In Turkey, the crackdown on anti-government protesters has begun

The Turkish government’s spin doctors have linked the recent protests to cyber attacks and historical cases of secular dissent to silence anti-government demonstrators.

The latest joke among members of the Turkish protest movement is that they are “soldiers of the intergalactic coup lobby”. But it’s not just for fun; their humour is a response to what the Turkish government’s spin doctors are saying about the protesters, whose camps in Istanbul and elsewhere have been cleared forcibly by police in the past few weeks.

When the spin doctors claimed that Turkey was about to face a cyber attack, and that the anti-government demonstrations were linked to it, the protesters had no option but to mock their reasoning. But the government’s response is becoming increasingly sophisticated – and it’s not all so easy to laugh off.

“There are the names of nine illegal organisations in my criminal charge, Your Honour. Are you going to pick one for me or am I supposed to choose?” Those were the words of one young protester hauled before a court last month. Since protests began at the end of May – initially over the destruction of Gezi Park in Taksim Square but soon spreading from Istanbul to the rest of the country – thousands of people have been arrested. The charges vary from “joining illegal demonstrations” to “being a member of a terrorist organisation”. The justice system, which in Turkey is politicised, has increased the pressure on demonstrators.

On 22 June the government announced that prosecutors will link the protests to “Sledgehammer”, an alleged secularist coup plot that dates back to 2003 and has led since then to the prosecution of thousands of army personnel. Linking the 2013 protests to this case – even though both secularists and islamists were on the streets to voice their discontent with the Erdogan government – is a way to discredit the movement. Similarly politicised cases have been used to silence secular politicians and Kurdish activists over the past ten years.

While some protesters are brought before judges, others face physical violence. Since the protest camps were cleared, activists have been meeting in public parks in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in the evenings to discuss what they have been through and how the action should continue.

Recently three of these forums have been attacked by young, government-supporting thugs who then took to Twitter to declare that they were proud of what they had done. They operate with sticks and knives, and preferably in dark alleys. Somehow, the police seem unable to stop them. Elsewhere, vocal critics of the government, including myself, have been singled out by establishment newspapers, or by supporters of the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party, as “provocateurs”.

Clumsy indictments and the intergalactic coup lobby can be regarded as a joke. But as the days pass, we’re not sure how much longer we’ll be able to carry on laughing.

Ece Temelkuran is a novelist and political commentator based in Istanbul

Demonstrators with flares in the port city of Izmir, western Turkey. Photograph: Reuters

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.