Patrick Cockburn: Is Turkey's economic miracle about to fade away?

While its neighbours stumble, the country that is a role model for Islamic democracy could become a victim of overconfidence

Are the Turks seeing the Ottoman Empire reborn or are they going to be the next victims of economic chaos in Europe and political turmoil in the Middle East? Is Turkey about to pay a price for the overconfidence bred by a decade that brought it triumphant success while its neighbours suffered decline or disaster?

The mood is buoyant. Turkey's successes are recent and quite real. In a country used to covert or open military tutelage since its foundation, a democratically elected government is at last dominant; its economy has surged spectacularly, making it the 15th largest economic power in the world; it is lauded worldwide as a moderate Islamic state which ought to be the role model for Arab Spring countries.

Turkish optimism has ominous parallels with the self-regarding opinions once heard in Ireland and Greece. As with Turkey, both these countries had histories of poverty and emigration which made them psychologically receptive to the self-deceiving idea that they had at last attained the prosperity so long and so unfairly denied them. Excessive belief in their own booms produced disastrous economic bubbles.

Will Turkey be similarly damaged by myths about its own recent success? Some experts there fear so. Atilla Yesilada, an economic consultant at Istanbul Analytics, part of Globalsource, says: "It is as if the entire nation is hypnotised and drugged into believing we are unique and we have created our own successful economic model." He suspects that Turkey is about to be hit by a devastating credit crunch. "Our belief in our own invulnerability means that the ultimate crash will be all the worse when it comes," he says.

The Turkish economic miracle depended on the inflow of foreign capital, and this may soon stop. European banks are beset by problems of their own and Turkey may not look such a rosy prospect to them as it once did. Sumru Altug, a professor of economics at Koc University in Istanbul, says that everybody accepts that Turkey is going to have a much lower level of economic growth this year. She warns: "Turkey is playing a risky game."

In foreign policy Turkey may likewise have seen the high tide and the turn. Twenty years ago it was ringed by hostile countries, but by 2009 these had largely become friends. Turkey was becoming an important influence in Iraq and Syria and other parts of the Middle East. It was a close ally of Bashar al-Assad of Syria and friendly with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Trade followed the flag. "Turkish companies are even collecting the garbage in Baghdad and Basra," an Iraqi friend said last year.

The sort of moderately Islamic democracy the Arab Spring protesters were demanding sounded very like what Turkey had already achieved. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received an ecstatic reception in Egypt where he astonished many Turks – and dismayed Egyptian Islamists – by praising the virtues of the secular state even for committed Muslims such as himself.

Mr Erdogan's government likes to bet on winners. Turkey adeptly if cynically broke ties with Gaddafi and adopted the rebel cause. Soon Turkish hospital ships were sent to succour the besieged Libyan insurgents in Misrata and Libyan state money deposited in Turkey was channelled to the rebel government in Benghazi.

With Syria, Turkey has been much less successful. Indeed, Soli Ozel, a lecturer in international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, says flatly that "Turkey's Syria policy is an abject failure". He argues that it has ended up with having no leverage in Damascus and took excessive offence over being misled by the Syrian government over the latter's willingness to compromise. "Not to have a decent dialogue with the regime puts you at a disadvantage," he says.

As with the economy, overconfidence led to serious mistakes. At first, Turkey wrongly imagined it had enough influence in Damascus to get President Assad to implement serious reforms, share power with his opponents, or even step down. It then became clear that the Syrian leadership had no intention of doing this and was simply muddying the waters and stringing the Turks along.

In Iraq, Turkey has a significant but still limited presence. It has, rather remarkably given their past hostility, good relations with the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, more fearful these days of Baghdad than of Ankara. But in Iraq as a whole, Turkey has expended a lot diplomatic energy without getting great benefits. Its main success has been commercial: Iraq is its biggest export market after Germany.

Turkey helped to set up the opposition party to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, during the last parliamentary election. Not surprisingly he was not pleased and criticised Turkey for meddling. "What have the Turks gained in Iraq for all their efforts?" a senior Iraqi official asked me last year. "They have a few politicians in their pocket, but nothing else."

Not all the news is bad. Turkey has truly become a regional power. Its idea of its own strength may be exaggerated, but states that once had some strength – Egypt, Syria, Iraq and even Libya – are today divided and unstable. Iran is less powerful than it once was and Greece will take years to recover. Turkey also benefits from good relations with the US, which needs Turkey as a reliable ally.

Could Turkey's moment as a coming power be passing at the very moment when it is still being lauded as one of the world's few success stories? Expectations that it would enter the European Union gave momentum to reform in Turkey, ending the predominant role of the military. EU accession talks gave confidence to investors and underscored Turkey's development into a liberal democracy. The failure of these talks with the EU to get anywhere has undercut legal reform, the dismantling of the security state, the search for a settlement of the Kurdish insurgency and progress towards a deal over Cyprus.

The EU's relationship with Turkey remains crucial. It is by far Turkey's largest trading partner and the main source of its foreign investment. Turkish options in the Middle East are deceptively alluring, but not necessarily very rewarding.

Turkey still has a self-confident feel, but it is at the heart of an unstable region. In speaking of the economy – though it might also be true of Turkey's future – Mr Yesilada says: "We may see the 'Turkish miracle' turn into the 'Turkish disappointment'."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence