Archive for June 8, 2013

June 08, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister convened his party leadership Saturday as anti-government protests entered their ninth day, with thousands of people still occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has said the protests must end immediately, will meet with top officials from his Justice and Development Party in Istanbul. The protests began as a sit-in at a park in Taksim Square to prevent a redevelopment project that would replace the park with replica Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall. The mall idea seems to have fallen by the wayside, with Erdogan recently saying an opera house, theater and possibly a museum would be built instead.

But violent intervention by police to eject the protesters on May 31 outraged many, and the protests spread to dozens of cities across Turkey. Over the past nine days of demonstrations and frequent violent confrontations with police, three people have been killed — two protesters and a policeman — and thousands have been injured.

The protests have attracted a broad array of people angered by what they say are Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways and his intervention in private lives. They point to attempts to curtail the selling and promotion of alcohol, his comments on how women should dress and statements that each woman should have at least three children.

A devout Muslim who says he is committed to upholding Turkey’s secular tradition, Erdogan vehemently rejects charges of autocracy and points out that he enjoyed 50 percent support in the last elections in 2011.

Over the past week, protesters — mainly young, secular and middle-class, but also including some religious Muslims who were formerly Erdogan supporters — have set up camp in Taksim Square and its Gezi Park. They have vowed to remain there until the development project for the area is canceled — something Erdogan has shown no signs of being willing to do.

On Saturday, police removed about a dozen tents erected by protesters at a park in the capital, Ankara. No trouble was reported. Police in the city set up barricades as thousands of people began a march toward a central square.

While Taksim Square has been generally quiet for the past few days, clashes have broken out in other parts of the city. Riot police used water cannon and tear gas against protesters who set up street barricades in the Sultangazi neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul overnight.

Witnesses said at least one person was injured, hit in the face by a tear gas canister. Early Saturday, bloodstains could be seen on the ground amid debris from burned garbage bins and damaged shops.

June 07, 2013

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnian lawmakers stayed away from parliament this time and took an early weekend after anti-government protesters, including mothers with baby carriages, kept them trapped inside during a 12-hour siege.

Hours after Bosnian police freed 1,500 legislators, civil servants and visitors early Friday, thousands of people surrounded the building for a third day. But this time it was empty. The protest started Wednesday as a small request for a new law on national ID numbers, which citizens need to obtain passports and other documents. The old law lapsed in February, leaving all babies born in the country since then without personal documents.

On Thursday, thousands formed a human ring around parliament, forcing whoever was inside to stay put. But in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, special forces formed their own human cordon, freeing those inside the building.

The discontent has grown into a broader anti-government protest and the crowds of mainly students gathered Friday evening chanted “We want changes.” They demanded their politicians stop ethnic bickering and start working on improving the life of impoverished citizens in the country.

The unrest was sparked by media reports about a 3-month-old baby that needs life-saving medical treatment abroad but can’t travel because the infant can’t get a passport. The government started issuing temporary numbers until a new paw is passed but protesters demanded a final solution.

Encouraged by morning protests in other Bosnian cities, organized to support the one in Sarajevo, thousands gathered again to express their general dissatisfaction with their leaders. “We just want to send a message to the politicians not to play with our future because their future is in our hands,” one of the protesters in Sarajevo, 25-year-old Amar Nurkovic, said.

Post-war, ethnically-divided Bosnia is one of the world’s most over-governed countries. It consists of two semi-autonomous mini-states, each with a president, government and parliament. Those are linked by a joint parliament, government and a three-member presidency.

The unemployment rate is over 20 percent and the country is far behind its neighbors on the path toward EU membership. But politicians are still focused on ethnic bickering. The essence of the problem is that representatives of the three peoples in Bosnia have never given up their wartime goals. Bosniaks and Croats are trying to put the country together, while Serbs want to keep it divided and perhaps even secede from Bosnia.

The 1992-95 war they fought over this took more than 100,000 lives and divided the country into a Serb part — Republika Srpska — and another shared by Bosniaks and Croats. Most of the problems Bosnia has are a result of the conflict between those two concepts — ethnic division and unity.

In the case of the ID numbers law, Serb lawmakers demand that the new numbers reflect the ethnic division, while Bosniaks and Croats claim that would further divide the country. Bosnian Serb officials often obstruct the work of the joint state institution just to prove that a unified Bosnia is not possible.

The president of the Bosnian Serb ministate, Milorad Dodik, recently summed it up in a talk show on Bosnian Serb TV: “The less Bosnia-Herzegovina there is — the more powerful Republika Srpska will be. That is the policy we insist on.”

Fed up with this attitude, thousands took to the streets in several cities in Bosnia requesting politicians to start doing their jobs. In Sarajevo, the head of the European Union mission in Bosnia, Peter Sorensen, stated that the protests were “a clear demand on elected officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina at all levels to do what they have been elected to do — work in the interests of the citizens.”

June 07, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — A violent police crackdown on a small environmental sit-in at Istanbul’s central Taksim Square has done more than spawn a week of protests across the country. It has left cracks in the shiny international image of a tolerant and deeply democratic Turkey.

It might even have rattled the nation’s grand ambitions on the world stage, which include a bid to host the 2020 Olympics and its long-standing aim to join the European Union. Thousands of protesters gathered for the eighth consecutive night Friday in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where the demonstrations originally began, and about 10,000 showed up at the main square in the capital, Ankara. They are venting anger at Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who has said the protests are bordering on illegality and must stop immediately.

In his decade in power, Erdogan has been the driving force behind many of the reforms essential to push Turkey’s EU bid forward, including significant improvements to human rights legislation. The country’s economy has blossomed and infrastructure projects have burgeoned, especially in Istanbul.

But many say he’s gone too far. Dissent is rarely tolerated and some outspoken critics, including journalists and politicians, have been jailed. Now critics and even some supporters, accuse the prime minister of ignoring the fears and concerns of the 50 percent of the electorate who did not vote for him.

“Turkey has been harmed in many ways in the last ten day in terms of the image (and) financial markets,” said Cengiz Aktar, professor of international relations of Bahcesehir University. The main index on the Istanbul Stock Exchange fell by 8 percent Thursday, after Erdogan made statements in Tunisia during a North Africa trip saying that the development project for Taksim Square would go ahead. It recouped some of its losses Friday, but has lost about 9 percent in a week.

“There is only one, just one person who can solve this problem and his name is Erdogan. We are all watching his lips,” Aktar said. On his return to Istanbul early Friday, Erdogan was greeted by thousands of chanting supporters at the airport. He made a fiery speech in which he insisted he was mindful of the wishes of the entire population and not just his own supporters, but also insisted terrorists and a banking conspiracy were involved in the protests.

“The messages he gave last night were very concerning, and the mounted troops that were brought there, their slogans were really worrisome. These are indicating that this problem isn’t going to be solved by dialogue,” Aktar added.

The tarnishing of Turkey’s international reputation was evident during a Friday conference in Istanbul aimed at furthering the country’s decades-long EU accession hopes. “The duty of all of us, European Union members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule. “These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.”

Democracies, he told an audience that included Erdogan, must heed the needs of the whole of society, including those who disagree with the government. “Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy,” he said.

Erdogan retorted that the EU had human rights issues too. Turkey remained committed to joining the EU, he said, but he criticized the European bloc for the lack of progress in membership talks, saying public support for the country’s accession has plummeted to 30 percent.

“Why is our membership advancing at such a slow pace? The people have a right to know!” Erdogan said. “We are determined to advance on the path of the EU, but it is not possible for Turkey to continue with one-sided efforts.”

There are also concerns over whether the events have damaged Istanbul’s bid to host the Olympics. It has trumpeted the country’s strong economy, secular democracy and geographical location linking Asia and Europe.

But the images of riot police firing water cannons and massive amounts of tear gas at protesters in the center of the city could deal a blow, especially since the initial action on May 31 was against a small number of protesters who had been camping peacefully in Taksim.

“As Istanbul’s mayor going through such an event, the fact that the whole world watched saddens me,” Hurriyet Daily News cited Istanbul Mayor Kadi Topbas as saying the following day in a television interview. “How will we explain it? With what claims will we host the 2020 Olympic Games?”

The protesters in Taksim were objecting to Erdogan’s plans to revamp the area by uprooting the trees and building a replica Ottoman-era barracks, and, initially, a shopping mall. The mall plan has since seemed to fall away, with Erdogan now referring to an opera house, theater and possibly a museum.

Erdogan has acknowledged that excessive police force was used, but the prime minister also insisted tear gas is used in many countries to combat demonstrations. But the recent protests could in fact augur well for Turkey’s EU bid, demonstrating the emergence of a “pluralist and mature” class in Turkish society.

“This will have a very positive effect (on the EU bid) in the long run,” said Ali Tekin, a professor at Yasar University in Izmir, western Turkey. “In the past Turkish youths used to rely on the military to provide the checks and balances. Now they are taking it into their hands.”

The military has been the traditional keeper of the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It has seized power three times since the early 1970s when it felt that was threatened.

“Europe can see a generation of protesters who think like them and have the same ideals as them,” Tekin said. “These people believe in pluralism, in an inclusive democracy. … They reject being told what to do.”

“And this is important for the EU process.”

Fraser reported from Ankara. Ezgi Agin contributed from Ankara.

June 07, 2013

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The crowd outside Istanbul’s main airport initially numbered about 100. But as news came that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plane was approaching from Tunisia on his return from a four-day North Africa tour, his supporters came in droves.

Traffic came to a standstill and people crammed into any available space. It was a loud and boisterous show of backing by more than 10,000 followers of Erdogan, who for perhaps the first time in a decade of power appeared vulnerable after a week of protests challenging his rule.

To his pious and conservative base, the three-term prime minister deserves respect for raising Turkey’s international profile, improving their standard of living, cleaning up hospitals and providing better services. They adore him for curbing the powers of Turkey’s secular military and for standing up to Israel when they felt Palestinians were oppressed.

Here’s what some of his supporters from Ankara’s Sincan neighborhood, which is a major ruling party stronghold, have to say: THE CAR WASH EMPLOYEE Ramazan Usur, 52, is the only breadwinner in his family. He has three children — something he knows Erdogan would approve of.

Usur said it’s thanks to Erdogan that his family is able to live “in luxury” despite earning a minimum wage. The prime minister, Usur said, is the only leader “for our country and the party.” “He is a great man, he is the greatest master, he is our emperor,” Usur said.

“He works day and night for his country. What else do they want from him?,” he asked of the protesters. THE GROCERY SHOP MANAGER Sait Demirel, 38, is married and has three children. “The protests aren’t about the environment anymore,” he said, as he supervised his employees offloading watermelons from the back of a truck. “We are hearing that the protesters are hurling rocks and stones at police.”

Demirel supports Erdogan, but doesn’t agree with all of his policies. “I don’t drink liquor, but if someone wants to drink it then no one should try to prevent that,” Demirel said, referring to a law that would restrict the sale and promotion of alcoholic drinks.

“I think Erdogan, sometimes, can be overly reactive,” he said. THE CAR MECHANIC Father of one, 27-year-old Yasin Bagci, works for minimum wage as a car mechanic and takes care of his family. He said they “suffered” economically under previous governments.

“Erdogan’s government solved most of these problems,” Bagci said. “We still have problems that should be solved but there is no other person who can govern this country as well as Erdogan.” Bagci said Erdogan has “all that it takes to be a leader. He stands behind his words. He is a straight talker.”

The protests were innocent in the beginning, he believed. “It was about protecting trees but turned into something else later on,” he said. “If our leaders had listened to these people in the beginning the incident wouldn’t have grown so much. Both sides should have listened to each other.”

THE KEBAB SHOP CHEF Serkan Tosun, 31, has a wife and child and makes a living from his small kebab restaurant. Tosun agreed with Erdogan that there are “provocateurs among the protesters.” “Those people who don’t know what they are doing there shouldn’t try to create a rift between us and our prime minister. They are being used by some forces,” Tosun said.

Tosun didn’t mind that the prime minister can sometimes be abrasive. “He only reproaches people when they deserve to be. He doesn’t reproach his people, he reproaches his opponents who have nothing to do except mill around.”

Tosun said life is much easier under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. He gets bank loans much faster and his family gets good health care. “In the past, you had to wait 15 days to see a doctor, now you can go and see any doctor,” he said.

The alcohol ban was introduced by Erdogan for the good of his own citizens, Tosun said. Had the prime minister landed in Ankara instead of Istanbul, he would have been among the group that rushed to the airport to greet Erdogan.

Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this story.