In his biggest public event since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated an ambitious but controversial project that pays homage to his political idol Adnan Menderes, the center-right prime minister who ended in the gallows after modern Turkey’s first military coup in 1960.
The May 27 inauguration of the giant memorial project on Yassiada, a once-picturesque and uninhabited island 16 kilometers (10 miles) off Istanbul, came at the 60th anniversary of the May 27 military coup that ousted the Democrat Party, which rose to power in Turkey’s first free multi-party elections in 1950 and held the reins of the country for a decade.
Yassiada, rebaptized seven years ago as “Democracy and Liberties Island,” was where the putschists jailed and tried the party brass before executing Menderes and his ministers of economy and foreign affairs at the nearby island of Imrali.
“60 years ago, Turkey experienced one of the darkest days of its history with the May 27 coup,” Erdogan said. “It was not only the will of the people that was executed, but the law … Not only Menderes and his aides were tried in Yassiada, but also Turkish history, culture, values and beliefs.”
Yassiada, or “Flat Island,” has been a place of exile since the fourth century. In the ninth century, exiled Patriarch Ignatius built a church there. Two centuries later, Byzantines used the island to keep political prisoners and built underground cells, four of which remain. The island has also had its share of romance: In the mid-19th century, the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Henry Bulwer, bought the island to build a garden and a castle for his lover, Eurydice Aristarchi, the princess of Samos, according to historian Philip Mansel in his book “Constantinople: City of World’s Desire.” Bulwer later sold the island to Ismail Pasha, the khedive of Egypt and Sudan. After the establishment of the modern republic, Turkey took over the island and a naval base was established there in the late 1940s.
But for most Turks, it is the “yasliada” — “mourning island,” a play on its name — because of the kangaroo military court that sent Menderes and his top aides to the gallows on a variety of charges from treason to corruption and bribery, as well as an ill-concocted claim that the premier collaborated with doctors to kill off his illegitimate baby.
“Menderes has been an apostle for the Justice and Development Party and Erdogan in particular,” Tuncay Sur, a researcher at the Paris-based School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, told Al-Monitor. “The party has based its legitimacy and vision largely on the legacy of the Democrat Party, reusing buzzwords and concepts they used half a century ago such as bringing prosperity to the devout rural people, respect for the religious values of the country and empowering people.”
Erdogan’s long-winded speech at the opening drove home Sur’s last point. “The Democrat Party’s slogan was ‘Enough, people have the say.’ We have taken this slogan further by saying, ‘It is the people who decide,’” he said. “The Turkish people will never forgive not only those who staged coups but also those who encouraged them.”
Erdogan’s words were a thinly veiled reference to the opposition, which he has been accusing of inciting a coup as well as his ally-turned-arch-enemy, US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he has been accused of masterminding the coup attempt in 2016.
The plan to turn Yassiada to a hub of tourism and diplomacy has taken five years and some $74 million and razed much of the island’s natural landscape, including hundreds of trees, endangering its archaeological heritage. Ahmet Davutoglu, then the prime minister, laid the groundwork for the project in 2015, saying that the conference halls to be built on the island would be used for international diplomacy.
Davutoglu and other flag-bearers of the project are no longer part of Erdogan’s entourage nor even his party. Ertugrul Gunay, the former minister of culture and tourism who weathered opposition to the project from environmentalists, said last year that the present state of the island was a deviation from the original plans. “The democracy and liberties island has become an isle of tourism and concrete,” he told DW.
Oguz Haksever, an NTV anchor who criticized the project while mistakenly believing his microphone was off, lost his job last year. In a video that went viral, Haksever said, “Island of mourning, my eye. You have totally killed the island,” as the channel broadcast news about the president inspecting the project.
The current project includes a 125-room hotel with nearly 30 concrete bungalows, a conference hall with a capacity to host 600 people, a 1,200-person capacity mosque, a museum with wax figures showing the post-coup trial, cafes, restaurants and a 24-meter lighthouse called “Beacon of Democracy.” The conference hall is named after Adnan Menderes and the huge mosque carries the name of his foreign minister, Fatin Rustu Zorlu, a firm secularist and pro-Western diplomat who snubbed the Non-Aligned movement in the 1955 Bandung Conference and initiated Turkey’s ties with the newly launched Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union.
The inauguration generated praise from the pro-government press, which hailed the project as a “beacon of democracy” while critics raged online. “I have never seen such a useless project,” read a tweet that got 46,400 likes and thousands of shares. “How they have destroyed this green island! What will be the use of these buildings at a time when tourism is at a standstill? Who will use this huge mosque?”
At the opening, Erdogan said that the island could become “another Camp David,” the country retreat of US presidents, where “key negotiations are made and decisions taken at the top level.” But it is clear that the decision to open it amid the novel coronavirus outbreak is for domestic consumption, rather than international ambitions.