Ankara using pandemic to thwart Victory Day celebrations, says opposition

A move by the Turkish government to restrict celebrations for the country’s upcoming Victory Day on Aug. 30 has drawn the ire of opposition lawmakers and critics, who are accusing the government of using the coronavirus pandemic to thwart national holidays while green-lighting religious celebrations.

On Aug. 23, the Turkish Interior Ministry sent a circular to the governor’s offices of all 81 of the country’s provinces, detailing a series of measures for the upcoming national holiday.

Measures for the day, marking the decisive battlefield victory in the Turkish War of Independence in 1922, include a restriction on all crowded celebrations, except for a government ceremony in which representatives from each political party will lay wreaths at the Atatürk Mausoleum in Ankara while wearing face masks and following social distancing guidelines.

Turkey’s ruling Justice Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been undermining Victory Day celebrations for years, citing various excuses, prominent businesswoman Ümit Nazlı Boyner said.

The AKP has continuously “downgraded, trivialised or banned,” the country’s national holidays, she said on Twitter on Saturday. “You will not be able to make us forget or erase our respect and love for Atatürk and those who struggled for Turkish republic.’’

The AKP is often accused by secular circles of failing to respect the legacy of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In July, the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque - by overturning an Atatürk-era decree to turn it into a museum - fuelled such accusations last month. The first Friday prayers at the site since the Hagia Sophia’s re-conversion were held on July 24.  

Main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) spokesman Faik Öztrak accused the AKP of having "allergies’’ toward national holidays.

“Those who brought together 1,000 people during the Hagia Sophia reopening and marked the anniversary of the failed coup of July 15 (2016) with gathering of 3,000 have decided to re-implement the pandemic measures of Turkey’s infection peak for Victory Day,” T24 quoted Öztrak as saying during a parliamentary group meeting on Monday.

The CHP’s deputy chairman Ahmet Akın took it a step further, dismissing the Interior Ministry’s nationwide notice - saying the government had no legal basis for stopping the celebrations.

“There can be no legal barrier to celebrations. We will celebrate Victory Day this year, as we do every year. We will take ownership of the legacy of our commander-in-chief Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” Cumhuriyet newspaper quoted Akın as saying. 

The Interior Ministry, for its part, has issued a written statement refuting claims of a downright prohibition of Victory Day celebrations.

The circular issued on pertaining to precautionary measures does not imply a ban on celebrations, it said. 

But critics remain unconvinced that the AKP government is not attempting to dull national holiday celebrations.

Yol TV channel on Monday reported that - despite the restrictions on Victory Day celebrations - Istanbul’s Okçular Archery Foundation, a project of Bilal Eroğan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son, had held a commemoration ceremony for the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, regarded as the first major victory of the Turkic Seljuks over the Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile, human rights lawyer Kerem Altıparmak said on Monday that the Victory Day restrictions brought those placed by the Turkish government on the country’s lawyers to mind.

“Do you remember the 15-day COVID-19 restrictions in Ankara to prevent the protest of bar associations?” Altıparmak said on Twitter, referring to protests by lawyers across the country that began in late June over a government proposed bill to amend laws on how bar associations operate. Parliament later passed the bill.

"As soon as the Lawyers Bill passed parliament, the ban ended. You would be hard pressed to find a virus that is so responsive to opposition,’’ he wrote.