Turkey is experiencing increasingly tumultuous times. A string of terrorist bombings have targeted rallies organized by left-wing and peace groups throughout the country. These violent incidents have been followed by crackdowns by the Erdogan government. At the same time, Turkey finds itself embroiled in the ongoing war in Syria and in an ongoing conflict with its sizable Kurdish minority, while an unprecedented wave of refugees from Syria has been traveling through Turkey towards Greece and other European Union member-states.
Gürkan Ozturan is a journalist, blogger, academic and activist who was a key participant in the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and who has often been outspoken in his criticisms towards the Turkish government. In this interview, he speaks about the recent bombings in Ankara and other Turkish cities, the government crackdown which has followed, the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the conflicts in Syria and against the Kurds and the refugee crisis which has followed.
Michael Nevradakis: Let’s begin with the recent deadly bombing incident at a peace rally in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. What was the nature of the rally that was being held, what was the reaction of the authorities to the bombing, and who do you believe was actually behind this bombing?
Gürkan Ozturan: This bombing reminds me of many other bombings that have taken place before election periods in Turkey in the past few decades. There has always been political violence, but never at this level. Five years ago, I was about to take a bus, the bus exploded right in front of me, and that was during a pre-election period again. Just four or five months ago, in Diyarbakir, there had been another explosion at a HDP [The People’s Democratic Party, the left-wing party in the Turkish parliament] rally. The left parties in Turkey have been seen as a threat to the state, and for some reason, they always get subjected to violent attacks.
On the one hand, I want to become a more realistic person and say that I’m not very surprised that this attack took place, because I personally expect anything from this government, that they would hang on to power with all they have. They would not shy away from any kind of tactics or methods that include hurting people. So on the one hand, I was expecting it, on the other hand I was being so naive as to hoping that they would never do such a thing. I believe that the government somehow is linked with this. We have seen the reactions of the ministers and the state officials in the aftermath of the attacks. The first reaction was to blame the HDP. They declared that the HDP were self-bombing, which doesn’t sound very realistic, given that the explosion took place at the heart of the state. All the major state offices are just in a few kilometers’ distance to the explosion site, and it is a major square in the capital city. How can the opposition just carry bombs and kill over 100 people? It’s like a self-harm.
Another significant aspect of this attack is that the reaction of the police in the aftermath of the attacks. In three cases, in Diyarbakir and Suruç, and [recently] in Ankara, the police, in the aftermath of the attacks, actually started shooting rubber bullets and using water cannons against the survivors. This gives you a bit of an idea who might be behind the attacks, and this does not very look very hopeful, of course. Unfortunately people are getting killed, and I consider this as a part of political violence, and I guess all the fingers are pointing towards the government.
After the Ankara bombings, Selahattin Demirtaş, the chairman of the HDP, gave a very powerful speech, pointing fingers at the governmental authorities for the bombings and the attacks that took place. What did he say, and how did this speech resonate with the public?
He just spoke sincerely for ten minutes, he just spoke his heart. And in those ten minutes, he just gave his impression of what has happened, that the party and the Turkish youth have been targeted, and he was saying that this is not the first time that it’s happening, but every time they are being shown as those being responsible for the attacks. Even though the government is obviously controlling everything, they are trying to shy away from responsibility. He was stating that if he was in charge, if he was a part of the government and such a thing had happened, he would resign immediately and do the responsible thing. But in the Turkish political culture there is no resignation culture, unfortunately.
The government ministers, evaluating the situation, have been claiming that there is no security problem and that the state has full control of the situation, and Demirtaş has been asking, “If the state has full control of the situation, how can two bombs explode in the same square? And, if the state is unable to control the situation, why are you still not resigning?” He was asking this, and of course, these questions are echoed among the society, but when it comes to the media, the majority of the media is under government control and his words are actually getting subverted when being brought to the agenda. The pro-government media is using his earlier images – more joyful looking images – to represent his outlook on what has happened, and they distort his messages. So, the spread of propaganda is going on regarding the incidents.
Before the previous national elections [in June 2015], there was an explosion at another HDP rally in Diyarbakir. Back then, again, it was declared that the Islamic State – ISIS – had been responsible for the attack, but there was a very significant moment. When the attack took place, and when there was an explosion, the policemen started laughing and attacking the civilians with rubber bullets and water cannons. Since then, peace rallies, antiwar rallies have been arranged, also in relation to the Syrian situation, by people who did not want a war with Syria, people who did not want bombs to explode in the public squares in Turkey. They came out to the streets and they shouted with one voice. They have set a very simple agenda: that they want peace whatever the costs might be. And then, there has been another explosion.
If you remember the Kobani resistance, the activists from all around Turkey were set to go to Kobani and bring toys to the children. Unfortunately, their meeting in Suruç was subjected to a bombing, and at least 35 of our friends died. Again, right after the explosion, the police were standing right across the street from them and laughing at the suffering. And after that, the political violence has actually been escalating, in the sense that the state has been putting more and more pressure, seeing the HDP and the opposition crowds as a valid threat to the government’s sustainability. This has led to even more violence and the pumping of the far-right ideology that at some point has turned into a political mob on the streets. [There have been] violent mobs across the country, and dozens of people have been killed, and in hundreds of locations the far-right groups had been bussed in and had been marching on the streets, putting up flags and attacking people. This has been escalating, when there were more people at the peace rallies. So the more people joining the peace rallies, the more people would be brought towards the mobs that are becoming violent on the streets.
Unfortunately, I was hoping that this would never happen, but on the other hand, I was almost expecting that the government would indulge in such a thing, knowing how much they’re trying to put the blame on some other groups. It’s obvious that there is a security problem in Turkey, or, there is a problem of approach to human rights by the government of Turkey.
Following the attacks, the government in Turkey enforced a blackout on coverage of the bombings in the media and also online, through the social media. What is the Erdogan government’s typical stance towards the media?
Social media as a whole has been seen as a “menace to society,” as our dear president Erdogan has put it years ago. He has always been targeting social media because it is uncontrollable. And the media, at the hands of the government, is almost solidly submissive to the government control. Only a very few media corporations can actually write something that is out of the government’s scope. But even then, they are subjected to huge tax fines and they get subjected to violence, they get subjected to threats, and all kinds of other pressure. We have a system called “accreditation” which can be seen all around the world, but in Turkey, it is being used for the cause of censorship. Certain media groups are not invited to any event, they are not allowed to write about certain things, and right after the explosions in Ankara, there has been declared a broadcast ban. All kinds of media – including social media – are not allowed to talk about the event. This is the deadliest terror attack in Turkey, no matter where the bombs might have come from, and the government’s response is to declare a broadcast ban.
There is now a meme going around in Turkish social media that there have been six massacres in Turkey and six times there has been a broadcast ban and no one has resigned, and no one has taken responsibility. So in this sense, one can feel that as a citizen of the country, we are dispensable.
There was recently another terrible, shocking video that has been leaked online: a young man being dragged on the streets – a dead body being dragged on the streets. There has been an investigation started on this, there has been declared a broadcast ban on the visuals, and the investigation has been started not because someone has been tortured until death and his dead body was dragged on the streets, but because the videos have been leaked online. So the people who took the video and who leaked it online are being investigated, not the people who have killed and tortured.
You were a participant in the Gezi Park protests and rallies back in 2013. These were rallies that garnered worldwide attention and they were said to have begun in response to plans to replace an urban park in Istanbul with a shopping mall, but it seems that the protests were over much broader issues than just the park. Tell us about what happened back in 2013, what the climate was like at these protests and how the government responded.
In political theory, there is a line that I recall from Joseph Raz, a liberal theoretician. He said if you unnecessarily put pressure on the people, some day will come and they will react to this, they might start reacting regarding the color of the pavement stones even. So that has basically happened. The Turkish public space has been surrounded and put under pressure from all sides and at all levels, and the last point, the last drop came as the cutting down of the trees in Gezi Park.
Until that moment, there had been minor reactions, but the reactions could not get unified for some reason. When the park was to be demolished, only then were people able to unite for one cause, and I think the main reason for this was that it was seen as neutral, it didn’t have any political affiliation. For the first time in Turkish history, the citizens took up their cause and they did not expect someone to lead them.
I see the Gezi Park protests as the uprising of millions of people who decided to take their own fate into their own hands, and unlike the previous times, there were no political leaders to guide people, no one putting words into people’s mouths. Prior to the protests, there had been legislation passed for two months regarding alcohol prohibition, regarding men and women in the same house, regarding unmarried couples living together, regarding who is going to do what and where. There was too much intervention into personal lives, and of course there was to be a reaction to this. Combined with the excessive use of force by the police, it turned into a nuclear event.
Turkey under the Erdogan government has often been portrayed as an economic “success story” and as a regional economic powerhouse, and as a model for the rest of the Middle East region. Does this rhetoric match reality for the ordinary people of Turkey, for their economic freedoms and for their freedom in their everyday lives?
In fact, the Erdogan government has not been completely bad. The first five or six years actually saw economic growth. Due to that economic growth, there is a slightly better competitive market right now. Compared to the ’90s or ’80s or ’70s, the market situation is, of course, more risky, but at the same time it bears more opportunities. I can say that the citizens being able to take up their own rights in their own hands is partly due to Erdogan’s economic and financial policies. Unless the people could feel financially stable for themselves, they wouldn’t be able to dare react to this kind of government.
In order for there to be peaceful progress in the country, there had to be two basic elements: that the personal lives of the people would not be interfered with, and economically there would be progress. However, in the past two years and starting with the protests, there has been more and more pressure on the economy, and because of that, right now it doesn’t seem to have a very bright future. However, thanks to some of the economic advancements in the past 12-13 years, the citizens, to some extent, have been able to expand their circle of influence. But of course, whoever is able to sustain an economic level of guarantee for themselves, whenever they feel secure and safe, they would ask for more rights, and that is basically what has happened in Turkey, and unfortunately the government has failed this test, to listen to the citizens’ demands.
How has Turkey and its military been involved in the war in Syria?
There is not so much information in the [Turkish] media going around about Syria and Russia’s involvement. But the people seem to be making fun of the government’s approach towards Syria. Previously it has been fatal, the involvement of Turkey in Syria, the training of the rebel groups and especially al-Nusra and forces of the Free Syrian Army, jihadist Islamist groups. This has taken a lot of reaction from the citizens, but when Russia’s planes have started going through Turkey to Syria to bomb the rebel grounds, that has caused a sour reaction from Turkey.
The Turkish government has recently been announcing that the economic ties between Turkey and Russia might be hurt. But the losing end in this situation would be Turkey, because Turkey is the one to buy gas and oil from Russia, Turkey is the host country when it comes to Russian tourism and Turkey is also a net benefiter from trade in terms of vegetables and fruits to Russia, and also in terms of clothing and textiles. There has been a huge market between Turkey and Russia, and if there were to be any kind of cooling down of the economic situation, this would not reflect well on the side of Turkey.
How has the Turkish government been reacting towards the Kurdish population and towards the Kurdish struggle for independence?
After the Suruç bombing, it was declared that the Islamic State has taken responsibility, and then, the government declared that it would start bombing the Islamic State grounds and that it would start operations against the Islamic State. But in the past four months, there have been many bombardments, many house raids and thousands of Kurds have been taken into custody. They have been arrested, even though the Kurds have been the victims of attacks. They have been declared responsible, and Turkey has started the “low-frequency” civil war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as they put it, or “low-frequency armed conflict.” However, this is not really low frequency, it is basically declaring curfews in the Kurdish cities, up to eight days for example, and curfews that last for 24 hours in cities where there is no electricity, water or food supplies. This is treating citizens as subjects of siege during the war.
The conflict in Syria and in other Middle Eastern countries has led to a tremendous wave of refugees who are fleeing the region and travelling in many cases towards Europe, and many of these refugees are travelling through Turkey. How do these refugees manage to get through Turkey and into Greece and other countries, and what is being said or being done about the refugee issue in Turkey?
As part of the UN charter on refugees, Turkey has opened borders to Syria. [Turkey has] accepted anyone coming through, but there have been some complications regarding the documentation of the people coming in because, due to international humanitarian crisis, they did not have enough resources to build up the systems, so a lot of people came in to Turkey without any kind of documents to put them in to proper housing.
There are more than 2 million refugees in Turkey, and this population has started rising due to people giving birth. The Turkish capacity to handle the refugee situation is very limited. The Turkish budget obviously cannot handle this – there are very few facilities that the refugees can go to, and even then, there are not so many services. There needs to be schools; there needs to be hospitals for the refugees; there needs to be proper, basic citizen or resident services to be supplied to these people. They have originally entered Turkey through the south-eastern border, but currently, most of them have started going towards the west. Both Greece and Bulgaria have a fence on the Turkish border, so it’s becoming very hard for them to pass the border through there. Thus, many of them can be seen taking boats from the Aegean coast or the Black Sea coast of Turkey, which is very dangerous, especially in this season.
The refugees in Turkey, many of them live in miserable conditions, and I can say that even slavery is re-emerging. There are many places that offer food and shelter to Syrian refugees in return for having their labor, and it is a very worrying situation, but unfortunately I have to say that the European Union (EU) has prevented a more peaceful solution to be brought to this issue, that the EU has been the one to actually raise this situation up to this level by not sharing the burden with Turkey and Greece and Italy. Many countries at the borders of Europe have to suffer with dealing with so many crisis situations, while the other countries can say that they will eventually help by taking a few thousand [refugees]. The Polish government said that 2,000 refugees would endanger the Polish national culture. Well, the Turkish national culture, it’s over 2 million refugees, should already have been devastated.