Despite escalating rhetoric from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the late hours of June 13, the government has appeared to have taken a deep breath and stepped back on its previously harsh approach to the Gezi Park protests.
Erdogan's initial threat to "clean" the park of "terrorists" never came to fruition -- instead, his government called an 11th-hour meeting (literally) with actors and spokespeople for Taksim Platform.
(As a side note, Turkey has an odd habit of viewing actors who speak in support of political issues as actual experts on the issue. During the peace negotiations with the PKK, the government invited a large number of popular soap actors and singers to a "Wise People's Commission" -- though the panel also included academics, it seems odd to me to invite a bunch of actors as supposed voices of the people.)
Protesters seemed highly skeptical but pleased. I spent a marathon 17 hours down at Taksim and Gezi yesterday, hoping for something to happen, but instead saw a lot of people play football and watched over sleepy police. At around 2:30 A.M., police began a gradual withdrawal from the square, some to sleep in buses on the adjacent streets. The police watching German pianist Davide Martello's all-night outdoor solidarity concert in Taksim Square seemed to relax, joking around with protesters.
In all, it was a night of welcome (albeit at times incredibly boring) deescalating tensions. Erdogan's government began the night with a barrage of threats and virulent criticism of the EU, which had earlier criticized the government for its unwillingness to "take steps towards reconciliation." But by the end of the night, AKP spokespeople stated that if a planned appeal fails, they will be bound by an earlier court decision suspending construction. They even suggested that should their appeal succeed, the issue will be put to a referendum, though the protesters I talked to remained highly skeptical of this.
Either way, despite the lack of sleep it inflicted upon me, the change in tone is a welcome one. Looking forward, I think it's reasonable to anticipate at least one police operation in or around Gezi before the AKP supporter rally next week. It will also be interesting to see if the more radical among the protesters, who are beginning to enjoy the permanence of Gezi's anarchic society, will be willing to leave even with this new tone of compromise.
The news for this thundering morning in Istanbul:
- One thousand Kurdish Iraqi soldiers have deserted the Iraqi army for peshmerga forces loyal to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The final straw was evidently an operation directed against Sunnis by the Shi'ite government, though this has been brewing for a long time. The withdrawal of Kurdish militants from Turkey to Northern Iraq has strengthened the KRG's claims to autonomy. Earlier, they demanded the government renegotiate oil rights in the north, and threats have been being tossed back and forth ever since.
- The U.S. has agreed to provide direct military support to Syrian rebels, the New York Times reports, on the basis that chemical weapons have been used. Britain and France supplied the evidence to the E.U. earlier to bully them into making a similar decision. Most of these weapons will come via Turkey, which sees it at none too soon -- Turkish troops just yesterday fired on a group of Syrian civilians trying to enter Turkey, and Turkey's never been very good with refugees, which are a growing crisis. Despite the fact that this may help turn the tide for an opposition faced with losing its longest-standing stronghold, there are a litany of issues with supplying arms to Syrian rebels. Not least among them is that there is no identifiable single entity that can be called the Syrian opposition, according to expert on Syrian opposition groups Aaron Lund, despite the best efforts of the Syrian National Council (SNC) from Diyarbakir, Turkey. Many groups currently doing the best work against the government are also of the violent, jihadi, al-Qaeda-linked type that the U.S. should have learned their lesson about supporting with advanced weaponry.
- Five were detained in ongoing clashes with police in the capital of Ankara, where I am finally for realsies headed. The protests in Ankara have been subject to gassing from police for the past five days in a row, and they have no sign of stopping in advance of the AKP supporter rally there on the 15th.
- The government is beginning to suggest they will take legal action against Twitter for its role in "encouraging" the protests. Twitter, unlike Facebook and YouTube, is not required to open a Turkish subsidiary that complies with government censorship, and refuses to do so due to the lack of protections on personal information in Turkey. Given that Twitter was the only company to refuse to negotiate with the US government in their unprecedented cyber-spying PRISM program, it seems unlikely they will make this one easy for the AKP.
- Erdogan continues to lash out at the "interest rate conspiracy" (and suggesting Israel?), despite evidently no one knowing what that means.
- New restrictive liquor laws signed off on by President Abdullah Gul have had little effect on Istanbul vendors, who continue to sell late into the night. However, Efes Pilsen, one of Turkey's (and the world's) largest beer companies, has been forced to pull its Turkish website in compliance with the new law. It remains to be seen how some of the advertising laws can be enforced -- there's a basketball team in Istanbul that is literally called the "Andalou Efes".
- The controversy over shit coverage of the protests has claimed one media exec, Cem Aydın of NTV's Doğuş Media. He was the only media person to apologize to staff over the coverage. In Gezi, Halk TV, which aired the protests live from the beginning, is now sacrosanct.
- It's election day in Iran, but you won't hear much about it, because of intense media restrictions. There's a "blanket ban" on UK outlets.