In a café in Istanbul last week I listened as a man settling his bill complained loudly to the chef and owner about a nearby district that is now ‘full of Afghans’ who have fled the Taliban. He said the area was already crowded with Syrians, everyone speaks Arabic, you don’t see any Turks on the streets. The same evening, a far-right mob rioted in Altındağ, a low-income suburb of Ankara, targeting Syrian businesses and homes. They were angry because a Turkish teenager had been killed in a fight with Syrian refugees.
For the second time in its history, Hagia Sophia has been turned into a mosque. The first time was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Atatürk turned it into a secular museum in 1934. Last Friday, a court ruled that conversion to have been illegal. The first prayers will be held on 24 July, the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The move is widely seen as the latest step in the Islamisation of Turkish society under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP.
The last 16 people on trial for allegedly masterminding the 2013 Gezi Park protests were acquitted by an Istanbul court on Tuesday. On Monday, 230 Gezi activists in the small Thracian city of Kırklareli had already seen their charges quashed. It had seemed too much to hope for a similar decision in Istanbul. Outside the hearing, Republican Party (CHP) leaders waited, apparently ready to pronounce another day in the death of Turkish democracy. When the verdict came, Atatürk’s party seemed to find itself, once again, wrong-footed by the AKP. At least this time the surprise was a pleasant one. Within hours of his release, however, one of the 16, the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, was arrested on a new warrant, accused of involvement in the coup attempt of July 2016. Others had old charges against them reinstated.
A second Turkish drillship arrived in disputed waters off Cyprus last month to begin gas exploration. The boat, Yavuz, takes its name – like Istanbul’s new, third bridge over the Bosphorus – from the Ottoman sultan ‘Yavuz’ Selim I, who suppressed minority unrest in 16th-century Anatolia. The nickname translates as ‘resolute’ or ‘grim’.
In the end it was never even close. Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected mayor of Istanbul yesterday for the second time in three months, taking 54 per cent of the vote, more than double the share of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he ascended to the post in 1994.
President Erdoğan, once such an astute political operator, should have sensed early that rerunning the March election was a mistake. After winning a spirited first campaign, and bringing political fresh air to Istanbul for the fortnight he was in office in April, İmamoğlu’s movement only grew as the second ballot approached. His unapologetically upbeat campaign slogan, ‘Herşey çok güzel olacak’ (‘Everything will be OK’), was popular beyond the metropolis. It was reported that people mistakenly showed up to vote as far afield as Diyarbakır, a predominantly Kurdish city in the south-east.
On 31 March, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the opposition Turkish Republican Party (CHP) was elected mayor of Istanbul at the head of a National Alliance coalition. He was sworn in on 17 April, but removed from office this week when the Supreme Electoral Council announced that the vote will be re-run on 23 June.
İmamoğlu and the CHP will not have been unprepared for the decision. In a city of more than fifteen million people, he defeated the AKP candidate, Binali Yıldırım, by 23,000 votes at first tally. The government ordered a recount. To protect against tampering, polling station officials – supporters not of İmamoğlu so much as of Turkish democracy – slept next to the sacks of ballots waiting to be recounted. İmamoğlu’s majority was reduced to less than 14,000. But he had still won
Yiğit Aksakoğlu has been in jail in Turkey for four months. He and twelve others were imprisoned last November, awaiting trial on charges of ‘attempting to overthrow the government’ during the Gezi Park protests six years ago.
The other twelve have been released, but Yiğit – pronounced ‘Yeet’ – remains in the maximum security Silivri prison, west of Istanbul. He is held alongside Osman Kavala, now in his second year of arbitrary detention, and 14 others whom the Erdoğan government accuses of insurrectionary ambitions in a 600-page document of which only a few pages, lawyers say, have any legal significance.
Seven years ago, earthquakes in Blackpool led the coalition government to place a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in UK rock formations. Drilling resumed late last year. Opposition has always been resolute and well organised, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In a court hearing last autumn, the fracking company Cuadrilla announced that each day of delay at its Preston New Road operation saw it incur losses of £94,000. The figure was meant to cajole the courts, but may have had the unintended consequence of motivating protesters. By barricading roads, climbing aboard delivery trucks and taking legal action, campaigners have harried Cuadrilla and other firms every step of the way, shutting down fracking sites for days at a time.
With audiences stretching from Poland to Kazakhstan and throughout the Middle East, Turkey has in recent times become a large exporter of soap opera. There is more than a touch of TV melodrama to the way the Erdoğan government has unfolded the story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, engineering a rare deceleration in the pace of the world media, hooking global audiences on a drip feed of slow news. Nothing in the timing has been left to chance. Word that Khashoggi's remains had been found, and evidence of the act itself – three weeks ago now – was released to coincide with the opening day of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative, a.k.a. ‘Davos in the Desert’.
In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal. Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’