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As some of you may know, I was a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs from 1984-86 and was based in Istanbul. I learned to speak the Turkish language adequately (but never, alas, quite fluently), and I traveled far and wide in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus in those years. Between 1986 and 1992, I returned every couple of years for a month, and I went back again in 1998 and 2002. I once knew the country well.
I mention all of this because, in the last few days, I have made brief forays into Istanbul, the region south of Izmir, and the region of Antalya and Alanya on the south coast. I left Jerusalem on 27 July; flew to New York, Detroit, and Portland, Maine; spent one night at my wife’s parents’ home in Whitefield, Maine; and flew on the 28th from Boston to Istanbul via Amsterdam. There my wife and I boarded the Regent Seven Seas Mariner and I took up duties as a shipboard lecturer on a Hillsdale College cruise. If this itinerary seems mad, it is because it really is mad. I was not invited to take up these responsibilities until 17 July when I was already in Jerusalem about to start my teaching stint at Shalem College; and, given the troubles at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, the itinerary I followed was the way to go.
But enough about me. What is interesting is the manner in which Turkey has changed. I first visited Kusadasi on Turkey’s west coast in 1973. At that time, it was a fishing village. Cruise ships docked there so that those in attendance could visit Ephesus. But the village was nothing. It boasted one hotel, and that hotel, in which I stayed, was a dive. There were no paved streets.
Today, however, Kusadasi has, in the summer, a population of a quarter of a million people. It is a city of some importance and it lives off the tourist trade. To be more precise, it lives off the Turks from other parts of Anatolia who spend a month or more each summer in a Holiday Village.
I first visited the south coast of Turkey in the summer of 1984, when I was based in Istanbul. In those days, Anatalya, the leading city in the region, had not more than 60,000 inhabitants. Now it is a city of 1.2 million people. At that time, Alanya was a village, and almost no one lived along the coast between Antalya and Alanya. Today, that coastline is nothing more than a collection of hotels. There must be more than one thousand of them along the road. The population has grown in ways that beggar the imagination and there is wealth. The hotels I have in mind are luxury hotels. In many cases, the architecture is stunning. I have never seen anything like it.
Turkey is now a middle-class country, and it is, alas, no longer a reliable ally of the United States. The Islamist Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won an election in 2002, not long after my last visit to Turkey, with something on the order of a quarter of the vote. He became prime minister in 2003 and has won two elections since — the last one with about 49% of the vote. Initially, Erdoğan posed as a moderate, courted liberal support in Turkey and American and European support abroad. He even visited Israel in 2004 and he was the first Turkish prime minister to do so. In later years — after he stabilized the Turkish lira, liberalized the economy, profited from massive economic growth, and consolidated his political position — he began displaying an authoritarian streak and periodically spewed forth vicious anti-Semitic rants. His enemies were jailed; newspapers were closed; Twitter and the Internet were temporarily shut down; and a host of retired generals and intellectuals were convicted of sedition after a kangaroo court trial.
Now Erdoğan has had the Turkish constitution rewritten to provide for the direct election of the republic’s President, and he is running for the office himself. The first round of the election will be held on 10 August, and there may be no need for a second round. When I arrived in Istanbul, I found it plastered with gigantic posters describing Erdoğan as “the people’s man.” His main opponent — a chemistry professor turned international bureaucrat, who had served as Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic States — was almost invisible. I saw only a handful of posters touting his achievements, and they were minuscule. On the state-run television station, Erdoğan is ever-present. His opponents receive no notice. He is the Vladimir Putin of the Turkish Republic.
I fear that Erdoğan’s election is a foregone conclusion. His aim is evidently to reconfigure Turkey on the Gaullist model as a Presidential state, and this will allow him to follow through on his authoritarian instincts. There may be dark days ahead.Published in