Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said his Islamic-rooted government was open to “democratic demands” as he hit back at EU criticism of his handling of a week of deadly unrest.
Erdogan accused international allies of double standards after EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule called for a “swift and transparent” probe into police abuses against anti-government protesters in Turkey, a longtime EU hopeful.
“Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views,” Fule said at an Istanbul conference attended by Erdogan. “Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
In a sharp retort, Erdogan said: “In any European country, whenever there is a violent protest against a demolition project like this, believe me, those involved face a harsher response.”
Turkey’s trouble began when police cracked down heavily on a small campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park, spiralling into nationwide demos against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), seen as increasingly authoritarian.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators, injuring thousands and leaving three dead in mass unrest that has thrown up the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s decade in power.
Erdogan, who has dismissed the demonstrators as vandals and extremists, on Friday said that he was “against violence,” adding in a more conciliatory tone: “I’m open-hearted to anyone with democratic demands.”
Defying Erdogan’s latest call to end the protests, thousands massed peacefully on Istanbul’s Taksim Square for an eighth night, gathering in a festive atmosphere to a soundtrack of drums and pipe music. Large crowds also took to the streets of the capital, Ankara, with no reports of confrontation.
Bracing for Erdogan’s reaction to their continued demonstrations, many said they felt safe in Taksim, which has seen no police presence since police pulled out of the site on Saturday last week.
“Taksim is our palace,” 21-year-old student Eray Dilek said, adding that he was more nervous for protesters gathering in other cities.
In a bid to boost their profile, supporters of the protest movement raised more than US$100,000 in an online fundraising drive to run a full-page ad in the New York Times on Friday to explain why the demonstrators are so furious.
“People of Turkey have spoken: We will not be oppressed,” read the ad, saying that during Erdogan’s 10 years in power Turks have seen their civil rights and freedoms erode, with many journalists, artists and elected officials arrested.
Erdogan has likened the trouble in Turkey to the Occupy Wall Street movement that sprang up in the US in 2011 and inspired copycat protests in European cities.
However, the US embassy in Ankara wrote on its Twitter feed on Friday: “No US deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS.”
Analysts said the unrest risks scaring off the foreign financing on which Turkey’s recent economic development has largely relied.
The national doctors’ union says 4,785 people have been injured in the countrywide protests, 48 of them severely.
The unrest has left three people dead — two young protesters and a policeman, according to officials and doctors.
Critics accuse Erdogan of forcing conservative Islamic values on Turkey, a mainly Muslim but staunchly secular nation.
NATO member Turkey has long sought to join the EU, but efforts have stalled in recent years, with reticence over the country’s human rights record a key stumbling block.
Fule, the EU’s top official on the issue, said the bloc was sticking by the country’s membership bid.
While opposition to the premier is intense, the 59-year-old Erdogan has won three elections in a row and gained almost 50 percent of votes in 2011, having presided over strong economic growth.