The immediate trigger for the stormy events in Turkey over recent weeks was the heavy-handed police suppression of a peaceful demonstration over plans to concrete over the park adjoining the politically symbolic Taksim Square. This in turn followed a series of protests against a policy of bulldozing sites of historic importance to make way for the construction of shopping malls in a triumph of consumerism over history. This appalled some because of the environmental impact and others because it ran in tandem with a rewriting of republican history. The protests over the closure of the Emek cinema in 2010 were a case in point. The cinema, built in 1924 (just a year into the Kemalist republic), was a potent symbol of Turkey’s political and cultural identity which was fiercely defended not just by film buffs but also by political activists.
So the battle over a scrap of green on the edge of Taksim Square is not quite as random as it seems. However, it is clear that the forces unleashed in recent weeks are evidence of a social destabilisation in Turkey which has implications way beyond the protest’s point of origin.
AKP: Divide and rule
The breathtaking scale and duration of this first wave of the Turkish uprising has not only caught on the hop the ruling Islamist AKP party and that wing of the bourgeoisie which it fronts, but also every imperialist in the world who reckoned on the AKP as a safe pair of hands to safeguard its interests, not least those relating to the attempted subversion of Turkey’s Syrian neighbour.
Most surprised of all, it seems, is the double-dealing Erdogan himself. After years of playing one section of the people off against another, presenting himself as a man for all seasons whilst systematically clipping the wings of all the political competition, he could have been forgiven for a degree of complacency, especially after having secured comfortable majorities in the last three elections. Yet all of a sudden the masses are out on the street, and after over two weeks of brutal attack by water cannon and tear gas are not yet minded to retreat. On his return from his ill-timed trip to Morocco, the great illusionist must have rubbed his eyes to see ten years of divide-and-rule cunning resulting in the unity, albeit temporary, of just about every section of Turkish society outside the AKP itself.
Indeed, the haste with which his deputy, left to guard the shop whilst the boss swanned off to North Africa, tried to distance himself from Erdogan’s hard line, suggested that even within the government there are fears that Erdogan has overplayed his hand. In the event, Bulent Arinc’s craven apology for the police brutality against the original protest in the park adjoining Taksim Square has only served to erode further the government’s credibility, given that police violence has if anything become yet more shameless and murderous since then, leaving several dead and over 4,300 injured. To compound Erdogan’s misery, a curious report from the Turkish paper Hurriyet claims that morale within the force is so low that about a thousand officers have resigned and six officers have killed themselves since the protests began. The paper quotes Frank Sezer, the head of the police union, complaining about the ” severe conditions” under which they are currently obliged to work!
Yet it would be hard to fault the Machiavellian expertise with which the AKP, coming out of nowhere in 2002, has been able to pick off one source of dissent after another, beginning with the military. Harsh memories of the coup of 1980 and the subsequent period of military dictatorship were capitalised upon by Erdogan to justify a massive purge of the army high command, replacing generals committed to the defence of the secular republic with placemen taking their lead from the AKP. The purge, given judicial cover through a show trial in 2007, was presented as a pre-emptive move to nip another military coup in the bud, and this alluring narrative of a set-piece battle between the army and democracy disarmed most of the left, who offered ” critical support” for the AKP, supposing that once the army had been faced down the left could see off the Islamists. The theory was that one wing of the bourgeoisie could be played off against another, to the advantage of the masses. In reality, it was the Islamists that played the left off against the army. And in the aftermath of the trial, as the purge widened its scope, Kemalist nationalists, by their own lights defenders of the secular republic, flooded into the gaols whilst the left sat on their hands or even applauded the “democratic” AKP.
To lend colour to the coup allegations, a number of generals alleged to be implicated in the 1980 coup were hauled into the dock. However, the prosecution had no interest in dealing with what had or had not been done in the past, concentrating exclusively on what they were allegedly about to do. These supposed future crimes were later denounced by journalists as fabrications woven by the AKP, but by that time the journalists themselves were falling victim to a smear campaign which treated them as co-conspirators and landed them in gaol too. An internet news service critical of the AKP, oda.tv, was denounced as the media branch of the putative coup, with its journalists imprisoned for over a year. To make the case stick, the journalists’ computers were hacked into and fictitious coup plans planted on the hard drive.
Having pulled the republican sting out of the army, the AKP in 2012 turned its attention to the KCK, a Kurdish organisation linked to the PKK. Under cover of a smokescreen of lies, including the suggestion that the PKK itself was an invention of the Generals, many progressive Kurdish politicians identified as critical of the AKP found themselves in the dock. Those on the left who had stood aside as the bourgeois republicans came under the hammer now found the positions reversed. They could not expect, and did not receive, any support from the Kemalists.
Another way that Erdogan has conspired to manipulate public opinion in his favour has been to make a great parade of his imagined anti-zionist principles, denouncing the attacks on Gaza and storming out of a televised World Economic Forum conference attended by Peres. Just two weeks after that piece of theatre, Erdogan was telling the Turkish daily Sabah, ” Our relations with Israel continue based on mutual interests. Those who leave the table in fury return to it with losses. Some have suggested that we end Israeli [Air Force] training flights in Konya . The truth is that not just Israel but ten countries pay to receive flight training in Konya. Indeed, our General Staff also announced that relations with Israel will continue in accordance with Turkey’s interests. Military contracts and orders also remain in force. There are many agreements with Israel, old and new. These all remain in force .”
So it has been that, by playing one off against another and by the chameleon-like nature of its politics, the Islamist AKP has managed to maintain its dominance for over a decade, taking comfort from the belief that every other constituency had either been won over, neutralised or outlawed. But that was before the AKP tied Turkey hand and foot to the imperialist war of subversion against Syria, and before the “economic miracle” which had kept him riding high in the polls started to bite the dust.
Erdogan: hoist with his own petard
It will be remembered that the crushing of the demo in Gezi Park was preceded by earlier demos against Turkey’s support for anti-Assad rebels. When the bombs went off in Reyhanli, nobody believed Ankara’s laughable assertion that Assad’s forces were responsible. And everybody understood that it was Erdogan’s insistence on stirring up trouble in Syria that spawned such outrages. On the very day of the explosions, when the human cost in both Turkish and Syrian lives was still being counted, a spontaneous demonstration in Reyhanli marched to the Foreign Ministry to demand the head, not of Assad, but of Erdogan. Another protest occurred in Ankara itself.
Erdogan’s espousal of the counter-revolution in Syria has won him few friends in his own country. A poll conducted by Kadir Has University of Istanbul, in twenty-six Turkish cities with 1,000 persons, between December 26th, 2012 and January 6th, 2013, found that only 11.4% of respondents wanted Turkey to ” support opposition forces” and 65.3% did not think a massive refugee wave would justify military intervention. Indeed 79% responded that nothing short of a direct threat against Turkey would justify military intervention.
Animosity towards Erdogan’s Syrian policy threatens to bring together many of the forces which had previously been divided and picked off one by one. Where is Turkey’s national dignity if she is to be reduced to no more than a crude tool of imperialist policy in the Middle East? Where is Turkey’s secular tradition if her foreign policy is to be tailored to the needs of Islamist rebels dedicated to the jihadist overthrow of Syria’s own secular state? The urgent arrival of such burning questions has confronted the government with the horrendous possibility of seeing all its enemies, Kemalist, socialist and democratic, out on the street in a common front of resistance, unravelling all Erdogan’s worst efforts to keep his critics divided amongst themselves.
It may have seemed to Erdogan a couple of years ago that he could pull off a cheap foreign policy coup by offering Turkey’s services to the counter-revolution in Syria, backing what his imperialist masters confidently assured him would prove to be the winning side and paving the way for a much-touted “post-Assad future” in which Ankara (and in particular the Islamist AKP) would have a greatly inflated role in the Middle East. Two years on, with the rebels and their backers retreating and splitting whilst the Syrian army advances in firm defence of the country’s sovereignty, he might be forgiven for entertaining doubts. It is Ankara that has conspired to destabilise Turkey’s progressive and anti-imperialist neighbour. In so doing, however, it has destabilised Turkey itself, threatening to bring the while house down around Erdogan’s ears.
End of the “economic miracle”
In the first half of 2011, in a final flourish of what had been billed as Turkey’s “economic miracle“, GDP expanded at a 10% annual rate of growth. Yet by the first quarter of 2013, growth had ground to a complete halt. Analyst David Goldman, writing the Spengler column in Asia Times Online (23 April, ‘Turkey’s ticking debt time-bomb’), explained this catastrophic development thus:
” The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had financed a consumer bubble with a huge trade deficit financed by short-term interbank loans. The consumer boom is gone, but the credit bubble continues, with bank lending still expanding by 30% a year despite the stalled economy. Turkey’s current account deficit remains in the red-alert region of nearly 10% of GDP, and it continues to finance the deficit with short-term interbank borrowings. Bubbles like this eventually blow up… Turkey is not growing at all. Turkey’s government debt remains quite low at just 36% of GDP, but private-sector debt – especially short-term foreign debt – has tripled in the past four years.”
Goldman goes on to suggest that most of the short-term cash that Turkey has borrowed since 2010 has been from the Gulf states. Clearly those loans have come at a price, tying modern, republican Turkey into a suffocating dependence upon the backward feudal sheikhdoms with which the country has been plunged in unholy sectarian alliance against Syria. As Goldman notes, “This largesse cannot continue indefinitely, though. Turkey’s central bank promised to reduce its foreign deficit by reducing growth. Now the growth is gone, but not the deficit .”
In short, the “miracle” is over, the economy is starting to run backwards and Turkish workers will be told to tighten their belts to pay off the debts. As real life crashes in, and people find they are living in a Turkey which is (a) broke and (b) dragged into a sectarian war in the service of imperialism, Erdogan’s luck may soon be running out. It would be no more than poetic justice were the first fruits of his attempt to effect regime change in Damascus to be the ignominious demise of his own regime in Ankara. Now that the organised working class is starting to mobilise, with two major union federations representing 600,000 workers having pulled their members out on strike in support of the protestors, Erdogan’s days may be numbered.
Solidarity in action
In calling for solidarity with the Turkish protests, we also urge the workers’ movement in Britain to take to heart the inspiring example that is being set. As well as arresting scores of protestors, the police are also targeting journalists, lawyers and doctors. Yet even under severe repression, some courageous journalists have persisted in getting the truth out, serving as an object lesson for those union leaders in Britain who show considerably less courage under (for the moment) much less onerous conditions. The collapse of the free press and crushing silence on Turkish television about the protests by a media that are petrified of offending the government has been exposed by the host of a popular Turkish game show. Ali Ihsan Varol, the star of the Bloomberg TV quiz show “Kelime Oyunu,” or “The Word Game,” who in a recent broadcast arranged for questions that had answers reflecting the violence from “gas mask” to “Twitter” to “dictator.”
Such Turkish journalists who defy the self censorship of the corporate media, refuse to be bullied and intimidated and take a stance against Turkey’s media blackout are setting a great example for the kind of non-cooperation campaign which is so sorely needed over here. So too are the doctors who, even in the face of mass detention, are insisting on getting medical treatment to protestors wounded by the police thugs.
We should take heart from their example. In particular we need to learn to have confidence in our own collective power to refuse to produce, disseminate or broadcast state propaganda or co-operate with imperialist war crimes by making or moving munitions or other equipment, or collaborate in any other way with the ongoing campaign of subversion against independent Syria .
Solidarity with the Turkish protestors!
Victory to the Turkish masses!
Support the Turkish unions’ demand for the release of all those arrested and the lifting of all bans on meetings and demonstrations!
Victory to Assad and the Syrian people!
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