By Abraham ThickeIn late May 2013 the Gezi Park protests erupted in Turkey, sparked by the violent eviction of a group of environmental activists from the eponymous park in central Istanbul. Unrest spread rapidly across Turkey, fuelled by social media and widespread dissatisfaction with the government. It was not until midway through June that authorities were able to regain control of Gezi Park and finally quell the protests.
Four years on, Turkey is a quite different country from what it was in 2013. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the focus of the protesters ire, has installed himself —with the help of flawed elections and a castrated media—as Turkey’s absolute ruler. Freedom of speech no longer exists. The secular lifestyle is under direct assault as the government imposes its own prescription for society. Prisons are filled with journalists and academics. Terrorists strike with seeming impunity. Increasingly desperate measures are required to prop up the economy as foreign investors lose their appetite. Nepotism and graft reign supreme. In the international arena Turkey is dead in the water. The sharks, or rather the Russians, are circling.
Few protesters had these outcomes in mind when they ventured into the streets. So can we say that the protests, which felt like a defining moment back then, have failed to leave a lasting impression on Turkey? The answer is probably ‘No’. Although the protests did not achieve any of their political aims they have had profound consequences for modern Turkey. In the following sections two such outcomes are discussed; the acceleration of Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism and the disastrous damage to Turkey’s international reputation.
Descent into authoritarianism
A notable feature of the Gezi protests was the evolution of the government’s response. Initial reactions betrayed more than a hint of panic. It was not until Erdoğan returned from a trip abroad that authorities got a firm grip of the situation. This was achieved with what has become the state’s now characteristic disregard for the law, human rights and facts. The police were instructed to use increasingly violent methods, while the government sought to prevent the erosion of their support base by marginalizing and demonizing protesters.
Among the methods used was the spreading of unsubstantiated rumors. These aimed to shore up support among the government’s key, conservative, constituency. Two examples of widely circulated claims were that protesters consumed alcohol in Dolmabahçe Mosque and that a large group of men, dressed in leather pants and gloves, assaulted a veiled woman in Kabataş. Both claims were subsequently thoroughly debunked. A further example of misinformation involves the deployment of conspiracy theories suggesting the protests were masterminded by a cast of foreign powers.
The strategies adopted were largely successful. The protests were quelled in a sufficiently intimidating manner to dissuade protesters from future action, whilst the government managed to retain the confidence of key supporter groups.
Since Gezi, this approach has become the Turkish state’s standard operating procedure. Indeed, it has been refined and expanded. These days any kind of dissent is responded to with beatings and detentions. Meanwhile, the government’s world view increasingly leans on conspiracy theories.
In the short term such tactics have paid dividends. Erdoğan and his AKP party have managed to keep a lid on things at home and consolidate power. In the long run, the government has trapped itself in a cycle of ever increasing authoritarianism. The key to understanding this cycle lies in the fact that government attempts to delegitimize critics and maintain support have become increasingly divorced from reality. When a communicator consistently produces unreliable signals their credibility erodes. People stop paying attention and search for more reliable communicators. To prevent these more reliable communicators gaining traction, authorities must either increase the reliability of their communications or silence the alternative sources of information. The Turkish government, in taking the latter approach, now finds itself stuck with it. The reason is the strategy adopted results in a further decrease in the reliability of the government’s communications ― a glance at the absurd charges levelled against most of the journalists currently under arrest bears out this point. This decrease in signal reliability then entails that other communicators, previously less reliable than the government, become relatively more reliable sources of information, in turn requiring that they be silenced. This is the vicious circle of the descent into authoritarianism, a game of whack-a-mole in which the endgame, if it’s reached, looks like North Korea, a country in which only one voice is heard, but no-one’s listening.
Signs of this approach were clearly evident before the Gezi protests, most notably in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which the government worked in conjunction with its then allies in the Gülen movement to imprison scores of army officers on fanciful charges. However, Gezi offered an important, if unintended, opportunity to test, refine and evaluate the authoritarian recipes that have become defining features of Turkey’s domestic political landscape.
It’s easy to forget that during the early years of AKP power, Turkey was often showcased as a model Muslim democracy. Although many expressed doubts about this characterization well before 2013, it was the Gezi protests that fatally undermined such pretensions, leading to global changes in perceptions of Turkey.
Although the Turkish government largely succeeded in suppressing coverage at home, the prominent international coverage afforded the protests represented a PR catastrophe from which Turkey has never recovered. No amount of spin can undo the damage done by images of photogenic young women in summer dresses being assaulted by masked policemen. And when the most prominent response involves a middle aged man with a moustache angrily denouncing protesters a ‘looters’, it is obvious that the battle for international opinion is utterly lost.
To Western audiences, the protests were a Manichean struggle played out against a backdrop of barricades, clouds of tear gas and the black night sky. Across the Middle East people shrugged and realized the Turkish government was no different from their own.
Western governments did not much like what they saw either. Nor did business, which had been encouraged to view Turkey as a bulwark of stability in a volatile region. To compound matters, the Turkish government’s enthusiastic endorsement of conspiracy theories left foreign diplomats scratching their heads, unsure whether this was just a cynical ploy or if senior figures in the Turkish government actually believed what they were saying.
Consequently, through the widespread coverage they received the Gezi protests lifted the veil on the Turkish government’s, and in particular Erdoğan’s, rotten core. If that veil was already slipping, Gezi simply ripped it away. It is telling that a couple of months after the protests were crushed, a Turkish government spokesman named Ibrahim Kalın coined the term ‘precious loneliness’ to justify Turkey’s international isolation.
* * *
Many of the Gezi protesters had idealistic aims. But none of these aims were achieved. Freedom, to borrow a quote, assaulted its jailor but is still in jail. The security has been increasing ever since.
It is ironic that the protest’s most salient consequences are diametrically opposed to those intended by the protesters. If the protests did not actually precipitate the descent into authoritarianism, they certainly accelerated the process by providing the government with a proving ground and an excuse for the divisive methods it now employs. The protests also turned international opinion, particularly in the West, decisively against the Turkish government, thereby increasing Turkey’s international isolation and also the paranoid, xenophobic worldview held by the government and its supporters. This, again, is the opposite result to that desired by a large proportion of protesters.
In coming years, neither of these outcomes will likely serve the Turkish government or, unfortunately, its people well. Turkey is now a field of broken dreams and smouldering resentments ruled by an emperor who has discovered that the more power he grabs at home the less clout he wields in the world. This too is Gezi’s bitter harvest.