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An Anatolian Tiger Gives Fair Warning to Erdogan

A leader of the conservative business community in Turkey criticizes the government’s latest move against the country’s largest industrial group
A worker checks cable drums at a factory in the city of Kayseri, central Turkey, June 27, 2006. The confident mood in Kayseri contrasts to the anxiety in Ankara, as they believe Turkey will weather the turbulence rocking its economy, resolve the tension between secularists and Islamists and stay the course to European Union membership. Picture taken June 27, 2006.      To match feature TURKEY CRISIS    REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY) - RTR1F0MZ

To some, the term communicates accomplishment in almost anything from financial planning to foreign policy, but “independence” is never a real possibility. It is Economics 101: Where there is division of labor there is interdependence, and in a globalized world, notwithstanding the sense of empowerment we get from continuous access to information, our actions are less independent than ever.

But when the boyish-looking businessman in his mid-forties spoke confidently of his independence from Turkey’s two major cities, I knew exactly what he meant. “We can deal directly with the world,” he said, “to export what I produce, I need no one to act as a go-between.” For the Anatolian Tigers, this is the gist of their success story. The rising industrialists of Turkey’s conservative heartland have taken pride in not relying on the stewardship of either the political authorities in Ankara or the business community in Istanbul, and Mustafa Boydak, the chairman of the Kayseri Chamber of Industrialists (KAYSO), is no exception.

It was five years ago and we were sitting at a lunch table on the well-manicured lawn outside the headquarters of Boydak Holding — an industrial group which grew from a modest carpenter’s workshop opened by two brothers in 1957 to a conglomerate of 38 companies that do business in eight sectors from furniture to aviation. Now they export to 110 countries and expect a turnover of $3.4 billion in 2013.

Mustafa Boydak, who is a member of Boydak Holding’s board, along with five other Boydaks of the second generation, had invited me and another colleague to eat and chat. We were interested in how the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) then five-year performance in power looked from the Boydaks’ hometown, Kayseri. (A major locomotive of growth in Anatolia with a population of 1 million, Kayseri sent one of its most famous sons, Abdullah Gül, to the Presidential Palace in 2007, and supported AKP with an overwhelming 64.9 percent vote in 2011.) Boydak, in turn, was keen on getting across the point that the best thing the government could do for them was not to cast a shadow. “Let us do commerce,” he said quoting a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad, “nine-tenths of one’s provisions are in commerce.”

A simple, nonetheless symbolic statement in a country where major companies’ initial takeoff and subsequent growth had less to do with their entrepreneurial spirit than generous subsidization by a government that sought to create the nation’s own capitalists and went on to protect them for almost six decades with a walled-in economy. Import substitution helped form a powerful bond between the industrialists in Istanbul and the bureaucracy in Ankara — an elite alliance that kept the country in economic stalemate and an ideological straitjacket for the better part of the 20th century.

The Anatolian Tigers rose to prominence after the economic liberalization in the 1980s. Unlike their big brothers in Istanbul, they were not insulated by Ankara against all kinds of competition; they managed to grow by competing both internally and externally, and soon helped transform life in their respective cities with their diverse investment portfolios and unprecedented employment opportunities. The result was a new middle class with a healthy demand for better goods and services and participation in the nation’s social and political life. Conservative in lifestyle but liberal in their economic outlook and less and less accepting of the second-class role cut out for them, they emerged as an alternative bloc to the establishment in Ankara and Istanbul. AKP rose to power on their shoulders.

When Boydak spoke to us, you could hear a sense of ownership in his voice. “They did not make us,” he seemed to imply as he revealed his family’s story, “we made them.” In early 2008, Turkey was having a heated discussion on the headscarf issue. While the AKP seemed ready to take belated steps to recognize pious women’s right to cover their heads in the universities, the opposition was making waves. Boydak clearly thought women should not be denied education because of their faith. “The ladies in my family are covered, too,” he said, “but timing is everything.” Staying true to his businessman self, he indicated his distaste for any political move that would shake the ground; “Let’s do commerce,” he repeated. “But what about religious obligations?” He said he prayed five times a day as Islam commanded. “The daily cost to me of five prayers is not more than twenty minutes,” he said. “That does not disrupt my work.” I was surprised by this rather nonchalant introduction of cost-benefit analysis into religious practice. A terminology which I had found questionable until then suddenly seemed to make sense: Those new entrepreneurs were called “Islamic Calvinists” for a reason.

Fast-forward five years. Mustafa Boydak spoke last week at the KAYSO where he was recently re-elected as chairman. It was less than 48 hours after the government’s audit teams accompanied by police raided the offices of three major companies of Turkey’s largest group, Koç Holding. (See Kadri Gursel’s article on the raid and the motives behind it.) Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s displeasure with the Koç group for its “support” of the mass protests in Istanbul seems to be the reason behind this latest move, there has never been any love lost between the AKP and the Koç family — a leader in the old alliance.

Over the years, Erdogan talked repeatedly about being elected in spite of that alliance and the Koçs did not always refrain from coalescing with others against his policies. The post-modern coup on Feb. 28, 1997, which eventually forced out the government led by the Welfare Party (RP), was the epitome of Turkey’s big business and big bureaucracy working together at political engineering. Not only the current leadership of the AKP but also several conservative companies were victimized in that process.

On July 26, Boydak warned the government against repeating the mistakes of the past. “A misleading perception was created against certain companies in the Feb. 28 period, we should not re-create that perception.” The Kayseri-businessman did not name names but his speech was universally seen as supporting the Koç Group. Here was an “Anatolian Tiger” speaking up against a government that he helped bring to power, on behalf of a star member of the old alliance that used to despise conservative businessmen like himself. And he was doing this when everyone else in the community chose to keep quiet. TUSIAD, Turkey’s leading business organization, eventually followed suit but it took it a week to react. Boydak’s statement was especially important because it seemed to challenge the hush-hush atmosphere within the AKP that makes it virtually impossible to voice dissent.

I called him on Aug. 2 to ask about the reactions to his speech and to make sure that the Koç angle was not a misreading of his words. “You know I do not make political statements,” Boydak said to me, “but in this speech, I expressed myself clearly and everyone got the message. Some reacted very positively and some less so.”

I reminded him of his words regarding Turkey’s image. He had said, “The business community needs the world to have a positive view of the country”; did he think Turkey’s image abroad was tarnished? “I did not say it was tarnished,” he replied, “but there is the perception that it could be.” He was specifically concerned about the region, he said. “Wavering foreign relations with one’s neighborhood have direct effects on one’s economy.”

An Ankara that cannot talk to its neighbors — albeit at times with legitimate reasons — must cast a long shadow, I thought; when a government begins to lose its sheen, the nation’s business is hurt. In Boydak’s voice, one could hear both principle and pragmatism, but his was mostly a message of interdependence. 

Yasemin Çongar is the author of four books in Turkish, including Artık Sır Değil (No More A Secret), a detailed analysis of the US diplomatic cables on Turkey first made public by WikiLeaks. A former Washington bureau chief of Milliyet (1995-2007) and a founding deputy editor-in-chief of Taraf (2007-2012), Çongar is based in Istanbul and a columnist for the internet newspaper T24.  

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