Turkey at the Crossroads

Inside a country at the brink
Inside a country at the brink

Somehow, someway, we thought we could leave the chaos of 2016 behind us. That we could close the door on a year of horrific terrorist attacks, emboldened thugocracies, and elections gone haywire just by pulling the old calendar off the wall and flipping open a new one.

That naiveté lasted about 15 minutes. Just a quarter-hour into 2017, a lone gunman barged into a night club in Istanbul and proceeded to steal a scene from 2016, murdering dozens of innocent people.

For those of us with friends in Turkey, we did what we always do: open WhatsApp on the smart phone and try to confirm that everyone is safe. Unfortunately this has become something of a habit over the last year, as Turkey has suffered a series of attacks – be it Islamist or separatist terrorism, a military coup attempt, or government-led incursions in the country’s southeast.

The people behind the gun, the bomb or the tank may be different, but the WhatsApp message to Turkish friends is usually the same: “Are you ok?”

In the latest episode of The Crossroads, we dive into a country facing critical political, economic and security fault lines. Turkey has always been at a geographic crossroads – but its current challenges transcend geography.

It is a country of 80 million people that just a few short years ago was riding a wave of economic momentum and political maturation. Now, the economy shows signs of fatigue, relying increasingly on government-led construction and consumption, as opposed to the high-quality, innovation-led growth of the early years of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan presidency. Politically, it once seemed a model of Mideast democracy, now inching toward authoritarianism.

It is a country at conflict with its neighbors, and at war with itself.

In this three-part documentary, we interview influential members of Parliament from Turkey's key political parties, we speak with experts such as Daron Acemoglu, Vali Nasr and Soner Cagaptay, meet with small-town opposition mayors, government-affiliated business leaders on location from the streets of Istanbul to the Turkish border with Iraq and Syria.

This is The Crossroads Turkey – let’s go inside.

In Part 1, we investigate the rise of Erdogan, focusing on his pillars of support in the religious and small business communities. We also look at key turning points as Erdogan consolidated power around his AK Party.

Turkey may be at an institutional crossroads, but President Erdogan might once have relied on a strong economy to pull through turbulence. This time, the Turkish economy may no longer be such a safe bet.

In the coming months, Turkey’s economic resilience could play an equally important factor in determining the outcome of the current upheaval. And, while Erdogan is now portrayed as a conservative strongman, his stewardship of the economy is critical to understanding his popularity. Should Turkey’s economy falter, his domestic support could dissipate as well.

In Part 2, we look at emerging fault lines in the Turkish economy, ranging from security concerns as terrorist attacks punish the tourism industry, an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, to faltering relations with the EU, a critical trading partner. Will power consolidation and purges yield compromised financial institutions? Will truculence with major trade partners such as the EU and Russia lead to deceleration in real-sector growth? Will human rights abuses and risk aversion lead investors to steer clear of Istanbul? And how will a population on edge react to what many expect to be a miserable summer in tourism receipts?

The answers to these questions could have more of an impact on Erdogan’s longevity, and on Turkey’s stability, than the half-baked putsch attempt of July 15.

A key stress factor for Turkey has been the spillover effects of fighting in Syria and Iraq. But these are not the only conflicts destabilizing the region. In Part 3, we investigate ongoing strife in the country’s Kurdish southeast, and how it affects Turkey’s economic and political institutions. It is a confounding situation only exacerbated by U.S. collaboration with Kurdish troops across the border in Syria.

For the time being, Turks seem unsure of the rules of the game, and they struggle to find peace amid institutional, economic and ethnic tensions. Until that peace is found, Turkey remains at the crossroads.

Samuel George is the Digital and Global Markets Adviser for the Bertelsmann Foundation and collaborator with the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Global Economic Dynamics Project. He is the host and producer of The Crossroads video series.