Booze battle rages in Turkey
Ankara - Braving snowy sub-zero weather, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Ankara at the weekend for an unprecedented anti-government protest, brandishing not flags and banners but... beer cans and glasses of champagne.
The so-called "drinking action" - held also in other major cities - was triggered by a regulation introducing stringent rules on alcohol sales that raised alarm among secular urban Turks that the Islamist-rooted government is targeting their liberal lifestyle.
"We are not alcoholics. They are violating our rights," grumbled a young woman at the protest in Ankara.
"No to fascism," protestors shouted as others clinked glasses made of lightbulbs - the symbol of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
"Let's drink until we sneeze and retch," a supporter wrote on a Facebook event page, where the demonstration was organised.
The remark was a jibe at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a practising Muslim, who, while rejecting accusations that the government is seeking to impose an Islamic lifestyle, could not hide his loathing of drinking.
'Life not about drinking, sex'
"Who has ever interfered? They drink (freely) until they sneeze and retch," a furious Erdogan said, insisting the authorities aimed to protect the youth from harmful habits.
His deputy Bulent Arinc fanned the controversy, telling critics that "life is not only about drinking and sex".
The initial impact of the regulation, in force since early in January, has already proven to affect not only young people but also adults attending social events such as concerts or receptions.
The regulation severely restricts alcohol advertising and prohibits authorised sellers from taking liquor outside their premises, raising questions about how catering companies will organise celebratory events.
It bans alcohol from events for "children and young people", like concerts or festivals, and keeps the age barrier as high as 24, contradicting existing laws that allow Turks aged over 18 to buy and consume alcohol and enter alcohol-serving establishments.
"The objective is not to protect the youth but to interfere in social life, using the pretext of alcohol," columnist Mehmet Tezkan wrote in the Milliyet daily.
Loss of international prestige
One high-profile victim is the Babylon nightclub in Istanbul, the country's top venue for live music from all over the world.
Following the new regulation, it introduced identity checks at the entrance to keep out customers aged under 24 when the event is sponsored by a liquor company, a widespread practice to finance notably concerts by foreign performers.
"It is a significant loss of prestige at an international level... We need sponsors for our shows," said Mehmet Ulug, co-owner of the establishment.
In another incident last week, a production company removed wine from the menu of a reception to mark the launch of a new movie, fearing a fine because the theatre where the event was held did not have a licence to serve alcohol.
The Ankara Bar Association has asked Turkey's top administrative court to cancel the regulation on grounds it flouts individual freedoms.
In 2007, it succeeded in stopping a government decree that would have designated "red zones" outside cities for establishments serving wine and spirits.
As a mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, Erdogan banned alcohol from municipality-run restaurants. Last year, he also made headlines for urging Turks to eat grapes instead of drinking wine.
Since it came to power in 2002, his party has significantly raised taxes on alcohol, with price hikes amounting to almost 25% only in 2010.
"Nowhere is the tax so high. It is as if we are being punished for some wrong-doing," said Aytekin Eker, a bar owner in Ankara.
Critics disputing the government's stated aim of combating alcoholism point also at statistics that depict Turks as feeble drinkers, consuming 1.5 litres per capita annually, compared to up to a dozen litres in western European countries.
The curbs gave fresh ammunition to opponents who argue the AKP is growing authoritarian amid Erdogan's regular attacks on the media, heavy-handed police clampdowns on street protests and the government's simmering rows with the judiciary.