Why does Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan jump around so much? The
answer is that he's trying to keep from rolling off a log. Erdogan's sudden
policy shifts and outlandish utterances, to be sure, reflect the Turkish
leader's own labile temperament.
When he stormed out of a panel discussion with Israeli President Shimon
Peres in 2009, and denounced the Israelis as "pirates" and "criminals" after
the Mavi Marmara Free Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, and warned that
Kurdish rebels would "drown in their own blood", the real Erdogan surfaced.
Some of his
unpredictability is calculated, to be sure, an Anatolian approach to haggling.
But there is a deeper source of Erdogan's volatility, and that is the
precarious condition of Turkey itself.
"The 'Turkish model' emerges as nations face transformation," ran a March 3
headline by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. That is a tale told most
eagerly by the Turkish government. "Turkey could be an example for its
political, socio-cultural and economic progress achieved in recent years,
Atilla Sandikli, president of the Istanbul-based Wise Men Center for Strategic
Research (BILGESAM)," told Xinhua on the occasion of a visit to Egypt that week
by Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
Soberer heads in Turkey look at this in askance. The online Hurriyet Daily News
on March 15 tried to catalogue the innumerable mentions of the "Turkish model"
for "entertainment value", and cited the following:
A headline from the
Jerusalem Post: "A Turkish model for Egypt?" Or the essay in America's National
Journal: "What is the Turkish model?" The Daily Star in Cairo phrased the
question differently in its headline: "Is there a Turkish model?" The Wilson
Center in Washington DC apparently thinks there is. On that think-tank's
website you can find the tome: "Egypt and the Middle East: The Turkish Model".
At the Brookings Institution, a think-tank a few blocks away, there appeared
less certainty: "An Uneven Fit? The Turkish Model and the Arab World" is that
outfit's contribution. With typical German conciseness, a think-tank there
offered us simply, "The Turkish Model".
All the talk about the
"Turkish model" would seem less vapid if only the world could make sense of
what Erdogan is up to. He was among the first world leaders to demand the
departure of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He first denounced the thought
of military intervention against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi regime, and then -
after it became a fait accompli - insisted that he had advised Gaddafi
to step down all along.
When Saudi Arabia sent troops and tanks to quell Shi'ite protests in Bahrain,
in an apparent proxy battle with Iran, Erdogan warned against a new "Battle of
Karbala", the 680 CE conflict at which the Umayid Caliph killed Husain ibn Ali,
the martyr of Shi'ite Islam.
Returning from a visit to Russia, Erdogan said that his remarks had been
misinterpreted, and that he was not speaking about the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict
in Bahrain at all, but rather about the loss of life in Libya.
Erdogan has left Arabs in particular deeply confused. The simplest explanation
of Erdogan's unseemly haste in denouncing Mubarak is financial. Turkey is the
most immediate beneficiary of Egyptian instability. In short, Erdogan is not a
hegemon but a spoiler.
According to the Turkish Zaman news site on March 6:
in North Africa and the Middle East are having a major impact on tourist
destinations in those areas, while also having a beneficial effect on the
Turkish tourism sector, with Turkish travel agencies already receiving a
higher-than-usual volume of calls from European countries ... Turkey is among
the top 10 tourist destinations in the world, currently sitting in eighth
place. In 2010 about 27 million tourists visited the country, and the tourism
sector contributed around $21 billion to the national income ... Naturally, as
the tourism industry is sensitive to violence and security concerns, the recent
uprisings from Tunisia to Yemen have already led to a reshuffling of major
Zaman added, "Recent events have caused
many tourists to cancel their reservations in countries where there is unrest
in favor of alternative destinations such as Turkey ... by the substitution
effect, the number of tourists expected to visit Turkey in 2011 should be
higher than preceding years due to the violence in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya ...
about 35 percent of the 1.5 million French and 1 million Italian tourists that
were supposed to go to Tunisia are heading towards Turkey. A similar proportion
applies to the Egyptian case as well."
Turkey stands to gain perhaps $15 billion in tourist revenue - about three
months' worth of the country's enormous current account deficit, or half the
country's annual oil bill. That might be the difference between another year of
tolerable success and a major crisis; that is, between Erdogan's political
success and abject failure. As the Zaman report commented, "As the trade
deficit is being held accountable for such a huge current account deficit, the
extra tourism revenue will play a vital role in the current account balance in
Writing in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat on March 15, the site's Saudi
editor Tariq Alhomayed argued:
Those who believe that Erdogan is acting
in this regard according to Turkey's commercial interests are wrong. Erdogan is
defending Gaddafi despite all the crimes that the Libyan leader has committed
against his own people, whilst he was previously one of the first world leaders
to criticize the Hosni Mubarak regime during the 25 January revolution in
Egypt. However he did not take either of these positions for commercial
reasons. Erdogan has responded in a different manner to the events in Libya and
Egypt because he is searching for leadership, namely neo-Ottoman leadership.
But even Turkish observers cannot make sense of what a "neo-Ottoman policy"
might look like. Turkish President Gul turned up in Egypt to lecture locals
during the first week in March, to be sure.
A former Turkish official who has traveled with Erdogan and other top Turkish
officials, though, told me, "None of this makes any sense. Erdogan goes in to
see a foreign head of state and brings businessmen with him, and pushes them
forward and says, 'Do business with this guy'. Of course, you have to be a
political supporter of Erdogan to be part of the delegation. Otherwise, Turkey
has nothing on the ground. The embassies have no staff, there are no political
people monitoring the situation, there's no follow-through of any kind."
Contrary to the wishful thinking in the Western media, there is nothing
moderate about Erdogan's Islamism. His government has arrested or charged about
4,300 individuals with complicity in an amorphous coup plot called "Ergenekon",
including hundreds of senior military officers, journalists and academics.
Critics denounce the "Ergenekon" case as a pretext for an Islamist coup against
Turkey's secular constitution. "Ergenekon has become a larger project in which
the investigation is being used as a tool to sweep across civic society and
cleanse Turkey of all secular opponents. As such, the country's democracy, its
rule of law and its freedom of expression are at stake," a former justice
minister told the New York Times.
Some analysts, like Gareth Jenkins of Johns Hopkins University, have denounced
the case as a politically motivated hoax from the beginning; others allowed
that there might have been a military coup in preparation. But the arrests of
independent Turkish journalists of unblemished reputation this year finished
off Erdogan's credibility.
Even the US administration could not quite stomach the arrests. Last month,
America's ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone told a press conference: "On
the one hand there exists a stated policy of support for a free press. On the
other hand, journalists are put under detention. We are trying to make sense of
Hurriyet columnist Mustafa Aykal wrote on March 4, "This is just too much ...
what I said to myself two mornings ago, on the new wave of Ergenekon arrests,
involving almost a dozen journalists. One of them was Nedim Sener, a meticulous
reporter I barely know yet genuinely respect, for his exposure of the 'deep
state' in the infamous Hrant Dink murder case. Another was Ahmet Sik, who is
also known for his brave journalism on the criminals within Turkish security
To the extent that Erdogan advances his Islamist agenda, he risks a disaster
for Turkey's fragile economy. Bilgi University Professor Asaf Savas Akat, a
Turkish television commentator and a long-time official of Turkey's largest
secular political party, told me in February, "Some worry that Erdogan will be
not another [Iran revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, but an [Iran
President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad. Will he go in that direction? I don't know. "
"It's important to keep in mind that Turkey is a resource-poor country," Akat
observed. He added:
A Turkish politician can't count on foreign
exchange from resources. We have to earn it. Let's assume the current
government decides to turn Turkey into Iran. The first thing is that $30
billion of foreign exchange from tourism will disappear - directly and
indirectly, that's what Turkey gets from tourism. How are we going to buy oil?
If foreigners don't want to come to Turkey, how are we going to sell shirts?
Iran's oil is pumped out of the ground and piped out of the country by
foreigners. Ahmadinejad just has to sit there and collect the money. We have to
make the yarn, and then make shirts out of the yarn, and then sell them
overseas. That's a very big constraint on us. We have a big current account
deficit as it is. We are a net importer of food. We rely on the confidence of
Erdogan's Islamist Justice and Development
Party (AKP) remains a minority, and its ability to govern rests on the capacity
of his government to deliver higher consumption to Turks who - when they are
employed - are barely getting by. Unemployment by fair measure is closer to 25%
than the official rate of 10%: only 22% of Turkish women sought employment in
2009, down from over 34% in 1988, despite better female education and a sharp
drop in fertility, that is, better qualifications and greater opportunity.
By contrast, 54% of South Korean women work. Adjusting for the absence of women
in the workforce, unemployment is catastrophically high. As smallholding
agricultural shrinks, women who no longer can work on the family farm simply
sit at home. Almost half of Turkish workers, moreover, find employment in the
so-called informal economy.
Turkey's only resource is human capital. Unlike the diploma mills of the Arab
Middle East that grind out graduates qualified to do little more than stamp
each other's papers, many Turkish universities uphold international standards.
Turkey's elite educational venues, though, are a bastion of secularism. They
are the most Western of the country's institutions. And they are the goose that
lays golden eggs for the Turkish economy. Privately, many Western-educated
Turkish professionals have told me that they will emigrate if Erdogan tries to
impose Islamic law.
Many already have left. According to one study, "The last few years have
witnessed an increase in the number of highly qualified professionals and
university graduates moving to Europe or the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent
States] countries. Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 3.6
million Turkish nationals living abroad, of whom about 3.2 million are in
European countries, a substantial increase from 600,000 in 1972.''
Turkey is holding its own, but just barely. It has made inroads in the lower
end of the manufacturing spectrum, but largely abandoned earlier hopes of
competing with the Asians in high-tech industries. Turkish construction
companies are prominent in Russia, and Turks or their Turkic cousins from
Central Asia make up most of the 11 million foreign workers in Russia. Erdogan,
the former businessmen, travels with Turkish executives in tow and puts them in
front of foreign leaders when they bid for construction work (those businessmen
who support him politically, that is).
But Turkey's economic profile in no way resembles the Asian success stories.
Its overall birth rate is below replacement and its population is aging
extremely quickly. A country with a fast-aging population is supposed to save
more; individuals do this by foregoing consumption, and countries do this by
exporting and saving the proceeds.
Unlike China and the East Asians with their enormous export surpluses and
savings rates, Turkey still runs a current account deficit at a dangerous
7%-10% of gross domestic product (GDP) , and depends on short-term money
markets to finance it. The current account deficit is matched by an enormous
deficit in the state social security system, whose annual shortfall is about 5%
of GDP. The social security problem reflects outlandishly generous terms to
retirees offered by previous governments.
Time is not on Turkey's side. Educated Turks in the more developed West have a
fertility rate of about 1.5, the same as Western Europe; the Kurds in the
country's impoverished east have four or five children. Kurds, whose
independence movement has cost tens of thousands of dead over the past 30
years, may become the majority within two generations. If Turkey holds together
at all, it will be quite a different place.
Erdogan's most apocalyptic utterances refer to Turkey's own future, and to
problems that are neither imaginary nor exaggerated. "They want to eradicate
the Turkish nation," he alleged in 2008. "That's exactly what they want to do!"
The "they" to whom Erdogan referred in his speech, to a women's audience in the
provincial town of Usak, refers to whoever is persuading Turkish women to stop
bearing children. Turkey is in a demographic trap. Its birth rate has fallen,
and its population is aging almost as fast as Iran's. Erdogan sees nothing less
than a conspiracy to destroy the Turkish nation behind the fertility data. "If
we continue the existing trend, 2038 will mark disaster for us," Erdogan
repeated in May 2010.
In the long run, we are all dead, but the Turks are all old, and the Kurds may
inherit Anatolia. In some ways Erdogan's impassioned Islamism responds to the
danger that Turkey will turn gray and decline like the nations of Western
Europe. But every attempt to advance the Islamist agenda runs into land mines.
That is why Erdogan's tone suppurates with desperation.
The Turkish model is fragile in the short run, and unsalvageable in the long
run. Turkey may be the envy of the Muslim Middle East, but that says more about
the misery of the others than the happiness of Turkey itself.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this article in
Spengler's Expat Bar
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