Despite the tough actions taken by the police to disperse demonstrators, the protest rallies that long ago snowballed from environmental demonstrations into political demands directed at Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are not only continuing, they are growing. Then, after returning from a trip abroad, Erdoğan poured oil on the fire with several statements in which he called the demonstrators “looters” and “extremists” and completely rejected their demands. He urged them to “be patient” and come together for the local elections in March 2014, and he threatened to use even greater force if the demonstrations did not stop. “We are going to show patience, but patience has a limit,” he said on Sunday, and he let it be known that was prepared to go beyond tear gas and clubs and use stronger measures.
Does that mean he would use rubber bullets or even the military to stop the antigovernment demonstrations? After all, Erdoğan was not thinking of demonstrations by his supporters. Nevertheless, even that threat had no effect on his enemies, tens of thousands of whom have been gathering daily for demonstrations. And people of all sorts have participated — students, members of the middle class, office workers, blue-collar workers, teachers, merchants, ethnic minorities, and members of leftist and secular parties. Moreover, the epicenter of the unrest has largely shifted to the country’s capital — Ankara — where clashes with the police went on all Sunday night.
Istanbul was the scene of the largest protest so far. People set up tents in Taksim Square, as happened more than two years ago in Cairo’s Tahrir square. Protests are also being held in Izmir, another of the country’s large cities.
Clashes are also taking place in resort towns, although they are happening away from the hotels where lots of foreign tourists usually stay this time of the year. In fact, the police set up security in the tourist zone along the coast of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas in an effort to keep the tourists out of nearby communities. Many European tourists are already canceling vacation trips to Turkey out of concern that the unrest there will go on for a long time. The events there are costing country’s economy tens of millions of dollars every day.
The ruling elite are divided — not everyone unconditionally supports Erdoğan’s tough approach. Turkish President Abdullah Gül, for example, is trying to appeal to the people in a calm and peaceful manner. Some in the cabinet are following his example. The ruling AKP party is discussing internally whether the use of force against the demonstrators is the right way to go, especially since the military’s position remains unclear. The Prime Minister appealed to them in Adana, a city in southern Turkey, but he has not yet received an answer to his question about whether the army would fire on the protesters if the police prove unable to restrain them. What will the Turkish generals do after Erdoğan offended them by excluding them from active participation in politics?
Another problem that could undermine the prime minister’s position is the Kurds’ attitude towards what is happening. So far, they have mostly stayed on the sidelines to avoid breaking the agreement with Ankara settling the Kurdish issue. Now, however, the number of Kurdish demonstrators in the crowds has markedly increased. The issue is not the pro-government Peace and Democracy Party, which is doing everything it can to stay away from the protesters, but the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which carried on an armed struggle against the central government for many years. Some of its fighters have now relocated to northern Iraq — to Iraqi Kurdistan, where their bases and weapons storehouses or located — in case Erdoğan fails to fulfill his promises and they have to resume fighting. The fact that Turkey is actually divided works to their advantage — that makes it easier to influence the prime minister, whose position in the country has grown weaker. He cannot fight on two fronts simultaneously. The current situation is pushing them towards separatism like that of the Iraqi Kurds, which have a “capital” in Erbil. They are set on seceding from the Arab part of Iraq and establishing an independent Kurdistan. That is being helped by the actions of the Islamist fighters in Syria, who are not accepted by the Syrian Kurds, who actually are no longer subordinate to Damascus, which essentially set them free in exchange for keeping the rebels out that their territory.
So the continuation of the Turkish Spring may lead to regime change in Ankara and to the formation of a new geopolitical reality for the region in the form of an independent Greater Kurdistan with a population of more than 30 million. And neither the United States nor the Western Europeans would object to that. While they want to keep Turkey in NATO, they also do not want it to become too strong a player in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. And they are not about to let it in the European Union. Erdoğan, with his ambitions of becoming the “Sultan” of a new Ottoman Empire and hyper-islamising the country, only annoys the West. Especially since he does not want to indulge France and Britain and engage in a direct military intervention against Syria.
On the whole, the current Turkish “mess” is too complicated. Also, it is still early days to accurately predict how the Turkish Spring will end. Events are in full swing, and it is not yet clear how things will play out. In any event, however, Turkey will never again be the peaceful country it was before the events that began in Taksim Square. After becoming involved in the “Arab revolutions” and starting to flirt with the most conservative regimes on the Persian Gulf, Ankara has found itself in a whirlwind of domestic disturbances. As they say, what goes around comes around. Now, the Erdoğan government is reaping the benefits of an overly active foreign policy in the Arab world and an internal policy of Islamisation of its society, which has largely become secularized and highly Europeanized 90 years after Kamal Ataturk’s democratic revolution. It needs to pay for democracy by continuing down that road without trying to reverse course into the past.
Let us hope that reason will prevail and Erdoğan, who remains a popular and wise politician, will take the realities of present-day Turkey into account and find a way to stop the current violence by peaceful means while showing respect for the demands of those in his country who prefer a secular way of life, and that he will also stop interfering in the affairs of neighboring Syria by sending the Syrian opposition leaders from Istanbul to comfortable hotels in Doha.
Alexander Orlov is a political analyst and an expert Orientalist. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.