Exodus Imperils Future Of Turkey
ISTANBUL — 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 economic growth.
But after a failed 2016 coup, Mr. 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 favoritism and authoritarianism seep deeper into his administration, Turks are voting differently — this time with their feet.
They are leaving in droves and taking talent and capital with them in a way that indicates a broad and alarming loss of confidence in Mr. Erdogan’s vision, according to government statistics and analysts.
In the last two to three years, not only have students and academics fled, but also entrepreneurs, businesspeople and thousands of wealthy individuals. Over 250,000 Turks emigrated in 2017, according to the Turkish Institute of Statistics, an increase of 42 percent 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 the society and threatens to set Turkey back decades, said Ibrahim Sirkeci, director of transnational studies at Regent’s University in London.
The flight of people, talent and capital is being driven by factors that have come to define life under Mr. Erdogan. 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 Mr. Erdogan is manipulating management of the economy to benefit himself and his inner circle.
One of those leaving is Merve Bayindir, 38, who is relocating to London after becoming one of Turkey’s prominent hat designers 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, MerveBayindir.
Ms. Bayindir took part in the 2013 protests against the government’s attempt to develop Taksim Square in Istanbul. She said she remains traumatized by the violence and fearful in her own city. Mr. Erdogan denounced the protesters and, after enduring arrests and harassment, many have fled.
Thousands of Turks like Ms. Bayindir have applied for business visas in Britain or for golden visa programs in Greece, Portugal and Spain, which grant immigrants residency if they buy property at a certain level. Mr. Sirkeci estimates that 10,000 Turks have used a business visa plan to move to Britain in the last few years.
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. The number of Turks applying for asylum worldwide jumped by 10,000 in 2017 to over 33,000. A large proportion of those fleeing have been followers of Fethullah Gulen, the United States- based preacher charged with instigating the 2016 coup, or people accused of being his followers.
At least 12,000 of Turkey’s millionaires, around 12 percent of the wealthy class, moved their assets out of the country in 2016 and 2017, according to a report by AfrAsia Bank.
Mr. Erdogan has reviled as traitors businesspeople who have moved their assets abroad as the Turkish economy began to falter. “Pardon us, we do not forgive,” he warned. “The hands of our nation would be on their collars both in this world and in the afterlife.”
Ms. Bayindir, the hat designer, said life in Turkey had become tense. “Now when I come here I don’t see the same Istanbul. She does not have energy anymore. She looks tired,” Ms. Bayindir said. “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.”
Since a failed 2016 coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has tightened his grip. Commuters in Istanbul.