After an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine in April 1986, a plume of highly radioactive material shot high into the sky and spread across the western territories of the Soviet Union and Europe. For several days, Soviet leadership stayed silent about the explosion.

In the midst of this silence, Ukrainians unknowingly breathed in, drank, and ate poison. Once the public became aware of the accident, anti-nuclear sentiment in the country slowly grew into a powerful mass movement. Activists politicized the environmental movement, and anti-nuclear rallies became a space to demand local decision-making rights and foster a sense of Ukrainian national identity.

Fast forward to late May 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey, where a small group of activists staged a protest at Gezi Park, one of the last-remaining green spaces in the city. They were there to stop the park’s demolition. After several days of protest, the police forcibly removed the protestors with tear gas and pepper spray. This show of violence from the police sparked a bigger series of protests, which for several days were ignored by Turkish TV channels, as though nothing was happening. Quickly, a demonstration that began as a small-scale protest for environmental protection exploded into a nation-wide movement that decried corruption, media censorship, and state-sanctioned violations of democratic principles.

The mass movements in both countries saw the convergence of environmentalism and nationalism, albeit in different ways. In Ukraine, environmental issues and concerns about the nuclear program catalyzed national identity and demands for local decision-making. The environmental concerns at the foundation of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey were subsumed entirely by broader narratives about the political and social destiny of the Turkish Republic.

The Soviet Union’s Environmental Legacy and the Anti-Nuclear Movement in Ukraine

For a mix of ideological, political, and economic reasons, the Soviet Union approached the environment as a machine that could be controlled. Soviet bureaucracy encouraged massive development projects, set in motion by ambitious planning efforts. Armed with science and confident in the idea man can control nature, the Soviets launched projects to divert rivers and move forests, rip raw materials from the ground, and build huge, inefficient factories.

The Soviet nuclear industry was especially emblematic of the USSR’s quest to control nature. Nuclear science, which enables people to manipulate the smallest building blocks of the universe, was seen as the ultimate symbol of humankind’s dominance over nature. Military and civilian nuclear industries both grew rapidly after the Soviet Union obtained nuclear technology during World War II. The goal was to build as many nuclear facilities as possible, without worrying about managing the safety of sites. Regulations were lax, and nuclear sites were often haphazardly managed.

1980 marked the beginning of the USSR’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan, part of which focused on the expansion of the Soviet nuclear program. In his book Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR, David Roger Marples describes the plan as “ambitious in scope” and “well beyond the capabilities of those constructing Soviet nuclear power plants.” The capacities of existing plants increased, and construction on nine new plants was slated to begin within a year – four were in Soviet Ukraine.

As these plants were being built, Moscow churned out propaganda promising the “absolute safety” of nuclear power facilities. The absence of objective information and lack of any Ukrainian nuclear scientists or a Ukrainian branch of the Ministry of Atomic Energy and Industry meant the expansion was met with no resistance.

This all changed with the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear facility on April 26, 1986. The Chernobyl incident meant the safety of maintaining so many nuclear sites was no longer certain. But, after the explosion, it took time for Ukrainian society to reassess its beliefs about nuclear power. By 1988, the political climate had become more open though, and people in Ukraine became more aware of the environmental danger posed by the Soviet nuclear power program.

Independent organizations dedicated to environmental protection and stopping nuclear technology slowly began to develop. In her book Eco-Nationalism, Jane Dawson describes the development of an anti-nuclear mass movement in Ukraine. It began with a community of writers and intellectuals who founded a republic-wide environmental association called Zelenyi Svit (Green World). This national project trickled down to local communities, and clubs sprung up around the rest of the country. People in cities near nuclear sites began to mobilize for rallies and participate in petition drives. Gradually the political tone changed, and demands for environmental protection converged with the development of a Ukrainian national identity. Dawson says that over time, “the overlap between anti-nuclear demands and demands for more decision-making rights became quite obvious to all.”

The immediate aims of the anti-nuclear group included a moratorium on nuclear energy projects, while developing more localized decision-making and independence from the Soviet Union. The moratorium was achieved in 1990, but its success was circumscribed after Ukraine’s independence, which was gained in 1991.

When Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, fighting the nuclear power program was also a way to fight against reckless policies and, more abstractly, Soviet colonialism. After independence, however, nuclear power stations signified sovereignty and control over the country’s energy flow. The fact that other reactors at the Chernobyl plant remained in operation until 2011 shows just how desperate the Ukrainian government was to control its energy production.

While the environmental movement was a catalyst for Ukrainians to rally around a national identity, once this identity was created, the goals of nationalism superseded environmental concerns. Political reform and a crashing economy took priority, and it became almost impossible to generate mass support for environmental initiatives.

The Turkish Government’s Environmental Problems and the Gezi Park Protests

The Turkish state has also maintained a techno-managerial approach to development and the environment, though using less extreme methods than the Soviets. Since replacing the Ottoman Empire in 1924, the Turkish government has been a “strong state” that has controlled the country’s decision-making processes, sometimes at the expense of basic democratic principles.

As a result, the Turkish government has often made decisions with detrimental environmental impacts, including several 5-year plans that have called for the construction of massive dams, highways, and mines, and intensive industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, the government has also acted unilaterally to protect the environment (or at least to pay lip service to this goal). For instance, Article 56 of the constitution, which was added following the 1980 coup, boldly states: “Everyone has the right to live in a healthy, balanced environment.” In line with this decree, the government created institutions, like the Under-secretariat of the Environment in 1987 and the Ministry of the Environment in 1992. Though a number of civic organizations have an environmental streak, such as the Animal Conservation Association or the Turkish Association of Foresters, these organizations were not independent from the government and fairly limited in their jurisdiction.

The Turkish state’s theory of governance and approach to environmental protection has caused tension in some parts of the country, especially those suffering the most serious environmental costs of economic development. This includes the western city of Bergama, where locals launched a campaign to stop the operation of a nearby gold mine. In a 2010 article for Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade, Murat Arsel, a professor of environment and development at The Hague Erasmus University Rotterdam, argues the Bergama activists were not just reacting to the environmental damage caused by the local mine; they were also responding to “far-reaching political [and] economic changes that have been implemented in Turkey since the early 1980s.” In this way, the activists’ advocacy around environmental protection and natural resources converged with their thoughts about how the government should approach economic development.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which have been in power since 2002, have continued this tradition of making economic development decisions without consulting the population. Erdogan has overseen many massive, centralized projects, which often have little regard for the environment and impact on local communities.

This trend has ramped up in recent years. In 2011, Erdogan signed a deal with Russia to begin construction on a nuclear power plant near the Mediterranean city of Mersin in 2016. The Ilisu dam, currently under construction in southeastern Turkey, threatens to submerge Hasankeyf, a city with a rich history and many priceless structures, under 200 feet of water. Erdogan’s initiatives in Istanbul, which has a population of more than 15 million, have been especially controversial. The slate of massive projects has included a giant airport complex, an underwater canal to link the two halves of the city, and a third bridge to connect Europe with Asia.

Strangely, Erdogan considers himself an environmentalist, and (incorrectly) conflates environmentalism with planting trees across the country. When people have protested against the construction of dams or major shopping complexes, Erdogan has responded to these concerns about accountability and democratic decision-making by vowing to plant more trees. Despite the promised foliage, Istanbul is rapidly losing its green spaces, as parks and forests are destroyed in favor of commercialized spaces and more roads.

In April 2013, Erdogan announced the rebuilding of a historic military barracks over Gezi Park, the only park and public green space near Taksim Square. His announcement was met with fierce criticism from city planners and environmentalists. What began as a small demonstration – about 50 people gathered at the park to prevent its demolition – exploded into Turkey’s largest public demonstration in three decades.

Trees and the environment were a major part of the protests’ symbolism. In an article for Bülent magazine, written just a week after the protests began, editor Izzy Finkel described how the poet Nazim Hikmet’s words “To live! Like a tree, alone and free/ To live! Like a forest in unity” hung on protesters’ posters and placards around the city.

The environmental beginnings of the protest movement quickly morphed into a broader fight about Turkish nationalism and democracy. Turkey is a politically polarized country, with both sides, secularist and Islamist, fiercely believing in their respective visions for the Turkish nation. As national political identity converged with the Gezi protests, the environmental movement in Turkey suffered.

Since the events of 2013, protests about trees and nature are no longer viewed as non-threatening and apolitical by the government. Any criticism of massive development projects based on environmental concern is, instead, perceived as an attack against Erdogan’s regime. Computer programmer turned environmental activist Ali Yildirim spoke to the German publication DW in March 2014 about the dire situation facing Turkey’s environmental movement since the Gezi protests:

“It’s true, we were also felt helpless before Gezi last year, like we couldn’t stop a single decision of the government. … But it’s different now. After seeing so many steps backwards, it’s hard to imagine how we can go forwards right now.”

Ever since Gezi, Erdogan has also felt even more emboldened than before to ignore democratic processes and the courts. This attitude was on display when he decided to move forward with building a palace-like Prime Ministry complex in a protected forest in Ankara despite multiple court orders (the first in March, the second in June 2014) against the construction.

What Can Turkish Environmentalists Learn From Their Counterparts in Ukraine?

It may be misleading to reduce the concerns of Ukraine’s anti-nuclear movement or the Gezi Park protests to the environment; both obviously encapsulate more than this. But, the Ukrainian case shows that once environmental movements become politicized, strictly environmental goals can fall to the wayside in the face of political threats. Similarly, when nationalism comes into play, political issues almost inevitably supersede environmental goals.

Given this circumstance and Turkey’s recent environmental history, perhaps activists in Turkey should consider reevaluating their strategy. If Turkish environmentalists want to achieve their goals, perhaps it is best for environmental issues to be tackled separately from political ones.

Ukraine’s environmentalists initially succeeded because the Soviet government saw their message as non-threatening. The apolitical nature of demonstrations about trees and clean water made these activists harmless in the eyes of the state. There is much work to be done in order to save Turkey’s environmental resources, but history shows the movement will be more successful by avoiding political and nationalist narratives. Turkey’s environmentalists should take heed of these lessons and distance themselves from more explicit ideological and political messages.

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