Just north of tyranny in Syria, Turkey turns more authoritarian every day

Turkey has a lot to worry about these days.

ISIS recently displaced some 200,000 refugees from the Kurdish town of Kobane into Turkey. The Syrian regime military has made 3 million Syrians into refugees, half of which now reside in Turkey. And the same regime now threatens to topple a rebel stronghold in Aleppo.

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“If Aleppo were to fall, we in Turkey would really be confronted with a large, very serious, worrisome refugee crisis,” Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently told reporters, as if the refugee crisis wasn’t already sufficiently large, serious and worrisome.

But while tyranny in Syria is something for Turkey to worry about, many Turks are worried about something else: namely, their own growing authoritarian regime.

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Turkey’s longtime prime minister and newly elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just built himself a 1000-room, $615 million presidential palace–four times the size of Versailles–all while flipping the traditionally passive role of Turkish president to one that is virtually above reproach. The estate’s also an environmental calamity: it’s built in violation of court orders, on top of a nature preserve.

If that sounds like a questionable expenditure of public money, don’t forget to consider Turkey’s need to protect a treacherous border with Syria–but then again, maybe don’t ask. President Erdogan doesn’t take criticism well.

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Turkey was the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013, with as many as 61 journos behind bars. Although the number has plummeted to just seven in 2014 (and you can read Erdogan’s self-flattering tribute to blossoming Turkish democracy under the leadership of his political party), the Turkish government remains one of the very worst countries for press censorship.

A new report on press freedom in Turkey conducted by the nonprofit Rethink Institute identifies the shuffling of capital and power that allows the Erdogan’s political party to broadly consolidate influence over the media and other critical public assets.

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One mechanism that cedes media power to the state, which the report describes, is the state Savings Deposit and Insurance Fund (TMSF). When major media conglomerates like Sabah-ATV group declare bankruptcy, this agency takes over and determines who to sell the group to. And when Sabah-ATV sold for $1.1 billion, more than half of the cost was covered by a loan held by a company run by then-prime minister Erdogan’s son-in-law. The very same media assets were soon sold to a building firm called Kalyon group in exchange for advance notice of government contracts.

That media-swap and land-grab deal, captured on leaked documents and wiretaps by police, provoked an ill-fated police investigation that, despite implicating 209 suspects, only resulted in one person going to trial: Musa Kart, a cartoonist who satirized Erdogan’s questionable dealing in the left-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet. Then still the prime minister, Erdogan also purged or reassigned as many at 2000 police officers involved in his corruption probe.

Perhaps with some help from a weekslong nationwide Twitter and Youtube ban, and a hot new internet law that gives the state authority to block any website for 24 hours without a court order, Erdogan overcame the scandal. In August, he became the president of Turkey through its first ever direct presidential election.

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Erdogan’s rhetoric reflects that of a centrist leader–in his presidential victory speech, he stated “[Turkey’s] political views, lifestyles, beliefs and ethnicities can be different, but we are all offspring of this country. We are all owners of this state… I will embrace all 70 million [Turks] as president.”

But Turkey has 75 million people, and the systems of actual ownership in Turkey tell a different story than Erdogan.

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Above, “projects of dispossession” visualizes capital and power in Turkey (http://mulksuzlestirme.org/)

Check out the Mülksüzleştirme Project. It uses interactive graphics–“dispossession” maps of corporate holdings, their companies and projects and the individuals that work for them–to visualize how various forms of capital are seized, sold and, through flows of corporate power and ownership, can often end up functionally under the purview of the government–not the people.

These graphs don’t tell the whole story, but they help represent how a supposedly democratic system manages to function undemocratically. One artist behind the project, Burak Arikan explains these maps “render inherent power relationships visible, thus discussable.”

With the rise of ISIS in the same region, Turkey’s own political behaviors are increasingly in the international spotlight. Relating the state’s questionable relationship with ISIS, one former ISIS member recently told Newsweek “ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria.”

Could the lavish new palace Erdogan calls a “show of a country’s prestige” create a similar public outcry to the would-be Gezi park shopping mall that in 2013 sparked protests in Taksim Square?

As Kurdish protests spike throughout Turkey and scores of Syrian Kurds suffer at the hands of both ISIS and Assad’s army, the response from Erdogan and the Turkish military will be a revealing test of their values. Will there be any room for Kurds or Syrian refugees in the thousand rooms of Erdogan’s new castle?

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