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One year on, Turkey's environmentalists embattled

Ever since the protests that split open Istanbul and Turkey last summer, a series of scandals have further rocked the country. Where does this leave Turkish environmentalists? DW takes a look.

In the frantic summer of protests that swept Turkey one year ago, the life of 30-year-old computer programmer Ali Yildirim took an abrupt and unexpected turn.

Braving tear gas and riot police - and neglecting his job at a well-paying software company - Yildirim joined millions of protesters in a pitched battle to save Gezi Park, a scrubby green space in central Istanbul that authorities planned to replace with a mall.

Protests soon roiled and grew across Turkey, exposing long simmering anger against the country's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Gezi protests in June 2013

The Gezi protests emboldened residents of Istanbul

But for Yildirim, the protests remained about the park where they began. "We were actually stopping this place from being bulldozed. It was an empowering moment," said the wiry-haired programmer. "I remember thinking, 'People really want try to protect Istanbul. Maybe we can really save our city.'"

Already that summer, Yildirim felt unease about the city's forested north, where the construction of a $30 billion (22 billion euros) airport threatened, by government estimates, to fell 2.5 million trees along the Black Sea coast. Nearby, the piers of a $3 billion Bosphorus bridge were taking shape above protected forest land, while officials spoke of a 45-km "crazy canal" that would turn Istanbul's western half into an island.

Yildirim decided to leave his job, co-founding an NGO to track and protest deforestation in northern Istanbul. "These projects mark the death of Istanbul as a livable city," he says.

One year of protests and public advocacy later, however, Yildirim has again taken up a full time job, pursuing his activism on weekends.

Greens snubbed

Opposing the development dash north of Istanbul, he says, has ironically been complicated by a corruption scandal that implicated the projects earlier this year. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled the corruption scandal a plot to topple his government, and called his party's convincing win in March elections an "Ottoman slap" against the scandal and his political opponents.

Ein Jahr nach Gezi Protesten in Istanbul

Many of Istanbul's envioronmentalists feel they've been transformed into the enemy

Erdogan accuses followers of the Gulen movement, an opaque religious order at odds with the governing party, of using its deep influence in the country's judiciary to illegally wiretap government officials and orchestrate the corruption scandal.

The scandal - propelled by a cascade of incriminating phone conversations leaked on the internet - has been muted by Erdogan's election win, but the prime minister has promised an impending crackdown on his enemies nonetheless. "If going after those [officials] committing treason is called a 'witch hunt,' then yes, we will perform a 'witch hunt," Erdogan said in a charged speech in April.

The simmering conflict has left environmentalists, emboldened one year ago by the Gezi protests' surge in anti-government anger, at the mercy of Turkey's intensely divisive national politics. "The government defines everything in terms of this conflict, and the public is forced to accept this," says Korhan Gumus, an urban planner and environmental activist. "A year ago, we were simply environmentalists. In this political climate, we're transformed into an 'enemy of the people.'"

Rule of law questioned

In February, environmentalists seemed to win a major victory when a court ordered a halt to construction the Istanbul airport, criticizing a government report that had underestimated the project's ecological costs. But Erdogan accused the court of being under the control of the Gulen movement, and openly denounced its decision."Will these people stop us? They will not," Erdogan said in a February speech. "We will not stop because the real lawlessness is the plan to block these projects."

Ein Jahr nach Gezi Protesten in Istanbul

'If you can't have a functioning environmental movement in your country, it's a sign your democracy isn't working'

In March, a court ordered a halt to construction of a sprawling, palace-like complex of offices located on the outskirts Turkey's capital of Ankara. The half-finished buildings, slated to be future address of Turkey's Prime Ministry, has been built on protected forest land, an Ankara court ruled. "If the court has the power, let them come and tear it down," the prime minister said.

"When the rule of law is so easily ignored, you've lost the basis of a functioning environmental movement, or really, any kind of civil movement that relies on courts as an outlet to challenge the state," said Sabanci University professor and green activist Umit Sahin. "If you can't have a functioning environmental movement in your country, it's a sign your democracy isn't working."

Sahin explained the legal process for challenging development was already deeply troubled. Court cases against building projects typically begin long after construction beings, he said, pointing to the municipal project that would have demolished Gezi park last year. Only last month, a court ruled the larger project unlawful, a year and a half after construction on the larger project of roads around the park began.

"You have a system that's already deeply flawed, and instead of improving it, you're throwing it out the window," said Sahin.

Guarantee on mega projects

Environmentalists have also balked at a new government measure that would provide funding guarantees for mega projects, allowing the Treasury to cover a company's debt for any infrastructure project more valuable than $470 million.

Ein Jahr nach Gezi Protesten in Istanbul

'All we can do is continue to protest and state our case as before'

The law has been lambasted by opposition lawmakers as a work-around for state projects that can't secure private funding, while economists have raised concerns over the debt burden it could put on tax payers.

"Nearly every Turkish politician promises an outlandish mega project at some point," said Ipek Akpinar, an architecture professor at Istanbul Technical University. "The problem has always been getting the money. Erdogan managed to do that through a decade of strengthening the economy, but this new law would simply be a blank check."

Turkey's corruption scandal has already suggested close financial cooperation between the state and favored companies. A leaked police report implicates executives from Cengiz Insaat, one of the leading contractors for Istanbul's new airport, of agreeing to finance the purchase of a newspaper at the request of the government last year. Ankara has denied the validity of that report.

Akpinar worries that the law could help underwrite the government's most ambitious megaproject yet, a 45-kilometer canal that would run parallel to Istanbul's Bosporus waterway. "A project this large, environmentally destructive, and dubiously useful appeared stillborn because of financing issues," said Akpinar. "Now, perhaps this will make the project possible."

Uncertainty prevailing

As Turkey democratic institutions appear weaker - and its political atmosphere far more polarized - in the year after the Gezi park protests, activist Sahin says greens have limited options. "We don't have a magic wand to make the government listen. All we can do is continue to protest and state our case as before."

Sipping an after-work tea on a recent spring evening, activist Yildirim agreed. "It's true, we were also felt helpless before Gezi last year, like we couldn't stop a single decision of the government," he said. "But it's different now. After seeing so many steps backwards, it's hard to imagine how we can go forwards right now."

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