I don’t know what it’s like to run a country, much less a G-20 one. I can imagine, however, that if I were in charge and my nation’s military had tried to unseat me, I would come away from the experience feeling more than a bit unsettled. If you’re Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose nearly 14 years in power have been characterized by growing authoritarianism and punitive measures toward perceived enemies, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see why he would go into full paranoid mode.
A few days after the country’s failed July 15 coup, which claimed more than 250 lives, the Turkish daily Sabah — the print media mouthpiece of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party — ran the front-page headline “Supreme Commander Has Hit the Button for Full Cleansing.” Erdogan has placed the country under a three-month state of emergency. He has cracked down hard on alleged coup plotters and people connected with the man the president believes was behind the plot, his onetime-mate-turned-enemy, Fethullah Gülen. More than 15,000 people have been detained, stripped of clothes down to the waist and held in stables. Nearly 60,000 public employees — including some 15,000 teachers and all university deans — have been relieved of employment. University-level academics are barred from international travel. More than 1,000 schools, from preschool through high school, have been closed in advance of the new school year. Some 90 journalists have been taken into custody or have warrants out for their arrest. Erdogan has ordered the closure of 45 newspapers and 16 media outlets, mulled reinstating the death penalty and temporarily suspended the European Convention on Human Rights.
On a personal note, friends of mine — teachers and journalists included — have changed their names on Facebook, asked me to monitor Twitter for them and give them any possible leads for jobs outside the country. Others I know, including at least one professor, have taken a sudden turn toward strident endorsement of the Erdogan government.
Beyond a governmental shakeout and a further clampdown on the press, it’s not even safe to release an objectively critical economic report anymore. On Wednesday, Mert Ulker, head of research of the brokerage arm of Akbank, the country’s second-largest bank, had his professional license stripped by the country’s Capital Markets Authority for allegedly failing “to fulfill his responsibilities” by issuing a report analyzing the fallout of the coup. Ulker faces criminal charges under a law that makes it illegal to insult the president, the country or its institutions. Other brokerage firms have since reported having to send authorities copies of their client research to scrutinize whether they had weighed too unfavorably against the Turkish markets.
Imagine if the Securities and Exchange Commission went after one of Institutional Investor’s All-America Research Team members for giving a sector a less-than-glowing outlook on the grounds that the bearish review was a threat to national security. That’s how crazy the censorship situation has become in a country that not long ago was considered an emerging-markets rising star. Turkey’s economy relies on foreign investment to finance its hefty current-account deficit of more than 4 percent of GDP. How are foreign investors going to get intel on top prospects? Does every communiqué coming out of Istanbul securities houses get written by non-Turkish colleagues or under some sort of pseudonym?
What constitutes normal in today’s Turkey is up for debate. When he’s not making such regressive proclamations as saying women need to have at least three children, inspiring massive protests against his authoritarianism such as those in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June 2013 or arresting bearish stock analysts, Erdogan is the type of leader who built himself a $600 million presidential palace and posed with guards in Selcuk- and Ottoman-era costumes that wouldn’t look out of place at such bastions of nerdom as the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Nevertheless, public outcry in Turkey against the coup was nearly unanimous. Even Erdogan’s staunchest political opponents would rather see him in office than some junta. For a moment, however fleeting, the country stood together, united.
Going forward, let’s hope that fear isn’t the new common ground in Turkey.
Follow Anne Szustek on Twitter at @the59thStBridge.