It is possible to make both too much and too little of the violent protests in Turkey that started with demonstrations against cutting down 600 trees in Taksim Square in the centre of Istanbul.
On the plus side, there is no meaningful parallel here with the protests in Tunis and Cairo at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Turkey has a democratically elected government which has been notably successful in ending the cycle of military coups and creating economic prosperity. In fact, in many respects the demonstrations are a healthy sign that Turks are no longer terrified of police or military reaction.
Less encouragingly, however, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has opened the door to reconciliation with Turkey’s large Kurdish community, he has also been showing signs of increased authoritarianism, most notably by the repression of the media and becoming entangled in an unpopular war on the side of the Syrian rebels. Fears of a creeping Islamisation are also on the rise, stoked again last week with the imposition of new restrictions on the sale of alcohol.
The ostensible cause of the Istanbul demonstrations is straightforward enough. Although the cutting down of Taksim Square’s trees is, officially, to make way for restoring an old Ottoman barracks, the suspicion of the protesters is that the real intention is to build yet another shopping mall in a country already overrun with them. The danger, though, is the Turkish government overreacts, treats fears about a dubious real-estate deal as a threat to the state, and turns the protest into something more serious.
Turkey’s prosperity is reliant on the influx of foreign capital. The impact of the Syrian crisis and quarrels with Iran and Iraq already risk creating instability and spooking investors. If domestic unrest adds to the uncertainty, undermining Turkey’s position as a political and economic success story, Taksim Square’s trees will be the least of the country’s worries.