Student protests in Turkey
„A Legitimate Fight for Democracy and Human Rights“

A conversation with liberal student Deniz Karakullukcu about the protests at Bogazici University
Studierende der Bogazici Universität treffen vor der Universität auf Spezialkräfte der Polizei
Studierende der Bogazici Universität treffen vor der Universität auf Spezialkräfte der Polizei, © picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com | Jason Dean

Students of the prestigious Bogazici University in Istanbul protesting for weeks against the appointment of pro-government rector Melih Bulu by Erdogan. The university is considered a "citadel of liberalism". The dispute is about much more than a personnel decision. We spoke to the liberal student and member of the new centrist DEVA party Deniz Karakullukcu about the current situation.

The protests at Bogazici University have been going on for weeks now. How is the mood of the students on the campus and the status of the protest movement?

Students continue to protest peacefully every day in front of the trustee's office (we don’t call it ‘’rector’s office anymore). The academics, as well as the students, turn their backs to the trustee's office and read a joint statement in the campus all week days. There are many plainclothes police on the campus and hundreds of armed policemen are on guard with armored vehicles outside the campus and in the neighborhood of the university. But in the past two weeks, there has been virtually no fighting between the police and protesters as the protests have been drawn into the campus from off campus. As of February 16, 9 of our fellow students are still in detention just because they have organized peaceful protests using their constitutional rights. We are very sorry that our friends are under arrest, but the government's taking them hostage does not discourage us; on the contrary, their sacrifice because of our legitimate struggle makes us stronger. Students continue to stand up, maintain the stability and continuity of the protests, and use effective methods both physically and on social media to make their voices sound louder. For example, the video "I am sorry for my country" which was made recently by a few Boğaziçi students was watched by tens of millions of people and shared by many opposition politicians.

The government has reacted very harshly to the protest. How would you describe the reactions of the government and do you see any hope that they may give in to your demands?

The AKP government is angry with the deep-rooted institutions of this country, especially schools and universities, and they do not have the slightest respect for their traditions and demands. Students and academics have three legitimate demands: autonomy of universities, recognition of academic freedoms and internal democracy. The government, on the other hand, uses all the resources at its disposal to criminalize peaceful protests in which these legitimate demands are voiced, and tries to target those who participate in the protests. In the first days of the protests, the president said the protesters were not students, but members of the PKK and DHKPC. According to the government, the opposition and terrorist organizations want to create large-scale social events in order to overthrow the government by using the appointment of the rector. The government tries to exploit the national and moral values ​​of the majority of the society in order to gain public support to legitimize these claims, and while doing so, they do not hesitate to target the minorities and LGBTI + individuals in the country.

If the president accepts the students' demands, his authority will be damaged, because it would the first time that an opposition force makes Erdoğan back off. The government also opened two new faculties to the university last week, following the appointment of the trustee, and it did so with a decree issued overnight without consulting any faculty member or university component. Considering these developments, detentions and the government taking advantage of provocations, I do not think that students' demands will be answered positively. However, what makes the protests valuable is not only the possibility of success, but also the fact that an honest and legitimate struggle for democracy to protect rights and freedoms is being waged despite all pressures.

Studenten auf dem Campus der Universität
Deniz Karakullukcu mit Parteifreunden (Alumni und aktuellen Studierenden) der DEVA Partei auf dem Campus der Universität.

Some observers have compared the present situation to the Gezi protests of 2013. What is your opinion, is this a good comparison?

I don’t think so. Yes, the Gezi events took place with the demand for the protection of rights and freedoms, and democracy too, but here we are talking about the protests that have a much more specific focus and almost all of the participants are university students. After the Gezi events, the authoritarianism of the government increased, Turkey became more and more illiberal and the economy deteriorated with the loss of our country’s reputation as a result. The government convinced its voters that the Gezi events were an attempt by the opposition and (in their own own words) "foreign powers" to overthrow the government and all of the problems that Turkey is facing since 2013 is rooted in this ‘’treacherous action’’. In other words, the effort to compare the protests in the Boğaziçi University to the Gezi events by government is entirely a part of their politics of polarization and fear.

The protests have focused on the university, how have been the reactions in the wider society to the students’ demands?

According to  a reliable survey, nearly 75 percent of the public find it wrong to appoint unelected rectors to universities, but only half of voters cordially support students' protests. The reason for this is that the government retains all the press and media organs and only allows voices that support their own discourse to be heard. The majority of the people in Turkey still follow the news only through television, and conscious use of social media is unfortunately very low. For this reason, citizens do not see what really happened in Boğaziçi, but the parts of the protests that the government reflects on them. However, I think that people who see police violence and students being unfairly arrested are not having any of those lies anymore. For example, although the government claimed that the detained students were affiliated with terrorist organizations, the courts declared them innocent and quickly released them, which shows that the government will not be able to maintain this discriminating discourse for a long time.

Finally, a short comment on to the role of political parties. You are a founding member of the new centrist DEVA Partisi. What is the position of your partly and that of other opposition parties regarding the protests?

The DEVA Party became the first political party to react to the appointment of the trustee-rector by making a statement against the appointment of the trustee-rector a few hours after the appointment of the trustee-rector, and many times invited the trustee-rector to resign and invited the government to allow democratic elections in universities. In the first protest that took place two days after the appointment, our party's 4 founding members, including myself, Istanbul provincial vice presidents and board members were also present. Lawyers affiliated to the Istanbul Provincial Directorate of the DEVA Party were present at the police headquarters to provide legal support to the unjustly arrested students. In the following days, lawyers affiliated to our provincial directorates in the cities where the protests took place, also provided legal support to students who were subjected to police violence and arrested during student protests in different cities to support Boğaziçi University. In the early days of the protests, other political parties avoided protests, both in order to avoid possible provocations and to "politicize" students' protests, as the course of the protests was ambiguous. But after police violence, unjust arrests, violations of rights, and the rise of the government's polarization policy and hate language, the entire opposition began to react harshly to the government and the ‘’trustee’’.

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Helena von Hardenberg
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