Spurning Erdogan’s vision, Turks exiting country in droves
Money and talent flow out of Istanbul as Turks reject new sociopolitical reality
Commuter train passes an election poster for President Recep Erdogan in Istanbul in June, 2018: people are driven by fear of persecution and economic mismanagement. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/New York Times
For 17 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won elections by offering voters a vision of restoring the glories of Turkey’s Ottoman past. He extended his country’s influence with increased trade and military deployments, and he raised living standards with years of unbroken economic growth.
But after a failed 2016 coup, Erdogan embarked on a sweeping crackdown. Last year, the economy wobbled and the lira plunged soon after he won re-election with even greater powers. As cronyism and authoritarianism seep deeper into his administration, Turks are voting differently – this time with their feet.
They are leaving the country in droves and taking talent and capital with them in a way that indicates a broad and alarming loss of confidence in Erdogan’s vision, according to government statistics and analysts.
In the past two to three years, not only have students and academics fled the country, but also entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and thousands of wealthy individuals who are selling everything and moving their families and their money abroad.
More than a quarter of a million Turks emigrated in 2017, according to the Turkish Institute of Statistics, an increase of 42 per cent over 2016, when nearly 178,000 citizens left the country. Turkey has seen waves of students and teachers leave before, but this exodus looks like a more permanent reordering of society and threatens to set Turkey back decades, said Ibrahim Sirkeci, director of transnational studies at Regent’s University in London, and other analysts.
“The brain drain is real,” Sirkeci said.
The flight of people, talent and capital is being driven by a powerful combination of factors that have come to define life under Erdogan and that his opponents increasingly despair is here to stay. They include fear of political persecution, terrorism, a deepening distrust of the judiciary and the arbitrariness of the rule of law, and a deteriorating business climate, accelerated by worries that Erdogan is unsoundly manipulating management of the economy to benefit himself and his inner circle.
The result is that, for the first time since the republic was founded nearly a century ago, many from the old moneyed class, in particular the secular elite who have dominated Turkey’s cultural and business life for decades, are moving away and the new rich close to Erdogan and his governing party are taking their place.
One of those leaving is Merve Bayindir (38) who is relocating to London after becoming Turkey’s go-to hat designer in the fashionable Nisantasi district of Istanbul. “We are selling everything,” she said during a return trip to Istanbul last month to close what was left of her business, Merve Bayindir, which she runs with her mother, and to sell their four-storey house.
Bayindir was an active participant in the 2013 protests against the government’s attempt to develop Taksim Square in Istanbul. She said she remains traumatised by the violence and is fearful in her own city. Erdogan denounced the protesters as delinquents and, after enduring arrests and harassment, many have left the country.
“There is so much discrimination, not only cultural but personal, the anger, the violence is impossible to handle,” Bayindir said. “If you had something better and you see it dissolving, it’s a hopeless road.”
Thousands of Turks like her have applied for business visas in Britain or for golden visa programmes in Greece, Portugal and Spain, which grant immigrants residency if they buy property at a certain level.
Applications for asylum in Europe by Turks have also multiplied in the past three years, according to Sirkeci, who has studied the migration of Turks to Britain for 25 years. He estimates that 10,000 Turks have made use of a business visa plan to move to Britain in the past few years, with a sharp jump in applications since the beginning of 2016.
That is double the number from 2004 to 2015. Applications by Turkish citizens for political asylum also jumped threefold in Britain in the six months after the coup attempt, and sixfold among Turks applying for asylum in Germany, he said, citing figures obtained from the UN refugee agency. The number of Turks applying for asylum worldwide jumped by 10,000 in 2017 to more than 33,000.
Coup and purge
A large proportion of those fleeing have been followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher who is charged with instigating the 2016 coup, or people accused of being followers, often on flimsy evidence. Tens of thousands of teachers and academics were purged from their jobs after the coup, including hundreds who had signed a peace petition calling on the government to cease military action in Kurdish cities and return to the peace process. Hundreds have taken up posts abroad.
Erdogan has tried to make Turkey more conservative and religious, with a growing middle class and a tight circle of elites who are especially beholden to him for their economic success. The flight of capital and talent is the result of this conscious effort by Erdogan to transform the society, said Bekir Agirdir, director of the Konda polling company.
With the help of subsidies and favourable contracts, the government has helped new businesses to emerge, and they are rapidly replacing the old ones, he said. “There is a transfer of capital under way,” he said. “It is social and political engineering.”
Ilker Birbil, a mathematician who faces charges for signing the peace petition and left Turkey to take a position at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, warned that the country was losing people permanently. “People who are leaving do not want to come back,” Birbil said, citing the polarised political climate in the country.
“This is alarming for Turkey. I have received so many emails from students and friends who are trying to get out of Turkey,” he said.
Students are despairing of change partly because they have grown up with Erdogan in power for 17 years, said Erhan Erkut, a founder of MEF University in Istanbul, which teaches innovation and entrepreneurship. “This is the only government they have seen; they do not know there is another possibility,” he said.
Families are setting up businesses abroad for the next generation to inherit, said Sirkeci of Regent’s University, adding that many students at his private university fell into that category. At least 12,000 of Turkey’s millionaires – about 12 per cent of the country’s wealthy class – moved their assets out of the country in 2016 and 2017, according to the Global Wealth Migration Review, an annual report produced by AfrAsia Bank.
Reviled as traitors
Most of them moved to Europe or the United Arab Emirates, the report said. Turkey’s largest business centre, Istanbul, was listed among the top seven cities worldwide experiencing an exodus of wealthy people. “If one looks at any major country collapse in history, it is normally preceded by a migration of wealthy people away from that country,” the report said.
Erdogan has reviled as traitors businesspeople who have moved their assets abroad as the Turkish economy has begun to falter. “Pardon us, we do not forgive,” he warned in an April speech at the Foreign Economic Relations Board, a business association in Istanbul. “The hands of our nation would be on their collars both in this world and in the afterlife.”
“Behaviour like this cannot have a valid explanation,” Erdogan added. His comments came amid reports that some of Turkey’s largest companies were divesting in Turkey. Several such companies have made significant transfers of capital abroad, amid fears they would be targeted in the post-coup crackdown or as the economy began to contract.
One is Turkish food giant Yildiz Holding, which came under fire on social media as being linked to Gülen’s movement. Soon after, Yildiz rescheduled $7 billion of debt and sold shares of its Turkish biscuit maker, Ulker, to its London-based holding company, essentially transferring the family’s majority holding of Ulker out of reach of Turkish courts.
(Yildiz representatives did not immediately respond to requests for an interview, but after publication of this article, they said that its companies were in no way associated with the Gulenist movement, which it called a “terrorist” group, and that the transfer of its debt and shares to its London-based holding company had no impact on its company’s commitment to and operations in Turkey.)
“Billions of dollars have fled Turkey in the last couple of years, especially after the coup attempt when people started to feel threatened,” said Mehmet Gun, the owner of a law firm in Istanbul.
Bayindir, the designer, began slowly moving her company to London two years ago. In Turkey she had half a dozen workers and a showroom, but now she designs and makes the hats herself out of a rented atelier in London. “I could have stayed’’ in Istanbul, she said. “I would be better off.” But life in Turkey had become so tense, she said, that she fears civil strife or even civil war could develop between Erdogan supporters and their opponents.
“Now when I come here, I don’t see the same Istanbul,” she said. “She does not have energy anymore. She looks tired. Me not wanting to come here is a big, big thing, because I am one of those people who is in love with the city itself.” – New York Times