When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in Washington two weeks ago, he didn’t dwell on the crisis in Syria or the Middle East peace process. Instead, he wanted to talk about a construction project: His government had recently inked a $29 billion deal to build Istanbul’s third airport. It would be able to handle 100 million passengers a year, he boasted, potentially making it the largest in the world.
"Turkey’s not talking about the world now," Erdogan told the Brookings Institution, while an entourage of businessmen who made the trip with him to Washington looked on. "The world is talking about Turkey."
Listening to the Turkish premier, you never would have guessed that environmentalists had long bemoaned the ecological costs of the project, while urban planners worried that it could make the city’s already severe traffic problem even worse.
Turkey’s runaway economic growth, while undeniably impressive, also helps explain why citizens erupted in protest throughout the country this weekend. The spark for the demonstrations, which police tried to put down with massive tear gas use, was the local government’s decision to turn Gezi Park — a rare oasis of green in the center of Istanbul — into a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks and a shopping mall. The Taksim Platform, a group of local citizens, had long called for revisions to the project to accommodate residents. But until the demonstrations on Friday, officials in Erdogan’s party had pushed forward the project by decree, with little public discussion of their plans.
It’s an old story in Turkey. A five-minute walk from Gezi Park lies Tarlabasi, a working class neighborhood that has long been home to those who live on the city’s margins – a century ago, it was Greek, Jewish, and Armenian craftsmen; today, it is members of the Kurdish minority who migrated there to escape the bloody insurgency in Turkey’s southeast. True to form, Erdogan’s government soon stepped in to build a better Tarlabasi: As Piotr Zalewski wrote for FP, it used an eminent domain law to lay claim to much of the area, empowering a private development company to transform it into an upscale neighborhood of luxury apartment buildings and shopping malls. While Tarlabasi was declared an "urban renewal area" in 2006, residents did not learn about the planned demolition of their houses until 2008.
For Istanbulites opposed to Erdogan, the prime minister is not only remaking their city without consulting them — he is empowering a new clique of businessmen beholden to him. The company that won the contract to rebuild Tarlabasi is owned by Calik Holding, whose CEO is Erdogan’s son-in-law. The symbiotic relationship between businessmen and politicians appears alive and well in Erdogan’s Turkey.
A half hour’s drive north of Gezi Park lies the foundation for the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. While Erdogan once referred to a previous government’s plans to build a third bridge as "a murder," complaining that it would amount to "massacring the remaining green areas" of the city, he has since adopted the massive infrastructure project as his own. Environmentalists worried that the bridge’s construction would require cutting down 2.5 million trees and planners suggested it would generate urban sprawl — but Turkey’s Parliament nonetheless passed a bill authorizing the project to move forward without the approval of planning authorities. Even the bridge’s name has provoked controversy: While many Sunni Turks honor Yavuz Sultan Selim as a conquering Ottoman Sultan, Alevis remember him as a leader who massacred members of their minority community.
Such controversial infrastructure projects are not confined to Istanbul. Writing in FP last year, Anna Louie Sussman described how Erdogan’s government was using "urban renewal" efforts to implement its conservative social agenda in the capital of Ankara. Specifically, it has targeted the city’s sex trade, which has long been regulated by the state — directing the police to go after prostitutes on spurious charges, and tearing down brothels to construct upscale new neighborhoods.
To be sure, Turkey’s eye-popping economic growth is a source of strength for Erdogan — the prime minister never misses an opportunity to mention that GDP has more than tripled on his watch. And the protesters’ complaints are not limited to urban development gone wrong: Many took to the streets to voice their discontent with what they view as the prime minister’s imperious style, his slow-motion Islamization of the country, and the brutality of the police force. What Turkey has witnessed this weekend is the convergence of all these grievances in Gezi Park.