The international media has turned its gazing eye away from Turkey after the street battles ignited over the demolition of Gezi Park gradually died out. Since late August however, the proposed construction of a motorway in Ankara that runs roughly parallel to the ODTÜ (Middle East Technical University) campus – partially through its forests – and two residential neighbourhoods has provoked similar reactions from communities not only in Ankara, but also worried citizens in other urban centres including but not limited to Istanbul and Izmir.
The resemblance between what happened in Gezi Park and what is now happening in Ankara is worryingly close. On this note, EU’s envoy to Turkey has also voiced concerns that “some people have not learned their lessons”.
It is important to stress that the Gezi Park demonstrations garnered its initial support due to the illegal nature of the construction. Constructions in the Park had started before a legal warrant had been obtained. Similarly, the motorway project that runs through two neighbourhoods and a forest within ODTÜ grounds that constitutes an environmental protection site can not go ahead before the Environmental Protection Council and the Archeological Preservation Council provide a report to the Ministry, the Council of State approve the construction, and the legal appeals are finalised by the courts. Although this process has not been finalised, the construction work is well under way amidst strong opposition.
In both cases, it is the attitude of the authorities, their complete disregard for formal and legally binding ways of conduct, their vitriolic disapproval of reasonable dissent that is causing such deep resentment. In short, the local municipalities are acting as if they are above the law.
Brief background on the motorway project and resistance against it:
For many years now, Ankara’s Governor Melih Gökçek has commented on occasion about his desire to construct a road through the ODTÜ campus. This plan was finally announced and it became clear that the Ankara municipality would be constructing a motorway that runs along the ODTU university campus and actually through the 100. Yıl and Çiğdem neighbourhoods. This project was announced in mid/late August and immediately provoked dissent from the residents of the two neighbourhoods affected and students of ODTÜ university.
In response to the motorway project, residents of the neighbourhoods and ODTÜ students started holding protests in late August. Right next to the ongoing construction site, tents were erected and protest were organised by the 100. Yıl Initiative, the Çayyolu Üç Fidan Park Forum and the Anıtpark Forum, mainly constituting ODTÜ students.
The protests have intensified since Sept. 6. The police’s repeated interventions into protests with water cannons and tear gas has also stirred supporting protests across the country over the past few weeks. On the other hand, students and activists have been resisting the police, often using fireworks in response to tear gas.
Its worth pointing out that the motorway construction is a separate issue to the proposed construction of another road that actually cuts right across (East-West) ODTÜ grounds. The motorway project is one that builds a road between Anadolu Boulevard and the Konya Highway on the North-East corner of the campus.
The road project was given the go-ahead by the university’s administration despite ODTÜ’s forest being a declared “SİT” area, meaning that it is a protected site where construction is forbidden, following a Ministry of Culture ruling in 1995. However, the university had no alternative in the matter since the road has been a part of the zonal planning documents that go back over 20 years and are binding.
ODTÜ said the ministry notified the university about the modified redevelopment plan on Oct. 11 and the university administration told authorities not to act to implement the plan because ODTÜ had some reservations about the modified plan. ODTÜ said they had one month to object to the proposed plan and Ankara Metropolitan Municipality officials assured the university that they would not act before receiving the university’s objections.
Police and construction workers raid ODTU campus and uproot 3000 trees over night
Although such assurances were given, road construction teams and heavy duty machines entered the ODTÜ campus around 10 p.m. on the night of Oct. 18, the last day of the Feast of Sacrifice. Around 3000 trees were hacked down by construction workers under the protection of police whilst the sudden start of the road construction triggered a protest as demonstrators gathered via social media calls. Although officials claim that 600 pine trees were repotted elsewhere, it doesn’t take a botanist to deduce that such statements are a last ditch attempt at saving face.
Police resorted to the usual tear gas treatment to disperse protesting groups. Clashes went on until the early hours of the morning where the whole campus was engulfed in tear gas, including areas which hold student halls of residence. (link in Turkish)
In response to the violation of ODTÜ campus, the Rector’s office has published a statement which details exactly how the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality have disregarded the rule of law and state that they are pressing charges.
The construction work within the ODTÜ campus started on October 18th, but parts of the road that are outside university grounds have been ongoing since late August.
On October 21, a group of students and residents who opposed the uprooting of trees went and repotted saplings where the road was being constructed. In response to the protests, the construction worker thugs attacked the protesters. Police were late on the scene..
Shortly after, our beloved PM Erdoğan took centre stage stating that “we would even demolish a mosque to build a road…Everything can be sacrificed for roads, because roads are civilisation. But those who are not civilised do not know the roads’ value. In our values, roads do not recognise any obstacle.”
Resons for opposition
In a written statement, (link in turkish) the inhabitants of 100. Yıl and Çiğden stressed their opposition to the project. The road that is being built is an 8 lane highway that is expected to carry 40,000 vehicles daily. Of this road, 4km runs directly through the neighbourhoods of 100. Yıl and Çiğdem. The residents are rightfully worried of air and noise pollution. They demand that the potential damages such a motorway would have on their health to be researched before the construction gets underway.
Secondly, the statement makes specific objection to the pontifical attitude of the municipality. The municipal authority sees a city plagued by traffic congestion. Their solution is the construction of a new road. Their way of actualising the project however is deeply flawed. Not only is the municipality not consulting those who will be most affected by the construction, they are also acting out of accordance with the due-process-of-law: the construction has not waited for the approval from councils or for the legal appeals to be heard. In terms of entering ODTÜ by force, the Rector’s Office has stated that the forced entry into private property is also a breach of their rights.
Apart from the grievances of the residents, the ODTÜ foot of the project has caused opposition from the university due to environmental concerns. ODTÜ’s leafy campus is one of the greenest areas of Ankara and has become an oasis of trees in recent years, after a construction boom in the surrounding area that also increased the traffic volume. The road project requires the destruction of around 3,000 trees, not to mention that about 400m of the proposed road comprises an environmental protection site (SİT), which holds precedence over zoning plans for infrastructure constructions. In short, the 1995 decision declaring the forests a protected site overrules the 1994 zonal planning documents which draw planning for a road through the forest. This is legally binding under laws 2863 and 5226.
Symbolically, what drives the attitude of the authorities home is their choice in uprooting the trees and starting its construction works in the dead of night only hours after the national holiday had technically ended. The fact that ODTÜ were not informed of the plan to enter their property for construction work is also seen to be in bad faith.
Melih Gökçek: Master Provocateur
The tension between the authorities and the communities are greatly exacerbated at every turn due to the provocative attitude of the municipality and governor Melih Gökçek in specific. For example, Gökçek had targeted academics at ODTÜ stating, “200 trees will be relocated. Some agitators are goading the masses. According to the incriminating evidence given to us, these agitators are Prof. Ali Gökmen from ODTÜ’s Department of Chemistry and his wife”.
To give another example, the morning after the midnight dozer raid into ODTÜ property, Gökçek wrote on his twitter account: “Last night our friends surprised me as well. They managed to open the ODTU road in one night. May it bring good fortune to Ankara…”
Just to contextualise -should I say de-contextualise- what this action amounts to, this is a succinct metaphor that I found circulating on the issue:
“Consider that the city of Boston decided to build a highway running right through the MIT Campus. And consider that, instead of waiting for the legal procedures to finalise and appeals to be resolved etc., they attack the MIT campus in the middle of the night on Christmas day with an army of heavy construction machinery and workers, along with hundreds of police officers dressed in riot gear, gassing and beating anybody protesting their actions all over the MIT campus, students, professors, ordinary citizens, all the same. This is exactly what is happening at the Middle Eastern Technical University, Turkey’s top university.”