Streetwise Professor

June 2, 2013

Timing is Everything: SWP in Istanbul Before the Storm

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:11 pm

It’s a damned good thing I went to Istanbul two plus weeks ago rather than now.  I was in most of the locations where the rioting has taken place over the last couple of days: when I was there, the place was crowded as hell but peaceful.

The epicenter of the protests is Taksim Square.  Funny story about that.  I took a boat tour of the Bosporus, during which I was on the bridge where some protests took place.  Afterwards, the tour went to Dolmabache Palace.  The tour operator was supposed to take me from Dolmabache back to my hotel, but she said: “It will take us two hours to get there through traffic.  We’re dropping you off at the Metro  station.”  So I was unceremoniously plopped down at Taksim Square, where I picked up the Metro to go Sishli.  It all worked out well . . . but I doubt that would have been the case this week.

My admittedly superficial impression from my visit was that there is substantial tension between Erdogan and his relentless efforts to move towards a Islam-dominated Turkish state and more secular elements of Turkish society.  It’s hard to explain, but I did pick up uncomfortable vibes in conversations.  For instance, when I was in an office with a TV playing Erdogan giving his weekly speech to the Turkish parliament: I sensed that my hosts were probing to learn my opinions of Erdogan before revealing anything, and felt that they were expressing disapproval, but tacitly.

These articles from the Economist and the FT support that interpretation, with the added twist of Erdogan’s symbiotic relationship with property developers and contractor (which reminds me of Houston).

Erdogan is not backing down, and in fact is doubling down.  For instance, he has said that he will demolish the Ataturk Cultural Center, and replace it with an opera house.  That is highly symbolic because Ataturk, aka Mustafa Kermal, was as relentless in his efforts to secularize Turkey as Erdogan is to Islamize it.

Twitter accounts suggest that the opposition in Taksim and elsewhere is rather disorganized and lacking in leadership.  On the one hand, that suggests that a highly disciplined force like Erdogan’s government and party and security forces should be able to control it.  But on the other, it suggests that it is spontaneous, genuine, and taps into deeply felt resentments.  And given the way that falsified/suppressed preferences work, the revelation of widespread discontent can lead to a positive feedback loop, as people who were upset by Erdogan but kept silent because they believed they were in the distinct minority may feel emboldened by the public expression of opposition.  This is why leaders like Putin-and, presumably Erdogan-live in fear of color revolutions, and take extensive measures to quash any expression of public protest.  By the time things reach the pitch observed in Taksim, though, it can be too late.

Just what the world needs.  More instability in the Middle East.  Particularly in a country that was widely considered to be the potential foundation for a new order in that region.  It is clear that there are deep fault lines in Turkish society, and seismic changes may occur, and quickly.

I have a tentative invitation to return to Istanbul in September.  Who knows what things will be like then?  Although I sensed some tension during mid-May, I never anticipated that things would boil over within mere days.  Three months is a lifetime.

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  1. I surprisingly found Istanbul to be an overpriced shithole with far too many men stood around doing fuck all, or engaged in scams which would make a Nigerian cringe with embarrassment. Its historical and geographical significance and impressive buildings mask the fact that it is on most measures a third world dive.

    In my opinion, of course.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 2, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

  2. Constantinople will be Christian again! 🙂

    On a more serious note, here is what I gleaned from discussions in Runet: this Istanbul turmoil is an American reaction to the softening of Erdogan’s position on Syria. Get this? Those people see deep, very deep…

    Comment by LL — June 2, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

  3. Professor, regarding the past expectations of the new order in the region by means of Turkey…

    It only comes to show how little American policy makers understood and understand Turkey and the region. She has been the most misrepresented and misunderstood by the U.S. policymakers country. Decades of U.S. Foreign Policy (and other) investment there have evaporated. Turkey has taken the maximum possible from USA and returned a kick in the stomach in return. This has been a one sided love affair. Only from both sides it was love for money.

    Turkey was supposed to carry the Western values in the Central Asian region to help to take it under the Western influence. Then it was to be “helpful” in regulating the Caucasus region. Now it is supposed to help tranquilize Syria. This is a pure BS.

    Turkish largess has flown into the U.S. analytic, policymaking and academic circles for decades. Through the purchase of arms implicitely it has flown into Pentagon as well.

    Sure, the traditional pro-Turkish element in U.S. policymaking circles doesn’t have the same clout as it had before the Iraqi war and the Turkish “surprise” when she was most needed, but the things is, there is no other element in the U.S. government.

    State Department-Pentagon-American Enterprise Institute and others… This triangle represents a history of epic failure when it comes to Turkey.

    Comment by MJ — June 2, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

  4. I know what I said about one and two-sided love affair was a bit contradictory… But I think it still accurately describes the relationship. 🙂

    Comment by MJ — June 2, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

  5. Turkey has taken the maximum possible from USA and returned a kick in the stomach in return. This has been a one sided love affair.

    I’d be interested to know with which of America’s purported allies you think this wasn’t the case!

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 3, 2013 @ 2:28 am

  6. @Tim Newman:

    Replace “Istanbul” with “Naples” and “Athens” and it still is equally true from my experiences.

    Comment by Armed with Inkstick — June 3, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  7. Well, the Georgians keep giving, troops for Iraq & Afghanistan and pretty much the largest per capita deployment in Afghanistan, with no operational caveats, and Obama still won’t sell them modern weapons.

    Guess they are the exception that proves the rule.

    Comment by Andrew — June 3, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  8. @Tim. Thanks for all your comments lately, particularly carrying the weight on the ECHR. I’ve had little to add.

    Yes, Istanbul’s greatest attributes are its spectacular setting on the Bosporus, and a few magnificent buildings (but relatively few of those). Other than that, just a bustling, crowded place with many dodgy characters. The thing that struck me is how quickly one could go from fairly nice areas to 3d world. More than a few times I did an about face when quickly found myself in an area where I knew I should not be. Not familiar with Athens, but yes, Naples is an excellent analogy.

    @MJ & @Tim. The Turkish boot in the gut is primarily a post-2002 phenomenon, i.e., directly connected to the ascension of Erdogan and his party. We have been very slow on the uptake and have not recognized, or responded to, the clear divergence in interests and behavior. It’s not 1950 or 1960 or 1970 anymore.

    The Bush administration was a disaster in dealing with Turkey-not just in Iraq but also during the Russian invasion of Georgia. It’s only gone downhill since then. Obama has “bonded” with Erdogan, more than any other leader, allegedly. Ugh.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 3, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

  9. @Andrew. Are you really surprised that Obama f*cks those who take a risk for us, and takes risk for those who f*ck us? That’s his MO.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 3, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  10. Erdogan started off chipping away at Ataturk’s vision of a secular state. Remember his wife wearing I think a head scarf that is part of the Islamic wardrobe that was against the rules. What is the situation with the generals, are they all with Erdogan now? How does this all fit in with NATO?

    Comment by Michael — June 3, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

  11. @Michael-Erdogan has tamed the generals, by and large, primarily through judicial means. (BTW, it was President Gul’s wife who wore the headscarf.)

    But no doubt they are nursing their hurts and looking for their opportunity. That is a wild card here that commentators have largely overlooked. If it looks like AK and Erdogan are vulnerable, the military might seize its main chance. Worth keeping an eye on. Another alternative: Erdogan will make a deal with the generals. If it looks like there’s any easing of the judicial pressure on them, that will be a very strong sign that he feels compelled to deal.

    Very perceptive of you to bring this up.

    NATO-ugh. Don’t make me laugh. Or cry.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 3, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

  12. @The Professor
    Thank you for a)link b)correction c) kind words

    Comment by Michael — June 3, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

  13. @You’re welcome, Michael. Check out my latest post that expands on this issue: I give you props. Thanks for your comment.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 3, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  14. @Professor But 2002 was the first time U.S. needed them. Prior to that Turkey always needed U.S.

    @Tim Don’t know who hasn’t done it. Too broad of a question… 🙂

    Comment by MJ — June 4, 2013 @ 4:21 am

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