Erdogan’s Muddled Plan For Yassiada Memorial

Erdogan uses a historical tragedy to initiate a profit-oriented project on Yassiada Island, the symbol of the 1960 coup that resulted in the execution of then-premier Adnan Menderes, the man Erdogan idolizes. 

al-monitor Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan displays a watch with a signature of former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes engraved on it, during a rally of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey's Black Sea city of Trabzon, July 20, 2007. Photo by REUTERS/Fatih Saribas.
Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin


Topics covered

turkish civilian-military relations, turkey

Jul 17, 2013

Yassiada is the symbol of the sorrows of Turkish democracy. It is the island where Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his aides stood trial following the May 27, 1960, military coup, before being sent to the gallows. Menderes, his foreign minister, Fatin Rustu Zorlu, and finance minister, Hasan Polatkan, were executed on Sept. 17, 1961, on Imrali Island, but it was Yassiada that lived on in Turkish memory as the symbol of mourning.

As Radikal Editor-in-Chief Eyup Can pointed out, people expected that Yassiada would become a place for painful remembrance, just as was Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years. The government, however, came up with a completely different option involving profit-making.

Deviation from original idea

Since 2003, Yassiada has been an invariable point of reference of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its vigorous advocacy of democratic reforms to undo the military tutelage. Now, step by step, the island has been zoned for construction to serve the tourism sector.

A protected historical area since 1976, Yassiada was further registered as a third-tier archaeological site in 2011, and then transferred to the Culture and Tourism Ministry to be used as a museum. In 2012, the “protected area” status of the island was abolished. In April 2013, fresh arrangements paved the way for the construction of recreational and tourist facilities there. According to Radikal, the latest development plan of the Environment and Urban Affairs Ministry includes the construction of the following facilities on the small, 10.37-hectare (25-acre) island: a “Democracy Lighthouse,” an “Eternity Quay,” a hotel and suites, a helicopter landing pad, a “Freedom Platform,” four cafes and restaurants, a park, a “Democracy Martyrs Memorial,” a library, a museum, a conference hall, a jetty, terraces and exhibition halls.

The plan sparked controversy since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had spoken only of building a “Freedom and Democracy Museum” on Yassiada to honor Menderes, the man he has idolized and upheld as his beacon in his rows with the opposition.

In 2011, Ertugrul Gunay, then-minister of culture and tourism, revealed the details of the planned museum when he took a group of journalists to Yassiada for a tour of the gymnasium where Menderes and his aides stood trial, and the rooms where they stayed. Under the plan, unlicensed buildings were to be demolished; buildings registered as historical sites were to be renovated, and the island’s military building, the symbol of the coup era, was to be repaired. No one had ever mentioned hotels and restaurants.

Judiciary could cancel project

Radikal journalist Omer Erbil, who has reported extensively on the issue, explained to Al-Monitor how the museum project became a touristic development plan: “A democracy museum on Yassiada is known to be Gunay’s idea. During his term, some preliminary work on the project was carried out. The existing buildings were to be renovated without any new construction, barring single-story reception facilities. But then, an idea emerged to use the build-operate-transfer model. The current project aims to ensure that the would-be contractor operates the island for profit.

"The island’s status as a protected area and historical site was ignored since the island’s existing land-utilization plan makes it impossible to draw up a financially profitable project. The development plans were modified to make sure that the island’s would-be operator makes profit. There would have been no need for such modifications had the state taken charge of the democracy museum.

"It was the idea for a profit-oriented private sector investment that led to the modifications that now threaten the island’s natural and historical fabric. The local municipality has filed objections against the plan. If the objections fail, the municipality will go to the courts, which will likely cancel the modifications. Moreover, the transfer contract between the Treasury and the Culture Ministry refers only to a museum. The new project breaches that contract, too.”

Indignation among Menderes’ relatives

Not surprisingly, the replacement of the museum plan with a tourist project sparked indignation. The most touching reactions came from relatives of the men who had ended up on the gallows. Menderes’ political comrades accused Erdogan of profiteering, while Polatkan’s wife and daughter, Mutahhara and Nilgun Polatkan, urged that Yassiada remain “an island of mourning.” Menderes’ daughter-in-law, Umran Menderes, added: “A different type of construction will hurt us all.”

Erdogan’s violent response to the Gezi Park protests has earned him many new enemies from various quarters. Now he appears to have antagonized even the followers of Menderes, the man he idealizes.

Gunay, the mastermind of the museum idea, was also infuriated and called the modified plan a “disrespect to the memory of the coup victims.”

The controversy broke just as Erdogan had turned up his rhetoric against the Gezi Park protests, identifying himself with Menderes and late president Turgut Ozal. Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek adorned the capital’s streets with posters reading “You hanged Menderes. You poisoned Ozal. We won’t let you eat up Erdogan.” The AKP youth branches used a digital version of the poster in a social media campaign.

Menderes Exploited’

In comments to Al-Monitor, Altan Oymen, the veteran journalist and former chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, argued that Erdogan’s obsession with Menderes was a tactic in playing the victimhood card. “Erdogan is seeking to capitalize on the reputation and popular affection Menderes enjoys. By identifying with Menderes, he is trying to create a sense of victimhood. The fact that he has come up with a touristic project after speaking of a democracy museum on Yassiada is an indication of his insincerity. The recent attitudes of the prime minister are hardly the smartest in the world. Erdogan’s identification with Menderes is void of any logic. He is creating the misleading impression that Menderes was hanged by the opposition and that Ozal was poisoned.

"It was a military court that hanged Menderes. Allegations that Ozal was poisoned are not proven. They are using baseless accusations in a bid to discredit the opposition. Moreover, (former prime minister) Ismet Inonu, whom Erdogan can’t stop attacking, made personally a series of attempts to stop the executions. For instance, he wrote a lengthy letter to the then-president, warning that the executions would have irreparable, disastrous consequences,” Oymen said.

On July 15, Erdogan was briefed about the details of the Yassiada project during a meeting of his party’s leadership. Despite the reactions, he has not shown any sign of stepping back. After all, he is not a leader known for stepping back in the face of criticism. So, we are faced with yet another fiat.

While converting historical issues to grave arguments in day-to-day politics, Erdogan has already failed the test on historical heritage. When the construction of the Marmaray project resulted in the discovery of Neolithic and Byzantine antiquities several years ago, he grumbled that “the project has been delayed by four years because of a few pots and pans.” Now, he is also failing the test on historical memory. 

Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called "Doğu Divanı" on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs.

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