his anti-Pakistan rhetoric -- or caves to his eastern neighbor once again.

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images