I have started writing this text toward the end of a tree-week trip this summer throughout the western, Aegean region of Turkey, where I had lived and worked for twenty years.
During my trip, I had the chance to talk to many people about the current conditions in the country. Unfortunately, the same period was marked by dramatic developments: hundreds of wildfires in Turkey's south and southwest, followed by massive floods in the north. These natural disasters left behind significant material and human losses. Over 100.000 hectares of forests were destroyed as well as many farms, while flames killed many domestic and wild animals. At the moment of writing, nine people have lost their lives in the fires on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, while an additional 82 human deaths were confirmed officially as a result of flash floods in Turkey's Black Sea region. Around 16 people are still missing.
Here, on the Aegean coast, there have been no such disasters this summer but the emotional impact of the ones mentioned above is significant. This is a region where the current Erdoğan-AKP regime has never won elections and the sentiment of opposition to it has always been intense. People follow regularly the handful of television channels, newspapers and internet-based media that dare criticise the government. And there is a lot to criticise.
It took officials in Ankara two days since the start of wildfires to admit that Turkey did not have a single available aircraft specialised in fire fighting. Practically, all such aircraft were grounded with technical problems. Local authorities were begging the central government to intervene and eventually specialised airplanes were rented for huge amounts of money from Russia and Azerbaijan. That is while repairing and maintaining Turkey's own fleet was calculate to have required only a bit over 4 million USD.
Eventually, most wildfires were extinguished as a result of the conjugated efforts of local authorities, helicopters from the relevant Turkish agencies and fire-fighting airplanes sent by Spain, Croatia, along with Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Iran. Moldova and Georgia also sent fire-fighting teams. Tellingly, the Turkish state's forestry agency admitted that it has spent only two per cent of the already small budget allocated by the government this year for fire-fighting equipment.
Critics of the regime in Ankara, including political opposition, were quick to compare the poor financing of agencies responsible for addressing natural disasters with the immense amounts of money lavishly spent on presidential palaces across the country. Only the security detail and the transportation logistics of the Presidential office are said to consume yearly budgets much higher than the money allocated for responses to natural calamities. When adding to the above the dire situation of the Turkish economy, the result is a generally depressive atmosphere in a society where people feel abandoned by the ruling regime. Many of the people I have talked to are already prepared to emigrate, or take measures in this direction.
My own experience in Turkey with a natural disaster is telling. After my contract with the Izmir University of Economics was terminated in August 2020, very strong earthquakes stroke the region on October 30 that year. More than twenty buildings collapsed and 115 people lost their lives. Many other blocs of flats were affected so badly that they had to be evacuated. Among them was our own home in the central Alsancak neighbourhood of Izmir. None of those affected, including us, received any significant aid from the government except for a few thousand liras (around 500 euro at the time) for "repairs".
Following the deeper decline of the economy over the last year and the natural disasters of this summer, the general mood is worse than when I left for good, back in November 2020.
Inflation is the most pressing and telling indicator. The official figures put the general inflation at almost 20 per cent, while alternative calculations by various experts suggest it could actually be higher. At the moment of writing, on August 17 in Izmir, local media announce that the government insists on increasing salaries of public employees with only 5 per cent. Private businesses will certainly follow in the government footsteps and this means a massive blow to quality of life in Turkey after around three years of continuous economic decline. It was in 2018 that the presidential system of government was instituted, giving President Erdoğan unlimited authority over all state institutions and finances. In the summer of that same year, markets begun to react to policy errors and the value of the lira started to depreciate irreversibly.
Now, following three years of more policy erring, an increasing number of people find out they cannot make ends meet as the value of their work is constantly diminishing. Businesses connected with the government, especially those in the construction and energy sectors, continue to make money. Salaries of workers, however, fail to at least cover losses produced by inflation. And years of neglecting agriculture have led to the near collapse of this crucial sector for a country relying on food production and the connected tourism industry.
Although much affected by the COVID pandemic, businesses in these fields have received only a few thousand liras in aid from the government, which meant less than 1.000 euro. That was while state taxes for alcohol, an important ingredient in tourism, have increased steadily. My own experience here this summer is again relevant. Being left without a home, we had to stay at hotels and eat out. The costs of meals for two persons at local restaurants varied between 130 and 280 lira (approximately 13 and 28 euro at the day's value). One small bottle of 35 cl. of the traditional rakı added to the bill between 210 and 260 lira (21 and 26 euro respectively).
For most people working in Turkey, where the average income is expected to reach only around 4.000 lira by the end of this year, evading daily stress with occasional dinning out is going to be increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Most in fact gain only a bit over the minimum wage, which was increased in the beginning of 2021 to almost 3.000 liras. Even paying rents is going to become a difficult task for a vast majority, with potentially dramatic consequences for the economy as a whole. And it is this majority that may become more frustrated with the government's policies in general and with the numerous restrictions imposed, which cancel the basic right to correct public information. Simply put, people of Turkey do not have access to reliable information and are exposed instead to the regime's narratives about almost anything, which enhances general distrust in the state as a whole.
Over the past 14 years, almost half a million web addresses have been closed by court decisions or by decisions of various state institutions even in the absence of court orders. News portals also removed from the internet around 81 per cent of their informative but critical articles that central authorities blocked access to, an increase from 76 per cent in 2020. During the natural disasters of this summer, a campaign calling for international aid was attacked by senior officials in the Presidential administration for portraying Turkey as a weak state. The same officials blamed the poor response to disasters on opposition-controlled local authorities. That is in spite of the fact that all central agencies that failed to help local authorities have been under the current regime's control and underfinanced for almost twenty years now.
Informing people of Turkey about wildfires was subjected to a governmental distortion and punishment campaign. Some of the tweets and other social media posts promoting the call for international help were blocked. A group of violent people attacked the Halk TV crew reporting on the calamity in the Muğla area of Marmaris on August 6. Then, on August 11, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), the chief censoring institution, fined five television channels for merely reporting on the wildfires. One journalist, a notoriously fanatic supporter of the regime in Ankara, went so far as to make the Kurds and the PKK responsible for the fires. Numerous incidents followed in which gangs attacked Kurdish people in the streets, chanting racist and ultranationalist slogans.
The general impression is thus that critical information in times of crisis is simply banned and reporting journalists are criminalised while the society is increasingly divided and depressed. On the background of deepening economic hardships, people feel abandoned by authorities. The government and its proxies control almost all media outlets, which means the society has limited ways available to pressure government. Adding to this almost totalitarian control, a new legislative initiative aims to criminalise and punish with prison terms media posts for whatever the regime interprets as disinformation, misinformation, or fake news. Other than in elections, the citizens have thus practically no chance to influence public policies. In Izmir, I personally saw small protesting crowds of less than 30 people that were surrounded by more than two hundred, heavily armed police troops and plain-clothed police wearing only indicative vests and armed with pistols. In addition, armed watchmen (bekçi) were also present while the infamous TOMA armoured vehicles equipped with powerful water cannons were waiting ready in the respective areas. All that force being mobilised only for a small group of aged protesters may indicate that the time of "popular participation" in Turkish politics has gone.
Quite significant in this context was the "dialogue" between a group of artists and President Erdoğan in the media. In the wake of the natural disasters that hit the country, a group of artists made a statement saying they are concerned and pointing at the Presidential governmental system as responsible for all policy failures over the last three years. Asked by sympathetic media about this issue, President Erdoğan answered as follows: "It goes in my one ear and out of the other. Their profession is art. May they practice whatever art it is and we will respect them based on their rate of success. Snap election, the presidential system [...] leave it be, it is our job. [...] You wouldn't understand it. If you understand piano, play it; if you play the violin, play it and let us listen [...] but don't meddle in these [political] affairs. It is our job".
In other words, be whatever may be, come whatever may come, the people of Turkey have no word in political affairs and the system governing the country. Although they can see and feel the negative consequences of this state of affairs, there is nothing Turkish citizens can do about them. Sadly, my warning back in 2018 that the President is solely responsible for any development, good or bad, under the current system remains valid. Although the system imposes no limits to the authority of the presidential office and no responsibility for errors, continuous erring may eventually erode irreversibly the legitimacy of the system as a whole, with potentially dramatic consequences for the country and for the region. The natural disasters of this summer could represent an important milestone in that direction.