I have had the opportunity to meet five Turkish prime ministers. Each had their own style, but no one had the raw power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bulent Ecevit was a peculiar combination of politician and intellectual who felt guilty over the Cyprus invasion and was always trying to prove he was an advocate of good Greek-Turkish relations. Tansu Ciller was arrogant and clueless and as a result disappeared from the political scene.
Mesut Yilmaz was a colorless politician, a hostage to the country’s deep state and red tape. I’ll never forget an interview with him. When the time came for us to discuss bilateral ties, a person standing behind me showed him a piece of paper. He interrupted the flow of the interview and said, “Ah, yes, I shouldn’t forget, there’s also the very serious issue of gray zones in the Aegean.” The deep state had dictated the comment.
Suleyman Demirel was a savvy, old-school, well-mannered “pasha” who was very well versed in Western-style rapprochement – a Turkish version of Constantinos Mitsotakis.
Erdogan is very different. The first time I met him was in New York in 2002, when the annual Davos meeting took place there after the 9/11 attacks. He was sitting at a table with two aides and was observing in silence. He didn’t speak English and everyone whispered around him: “He is the up-and-coming Islamist Turkish politician, he has a bright future.”
The next time we met was at his party offices in a gritty Istanbul neighborhood. He was reserved, his answers were generic and he didn’t seem to care too much about the issue of Greece. A few years went by and we met again for an interview on the sidelines of Davos. He was very different. Impatient, he gave stern looks when it came to tough questions and it was obvious that he had become a real “sultan.” His aides were in awe of him and a little scared. The interview was interrupted rather prematurely. I wasn’t sure whether it was because a helicopter had to fly him to Zurich airport – as I was told – or because the questions had crossed an invisible red line.
The last time I saw him was at the party’s offices in Istanbul – “Wow” as a former minister would put it. Quite a difference from our first meeting. This building seemed more like a Ritz-Carlton type of hotel, than a party headquarters: High ceilings and thick curtains fit for a palace. His team of aides had multiplied and so had his impatience and lack of focus. His answers sounded like Fidel Castro monologues. He showed his displeasure if he didn’t like a question. I left feeling very troubled. Turkish and Western friends had told me that the “pasha” had changed enormously, that his arrogance was now unchecked and that he saw himself as a neo-Ottoman leader. Some people said the nerves, impatience and arrogance were the result of medication due to a serious health issue.
I haven’t been to the new palace. Judging from the photographs and number of Turkish journalist friends who are out of jobs, I understand that the scared, marginal Erdogan I first saw in 2002, has changed even more. Whatever that means.