The Sultan of Istancool: Is Erdogan pulling Turkey away from Europe?

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Sultan of Istancool

Der Spiegel

Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand

June 9, 2011


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to win a third term in Sunday's election. His hunger for power may be bad for Turkey's democracy, but he has helped transform the country into an economic powerhouse. The once-promised EU membership seems increasingly irrelevant for the rising power.

He walks up to the podium, looking serious, and waits patiently until the applause subsides. "Üstat! Üstat!" ("Teacher! Teacher!") they call out, while clapping and whistling.

Then he begins to speak. In conversations, his voice has become quieter and quieter the longer he has been in power. Conversely, it sounds more powerful than ever when he speaks in public. He greets his audience, calling them "kardesler" ("siblings"), a word that implies a much stronger sense of familiar affection in Turkish than in English or German. Then he gets serious. He has a plan to announce, one that his campaign strategists have already characterized as an "insane project," an idea that exceeds all "powers of imagination."

These are not his words but the embellishments of his speechwriters. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is responsible for the core of the matter. On this day in Istanbul, he unveils a project that he hopes will secure him a place in the history books.

"Dreams are seeds that sprout in reality," he says. "We have rolled up our sleeves for this city, whose nights are filled with the scent of hyacinths. We are giving it a new canal." Erdogan wants to dig a new canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, a second Bosporus, which is to be opened in 2023, on the 100th birthday of the Turkish Republic.

Hoping for a Big Majority
Erdogan's words make it clear that he is a master politician with long years of experience. He no longer searches for issues that are likely to please voters and be tolerated by the military. When he gives a speech today, every word has an impact. And when he says provocative things -- such as calling the opposition leader a semi-infidel, accusing generals of treason or telling the Israeli president: "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill" -- these are no longer gaffes. In fact, he knows exactly what he is doing.

Erdogan, who grew up in the Istanbul district of Kasimpasa on the Golden Horn, back when it was still a cesspool, has now been in power longer than US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and most of the other world leaders he encounters at G-20 summits. He has won two elections with triumphant majorities, and he is more than likely to win a third term in Sunday's elections. The only question is how big his margin of victory will be.

If it's only enough to secure half of the seats in the parliament, he will have to make compromises regarding the new constitution he hopes to introduce. But if his margin of victory is big enough to secure three-fifths of seats, he will be able to write this constitution himself, although it would still have to be submitted to the people for a referendum.

And if he wins a two-thirds majority, which is not impossible, he probably won't even have to do that. And if that happens, Erdogan will be what his opponents and supporters alike already call him today: the Sultan, the Padishah of Turkey.

Economic Achievements
Erdogan has achieved a lot. He has taken the fight out of Turkey's powerful military brass, demoralized the secular elites and straightened out the cotton kings and concrete tycoons who once amicably divided up the country with the generals. He has built up Turkey, traditionally a country of coups and crises, into a regional power. He is taken seriously as an important player in London and Washington, just as he is in Riyadh and Beijing. And even Israel -- with whom he has picked fights, much to the delight of Arabs -- follows his every step with great attention. Erdogan has provided the Turks, even those who can't stand him, with a self-confidence they lacked before.

The Ottoman Empire was once known as the "Sick Man on the Bosporus," but today's Turkey looks very healthy indeed. After eight years of Erdogan, it is much richer and more modern than the poor country that applied to join what was then known as the European Community more than 20 years ago. Its economy is growing three times as fast as those of other European countries. Driving from the western part of Turkey into the eastern provinces of Bulgaria and Romania, one wonders which side of the border the affluent part of Europe is actually on.

At the same time, Turkey has become more bigoted. The Islamists in the government harass their opponents with at least as much implacability as they were once harassed. They bully artists and celebrities who do not share their worldview, they gag media companies whose newspapers are critical of the administration, and they have journalists tossed into prison on absurd charges.

It is time for Europe to rethink how it actually wants to treat this powerful and difficult neighbor: to take it seriously and align itself with Turkey, stall it for another 20 years or tell it that it has nothing in common with Europe and its predominantly Christian and Western orientation. It is time to take stock of the situation, because the parameters of one of the most torturous and protracted European debates have changed fundamentally in recent years.

'The Government Gave Us Nothing'
In Gaziantep, a fast-growing industrial city about 1,150 kilometers southeast of Istanbul, gray factory buildings stretch endlessly along the highway, as columns of buses and trucks rumble across the asphalt. This is the right place to witness what is behind Turkey's rise to 17th place among the largest economies in the world. Today Gaziantep, once known for not much more than its eggplant kebabs and pistachio trees, is one of the "Anatolian tigers," as the dynamic economic centers of the Turkish hinterlands are known. The city's industrial production has doubled since 2005, and in 2008 it exported goods worth $3.9 billion (€2.67 billion).

Cahit Nakiboglu, 63, a stout man with a moustache and glasses, played a key role in shaping the economic miracle in Gaziantep. He is the head of Naksan Holding, the third-largest maker of plastic bags in Europe. His customers have included Germany's Plus supermarket chain, the Pierre Cardin fashion house and furniture giant Ikea. "The government gave us nothing," says Nakiboglu. "For decades, all it did was put obstacles in our way."

That changed in 2002, when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power. A severe financial crisis had driven the country to the brink of ruin in 2001. Kemal Dervis, a Turkish executive at the World Bank who was recently mentioned as a possible successor to International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, introduced a massive debt-restructuring program. The AKP government reaped the fruits of his labor. Turkey's average economic growth had increased to 6 percent by 2007, and hardly any other country recovered as successfully from the 2008 and 2009 global financial crisis.

Unless his spiritual predecessors, who had dreamed of an "Islamic economic order," Erdogan did not see capitalism and Islam as contradictions. Guided by the interests of the rising Muslim middle class, the AKP's most important group of voters, the new prime minister set out to open up the country's economy.

The China of Europe
Turkey achieved a growth rate of 9 percent last year. Unemployment has fallen to 11 percent, inflation is now down to 6 percent, and the most recent figures showed total public debt at 41 percent of gross domestic product -- a figure that most European Union countries can be envious of. Per capita income has tripled since Erdogan came into office. The British magazine The Economist has dubbed the country "the China of Europe."

As the example of Gaziantep shows, the large cities in western Turkey are no longer the only ones benefiting from the boom. Anyone who visited cities like Denizli, Kayseri, Trabzon and Samsun 10 years ago would hardly recognize them today. City highways, skyscrapers and new port facilities are being built, and the Turkish state railway plans to inaugurate a new high-speed line between Eskisehir and Konya at the end of the year.

The only concern on the eve of Erdogan's third election victory is that the economy is becoming overheated, that the Turks are buying and producing too much, and that imports are so high that they even exceed the country's growing exports. "Despite the imbalances," writes the Wall Street Journal , the strength of the Turkish boom is sustainable: "The growth story can continue."

Flocking to Istancool
The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, ranks Istanbul at the top of its list of the 30 most dynamic cities in the world. No one knows whether there are 15 million or perhaps already 17 million people living in the megacity on the Bosporus. New skyscrapers, each one more avant-garde than the next, are constantly going up in Istanbul's business districts, while the satellite towns on the outskirts are continually growing as more people migrate to the city. Most of these new arrivals are able to find work.

Gone are the days when the only people flocking to the Bosporus were tea pickers from the Black Sea and refugees from the troubled Kurdish regions. Europeans and Americans have also discovered "Istancool," the most modern city in the Islamic world, a city that never sleeps. Among the new arrivals are people whose parents and grandparents once emigrated to faraway Germany in search of a better life. Germans of Turkish descent, derided in Turkey as "Almancilar" (literally "Germanyers"), are discovering that the city is much more dynamic than anything they could find in Germany.

One of these children of guest workers is Nese Stegemann, 43, a doctor specializing in orthopedics and surgery, who is married to a German and characterizes herself as "about as German as it gets." When she flew to Istanbul with her family two years ago, Stegemann was overwhelmed by the wealth of cultural contrasts, the galleries, exhibitions, designer outlets, mosques and bazaars. She was offered a job in a private hospital. She accepted, and today she earns more than she did at home in Hanover.

Stegemann is just one of thousands. The number of Turkish-Germans returning to the country of their forefathers has long outnumbered the number of Turks heading to Germany. In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, they totaled 40,000. Many of them are highly qualified and extremely well adjusted to the globalized world, in which being rooted in two cultures is seen as a career bonus.
Niccolo and Donkey
Declining Birthrate
Many Europeans see the Turks as an alien people who have far too many children. But is the cliché of the "demographic bomb," one of the favored arguments of those who oppose Turkey joining the EU, even true anymore? Turkey, unlike Europe's aging societies, has a very healthy population pyramid resembling that of the United States or Canada. In recent years, the birthrate has declined to 2.1 children per woman.

This is a development that results from growing affluence and improved education levels. Demographers even predict a population decline in Turkey starting in 2030, a prospect that prompted Prime Minister Erdogan to say that every Turkish woman ought to have at least three children in the future. But Turkish women have no intention of complying with his wishes.

Economically speaking, Turkey doesn't even need a high birthrate. The average age is currently 29 (compared to 43 in Germany), and roughly 700,000 university graduates enter the job market every year. Turkey has almost exactly the rate of replenishment it needs for stable economic growth: not too low and not too high. At any rate, the overpopulation scenarios of anxious Europeans are greatly exaggerated.

But the strongest argument in favor of Turkey joining the EU is a different one. Americans and the British have been using it for years, but so have Germans like former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Ruprecht Polenz, a foreign policy expert with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It is the geostrategists' argument, and it goes like this: What better leverage does Europe have to influence developments in the Islamic world than through relations with its most modern nation, Turkey?

Good Relations with Neighbors
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently bought a house in Meram, an exclusive residential neighborhood in the Anatolian city of Konya. Last week, his first guest at the house was the vali, or governor, of Konya, Turkey's largest province. After that, he met with SPIEGEL journalists for an interview .

Davutoglu comes from the region, but he says that he hadn't been in Konya more than 10 times in the last five years. In fact, he says, he has recently traveled to Damascus much more often -- about 60 times, he estimates.

Davutoglu, a mild-mannered man with strong convictions, supports his country's strategic reorientation. Ankara has good relations with almost all of its neighbors today. In recent years, Turkish diplomats participated in negotiations in the Azerbaijani capital Baku over the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, which is supposed to transport natural gas to Europe, in Tehran over the Iranian nuclear program, and in Tripoli with the tottering Gadhafi regime. Turkish businesspeople are building airports in northern Iraq, high-rises in Mecca and seawater desalination plants in Libya.

This new foreign and economic policy has been dubbed "Neo-Ottomanism," another term that triggers anxiety in the West. Are the Turks trying to rebuild the empire that controlled the Middle East for 400 years?

Loyal to Its Allies
Such fears are exaggerated. At most, what will materialize is nothing more than a loose commonwealth of former Ottoman provinces. What is important, however, is the Turkish example that is being transmitted into a politically backward region. It is proof positive that even an Islamic government can be democratic, and that it doesn't take oil revenues to build affluence.

The Turks' connections are also important. From Baghdad to Tripoli, they are talking to radical groups and individuals which the West does not talk to, either for fundamental reasons or out of political consideration for Israel, but which one day it may need to engage with. They include the Palestinian group Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

It seems unlikely that the Turks could turn away from the West. Despite serious crises, Ankara has not severed its relations with Israel. And even though he felt rudely overlooked by France in the military operation against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Prime Minister Erdogan did not withdraw from the Western alliance. Instead, Turkey is doing its part to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya -- with a greater commitment, in fact, than its NATO partner Germany.

This is one side of today's Turkey: economically strong, dynamic, self-confident and loyal to its allies.

Indiscriminate Use of State Power
One supporter of the Turkish prime minister says that he admires how the irascible Erdogan now manages to keep his temper under control. At the same time, it is interesting that the man is unwilling to be quoted on the record. It offers a small insight into a serious liability in Erdogan's Turkey: Its leader has a problem with authority. He can't get enough of it.

The premier, says Sedat Ergin, the head of the Ankara office of the Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet for many years, entered his first term eight years ago with great caution. He took stock of his adversaries in the army, the economy and the press, says Ergin, but he also treated them with respect. "He was decisive in advancing his policies, but he also exercised restraint," he says. According to Ergin, this changed after Erdogan's second election victory in 2007. "That was when he started using the power of the state more indiscriminately."

Ergin knows what he's talking about. The more critical newspapers were in their reporting on the government, the more sharply did the prime minister's office, the Basbakanlik, strike back. A cartoonist who took the liberty of portraying the prime minister as a cat found himself facing charges in court. The same thing happened soon afterwards to another cartoonist, who had drawn Erdogan as a blood-sucking tick on the back of a respectable citizen, as a comment on the government's taxation policies.

The Dogan Group, which owns the secular Hürriyet and the Turkish division of the US news broadcaster CNN, was particularly hard-hit. In 2009, a dozen tax inspectors descended on the company. When they were finished with their audit, Dogan was slapped with an order to pay the government the equivalent of €2.2 billion ($3.2 billion).

"That's the problem with Erdogan," says Ergin. "He is using the power of the state more and more arbitrarily to promote his political interests. There is no one left to keep him in check."

Power Trip
In 2008, a group of former senior military leaders were put on trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Erdogan regime in its early years. The so-called Ergenekon trial, named, like the group of conspirators, after the mythical ancestral home of the Turks in Central Asia, had a cathartic effect on the people. For the first time, the previously untouchable officers were facing charges in a court of law.

But the longer the trial dragged on, the wider the government cast its net, arresting professors, civil servants, attorneys and journalists opposed to the regime. In March, the astonished nation realized that what had been an important trial had turned into a vehicle with which the regime was eliminating its influential critics. That was when the police arrested and filed terrorism charges against investigative reporter Ahmet Sik, the journalist who had been one of the first to report on the Ergenekon group's alleged plans to overthrow the government, but then also looked at the pro-government Islamist network. Sik, along with 67 other journalists and dozens of professors, is still in prison today.

In his self-aggrandizement, the premier who introduced historic change to Turkey, could become a growing liability for his country. His critics say that there is now little difference between Erdogan and Russia's strongman, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Of course, Russia hasn't applied for EU membership, but Turkey has. The prime minister's power trip is now backfiring on the Turks, increasing opposition to Turkey joining the bloc.

"This man is dangerous," says Celal Sengör, 56, a renowned seismologist. He experienced firsthand how the AKP intervenes in the autonomy of academia. In 2009, Sengör, the dean of Istanbul Technical University who holds a critical stance toward Islam, was told that he was being let go -- without any explanation or dismissal procedure. It was only the intervention of the president of the International Academy of Science that saved him from losing his job. Since then, Sengör has been even more disillusioned than he was before. "Europe shouldn't be naïve," he says. "Turkey simply isn't ready to be a true democracy."

Brutality Against Women
People like Sengör, who belong to Turkey's urban elite, are shocked when they open their morning newspapers to read horror stories from the provinces: of religious fanatics who sprayed acid onto the exposed legs of schoolgirls in Mersin; of a young woman near Malatya who was buried alive because she allegedly had a boyfriend; and of the rapes of two sisters in Siirt by almost 100 men.

The brutality with which women are treated is as old as Turkey itself, and the previous regimes failed just as miserably when it came to protecting the victims. But between 2002 and 2009, the number of violent acts and so-called honor killings rose from 66 to 953. A woman dies every day, say human rights activists. The AKP argues that the figures are so high because more murders are now being reported and documented.

Sociologist Binnaz Toprak acknowledges this as a possibility, but she also has another explanation: "The pressure to behave devoutly, to pray regularly, to fast and not to drink alcohol, has gone up. Society has become more conservative." A climate has developed in which women are no longer seen on the streets after dark outside the big cities, a climate in which some feel emboldened to interpret verses of the Koran in a misogynistic way.

Toprak's analysis confirms the suspicions of secular Turks and skeptical Europeans that a broad segment of Turkish society espouses a view of the world and of women that is incompatible with that of the West. This casts a dark shadow over Turkey as an EU candidate.

Tough Truths
On balance, the argument over whether Turkey should join the EU comes down slightly in favor of the eternal accession candidate, a reflection of the mixed feelings that Europeans have had toward their complicated neighbor for decades. Nevertheless, from a rational point of view, wouldn't the pros outweigh the cons if Turkey were to join the European family? Hasn't it made impressive progress in the 12 years since it formally became a candidate and began efforts to satisfy the EU's criteria? And wouldn't closer ties to Europe be the best way to prevent this progress from being reversed?

It's more likely that the Europeans and the Turks will continue to spend years talking at cross-purposes, but without expressing the two truths that everyone knows by now: that Europe doesn't want Turkey -- and that soon Turkey will no longer need Europe.

Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou

WTF is up w/ Spain and unemployment?

President Camacho

Big Turk is rising in converse proportion to Greece's decline; looks like George Friedman's Talmudic vision of the future is coming to fruition...


All this time I thought I was being Jewed out of $349/year, but now I'm going to send a $1,000 donation to the ADL out of triumphant vindication.

President Camacho
Too many Mexicans, same as us.
Once again demonstrating that ''strategic forecasting'' is nothing more than, now by subscription, bad science fiction. These clowns are utterly enamored with a not-even-remotely-likely future strategic conflict between the US and Japan and have been for a couple of decades now.

Barton Fink's Tribe honcho cracked the whip on his hack writers to pen homoerotic schlock about ''big men'' and pro-wrestling. Friedman it seems likes to order his keyboard punchers at stratfor to write stories about America and Japan fighting with lazer beams.

''Oy, bubeleh! Write anotha one about the Japs using killer satelittes! Those old goys who buy subscriptions love the ones where the Japs attack.''
Bob Dylan Roof

I must admit that I used to earnestly follow Friedman's adventures at Stratfor. After being inundated with his daily updates for several months, the absurd picture of international relations he was painting started to come into focus. According to Friedman's "reports," the United States should have been completely invaded by Mexican drug cartels while engaging in a WW2-style sea war with China, and Israel and Russia should have allied against the United States and the KSA.

He's just another :jew: peddling high-tech prophecies for superstitious investors.