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Turkey: The Centre Cannot Hold


By Abraham Thicke

Turks who follow local media, largely reduced in recent years to acting as cheerleader for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, might be forgiven for believing that Turkey is on the rise.

But they need not step far from the comfort blanket to feel the chill winds blowing. These days, Turkey is scarcely able to keep itself upright, let alone make progress. And the pressure is increasing on all sides.

Economic fragility

Turkey is one of the ‘fragile five’, a group of countries whose economies depend on short-term foreign investments, or ‘hot’ money. At present a range of factors deter such investments. These include; institutionalized corruption, and ongoing state of emergency and simultaneously increasing budget and current account deficits. In addition, signs from Federal Reserve indicate the US will raise rates in coming months. This will decrease liquidity in the global economy, making it even more difficult for Turkey’s to attract ‘hot money’. This spells trouble.

Further, figures indicating the Turkish economy has recently grown at an impressive rate have been questioned. A report by Commerzbank was openly sceptical of the official data, suggesting it was politically influenced. Commerzbank’s concerns echo those of economists who have criticized a revised method of calculating GDP, adopted last year by the Turkish Statistical Institute, which significantly improved Turkey’s economic track record.

Even if the figures are taken at face value, the reported growth surge appears unsustainable. At the end of last year, Turkey unveiled an economic stimulus package. This boosted growth in a flagging economy, mainly by making it easier for businesses to borrow money. But the package was primarily intended to galvanize support for a constitutional referendum held in the spring, so the measures implemented are unlikely to have a lasting impact.

Structural reforms might help in the longer term, but few take seriously economy tsar Mehmet Simsek’s constant unfulfilled pledges to take steps in this direction.       

Turkey’s pursuit of short-term economic gains, largely for political ends, has come at the cost of long and even mid-term economic stability. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Turkey’s decision makers have sold the economy down the river.

International woes

Turkey’s once ascendant international star has faded. It is now in a weak position internationally, with few friends left and its relations with major powers, both local and global, reduced to transactions.

It hasn’t helped that Erdoğan embroils himself in countless diplomatic crises (examples here, here and here). These are primarily intended for domestic consumption, but leave Erdoğan’s reluctant protagonists bewildered and frustrated. Even when resolved, the spats leave a bad taste in the mouth, undermining Turkey’s long term credibility and eroding its precarious fund of international goodwill.

Turkey has also become an increasingly troublesome meddler in its neighbourhood.

Efforts in Syria have been counterproductive. Turkey once focused on removing Assad from power and replacing him with a friendlier regime. In doing so, Turkey acted as a base and transit route for the Assad’s opponents, including jihadist organizations like the Islamic State. Such measures achieved little other than prolonging the conflict, increasing its terrible human cost and exposing Turkey to blowback. Nowadays, Turkey has abandoned its original goal and seeks only to minimize the collateral damage it suffers. To this end, Turkey’s current objectives in Syria focus on preventing Kurdish groups such as the PYD from consolidating their power along the Turkish border.

In Iraq too, the Turkish regime is having difficulties containing Kurdish aspirations. For years, Turkey cultivated links with the semi-autonomous Kurdish dominated north, whose economy became totally dependent on Turkey. This led to recurring tensions with the central government in Baghdad. But economic dependence failed to deter Masoud Barzani, the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, from holding an independence referendum. The result was a comfortable endorsement of Barzani’s desire to break away from Baghdad. Now, Erdoğan has pulled a volte-face — as the referendum was taking place, the Turkish and Iraqi armies conducted symbolic joint exercises along the mutual border.

What comes of all this remains to be seen. Suffice to say, anything that increases the possibility of an independent Kurdish state is contrary to Turkish aims. One wonders whether this prospect crossed Erdoğan’s mind as Turkey propped up, and profited from, Barzani’s administration, or as it stoked the flames in Syria. Evidently not.  

Nor is it likely that any lessons will be learned. Erdoğan already appears to regard Barzani’s push for independence as yet another betrayal of ‘good’ intentions. It would be no great surprise were he to represent the Assad regimes recently signalled willingness to negotiate some form of autonomy with Syrian Kurds in similar terms, utterly absurd though the claim actually is.

In sum, Turkey now flails around the international arena making increasingly wild, bizarre and unintelligible noises. 

Internal chaos

Inside Turkey there are also growing signs the regime is losing its grip. As Erdoğan tries to strengthen his hold on power the thing he is trying to grab hold of, Turkey, becomes an increasingly damaged vessel.

In-fighting has become, just like corruption, more and more difficult to conceal. A recent bout involved the resignation of Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbaş. Meanwhile, massive purges triggered by last year’s attempted coup have gutted Turkish institutions. With most appointments now made on the basis of loyalty to Erdoğan, rather than competence, there is no reason to expect institutions will get back on their feet any time soon. Turkish society, it hardly needs mentioning, is deeply fragmented.

When the regime finds time to lift it eyes from the floor — or perhaps the feeding trough —the best it can do is demolish Turkey’s education system. In the last few weeks, Turkey has scrapped the high school entrance exam without taking to trouble of replacing it. In July this year, the topic of evolution was removed from the school curriculum, while the topic of jihad was added. If Erdoğan has his way, Turkey’s future generations may be pious, but will be unable to contribute much to society beyond endorsing Erdoğan, or some like-minded successor, at the ballot box.    

Ever decreasing circles

Each of the economic, international and societal problems Turkey faces represents a serious danger to its wellbeing. Addressing any one of them, let alone all three simultaneously, would be challenging for a competent administration. But the Turkish regime is not competent. Though the problems it faces are not entirely self-made, its policies serve only to exacerbate them.

The regime appears to be in a state of denial, sticking doggedly to its guns and passing off the creaks and groans of a country buckling under the strain as signs of a great leap forwards.

The point is illustrated by the regime’s reaction to criticism. Those who question the direction Turkey is headed, even in the cautious language of things not necessarily developing entirely to Turkey’s advantage, are routinely denied a platform, demonized and often imprisoned. This is no more than a tacit admission, on the regime’s part, that its narrative is so divorced from reality that it cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny.

This is the equivalent of burying your head in the sand. Just wanting to believe something is true, does not make it so. When you do that, with your head underground and back in the air, it’s not just that you don’t notice the very large, very heavy object rolling down the road towards you until it’s too late. You don’t notice at all.



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