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Monday, June 3, 2013

Erdogan Renovating Istanbul: Turkish Prime Minister or Mayor?

Istanbul is the historical seat of three empires, the last of which being the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, which ended that Empire, the Republic of Turkey was officially established in 1923. In terms of the previous empires, that which would be Turkey can be said to have been the host kingdom, or state, rather than an empire in itself. This distinction can add insight into the protests in 2013 against Recep Erdogen, the Prime Minister of Turkey. Before going on to accurately relate the prime minister to Istanbul, it is important to know what sparked the public unrest against him. 

                     Astonishingly, this protest in Istanbul began against the loss of a city park. In actuality, the protest was against the sitting prime minister.    Source: NYT

 According to CNN, “(t)he protests began with plans to raze Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul.”[1] The Turkish government had been planning to replace the park with a replica of 19th-century Ottoman barracks, which would include a shopping mall. The New York Times describes the park as “a place of public gathering.” The government had recently ordered the city’s oldest movie theater to be demolished so another mall could be built. Meanwhile, in ghettos across the city, the poor were being paid to give up their homes so that “contractors—many with ties to government officials—can build gated communities.”[2] The presence of cozy corruption aside, the very involvement of Turkey’s prime minister in matters that are municipal in nature was also a matter of controversy. While it would admittedly be strange to find the government of an empire occupied with municipal functions of even a major city in one of the constituent kingdoms or states, such involvement of a government of a republic on the scale of a U.S. or E.U. state is neither improper nor unusual. Conflating a kingdom, republic or state with an empire or union of such polities led to erroneous conclusions regarding the upheaval in Turkey.
Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper, chided the Turkish prime minister for being too paternalistic in deciding “on the park, the bridge, the city and the constitution.”[3] In effect, Aydintasbas was claiming that Erdogan had been micromanaging in getting involved even on a city park and a bridge. On CNN on June 3, 2013, a commentator likened Erdogan turning the park into a mall to Obama getting involved in renovating Times Square in New York City. The commentator, an American, was conflating a union of states with a republic on the scale of one of those states.  In other words, the commentator was ignoring the vital difference in scale and operations between an empire and a kingdom or simple republic that could fit into an empire. 

Because U.S. President Obama has responsibilities spanning fifty republics, spending his time on a municipal project in a major city of one of those republics would not be an effective use of his time, given the other demands spanning fifty republics on his time. Of course, if a particular urban project has significance spanning the Union, it would not be improper for the government of that Union to get involved. The site of the World Trade Center, for instance, has such significance because the U.S. rather than merely New York had been attacked on September 11, 2001. 

The government of a simple republic or state, like Turkey and New York, can properly get involved in particular urban projects because the government is not so far removed from its cities. In the U.S., city governments are state subjurisdictions, so a state government can even take back the delegated authority, as the Michigan Government has done in the case of bankrupt Detroit. It is therefore not strange for a state legislature or executive to take interest in a particular municipal project.
Therefore, the prime minister of Turkey getting involved in a city park project in Istanbul is like the governor of New York getting involved in a public land project in New York City. Thus re-calibrated, Erdogan’s direct involvement on particular large projects in Istanbul is not so astonishing. This is not to say that there are no other possible valid reasons to protest against the prime minister. My sole point here is that Turkey is not a United States of Asia. Rather, the republic would be a state in such a union. To ignore this distinction simply because both empires and states are countries is extremely reductionist and apt to result in erroneous comparisons and prescriptions for policy.

[1] Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, “Turkey Protests Show No Sign of Letdown,” CNN, June 3, 2013.
[2] Tim Arango, “Protests in Turkey Reveal a Larger Fight Over Identity,” The New York Times, June 2, 2013.