A Fading Future in Istanbul
Published in Palladium Magazine
My thoughts on the uncertainty and rising tumult in Istanbul have been published in Palladium Magazine. You can read the article by clicking the button below:
My Palladium piece is different to my usual writing style. Beneath highbrow analysis of politics and economic trends, there is the real human story of the changes wrought upon the city and how it affects people’s lives.
International Relations has concerned itself with the analysis of states and international systems, which means political analysis often loses sight of the who, what, and where of physical human relationships. But there is a feedback loop between geopolitical, national, and local actions and reactions. If the people go to the polls next year and decide to vote President Erdoğan out of power, the consequences would reverberate across the region. Entire chains of assumptions and decision-making would have to be rethought, our flawed models of reality would become undone, and one or two countries might fall into civil war.
Fundamentally, Turkey matters more today than it has ever done so.
In the late 20th century, Turkey was a backwater on the edge of Europe, included in NATO largely to keep the Soviets out of the Bosphorus straits leading to the Mediterranean. Turkey mired in political coups, hyperinflation, and culture wars that saw protests, riots, and assassinations on streets and university campuses. Turkey, like Russia, has an uneasy relationship with Europe - two Eurasian states, simultaneously pushing westward and against each other, both seeking the approval and inclusion of Europe, and the escape of their Asiatic roots.
Today, the situation is radically different. Turkey has transformed itself into a Eurasian power. She is cultivating an increasingly autarkic military-industrial complex with cutting-edge drone technology, reforming battlefields across the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. She is leveraging their geographical position as a form of logistical arbitrage, terraforming Anatolia’s mighty geography with airports, canals, bridges, and underground tunnels. In an age of supply chain regionalisation, Turkey is also positioning itself as a ‘workshop of the world’ away from China, using a combination of low interest rates and cheap labour and exports to make it an attractive destination for manufacturers. When war occurs in Turkey’s periphery, migrants from manual workers to wealthy businessmen move their labour and assets to Turkey. It is likely that with the latest wave of sanctions against Russia, Turkey will once again position itself to exploit the arbitrage of trade in Russian and Ukrainian business - and people.
Turkey remains poorly understood for an increasingly consequential Eurasian power. Priors that were set in stone in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR have not been updated for decades. Prevailing analysis views Turkey’s domestic politics as an ideological rift between the secular Kemalist old guard embattled by the Islamist AKP. This is lazy and belies the complicated picture on the ground, with more mundane factors like clientelism, patronage, and resource allocation. Factionalism along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political ideologies is rife, and Turkish politics is a great game of balancing interests or engaging in raw competition for control of the state and its resources, which are then distributed to supporters.
Power is not an abstraction. It is the centralisation in a physical space of resources, manpower, influence, and political will marshalled to particular ends. Great cities are the most concrete units of analysis because it is where people physically interact with each other, with their relationships giving rise to a host of identifiable phenomena, such as the creation of cultural scenes, economic production, and political factions.
Turkish film has enjoyed an explosion in popularity over the past few decades. One period piece in particular, ‘Payitaht: Abdülhamid’, follows the story of the Ottoman empire’s last power-wielding Sultan Abdulhamid II as he navigates political intrigues within Istanbul and its palaces. In the most technical sense, ‘payitaht’ means ‘capital’ and was one of the many names that referred to Istanbul in the Ottoman period. The meaning is wider than that, however, as a capital city is not just the administrative centre of an empire but the physical instantiation of its power and glory.
This is why power is Payitaht. What happens in Istanbul reverberates through the Turkish nation - and beyond.
Today, Ankara is the capital of the Turkish Republic. The city is largely sustained by administrative and bureaucratic activities, and plays host to a large student population and diplomatic staff for various nations.
But Istanbul is Turkey’s de facto capital. Istanbul is the financial and industrial centre, producing everything from agriculture to textiles to machinery. 20% of Turkey’s industrial labour and total population is employed and live within the city. 40% of Turkish taxes come from Istanbul, and an equal percentage of its GDP is produced there.
In many ways, Istanbul is Turkey. Yet the city is also a bubble often disconnected from the trends and worries of the rest of the country. This is a by-product of the fact that Istanbul remains the physical instantiation of Turkish culture, economic production, and political power. Being a disconnected bubble is a hallmark of a city’s self-assured importance vis-à-vis its territorial hinterland.
Amid the apathy and apprehension in Istanbul, there is a yearning for something new, though few can put words to that feeling. The second generation of ‘black Turks’ (a crude term that nonetheless provides a simplified understanding of the large cultural blocs in Turkey) don’t really identify with the culture and politics of their parents. While they are often religious and believe in certain conservative values, they are also shaped by the urban environment they live in and desire a culture that sits at home with religious and conservative values, and being educated and urbanite.
Economic problems are serious for this younger generation, but fundamentally, I believe the real challenge is a lack of cultural alignment. My intuition is that by 2028, the political spectrum in Turkey will be reshaped by newly dominant cultural trends driven by this grey Turk demographic that largely resides in Istanbul.
Meanwhile, the older, established parties will battle it out over the increasingly inconsequential divisions that mostly matter to the older generation and miss this coming tidal wave.
I leave you with a picture of today’s stunning view in Istanbul.