Turkey is a geographical tipping point for Europe and what happens there in the next few weeks matters.
This storied nation lies at the junction of East, West and Middle East relations – bordered by Syria, Iraq and the Medierranean to the South; Romania, Bulgaria and Greece to its West; and across the Black Sea to Russia in the North.
Historically it was the centre of Suleiman the Magnificent’s 16th Century Ottoman Empire. At its peak this encompassed all of these nations as well as most of the North African Mediterranean coast line. A combination of Napoleon (1798 Egypt) Russia (1878 serbia and Romania) reduced the Empire and then in the aftermath of World War 1 much of the remaining territory was divided between France and Britain. Attaturk emerged and transformed Turkey from a Muslim to a secular and liberal society.
Today however, Turkey with a population of 80 millions is both a threatened and threatening economy. It is pivoting precariously between Western and Eastern alliances, between democratic and despotic rule.
President Erdogan, at once loathed and loved by his own people, started life twenty years ago as the liberal Mayor of Istanbul. Today he is challenging any last vestige of democracy, cracking down on the justice system, the civil service, and media and polarising public opinion to make the nation once again Muslim centric and to halt the free fall of its economy. Desperate for support, he is turning towards any help he can get – and increasingly that is from Russia. Putin is only too happy to revel in Turkey’s rejection of the economic stricures applied by the leaderless E.U. and the confusion and evangelical Christian extremism of US Leaders Michael Pence and Michael Pompeo. In his isolation Erdogan, like the US President, is also turning inwards to his own family, appointing his son in law as Turkey’s Finance Secretary.
US and European relations are a confused muddle of religiosity, economics, mistrust and geopolitics.
The lira has fallen 40%, inflation is over 25% and the threat of US trade wars, and Europan strictures have added to the exodus of students, academics and businesses – all labelled traitors as Erdogan kicks against interference as he sees it from the West. More than 250,000 high achieving Turks left in 2017, up 42% year on year. Erdogan has emerged only more stubborn and intransigent.
So it matters when a massive mosque replaces the much loved Istanbul Opera House in Taksin Square – the heart of the secular shopping district of that great city. And it matters that citizens of both Istanbul and the capital, Ankarra, voted out Erdogan’s acolytes in last week’s local elections – perhaps for a moment it looked as though the ballot box could reassert democratic values.
But that is why it also matters that Erdogan’s response has been to brand the elections a fraud, overturn the result and insist on a rerun – on June 27. Turkey may not be on everyone’s radar but it matters, it is confused and it is walking into the dark.
Watch this space and sell Turkey.
Have a good day, James.