All quiet on the Eastern front? A report from within Istanbul

18 Jul 2013

For some time, Turkey has been rather popular amongst Western governments. It is not hard to see why. The nation’s blend of Islamic culture and secular politics laid down by Atatürk has been seen as a blueprint for others in the Middle East to adopt. Among those who have particularly cosy has been the US- as seen by their support for Turkey’s membership to the European Union- who has been more vocal than any of the institution’s actual members. They have also seen Turkey along with former Warsaw Pact nations as the future of NATO, considering them more important than more traditional European allies who have been unceremoniously dubbed ‘Old Europe’.

 

This love has been tested of late however. Initially, protests in the country were confined to Istanbul, with residents complaining about plans to develop Taksim square, one of the few green spaces in the European half of the city. As with many such movements though, goals have diversified to incorporate those against corruption and the perceived creep towards Islamic integration into Turkish politics. It was the police response though which prompted the most anger, with their actions being deemed anywhere from heavy handed to downright oppressive. This saw protests explode out to other Turkish cities, with the global media showing endless shots of street battles between masked protesters and riot gear wielding authorities. And Istanbul was at the centre of all this, the epicentre of a situation that seemed to threaten the heart of government. And then it was gone. Media around the world flicked first to Brazil and then to Egypt and the ramifications of its messy revolution. They can hardly been blamed for this of course, for these stories are of paramount importance and the closure of Taksim denied protesters access to what had served as a rallying point. Yet this diversion of attention means few outside of Turkey are aware of what it is really like now and whether the violence previously seen may strike again.

Having spent much of last week in Istanbul, I have some recent insight into this. Initially, a visitor could easily conclude that all is well in the city and that, like other occupy movements, the swell for action has lost much of its motivation. Much of our time was spent in the old city which, although separated from Taksim by the Golden Horn, remains on the European side of the Bospherous and thus is no further than a five minute tram ride from the square. Yet here there was no sign of there ever being anything wrong, with locals far more interested in selling food and trinkets to the area’s many tourists. Police presence mirrored this, their numbers less than you would see surrounding London’s landmarks. 

You could be led to believe this image, but upon crossing the Golden Horn, the ugly side of things became visible. Soon after arriving on Tarlabasi Boulevard, the main road into Taksim, we encountered protesters. Initially they were small in number and largely ignored, but in minutes the road heaved with people clearly intent on marching on the square. They certainly got attention, their chants being applauded by many locals as their ranks began to swell. It wasn’t long before police responded. First there were protesters, fleeing and dispersing along windy back allies- then came the police’s water cannon, its jets pounding the streets. This was flanked by riot police, armed with gas masks and canisters. We did not see it ourselves, but we encountered enough coughing protesters to indicate gas usage, whilst the sound of rubber bullets were as clear as day. And then it was over. There were a few nervous glances amongst local cafe owners, but normality somehow returned in a flash, with the water cannon’s continued presence the only sign that anything had happened at all. All, it seems, is not right with Istanbul.

So what do my experiences demonstrate about the situation in Turkey? Well, I was only there for a few days, so it would be wrong to make too many grandiose statements. Those who have lived through it all will know best. However, from what I saw, there are two things I learnt from my visit. The first is that despite the way they have been portrayed, the protests have actually been small in scale. Despite what we witnessed, it took only a short walk for a scene of calm and serenity to be found. While the area affected is relatively small however, it is also clear that this issue is not going away. The media may have lost interest, but the scenes we saw suggest the battles between protesters and police have not gone away. Nor does it seem they will do so. The government is refusing to buckle to demands of the protesters, insisting that the square will be redeveloped as planned. This means there will likely be one of two conclusions. It is possible that protesters could lose heart and fade away, the zeal for action dissolving by the expanse of time. If however their resolve is maintained, then the games of police chasing protesters may have only just begun. What will happen is uncertain, but what is clear is that while media around the world have already rolled onto the next crisis, as long as riot police and armoured vehicles line streets in Istanbul, the problem of Taskim will not go away.

By Daniel Kibble

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