Here’s What You Need to Know about the Clashes in Turkey / FOREIGN POLICY

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

BY FIRAT DEMIR | JUNE 1, 2013 – FOREIGN POLICY – 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.