LEXINGTON, Ky. (6/15/13)—The UK Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce encourages faculty to travel overseas so they can observe firsthand political and economic developments and later draw upon that experience in the classroom. Two weeks ago, that approach led Patterson School Director Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh to Turkey, where he witnessed the violent clash in Istanbul between police and demonstrators.
Ambassador Cavanaugh shared his experiences from this historic demonstration.
What did you see and experience in Istanbul?
After discussions with government officials, diplomats, and journalists, I had just finished a meeting about Kurds at the Marmara Hotel, which sits on Taksim Square.
Then all hell broke loose.
Coming into the hotel I had seen several hundred peaceful demonstrators conducting a sit-in to protest the planned bulldozing of a park that adjoins the square to make way for a new shopping mall and luxury apartments. Now, I looked down on the square as the first tear gas canisters exploded and hundreds of protesters scrambled for safety. The police assault came with little to no warning. Indeed, Taksim Square was chock full of regular workday traffic, taxi cabs, and even three open-top double decker buses showing tourists the sights.
Tear gas grenades and shells now started going off everywhere, feeding the chaos. Squads of police in riot gear blocked most escape routes from the square and as clouds of tear gas choked the air (and seeped into the lobby of the hotel where I was watching), police armored water cannon trucks rolled in. A protester appeared in front of the hotel with a gas mask on her head, waving a sign “protect our park” and then disappeared, as ambulances arrived to remove the injured.
A brief skirmish ensued just outside the hotel window as a half-dozen protesters threw stones at helmeted police carrying Plexiglas shields, but they were easily overwhelmed by the power of the water cannon. In all over several hundred people were injured and about a hundred arrested.
My group waited for an opportune moment and then sprinted through the tear gas into a van to leave the area. As we crossed the city it was clear that the heavy police action had only made the situation worse. Protests were breaking out across the city, with calls to assemble once more at Taksim Square.
Is Taksim going to be like Cairo’s Tahrir Square? Can we expect a “Turkish Spring?”
I don’t think so. While the demonstrations have intensified and spread to other cities in Turkey, there are several fundamental differences.
First, there is no unifying theme among the demonstrators. Some protesters were environmentalists, some were upset over the growing class divide in the city, while others used the occasion to underscore their opposition to the greater role of Islam in Turkish society or their opposition to the ruling party and the authoritarian tendencies of the prime minister. Still others were dismayed that the Turkish government was siding with other Western countries and not backing the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Second, in contrast to the poverty and desperation that marked the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Turkey is in the midst of an enormous economic boom. It has the fastest growing economy in Europe, has relatively low unemployment, and a growing middle class. Some demonstrators’ complaints center on plans to build a third suspension bridge across the Bosphorus (construction began last week), a third international airport (which will become the world’s largest with the capacity to handle 150 million passengers), and even a new 30 mile long canal that would link the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
Third, the Turkish government has backed off somewhat. Police have allowed protests to continue and the government has apologized for using “excessive violence.”
What these demonstrations do represent is a wake up call to the Turkish government to pay more attention to the electorate and be more responsive to their needs. Protests like this have been rare in Turkey, but growing restrictions on freedom of the press and assembly, and a sense of greater Islamization of Turkish society have spurred people to action.
After 10 years in power, there is a growing perception that the ruling party and Prime Minister Erdogan have become too accustomed to doing whatever they want. Mr. Erdogan’s dismissive comments regarding the demonstrators have only intensified that perception and led even more individuals to join their cause (he called them hoodlums, looters, and suggested the protests were linked to terrorism. He also called Twitter a “menace to society”).
Tens of thousands are now protesting at Taksim Square and Gezi Park, with thousands more across Turkey participating in activities to show their solidarity. The government needs to show that it is listening and understands.
Will all this be reflected in your teaching?
What I witnessed will definitely be a topic of discussion this fall. Patterson School students are trained in statecraft and this month’s events are showing vividly what works and what does not. We have also been examining in our program Internet freedom and the impact social media can play in politics. While Taksim may not have the same impact as Tahrir, it definitely underscores once more the dramatic impact of social media as a political instrument.
Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh came to the Patterson School after a Foreign Service career centered on conflict resolution, political-military affairs, and humanitarian issues. In addition to Washington assignments in the State Department, Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill, Ambassador Cavanaugh served in Berlin, Moscow, Tbilisi, Rome, and Bern. In 1992, he established the first U.S. Embassy to the new Republic of Georgia, serving as Chargé d'affaires. Under Presidents Clinton and Bush, he spearheaded or helped advance peace efforts involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkey. His final government assignment was foreign policy/political advisor to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen.
Information provided by Sarah Geegan
Photos provided by Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh
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