On Saturday, CNN international correspondent Ivan Watson got detained by Turkish authorities in the middle of a report on major protests in Istanbul. It's a crazy video, and one that underscores the Turkish government's increasingly authoritarian approach to ongoing protests and political dissent in general.
Watson was reporting from Taksim Square, where protestors were gathered to commemorate last year's enormous anti-government demonstrations in the same space. A plainclothes Turkish official asks Watson for his passport at around 1:30. The video cuts off as Watson says "we're being detained right now:"
Watson appears to be fine now — he's tweeting and talking about his appearances on CNN. But about one hundred people were either detained or injured during the protests,
These protestors were commemorating the Gezi Park movement, a protest wave that started around this time in 2013. A small number of protestors gathered to stop the demolition of Gezi, a small park near Taksim Square, but the movement gradually took on much larger significance. Hundreds of thousands of Turks eventually took to the streets to protest Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan's government. The ensuing police crackdown was brutal; about 8,000 people were injured.
Erdogan is in a much stronger position today than he was at the height of the Gezi Park movement. His political party, the AK Party, just swept local elections. He looks set to transition from the prime ministership to the presidency in August's national election. Turkey's president is a traditionally ceremonial position, but Erdogan plans to endow it with more authority (he's term-limited from running for prime minister again).
Anti-Erdogan sentiment, however, is still pretty widespread. His refusal to take serious responsibility for a mine collapse that killed almost 300 people, a government ban on Twitter that a court later overturned , and attempts to fill up important government positions with cronies have all outraged many Turks. Outside of his (rather large) conservative base, many Turks have come to see him as an authoritarian bully.
Interestingly, though, a reputation for thuggishness may be the point of all of this. The Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook, who watches Turkey closely, sees Erdogan's justification for his moves — often fanciful international conspiracy theories — as attempts to appeal to historical Turkish nationalism.
Erdogan's seemingly thuggish approach to politics works so well because it is framed in a way that evokes a simplified version of Turkish history in which a great country and people were debased by the manipulation and double-dealings of outside powers and their local agents. Hammering away at the "interest rate lobby," "international bankers," "Zionists," and "Pennsylvania"-Erdogan's shorthand for the Gulen movement's leader, Fethullah Gulen, who resides in a gated compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania-as the prime minister does so often, seems deeply strange and profoundly paranoid, but the historical record has bequeathed Erdogan a wealth of material that makes his current tale of Turkey-under-siege plausible to large numbers of Turks.
To take one example: during World War I, the Allied powers said they wouldn't occupy Istanbul. They did anyway. Cook thinks this history primes more conservative, nationalistic Turks to be sympathetic to Erdogan's seemingly paranoid arguments for his increasing authoritarianism.
Even the CNN detention fits this theory. "CNN was central to the conspiracy that Erdogan conjured last year" during the Gezi Park movement, according to Cook. Watson's detention "will play well" with Erdogan's core supporters.
So what mean seem like embarrassing police misconduct might be just the kind of thing Erdogan wants: a move infuriates his opponents, but boosts his standing with the base that just won his party a big political victory.