In the last two weeks, the citizens of Türkiye have witnessed two troubling developments that should upset everyone who loves their country. Neither development received the media attention it deserved, beyond a handful of news stories barely noticed by the average citizen too immersed in the troubles of their own daily lives.
Yet both developments invite crucial questions which must be answered, questions about Türkiye’s political and economic future, and its status as a respectable nation among its global peers. Can we, the citizens of Türkiye, preserve our nation’s hard-won character as a democratic, pluralistic, sovereign country with economic and financial independence? If we can’t, we need to ask—where is Türkiye really heading?
The consequences of the earthquake, and our reputation
Just two months ago, Türkiye survived earthquakes of unprecedented magnitude, with a loss of life that has no equivalent in recent memory. Today, we’re still struggling to comprehend the full scope of the disaster which has caused over 50,000 fatalities and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
As mountains of debris continue to be removed from the devastated areas, countries and international organizations around the world continue to raise money to aid in Türkiye’s recovery. The EU-UN donation conference “Together for the people in Türkiye and Syria” was recently held in Brussels, organized by the EU’s current term president Sweden (i.e., the same country we’re still debating about whether it should be accepted into NATO or not).
65 countries and 26 international organizations and financial institutions participated in the March conference, held in partnership with the EU and United Nations. Prior to the event, the UN Development Program announced that Türkiye’s emergency aid needs were estimated to be at least $100 billion (not including aid for Syria). The conference raised a total of $7.5 billion in financial aid commitments, of which ~ $6.5 billion is earmarked for Türkiye, with the rest directed to Syria.
Estimated gap of $93 billion
Our most generous donor? The European Union, which for decades we’ve used every opportunity to vilify. The EU Commission and its 27 member states, along with the European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, accounted for half of the total donation amount. The remaining half was pledged by international organizations including the UN and countries led by the United States (which we also love to vilify).
Two-thirds of the donations are labeled as favorable condition loans to be used for specific, auditable projects. The remaining one-third will be in controlled cash donations (and it’s open to interpretation of why “control” is needed). We referred to the donor conference as “a successful example of solidarity,” but the amounts raised barely scratch the surface. There’s still an estimated gap of ~$93.5 billion. Where and how will Türkiye possibly access that kind of money?
An estimated one-third will be borrowed from abroad… at unsuitably high market rates. For the rest, we’ll try to find additional financial resources but may end up unable to do so in the current economic conditions. So we’ll try to make up the difference by inevitably increasing taxes. Will that work? Is it possible? Maybe, but it’ll be difficult and unpopular.
Cold War conditions for Türkiye
For the time being, let’s put aside how we got here and focus on two urgent points:
● Türkiye, unprecedented in its history, needed money to be collected at an international donor conference.
● We needed more financial help than we’ve received or are likely to receive.
International Donor Conferences are held infrequently and only under extraordinary circumstances. The purpose for them is simple: to collect aid for impoverished nations devastated by war or disaster and that lack sufficient resources of their own. Examples that spring to mind include Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Somalia.
But when have we ever heard of such international collaborative fundraising for a country that hails itself as a so-called world leader? Is it wrong, then, to suggest that Türkiye has now fallen into the same category as these other impoverished countries in chronic need?
Our situation is similar to the official bankruptcy declaration of Türkiye in 1958. Then, we couldn’t pay our bills so the World Bank, IMF, and OECD met and postponed our debt via new loans and a new payment schedule under the leadership of the United States and during Cold War conditions. That declaration of bankruptcy is one we’ve collectively preferred to forget.
Is Türkiye’s independence at risk?
Now it’s time to ask—is Türkiye’s financial sovereignty again imperiled? Is our very independence at risk?
Another unfortunate reality paints the portrait of our situation in ever grimmer tones. After the earthquake, we collected donations and in-kind aid from over a hundred countries. This was done in a rushed fashion, without asking questions or considering consequences. Bank accounts were opened. Aid was carried from distant countries by planes. We collected basic necessities such as tents, blankets, and generators from Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and South America.
We took aid from some of the least developed, poorest regions of the world. We even asked our brothers and sisters in foreign countries to open their hands and gather money from their local mosque communities.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help in a time of need. But it was scarcely a few months before the earthquakes that we were bragging about how Türkiye “provided the most humanitarian aid in the world with per capita income.” Now we hear from our government that the least developed countries have been digging into their pockets for us. Now we see our own near-bankruptcy, heretofore skilfully concealed, poking its ugly head out.
So as we ask where Türkiye is really heading, the answer becomes increasingly uncomfortable to face.
Getting snubbed at the Global Democracy Summit
At the end of March, a second global Summit for Democracy was held thanks to the initiative of the US. The first took place in December 2021, with 107 countries participating, This time, attendance was up, with 120 countries invited. But NATO members Türkiye and Hungary weren’t among them (and Hungary is even an EU member!).
The message is clear enough if we pull our heads out of the sand, so there’s no need to explore the given rationales. Instead, let’s evaluate the situation from a strategic point of view.
The summit wasn’t given much press by the Turkish media. That fact doesn’t undermine its importance in the least. We know the US has long preferred to conduct its relations with Türkiye with a limited and focused engagement policy, and it carries out this policy in coordination with the EU. This is a clear example of how bad our relations with the West have become. In their collective eyes, we lack a sufficient level of democracy to even be invited. The consequences of that should matter to us.
Democratic versus authoritarian
Democracy means existing within a state of law, with transparency and predictability. Countries that meet such basic conditions receive financial perks. They can take out low-interest loans, for example. They can attract global investors. We need to do these things, too, because of our urgent financing needs after the earthquake. But we can’t and that’s a major obstacle on our road to recovery. So, in the short term, we need an immediate solution.
There’s a long-term problem, too. The polarization in the coming years will be between the Western “democracy bloc” and the Eurasian-centered “authoritarian bloc.” Where is Türkiye situated right now, and where do we need to be?
Are we fully awake to the fact that where we currently stand—because of our own choices and persistent mistakes—we’re rapidly sliding down a steep slope into authoritarianism? Where will that slide end and who’s going to end it?
Some of us don’t want it to end. Some honestly think that narrowing freedoms and discussion is the answer. Indeed, too many of us have been deceived into actually hoping for such an outcome. As we speak, they’re hard at work ensuring the development and growth of such ill-fated authoritarianism. To them, the vision of Türkiye as an outcast nation stripped of its democratic ways and all forms of accountability sounds like a dream come true.
For the rest of us, it sounds like a nightmare. Are we really ready for our children to live in some Orwellian dystopia where they can be manipulated behind the scenes for the rest of their days? Or can we take action now to prevent that dire outcome?
The last chance election
Many Eurasian countries, which we’re coming to resemble more closely each year, don’t possess a strong state structure. On the contrary, they try to cover their structural weaknesses with oppressive authority, drawn over their citizens like thick moldy blankets.
The real power of any state is revealed through difficult tests—major disasters, economic crises, political conflicts, and the like. Türkiye has faced such challenges for years, and with each failure, it has eroded the myth that we’re a strong state. We can’t even survive without international aid and loans from equally-challenged fellow nations.
Could things be worse? Yes…and they will be, soon, unless something changes. The upcoming elections are a crossroads. The decisions made will point us in the direction we’ll go for many years to come. It’s the ultimate test as we sit on the verge of either hope or despair.
If we stare objectively ahead, we can easily see that fork in the road. It’s not far off. And at that critical juncture, Türkiye and all her citizens will either choose a path of inescapable condemnation or be put on a more hopeful route toward a potentially far better destination.
There are no guarantees in such a case, but anything is better than continuing the status quo. So if we do make that choice for change, then perhaps “The gates of Heaven will not be opened, but we will certainly close the gates of Hell.”
Let us not squander this chance, for there may never be another.