A Lesson for Turkey From Romania's 'Golaniad' Protests

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan'sshow of force to protesters in Istanbul over the weekend underscored growing parallels between recent events in Turkey and Romania's "Golaniad" protests in the spring of 1990. If you don't recall, those ended badly.

The two cases may seem distant, but bear with me.

The students who moved their tents into Bucharest's University Square in 1990 were calling for the popularly elected government to resign. The protesters whom Turkish riot police (again) cleared out of Taksim Square and Gezi Park on June 15 didn't begin that way, but they, too, have been calling for Erdogan's fall.

There was a similar trajectory to the two events. The protagonists in Romania became increasingly bitter in denouncing each other as the protests continued. President Ion Iliescu called the students "Golani," or hoodlums. In the same way that Turkey's protesters have accepted Erdogan's branding of them as "looters," the Romanian students adopted "hoodlums" as a badge of honor.

Every night the "Golani" in the square sang: "Better a tramp than a traitor/Better a hooligan than a dictator/Better a hoodlum than an activist/Better dead than communist."

Erdogan on June 16 lashed out again at his opponents in Taksim Square, this time describing them as traitors and terrorists in a speech to a huge crowd of supporters that dwarfed the scale of the Taksim protests.

The problem for the government opponents in both squares is that they were and are in a very distinct minority, even though their complaints were and are reasonable. Iliescu's National Salvation Front won election with 67 percent of the vote in May 1990. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party scored 50 percent at the last election in 2011.

Foreign media generally sympathized with the University Square protesters, driving the government to make increasingly conspiratorial accusations about who was putting the students up to their protest. Erdogan and his top officials have, if anything, outdone Iliescu on this score. Erdogan has already accused international financial institutions of plotting the Taksim disturbances. On Sunday, it was the turn of international media, which he accused of conducting "operations" in Turkey.

The protests in Romania ended brutally when Iliescu bused thousands of loyal coal miners into the capital to clear the square. Armed with thick lengths of rubber-coated cable and working by the lamps on their helmets, the miners attacked before dawn. They made short, bloody work of the protesters, whom security police then bundled into vans and arrested. Several died.

Erdogan won't need to use miners to solve his problem -- he has the police. But the rally on June 16 had the same effect in demonstrating the strength of his popular support. There were also disturbing reports of Erdogan loyalists spontaneously joining police in attacks on the protesters. Turkey's strongman this weekend clearly raised the stakes. He promised a reckoning with his opponents and about 400 of them were arrested.

Erdogan may, however, be making the same mistake as Iliescu. The image of the miners brutalizing students permanently scarred the image of Iliescu and his government in the eyes of the outside world. The University Square protests also helped to mature Romania's opposition parties and sowed some of the seeds for the National Salvation Front to split in 1992. In part as a result, Iliescu's party lost elections six years later, in 1996, and he lost the presidency.

Erdogan is a more capable politician than Iliescu and Turkey's political system is stronger than was Romania's in 1990. Still, he should consider what the cost of crushing his opponents may prove to be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.