History goes in cycles and while this is one of its most charming features if you’re a scholar, it is not so pleasant when you’re actually experiencing it.
A few days ago I was in Istanbul to attend an event held in memory of the late Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand. I remembered the expression on his face when he first visited Athens around 1998. He was impressed by the wealth, the dynamism and the air of Europe that was evident everywhere.
“Wow, you guys have really progressed. You’ve left us far behind,” he told me after a long walk through central Athens. Had Birand been alive today, I may very well have uttered the same words to him about Istanbul.
Turkey today is a country that exudes confidence and has made marked leaps forward.
Let’s start with the trip. The airplane was full of Greek Americans heading home, as Ataturk International Airport has become a hub for travel to the United States, Asia and Africa. Here in Greece, we used to brag about our overly expensive new airport, but we never succeeded it turning it into a real crossroads.
On the streets of Istanbul, there is ample evidence of construction activity as new residential complexes spring up near the banks of the Bosporus and new private universities go into operation, making Greek universities seem like poor relatives in comparison.
Turkey has made so many leaps forward because it has found in Recep Tayyip Erdogan its own Andreas Papandreou. But there is a difference between the two. The Turkish prime minister has modernized his country and unleashed its creative forces, while at the same time assimilating into the system the masses of Anatolians who voted for him. He tore down outdated institutions and built new ones in their place.
On the other hand, while Turkey may be in its prime right now, it is also showing cracks that have many observers very concerned. Its overambitious foreign policy opened fronts that have no strategic advantages; its economy is at risk if the real estate bubble bursts and drags banks down with it; and democracy is being sorely tested, if the experiences of non-establishment journalists are anything to go by.
Given this uncertainty, we should not draw any conclusions about where Greece or Turkey will be in 20-30 years. Sure, Greece is at a very low point right now, but that is nothing new if viewed from a historical perspective. Turkey likewise has known growth before, but has also gone through long periods of decline.
We mustn’t forget that history is never predictable, dull and linear.