11 Jun 2013

I won’t budge, Turkey’s Erdogan tells Istanbul protesters

Riot police in Turkey fire water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators to gain access to Taksim Square, as the country’s prime minister sends an uncompromising message to protesters.

Police are battling protesters in Taksim Square in a bid to clear them. Demonstrators have controlled the area since protests erupted 10 days ago.

They fought back using Molotov cocktails and rocks as battalions of police swarmed the square. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired and one water cannon truck was set alight in the clashes.

The police operation came after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan agreed to meet protest leaders, having initially refused to engage with the growing protest movement.

However, Erdogan has backed the police actions, declaring: “They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen? Were we going to kneel down in front of these (people)?”

“If you call this roughness, I’m sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won’t change.”

Adjoining protest

Police removed banners from a building overlooking the square this morning, but the local governor claimed police had no intention of breaking up the protest in adjoining Gezi park. Police hung a Turkish flag and a picture of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, from the building.

Three people have been killed and about 5,000 hurt in the protests as thousands of young Turks came onto the streets in Istanbul to vent their frustration at the government.

Most of the protesters from the square have fled to Gezi park. Several dozen Turkish riot police briefly entered the park today but left without any confrontation.

The protests were initially sparked by plans to bulldoze the green space to build a shopping mall.

‘Trying to interfere’

Turkey has a secular constitution but Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK party has been criticised for undermining the separation of state and religion.

Critics accuse Erdogan and the party of trying to interfere in their lives. On Monday President Abdullah Gul approved a bill that scales back the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Protesters control a large area around the square, barricading approach roads, and police have withdrawn completely from the area.

“Every place is Taksim, every place resistance,” the protesters chanted, while police appealed to demonstrators not to attack, calling from loudspeakers: “Dear Gezi friends. We are unhappy with this situation. We don’t want to intervene. We don’t want to harm you. Please withdraw.”

Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly dismissed the protesters as “capulcular”, or riff-raff, but Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Monday leaders of the Gezi Park Platform group had asked to meet.

Market confidence

The unrest has had an impact on investor confidence in what has long been one the world’s best-performing emerging markets. The lira, currently suffering from wider market turmoil, fell to its weakest point against its euro since October 2011.

The cost of insuring Turkish debt against default has risen to its highest point in ten months, although it remains far from crisis levels. Western allies are concerned about the troubles in a key Nato ally bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey has been held up as an example of an Islamic democracy that could be emulated elsewhere in the Middle East.