There’s a lot to like about Turkey. It’s exotic, mysterious, and diverse – beautiful blue water sailing on the southwestern coast where the Aegean and Mediterranean meet, ancient rock dwellings at Cappadocia, the broad expanse of the Anatolian plateau, and a blending of cultures where Europe and Asia meet at the Bosporus. (above).
Long before the Orient Express, Istanbul felt mysterious and unpredictable, as if a camel driver might be blocking the path of a Mercedes consular car around the next corner. I spent time there on my own and on layovers as a Pan Am pilot. I had a favorite smoke-filled café near the Golden Horn that served doner kebab for a couple of bucks and a tiny shop nearby where I bought pistachios and squishy dried figs carefully wrapped in brown paper by the owner. I loved Istanbul, the crowds and excitement, even the diesel fumes, a Eurasian jumble of mosques, churches, narrow winding streets, designer shops, shared taxis, noisy ferries, and hard bargaining rug merchants in the Grand Bazaar.
Maybe it’s that I’m getting older or maybe it’s my political paranoia, but in recent years Turkey has taken on an unstable air, and as much as I love off beat travel, I wonder how safe I would feel there today? I’m not sure, but I’m troubled by recent events.
Millions of refugees have overwhelmed services as they flee the carnage in neighboring Syria. Terror attacks at the Istanbul airport, Ankara, and a nightclub known to attract foreigners has cast a chill on tourism. Separatist Kurds have joined coalition forces in the fight against ISIS but have to defend themselves against attacks by their own government. And, last month President Erdogan consolidated power with a divisive referendum victory greatly expanding the powers and duration of his presidency.
Immediately following the April vote, President Trump phoned Erdogan to “congratulate” him on his victory, a victory not unlike his own – narrow and questionable. He was alone among western politicians making a call. Most of the world’s leaders saw the referendum as a victory for authoritarian rule and a defeat for popular democratic governance.
But, Donald Trump envies Erdogan. Maybe it’s his large hands… or maybe it’s simply envy for what he’s accomplished – silencing the press, crushing his opposition, jailing dissidents, shutting down TV channels, and enacting a series of laws to enhance his power.
Only this morning (May 1, 2017), Trump told a John Dickerson of CBS News that it was the “archaic” rules of the US Senate that were standing in the way of his administration’s legislative agenda. Those pesky rules, carefully crafted and designed by the founders to slow things down and keep autocratic-pretenders from ruling by executive decree. America is a government of “We the People” not “I the One.” Three branches of government. Checks and balances. A democratic republic.
It’s easy to be critical at a distance. The United States has been particularly good at it – even hypocritical – blowing smoke about regional things they don’t understand. I’m upset about the track Turkey has opted to take, but up close and personal, sitting in the crosshairs of political, cultural, and military turmoil things look different. Since the days of Constantine, the Ottoman Empire, and during the secular democracy of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has walked a tightrope between East and West, Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, war and peace.
Turkey is where Europe meets Asia. Bordering Syria on the south, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Georgia on the east, Greece and Bulgaria on the west, a stone’s throw from Lebanon and just across the Black Sea from Mother Russia, it is a strategic crossroads.
As Americans, we like to cling to our ideals of representative government, free and fair elections, and freedom of speech, but we don’t have a war on our southern border, religious and ethnic conflict internally, and a millions of refugees flooding into the country looking for a place to call home.
Erdogan is in a tough place but I’m troubled by the choices he’s made. Sitting on the far eastern edge of Europe, he courted membership in the European Union for years, and while it’s still on the table it’s generally regarded as a dead letter. As a member of NATO, his case for EU membership was strong, and in the beginning America championed Turkey’s inclusion, but for years Turkey flirted with military and authoritarian rule and it finally reached a tipping point under Erdogan. From 2003 – 2014 he served as Prime Minister, but it wasn’t until after he became President in 2014 and put down a coup d’état in the summer of 2016 that he began taking draconian measures against his rivals.
Since then, 140,000 Turks have been dismissed from their jobs in government and the public sector, 5000 dissidents have been jailed, and 1500 civil organizations were shut down. On Saturday (4/30/2017), 3,974 civil servants were fired from ministries, judicial bodies and medical clinics, 1000 other workers were detained, and 9000 were suspended because of alleged ties to an Islamic group founded by US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen.* (NY Times, 5/1/2017). Access to Wikipedia was also blocked.**
These moves follow closely on the questionable passage of his power grabbing referendum that will allow him to continue in office until 2029. It’s the end of any semblance of democratic rule, a turn from representative government toward authoritarian rule – a troubling shift that coincides with movement in that direction across the globe. Russia, Syria, Hungary, Philippines, Georgia and the former Soviet republics, and growing segments of the population in France, Netherlands, and Germany are increasingly attracted by authoritarian politicians.
This 1965 picture shows me having dinner with a Turkish journalist friend who spent 3 months in jail for publishing a story criticizing the government. It’s clear that stifling dissent is not new in Turkey, but it has never been imposed on today’s scale.
** On lighter note, Erdogan’s purge also included blocking TV channels that carried “dating” shows. It sounds a lot like Trump’s unhappiness with Arnold Schwarzenegger on The Apprentice. If The Donald had his way he’d simply say, “Arnold you’ll never work in this town again.”
But that’s not how it works in America.