Erdogan is driving out business people and the well-educated – the economic forces he needs to achieve his goal of transforming the country into a great power.
As Turkey gears up for snap elections on June 24, the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an avid soccer fan, is scoring an enormous own goal. How else can one comprehend that Erdogan is relentless in his effort to drive out the educated and business classes that fervidly oppose him?
He is thus deporting the very economic forces he depends on if he is serious about achieving his goal of moving Turkey beyond the middle-income trap – and hence transforming the country into the great power Erdogan is aiming for.
Following Putin’s path
In that effort, Erdogan is following the same political pattern, which Vladimir Putin has used in Russia to push out the well-educated and the entrepreneurial class.
Over the last 18 years, Putin has stripped the Russian opposition of its leaders, forcing many of Russia’s thinkers and civil society organizers into self-imposed exile overseas.
Erdogan, for his part, believes that driving out the leaders of Turkey’s civil society will pave the way for Putin-style landslide electoral victories that he can extract from a hollowed-out and rudderless mass.
Among its population of over 80 million, Turkey has an impressive number of well-educated people and liberal urban professionals. They often speak multiple foreign languages, hold advanced degrees from world-renowned universities and have connections to civil society institutions in the West.
Given their skillset, these highly skilled professionals can count on being welcomed in top Western countries, including Germany and the United States.
Willing to pay the price
Erdogan is willing to pay the price of this considerable drain of human capital. He knows that an opposition led by powerful elites poses a permanent threat to him. If he can force this group to give up on Turkey, he feels that he has won the game.
Without these elites remaining inside Turkey, Erdogan calculates that the opposition groups will have no choice but to accept his regime — as the Russian masses have done under Putin.
That is why Erdogan is so keen on jailing journalists, cartoonists, movie directors and academics—if he doesn’t let the country’s educated and creative elites simply pack their bags and leave.
Harassment of academics has become a signature trait of Erdogan’s rising authoritarianism. Distinguished professors now find themselves fired. Some have even had their passports revoked. Many are leaving, while they still can, for academic freedom abroad.
Like their professors, Turkish students are also flocking abroad. In my recent visit to the U.K., I met an alarming number of Turkish graduate students at Oxford University who had recently left Turkey and were seeking to stay for the long run.
According to the UK Home Office, toward the end of 2016, Britain saw a 28% increase in short-term student visas, with Turks making up 40% of this cohort.
The wealthy—many old-money Turks who espouse liberal values—are also in Erdogan’s line of fire. Prominent Turkish businessman Osman Kavala, who has supported many civil society causes, was jailed in October 2017. It was a clear-cut signal to Turkey’s wealthy: Stay quiet, receive jail time, or leave.
Flight of the elites
In 2016, Turkey was remarkably among the top five countries globally to experience the highest outflow of millionaires. While around 1,000 millionaires left the country in 2015, this figure rose to nearly 6,000 by the end of 2016, representing an unprecedented 500% increase from the year before.
CS Global Partners, a London-based legal advisory firm that specializes in relocating families globally, geared towards more wealthy clients, said requests from Turkish clients for assistance in acquiring a foreign passport rose 2.5-fold between January and June 2017.
The flight of the elites from Turkey increasingly looks starkly like the situation in Russia in past decades.
Turkish R&D has suffered significantly as a result of these trends. For instance, in 2015, three Turkish public universities were ranked in the top 200 by the Times Higher Education rankings, but none of them made it to the list in the following year. The number of scientific publications annually decreased by a disconcerting 28% in 2017 compared to 2016.
All of these developments run counter to Erdogan’s oft-stated economic goals. To escape the middle-income trap, Erdogan actually needs the educated and wealthy citizens to stay in the country.
These people hold the key to transforming Turkey from an economy that assembles and exports cars (a chief export category) into one that could evolve into a hub for software, IT, finance and services—in other words, a high-powered, information-based economy.
Erdogan’s policies are effectively closing the doors to that transformation, as money and the creative classes alike are fleeing the country.
At the same time, Erdogan can no longer rely on an inflow of international money or talent as substitutes. Nobody wants to live or do business in a country where YouTube and Twitter are periodically banned.
If Erdogan gets what he wants, he might be able to retain a Putin-like grip on power and win the June elections in a landslide. If that happens, he will have also stripped Turkey of its best and brightest. Then, his country will sadly mimic Russia in more ways than one.