x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkish PM resolute on redeveloping Gezi Park

Speaking at a news conference in Tunis at the end of a four-day visit to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Mr Erdogan dashed hopes for a quick end to the crisis and said he was determined to build the replica of an 18th century barracks building in Istanbul's Gezi Park.

Turkish officials, scrambling to contain tensions, have delivered more conciliatory messages to thousands of protesters denouncing what they say is the government's increasingly authoritarian rule. But the prime minister has refused to back down.
Turkish officials, scrambling to contain tensions, have delivered more conciliatory messages to thousands of protesters denouncing what they say is the government's increasingly authoritarian rule. But the prime minister has refused to back down.

ISTANBUL // Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday rejected a key demand of the protest movement that has shaken the country for a week and said "terrorist groups" had hijacked peaceful demonstrations.

Speaking at a news conference in Tunis at the end of a four-day visit to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Mr Erdogan dashed hopes for a quick end to the crisis and said he was determined to build the replica of an 18th century barracks building in Istanbul's Gezi Park.

But the prime minister explicitly limited his criticism to non-peaceful protesters.

Nationwide demonstrations were triggered by police action against a sit-in in the park to prevent the building project on May 31. Hundreds of demonstrators have been occupying the park since then.

"We are re-building a former work of art with beautiful architecture," Mr Erdogan said, referring to the historic barracks building that was torn down in 1940.

After Mr Erdogan spoke, the Istanbul stock index lost more than seven per cent of its value before recovering and closing at a 4.7 per cent loss.

Altan Aydin, an analyst at Garanti Securities, told Reuters the steep fall came because Mr Erdogan did not deliver more conciliatory messages and signalled he would stick with the building project in Gezi Park.

Mr Erdogan was expected to return to Turkey late yesterday, in what could prove a pivotal moment in Turkey's worst political unrest for decades. Omer Celik, a spokesman for Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) asked party activists to refrain from staging welcome rallies for the prime minister.

Mr Erdogan said that his government was also planning to replace a cultural centre near Gezi Park with a more modern building. The Ataturk Cultural Center, named after Turkey's founder, has great symbolic meaning for Turkey's secularists, who accuse Mr Erdogan of following an Islamist agenda.

He also suggested that more police action against demonstrators was a possibility.

"If you say 'I will hold a meeting where I like, I burn and smash,' we will not allow it,'" he said.

But he said the protest movement had been infiltrated by extremists.

"Members of the terrorist organisation that earlier attacked the US Embassy are involved in this," he said, referring to a suicide attack on the mission in Ankara in February.

A leftist faction, the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party / Front (DHKP/C), said it carried out the embassy bombing, in which two people died. But the DHKP/C has said nothing so far about an involvement in the Gezi Park unrest.

Mr Erdogan also said seven foreigners had been arrested in connection with the unrest. In remarks last Monday, he suggested that foreign intelligence services could be involved in the protests.

Authorities in the southern city of Adana said a police officer had died after falling from an overpass during clashes with demonstrators, bringing the number of deaths during the protests to three.

While the situation in Istanbul was calm, with hundreds of demonstrators still occupying the Gezi Park, police and demonstrators fought street battles in Ankara, Adana and Rize late on Wednesday. More than 1,700 people have been arrested since the start of the protests on May 31.

According to a poll conducted by Istanbul's Bilgi University, 92.4 per cent of demonstrators named Mr Erdogan's perceived authoritarian style of government as a reason for participating in the protests. The poll, conducted via internet among 3,000 demonstrators, found that about two out of three protesters are younger than 31 years, according to a summary of poll results.

The survey's results suggested that for many demonstrators, the Gezi Park unrest marked the first time in their lives they participated in protest marches. Almost 54 per cent said they had never been involved in similar actions before. Only 15.3 per cent said they felt close to a political party.

 

tseibert@thenational.ae