The recent and sometimes violent protests in Turkey’s major cities invite parallels to the mass protest movements of the Arab Spring. Yet this comparison is superficial at best. In fact, the biggest risk for the United States is not that Turkey, a key American ally, will experience revolution, chaos or political opening. Rather, it is that these protests have the potential to push the Erdogan government towards increased, Russian-style repression of democratic freedoms.
Demonstrations in Turkey began over an ostensibly minor issue, the removal of trees from an Istanbul park to make way for a shopping mall. A violent nighttime crackdown by police on environmental activists led to more demonstrations criticizing the heavy-handed response. These crowds have swelled, and major protest clashes—with riot police and tear gas deployments—have occurred in other major Turkish cities. At least four have died, and thousands have been injured in these clashes. Many protesters cite not only ongoing police repression as reason for taking to the streets, but also concerns that the ruling AKP party’s policies, cracking down on media and free speech, are increasingly autocratic. Still others argue that the protests are a response by secular, western-focused Turks to growing government support for pro-Islamic reforms.
At first glance, potential parallels to the Arab Spring are obvious: an insignificant event inflames antigovernment sentiment, pushing popular protests and a weakening of the government. Yet as several Middle East experts have noted, Taksim is not Tahrir. Unlike Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, Turkey’s government is largely democratic. Repression is limited to a few areas of public life, notably journalistic criticism of the government. The AKP has been elected three times in free and fair elections and a substantial segment of the population supports its policies.
Instead, the problem is tyranny of the majority. Erdogan has been content to push through his party’s policies, arguing that majority or near-majority support entitles the party to rule as it sees fit. Indeed, he has described the current protests as merely ‘looters.’ The people filling the streets of Istanbul this week are in fact a mixed group, united only by opposition to the AKP. The Arab Spring is thus a poor lens through which to understand these protests.
A better parallel for policymakers is recent Russian protests of the rule of Vladimir Putin. Starting in late 2011, Russian prodemocracy activists took to the streets to criticize the results of fraudulent parliamentary elections. Increasing numbers of opposition supporters followed suit in the six months thereafter, before arrests and police action effectively ended large-scale protests. Putin’s 2012 reelection was indeed somewhat undemocratic—in particular in the limited ability of other candidates to reach voters—but the OSCE declared voting to have been largely positive, with limited electoral irregularities. The protesters were therefore from a significant, but unheard minority of the Russian population who did not support the regime.
As in the current Turkish crisis, Russian protesters were largely urban, middle-class, educated citizens who objected to increasing media censorship and a perceived government repression of political opposition. In both cases, those citizens involved had done well during the previous decade of economic growth, a marked difference from the mobs of the Arab Spring.
Moreover, neither movement has a clear leader or alternative program. In Russia, leaderless opposition activists struggled to articulate an alternate message to the Kremlin. The opposition in Turkey is likewise fragmented, made up of agnostics, environmental activists, trade unionists and anarchists, among others. No clear link exists between groups, and there is little to no consensus on what the protesters hope to achieve. A proposal by AKP politicians that the government reconsider plans to destroy the park addresses the ostensible reason for the protests, but none of the underlying causes.
The parallels with Russia raise a number of worrying possibilities for Washington as it attempts to mold a coherent response to the Turkish situation. Of particular concern is Turkey’s increasingly draconian stance towards criticism of the government. Journalists have long been urged to avoid denigrating the government, with pressure brought to bear on newspapers and TV stations. By 2012, Turkey had jailed more journalists than any other country in the world—the government, of course, claims that these prisoners are in fact terrorists. Turkish media did not even report on the current protests for two days, showing instead pro-government news, even though more than thirty-five people, as of June 12th, had been arrested for posting antigovernment rhetoric and information about protest rallies on Twitter.
Turkey is certainly a democracy, but an increasingly illiberal one, as repression moves the state closer to a Putin-style sham democracy. This should be extremely alarming to U.S. policymakers. Secretary of State Kerry’s recent comments expressing concern over use of excessive force by Turkish police in dispersing protesters were met by strong criticism from Turkey’s foreign minister, who accused the United States of treating Turkey like a “second-class democracy.” Yet Kerry is right to comment on the matter—the US cannot afford destabilizing authoritarian tendencies in an important ally like Turkey. Washington’s policymakers must be prepared to criticize the Turkish government, and to encourage Erdogan and his peers to seek a democratic solution to the problem.
After all, these protests ultimately offer the Erdogan government a simple choice: roll back unpopular laws in order to quiet protests, or crack down harder on opposition. Unfortunately, as the recent protests in Russia show, taking a hard line can certainly be an effective strategy, especially when opposition is minority-based and fragmented. Increased pressure from Washington, however, may succeed in making repression a somewhat less palatable choice for the government in Istanbul. But if U.S. leaders do not wish Turkey to start down the slippery slope to autocratic governance and semi-authoritarian rule, they must act quickly.
Emma Ashford is a PhD candidate in foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the politics of energy production, and on U.S.-Russian relations.
Emma M. Ashford
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