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Beyond Istanbul

in Featured/Features/Journalism/Travel by

Izmit is a hilly, populous industrial city located by the Sea of Marmara, about 100 kilometres east of Istanbul. An ancient city of almost 3,000 years, it was known as Nicomedia to the Greeks and Romans; today it is part of the industrial heartland driving Turkey’s economy. Oil refineries and factories – cars, paper, cement – are all located around this city, which is the administrative capital of Kocaeli Province.

As protests sweep across Turkey, the attention of international media has largely been focused on Istanbul, with the remarkable occupation of Gezi Park, at the north end of Taksim Square (referred to by one local paper recently as a ‘Utopic Freetown’). It was the violent efforts by police to evict the peaceful protestors – using tear gas and water cannons – that initially captured the attention of the world, as well as the rising up of tens of thousands of Turks to challenge the police brutality and dictates of a government many describe as increasingly authoritarian.

Yet protests have been occurring in dozens of other cities – largely outside the gaze of the international media – where the police and government have not been exercising the same degree of restraint as in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has trivialized the protests and claims to maintain strong support outside Istanbul. So how exactly are things playing out outside Istanbul?

“Istanbul is not just another city, Istanbul is another country,” says Yucel Demirer, professor of political science at Kocaeli University in Izmit. “Culturally, it’s very different, very liberal.

“Izmit is one of the industrial centres…it’s a very rich and industrial part but at the same time, for various historical reasons, it’s one of the conservative hotbeds of the country.”

Despite being a “conservative hotbed”, Izmit has been swept up in the waves of protests as well.

“Immediately after the protests started [in Istanbul], a significant crowd protest was organized here,” Demirer explains. “A huge daytime organizing meeting took place in downtown Izmit. Thousands of people came out.”

Community-centred organizing

One of the unique qualities of the protests is their spontaneous and grassroots nature. They’re not organized by centralized teams of activists, but by individual neighbourhoods and communities, each taking their turn to voice their anger and dissatisfaction in their own way and style.

Izmit, Turkey. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Protests have taken place in Izmit (pictured here) and dozens of other Turkish cities. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

“They’re in different neighbourhoods,” Demirer says, comparing protests he’d witnessed in various neighbourhoods of the area, and noting some were bigger than those in the city’s dense downtown core. He explains that protests across the country reflect the unique dynamics of the region where they take place; some are led by students, others by left-nationalists. In Kurdish parts of the country, he says, the protests reflect a Kurdish character and the political aspirations of those people.

“It depends on the city, it depends on the population of the city. But they all protest the government, of course … All over Turkey, in different neighbourhoods protests take place.

“One neighbourhood [in Izmit]…is bringing two or three thousand people every night together. Which is amazing. Other times, in a usual protest, you can see at most one hundred people. And sometimes less than fifty. This time for the first time in years we are talking thousands of people, which is incredible.”

Kuvvet Lordoglu is professor of labour economics at Kocaeli University. He feels there are differences between these protests and the ‘Arab spring’ protests that swept other countries in the region.

“This is very different from the Arab springs that took place last year in many Arabic countries,” he says. “This movement is very different than the other Arabic movements. This is independent. One of the differences between the Turkish movement and the Arab springs is that we have had pluralist democracy since 1946. So we have elections here, we didn’t have the same sort of dictators here. They have had dictators for many years, so this is one of the differences between the Arabic movement and the Turkish movement right now.”

A local woman (under the condition of anonymity) describes the scene near her own residence in Izmit.

“There are many students near the place where I live, and they start walking at around 11 p.m. Usually there are maybe hundreds of students walking, so it’s amazing.”

And does the community support the students leading these marches?

“Yes!” she declares emphatically. “They are banging pots and pans. We are so excited.”

A protest movement with deep and complex roots

According to Demirer, Taksim was the catalyst for these protests for a number of reasons. It retains a particular resonance for people’s sense of their nation, and this is something the government failed to take account of when it launched plans to demolish the square and replace it with a shopping mall and mosque.

“Taksim Square is very different than the other squares in Turkey,” he explains. “Historically, socially, culturally it has significant meanings, and when people see that this government disregarded the importance of this square, people felt that they were forced to do something.”

Protestors march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Protestors march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

Yet, on a broader level, the protests were the result of years of growing unease and dissatisfaction with Turkey’s three-term government. Analysts suggest a great deal of the prime minister’s support comes from the “personality cult” he has developed. Ironically, it is this very quality which also seems to be turning growing numbers of Turks away from him and his party.

Demirer attributes much of the protest to the prime minister’s increasingly condescending attitude.

“The discourse of this government, this prime minister, this political elite, is the discourse of the teacher,” he says. “Just oppressive, telling things in a way that we might see in an authoritarian regime, or in a school setting. And for that reason people felt uncomfortable and that’s the reason that we see different faces in this.”

Another person speaking under the condition of anonymity feels the protests gained such broad support because they were not initiated over specific political demands, but over a desire to protect the trees in Gezi Park.

“There are so many people involved, with such different views … Because the movement started as an environmental movement, so that’s why everybody got together,” they explain. “Otherwise I don’t think people would have gotten together. Kurds, Turks, Alevis, Sunnis, Shias, all the people from these different backgrounds got together because of the environment. It started because of the environment.”

Lordoglu feels the same way.

“This movement started because of police violence. They used disproportionate power against the demonstrations. These were innocent people who wanted to save the environment in Gezi Park,” he says. “So this is why so many different people got so angry – conservatives, liberals, even some religious people got very angry about this issue.”

Repressive responses

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This is an industrial region, yet downtown Izmit retains a green, leafy atmosphere redolent with blooming trees and flowers. An old train track in the central downtown has been converted into a broad, park-like walking lane, and here couples and families relax, lounging on the grass and playing with dogs and colourful paper planes. It’s hard to imagine the scene from just a few nights ago, when police responded with harsh violence to the first few protests in this city.

“For two days they attacked people, they took so many people into custody,” a local resident recalls. “They detained many students for the first three days.”

Perhaps in response to the scrutiny of international media, the condemnation of the international community and the fact that police violence seemed to be causing the protests to grow, police have exercised greater restraint here in recent days. They’ve done the same in Istanbul.

The recent exercise of restraint by police in Izmit (and Istanbul) does not reflect the reality in other parts of the country, the local resident tells me. In Ankara, in particular, police have attacked protestors on an ongoing basis and several reports of severe police brutality in the capital have emerged.

“They are more violent [in Ankara],” she said. “All the media has eyes on Taksim but there is so much violence going on in Ankara.”

Uncertain futures

The ultimate impact of the protests remains to be seen, but a range of effects is already being felt. The international response has been significant, according to Demirer.

“It has a very significant effect. The Turkish economy depends on the so-called hot money, meaning a high level of import and then combining it with cheap labour and…stability is very important for this kind of economy,” he explains.

“He [Erdogan] has lost significant ground. I’m not very quick to make these kinds of comments, but…as a political scientist this is a well-organized political party and he’s been running a good show. Up to this point. Now he’s losing ground.”

There’s a sense of hopeful yet nervous uncertainty about how the remarkable events sweeping Turkey will play out. Those I speak with, however, agree that Turkey has changed forever. And in the best of possible ways.

“Especially in the small settings like in Izmit, [the protests are] very important,” says Demirer. “It’s the kind of effect where one thing affects another, like a domino effect. And not only in Izmit, but in the smaller localities, it’s changed the mood.”

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