TIME Turkey

Erdogan Promises ‘New Era’ After Winning Presidency

Winner of presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets public
Winner of Turkey's presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the public in Istanbul on Aug. 10, 2014 Ahmet Dumanli—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey's Prime Minister gets five more years of power

For a man who promised to be Turkey’s first “sweating President,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan won election on Sunday with barely a sheen of perspiration. With all votes counted, and with Turkey’s Prime Minister since 2003 having reportedly avoided a runoff with 51.8%, the country of nearly 80 million is bracing for at least five more years of Erdogan rule.

In his victory speech, delivered before a sea of supporters in Ankara, the usually unapologetic Erdogan struck a surprisingly conciliatory note, promising “a new era” and extending an olive branch to his opponents. “Today is the day we lift mental barriers, rid ourselves of old prejudices, and peel away fears imposed from the outside,” said the country’s first directly elected President. “Today is the day we open the doors to a new beginning, the day we establish a new Turkey.”

In his campaign appearances, Erdogan pledged to give Turkey a new constitution, presumably one that will formally give the presidency, and thus himself, new executive powers. That may have to wait; Erdogan does not currently have the parliamentary majority needed to force through a new charter. But the man who has spent more than a decade as Prime Minister and who now aspires to spend another decade as President might not need a new constitution to rule uncontested.

The current document, say some legal experts, already gives him enough power to do so. Enacted in the aftermath of an army coup, Turkey’s constitution allows the President to chair Cabinet meetings, veto laws, issue governmental decrees and decide on the internal rules of the national parliament, says Riza Turmen, an opposition lawmaker and a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights. “He can decide to call early elections, he appoints the head of the general staff, the members of the board of higher education, rectors of state universities, members of the Constitutional Court, and [some] members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors,” says Turmen.

Turkish Presidents, including Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s predecessor, have heretofore refrained from using the full range of these powers. “But Mr. Erdogan is a different case,” says Turmen. “One difference is that he will be the first directly elected President of Turkey. The other is character. He wants to control everything.”

It’s not as if voters hadn’t been warned. “When you look at our Constitution,” he said in a recent interview, “there is no article that limits actions of a President.” Ruling party officials have signaled that Erdogan will set up something resembling a presidential Cabinet. Last week, the progovernment press reported that Erdogan would enter his new office in Ankara accompanied by an army of 400 advisers.

Erdogan had made it clear throughout his campaign he would remain a partisan leader. He vowed to forge ahead with a number of controversial projects, including the construction of a third Istanbul airport, and to destroy what he refers to as Turkey’s parallel state. “I will not be an impartial President,” he recently said.

To Erdogan’s rivals, the odds in Sunday’s election had been stacked in Erdogan’s favor from the beginning. “It was never fair play from Day 1,” his main opponent Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said last week. “According to the regulations, candidates cannot get any financial support from public funds, but the Prime Minister uses [government] funds, he travels in the official planes, he uses all the official means, the support of the government, provincial TV stations, and inaugurates projects that have been implemented for long years,” he said. “He presents everything as a success of his candidacy.”

On Sunday, Ihsanoglu received 38.5% of the vote. The candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas, received 9.8%, a surprisingly strong showing for the first openly Kurdish politician to bid for high office in Turkey.

The question now on the minds of most Turks is who will succeed Erdogan to the premiership. A number of names are said to be in the hat, but most observers suspect Erdogan will end up playing puppet master. “He wants someone who’s slavishly loyal, who doesn’t have his own political aspirations,” Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Global Source Partners, says. It will likely be a weak candidate “who will channel his style, his wishes, and his objectives.”

Erdogan’s own aspirations seem clear. Come 2015, when parliamentary elections are due to take place, the new President is likely to make one final push for a new constitution and U.S.-like executive presidency. Otherwise, says Yesilada, he risks losing control over the state and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

“For now, senior members of the bureaucracy will be reporting to Erdogan just because they’re afraid, or because they see no other way out, “ he says. “But this is not formal power. [Without a new constitution] the possibility of rebellion for one reason or another is very real.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Erdogan Plans to Go From Premiership to Presidency

Turkey's PM Erdogan greets AK Party members at a meeting where he is named as his party's candidate for the country's first direct presidential election in Ankara
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets Justice and Development Party members at a meeting, in which he is named as his party's candidate for the country's first direct presidential election, in Ankara on July 1, 2014 Umit Bektas—Reuters

The Turkish PM wants to transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial post into an executive seat of power, but some say he's overplaying his hand

It was fine pantomime, but it was also a sign of political things to come.

Back in May, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s famously irascible Prime Minister, lost his temper at an official function as a prominent lawyer berated his government. “This kind of rudeness is unimaginable,” he yelled. “You’re lying.” Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, tried to calm Erdogan but failed. The Prime Minister eventually made it known he was leaving the venue in protest. Then, in a gesture that seemed to be far less of an entreaty than a command, he motioned for the President to do likewise. Gul, obligingly, made his way toward the door.

On Tuesday, less than two months later, Erdogan confirmed what his body language had earlier suggested — that the key decisions about Turkey’s political future were his to make, that he would be the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) candidate in an Aug. 10 presidential election, and that Gul, his political ally, would head for the exit.

In an emotional speech at an AKP rally in Ankara in front of 4,000 party faithful, Erdogan pledged to transform the office to which he aspires from a largely ceremonial post into the main node of executive power. “This is no simple technical change,” he said, referring to a constitutional amendment that will see Turkey’s President elected by popular vote for the first time. “A President elected by the people and not by Parliament … is a turning point for democracy,” he said. “A popular election will invest the presidency with strong legitimacy and real meaning.”

To most Turks, Erdogan’s decision to enter the race did not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, the AKP decided to cap at three the number of terms that its members can serve in parliament, a rule that would have prevented Erdogan from returning as Prime Minister. Gul, meanwhile, confirmed that he would not run for re-election over the weekend.

Over the past year, Erdogan has had to contend with a series of antigovernment protests, a major corruption scandal, fallout from the deadliest industrial disaster in Turkish history and, most recently, a hostage crisis in Iraq. He appears to have weathered it all. Most opinion polls now give him over 50% of the vote, enough to defeat his main challenger, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in the first round.

Ihsanoglu has practically “no chance” of stopping Erdogan’s march toward the presidency, says Turkish columnist Kadri Gursel, as the candidate of an opposition that is “incapable of managing political processes, perceptions and political communication.” The two main opposition parties waited until mid-June to unveil the septuagenarian Ihsanoglu as their joint candidate, ensuring that he would remain an unfamiliar, untested product by the time Turks went to the polls. Days later, several members of the secularist opposition made it clear Ihsanoglu was far from their preferred nominee.

Tuesday’s announcement may have put an end to the speculation about Erdogan’s political future, but it has left a number of other questions unanswered. Turks still have no clue as to who will replace Erdogan as Prime Minister should he win, and whether he intends to stay on in his current job should he lose.

But if Erdogan does win the presidency, says Gursel, it will only strengthen his iron grip over Turkish politics and his party. “It will be the continuation of his premiership,” he says, “and even in a more powerful manner”

“Erdogan will dictate the main lines of policy that should be followed and the [new] Prime Minister will apply them,” he says. “This will be one-man rule.”

Others think that Erdogan risks overplaying his hand. “He thinks he’ll get the majority in the 2015 parliamentary election, change the constitution and [implement] a presidential system, but I think it’s going to be difficult,” says Cenk Sidar, managing director of consultancy firm Sidar Global Advisors, based in Washington, D.C. In the end, “he may get stuck as regular President, a figurehead,” he says.

Erdogan himself appears confident he will remain Turkey’s de facto leader for the foreseeable future, constitutional changes or not. Across the country, his face beams from billboards proclaiming “Target 2023,” the year when Turks will celebrate the centenary of their republic. Erdogan plans to be master of ceremonies. Should he win the presidency, then repeat in 2019, he will get his wish.

“Today,” he said on Tuesday, announcing his bid for the presidency, “we are getting ready for a beautiful journey.”

TIME

Syrian Refugees in Turkey Begin to Wear Out Their Welcome

Syrian Refugees in Turkey
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo stays under a shelter during a rainy day on March 8, 2014 in Uskudar, Istanbul. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Turkey was home to less than 200,000 Syrian refugees at the start of 2013, but the patience of many Turkish citizens is running thin as that figure hovers around 700,000. With no sign of the conflict in Syria abating, that number is expected to more than double this year

“We had work, we had a big home, four rooms, two floors,” Farid says, his wife, Ghada, and children sitting beside him. “Ghada used to make carpets. We lived side by side with a few other families. It was crowded, but not like this.”

“This” is what passes for Farid’s new family home: a small room in a dank, filthy basement in Eminonu, an Istanbul neighborhood, packed with two carpets, a single light bulb, four wafer thin mattresses and a shelf. Nine other Syrian families live in the same building, crammed into two floors. Farid, 27, a farm laborer, arrived here last summer, he says, his Aleppo neighborhood engulfed by fighting between anti-regime rebels and government forces, his old house devastated beyond repair.

Work in Istanbul hasn’t been easy to find. Occasionally, the odd construction job comes along, paying 20-30 lira ($10-15) per day. Ghada and the kids spend their days panhandling in the nearby tourist district. “We can afford food,” says Farid, “but not medicine, not diapers.”

For Turkey, the trickle of refugees that began in late April 2011, soon after the start of violence in Syria, has turned into a flood. At the start of 2013, the country was home to 171,000 officially registered Syrians. Today, that number has climbed to 736,000, according to Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency. By the end of the year the government expects to receive another 750,000 refugees.

Turkey’s border camps and container cities, accommodating about 220,000 Syrians, have been praised as some of the world’s best. The bulk of the refugees, however, live outside the camps, most of them in large cities, many of them in abject poverty. Officially, they number about 500,000. Some estimates put the figure at close to a million. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank, underscored their plight: 86 percent of Syrian children living outside the camps have no access to education. Many of them, much like their parents, are forced to work illegally with no social security and often for less pay than Turks, or to beg.

Amidst reports of rising crime and sectarian tensions in border areas, as well as competition for jobs, the refugees have started to wear out their welcome. In a January poll, 55 percent of Turks said their country should close its doors to fleeing Syrians. Of these, 30 percent insisted that it should send back those already here. Thus far, the mainstream political parties have not taken the bait, declining to indulge in any populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Though reports of open hostility are relatively few and far between, the potential for unrest is growing. Last May, after a car bomb attack in a Turkish town killed more than 50 people, angry locals clashed with Syrian refugees, sending hundreds fleeing.A man in Gaziantep, a large city near the border, recently told ICG analysts his neighbors were “sleeping with guns under their pillows” out of fear that Syrians would break into their houses. On Wednesday in Ankara, the country’s capital, a number of people were injured when locals set fire to a building inhabited by refugees after a street brawl.

Turkey never expected the war in nearby Syria to play out as it has. Three years ago, as peaceful protests gave way to an armed rebellion and as the first of the fleeing Syrians arrived, officials in Ankara predicted that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. Today, with the war having claimed 150,000 lives, Assad still in power, and with no end to the fighting in sight, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a bitter reality: the refugees might be here to stay.

Ankara, says Kemal Kirisci, director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution and the author of an upcoming paper on the refugee crisis, never had a long-term strategy for integrating the Syrians. To this day, he says, “these challenges are being addressed on an incremental basis.” Without a comprehensive plan to provide them with adequate shelter, food, education and work, he warns, Syrians living outside the camps risk turning into a permanent underclass.

It won’t be for lack of trying. Officials here point out that the government has extended healthcare access to all Syrians in Turkey, that work has begun on a facilitated employment system, and that a plan to put more Syrian children in school is in the pipeline. But they draw the line at citizenship. “Naturalization is not in our agenda,” says one. Foreign aid, he adds, “has been below all expectations.” Of the $3.5 billion that Turkey claims to have spent on helping the refugees, less than $200 million came from outside donors.

Inside Farid’s ramshackle Istanbul house, an older relative holds a child in one arm, an empty pack of pills in the other. The boy is visibly sick, his nose running, one of his eyes dimmed by fever, the other swollen shut. A fetid stench fills the air, so thick it seems to slow down the flies haloing above Farid and his family. One of the kids has diarrhea, says Ghada. She tucks her youngest son under her robe to breastfeed him.

I ask Farid if he ever regrets coming here. “No,” he says. “We’ve nowhere to go back to.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Erdogan Wins Big, Thinks Bigger

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in Ankara on March 30, 2014.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in Ankara on March 30, 2014. Kayhan Ozer—AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) drubbed its secular rivals in local elections over the weekend, vindicating him from charges of corruption and giving him a mandate to settle scores with his enemies

For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it wasn’t so much a vote as a highly anticipated verdict. It read, at least to his eyes: Acquitted of all charges by popular demand.

Since last summer’s Gezi Park protests, and even more so since a corruption scandal burned a hole through his government in December, Erdogan has fended off calls for his resignation by challenging his opponents to a showdown at the ballot box. The only authority entitled to deliberate the charges leveled against him, he has argued, is the court of public opinion.

On Sunday, with his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) drubbing the secular opposition in local elections by a roughly 15-point margin, Erdogan claimed vindication.

Shortly before midnight, with results still coming in, and with the AKP projected to win roughly 45 percent of the overall vote, Erdogan addressed a crowd of thousands from the balcony of his party’s Ankara headquarters. “Through the ballot box, the people have sent a message to Turkey and to the rest of the world,” he said to loud cheers. “We are here. You will not sidestep the Turkish people. We own this country.”

Erdogan, an exceptional orator, had campaigned relentlessly, everywhere, and to the point of losing his voice. Banners, billboards and posters emblazoned with his picture and the words “Iron Will”, in capital letters, lined the streets of each Turkish city. At the countless AKP rallies where the Turkish leader made an appearance, local candidates were the side dish. Erdogan was invariably the main course.

For the Prime Minister, the run-up to Sunday’s election has been arguably the most challenging, turbulent period of his twelve years at the top of Turkish politics. In December, four of his ministers resigned — one of them urging his boss to follow suit — after a sweeping investigation exposed copious evidence of corruption at the highest levels of government. Ever since, hundreds of files from the probe, as well as seemingly unrelated wiretapped conversations, have made their way onto the Internet, implicating Erdogan, his family, and his officials in yet more scandals.

Likening the allegations to a “coup”, Erdogan resorted to increasingly repressive measures to stifle them. In February, his government adopted a law allowing the national telecoms agency to block access to certain websites within hours. When that failed to stem the leaks, the authorities pulled the plug on Twitter. Less than a week later, and hours after a recording of a key national security meeting began making the rounds on the web, they blocked YouTube.

To judge by the election results, none of this seems to have fazed the AKP’s constituents. Corruption is to some extent programmed into Turkish politics. As long as the ruling party makes the economic pie bigger, says Asaf Savas Akat, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, Turkish voters don’t mind if it helps itself to a generous slice.

Erdogan has already made it clear that he intends to capitalize on his big win by settling accounts with his enemies, not least the Gulen movement, a powerful Islamic sect that he and many others in Turkey consider “a parallel state,” and the driving force behind the graft investigation.

“The time has come for the traitors to reckon with this country,” Erdogan said on Sunday, referring to the Gulenists. “Their plan was chaos. We will enter their caves. We will make them pay.”

The list of other potential traitors, fears Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Global Source Partners, might quickly grow longer. “The man who shuts down Twitter and YouTube is not going to stop at just that,” he says. A further clampdown on what Erdogan calls the “partisan media” might not be long in coming.

A renewed mandate has also made Erdogan the master of his own political destiny. Whether he has it in mind to rewrite the AKP’s internal rules and stay on as Prime Minister for a fourth term, or to run in August’s presidential elections, says Yesilada, the choice is entirely his. No one in the ruling party will be in any position to stop him. “You’ve got to remember,” says Yesilada, “these 320 AKP guys [in parliament] mostly owe their political careers to Erdogan’s long coattails.”

The Prime Minister himself remains ambiguous about his preferred option. Still, in his balcony speech he pledged that he would remain at the center of Turkish politics for the foreseeable future. “We will try to devote ourselves to whatever mission we are endowed with,” he said.

At a popular teahouse in Kasimpasha, the conservative Istanbul neighborhood where Erdogan grew up and where he now enjoys cult status, a few locals weighed in on what that mission should be.

“He shouldn’t have to stop being Prime Minister,” opined Ibrahim Sariturk, a caterer. The largely ceremonial role of president would take power away from him, he said. “The people need him,” he said. “They need him to keep on serving the nation.”

Gokhan Ulker, a young cargo worker sitting nearby, agreed. “Under the current system,” he said, “Erdogan would be too weak a president.”

“We need him to be strong,” he said, smacking his palm on the table for emphasis, “because we are a country under threat from agents, from foreign powers, from you, and from the parallel state.”

“It might not sound like a democratic solution, but this country needs one man rule,” he said. “We don’t need it for the sake of it,” he qualified. “We just need it for Erdogan. Because we are sure of him as our leader.”

TIME Ukraine

Russian Separatism Gains Ground in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russia supporters gather and wave Russian flags in Lenin Square in Donetsk, March 16, 2014.
Pro-Russia supporters gather and wave Russian flags in Lenin Square in Donetsk, March 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

After Russia's de facto annexation of Crimea, questions loom over the status of other parts of Ukraine where many remain sympathetic to Russia

Andrey Serdiuk, a miner, had set up shop about 16 km north of Donetsk, on the highway leading to Luhansk, right next to a traffic-police station. He and about a dozen other men, some of them clad in bright safety vests, some in track suits and some in military fatigues, had come here from nearby towns, he said, to stop Ukrainian army vehicles from reaching the Russian border. “If any of them come here, we’re ready to lie on the road to stop them from passing,” says Serdiuk.

But if tanks bearing the Russian tricolor were ever to come from the opposite direction, Serdiuk made clear, he and his men would be happy to see them through.

“We don’t want to live in one country with fascists,” says Petr Bogomol, another miner, using the slur frequently aimed at the interim government in Kiev, which has been running the country since the Feb. 22 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. “We want a union with Russia,” he says, “and we want federalization.”

“We don’t want bloodshed, but if need be we’ll do as our grandfathers did in the World War and we’ll defend our land,” Serdiuk says. “Western Ukraine has become a cancer.”

In and around Donetsk, a region where 38% of the population identifies as ethnic Russian and where only a minority considers Ukrainian their mother language, few people have any appetite whatsoever for war, but separatist sympathies are decidedly strong. In an opinion poll conducted in February, 33% of the region’s residents declared they would support joining Russia. What that number might be today — with Russian troops massing across the border, with Crimea in Russian hands and with the interim Kiev government struggling to win legitimacy in the east — is anyone’s guess.

In late February, the new authorities played right into the hands of Donetsk’s pro-Russian propagandists when parliament annulled a 2012 law allowing regions to use Russian as a second official language. The government has since tried to undo the damage, repeatedly making the point that it represents all Ukrainians. At the beginning of March, the interim President, Oleksandr Turchynov, vetoed the repeal of the old language law. On Tuesday, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to sign a treaty annexing Crimea, Ukraine’s Prime Minister pledged to give regions like Donetsk new powers to determine their own education and culture policies and to run their own police forces.

It isn’t so much the Kiev government’s new charm offensive that resonates with Donetsk’s residents, says Igor Todorov, a pro-Western professor at Donetsk National University, as it is the threat of a Russian invasion. Instead of inspiring ethnic Russians in Ukraine to turn east, he reckons, “Putin’s aggression in the Crimea is backfiring.” Core pro-Russian supporters still dream of seceding from Ukraine, he says, but many others have grown wary of Moscow.

Kirill Cherkashin, an associate professor at the same university and one of Donetsk’s leading pro-Russian voices, believes the exact opposite. After the Crimean referendum, he estimates, local support for union with Russia has swelled to around 60%. “Ukraine isn’t going to take care of us like Russia will,” he says. In terms of culture, religion and language, he says, Donetsk has more in common with Moscow than Kiev. “Russia is like our mother. Ukraine is like our mother-in-law.”

Mother, he admits, has her flaws, but those pale in comparison with the perceived horrors that await Donetsk under a pro-Western, pro-E.U. administration in Kiev. Echoing the narrative aired by Putin and the Russian state media, many here see the events that forced Yanukovych from power as a takeover by far-right, fascist elements; the nationalists in the government that replaced him, they claim, are descendants of the Nazi collaborators who ran amok in western Ukraine during the World War II. Having to choose between Kiev and Moscow, Cherkashin says, is like “having to choose between Hitler and Stalin.” He frames his choice — Stalin — as not the lesser of two evils, but rather the good over the bad.

Meanwhile, Moscow is sending mixed signals. On Friday, following clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in Donetsk, Russia warned that it reserved the “right to take people under its protection.” What it chose to ignore is that the previous night’s violence appeared to have been instigated by a large pro-Russian group, which attacked a smaller group of rival protesters. At least one man died in the fighting.

By Tuesday, Russia had appeared to backtrack somewhat, with Putin declaring that military intervention in eastern Ukraine was not on the table. Amid reports of clashes in Crimea and of Russian provocations inside Ukraine, however, the possibility of armed confrontation remained.

On Donetsk’s main square, less than a hundred yards from the spot where a 22-year-old member of a Ukrainian nationalist party was stabbed to death in Thursday clashes, a group of several dozen men huddled near a large statue of Lenin. Some of them had been camping out in the area for weeks, they said, protecting the statue from pro-Ukrainian demonstrators who might seek to topple it. The pro-Ukrainians, having decided to stop holding rallies after Thursday’s killing, were nowhere to be seen.

Several others among the group had embraced an additional cause. They were members of the so-called People’s Militia of Donbass, a local pro-Russian group that had been picketing and storming government buildings across the city, they said, and they were collecting signatures for a referendum on Donetsk’s future.

“In seven hours we got 15,000 signatures,” one of them tells TIME, pointing to a stack of papers that a gust of cold wind had blown across the square. They were planning to present them to the regional government. In the 15 minutes I spent with the men, this reporter did not see anyone sign up.

And what if the local government refused to entertain their referendum demand? “We’d ask for Russia to help,” Yevgeniy, a port worker, replies. What kind of help? “Military intervention in Donetsk.”

Miles away — past the luxury-shop-studded streets of Donetsk, past the marble palaces of the city’s notorious billionaire oligarchs, past potholed side roads and dilapidated, gray apartment buildings and an overpass on which someone had painted the words “The USSR lives,” in large white letters — the miners at the highway checkpoint have a similar answer. They have no reason to look forward to Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, they say, because they have no one to vote for. The new government “was a bunch of fascists.” The old one, they say, “turned out to be a bunch of traitors and thieves.” So who can they still trust? Bogomol laughs. “Putin!”

TIME Turkey

Protests Rock Turkey as Thousands Attend Teenager’s Istanbul Funeral

The coffin of Berkin Elvan is carried on March 11, 2014, in Istanbul. Berkin Elvan, who has been in a coma since June 2013 after being struck in the head by a gas canister during a police crackdown on protesters, died earlier on the day.
The coffin of Berkin Elvan is carried on March 11, 2014, in Istanbul. Berkin Elvan, who has been in a coma since June 2013 after being struck in the head by a gas canister during a police crackdown on protesters, died earlier on the day. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrations erupted across the country after Berkin Elvan, 15, the boy who fell into a coma after being struck by a police tear gas canister fired at close range, died following a 269-day battle to stay alive

Barricades smoldered. Stones and debris littered the streets. Protesters stumbled into shops, cafés and private apartments to flee clouds of tear gas, while parts of Istanbul’s city center resonated with the sound of pitched battles between demonstrators and riot police. The scenes that played out in Turkey’s biggest city on Wednesday didn’t just remind its residents of last summer’s anti-government protests; they also reminded many of them that the grievances that fueled those protests, far from fading away, had since multiplied.

Technically speaking, the unrest that erupted last June, which began in downtown Istanbul and spread across Turkey, had never come to a complete halt. Over the past months, neighborhoods in a number of western Turkish cities, including Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, have seen demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a regular basis, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The event that sparked Wednesday’s protests, the latest and biggest since last summer, was the death of a boy.

On June 16, at the height of the Gezi Park clashes, Berkin Elvan, 14 at the time, stepped out of his house in Istanbul’s Okmeydani district to buy bread from a nearby store. Moments later, he was struck in the head by a police tear gas canister fired at close range.

This Tuesday, after 269 days in a coma, having withered away, he died. His bodyweight had dropped to 35 pounds.

On Wednesday, the day of his funeral, tens of thousands of people swarmed a wide avenue in Istanbul’s Sisli district to accompany the young man’s coffin to a nearby cemetery. Some of the mourners carried carnations, others brought along pictures of the smiling, unibrowed Elvan. A few carried loaves of bread: one man had inserted a tear gas canister into his.

Last summer’s chants mixed in with those borne of a more recent political crisis. “Killer police,” yelled some protesters. “Thief,” others shouted, alluding to a corruption scandal that first boiled to the surface in mid-December, ensnaring Erdogan and a number of government ministers in the process.

As the cortège moved through Sisli, a stronghold of the main opposition party, en route to the cemetery, women leaned out of neighboring buildings, banging on pots and pans. Passersby applauded. Banners of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), prepared ahead of the coming local elections, lay on the ground, some of them set aflame.

On the side of the road, surrounded by a flock of photographers, stood Sirri Sureyya Onder. A politician from a small leftist party, Onder had become one of the leading figures in last year’s protests after standing his ground against a bulldozer dispatched to clear trees from Gezi Park. He had come, he said, to proclaim “the savage killing of a defenseless child cannot go unpunished.” Of Erdogan, he simply said, “He will be judged.”

In recent days, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and a number of government ministers had expressed their condolences to the Elvan family. Erdogan has yet to do so.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said an investigation had been launched into the young boy’s death. “Whoever is responsible for the young boy’s death or whoever was negligent in the series of events that led to his death will be revealed,” he said. But a statement issued on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch complained that “no effective investigation” had been carried out into Elvan’s killing “or for the serious head injuries incurred by dozens of others.”

The Wednesday protests were to claim their own victims. Late at night Turkish media reported that Ahmet Kucuktag, a police officer, had died of a heart attack induced by tear gas at another protest in the eastern province of Tunceli. Another man was killed in armed clashes between residents and protesters in Kurtulus, an Istanbul neighborhood.

On the way back from Elvan’s funeral, with police squadrons blocking the road leading to the main city square on which the mourners intended to march, clashes broke out. Amidst a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets, people scrambled to find shelter in shops and apartment buildings. A young woman ran into the lobby of a residential building, reeling from the effects of the tear gas, and passed out. On the other side of the street, a group of people huddled inside a kebab shop. Outside, men wearing gas masks lobbed stones at the riot police. Flames rose from behind barricades.

About a mile south, police trucks mounted with water cannons roared up and down Istiklal Avenue, the city’s main promenade, sending protesters and dazed tourists alike scurrying into the side streets. Every once in a while, the police came under a hail of rocks, bottles and fireworks. A waiter, his eyes red from the tear gas, commiserated with the mourners, he said, but complained that a new wave of protests threatened to ruin his restaurant and other businesses in the neighborhood.

Yildiray Yilmaz, a shopkeeper in his 40s, a white surgical mask dangling from his left ear, stormed down the street, stopping in front of every group of riot police he encountered. “Don’t be the AKP’s police, you’re supposed to be the people’s police,” he yelled at them. “They may be gone one day, but we’re here to stay.”

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