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Turkish people enjoy some free time in Gezi Park at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 30, 2014. / Sedat Suna, epa

ISTANBUL - Three years ago, the Turkish economy was booming with buildings springing up at a dizzying rate and the entire region - shaken from the Arab Spring - looking to Turkey as a model for democracy and economic progress, the perfect bridge between East and West.

But that was before a year marked by violent protests, clashes with police, a government under scrutiny for bribery and a mine disaster that left hundreds dead and raised questions about safety.

"Turkey has lost its groove," said Jenny White, who specializes on the country at the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. "Until a year ago, Turkey was held up as a model, a country of devout Muslims who ran the government along pragmatic and not religious principles, even if these were power and profit."

"(Now) Turkey ? is rapidly tipping toward one-man rule," she said. "It's a remarkably steep fall, particularly given that it was unnecessary and self-inflicted."

On Friday, the eve of the one-year anniversary of the start of the protests, tension, gloom and the occasional cloud of tear gas hung in the air in Istanbul. Thousands of police backed by water cannons and helicopters were dispatched to the iconic Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park in anticipation of huge protests Saturday.

"I don't know what to do," said Ayca Hasan, a student in Istanbul. "When we go to protest, the police crush us ? when I stay home I just can't take (not doing anything)."

A year ago, the protests began over plans by the government to turn Gezi Park into a shopping complex as well as initiatives such as restrictions on alcohol to impose Islamic rules onto the constitutionally secular state.

But the violent crackdown that followed on the largely peaceful protests brought out thousands more people, outraged at scenes of demonstrators beaten, and in some cases, dead.

Late last year, the Turkish government began firing or reassigning hundreds of police officers and several key prosecutors involved in a corruption probe targeting several ministers and people close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has brushed criticism aside and claimed that a massive conspiracy spearheaded by a rival Islamist movement was underway to topple him.

In February, the government passed a law to tighten its control over the judiciary and a month later blocked access to social media networks such as Twitter and YouTube when incriminating leaks about top officials were published on those including a tape of Erdogan allegedly instructing his son to hide millions of dollars worth of cash stored at his house. The bans, as well as parts of the judiciary bill, were subsequently overturned by Turkey's constitutional court.

Analysts say that the downward spiral for Edogan - once hailed as a new kind of regional leader - started with his response to the Gezi protests last year.

"Had the government responded to the Gezi protests more democratically, Turkish society and democracy would be in a different place today," said Murat Somer, a professor of political science at Koc University in Istanbul.

"The government identified itself with authoritarian governments such as that of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and feared that the Gezi protests would bring the government down the way protests did (there). So the government did everything it could to crack down on Gezi before it could turn into a social movement with an identity and program."

Even so, Erdogan continues to enjoy the support of almost half of Turks - about 45% voted for his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in municipal elections in March, a de facto referendum on his rule.

"Most of the claims are false and fabricated, and highly exaggerated," said Recep Senturk, a government supporter in Istanbul, referring to criticism of the Turkish leader. "It is the work of the opposition who wants to undermine the image of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an honest and trustworthy leader."

Still, images of angry mourners chasing Erdogan into a supermarket near the site of Turkey's worst mining accident in history earlier this month - 301 miners died in the accident - revealed cracks in his power base.

Most observers believe that the economy, which has mostly flourished in the past 12 years of his rule, will decide his political fate.

"Today, (Turkey) looks like a country troubled by deepening social divisions, growing government authoritarianism and a vulnerable economy," Somer said. "All this makes external investors, on whom the Turkish economy depends especially for long-term investments, increasingly uneasy."

Though Turkey has largely recovered from a brief period of investor flight earlier this year after emerging markets worldwide were hit by turmoil, significant dangers tied to the political instability in the country remain, said Cenk Sidar, the CEO of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory firm.

"Growth performance is a welcome development, but ? anything less than 5% will probably not be enough for Turkey to maintain growth," Sidar said. "Despite the temporary and recent positive climate ? rising inflation, fiscal expenditures and overall debt point to a greater level of risk within the country."

Since last year, financial analysts have started to include Turkey in the so-called list of "Fragile Five" emerging markets in the world, those most heavily dependent on fleeting foreign investments, alongside Brazil, India, South Africa and Indonesia.

"It seems that only economic disappointment might rouse the ire of (Erdogan's) supporters, as happened recently after the deadly mine disaster," White said. "Turkey is at a tipping point."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Year after violent protests, Turkey at 'tipping point'

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