Istanbul's most important square was clouded in tear gas and drenched by water cannons as police moved to clear it of protesters on Tuesday, escalating tensions that have been brewing since demonstrators began camping out at the site two weeks ago. Dozens of injuries have been reported by demonstrators.
By Wednesday morning, only police and bulldozers could be seen on Taksim Square, and barricades and debris from the protests had already been cleared away. Although local officials had assured they didn't want to clear the protest camp at Gezi Park, activists claimed police surrounded it and pelted it with tear gas canisters during the night. Hundreds remain camped out in the park.
Hours earlier, in a televised speech before members of parliament with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an end to the protests at Taksim Square and elsewhere across Turkey. "For those who want to continue, it is over," he warned. Starting immediately, there would be "no tolerance," he said. Erdogan has also said he would meet on Wednesday with protest leaders.
Hüseyin Avni Multu, the governor of Istanbul, accused protesters of attacking police and said the police deployment would continue for as long as necessary. Officials also accused protesters of violence, saying they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at police.
Tuesday's crackdown has drawn criticism from the international community. "With its reaction to the protests so far, the Turkish government is sending the wrong signal -- both within the country and to Europe," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin on Wednesday. The foreign minister described freedom of speech and assembly as "inalienable" basic rights in every democracy. "We expect Prime Minister Erdogan to de-escalate the situation in the spirit of European values and to seek a constructive exchange and peaceful dialogue," he said.
The developments come at an awkward time for the European Union, which is considering steps later this month to move forward accession talks with Turkey that have been largely stalled since 2005. The rotating Irish EU presidency has been pushing for at least one more of the 35 negotiating chapters to be opened. So far, only one has been completed, with accession talks largely hindered by a failure to reach a deal over divided Cyprus.
Editorialists at leading German newspapers and across the political spectrum are roundly critical of Erdogan's heavy-handed response to the protests, with a number ridiculing the Turkish leader as an "autocrat."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Ever since he became prime minister, an air of distrust has surrounded Ergodan. How democratic is this man? Initially, it was Erdogan's religious roots that fueled this distrust, especially the religious character of his moderate Islamist AKP. Fears of an Islamization of Turkey dominated the first phase of a reign that has already lasted a decade. During this time, he used brutal means to subjugate the military stronghold of the generals to the primacy of politicians. He played with Turkey's Islamic character, particularly in terms of foreign policy. He wanted to make Turkey an example for a secular but still Islamically molded society. It was to take on a leadership role in the region."
"Today, it is clear that it Islam isn't really Erdogan's greatest temptation. It is power itself -- a pure lust for power that has gone to his head. Erdogan has continuously expanded his power base. His party men now hold positions in the judiciary and in the business sector, and the media seem to try to outdo each other to glorify him. There doesn't appear to be any opposition left within the apparatus. ... Erdogan is playing a dangerous game. ... At the most important moment of his time governing, he has decided to become a total autocrat."
Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"It's obvious that environmentalist protests and civil disobedience don't fit with Erdogan's system. He and his government feel provoked by the young people who want to prevent a construction project in the heart of Istanbul and are simply getting in the way. … On Tuesday, the police acted with excessive harshness and played up the fact that rioters were among the protesters. In light of the Turkish government's authoritarianism, the current plan to open up a new chapter in EU accession negotiations is fairly ignorant."
Left-wing Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"It's precisely these repressive, intolerant and far-reaching government actions that have turned protests against the felling of trees in a park into a nationwide uprising. Many people have simply had enough. It is in the nature of Erdogan's government that it does not understand the protest, babbling instead about a foreign conspiracy with domestic participation."
"Erdogan sees the quelling of this conspiracy not only as legitimate and necessary, but also as an act of self-defense. Only time will tell how long a country like Turkey can be governed on the basis of conspiracy theories. Not long, hopefully. It is the repression of the government that can turn a protest into a revolt."
Financial daily Handelsblatt addresses Erdogan's claim that speculators are among those inciting the violence:
"Whatever Erdogan's motives may be, his wild attacks against investors, bankers and investors are a risky gamble. Unlike many emerging countries, Turkey is dependent on the continuous inflow of foreign capital to finance its growth. … Turkey needs the confidence of investors. But Erdogan is scaring them with his bizarre excesses. The stock market crash and the lira's declining value show that masses of money are already flowing out of Turkey. Erdogan is playing with fire on his path of confrontation. The prime minister threatens not only the political stability of his country, but also its economic future."
Left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The fact that the prime minister in Ankara presumes to decide on the construction of a shopping center in distant Istanbul is a clear indication that he lacks democratic maturity. What does express democratic maturity, however, is the revolt against this arrogance of power. It is driven mainly by a young, urban middle class, which, in one of history's ironies, has a new self-confidence thanks to Erdogan's successful efforts to liberalize Turkey. After 90 years of authoritarian state rule, responsible citizens are reporting for duty."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Taksim Square will go down in history not as an environmental project, but as the scene of a clash of cultures that divides the Western-oriented secular Turkey from the Islamic-conservative Turkey. Here, tensions are being discharged that run right through Turkish history -- before and especially after the founding of the Turkish state by Kemal Pasha Atatürk, a revolutionary act that shattered the country's traditional forms and remains traumatic to this day."