Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If the world were one country, Istanbul would be its capital.” Throughout its storied 27-century history, the city has gone from a geopolitical backwater to a main node of world culture and trade, and back again. Centrally located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa via the Mediterranean waterways, Istanbul has long commanded a prominent place in the imaginations of empire builders. Cycles of ascension and decline based on trade and geopolitics have marked the city’s fortunes. Not for nothing is it nicknamed the “city of the world’s desire.”
These cycles used to happen in centuries; today, they happen in decades. The two decades following the ‘post-modern coup’ of 1997 was the latest such cycle: the globalization era. Istanbul saw the rise of a new regime in Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The AKP’s neoliberal development policy spurred rapid growth of Istanbul’s global footprint and economy in an attempt to turn it into the Hong Kong of the region. But Istanbul’s standing and economy abruptly collapsed, as social, political, and regional upheaval challenged Turkey’s relationship with the Western liberal order. In this two-decade globalization era, the city went from stagnating, to growing, to flourishing, to upheaving, to collapsing, and back to stagnating again. It was a full cycle.
The city of the world’s desire saw globalization come and go. Those years were hectic, frenetic, and dreamy, and they ended decisively.
From the end of Cold War until recently, globalization was a one-way street; when the U.S.-led order moved into a place, it was there to stay. Anywhere outside of the globalized world was doomed to backwater status. So it was with Turkey from the 1990s until a few years ago.
That changed. Istanbul today is a city from which the U.S.-led order has pulled back and where Western globalization has ended. There have been hardships, but people in Istanbul seem to take a longer view of their historic city’s cycles. Things will get better, they believe. Most importantly, life there hasn’t stopped.
Palladium explored Istanbul to see life after globalization firsthand.
Background: Early 21st Century Turkey
By the end of the 20th century, Turkey had undergone four coups in under four decades, and the country was seeking a new chapter of stability. The AKP was founded in 2001 to bring about that new chapter. It was a big-tent socially conservative and economically neoliberal party. It brought together members of several existing, right-leaning parties, based on the traditions of Turkey’s Ottoman past and Sunni Islamic identity. The neoliberal economics functioned as a signal of moderate compromise to factions who would otherwise be opposed to AKP’s ascent: U.S. diplomatic interests and domestic secularists. AKP quickly became the largest party in Turkey, taking control of the government after its sweeping electoral victory in 2002, which produced the country’s first single-party government since 1987. The election was held during the ongoing economic crisis following the 2001 financial crash. Polling at the time showed that the AKP victory was due more to public belief in its economic stewardship than its social policies. “We shall strengthen Turkey’s economic integration into the rest of the world,” Erdoğan declared following the victory, saying that he was “determined to apply the economic program (of) the IMF.”
The AKP quickly delivered the promised economic boom that had brought it to power: anchored by the redenomination and removal of six zeros from the previously hyperinflation-wracked Turkish lira, the economy grew at an average rate of 7.2% between 2002 and 2007, more than double its average rate in the 1990s. Despite a short recession during the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, Turkey’s economy proved surprisingly resilient, roaring out of the global event with growth rates of 8.8% in 2010 and 9.2% in 2011. At this point, the Turkish economy, under AKP stewardship and a neoliberal development agenda, was growing faster than the Chinese economy.
The Rise of Globalization Istanbul
Globalization is how the AKP planned—and for a while succeeded—to deliver the Turkish economic boom: neoliberal economic development practices of deregulation, liberalization, and aggressive courtship of U.S.-led foreign direct investment and international development financing to build mega projects.
Globalization defined early 21st century Istanbul, culturally and commercially. Istanbul is the cultural hub, business center, and financial capital of Turkey, and the city generates nearly 40 percent of Turkey’s total economic output. During the globalization era boom, the metropolis of 15 million enjoyed massively increased foreign direct investment. Istanbul had gone from being a city of under one million, to a city of fifteen million in little more than half a century, while continually improving its standard of living. This made it a legitimate candidate for becoming a renewed global city.
This era marked a period of neoliberalism par excellence in Istanbul, and globalization gripped the city in its cultural zeitgeist: the previously gritty metropolis bore witness to hallmark globalization gentrification projects, including the opening of ‘Boho’ art galleries and hipster coffee shops, among new boutique hotels catering to the jet set. Both before and after the financial crisis of 2008–2009, foreign money was splashing around everywhere in Istanbul. Serious discussion by its intelligentsia was lauding Turkey’s inevitable ascension into the European Union. There was the near-selection of Istanbul as 2020 Olympic host city in 2012, when Istanbul was runner-up only to another global capital, Tokyo, to host the summer games. The assumption, of course, was that by 2020 Istanbul would be a true global city just like Tokyo. Fittingly, Istanbul in this period was even named the party capital of Europe.
Globalization was propelling Istanbul into the cultural hub, business center, and financial capital, not only of Turkey, but of the entire eastern Mediterranean region. Accordingly, Goldman Sachs included Turkey in MIST: a new acronym to denote Turkey as belonging to the latest bloc of chic emerging economies ripe for investment, along with Mexico, Indonesia, and South Korea. Istanbul had an undeniable dynamism and magnetism. There were even public pronouncements about a potential eastern Mediterranean currency zone based on the Turkish lira and the Istanbul financial sector.
Some Western economists had begun warning that the economy was becoming too reliant on foreign direct investment, but it didn’t matter: globalization was restoring Istanbul to its former status, and the sky was the limit.
The Fall Of Globalization Istanbul
But then a strange thing happened: globalization in Istanbul faltered. And after that, an even stranger thing happened: it didn’t start up again. Instead, it stopped entirely. And once it stopped, it started to unravel. This wasn’t part of the plan.
The Gezi Park protests of 2013 marked the first major public fissures between the Islamist AKP and Istanbul’s secularist urban population.
The protests began as a sit-in in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square to protest the demolition of a public park in order to make way for an Ottoman-themed tourist attraction and shopping mall with upper floor luxury apartments. But the luxury apartments were just a flashpoint. The larger context was a deep concern that the AKP was becoming too bold in its Islamist and autocratic tendencies, despite its apparent promise of moderation. Images of authorities tear gassing rioting crowds spread across newsfeeds worldwide, and for the first time since the 1990s, international audiences were alerted that all was not calm in Istanbul. From the early 2000s to 2012, the city looked like the emerging Hong Kong of the Eastern Mediterranean. Now, it resembled revolutionary Cairo.
Neoliberal development was supposed to be intrinsically linked with liberal democratic secularism. It was supposed to happen in Turkey, too. But these trends are not laws of nature, and Erdoğan had a very different vision for Turkey. Neoliberal development for Erdoğan was political cover and an expression of ultimate pragmatism, which he has possessed in spades throughout his entire political career.
Following the Gezi Park protests, U.S.-led investment dried up. The international business community started to abandon Istanbul, sparking a debt crisis in 2014. Concurrently, the geopolitical situation worsened: refugee flows had begun hitting Turkey, and by early 2015, the previously contained Syrian Civil War spilled over the border. Later that year, the Syrian Civil War escalated as Russia formally entered the conflict. From 2015 to 2016, the number of refugees in Turkey more than doubled, reaching 4.5 million. Istanbul received more refugees than all of Europe combined.
The coup de grâce came in late 2016, when secularist elements of the Turkish Armed Forces attempted a military coup against Erdoğan. The psychological impact of this event on locals is hard to overstate, and they still do not like talking about it. Imagine living in a city of the size and relative regional importance of New York City. Suddenly, there is a putsch of generals. Soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers start commandeering vital roads and bridges in the name of a new ruling council. Their helicopter gunships are indiscriminately strafing crowds of demonstrators in the streets. And then, just as suddenly, this putsch is put down by other soldiers in tanks and F-16s operating on orders directly from the president. And all happening live, as the world looks on in shock. It was a truly surreal and nightmarish Hollywood-esque moment for Istanbul. While the coup attempt failed on the streets of the city, it was an epochal event that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
This was the final nail in the coffin for those seeking to make Istanbul into the Hong Kong of the Eastern Mediterranean and for serious U.S.-led investment interest in Turkey. This forced the AKP government to scramble to debt-finance projects and look desperately towards Chinese financing to continue Istanbul’s signature developments, such as the new Istanbul Airport and third Bosphorus Bridge.
Out of expediency, in 2016 Turkey began turning to Russia for support on the world stage. This did not sit well with Washington. U.S.–Turkey relations consistently worsened throughout 2016 and 2017. By 2018, relations had crashed to the point that America was threatening sanctions over Turkey’s entente with Russia. This spooked Istanbul’s markets, creating a major currency and debt crisis, which caused the main Istanbul stock exchange to crash. Borsa Istanbul lost a third of its value in a few months, as domestic lenders were hit by restructuring demands from domestic corporations unable to service their dollar- and euro-denominated debts because of the loss of value of their lira-based earnings. The IMF approached the Turkish government about new bailout loans, but Erdoğan rebuffed it, preferring to take the economic hits and effectively pull Turkey out the U.S.-led system.
If 2016 marked the cultural and economic end of Globalization Istanbul, 2018 marked the geopolitical affirmation of that reality.
After The End: Life In Post-Globalization Istanbul
Today, the end of Globalization Istanbul is complete. And yet, the storied city of 15 million endures even as it adapts to its new reality. Massive upheaval or not, life goes on.
What does life look like in a major metropolis after globalization has ended? Neoliberal development has ceased. The city is in an economic recession. Massive inflation is rampant. Nearly 2,000 have been jailed for life in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Social liberalization has ended. The zeitgeist has turned inward toward autocracy.
Not all is doom and gloom in Istanbul, though: while economic and social metrics suggest that people in Istanbul should be miserable, other indicators suggest that they are reasonably satisfied with life. And the social scene, a sine qua non of the good life in Istanbul, remains quite vibrant despite it all. That said, ‘it all’ is enormous.
While a macro-level story can be seen through the big-picture lens of geopolitical trends and economic statistics, on-the-ground perspectives are always more subtle and nuanced. No city is a monolith. Especially not a city as historic, massive, and diverse as Istanbul, where legends and human dramas have been playing out for centuries.
Working with a correspondent on the ground, I had the chance to dig beneath the surface and investigate life in a city after globalization ends. A number of locals talked openly about how their lives have been affected by the societal and economic upheavals in their city. Reflective of their environment, none of these Istanbulus wished to be specifically identified, but most were happy to talk and allow us to photograph them. We asked questions on a broad range of topics reflective of life in post-globalization Istanbul.
America Has Pulled Back
The estrangement between America and Turkey is vital to understanding what a dramatic shift has occurred in the Istanbul of 2019. The late Ottoman Empire was adept at staying on the good side of the major Anglosphere maritime power of its day: the British Empire. Throughout the 19th century, the British Empire ensured the survival of “the sick man of Europe.” When the Ottomans broke that policy and sided against the Anglosphere in World War I, Turkey lost its entire empire, save Anatolia itself (and it almost lost that as well.)
The Turkish Republic that emerged from the aftermath of the World War I disaster took this lesson to heart. For the entirety of modern Turkey’s history from 1923 onward, integration into the leading Anglosphere order has been of paramount importance. Especially since the onset of the Cold War, no matter what, the Turkish government would be aligned with Washington, and Washington would keep it safe.
But following Gezi Park in 2013, that tradition began to shift. Various arms of the U.S.-led order began downsizing operations, including the IMF, which quietly drew down its previously extensive presence in Istanbul. Turkey had been the IMF’s biggest client, but it finished paying off its 52-year-old IMF loans in 2013, and later altogether ended cooperation with the IMF in 2018.
A main structural arm of the U.S.-led order pulling back (or being told to leave) has had real consequences: American firms have also reduced their presence in Istanbul. Some have withdrawn entirely. Consumer giants like Amazon never became players in Turkey the way they did in other parts of the developed world. Other companies like Google and CitiGroup were once major players in Turkey, but they both have drastically downsized their Istanbul operations and now share an address at the same small representative office. CitiBank Turkey’s website hasn’t been updated since 2013, probably because CitiGroup sold its stake and pulled out of Turkish retail banking. And no information can be found on the JPMorgan Chase headquarters that used to be in Istanbul’s chic Besiktas neighborhood, aside from the fact that the building is still physically there.
People in Istanbul may not have a full grasp of the big picture, but they know what it’s done to their lives. Mr. Çelik, a particularly thoughtful tailor, had a great deal of insight to give. Çelik explained that in Istanbul during the globalization era, “banks were handing out credit cards to anyone without looking at their job or income. Now no one can pay their credit card debt.” Translation: the consumer credit bubble in Istanbul popped, and the U.S. financial sector pulled back. It can be argued which came first, the IMF’s chicken, or the American financial sector’s egg, but it led to the same result: the financial vehicles of the U.S.-led order have pulled back from Turkey.
In fact, the U.S.-led order has done more than simply pull back: the relationship has become somewhat adversarial as of late. The fundamental cause is geopolitical. Power dynamics have changed since the Cold War–era pillars of the relationship were originally put in place, and the U.S.–Turkey relationship is now adapting to that reality. Poignantly, the population of 1950 Turkey was around 20 million. By comparison, the population of 1950 Germany was around 70 million. Today, the population of Turkey is over 80 million, the same as Germany. Equally important, 1950 America was an expanding superpower. Today, America is trying to pull back from Turkey’s neighborhood after two decades of military involvement. Turkey meanwhile has built the second-largest military in NATO and has begun deploying troops abroad in the Middle East. This push has been aided greatly by demographics: Turkey’s average age is under 31 years old, making it one of the youngest large countries in the world.
So, things have changed, and no one could reasonably expect the U.S.–Turkey relationship to be the same today as it was in the Cold War–era, especially with Turkey entering the heavyweight class of rising global powers. Turkey has begun assertively pushing its own agenda. Unsurprisingly, some of these maneuverings on the world stage, especially Turkey’s entente with Russia, have been a cause of frustration and alarm in Washington. They have resulted in America taking a heavy hand with its nominal NATO ally to the point of threatening, and then actually implementing, economic sanctions. And now, America has threatened additional sanctions and is disallowing F-35 sales to Turkey over its acquisition of Russian missile-defense systems. These are no idle threats; previous U.S. sanctions against Turkey in early 2018 spooked Istanbul’s markets badly, helping mire the city in its current recession.
Americans in Istanbul don’t seem to encounter any particular hostility from the locals because of their nationality, though. Like Çelik, the locals seem as suspicious of their own government as they are of yabancılar (foreigners). Nevertheless, seeing newspaper headlines shifting from optimistic investment to hostile sanctions in the span of just a few years has been a bit whiplash-inducing to Istanbulus. A genuinely confused “ne oldu?” (“what happened?”) is a common sentiment these days among locals when America is mentioned.
The U.S. sanctions have been felt on the ground in other noticeable ways: where there once were daily direct flights to Istanbul on multiple American carriers from New York, Boston, Atlanta, and DC, there are no more direct flights to Istanbul from the United States on American carriers; in fact, it appears that no American carrier lands in Istanbul from anywhere anymore.
Relatedly, Istanbul began construction of a new airport in 2014, and it was planned to be the world’s largest. Once it begins operations, however, it will have no American carriers serving it, despite Istanbul’s desperate courtship. The U.S.-led order’s withdrawal has also caused its infrastructure financing to slow to a trickle, leaving the new airport construction crawling along, with its opening occurring in embarrassingly slow motion. It would seem Washington is sending a message.
Inflation’s Bite & Tax Hikes
Far more dramatic an effect than the disappearance of infrastructure financing or airlines, however, has been the rampant inflation of basic goods in Istanbul. In 2017, the inflation rate was 12%. In 2018, it spiked to 20%. Currently, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) annual percent inflation price change for food is 20%, as of December.
This has caused real hardship. Locals don’t know whether to buy today, because they don’t know what prices will be tomorrow. It’s hard to keep your balik ekmek prices stable when fish prices have skyrocketed.
A clever way the Turkish government has combated inflation has been by pegging prices at a higher point than they actually are. While the lira has recovered somewhat from its mid-2018 lows, the government has imposed price controls to keep necessity goods priced where they were at during those lows. Thus, the lira’s purchasing power actually increased somewhat during Q4 2018 when the lira recovered a bit against the dollar. However, extreme measures like this generally do more harm than good in the long term.
Omer and Ahmet, longtime owners of a typical Istanbul produce market, are among those getting hit hard by such measures. On the subject of price controls, Omer told us that the government imposition is hurting him badly. “The government is selling subsidized vegetables and fruit, and it’s putting us out of business,” he said. “How can I pay my rent, my taxes, my retirement program when the government does this?”
Ahmet chimed in. “If this continues, we’ll have to close our shop. We’re selling vegetables and paying taxes. If we can’t pay our taxes, then how can this work?”
“Let’s close all the shops and let the government sell everything,” he added with typical Turkish laconicism.
Omer and Ahmet’s troubles are reflective of a bigger, structural issue Turkey is facing at the macro level in 2019. Since the U.S.-led order’s withdrawal and America’s sanctions, the Turkish government has needed to maintain its external balance of payments to stave off an even worse currency depreciation crisis. Istanbul provides almost half of the Turkish government’s revenues, so the Istanbul tax base is being squeezed, and squeezed hard. But people still need groceries, so the Turkish government has felt it necessary to step in with price controls to make sure people can afford basic goods like food. It’s a tough situation.
Çelik summed it up: “They raised taxes four times, but no one can pay taxes because of how bad the economy has become.”
Between the Western order’s pullback, America’s sanctions, government market economy takeovers, price controls, and rampant inflation, the present reality might seem grim in Istanbul. But things are working out for an older local barber and supporter of Erdoğan, Mr. Güneş, who seemed to think “the economy is alright” and “everything is fine.”
But, he added with a shrug, “I’m retired.”
While the economy has certainly taken several blows since 2015 and is universally seen as worse off (aside from semi-retired barbers), other aspects of life in Istanbul have stabilized. Whereas in the globalization boom years there was a palpable sense that things were culturally spinning out of control, a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ has since taken root. That old Turkish feeling of cultural solidarity against the world is resurgent, though no one yet seems comfortable talking about the coup attempt.
Emre, a young, optimistic cafe worker, exclaimed that “nowadays, things are not so good, but we have some goals. If we can work toward those goals, we’ll be alright. We saw good days before. Now we’re living through bad days, but it will get better.” The cyclical nature of life in a place like Istanbul is not lost on the youth.
Emre offered another upbeat perspective and seemed to have faith in the government’s ability to keep things together and lead the city through the downturn: “The food business is especially difficult right now, but other sectors are doing well. The government will handle it.”
In terms of the industrial sector, Çelik told us “years ago, Atatürk built many factories in Istanbul. But manufacturing died.” The globalization era’s deindustrialized consumer-driven economics hit Istanbul’s manufacturing hard. “We need to rebuild our exports,” Çelik said.
Increased Autocracy, Decreased Discourse
Political life has become noticeably quieter in the past few years. In a city with as famed a political history as Istanbul, few openly discuss politics anymore. The AKP controls the city, and Erdoğan has proven he’s not going anywhere. Since running Istanbul personally as mayor from 1994 to 1998, he has put three successive proteges into office. The most recent mayor wasn’t even elected; Erdoğan simply installed him via the city council in 2017. No one is trying to go to prison for openly criticizing his state. Opposition has essentially ended, with AKP paramilitaries now ‘monitoring’ elections. At this point, recalcitrants are being sentenced by Istanbul courts to read and summarize Erdoğan’s biography simply for having insulted him. In short, Erdoğan is in charge.
As a result, street protesting, an Istanbul pastime once as popular as Beşiktaş–Fenerbahçe football matches, has become markedly less so. A massive 26,000-strong police presence ensured that the May Day protest of 2018 was under control with arrests numbering only in the dozens. This was nowhere close to the scale of the months-long Gezi Park protest that dovetailed off of May Day 2013, which the police ultimately forcibly suppressed, detaining 3,000, injuring 8,000, and killing 11.
While Erdoğan’s AKP is dominant and street protesting has gone out of style, no regime could ever hope to fully shut down discourse in a place like Istanbul. The city is simply too central and too ancient to ever fully belong to anyone enough that it could be shut down completely. Young Turks, of course, continue to quietly maintain their opinions and theories about everything. Some of the people at the still-hopping Istanbul bar scene were willing to share theirs.
Elif, a college student in her 20s, seemed to think Istanbul’s present rough patch is mostly just smoke and mirrors. Her tone was dismissive: “It’s like a reality show. They’re making up these problems so that they can fix them and appear to be heroes.” A classic Turkish perspective: the state is simply shadow-boxing against imaginary foes. When asked how the downturn was affecting her, Elif replied, “I’m not involved; it affects me because I can’t really buy much or travel” and then quickly reiterated “but I think it’s all made up.”
Can, an engineer in his 30s, took a wider view of the political picture while drinking his stout.
“We’re collapsing now because of terrible government policy. Globalization is not for us.” Did he mean that globalization has not benefited the locals, or that it simply didn’t work for Istanbul? He shrugged.
“The government just works for other countries, not its people. They have some voters, so they give them money and stuff, but it’s all thievery. This government is completely corrupt.” Other countries? What other countries? “They are selling weapons to Syrians.”
Can then went on to echo Emre’s sentiments about the cyclical nature of Istanbul’s fortunes. “Every ten years the economy collapses and then gets rebuilt. We are in the down part of the cycle.” It would seem this understanding of their city is ingrained in young Istanbulus of both blue-collar and academic stripes.
The overall feeling is that international relationships these days seem less based on historical precedent and more on immediate pragmatism. The consensus seems to be that policy and diplomacy are designed to entrench Erdoğan and the AKP. So when it’s expedient to be friends, Turkey will be friends. When it’s expedient to demonize, Turkey will demonize. People point to the fact that just a couple years ago, there were big problems with Russia. Now there aren’t.
Taksim Today: Out With Kemalism, In With Ottomanism
Taksim Square is the heart of Istanbul. It was a focal point of neoliberal development in the globalization era, the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and the anti-coup protests in 2016. Now, having crushed its political opposition and moved the refugees out of Taksim, the AKP government is continuing its program of rapidly Ottomanizing Taksim Square.
Poignantly, the government demolished the Atatürk Cultural Center in 2018.
Going up on the other side of Taksim Square is a new Ottoman-style grand mosque, a signature AKP project. Its monumental scale is designed to awe and dominate the Taksim skyline. It does.
Erdoğan recently took a victory lap both about defeating the Gezi Park protests and levelling the Atatürk Cultural Center: “The Gezi protestors also yelled against (the demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Center): yell as much as you want, rant and rave, but we demolished it.”
He made that statement during an Islamic prayer service across town at the previously off-limits Hagia Sophia in 2018. This, too, was of immense symbolic importance. The Hagia Sophia originally was an Orthodox Christian cathedral. It was made into an Islamic mosque by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and became a focal point for expansionist Christian powers with their eye on Istanbul once the Ottomans weakened in the 1700s. When Atatürk founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923, one of his first moves was to take previously contested religious sites like the Hagia Sophia off the geopolitical chessboard by turning them into secular museums, thereby removing any socio-religious casus belli against Turkey from external powers. With the rise of political Islam and Ottomanism as forces in Turkey, Erdoğan has been under pressure from his Muslim base to re-Islamify iconic Istanbul sites like Taksim Square and the Hagia Sophia. Now feeling fully secure and able to flex his muscles, Erdoğan is moving forward with this program more rapidly. That Erdoğan made the declaration of the end of a secular Kemalist icon in Taksim Square from the Hagia Sophia itself is no coincidence.
The Taksim Mosque is nearing completion and now towers over the Republic Monument. This is also of immense symbolic importance. Long the focal point of political activity in Taksim Square, the Republic Monument was built in 1928 and depicts the founders of the Turkish Republic in heroic fashion. On one side, there is Atatürk during the Turkish War of Independence leading his men in military uniform; on the other, there is Atatürk and the founding fathers of Turkey dressed in Western civilian clothing. Atatürk the Turkish military leader, Atatürk the Western-looking statesman. Now, the Taksim Mosque dominates all views of this monument. The symbolism is impossible to ignore.
Going up is a Grand Ottoman Mosque over a secular monument, coming down is the cultural center bearing the founder’s name which was the site of anti-government protests just a few years ago. Taksim Square is changing.
The Refugee Situation
Because of the Syrian Civil War, refugees for a while became a pervasive fact of life in Istanbul. Ritzy neighborhoods like Cihancir on the European side of the city had been home to boho modern art museums in the globalization era; suddenly, they were hosting war refugees. These refugees were 3:1 male to female, half were between ages 18 and 34, and they were living side-by-side among the local Turks. This caused friction with a Turkish population that has largely defined itself against the Arab Middle East throughout its modern history.
Though the worst of the refugee crisis has passed, as of 2019, there are still concerns that another refugee situation could hit and spiral out of control, affecting Turkey in a similar way as Jordan in 1971. As Çelik told us, “We have nowhere to go. We accept Syrians and other Arabic refugees. We accept everyone. But no one will accept us when we have the inevitable crisis.” Being overwhelmed by refugees is in the back of Istanbulus’ minds for good reason: Istanbul has over half a million refugees, constituting nearly four percent of its total population. If Istanbul were a country, it would rank number eleven in terms of most refugees in the world, with more than the United States, China, or France.
Yet curiously, the omnipresent Syrian refugee has more or less disappeared from the nice areas as of 2019. A smart, young Turk who wished to remain fully anonymous gave his view about what happened to all the Syrian refugees who were everywhere in places like Taksim Square as of just a couple years ago.
“The reason you don’t see a lot of Syrians in Taksim Square today is because the government doesn’t want you to see them there,” he said. “It’s kind of an eyesore for tourists, you know?”
“What happened to them?
“I remember hearing about Syrians being rounded up in vans and taken out of Taksim some time ago.”
“Where are they now?”
“They’re in different parts of Fatih (the Old City), and then places further out like Esenler.”
The refugees have been moved to shanty towns and camps. He went on to discuss the government and international refugee care programs.
“In terms of what the government has done, it’s a mixed bag. Major programs include funding from international bodies like UNHCR and International Organization for Migration. The EU–Turkey Emergency Social Safety Network (ESSN) and Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) are the main local cash assistance programs.”
Since the beginning of 2017 the EU has funded these programs with over €2 billion in partnership with UNICEF. Despite the political breakdown between Turkey and the EU, the EU still sees an interest in making sure further refugee flows do not get past Istanbul and into Europe. So once again, Istanbul resumes another of its historical roles: Europe’s bulwark against the Middle East.
These programs seem to be merely stopgap measures, however.
“They’re really not much; only around 150 lira ($30) per person per month and they’re constantly changing regulations, with both beneficiaries and the local bureaucracy needing to be properly informed. It’s a nightmare,” he added. And, refugee or not, every single individual in Turkey must be integrated into the Turkish Identification Number (Kimlik) system. The Turkish Republic was founded in the 1920s and modeled on modern 20th-century European states. Its institutions and their assiduous procedural enforcement reflect that. On that note, our source told us: “Kimlik issues are also a nightmare. Refugees have stories about queuing up at 5:00 AM to renew their kimliks, with a thousand people in line being penned in a corral by the workers. It’s bad.”
Enter The Dragon
Chinese development has somewhat picked up the slack in Istanbul where U.S.-led investment has dried up. Turkey’s participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative has led to new Chinese investment in Istanbul as well as new opportunities for Turkey to exert itself on the world stage by establishing itself as the protector of Turkic peoples. The Turkish government has turned to Chinese financing to finish the new Istanbul airport. More broadly, Turkey has taken to viewing the Belt and Road Initiative as a way to lessen the effect of the U.S.-led order’s withdrawal and America’s sanctions. The geopolitical implications of this are, of course, enormous.
Chinese money means Chinese people, and Chinese people need places to stay. Unsurprisingly, they have begun building their own hotels.
The most interesting insight came from our tailor, Çelik. Old fears of losing their country to the West have been replaced by new fears of losing it to the East. “If there’s a Chinese hotel, that’s fine with me. But maybe it’s part of a larger problem with Turkey. We are selling our land to the Arabs and the Chinese. Future generations will not be happy with us.” Being situated at the center of the world makes one very aware that others may desire what you have. At the local teahouse later, one man smoking a cigarette appeared to have kept his eye on them: “They’ve opened Chinese hotels. There aren’t many Europeans anymore, but those hotels stay busy.” Local teahouse guys are always good for intel in Istanbul.
And The Bear
Less noticeably, but perhaps more importantly, Turkey is also receiving considerable interest from the Russians. Whereas 2015 nearly saw armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, and 2016 saw the bizarre assassination of the Russian Ambassador in broad daylight, the governments have repaired relations to the point of starting a coinvestment fund and building natural gas pipelines together. Turkey has now formed a nascent tripartite working group with Russia and Iran aimed at a Syrian settlement. Nicknamed the Astana Trio after the Astana peace settlement process that first met in Kazakhstan in 2017, the group recently met in Sochi to discuss (and some would say celebrate) America’s slow withdrawal from Syria. This scenario would have been absurd during Turkey’s globalization era.
As an exclamation point, Erdoğan also has begun cultivating relationships directly at odds with Washington in support of Russian geopolitical allies, including helping Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela stash gold in Anatolia. And in yet another worrying sign for Washington, following the Sochi meeting Turkey sided with Russia and China over the ongoing Venezuela crisis. “Maduro, brother, stand tall, Turkey stands with you,” Erdoğan reportedly told the embattled Venezuelan leader via telephone on the plane back from Russia. America threatening additional sanctions against Turkey over this is likely to push Turkey further into the Russian fold; at this point, it seems just a matter of time before Turkey leaves or is expelled from NATO.
Istanbul In A New Era
Life in Istanbul has changed since the end of globalization.
One thing is clear: as it closes out its 27th century, Istanbul is entering a new and very different era. Once determined to become the Hong Kong of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe’s window into Asia, the city now seems to look east at becoming Eurasia’s westernmost outpost, albeit with some hesitation. Ottomanism is clearly in the ascendency. Erdoğan and the AKP are fully in charge. Turkey has new friends including China, Russia, and Iran. The U.S.-led order’s influence is diminished, though still quite capable of exerting influence. Inflation is bad and the economy has been slow in adapting to the post-globalization environment.
But the cafes are still full, and young people don’t seem to notice the AKP’s increasing autocracy or lack of new modern art museums so much as they do the high-roller pulling up in the Maserati. Besides, it’s not like the AKP has turned Istanbul into the Islamic Republic of Iran. That may be an end objective, but it hasn’t happened yet. After all, Taha Özer still has a career.
The city of the world’s desire saw globalization come and go; those years were hectic, frenetic, and dreamy and it seemed like the sky was the limit. But that era ended, and everyone knows it is not coming back. As Can reflected, “Globalization is not for us.” He seemed to mean it both ways.