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Gezi Resistance, Police Violence, and Turkey’s Accession to the European Union

[Riot police attack protesters in Gezi Park, 31 May 2013. Photo by Eren Aytuğ/Nar Photos.] [Riot police attack protesters in Gezi Park, 31 May 2013. Photo by Eren Aytuğ/Nar Photos.]

Many stakeholders inside and outside Turkey are waiting for the 2013 European Union (EU) progress report on the country, which is scheduled to be released on 16 October. According to the news leaks that have started to appear in various media outlets, the report is expected to contain fierce criticisms regarding the government’s handling of the Gezi Park protests, limits on the freedom of expression and freedom of press, and the deceleration of the reform process in the country. For a long time now, the EU Commission’s annual progress reports have been picked up by various progressive circles in Turkey to push for government accountability and to demand substantial reforms to establish a more participatory, egalitarian, and inclusive political sphere. I seek to question here the efficacy of using a rhetoric that emphasizes EU standards in order to criticize the government’s security policies and its increasing encroachment on many areas of social life, including education, family, labor, the environment, and politics. For some time now, the current AKP government has been referencing Europe and its associated symbolisms (related to development, progress, and prosperity) to justify its various pro-capital, pro-security, and paternalistic policies. Is it viable, then, to draw from the same sources to scrutinize the legitimacy of those policies and to suggest alternatives?

Excessive use of police force against peaceful demonstrators was arguably the most important reason that the Gezi Park protests attained such a massive scale. Following the dissemination of footage that showed the police violently raiding the tents of protesters in Gezi Park on Friday, 31 May, thousands poured into Taksim Square and gathered in public places in other cities to demonstrate against the destruction of Gezi Park for commercial purposes, and to express their grievances against the current AKP government. As the crowds grew, so did the police presence and the use of force against the gatherings. Thousands of riot police attacked protesters with tear gas and water cannons. On 15 August, the Turkish Medical Association reported that police intervention had caused five deaths and thousands of injuries, among them one hundred and six instances of severe head trauma and eleven cases that included the loss of an eye. Many people suffered from beatings and sexual harassment during mass arrests.

During the demonstrations and in their aftermath, the scale of violence has been one of the primary issues highlighted to critique the government’s response to the Gezi resistance. Answering a parliamentary question posed by a member of the main opposition party, the Ministry of Interior declared that, in twenty days, the police used 130,000 cartridges of tear gas and three thousand tons of water to disperse the protesters. Another opposition MP announced in a meeting organized by the Human Rights Commission of the European Parliament that the amount of gas used in the first six days of the protest was equal to the amount of gas used in 2012 by fourteen European countries combined. Her statement went viral on Facebook and Twitter.

What becomes visible in the mainstream opposition’s language is a strategy that has until now been an effective political tactic to push for change in Turkey: holding the government to the higher standard of EU countries. With the advancement of the country’s bid for European Union membership, these standards became matters that the successive governments could not afford to dismiss openly. One unexpected outcome of this forced recognition is the increasing use of the same standards and practices to justify a number of alarming policies. For instance, in his speech at the EU conference on 7 June, Prime Minister Erdoğan defended the violent suppression of the Gezi protests by comparing them to government responses towards similar riots in France, Germany, England, Greece, and the United States. Likewise, in defending many of the recent policies that fueled the dissent of Gezi protesters—such as urban renewal projects, tighter regulation of alcohol sales, and more conservative reproductive policies attempting to limit abortion, reduce cesarean sections, and encourage women to have at least three children—the government’s stated reference has been the practices in advanced liberal democracies. Instead of “Turkey’s special circumstances,” which until recently has informed governmental rationality, government representatives now publicly justify their actions by referring to standards of democracy, development, and the rule of law. This situation begs the question: How effective is it to keep using these same standards as tools of opposition and critique?

Despite the AKP government’s increasing deployment of anti-EU rhetoric, European standards of development, modernization, and good governance have been seeping into the lexicon of various state institutions since at least 2004. Particularly since the approval of Turkey’s candidacy for membership, civil and military bureaucracies—including the police, the judiciary, the army, and healthcare services—have been employing lucrative tools of harmonization to “develop their capacity” to comply with membership criteria. EU projects, twinning programs, and TAIEX instruments are widely used to organize meetings, workshops, training programs, and country visits, with the stated goal of strengthening the administrative and judicial capacity of Turkey to implement EU legislation. The Turkish National Police (TNP) is one of the most active participants in what is called “the harmonization process.” According to their website, between 2002-2012 the TNP conducted nineteen EU Projects and was the beneficiary of eighteen others. During this period, 568 officers participated in 148 country visits to twenty EU countries. In 2012 alone, 950 officers took part in twenty-two workshops.

A careful look at this hefty list of projects reveals that the TNP was in fact running a project on Implementation Capacity of Turkish Police to Prevent Disproportionate Use of Force (CRIS Number: TR2009/0136.07) around the time that the Gezi protests were happening. This six million Euro project was conducted together with a German-Austrian consortium that included the German Foundation for International Legal Cooperation (IRZ), the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Austrian Security Academy, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights (BIM). The project consisted of two parts: first, analysis of existing conditions for the use of police force in Turkey, their comparison with German, Austrian, Dutch and Spanish standards, and the development of police service regulations “for the topical fields of leadership, tactical communication, crowd control, and use of force”; second, training of trainers in a total of sixteen one-week courses on the developed service regulations. The BIM website announces that the second part of the project was inaugurated on 6 May. This means that 452 officers—identified as “multipliers” in their own institution—were going through training on disproportionate use of force in May and June 2013, just as their colleagues were being ordered to crack down on the Gezi protests, using tear gas, water cannons, and mass arrests.

How are we to make sense of this situation? Does it suffice to say that the project is just another instance of the Turkish state paying lip service to governmental standards required for EU membership? Or should it compel us to look more closely at the source and real life effects of those standards themselves?

My research on human rights training programs for Turkish state officials has taught me that the meetings and workshops organized to improve the capacity of Turkey to become a member of the EU are far from unproductive, useless sites of whitewashing that help the government continue business as usual. On the contrary, these workshops, projects, and other tools of harmonization actually serve as platforms for government actors to manage the terms of EU membership, and the governmental standards that they entail. It is by conducting projects that state officials come to learn what these standards are really about. They are place-holders for democracy and the rule of law that are supposed to be managed strategically in order to reduce liability and perform a level of development. For instance, it is by interacting with the British police at experience-sharing meetings that the TNP officers learn what it takes to become “security experts.” Rather than installing mechanisms to fight impunity within the organization, they learn that what they need is “better policing” that can be attained by building crime databases or by setting up high-tech labs to better conduct forensic investigation.

To say that it is the special circumstances of Turkey—its political culture, its state tradition, and so on—that is causing the “failure” of standardization in this case is not a satisfactory answer. Scholars who are critical of democratization and development industries have shown that programs for economic and political transition continue to produce unexpected outcomes in a variety of places, leading to more accentuated forms of exclusion, inequality, and authoritarianism (Ferguson 1994, 2006, Sampson 1996, Li 2007). The contradictions between the stated goals and actual outcomes of these projects are inherent to the world of development.

For the project on the prevention of disproportionate use of force by the TNP, the contradiction surfaces between the project’s mid-term evaluation by the European Commission, on the one hand, and the European Parliament’s later resolution concerning the Turkish government’s handling of the Gezi Park protests, on the other hand. While the European Commission evaluated the performance of the project as “good to very good,” the European Parliament expressed in its 13 June resolution “its deep concern at the disproportionate and excessive use of force by the Turkish police” and stressed “the need for continued intensive training for the police force and the judiciary.”

Standards are ambivalent tools of both opposition and governance, prone to producing contradictory outcomes in different contexts. Despite connotations of heightened formalization, standardization always involves a certain degree of tinkering, negotiation, and working around (Lampland and Star 2009). For years now, the prospect of EU accession, and the standards of democracy, development, human rights, and the rule of law associated with it, served as effective tools to condemn authoritarianism and state violence in Turkey. As those standards are put to new uses and take on new meanings, can we still sustain a substantial opposition by insisting on the “real” meanings of those standards? Or is it time to face the limits of using accession criteria to expose and critique state violence? Various governmental agencies that continue to plan, execute, and maintain impunity for violence have been receiving training on “good governance” from their peers in EU countries since at least 2004. Given that history, is it not time to look more deeply into the structure of “advanced liberal democracies” and their national security doctrines that lie at the heart of the EU, and to wonder whether they might not be accomplices and facilitators of the kind of violence that was unleashed against the Gezi resistance?

Similar scenes of riot police suppressing anti-austerity protesters in Greece, Spain, and Portugal in 2011-2012 using rubber bullets, tear gas, and other carcinogenic chemicals were what gave Deputy Prime Minister Egemen Bağış the temerity to claim that the force used in Gezi Park was in line with European best practices. Erdoğan and Bağış were not the only politicians that drew parallels between the crowd control tactics used during the Gezi resistance and that used during similar protests across Europe. Richard Ottoway, Chair of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, had also pointed to the similarity between the British police’s intervention in protests in London and what was going on in Turkey, calling Britain to stand by its ally during these tough times. Shortly after the Gezi protests began, The Times published the passing of a three-year open license that allowed British arms companies to sell riot control weapons to Turkey, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and wooden clubs that can be used to disperse protesters.

While EU accession still has a symbolic power that can be employed strategically to push for governmental reform by various progressive circles in Turkey, it is time to realize that these circles do not have total control over this symbolism any more. Although at a discursive level it may seem like the AKP government is drifting apart from the commitment of EU membership, the EU still provides both symbolic and material means for the continuation of state violence in Turkey.

References Cited:

Ferguson, J. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine: "Development," Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Ferguson, J. 2006. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Lampland, M., and S. L. Star. 2009. Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Li, T. M. 2007. The Will To Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Sampson, S. 1996. “The Social Life of Projects: Importing Civil Society to Albania.” In Civil Society: Challenging Western Models, edited by C. Hann and E. Dunn. London and New York: Routledge, 121-142.

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