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May 1stanbul

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The bosphorus watch

The events of Turkey's 2008 edition of May Day passed in a predictable fashion. Roughly 500 protesters were reportedly arrested, Turkish police exploded tear gas bombs in front of hospital entrances, protesters were pulverized by water cannons and beaten by batons.

As is typically the case during such crack downs, the actually number of people taken into custody undoubtedly exceeded official figures. May 1st is a time for security forces to take advantage of mayhem and "clean house" among unwanted members of society whether or not they are even participating in the day's events.

For this observer, and many seasoned expatriates living in Istanbul, there was little surprise concerning the level of flagrant brutality authorized by the Turkish government. One only has to look to the events that take place in the east of Turkey, in places such as Diyarbakır, to understand the potential of Turkish security tactics.

Unlike the east of Turkey, it was quite remarkable how well the events in Istanbul were caught on camera. As an American who vividly remembers the uproar that surrounded the Rodney King affair, it was unfathomable how oblivious the Turkish security forces acted despite being under a lens for much of the day.

Equally shocking was the indifferent line that seemed to be chosen by mainstream Western media outlets. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan provided a choice sound bite during the lead-up to May 1st - "It will be mayhem when the feet start to manage the head" - May 1st was not as widely analyzed as one would have hoped. This decision is particularly puzzling given the fact that Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries with a significant middle-class and is such a popular topic in the Western media in general.

Moreover, Turkey's May 1st demonstrations provide a rare view of less mainstream or "silenced" elements of Turkish politics. While the Turkish labor unions ultimately canceled their march on Taksim square, the day was a nationally-televised showcase for a much wider range of political distention than normally receives coverage in Turkey.

The May 1st footage also encouraged this observer to put Turkey in the context of the greater region. The events of May 1st proved that Turkey is not an exception among American neo-conservative backed governments, which are tacitly encouraged to repress political opposition. While Azerbaijan continues on its draconian path and therefore does not merit discussion, Georgia and to a lesser extent Armenia have quite recently witnessed government coordinated acts of repression. Georgian President Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, barely received a slap on the wrist in the West for his repression of opposition elements prior to making the decision to hold early presidential elections. Such is Misha's reward for representing the region's only stalwart against Russian imperialism.

Georgia and even Armenia are a "Wild West" in comparison to Turkey - Turkey is a much more affluent, stable and strategically important country compared to its neighbors in the Caucasus. While it therefore feels somewhat odd to compare Turkish politics and discord to that in Armenia or Georgia, the country's ceremonial May 1st repression ritual reminds one of just how easily Turkey's affairs can devolve if the circumstances are right. Despite its much greater levels of economic and democratic development, the events of May 1st remind one of the degree to which Turkey continues to be influenced by the insecurities of its corporatist core.