Antecedent to my previous post: In the winter of 1996-1997 the Bulgarian Lev plummeted, store shelves emptied, and the prices of food and utilities soared beyond the means of most people. Weeks of protests ensued.
In Bulgaria, I have learned, nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. “in principle”).
A Government Resigns
During my last visit to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, back in February and early-March of this year, demonstrators poured into the center of the city to join marches protesting over-inflated energy charges, these resulting from a cynical game of arbitrage and manipulation of subsidies by insiders. The demonstrations differed from the norm in that, this time, the majority of the marchers were from the Soviet-bloc-era housing developments at the fringes of Sofia — low income people, thus, caught in a squeeze between minimal incomes, lack of savings, and the soaring prices of inelastic monthly expenses.
The February and March demonstrations led to the cavalier resignation of the right-of-center government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a Communist-era one-time state security heavy and a recent mayor of Sofia whose shaved skull, protruding jaw, and characteristic bombast are reminiscent of Mussolini. “Brother Boyko,” as he sometimes is called, simply threw up his hands and called for elections, thus, in effect, abandoning the country and dumping the entire mess into someone else’s lap.
Government by “Strange Bedfellows”
As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest: “ … misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows;” likewise the coupling that comprises the government formed to replace that of Brother Boyko. Current coalition partners include the BSP (successors to the old Bulgarian Communist Party) plus two small parties that survive by playing the roles of coalition-brokers: the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party originally founded to defend Bulgaria’s million-strong Turkish and Muslim minority against state and social oppression) and ATAKA (an out and out neo-nazi party whose platform and appeal is based on anti-Semitism and hatred and disenfranchisement of Bulgaria’s large populations of Gypsies and Turks).
One of the first acts of the new coalition was inexplicable, even by Bulgarian standards: The appointment of an oligarch with known ties to organized crime as head of the country’s national security agency. In response, one month ago, crowds took to the streets of Sofia and of cities and towns elsewhere in Bulgaria in daily protest marches. Within ten days, the appointment was withdrawn just as inexplicably as it been made in the first place. The demonstrations, however, have continued.
And this brings us back to my opening paragraph above: the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be.
One of my local interlocutors, a successful medical practitioner, explains that the demonstrations are an uprising of the new middle class. Another — an energetic and articulate young independent consultant — adds that the demonstrations represent the entry of her generation into the politic arena. And yet, when I visit the demonstrations, what I notice are embittered folks, in large part pensioners and the seemingly un- or under-employed, as well as a sprinkling of deadbeats swilling from liter bottles of beer or wearing t-shirts decorated with iron crosses or other iconography of the know-nothing right. The signs I read and slogans I hear at the demonstrations are mostly rants against communism; the communist period, by the way, having ended one year short of a quarter of a century ago. A sprinkling of English-language signs, featuring liberal use of words such as “motherfuckers” and “bastards,” reveals the tenor of discourse.
A friend of mine who is a close observer of of local Facebook activity and print and broadcast media offers another take, i.e. that the protests have offered the media-savvy a low-risk opportunity to engage in “reputation management” and profile themselves as a new class of courageous leadership. She also suggests that the demonstrations are likely to be used by Brother Boyko as a pretense for a magnanimous return to power. Another friend — a former communist and present-day socialist, who has always had the integrity to speak out against the abuses of both parties — regrets that recriminations and shapeless discontent seem to be the language and output of-the-day of the Sofia protests, rather than a focus on concrete issues or the formation of a sustainable new opposition, this unlike contemporaneous events in Istanbul (see my previous post on issues and aspersions). A third friend, a woman who has worked in the private sector in Bulgaria from the very first days of post-communist “market” economy, emphasizes that no party directly confronts the core issue of a divorcing government and the economy-at-large from organized crime.
Tomatoes, “Feta,” Schnapps, and Comments
As to me, I’m yet sure what I think — except, of course, not to trust my first impressions. My next step, thus, will be to get myself back to thinking Balkan. So, for the coming days at least, I’ll simply continue to enjoy the cool weather and refreshing periodic thunder storms and lose myself in the excellent local tomatoes, “feta,” and schnapps. While I do so, please feel free to post your comment(s), whether in English or Bulgarian.
From Sofia, Bulgaria, a final post on last month’s occupation of Gezi Park and the trajectory of protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey …
As of this past Wednesday, the Turkish government’s plan to for the “development” of Gezi Park and Taksim Square was put on hold. A Turkish court, responding to a petition by Istanbul’s Chamber of Architects, held the project in violation of architectural preservation laws, this due to the historical character and functions of Gezi/Taksim.
From afar and in retrospect, an underlying difference between the protestors and the prime minister and his supporters springs to the fore. On the side of the former there has been a focus on concrete issues and coalition-building; on the side of the latter, however, there has been a ducking of issues and, instead, a retreat into intimidation, aspersions, and ad hominem attack. A “scorecard” of sorts — and a cautionary tale of headscarves and Rambo — follow …
During the Gezi Park occupation, marchers from the direction of Harbiye and the residential neighborhoods beyond it appeared to be more diverse in age and in walks-of-life than those marching from the night-spot-filled side-streets and central promenade of Istiklal Caddesi. This past Sunday, such diversity was augmented by the large turnout for a lesbian and gay march to Taksim and Gezi Park.
A Road to Nowhere?
By itself, the Turkish government’s plan to shunt traffic under and past Taksim Square might indeed lessen vehicular congestion, thus freeing this iconic location from dominance by motor vehicle traffic. In conjunction with the plan to replace all of Taksim Square and Gezi Park with a massive complex of shopping mall, mosque, and fantasy reconstruction of a 19th-century military barracks, however, the underpass will instead deliver more automobile traffic into the urban core, a further step toward transforming a vital, unplanned, dense, “legacy” urban agglomeration into just another suburb.
“There Is No There There”
Had the early-twentieth-century American expatriate writer and aesthete Gertrude Stein still been alive, and had she visited Istanbul this month and last, she no doubt would have joined the protests at Taksim and Gezi Park and almost certainly would have attended the recent lesbian and gay march.
Nearly a century ago, describing the seemingly charming town of Sausaliito, north of San Francisco, Stein is said to have quipped: “There is no there there.” In Istanbul, by giving primacy to the automobile and the development of giant office and residential towers and suburban-type mall complexes, the powers-that-be are compromising pedestrian flows and traditional street life, thus contributing to a future in which, without doubt, there will be almost “… no there there.”
“Seventy-Two Suburbs in Search of a City”
American writer and humorist Dorothy Parker, a contemporary of Stein, once described the megalopolis Los Angeles as “… seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” The present near-dysfunctional state of greater Los Angeles provides a cautionary tale for Istanbul as it continues its far-flung expansion and conversion into a near endless checkerboard of malls, office parks, and gated residential “communities” all interconnected by automobile traffic.
I had intended to shift to another subject this weekend but because protest gatherings and out of proportion reactions by police continued Saturday and this evening here in Istanbul, I thought I’d post a few more photos from last month’s occupation of Gezi Park.
The photo above requires no additional commentary, except to add that while the accuracy of the caricature might be debatable, what is not debatable are the passions that the actions and style of the person portrayed have aroused in that no-longer-silent half of Turkish society who do not support him and who he, in turn, seems to ignore or address with contempt.
Afterword posted July 3, 2013: In recent outbursts to the press, Erdoğan lieutenants including his deputy prime minister and the mayor of Ankara have accused “envious” organizations of “diaspora Jewry” of being behind the Gezi Park occupation. Although caricatures of Erdoğan as Hitler may be a bit over-the-top, such comments by his lieutenants, together with Erdoğan’s own statement not so long ago that “Zionism is a crime against humanity,” may qualify the entire trio for caricatures not necessarily as Hitler, but certainly as Dr. Goebbels.
- During the weeks it was extant, the Gezi Park encampment was organized and disciplined. A committee of participating organizations put political differences far enough aside to ensure provision of essential services — sanitary, medical, and emergency. Volunteers cooked and served in cafeteria-style kitchens well stocked with donated provisions.
- Street Vendors
- In addition to the means served to those encamped in the Gazi Park, the dense concentration of protestors, well-wishers, and the curious attracted scores of ordinary street vendors. Many such vendors were of types traditional to the streets of Istanbul — sellers of köfte, of rice topped with shredded chicken, of hot boiled corn, and of circular bread rolls dusted with toasted sesame seeds (semit); others represented fast responses to the one-off needs of protesters. The latter hawked Turkish flags and portraits of Atatürk, t-shirts emblazoned with slogans of protest, and simple painter’s masks and cheap swimming goggles, both passed off as protection against tear gas. Beverage vendors did brisk businesses selling ice-cold bottled water and — rarely seen on the streets of Istanbul — beer. Indeed, in the initial days of the occupation and demonstrations, polishing off a bottle of beer, as well as providing refreshment, was a principled statement of opposition to a regime intent furthering a sectarian-driven war to limit alcohol consumption. In the end, Gezi Park occupiers eventually banned beer vendors, this to disprove the Turkish Prime Minister’s allegations of nightly drunkenness and debauchery in the protestors’ encampment. According to one report, at least one beer vendor put up violent resistance to such expulsion, stabbing a protester in the process.)
This past Saturday night, police once again ran amok in Taksim Square, Istanbul, using tear gas and high-pressure streams of chemically tainted water to drive away protesters. The attack was minor, however, in comparison with the police’s violent ejection of occupiers and visitors to Gezi Park the Saturday before and their night-long violent siege of Taksim five days earlier.
A Change of Banners
During the two-week-long occupation of Gezi Park, adjacent Taksim Square was a locus of protest for left-wing demonstrators, many of them representatives of fragmented parties driven ideologies more than constituencies. As part of the Gezi occupation, a group of protesters took over the long-abandoned Atatürk Cultural Center building, a 1960s structure fronting on Taksim. The steel-lattice-covered facade of the Atatürk Center made a perfect multistory bulletin-board for the banners of revolutionary sub-sects. The first act of the Police upon clearing the Center of occupiers was to remove their banners and replace them with a triptych of a giant prim portrait of Atatürk flanked by two equally immense Turkish flags. This ensemble conspicuously lacked the immense portrait of Turkey’s Prime Minister that is usually hung alongside that of Atatürk at the his outdoor rallies and as a backdrop to his lengthy television addresses).
Issues Crystallize Discontents
The occupation, demonstrations, vigils, and battles around Gezi Park and Taksim Square this month provided a political and physical rallying point for overall discontent with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Erdogan regime and with its aggressive contempt for that half of the Turkish polity who do not support it. Underlying this broader discontent were several sets of concrete issues that kicked-off the protests in the first place, including the relationship of policy-makers and profit-makers in the urban sphere, and the nature, ownership, and future of the urban landscape (more on this in a subsequent post).
Iconography of Urban Space
A subset of these issues involves the iconography of urban space and urban constructs. For decades, Taksim has been destination and site for political marches, celebrations, and (all too often violently repressed) protests. Taksim, thus is a symbol of both the political cohesion and the political and social conflicts of the Turkish Republic. The present plans of the Erdogan government to replace this meaning-charged open space with a full-sized replica of a late-Ottoman-Empire military barracks razed a century ago speaks volumes about the political, social, and cultural attitudes and intents of the present government, as does the government’s plan to demolish the Atatürk Center, once venue for concerts, opera, and theater, and named after the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic. The reconstructed barracks, by the way, is slated to be one element of of a giant shopping-center and mosque complex planned to obliterate the footprint of what are now Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and the Atatürk Center.