After Turkey’s referendum, on Sunday the world has turned eyes to the country, waiting to see what the future will hold. According to analysts and observers, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan will now become a Sultan, ruling the country even more forcefully than up to now. Most agree that this turn of events effectively puts an end to Turkey’s modernisation process and marks a depart from its embracement of western values, and a steer to Islam. Neos Kosmos spoke to two Greeks who know what living in modern Istanbul is like and asked for their insights.
Alexandros Massavetas: ‘There goes Turkey…’
Writer Alexandros Massavetas decided to leave everything behind and relocate to Istanbul, where he spent more than a decade. His two books, Constantinople – City of Absentees and Asia Minor – Palimpsest of Memory combine Turkey’s present with the history of its most luminous, vibrant, multicultural communities, and have been received with great praise. Now based in Athens, the writer is still one of the most acute observers of Turkey’s recent change.
What was your first thought when you heard of the referendum outcome? Did you expect this result?
I did not really know what to expect: the polls over the last month gave very contradictory results as to which side was leading. Nevertheless, nearly all indicated it would be a tightly contested vote. Personally, I had some hope that ‘no’ would prevail, although I suppose it was a bit of wishful thinking, as well. There was much talk of government plans to “correct” the results by fraud and we were expecting it. As the results started coming in, I said to myself: ‘he is now officially a Sultan and there goes Turkey …’
The fact that the Electoral Commission took the unprecedented step to count as valid the ballots in unstamped envelopes was more depressing than the actual result. Those ballots accounted for over 1.5m votes, significantly more than the 1.1m lead of the ‘yes’ camp. There is no shame in Turkey any more – Erdogan’s regime will not even try to pretend it is upholding the rule of law. No wonder Yeni Akit, a pro-government Islamist daily, celebrated the result by publishing a full-page death notice of the Turkish Republic on its front page.
How do you see things unfolding in the country in the near future?
Polarisation in Turkish society has taken on alarming proportions in recent years and the country has been on a steady descent to authoritarianism. After this result, this trend will only intensify. The new constitution will not take effect before the next presidential election, scheduled for 2019. Yet I take it for granted that Turkey will become more authoritarian and significantly more nationalistic, religious, and xenophobic in the meantime. Politically, it will be like Putin’s Russia, which it has been trying to emulate for years, while socially and culturally it will resemble Pakistan more every passing day.
What is it that you fear the most?
I have two main fears. The first is that a civil war may erupt, possibly a low-level civil war between militant groups like the one which marked the ‘tumultuous ’70s’ in Turkey. This is all the more likely given the turmoil and ongoing wars in the country’s immediate region. My second fear is that Erdogan – who has stepped up his nationalist rhetoric, virtually depriving the Nationalist Action Party of its slogans – may engineer an ‘incident’ involving Greece and/or Cyprus. The more polarised Turkish society is, the more likely it is for the government to resort to a time-old tactic of creating external enemies.
What will the new constitution mean for Turkey in regards to the EU, its geopolitical status, its economy and its modernisation process?
In recent decades, Turkey’s modernisation course was inseparably linked to its EU accession process. The latter, however, stalled around 2007, only two years after the start of accession negotiations, essentially due to the blunt refusal of Turkey to recognise an EU member, the Republic of Cyprus. By the time, most Turks and Europeans alike had accepted that Turkey’s full accession to the EU was a very remote possibility. The first major obstacle was Turkey’s political culture, much more similar to that of Russia than that promoted by the EU. The second was, of course, cultural – Turkey is a Muslim and socially conservative society, and it soon became apparent that most Turks felt closer to and wanted rapprochement with the Muslim world, rather than the West. However, the incentive of EU accession talks led the first AKP government (2002-2007) to embark on major legislative amendments, which ended military meddling in public life, modernised the bureaucracy and streamlined legislation to match EU standards on human rights and the rule of law. The stalling of talks removed that incentive, and since 2007 the country has been regressing instead of moving forward.
Turkey’s international standing has also suffered in recent years. Erdogan’s decision to become actively involved in the Syrian civil war, providing weapons, money, and training to various rebel forces, has backfired. The Syrian regime did not collapse within a matter of weeks, as he had hoped. Turkey has become a de facto belligerent in the conflict and the country, apart from having to shelter 2.5m Syrian refugees, the country has become a target of repeated terrorist attacks from the very jihadists it once sponsored. Erdogan is too stubborn to admit his disastrous handling of the Syrian crisis, and I anticipate things to become worse in the mid-term. Moreover, the country has burnt bridges with all of its neighbours, while alienating the EU and several of its member states as well as with several more distant actors. Overall, AKP’s diplomacy has been disastrous.
How will the new status quo affect the Greek population in the country?
The indigenous Greek community in Istanbul and Imvros and Tenedos was decimated decades ago, due to specific policies of previous governments. People were either deported or were forced to flee, as a result of aggressive administrative measures and often violent discrimination. Demographic disaster was the result of the latter; from around 130,000 in the 1950s, the community has sunk to less than 3000 mostly elderly and middle aged members. Its long-term survival is already doomed, unfortunately.
The change of Turkey’s system of government and the mounting polarisation thereof, as well as a possible crisis in their relations with Greece, will certainly affect the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is very conceivable that the authorities will resort to administrative measures to harass the institution, especially now that the regime seems to be totally disinterested of its image to the West. As for the settlement of several hundred Greeks from Greece, which had taken form in Istanbul since 2002, and of which I was a member, most have already left. The few remaining are looking for a way out. Istanbul no longer feels a safe, creative, and happy place to be.
The deterioration of public life in Turkey in recent years has had a huge influence in the genesis of a very different group – a fast growing community of young expats in Athens. As educated young professionals are leaving Turkey in droves, in the largest brain drain of its history, several thousands have chosen to move to Athens, where there has been no community of resident Turks since the Greek Revolution. Young Turkish expats are fiercely secular, even anti-religious, sophisticated urban people, alien to the nationalism and the conservatism sweeping their home society. They are very happy to contribute to the Athenian scene and are rather at odds with the Muslim communities of Western Thrace, whose religious conservatism they regard as a source of major embarrassment.
What is it that you find most people in the West don’t know about modern Turkey?
Besides being very nationalistic and often shockingly violent, Turkish society is also very diverse, much more so than those of European countries or most Muslim-majority countries. There is little in common between different segments of the population besides language. The prime schism is not social class or material comforts or even ethnicity, but rather religiosity or the lack of it. The most diverse lifestyles are to be found in major cities, each living in their bubble with little contact with other segments of society. This compartmentalisation often gives rise to tensions and even violence. Rural areas are not a monolithic bastion of Islamic conservatism either. Lifestyles vary immensely according to region and religious affiliation. Many rural Alevi residents of Anatolia’s ‘deep hinterland’ hold very liberal ideas, while affluent urban residents closer to the shore campaign for a re-introduction of Sharia law.
What made you want to live in Istanbul in the first place?
I fell in love with the city immediately when I set foot there in 2001, mesmerised by its natural beauty and the architecture and memories of its old quarters. I moved there in 2003 with a plan to write about the city and its cosmopolitan heritage. By 2013, when the Gezi protests began, I had already published two books focusing on the past, present, and contribution of Istanbul’s Christian and Jewish communities. It must have been around 2011 when I realised that the city I was living in was no longer the one I had fallen for. It had become a grey, tense place, my favourite parts now resembling a Disneyland for the new rich and having lost their bohemian, gracefully rundown character. I decided to leave after the Gezi protests were crushed – I couldn’t deal with the public discourse and the intimidation in everyday life anymore. It took me two years to act on my decision and move back to Athens after 13 years in Istanbul. Those were doubtlessly the best and most formative years of my life. I miss the Istanbul of 2001-2006, a city in my memory, not the actual place. Whenever I return there to catch up with friends, I am left with a bitter taste. It’s not my city anymore.
Olga Alexopoulou: ‘Pluralism has never been allowed to grow roots in this place’
An acclaimed artist, Olga Alexopoulou studied in the UK and has seen her work featured in art galleries and street art projects around the world. For the past few years, she’s been living in Istanbul, raising a family, working on her art and initiating workshops for refugee children. After the referendum, she wrote down her thoughts for Neos Kosmos.
The most shocking thing about the referendum result was that the ‘yes’ camp got only 51.4 per cent. I never doubted that the outcome would be ‘yes’, I just thought it would have been with a greater difference than just 1.5 million votes. Given all the factors involved, like that the ‘yes’ campaign had 77 per cent of the airtime on TV, the hate speech and intimidation that was launched against the ‘no’ voters, the 2.5 million votes that are being contested, the list goes on…
Turkey’s ‘window of opportunity’
To understand Turkey’s future the discussion has to start with why Ataturk’s one-party political system is still considered the pinnacle of democracy. That is the root of the intolerance with pluralism. To this day, Turks can only have borek (a type of pastry) with either cheese or meat, never combined.
Pluralism has never been allowed to grow roots in this place. After Ataturk’s crushing modernity, came several decades plagued with coups (until recently the majority of the Turkish population saw coups as a positive thing) and weak coalition governments. Then Erdogan came along and for the first years, he used the excuse of trying to join the EU to bring about many much needed reforms. I believe that he knew from the beginning, what anyone who has ever spoken to EU policymakers knows, that Turkey never stood a chance. You see, if Turkey was to join, then that would mean that (because the system is proportional) there would be more Turkish EU MPs than German ones (Germany being the biggest country in terms of population in the EU parliament). Can you imagine a European Union parliament with a majority Muslim MPs? I don’t think even Erdogan could imagine it.
Regardless, he played the game and for about a decade a fantastic window opened for Turkey. A window of hope, actual democratisation, peace with the Kurds, a complete revolution of the health system, constant water and electricity for Istanbul (before Erdogan it was just certain days of a week) and many other infrastructure works for the country as a whole. Just to give you an example, I was one week late for my son’s vaccination and two young people from the health department rang my doorbell with the vaccination in hand for free. I don’t need to expand on the effect of these policies in the rural areas.
However, that window of opportunity was only open for about a decade. Rumours of Erdogan being ill started to circulate, and I don’t know if it was that or what it was exactly, but the atmosphere took a turn for the dark. Gezi park protests erupted and even though there is a documented meeting of Erdogan with the protestors, in the early days, he descended into the meeting as a raging bull. The crack-down started soon after. Then, at the repeated elections he needed an extra three to five per cent of the nationalist vote, so he went against the peace that he had built with the Kurds and started a war with them. It’s not just the Erdogan voters, the majority of the population holds very prejudiced views of Kurdish people, so he won that election. Then came the crackdown of the press, the coup, and the purge.
A divided society
The referendum has brought the spotlight once again on the differences between the big cities of Turkey; especially the ones on the Aegean coast and the rural areas. Because of commerce, these big cities have always enjoyed economic development. Rural areas were very much left behind until Erdogan, when a new middle class arose that was based on the emerging construction sector. You often hear people say that because of Erdogan they can now afford a washing machine.
For someone living in a remote village, the choice between a new road or freedom of speech is clear. The road. And the truth is that politicians come and go (some slower than others) but what remains is a divided society.
Cargo trousers and headscarves
As I was waiting in line yesterday morning to pass a security check to enter a government building (security has been fortified since all the terrorist attacks) I spotted two young women dressed like they had just come out of a Lara Croft movie, guns on their belts, tight cargo trousers, heavy boots and headscarves on. “Is this an image of future Turkey?” I thought to myself. Head-scarfed women can go to university because of Erdogan and slowly but surely they are taking up more of the workforce. It used to be that you would only see them in jobs such as cashiers or cleaning ladies, whereas now they confidently occupy many more posts. Does this excuse the climate of fear, or the complete destruction of the rule of law?
During the junta in Greece, the majority of the roads system was built. However, it makes you wonder what is the price to build a road?