Violence In Turkey Casts Shadow On Olympic Bid

The city of Istanbul for the fifth time is bidding to host the 2020 summer Olympics. It pitched itself as "an emerged nation" to the Olympic Committee. But at the same time, NPR's Peter Kenyon tells guest host Wade Goodwyn, images of police firing tear gas canisters and water cannons at anti-development protesters seemed to send a different kind of message this week.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

We now turn to news out of Istanbul where police have withdrawn from central Taksim Square, and thousands of demonstrators have flooded in.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GOODWYN: The police withdrawal has ended the violent clashes that occurred over the last two days, but Turkey's prime minister seems determined to push through the park development project that sparked the demonstrations in the first place. Television images of police using tear gas and water hoses to disperse protesters complicates matters for a country vying to host the Olympic Games in 2020. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been out among the protesters today and joins us from Istanbul. Peter, welcome.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Wade

GOODWYN: What's the latest from the protest side, and what do you think today's events portend for the future?

KENYON: Well, after several more hours of tear gas and water can and spray, the riot police apparently got the order to withdraw. They left fairly quickly, and then downtown Istanbul was open. And as a result, what was an environmental rally to save a park is now what I would call a purely political opposition rally. Most parties from the left to the right are represented, with the exception, of course, of the ruling AK Party. There's also a wide range of interest groups and a good sprinkling of soccer fans. They tend to get invited to these things because they bring the drums and they have the loudest chants.

Now, what it all means for the future, I think some of the early social media calls to make this some kind of Turkish Arab Spring are a bit far-fetched. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still the most popular politician in Turkey. But there remains the problem of how to resolve this crisis.

There are so many people in the square and in the downtown area now. The prospect for violence goes up. We're already seeing some cars and property damaged. The prime minister needs to get these huge crowds off the streets, but how he'll manage that remains to be seen.

GOODWYN: The heavy police action has come under fire from Western governments and human rights groups. It seems a big of a black eye. This must be troubling to those pressing Turkey's bid to host the Olympics. What are you hearing?

KENYON: Well, the supporters are not happy, certainly. This is something Prime Minister Erdogan has invested a lot of political capital in. The government sees this as part of Istanbul's bid to promote itself as one of the leading cities of the world. Turkey's up against Madrid and Tokyo. The announcement's due this September.

So the backers were no doubt alarmed to see at least one international all-news channel today running continuous live coverage of these protests. They'll be hoping things calm down very quickly indeed.

GOODWYN: If Turkey does win the right to host the 2020 Games, I mean, there'll be bigger projects than this downtown. Is this reflective of a larger unhappiness with the government's urbanization policies?

KENYON: Well, I think it is that, Wade, and it's also even more. Erdogan just broke ground on a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait that'll plow up more large tracks of forest lands, a giant third airport's in the works. There's talk of another canal, even, running parallel to the Bosporus.

And let's say as this party has rolled over the opposition in election after election, it's gotten a lot more cavalier and no longer is worried about pushing its social conservative agenda. And this maybe what we're seeing is the first major backlash. And the one thing Prime Minister Erdogan does not want to see is for this to be the spark that revives Turkey's chronically weak opposition that could make next year's elections very interesting.

GOODWYN: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Wade.

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