Editor’s note: David is in Turkey on a trip organized by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.
In October 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made the momentous decision to move the capital of the Republic of Turkey to the small Anatolian city of Ankara, thereby ending Istanbul’s almost 1,600 years as an imperial capital. This decision was greeted by disdain by the great powers of Europe, who had difficulty fathoming why the Turkish government would abandon the cosmopolitan pleasures of Istanbul. The distaste for Ankara was so great that Britain refused to move its embassies to the new capital, preferring to travel to the capital by train rather than give up their homes in Istanbul (Britain was also miffed that the cannons of their powerful navy could no longer threaten the Turkish capital). The crisis was only defused when the Turkish government began offering free land to entice western countries to build their embassies in Ankara.
Writing this in Ankara over 80 years later, it’s hard not to sympathize with those disappointed diplomats. Ankara is not Istanbul. However, after long being ruled by the coastal elites while still disdained by them, the city has undergone something of a revolution in the last few decades: It has finally emerged as the capital of Turkey. Beginning with economic liberalization programs initiated in 1980, the country witnessed the rise of other cities in central Turkey such as Kayseri, Konya, and Gaziantep, which are both geographically and culturally proximate to Ankara. The growing strength of these “Anatolian Tigers” has caused a political realignment in Turkey, which continues to produce tension with the traditional heirs of Ataturk.
Powered by these Anatolian industrial centers, Turkey has experienced remarkable growth in the last three decades. Turkey’s exports expanded from $2.9 billion in 1980 to $35 billion in 2002, fueling an increase in GDP per capita from $2,242 in 1980 to $9,073. The country’s political stability has also improved: In 1980, Turkey was in the grips of armed conflict between right- and left-wing militias, a violent era in the country’s history that was only ended by a military coup.
The country still has its problems, of course. Rumored military interventions, alleged creeping Islamization, and politically-motivated fines against independent media are just a few of the issues that top Turkey’s problems these days. But after returning to the country for the first time in five years, my overall impression is of a country where, in the big-picture scheme of things, more is going right than wrong. And that’s an important fact to keep in mind when reading about the dramatic, and often negative, events that make newspaper headlines.