Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkey’s Turmoil : The Fight for Democracy in Gezi Park

Youth for Peace in Instanbul

Image from EuroNews.Com

What began as a peaceful sit-in to save a downtown park in Istanbul has erupted into a conflict between the forces of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government and liberal reformers. On Monday, June 17, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinic announced Turkey “will resort to calling on the military to contain these protests.”

If one of the most progressive governments in the Middle East reaches the point of using its army to repress citizens, it will be a great setback for Western ideals of democracy and free speech in the region.

Turkish citizen and protester Bentley James Yaffe reports that “Istanbul police have continued using tear gas in residential areas,” including this past Sunday “at a shopping center during daylight hours when it was full of families out shopping for Father’s Day.” Despite trying to remain hopeful about the political state in Turkey, Yaffe “feels quite unable to do so.”

Protesters include women, students, old and young. Repression tactics include water cannons, police batons and plastic bullets. Human Rights Watch condemns the Turkish Police for their use of tear gas in confined spaces and surrounding hospitals, both makeshift and official. According to HRW the victims of tear gas were peaceful with “no imminent threat to law enforcement or others.”

Image from

Image from

The government defied prior announcements that they would refrain from using force to remove peaceful protesters in Gezi Park. The peaceful 18 day occupation of the park at Taksim Square was handled like a violent insurrection.

Educated at an American school in Istanbul, Yaffe explains, “I don’t think I ever understood how taxing having such ongoing situations can be. It is the personal and human element that makes it so harrowing.” His memories of the central park in Alsancak used to be of childhood trips to the zoo and his grandmother’s house. He now remembers the park’s white arches as “where I was beaten and detained by the riot police… where I saw police beat people with batons to the degree that they suffered broken legs, cracked ribs, broken cheeks and broken jaws.” The tall white arches are now blackened by fire damage.

“At this point, I better understand my friends from Syria and Belarus,” the graduate of King’s College London explains. The severity of authoritarian repression is easy to ignore until it hits home.

Photo from

Photo from

Turkey’s internal turmoil has distracted the Turkish government and citizens alike from focusing on international policy. The protests have come at a critical time given Turkey’s shared border with Syria. After years of patient diplomacy, Erdoğan’s crackdown may lead to a crushing rejection from the European Union. However, if anyone has shown the spirit of European democratic values, it has been young Turks voicing their dissent.

Turkish protesters are not asking for American money or military intervention. According to Yaffe protesters are demanding the “increased recognition and respect to the rights and lifestyles of citizens and better implementation of democratic and constitutional rights.”

Western supporters of democracy can help fight brutality and promote freedom through social media and peaceful awareness.



Sarah Flanagan

A native of lower Manhattan, the attacks of September 11th focused Sarah's attention on international issues of conflict and security at a young age. She has since received her degree in International Relations with a focus on The Middle East, and a second major in Russian Studies. Sarah has spent time in Washington D.C. assisting The ONE Campaign and The Center for International Studies and writing the monthly newsletter for The Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention in Brussels, Belgium. Sarah has also worked as a freelance writer for Google in New York and is currently at a media agency working in branded entertainment.

Follow her on Twitter! @SaraFlanonymous