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Critics say Erdogan used pandemic to kill Turkey’s nightlife

Many out-of-work veterans of Turkey's once thriving entertainment world suspect the ruling party of using COVID-19 restrictions to enforce a more conservative lifestyle.
Faruk Ugur waits for customers while selling hot wine at the entrance to his closed restaurant in the Kadikoy district on February 23, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Ankara's Kizilay Square, located at the heart of the capital and once a lively neighborhood filled with bars, taverns and restaurants, is in its darkest hour. The chatter is gone from the spots favored by politicians and journalists, as are the cheers and laughter from bars and taverns, and the neon lights of nearby gentlemen's clubs have gone dark.

In the 15th month of the pandemic, only small cafes and a few pubs have been able to survive in this once vivacious neighborhood where the windows of the bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues are filled with signs reading “for rent.”

Eski Yeni Bar, once one of the most popular venues in the square, shares this fate. For some segments of Turkish society, its “for rent” sign symbolizes the demise of the entertainment culture in the country.

As co-owner Baris Kaygisiz unlocked the door for Al-Monitor after months of closure, the sensation was palpable. Once a popular and inclusive spot for Turks of all walks of life including LGBTI+Q individuals, the venue where so many live concerts and plays were put on has now fallen silent.

A notice board in the entrance hall of the bar was filled with debt notices instead of theater posters and announcements. The dance floor just ahead is now stacked with tables and chairs. Cobwebs cover the drums still sitting on the stage. The food and water bowls left out for cats are rusty.

Eski Yeni Bar has been closed since a presidential decree was issued in March 2020 after the first coronavirus case in the country was registered.

Kaygisiz said the owners' last hope was to reopen the venue by June 1, when the government lifted some COVID-19 restrictions, but bars and nightclubs were effectively left out of the partial normalization. 

"We owe a lot of rent; we have tax and insurance premium debts even if it doesn't cost much,” he told Al-Monitor. “We do not think that we will be able to pay our debts even if the decision to reopen venues comes.”

And what about the government’s much-trumpeted aid packages? Kaygisiz said they have so far been unable to benefit from any aid packages, which are mainly aimed at supporting small business owners rather than big entertainment venues. 

Next to Eski Yeni Bar is a global coffee chain where Kaygisiz answered Al-Monitor's questions. It's crammed with people. Why are bars and nightclubs still closed when cafes and other venues are open? 

According to Kaygisiz, the bar was already in the crosshairs of the Turkish authorities before the pandemic because of its welcoming stance toward the LGBTI+Q community. 

“We were drawing attention because we were both a large and crowded venue and hosting LGBTI+Qs. We were already crippled by the tax increases on booze and we were trying to stay afloat,” he said.

Kaygisiz believes the government's goal was to do away with such entertainment venues completely. “The pressure we faced while we were open indicates this, and the pandemic presented the opportunity, and the venues were closed.”

As part of the normalization efforts, cafes, bars and restaurants are now allowed to operate until 9 p.m., but Kaygisiz said Eski Yeni chose not to reopen the venue as it would be unable to cover expenses, echoing the sentiment of many entertainment venues. 

The street is filled with closed bars and taverns, scenery that fuels fear that the culture, art and entertainment industry will not return to its old days.

Nightclubs, bars and tavern are not the only victims of the pandemic-related measures. The plight of musicians, who mainly earn their bread and butter from Turkey's nightlife, is even more desperate. 

Cumhur Ozcan, 49, is a musician of 30 years whose life has been turned upside down by the pandemic. When the pandemic first hit the country Ozcan had to sell his instruments to survive, a fate that many of his colleagues shared. The ensuing months have melted his savings, forcing him out of his house as he was unable to pay his rent. He went to live in a shop and worked as a motor courier. However, his new job didn’t last long as he became unable to work after a traffic incident. 

“The entertainment industry was already in bad shape before the pandemic. I used to earn 100 Turkish lira [some $11] a day from the venue where I used to work as a musician, but still, I was trying to keep up my job,” he told Al-Monitor.

The government has been paying 1,000 Turkish lira [some $117] monthly to some 24,500 people in a bid to support those who work for the music industry. According to Ozcan the effort came up short.

Ozcan said the government is deliberately ignoring the plight of musicians. “In the history of the republic, I have never seen a government with such hostility toward the music industry,” he said. 

Ozcan said the music sector in pandemic-hit Turkey is “like a boat in the ocean in a big storm,” and many musicians haven’t survived. According to the Turkish musicians unions, 108 musicians have committed suicide. 

Senay Aydemir, an arts and culture journalist and movie critic, shares Ozcan’s assessment. She argued that the government's failure to produce a concrete support mechanism for musicians and other artists stems from ideological reasons. According to Aydemir, the government is deliberately trying to cripple the art and music worlds that it failed to control.

“Even pre-pandemic, censorship was on the rise. With the increase of security measures in public spaces, there was a noticeable decline in outdoor events. The economic crisis was seen as a blessing and culture and arts were fully left at the mercy of the market,” Aydemir told Al-Monitor. 

Aydemir believes the pandemic has similarly served as a vehicle for the ongoing crackdown on the arts, entertainment and cultural life, which the government sees as noncompliant with its nationalist and conservative values.

Many Turks share the sentiment and believe that the government's pandemic management strategies reflect the government efforts to impose a conservative lifestyle.

As such, the crisis in the music industry has become a polarizing topic between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

In a bid to counter the government’s perceived social engineering efforts, some CHP municipalities have opened neighborhood parks to musicians. 

“Musicians are going through difficult times due to the pandemic. We decided to organize mini concerts in our parks to provide some relief. We will provide financial support to 400 musicians this summer,” Alper Tasdelen, mayor of Ankara’s central Cankaya district, told Al-Monitor.

Yet despite these local efforts, it seems unlikely the entertainment industry will regain its strength under the AKP government, which banned buying alcohol from markets during Ramadan, citing the pandemic as an excuse.

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