Turkey looks to capitalize on its 'Beijing 2008 moment'

Istanbul is the 2010 European Capital of Culture, which will help Turkey beef up its candidacy for the European Union while highlighting its emergence as a regional power.

Iason Athanasiadis
Guests watch fireworks at the Capital of Culture gala.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It was a night of music, fireworks, and ethnic controversy. The weekend of Jan. 9 and 10 brought a glitzy opening ceremony to mark Istanbul as the 2010 European Capital of Culture.

Turkey has seized on a little-known institution to showcase its cultural gems, such as the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, and beef up its candidacy for the European Union while highlighting its emergence as a regional power. At a time when local newspapers talk of a “neo-Ottomanist” foreign diplomacy, some are calling the coming year of cultural events Turkey’s “Beijing moment.”

In a modern conference hall built next to the Halic Strait separating the two shores of Ottoman Istanbul, Turkish singers, dancers, poets, dervishes, a choir, and a full orchestra serenaded 5,000 politicians, VIPs, and journalists in a spectacle intended to underline the city’s multicultural heritage. At the show’s conclusion, guests streamed out into the rain to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to take in a dazzling 15-minute fireworks display launched from the seven hills on which the city is built.

But Turkey’s uneasy coexistence with its minorities has drawn criticism of Istanbul’s city government from several sources: Gypsy populations are upset at being forced to leave a prime piece of real estate abutting the walls of Byzantium that they have inhabited for a millennium to make room for a residential development. Disenfranchised Kurds feel the city’s municipalities are not addressing their needs.

The opening ceremony represented Istanbul’s Gypsy population through a dance number titled “East Side Story,” featuring rival Gypsy gangs staging a choreographed brawl.

“We have double standards,” said Ali Murat Yel, a professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Fatih University. “On the one hand we say we’re tolerant of minorities and [are] multicultural, but as the Manisa events [in which a squabble over smoking spiraled into 1,000 locals attacking a Roma community] show, this is not the case. We have to know how to tolerate others who are different.”

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