Turkey – protests waiting to happen


The end of May 2013 saw protests break out all over Turkey. They were initially sparked by anger over the government’s plans to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park, in the heart of Istanbul.

A few months before these protests started, Pod Academy’s Usman Ahmediani sat down with Andrew Finkel in Istanbul to put the political polarisation gripping Turkish society into historical context. Andrew has lived in Istanbul for over two decades, writing for both Turkish and English language newspapers. His book, Turkey: What Everyone Needs To Know’, was published last year by Oxford University Press. It has been described as combining the critical eye of the outsider with the compassion of the insider.

The protests have cast doubt over the sustainability of Turkey’s economic model. And yet Turkey has seen unprecedented levels of growth under the ruling AKP, relative to the financial crisis it was in just over ten years ago.

Usman began by asking Andrew about the origins of this boom, which lie partly in Turkey’s changing demography.

Andrew Finkel:  From zero to hero!

There are two main issues.  The first is how very fast Turkey has changed. And to look at why.  The very obvious reason is not just the economy, but also the shift in population, from a rural society pre-war, to an urban society post-war, is a major shift, and a shift that’s taken place in my lifetime. I first came to Turkey in the mid-60s, and Istanbul, where we’re sitting now, was a city of 1.5 million, and now it’s a city of 12 million, 14 million: who knows exactly the figure. What this means is that during my lifetime, the city where I live has doubled in population, doubled and then doubled again, an extraordinary thing!

The history, to my mind, of post-war Turkey, is not somehow coming to terms with religion; it’s coming to terms with this huge shift in population, where people are and their expectations, and the political way in which this mass movement of people was managed. When I first came back to Turkey as a journalist in 1989, this was the year of revolution in Central and Eastern Europe. You had societies collapsing, falling apart, overthrowing their governments. How did this happen? It happened through the movement of people. The very first story I did as a journalist in Turkey was about 300 000 Bulgarian Turks who fled Bulgaria, and came to Turkey. That event destabilised the regime at the time in Bulgaria, the Zhivkov regime. There was the movement of Eastern Germans through to Hungary. The second really big story I did was the mass exodus of Iraqi Kurds after the first Gulf War in 1991. I walked up a mountain and there was half a million people walking in my direction. An extraordinary spectacle; a Biblical spectacle! But here was Turkey with an equally important movement of population and yet, in some ways, this movement of people was politically managed, and that’s what I really try and get at in the book.

The second issue, is that Turkey went through a major transformation, but the timing of that transformation was different from other societies.

For Eastern and Central Europe, the great transformation was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberating effect of that. Suddenly, you had these countries, which were free to find their own political destiny with the colour revolutions. Turkey was a very ardent Cold War warrior: it got its importance in the world from occupying this strategic position at the very edge of NATO, it was NATO’s eyes and ears on the southern flank of the Soviet Union. It was able in many ways to postpone its own transformation because it offered its Western allies this thing called strategic significance. The joke I make is that other countries have the curse of oil, this resource which somehow makes development uneven or creates social inequalities, but Turkey has the curse of strategic significance, which got in the way of its own reforms. What I do, perhaps in a slightly artificial way, is to date the ending of the Cold War in Turkey not to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but to the reluctance of Turkey to support the US invasion of Iraq in 2002.

UA: So in the other words the last decade has really been critical, and in a way the root of this is demography?

AF: Certainly demography is one reason, and the political pressures that change in population created. Suddenly, governments had to cater not just to the elites but to the vast population who were demanding better services: access to health, access to education, resented the inequalities of their own society, and that they were being denied the benefits of modernity which the elites in society enjoyed.

The Gezi Park protest has shone a spotlight on the breakneck speed of Istanbul’s development, and the absence of accountability in the government’s planning decisions, such as the construction of a third bridge along the Bosphorus, whose foundation stones were laid on the very eve of these protests. Sections of civil society have tried to raise awareness about these issues for years. But as Andrew explained a few months before the protests, they’ve all too often been ignored in Turkish political life at large. 

UA: How has this demand for services, this migration to the cities, affected Istanbul’s urban landscape? What have you noticed as a resident of Istanbul?

AF: From my perspective, what I’ve noticed is the destruction—there’s no other word for it—of the Istanbul that I knew when I came here as a boy. It’s almost bizarre to think about, but the house that I lived in on the European side of the city no longer exists, because a foot of the bridge is where that house used to be: the first Bosphorus bridge, which was completed in 1973. And what did that bridge do? It became a symbol of modernity, the metaphor for the link between East and West. But in practical terms, it opened up the Asian side of the city to commuting. It led to the huge conurbation along the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus Bridge is famous, or infamous, in planning literature, as a route which created its own problems. Which was there to solve the problem of traffic, and yet created the need for a second bridge, and the second bridge created the need for a third bridge, which will create the need for a fourth bridge. What this does, is it leads to conurbations, the creation of housing, enormous land speculation. Of course, it’s not just traffic: Turkey is now part of the international economy; its real estate market is no longer simply national, it’s international. People invest here in shopping centres and luxury apartments, and not necessarily Turks: they can be Russian or from Dubai or from San Francisco.

UA: Going back to this bridge, we see this whole contest between the government claiming that a new bridge is necessary to relieve traffic, and more critical sceptics saying it’s all about land speculation and developing property. How has this debate been covered in the Turkish press?

AF: When you say debate, there hasn’t really been the debate that I would like to see. I’m certainly someone who loathes and opposes the possibility of a third bridge, but I don’t seem to have made much difference! The reason I do so is because I see it as answering none of the problems the city has, and simply creating more problems. Where this third bridge will go will not in a place which will alleviate congestion where there is congestion in the city. It’ll be at the very mouth of the Bosphorus, by the Black Sea—

UA: By the Black Sea. The government claims it’s necessary to get long-distance traffic to go via this new bridge, slightly removed from the rest of Istanbul. You don’t buy this.

AF: This is the argument they used for the second bridge! But very quickly what happened was that the second bridge became an ice-breaker for the creation of houses and development and business centres along either side of the bridge on the Bosphorus itself. I’m not technically minded, but if you look at the space imaging of the heat patterns along the second bridge, it’s significant warmer where the second bridge runs. There’s such a concentration of housing and development and traffic where that second bridge is that it actually affects the climate of the city. And now they’re proposing to do the exact same thing in the remaining green space of Istanbul: the lungs of the city. You have to remember that Istanbul is a unique ecosystem, the meeting of warm air from the Aegean and Mediterranean and cold air from the Black Sea. There are as many species of plant in Istanbul as there are in Britain. It’s an important ecosystem in its own right, and this will disappear if the third bridge is built.

UA: Apart from the environmental consequences, what does the way that the third bridge was announced reveal about Turkey’s governance? Because the Istanbul Municipality, led by the Mayor Kadır Topbaş, claims that it was a department in Ankara which actually pushed the project through. Does this suggest that governance in Turkey is still top-down, despite the fact that there is a functioning city government?

AF: Of course it does. And indeed, not simply Mayor Topbaş, but Mayor Erdoğan—he was mayor of the city in the mid-nineties—described the bridge as suicide for Istanbul. He was an opponent of the bridge! Who took the decision to build the bridge? I don’t know the answer to that question; it happened in some back room somewhere. One can say it came out of the Highway Department: but who knows. The decision was taken in private, at the very highest level. And so it is an example of highly centralist, and to my mind, a rather dangerous process, which has evaded public discussion. We’re talking about a third bridge, but now there’s a proposal for a third airport, which is meant to be this huge entity—

UA: Six runways; I think they announced that it would have a final capacity of 150 million, which seems insane.

AF: If you think of all the brouhaha in Britain when they try and add one runway to an existing airport, and everyone lobbies and fights against it as an environmental and noise catastrophe. Here, no-one seems to blink. Huge decisions which affect the future of the city, even the climate of the city, seem to evade public processes. From that point of view, it’s very discouraging, particularly if you have the perspective that I have, coming here when it was a slightly green and slightly abandoned city in the 60s.

UA: And what are the social consequences of all this growth and development and construction? There’s been a lot of controversy over the displacement of residents from Tarlabaşı, in the centre of Istanbul, a relatively deprived area…

AF: Tarlabaşı is not the only neighbourhood, it’s probably the best-publicised neighbourhood where people have been moved out, and the developers have moved in. People have been moved out forcibly, and then reassigned to live in places which are not convenient for their work, or which they can’t afford the upkeep of. Basically, people are dislocated, in a fairly random way. We’ve seen this phenomenon elsewhere, particularly Beijing, where people are forced out of their homes. It does create unrest, but there are pockets of unrest. The way the government calculates it, the benefits of this urban expansion outweigh the individual sad stories of people being moved out of their homes. We have not yet seen in Istanbul an organised resistance to this sort of development. But perhaps it may come: who knows…

 The divide between secular and religious elements of society has always been a defining fault-line in Turkish politics. Recently, they’ve taken the form of culture wars between a government with a religious support base, and others who fear an assault on their secular lifestyles. But it’s seldom appreciated that divisions over religions are also overlaid with class dynamics, and how they play out in symbolic contestations over the use of public space in Istanbul

UA: What about the symbolic nature of these developments? When the airport was announced, the Transport Minister Binali Yıldırımproclaimed, ‘Mehmet the Conqueror began a new era by conquering Istanbul, now Istanbul is opening the door to the new era of the future.’ What’s the significance of all this Ottomania that we see? There was the film Fetih 1453, everywhere you go you find Ottoman-themed menus, a soap opera about Suleiman the Magnificent…

AF: If you have a party, which represents the first, and second-generation urbanites, which represents the people who have traditionally felt themselves excluded from the economic goodies of the Republic in the 50s and 60s, and even 80s: to them, the conquest of the city is a very powerful metaphor because it means them getting their share of the pie. This isn’t the first government to exploit that metaphor. The Welfare Party government in which many of the current members of the government had their origins…

UA: …this was the more explicitly Islamist party which took power briefly in the 90s and from which Erdoğan’s AKP is a breakaway…

AF: Exactly. The head of that party, Necmettin Erbakan, very explicitly spoke of the ‘Reconquista of Istanbul’: the conquest of the city. The notion of building a mosque in Taksim was very much a symbolic planting of the flag; taking the city back from the ‘infidels’ of the secularist establishment. So there is a slight sense of triumphalism about the rebuilding of the city and these huge projects, which are somehow meant to be reestablishing the glory of Turkey as well.

UA: Do you think it’s got to do with the place of Istanbul within Turkey? In the early decades of the Republic, Istanbul was deliberately downplayed as the seat of the Ottomans, as opposed to Ankara, where the Republic was founded. Do you think this new revival of interest in the Ottomans has gone in tandem with the growing centrality of Istanbul to Turkey’s economy and politics?

 AF: Undoubtedly that’s the case. As you said, the early years of the Republic saw a deliberate disenfranchising of Istanbul. Power moved to Ankara, inland, and indeed this government came to power in part as a representative of the growing economic clout of the rest of the country as opposed to Istanbul. On the other hand, the current prime minister was the mayor of the city and understands Istanbul very well. All that wealth that’s been generated in the hinterland in Anatolia gets a higher return on capital if you invest in property in Istanbul than if you invest in property in Konya! So Istanbul has become a magnet even for this small, recently formed capital. It’s a distribution of the rent—of the wealth—of Istanbul to the rest of the country. The way I sometimes think of it, it’s a sort of cannibal who runs out of food and starts eating himself. Istanbul is consuming itself, as it were, and there will come a point when there’s nothing left!

UA: Apart from perhaps Erdoğan’s Çamlıca Mosque project? What’s happening with that? Is it a kind of vanity project on behalf of Prime Minister Erdoğan to put his mark on the city, or does it represent something more?

AF: The Çamlıca Mosque is this huge construction project on one of the most prominent parts of the city. You’ll be able to see this huge mosque from pretty much anywhere. It’s on the Asian side of the city, a place where there had never been such a huge mosque. Of course, there is a notion of triumphalism, a notion of putting your imperial signature on the city. It’s also a statement of incredibly bad taste! If you look at the design of this mosque, it’s a sort of a copycat of the classical age. It’s a replica of sixteenth-century classical Sinan-style mosques, of which there are very good examples on the historical peninsula. So to build this clumsy, awkward, out-of-proportion mess on the most prominent part of the city is not giving the signal which they hoped to give. The bizarre irony is that at the moment Istanbul is building a much-needed metro link, which will take the underground train above ground across the Golden Horn to the old city. As much as I complain about traffic, I can’t complain about them constructing a public transport system that actually works. But the way it’s designed is the bridge across the Golden Horn is much higher and much more elaborate than need have been. And so it actually interferes with the view of what is possibly the most important Ottoman mosque in the city, the Süleymaniye. And of course UNESCO is complaining about this. On one hand, you’re destroying the view of the most important Ottoman structure of the city, and at the same time you’re building this ersatz, hubristic Ottoman mosque on the Asian side of the city. It beggars belief, really.

UA: Nostalgia meets kitsch at its worst!

AF: It’s not a very happy marriage of styles, no…

UA: UNESCO actually threatened to kick Istanbul off its list of World Heritage Sites, didn’t it?

AF: Yes, both for the Süleymaniye Bridge, and for its neglect of the upkeep of the historical city. At the moment, for example, there is not even an inventory of historical properties of the old city. Everyone talks about building a master-plan for the old city. But that plan is never really a plan that would keep tourist buses out, or allow the circulation of tourists, maybe make a pedestrian zone. There is no proper planning to preserve the real gem that Istanbul is, and the reason perhaps, one can only suspect, is that such procedures would get in the way of the commercial exploitation of existing historical properties.

There’s been unprecedented anger among many Turks that the media didn’t cover the Gezi Park protests properly for days after it broke out. CNN-TURK showed a penguin documentary instead of reporting the news, while one of Turkey’s leading newspapers, Sabah, didn’t even put the protests on its front page. This comes after concerns that it’s getting more and more difficult to criticise the government. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists claims that Turkey has the most journalists in jail in the world, more than China or Iran. I asked Andrew to explain how the media really worked in Turkey. 

UA: But there’s this whole idea of the Turkish model we hear so much about in the Western press: that Turkey’s this thriving democracy and has elections seemingly every year. But on the other hand, the Committee to Protect Journalists claims that Turkey has the most journalists in jail in the world, more than China or Iran. Is it getting worse under the AKP, or has it always been this bad?

AF: I think the answer is it’s always been this bad. But understanding the phenomenon takes a little bit of effort. Like all societies, Turkey maintains social order with a carrot and with a stick. One would hope that as the country became more progressive and modern, as the economy developed, it would use more carrots than it would use sticks, that you don’t need repressive mechanisms to maintain order in a flourishing democracy. And yet it never seems to accept this, and various issues and problems seem beyond its control. One of those problems of course is the problem of its Kurdish population. How do you answer the demands for what are essentially minority rights: the ability to use your language, use your education, have decentralized government, these sorts of things. This is something Turkey has never been able to entirely cope with, and it still requires the stick. The stick it has been using recently is a policy of pre-trial detention, almost like internment in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles there. So there are a vast number—some say 9000, some say 8000, if it’s only 5000, what difference does it make—of people who are essentially Kurdish activists, or separatists, not necessarily people who use or resort to violence, but who regard themselves as part of an opposition. A lot of these people now find themselves in jail. And so it’s inevitable that in their numbers there will be a large number of journalists. But there’s also a large number of mayors!

The way I look at it: the story is, I once went to a restaurant and asked for a cup of coffee after my meal, and they said, no, we don’t do coffee. So I said, that’s OK: they make it across the street, why don’t you just bring it over? And they said, oh, we can’t do that: if we did that for you, then everybody would want it… which was a slightly silly response! So my response to journalists wanting less journalists in jail is that it’s not just journalists in jail; we can’t just ask for ourselves, we have to ask for everybody. If they let journalists out of jail, they’d have to let other people out of jail! So I see it as part not so much as a deliberate bullet pointed at the press, but as a sort of general dragnet in which journalists of course suffer as well.

UA: But as a journalist, or as an activist, what are the red lines or taboos you can’t write about? Do people end up resorting to self-censorship?

AF: This is a difficult question: let me summarise my experiences in the Turkish press, as in addition to writing for Western papers, I’ve also written for Turkish papers, and have done so since the mid-90s. I’ve been a columnist for three or four Turkish newspapers. The first newspaper I worked for, its proprietor was eventually arrested for petty fraud. The second newspaper I worked for, the proprietor was on the run from the British serious fraud squad. The third newspaper I worked for, the proprietor was arrested for major fraud, for having embezzled a bank of 0.8 billion dollars. And I’ve worked for others.

To my mind, the problem with the Turkish press has to do with the government; it also has to do with the structure of ownership and why people own newspapers. Do they own newspapers because they want to sell advertising space and sell their product and inform people, or are they trying to use newspapers as leverage for gaining financial advantage in non-press sectors of the economy? The answer is the second. So one has to look at the structure of ownership as much as the government’s attempt to manipulate the press. And the government couldn’t manipulate the press if newspapers were genuinely independent.

So, there are newspapers that are genuinely independent. There’s a very highly dedicated oppositional press that’s quite loony called Sözcu. It’s a newspaper and it attacks the government every day, and it’s immune to government reprisal because it’s not trying to sell anything but newspapers, whereas the major newspaper groups in Turkey all have put themselves in a position where they benefit from government grace and favour. The most egregious example of this is a newspaper called Sabah, which is owned by a company whose CEO is the prime minister’s son-in-law. The purchase price of the newspaper was in part financed by two state banks, which had never invested in media before. So yes, the government puts pressure on the press, but the press is only too happy to be pressurised.

Graffiti right now on the streets of Istanbul proclaims that ‘Nothing will ever be as it was before.’ Whether or not this is true, we’ll see in the coming months and years, but Andrew Finkel concluded our interview with a warning of what might happen to Istanbul if current policies remained in place.

UA: Could the problem be solved with some legislation regarding press ownership, or is it a deeper problem to do with the way business works in Turkey?

AF: Well, it is a serious problem, I don’t think one can legislate one’s way out of it, because it’s not just the way the press works or business works in Turkey: it’s the dynamics of the press worldwide. Throughout the world, newspapers are shrinking, the Internet has in effect signalled an end to conventional journalism. People get their news elsewhere; it’s not the industry it was. Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t the possibility of doing good reporting, but the industry itself is rethinking what it is, so in many ways the Turkish media have been kept artificially alive by using the press to subsidise their real interests.

UA: So lastly, looking ahead to the next ten years, what would you say your biggest hopes and fears were for Istanbul?

AF: Well, I’m very anxious—in the sense of fearful—that Istanbul will reach a tipping point beyond which it becomes a totally unmanageable city. At the moment, car ownership in Istanbul is actually quite low, and yet it has a fearsome problem of traffic. What happens if, as is expected, more and more cars will come onto the road every day: what would be the implications of this? There has to be a whole mindset change in the city, that people realise that the motor-car doesn’t rule the city, that people have to go places by boat or by other forms of public transport. I’m afraid of the erosion of green spaces in this city. And at the moment, what has been remarkable about Istanbul is that it’s preserved its sense of community. Of course every city has crime, and every city has violent crime, but I think the statistics in Istanbul show that it’s actually a much safer city than many other cities. I’m concerned that the creation of unplanned communities or roughly planned communities with new housing will create communities which are no longer held together. And no amount of mosques and religiously inspired people will keep those communities together. So I think this is something that one should be concerned about. But there’s a famous Turkish poem by Tevfik Fikret, basically that Istanbul’s this woman who’s had a hundred husbands and yet still remains a virgin, that Istanbul is conquered, yes, but it also conquers its would-be conquerors. I worry that that may no longer be the case: that Istanbul may actually succumb.

UA: Conquered by never-ending construction.

AF: By those who would exploit its natural advantages, yes.

UA: On that slightly dark note, thank you very much, Andrew Finkel.

AF: My pleasure.