ISTANBUL — Turkey’s combative prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Friday abandoned his plan to build a new shopping mall on one of the few green patches in central Istanbul, but he insisted on razing the park nevertheless, a mixed signal that could prolong week-long protests here and in other cities.
Pulling back from a plan that he had announced two years ago to build a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks on the site of Gezi Park, Erdogan said the mall “is not possible in the artillery barracks anyway, given the measurements.” He added: “We may build a city museum instead, and a green area that would be far better than the current park.”
The lack of a clear reason for destroying the park may cause Erdogan problems if he tries to evict the protesters, for it isn’t clear now what the project is about. Two demonstrators and a policeman have died since police broke up a peaceful protest with teargas and water cannon, provoking the worst unrest Turkey has seen for years and inciting worldwide criticism of Erdogan.
Erdogan returned in the early hours Friday from a three-day trip to North Africa to address an odd rally by supporters summoned to Istanbul airport at the last minute by his Justice and Development Party. He immediately demanded an end to the protests, which he denounced as “vandalism and utter lawlessness.”
But even though thousands chanted mob-like slogans like “Let us go, let us smash them,” a reference to the protesters occupying Gezi Park, it appeared that Turkey’s most powerful politician had lost control over a secondary local issue and by virtue of his own mishandling had let it become a test of his power.
As the leader of a nation of 76 million who is trying to negotiate peace with Kurdish rebels, entry into the European Union and help reshape the Middle East as a more democratic place, Erdogan seemed on the defensive over the Gezi Park project.
Before departing Tunisia, he said the destruction of the park would proceed, and he called the new project a “blend of history, culture and nature.” He did not repeat that promise when he spoke before his loyalists in the early hours of Friday,
Instead, after denouncing demonstrators – whose initial goal was to stop the bulldozing of trees in Gezi Park – as vandals, Erdogan declared himself an environmentalist. “Nobody in the country has loved the green as much as we loved it . . . there is no one environmentally more friendly than us.”
But on Friday afternoon, speaking at an international conference in Istanbul, he said Turkey had no problem discussing democratic demands, even as he accused the social media as “conducting horrible campaigns of lies.”
Erdogan, who regularly denounces the main opposition party as national traitors and has personally intervened with major news media to stifle independent reporting, asserted that his government had been talking with “every segment of society” since taking power.
At the conference with European officials, Erdogan repeated Turkey’s intention to join the EU, a bitter subject here because Turkey has been negotiating with the EU for a half-century.
Also Friday, Erdogan got a sampling of the EU’s practice of lecturing European countries on international human rights standards.
“Before speaking about our common future, we should speak about the present,” said Stefan Fule, a Czech diplomat who serves as EU commissioner for enlargement. He said it is the duty of all states to aspire to the “highest possible democratic standards and practices,” including the freedom to express opinions, to assemble peacefully, and the freedom of the media to report “on what is happening as it is happening.”
He said: “There is no place for police brutality in democracies.”
Erdogan retorted that the EU has its own human rights issues, and he mentioned that they include discrimination against ethnic groups such as the Roma, or gypsies, Associated Press reported.