Turkey’s Democracy and Liberties Island: a site of memory, or the AKP’s new profit-making venture

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Alin Ozinian

A huge, luxury hotel — built on Yassıada, the infamous Istanbul island where former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his aides stood trial following the May 27, 1960 military coup and were imprisoned by the junta — opened its doors for business on Aug. 18.

The execution of Menderes had taken place on İmralı Island, but for most Turks it was Yassıada that lived on as the symbol of the military’s removal and unjust sentencing of Menderes — the republic’s first democratically elected leader — and the sorrows of Turkish democracy.

Menderes established the Democrat Party (DP) in 1945, which broke away from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which had been governing the country under a single-party system since the founding of the republic in 1923.

Therefore, people expected that Yassıada, meaning “Flat Island” in Turkish, would become a place for painful remembrance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, however, came up with a completely different option that involved making a profit.

Construction started on Yassıada – an untouched piece of nature and uninhabited island 16 kilometers off Istanbul — despite the objections of environmentalists. Following a total transformation and the construction of new facilities, Erdoğan inaugurated the “Democracy and Liberties Island” on May 27, 2020, the 60th anniversary of the 1960 coup.

“Yassıada, which was the scene of one of the darkest periods in the history of democracy, was reborn as the Democracy and Liberties Island,” Turkey’s Communications Directorate said in a public announcement the same day.

Yektan Türkyılmaz, an anthropologist and a visiting scholar at Central European University in Vienna, thinks there is an important link between the transformation of the island and the AKP’s best-known domestic and foreign policies.

“On a tiny island, they built a hotel, a mosque and a conference hall, the very clear symbols of the Erdoğan regime that he leaves everywhere he touches. For me, the hotel symbolizes profit-oriented policies, while the mosque symbolizes Islamic belief and the conference hall symbolizes propaganda. These are the codes of the Erdoğan regime that we see in everything — from environmental policy to foreign policy,” Türkyılmaz told Turkish Minute.

“What happened on the island is not the only a reflection of AKP policies, but over and above that, there is also a scandal. A place you call a ‘site of memory’ cannot be a place of entertainment. The purpose of these places is to improve visitors’ understanding of what happened there in the past and to stand up against similar crimes and evils,” says Türkyılmaz, whose fields of study are notions of collective violence, memory-making and reconciliation.

“But a hotel is a place of pleasure. The purposes of hotels are different. Visitors will spend their holiday there; they will eat, drink and have a good time. It’s a matter of great insincerity and disrespect, Erdogan’s priority is the distribution of profit among his friends,” Türkyılmaz added.

The idea of building a museum on the island was first mentioned by Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş and then-Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay during a visit to Yassıada in 2011.

The plans changed, and turning Yassıada into a tourist center has taken five years and $74 million, while the island’s natural landscape and its archaeological heritage are endangered. The island was transformed into the home of a monumental complex that includes a 125-room hotel, a 600-seat conference hall, a mosque, a museum and exhibition halls, as well as cafes and restaurants.

The luxury Katre Island Hotel, which covers almost the entire island with its huge and expensive suites, is a project of Gümrük ve Turizm Işletmeleri Ticaret A.Ş (GTI) (Customs and Tourism Enterprises Co., Inc.), a partnership of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges and 137 chambers and commodity exchanges in 2005.

The Katre Island Hotel — boasting some special rooms where the bathrooms are covered in gold leaf, is being promoted by Tourism Minister Mehmet Ersoy’s company, ETS Tour. Room prices at the hotel, which provides an indoor pool and spa services, start at $150 a night and go up to $9,000.

In 2019 Günay, the former minister of culture and tourism and the originator of the museum idea, called the modified plan “disrespectful to the memory of the coup victims.” Günay said the present state of the island was a deviation from the original plans. “The Democracy and Liberties Island has become an isle of tourism and concrete,” said Günay.

According to Türkyılmaz, Erdogan is seeking to capitalize on the reputation and affection Menderes enjoys among Turkish society; however, Erdoğan’s obsession with Menderes and Yassıada is a tactic in playing the victimhood card.

“We should also take into account that Erdoğan started to speak about the renovation of the island just after the Gezi Park protests, when he was weak and trying to regain his power and reputation,” says Türkyılmaz.

“By identifying himself with Menderes, Erdoğan is trying to create a sense of victimhood. He wants to convince his electorate that one day ‘they’ will do the same to him and his party, and therefore people should support him at all costs,” he adds.

In May 2013, a group of activists staged a sit-in at Istanbul’s Gezi Park, protesting the Turkish government’s plans to demolish the park to build a replica of the Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks that would include a shopping mall. The forced eviction of protesters from the park and the excessive use of police force sparked an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations. Around 3 million people took to the streets across Turkey over the course of three weeks to protest a wide range of concerns.

At that time former Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek inundated the capital’s streets with posters reading, “You hanged Menderes. You poisoned Özal. We won’t let you devour Erdoğan.” The AKP youth branches used a digital version of the poster in a social media campaign.

According to the AKP government, the island, by leaving its dark history behind, will be a memorial to the Menderes era. For example, the 24-meter Democracy Lantern “will symbolize the transition from darkness to light and the future of democracy.” Moreover, the island will host national and international democracy and human rights meetings, the results of which will be shared on a global level.

According to Türkyılmaz, for all right-wing politicians in Turkey, Menderes is an important figure of their own victimization.

“I think they are extremely insincere when commemorating Menderes and the injustice he faced. By demonstrating that Menderes was wronged, they want to show that right-wing politicians in Turkey are always under threat. But this ‘threat’ has already turned into paranoia,” he says.

Since 2003, from the first day Erdoğan’s government took power, Menderes’ execution has been a constant reference for the AKP regarding its policy of democratic reform and the elimination of military pressure on politics. “We are realizing Menderes’s dream. They may have executed him, but he is not forgotten. He is in our hearts,” Erdoğan had said on the campaign trail in 2014.

“The 1960 coup was not only a coup but also a murder of law. What was killed on that day was the will of the people, Turkish history, culture, values and beliefs,” he said at the inauguration ceremony of the Democracy and Liberties Island on May 27, 2020.

“If their wish is to bring historical injustices to the surface and remember victimized people who had different political preferences and ethnic identities, then there are many victims in this country. Therefore, they should deal with them as well. If they are sincere and really demand justice, they should first talk about the Armenian genocide and other massacres,” says Türkyılmaz.

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