In Turkey, Critics of Erdogan’s Government Claim Familiar Pattern of Reprisal

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Umit Bektas / Reuters

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara on June 25, 2013

The fallout from the June protests in Turkey is settling into a growing pattern of reprisal against those dissenting against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, critics of his government say. But that pattern may be backfiring, as it is fueling further discontent among Erdogan’s opponents and bolstering their ranks with some of his former supporters.

Among the newly disenchanted is the prominent scholar Ihsan Dagi. The “new Turkey,” which Erdogan championed on coming to power, and which Dagi tried to understand and explain, has become “old,” the scholar wrote in his farewell note as editor of Insight Turkey, a quarterly review he had headed for more than five years. A professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, Dagi is also stepping down from SETA, the progovernment think tank that publishes the journal.

For years, Dagi tells TIME, he supported Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its commitment to “democratization, membership in the E.U. and globalization.” Gradually, his support waned. Following Erdogan’s tough reaction to the protests that shook Turkey in June, Dagi’s support foundered completely. Dagi, whose wife is a former AKP parliamentarian, says, “I realized I had nothing in common left with the government and progovernment forces in Turkey.”

Dagi says his decision to resign was entirely his own, but others say they have been forced out of their jobs in the media because of their coverage of the protests. According to a statement issued by the Turkish Journalists’ Union on July 22, a total of 59 journalists have been fired or forced to resign since late May, when the so-called Gezi protests in Istanbul began. “A large majority of them,” the group alleged, were forced to leave directly in connection with their coverage of the protests.

Among those who say they have been stifled are two prominent columnists. Yavuz Baydar, the ombudsman for the newspaper Sabah, was fired on July 23 after he decried the government’s intimidation of the media in a series of articles, including a New York Times op-ed. He has publicly said he was fired for reporting on the protests. Two days later, news outlets reported that a columnist for the widely read daily Milliyet, Can Dundar, had been forced to take an indefinite leave of absence. In response to questions from TIME, Dundar says there had been no official move against him, but that the paper was refusing to publish his pieces. “They haven’t been letting me write for the last three weeks without any excuses,” he tells TIME. On Tuesday, Milliyet’s editor Derya Sazak, who had reportedly defended Dundar, was himself sacked.

The Erdogan government has not responded to the Turkish Journalists’ Union statement or other allegations of a press crackdown.

Members of the media are not the only ones concerned about potential reprisal. Throughout the June protests, which he and his allies often described as the result of an antigovernment plot, Erdogan warned that he would take to task those who had backed the unrest. On June 15, amidst renewed clashes, Divan, a luxury hotel that belongs to one of Turkey’s largest conglomerates, Koc Holding, opened its doors to fleeing protesters. Undeterred, riot police fired tear gas into the hotel’s lobby. Soon afterward, Erdogan said, “We know who sent [the protesters] 30,000 food packages, who sheltered them in their hotels,” and “We know they housed those who teamed up with terror.”

Last week, Koc saw three of its companies — two of them among Turkey’s largest — raided by government tax inspectors. Between Wednesday and Friday, the holding’s shares plunged by about 10%.

The Turkish Minister of Finance, Mehmet Simsek, said on Twitter that there was no connection between the tax investigations and the role Koc played in the protests. His tax inspectors carried out around 50,000 inspections a year, Simsek said, adding: “There is absolutely no link between the Gezi protests and the tax probes.”

A sweeping inquiry into brokerages, which the government suspects of manipulating share prices at the height of the protests, is proceeding. Following the Turkish lira’s recent slide against Western currencies, the authorities have launched a similar probe into banks’ foreign-exchange transactions.

Erdogan, who accused the foreign press of biased coverage from Day 1 of the protests, has most recently threatened to sue the Times, a British newspaper, for publishing an open letter condemning his rule. His Minister for E.U. Affairs, Egemen Bagis, labeled the letter “a crime against humanity.” Erdogan recently appointed the pundit Yigit Bulut, an outspoken opponent of the protests, to be the his chief adviser.

The apparent crackdown against the media, intimidation of business and heightened rhetoric, says Dagi, marks Turkey’s relapse into a familiar, older style of politics. For decades, the state, led by the powerful military and a secularist bureaucracy, had kept the domestic press, the business community and even elected politicians on a tight leash. The moderately Islamist AKP’s surprise election victory in 2002 and its liberalizing reforms in its first years in power marked, or seemed to mark, a long awaited break with the past. Things have since gone full circle, says Dagi. After this summer, he says, it’s clear that the AKP has “revived the old state, just with a new identity.”

And with double the power. In the past, the generals, judges and bureaucrats who pulled the strings enjoyed authority but not legitimacy. The AKP, having won every election it has contested and having constrained the army and the judiciary along the way, now enjoys both. According to a newly released poll, support for the party stands at 44%, six points down from 2011, but still enough to trounce the main opposition. The former distinction between the state and the government, says Dagi, is no longer relevant. “The AKP government has become the state. It can design social life, regulate the economy, and intimidate the opposition or political dissidents.”

With local and presidential elections coming up in 2014, Dagi says he worries the party he once supported may take Turkey even further into the past.