The Turkish decade that will live in infamy
In 2010, Turkey was regarded by some as an exemplary case of economic and internal stability, having weathered the global financial crash better than most other countries. The 2010s were set up for a defining decade as it approached its centenary as a modern state in 2023.
A nascent peace process with Kurdish militants was taking shape and Kurdish civilians enjoyed an unprecedented level of rights with the lifting of restrictions on broadcasting and minority languages, including the opening of a state Kurdish channel — TRT Ses — in 2009.
Istanbul’s Taksim Square was opened for the first time in decades to May Day demonstrators and trade unionists in 2010. “Constitutional amendments granted the right of collective bargaining for public-sector employees,” said Amnesty International, describing it as a major shift towards workers’ rights.
A decade ago, Ankara was beginning to enjoy the keen ties it had worked hard to develop with a host of important regional and international actors (excluding Israel, following a deadly raid on a Turkish-dominated flotilla to Gaza).
In 2009, Turkey signed an agreement to open diplomatic relations with Armenia. With Abdullah Gul as president and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister backed by a fleet of keen, ideological local politicians spread across Anatolia, the future looked good.
By 2013, Istanbul and other cities in Turkey served as sanctuaries for thousands of Syrians fleeing political and other forms of persecution.
On the streets of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, Syrian Kurds openly wept at hearing traditional songs, banned in their home country, performed in public for the first time. Syrian intellectuals gathered in teahouses giddily imagining a democratic future for their homeland.
On the economy front, Turkey has undergone enormous change with the building of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects. The Justice and Development Party, which has ruled throughout the decade, is a building party; its mantra: construct new facilities for the masses — trains, housing, bridges, airports and highways — and come election time your seat in parliament will be all but assured.
However, the latter half of the decade has seen Turkey slide into an autocratic grip from which there appears no way out.
Tragically miscued policies in Syria, including allowing rebels, who by 2015 morphed into fundamentalist extremists, over the southern border, contributed to a series of Islamic State attacks in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere that year. There has been a return of the decades-long war with Kurdish separatists that continues and which has taken thousands of civilian lives in south-eastern Turkey.
The failed coup in July 2016 triggered one of the most widespread human-rights crackdowns the world has seen in recent years, with hundreds of thousands of suspected opponents of the government detained, many without trial.
Today, Turkey’s economy is flagging. With Erdogan alone at the helm and with no one to stop him driving the country into the ground from his $615 million, 1,100-room palace in Ankara, its international isolation looks set to continue. Incredibly, GDP per capita stands at less than $9,000, around $1,000 less than in 2010 and a staggering $3,500 less than in 2013, the year before Erdogan took over as president.
That means that, despite the widespread availability of easy credit, Turks today are more than one-quarter less well off than they were the year before Erdogan took complete control of Turkish politics. That’s a staggering indictment of the president and the government’s failures. On the street, people are frustrated and jaded, in part because of the constant rhetoric of conspiracy that dominates newspapers, TV and radio but mostly because there’s less money to go around.
Many observers say the troubles engulfing the country are because of events outside Turkey’s control — the war in Syria and consequent refugee crisis and the broader, global move away from emerging markets by investors. They wouldn’t be wrong.
In truth, however, these are minor factors: Syrian refugees, in fact, fuelled major economic growth and development in south-eastern Turkey and in poorer parts of Istanbul. It was Erdogan’s constant meddling in the country’s monetary policies that saw the lira lose most of its value against major currencies (when I moved to Turkey in May 2013, the lira stood at 2.2 to the US dollar. Today, it’s 5.88 and falling).
In 2010, Erdogan’s leading allies were Ahmet Davutoglu, Abdullah Gul and the other visionaries that transformed Turkish politics. Today, as the president continues his hell-bent mission to retain power, they are his rivals — enemies, even. These days Syrians in Istanbul hide from police charged with relocating them to the Turkish hinterland.
In 2017, academic Howard Eissenstat wrote how “One of the core arguments that President Erdogan has offered for expanding his power through constitutional reforms is that further centralisation of authority will increase stability. Yet the experience of the past ten years has demonstrated that the opposite is true.”
Though there are signs that a critical mass may be fed up with the president’s ways, the battle for the future of Turkey has yet to begin and the ten years to come look very grim.