On June 12th, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted a roundtable discussion on the current situation in Turkey and what implications these events may have moving forward. Making use of video and audio conferencing, this roundtable incorporated a range of Turkish expertise and perspectives. Abdullah Bozkurt, Bureau-in-Chief of Today's Zaman Newspaper and Diba Nigar Göksel, Editor-in-Chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly joined the dialogue via Skype from Istanbul, with Seyla Benhabib; Eugene Meyer, Professor at Yale University and Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy at GMF; Saban Kardas, Advisor to SAM and Associate Professor at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology; and Dr. Ian Lesser, Executive Director of the Brussels Office and Senior Director or Foreign and Security Policy at GMF speaking from Washington. The breakfast roundtable was moderated by Senior Transatlantic Fellow Emiliano Alessandri and was attended by about 75 people, including embassy, military and civilian officials, academics, and a few corporate representatives.
The event began with a brief introduction by Alessandri, who welcomed each of the speakers, as well as provided the context for hosting such a timely event. With the situation on-the-ground still fluid and the outcome uncertain, Göksel began the panel discussion with what she herself had witnessed. Göksel highlighted the diverse group of people that are congregated not only in Taksim Square, but also in other public places around the city. She noted that as the fear of criticizing or questioning the Prime Minister and the government fades away, people have become more vocal and willing to express themselves freely. Elaborating on the motivations of the protestors, she noted that people view Prime Minister Erdoğan as becoming involved in too many aspects of their lives and therefore, were seeking an outlet through which to publicize their concerns. Following Göksel, Bozkurt pointed out that not all mainstream media outlets in Turkey were covering the developments at the onset, though now the events have reached the average Turkish citizen. Bozkurt said that local business owners and hotel managers in and around the engulfed public areas seem to now be frustrated and seek a return to their daily routines. This increased attention by the average Turk translates into higher expectations of Erdoğan and his government to rectify the situation. Bozkurt compared the current societal backlash to that of 2007, acknowledging however that the composition of the movement is now different, especially as regards the involvement of the youth.
To open remarks from Washington, Benhabib began by listing the many accomplishments the country has achieved with Erdoğan at the helm. Turkey economic situation has improved drastically; the poor have been integrated into mainstream society to a greater extent; the military has been greatly neutralized; the healthcare system has been reformed; With all of these successes, Behabib emphasized why the events of the past weeks have been termed a crisis and a step in the wrong direction for the country. She agreed with previous speakers that the style of the Prime Minster and the less than democratic orientations the government has displayed in recent years and months are the main problem. Prof. Benhabib also explicated the revered significance of Taksim Square for the Turkish people, which puts these current events on a symbolic pedestal as the reconversion plans at Gezi Park could be seen as an ‘attack on civic symbolism’. Discussing the political causes of the events, Kardaş followed Benhabib stating the two forces at work are the social transformation of Turkish society and the stagnation of political change and identity of both the opposition and ruling parties. He said that to gain a wider perspective, the entire country must be evaluated and examined, as there are similar events happening elsewhere. Kardaş also highlighted the lack of comprehensive media coverage of all aspects and groups involved in recent events within Turkey and throughout the West. To wrap up the opening panelist remarks, Lesser spoke with concern about transatlantic relations and the Western take on the Turkish situation. He said that there would be no return to previous conditions from this point, and that a new path had been forged. The Western world is looking on, though at times European media lagged behind the Americans’ coverage, and worried that domestic instability in Turkey is taking place at a time of already widespread regional instability.
These panelist remarks were followed by a question and answer session that presented an opportunity for a very frank dialogue about the realities of the situations. Questions were posed on Syria and its potential impact on Turkey; the malleability of the protests to a number of agendas; Russian and Chinese reactions; the role of the Turkish military; the potential for the paralysis of the Turkish government and what the future might hold; the absence of EU leverage in Turkey and the new potential excuses Europeans may now have for keeping Turkey out of the EU establishment; the polarization of Turkish society that is fuelled by Erdoğan; President Abdullah Gül’s role and view of the situation; the Gülen movement’s involvement; Erdoğan’s possible motivations and need to shift focus from foreign issues to domestic politics; and the state of Turkish civil society. Alessandri concluded the breakfast roundtable by thanking all who participated and for the roles they play in furthering transatlantic relations every day.