Tag: turkey

A View from Ankara

Ankara, Turkey — We arrived in Ankara this evening after some sightseeing on the Aegean coast, from the resort town of Kusadasi we traveled to the ancient city of Ephesus. These are the most impressive ruins from the Roman period that I’ve ever seen (excepting Rome).

The amphitheater (pictured below) seats over 24,000 people and is appropriately famous for its sheer size, but the city as a whole was impressive, boasting an estimated population of 250,000 people at its peak circa the 1st or 2nd century AD.

We took a one-hour flight from Izmir to Ankara, the capital. As in Izmir and Istanbul, I was struck by the sense of confidence and growth. Modern buildings are under construction everywhere, and there is an ebullient mood. We passed a large festival with carnival style rides. Cars speed along the main road through the center of town. It is an impressive place. But it will be interesting to see if this upbeat attitude can be maintained in the midst of widespread strikes.

When I first arrived in Turkey, a traveling companion helped me to understand its complexity. The society is characterized by multiple social and cultural divides and disparate identities. Some of the more obvious that I alluded to yesterday include the divide between secular and religious people, and between the military and civilian officials. There is also, of course, the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. Among Muslims there are those who are very observant and conservative, and others less so. Most are Sunni, but there is also an Alawite community in Turkey, especially near the Syrian border. There are ethnic divisions, most prominently (and sometimes tragically) between the Turks and Kurds, but there are regional divides as well, for example, between the more laid back communities in the coastal cities, and the bustling cosmopolitanism characteristic in the mega-city Istanbul, or here in Ankara. Lastly, there is a traditional political divide between left and right, and various gradations along that continuum.

Consider, then, that someone can be a leftist, a Kurd, and a moderate Sunni Muslim. One can be a relatively conservative, practicing Muslim, and a supporter of the center-right AKP, but also respect a strict separation between church and state, and thus oppose regulations that would impose their beliefs on others. Other more religiously conservative Turks might want tougher laws restricting the use of tobacco or the consumption of alcohol, and be enthused about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts in this regard. One can be a moderate leftist, a supporter of the main opposition party, the CHP, but also a practicing Muslim.

First Impressions from Turkey

Kusadasi, Turkey, on the Aegean Sea – My impressions from my first 24 hours in Turkey are decidedly personal and narrow–I’m observing Turkish society through a straw. So notwithstanding the images of protest and unrest that are prevalent on Twitter and the international media, the vibe generally is of a confident, vibrant society that is proud of its progress.
 
I arrived in Istanbul yesterday (Saturday), and we spent most of today in Izmir (the ancient city of Smyrna). Doug Bandow wrote a fine column on the political turmoil–I’m reluctant to call it unrest, which makes it sound more serious than it is. But I have begun to pick up on some of the currents of opinion in this complex country that might help to explain how a minor dispute over some trees in Gezi Park has let loose some long-simmering feelings about Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
 
I’ve seen lots of pictures on Twitter that prove the protests are not limited to a few hundred (or thousand) in Taksim Square. From my limited perspective on the first evening, at the Istanbul Gonen Hotel, and this morning at the airport, most Turks appeared to be completely oblivious. A wedding party at the hotel went well into the night (though I was too tired to care).
 

Istanbul is a massive, sprawling city, of at least 15 million people. There is construction going on everywhere, but also a fair amount left to do. The back streets are pretty much what you’d expect in a city like this (which is to say crowded and chaotic), but the dedicated bus lanes that operate in parallel with the main highway and elsewhere are popular and, I’m told by someone who uses them regularly, extremely convenient. The primary highways flow smoothly, including from and to the airport. 
 
Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, is given credit for initiating a series of public works projects that will ease some of the traffic congestion, and various economic and governance reforms that have helped Turkey to achieve stunning growth over the past decade. Even during the economic doldrums in the United States and Europe, Turkey has done well. 
 
After a short flight this morning from Istanbul to Izmir, we met over lunch with Cevat Durak the mayor of Karsiyaka, one of the municipalities (about 325,000 people) adjacent to Izmir. Izmir, and Karsiyaka especially, is a stronghold of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP is proud of Izmir. Proud, for example, of its ability to maintain a hold on municipal politics, despite AKP attempts to thwart them. More generally, Izmir is proud of being different from Istanbul, and the rest of Turkey. Residents who know a bit about the United States liken it to the more laid back west coast. Think of it as the San Diego of Turkey.
 
Turkish flags, the iconic red with a white crescent and star, are everywhere. In Izmir, however, I saw many flags with Ataturk’s picture superimposed. I had to have one (8 Turkish Lira in the market). I figure this will be a collector’s item when Erdogan bans them.
 
He couldn’t actually do that, of course. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, is an icon here. His picture is ubiquitous. In some circles, however, and especially among some in the AKP, to be called a Kemalist would be an insult. Erdogan has risen to prominence by promising to push back on some of the excesses of Kemalism, which some see as being anti-religious as opposed to merely secular. Others welcome Erdogan’s assertion of civilian control over the military. 
 
But not everyone is entirely pleased. In the rally held down one of the main streets in Izmir, a little after 6 p.m. local time, there were quite a few Turkish flags with Ataturk. I also saw banners for the leftist parties, the TKP and DSIP. The message on many small banners Boyun Egme, translates roughly to “don’t give up” or “don’t bow down” (to Erdogan and the AKP).
 
Finally, we arrived here in Kusadasi, a beautiful seaside town popular with European tourists. A medium-sized cruise ship was tied up at the pier not far from a Byzantium-era castle/fortress. New and old reside comfortably side by side here in Turkey (except when a new construction project stumbles upon ancient artifacts buried deep below the surface, which apparently happens with some regularity). 
 
As I checked into my hotel, a little after 10 pm, another small rally (several hundred people, I’m guessing) walked just beneath my window. I didn’t see the same left-wing party banners as in Izmir, and most of the flags were traditional Turkish (i.e. without Ataturk’s picture). But the words Gezi and Taksim were obvious even to my untrained (i.e. non-Turkish speaking) eye. This wasn’t a pro-Erdogan rally.
 
Kusadasi, Turkey
 
We’ll be seeing more of the coast tomorrow morning by boat, and then off to Ephesus, an ancient town with both religious and cultural significance. I’ll have time to gather my thoughts, and I’ll try to write more about my impressions of the political winds after we arrive in Ankara.

A Libertarian Moment in Turkey?

What are the protesters in Istanbul upset about? Well, I noted last week that a survey by a Turkish newspaper gave us a partial picture. A headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul reported: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

And now the Washington Post tells us that one young protester, Aysun Yerlikaya, objects to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because he’s, well, too much like Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg:

Erdogan “pokes into everything — what you drink, what you eat,” she said, referring to advice he gave earlier this year to eat “genuine wheat bread” with a lot of bran in it.

A Middle East Aflame Needs Economic Freedom

The small Persian Gulf kingdom of Dubai is an oasis in a region aflame. Even NATO member Turkey has been inundated with protests. 

The region’s best hope for the future is greater economic opportunity. It’s an issue that I recently discussed with businessman Waleed Moubarak of Alghanim Industries.

The Emirate of Dubai is one of seven kingdoms which make up the United Arab Emirates. The latter is a kingdom, not a democracy, which is reflected in its human rights record. However, the country is doing better on economics. Overall the UAE comes in at number 11 on the Economic Freedom of the World Index.

Dubai’s oil has run low, which may be the key to its recent success. Moubarak argued that Dubai was “forced to develop” because it “doesn’t have the oil resources that its neighbors do.” 

As I explain in my latest Forbes online column:

One of Dubai’s most important steps has been to set up more than a score of free zones, covering financial, auto, internet, media, gold, and other services.  Additional zones for auto parts, carpets, flowers, maritime, and textiles are planned.  The areas offer tax exemptions, full foreign ownership, and free capital repatriation. 

Among the most important innovations within the Dubai International Financial Center are independent commercial laws and common law courts.  The DIFC attracts judges from common law jurisdictions elsewhere, such as Great Britain, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  The system offers legal predictability and stability, essential to attract substantial foreign investment.  Two years ago Dubai allowed businessmen outside of the zone to rely on DIFC courts.  Apparently Abu Dhabi intends to create a competing financial free zone.

Moubarak and Alghanim also are involved in Injaz, an international charity which, Moubarak explained, seeks to train Arab youth to “give them a skill set to go out and succeed” so they don’t have to settle for “the traditional goal to get in government and get a sinecure.”   It is a wonderful objective.  He added:  “Injaz, in a small way, tries to change that mindset and to give the Arab youth a sense of the possibilities that the private sector has to offer.” 

The Middle East is filled with human potential that is being squandered.  The region needs democracy and human rights.  It also needs economic freedom and entrepreneurship.   We all have a stake in the Mideast finding the way to peace and prosperity.

The Kids Are All Right

Is libertarianism a worldwide trend among young people? There are poll reports from the United States, Great Britain, and Turkey this week that point in that direction.

The College Republican National Committee put out a report finding that young voters are very much against excessive government spending (though they do support higher taxes on the wealthy) and are strongly in favor of gay marriage. They want to reform entitlements but see the Republican party as “closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.”

Meanwhile, the Economist, in an editorial titled “The strange rebirth of liberal England” (in an allusion to a famous history book), writes, “Young Britons have turned strikingly liberal, in a classical sense….The young want Leviathan to butt out of their pay cheques as well as their bedrooms.” An accompanying article declares, “Britain’s youth are not just more liberal than their elders. They are also more liberal than any previous generation”:

Young Britons are classical liberals: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. In America they would be called libertarians.

More than two-thirds of people born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements”. Less than one-third of those born after 1979 say the same. According to [the long-running British Social Attitudes survey], members of Generation Y are not just half as likely as older people to consider it the state’s responsibility to cover the costs of residential care in old age. They are also more likely to take such a hard-hearted view than were members of the famously jaded Generation X (born between 1966 and 1979) at the same stage of life.

“Every successive generation is less collectivist than the last,” says Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, a pollster.

And finally comes this headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

Maybe this really is the libertarian momentStudents for Liberty attracted 1,400 attendees to its February national conference, and another 365 to a European conference in March. Now, as the Economist says, if only the young people will vote – and the parties will offer them candidates.

Is Turkey Golden?

Recently, Moody’s Investors Service took some wind from Turkey’s sails, when it declined to upgrade Turkey’s credit rating to investment grade. Moody’s cited external imbalances, along with slowing domestic growth, as factors in its decision. This move is in sharp contrast to the one Fitch made earlier this month, when it upgraded Turkey to investment grade.   Moody’s decision not to upgrade Turkey, and its justification, left me somewhat underwhelmed – given how well the Turkish economy has done in recent years.

Since the fall of Lehman Brothers, Turkey’s central bank has employed a so-called unorthodox monetary policy mix. For example, a little over a year ago, it began to allow commercial banks to purchase gold from Turkish citizens and allowed banks to count gold to fulfill their reserve requirements. Incidentally, this was a remarkable success – from 2010-2012, the Turkish banking sector’s precious metal account increased by over 7 billion USD.

For all the criticism its unconventional monetary policies have garnered, the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey has, in fact, produced orthodox, golden results. Indeed, as the accompanying chart shows, the central bank has delivered on the only thing that really matters – money.

Turkey’s economic performance has been quite strong (despite some concerns about inflation and its current account deficit) . Turkey’s money supply has been close to the trend level for some time, and it currently stands 2.41% above trend. This positive pattern is similar to that of many Asian countries, who continue to weather the current economic storm better than the West.  And, it stands in sharp contrast to the unhealthy economic picture in the United States and Europe – both of which register significant money supply deficiencies.

So, why would Moody’s not follow Fitch’s lead and upgrade Turkey to investment grade? To understand this divergence, one should examine Turkey’s recent current account activity. Since late 2011, Turkey’s current account has rebounded somewhat (see the accompanying chart).

But, if gold exports are excluded from the current account (on a 12-month rolling basis), a rather significant 47% of this improvement, from the end of 2011 to September 2012, magically disappears.

Where is this gold going? Well, a quick look at the accompanying chart shows just how drastically exports to Iran and the UAE have surged this year.

Taken together, the charts indicate that Turkey is exporting gold to Iran, both directly and via the UAE , propping up their current account in the process. This has put Turkey and the UAE in the crosshairs of proponents of anti-Iranian sanctions.   Those who beat the sanctions drum are now seeking to impose another round of sanctions, aimed at disrupting programs such as Turkey’s gold-for-natural-gas exchange. This proposal clearly highlights some of the problems associated with sanctions, specifically the unintended costs imposed on the friends of the U.S. and EU in the region. Indeed, Dubai has already taken a hit, with its re-exports falling dramatically as a result of the sanctions.

What is the U.S. to do – go against Turkey, its NATO ally? Believe it or not, some in the Senate are allegedly considering such a wrong-headed move.

If these proposed sanctions are implemented, then Moody’s pessimistic outlook on Turkey may turn out to be not so far from the mark, after all – and Turkey will have no one but its “allies” to blame.

NATO and Turkey: Moribund Alliances, Military Snares, and Unnecessary Wars

NATO fulfilled its Cold War role by deterring rather than sparking conflict. Yet if Turkey and Syria come to blows, the transatlantic alliance could turn into a transmission belt of war for America.

Syria’s developing civil war has spilled over into Turkey. Moreover, Ankara has begun to meddle in the conflict next door. Despite Turkey’s denials, the Erdogan government appears to be channeling arms shipments to rebels and sheltering Syrian opposition activists.

Thus, tension between the two governments was rising even before the Syrian military destroyed a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance plane. Damascus claimed the aircraft was in Syrian airspace; Ankara said the jet had strayed over Syrian territory but was over international waters when downed. The plane may have been on a surveillance mission:  the Erdogan government has been pressing for NATO military action against Syria.

After the shoot-down, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “any military approach to the Turkish border from the Syrian side will be perceived as a threat and will be dealt with accordingly.” Ankara also sought backing from NATO’s members: “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms,” explained Alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said that Article 5, regarding use of military force in defense, had not been discussed. And he stated “It is my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate.” Wars have a way of happening unexpectedly, however. If Turkey attacks Syrian military units in their own territory, sparking retaliation by Damascus followed by a call from Ankara to NATO for support, the United States could find itself, however reluctantly, at war.

Alliances make sense when directed against an overwhelming outside threat. The Soviet Union constituted one. Syria does not.  NATO has turned into an association which drags members into everyone else’s wars, actually reducing collective security.

The United States pulls Europe into Afghanistan, a mission widely opposed by the European people. Europe pulls America into Libya, a mission widely opposed by the American people. Turkey could pull both America and Europe into Syria, a mission generally opposed by both the American and European people.

The security argument for Washington’s defense of Europe disappeared years ago. The worsening confrontation between Turkey and Syria offers a sharp reminder that NATO is not only unnecessary but dangerous. The U.S. should drop this outmoded security commitment before it draws America into yet another war in the Middle East.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.