Gezi Protests as a model for Central Asia

When Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 revolution was credited with using social media as a way to communicate during protests, it was seen as the beginning of a shift in how political discourse in the country occurred. While the technology was used mostly to communicate rather than to organize and was limited to certain demographics, it still marked the potential for change. At the end of May, the full might of the internet’s ability to create networks, to organize individuals, and to raise up change from the grassroots level was brought to Turkestan.

The Occupy Gezi movement started as a peaceful environmental protest against the destruction of Taksim Gezi park (a small part of the larger Taksim square) and the construction of a shopping mall in its place. This quickly developed into a protest against the Erdogan government’s increasingly repressive leadership when police used force to repress the movement. This action inspired similar protests across the country and transformed the movement into an outlet for those frustrated against the ruling party. The initial response of repression, thanks to information sharing technology, turned a fight for Sycamores into a hyrda-headed movement spreading across the country. The president’s insistence on using conservative and nationalist rhetoric to force the movement to disperse has fallen on deaf ears.This has been called a Turkish Spring by some.  Zeynep Tufekci has suggested that “…these are the first protests in Turkey in the post-80 coup era that are less like NAACP-organized civil rights protests, and more like social-media fueled Tahrir protests.”

Such comparisons are useful in this context, but what is happening in Gezi is not what happened in Tahrir and the outcomes will be entirely different. Unlike the Arab Spring, which started as a protest on January 25th, 2011 specifically to protest the Egyptian government and spread across the region, Gezi was born out of an environmental movement. It was only when the government attempted to forcefully repress the movement that the protest evolved into a more general anti-Erdogan movement. This is an important difference. On June 2nd President Erdogan declared that the mall project had been cancelled and that instead a Mosque would be built in Taksim. This was a wonderfully inept response in its ability to 1) not address the environmental issue of the initial protest and 2) ignore the evolution of the protest.

Erdogan’s hands have been tied because the protests in Gezi are something new. They exemplify the shift in political discourse that is happening everywhere around us – a shift towards popular movements growing from the “mass amateurization” of the internet. Turkish youths (70% of the population is under 35) have used social media effectively to overcome the weaknesses of the press in the country. The low threshold for participation in groups created by the internet has given momentum to these groups that would otherwise have difficulty forming. The Occupy movements around the world have been a great example of this…but despite it’s name Gezi is not an occupy movement.

The Occupy Gezi movement differs from most occupy movements around the world because of the presence of a leadership with clearly stated goals. This interview by Pfeffer with a representative of the Occupy Gezi movement maintains that the goals of the movement, despite being inflated by the large numbers, remain circumscribed to ending the Gezi park construction project. The majority of occupy movements disbanded because, while the protesters met in a group, each person participating in the group was protesting their own particular issue. Clay Shirky argues in his book Here Comes Everybody that social tools are most successful at forming groups when there is “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.”  For Gezi the promise of the group remains ‘let’s stop the destruction of the park’, while the bargain could range from ‘having more trees’ to ‘ending the government repression’. There is a wide range of bargains based on an individual’s outlook. The light of modern social networking throws oppression into stark relief.

I am especially enamored with the Gezi movement because this is the first truly mass protest driven by network communication in the Turkic speaking world. Turkey is a common destination for students from Central Asia, and the Turkish government has close ties with many institutions in the region. The use of internet and cyberprotest in the former Soviet Union has been well documented in a recent article by Lysenko and Desouza, but the Gezi model is the one which works best for Central Asia. One of the most successful protest movements in Central Asia, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, shared many characteristics with Gezi park – the goals were circumscribed, focused on environmentalism, and achieved international recognition.

The specificity and appeal to the population of environmental issues has afforded environmental groups more success in oppressive states where many other NGOs have been forced to yield. That environmentalism tends to look “so little like serious politics” (Weiner,1999) has placed environmental groups in a strange position of being allowed to exist as issue advocates while being rendered impotent within the political structure of post Soviet States (Henry 2010Tookey 2006). In order to overcome this limitation, environmental groups in the post-Soviet space have relied on social networks and awareness to appeal directly to the people and bypassing the state bureaucratic structure (Agyeman and Ogneva-Himmelberger 2009)*. Environmental movements in the former Soviet space are not yet noted for their use of internet communication, but Gezi could change that. The promise and the bargain presented by environmental protests are apparent, but it is the tool provided by social media that has allowed a group of protesters in Istanbul to transform their impact. If Karakalpak fishermen had social media access in the 1960s-1980s, then the Aral Sea might not have vanished.

Gezi Park has presented a new opportunity for activism. The specificity of the protest, its resonance with the local population, and the amplification of the movement through social media are reproducible. Oppressive states are not equipped with the tools to respond to these challenges effectively.


*In Agyeman and Ogneva-Himmelberger, 2009 see Metzo’s “Civil Society and the Debate over Pipelines in Tunka National Park, Russia” for a discussion of the importance of social networks.