ANKARA — Just as Turkey was working to end three decades of violence with Kurdish separatists, the government has been hit with a surprising new security threat: hundreds of thousands of Turks.
Massive demonstrations have taken place since May 31 that grew out of anger over excessive police force against protests to prevent the uprooting of trees at Istanbul’s main Taksim Square. The demonstrations have since snowballed into Turkey’s biggest anti-government disturbances in several years, challenging Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power.
That could translate into an increased market for anti-riot gear, a defense analyst said.
Over the past 12 years, Turkey imported $21 million worth of anti-riot gas from the US and Brazil, according to Customs Minister Hayati Yazici.
A procurement official said the “new situation” ensures the police force will act quickly to procure materials to crack down on future riots.
“Including gas,” he said. “And we expect them to rush to buy more armored vehicles — all possible anti-riot types.”
On June 3, the Turkish Parliament’s interior commission passed a draft bill that authorizes the police force to import heavy weaponry, ammunition, equipment and vehicles, including tanks, according to one lawmaker. That bill must be debated and voted on at Parliament’s general assembly before taking effect.
“I guess the anti-riot market in Turkey will experience a boom soon,” the defense analyst said.
The legislation comes as Turkey works toward near self-sufficiency in most types of armored vehicles and is developing its own new-generation battle tank, the Altay.
Otokar is scheduled to complete two prototypes of the Altay this year; however, deliveries of the first indigenous tank may be several years away, according to industry sources.
Since protests began, three activists have been killed and nearly 3,000 were injured as of June 6. Erdogan called the protesters “a bunch of extremists and looters.”
But Istanbul’s Bilgi University polled 3,000 activists and found that 92.4 percent were protesting Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. Seventy percent said they did not feel attached to any political party.
“There is every indication that although this is not the ‘Turkish Spring’ — since Erdogan is a legitimate, elected leader — the protests will continue on at every occasion, and riots will become part of daily life in urban Turkey,” said Mehmet Arisan, a political scientist at TED University here.
One senior security official here said: “We are devising plans to combat the next wave of riots. A smart anti-riot strategy supported by smart equipment will be the pillar of our general policy to counter riots.”
The Turkish police had successfully dispersed every riot before the May 31 protests, using mainly water cannons from armored vehicles, tear gas and pepper spray.
“Under the circumstances, we may have to think of pre-emptive strikes and better electronic surveillance” before any riot could take place, the security official said.
According to defense analysts, the riots have become an existential threat to Erdogan’s government and must be tackled carefully.
“The government faces a dilemma here. On the one hand, it faces fearless crowds no gas or plastic bullets or excessive police force could disperse, and on the other, it must walk on eggshells while countering this threat because any new attempts to violently crush the uprisings would spark major Western outcry,” a defense strategist said. “I think Erdogan’s government already has lost a lot of credibility before its Western allies. Erdogan definitely needs to smartly fight the dissidents.”
Human Rights Watch on June 3 urged Erdogan’s government to “end police violence and excessive use of force against protesters across Turkey.”
US Vice President Joe Biden said on June 4 “only Turks can solve the problem of anti-government protests sowing unrest in Turkey.” He said the US is concerned and is not indifferent to the outcome.
And Secretary of State John Kerry said on June 3 that the administration of President Barack Obama is concerned about a crackdown on protesters and is urging Turkey to exercise restraint.
As it confronts its next chapter, the Turkish security official said Turkey — and whoever chooses to do defense business with the country — has ramifications to consider.
In the first three days of riots here and in Istanbul, Izmir and other big cities, the police used the equivalent of a year’s worth of tear gas and pepper spray, the security official said.
“On the one hand, there is need for immediate replenishments and on the other, politically speaking, gassing [protesters] has proved to be an instrument that is politically risky,” he said.