Fears of brain drain as Turkish authorities step up crackdown

Fears of brain drain as Turkish authorities step up crackdown
People at Istanbul airport wait to depart.
By bne IntelliNews March 18, 2016

To appreciate the effects that the Turkish government’s escalating attacks on civil society are having, just ask Umut Ozkirimli, a political science professor at The Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Lund University in Sweden.

Professor Ozkirimli, one of a growing number of Turkish academics who have left Turkey to settle abroad, says that since the November election when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice & Development (AKP) regained its parliamentary majority, the number of requests he receives for help from students living in Turkey who want to study in Sweden sometimes reaches two a day. He adds that many of these students – some of Turkey’s brightest – want to leave for good.

“There is definitely a pattern here which will have negative long-term consequences – a pattern, I must add, we have seen in other countries that have undergone major upheavals or regime change like post-revolutionary Iran,” Ozkirimli tells bne IntelliNews. “Turkey is committing suicide, not even a metaphorical one.”

“Although there were quite a few ominous signs, political conditions were not as bad as they are today. The country is hell-bent on full-scale authoritarianism right now, and there is no way I would, or in fact could, go back there without taking serious risks,” Ozkirimli says.

Indeed, one of President Erdogan’s most infamous campaigns has been against academics from 90 Turkish universities calling themselves “Academicians for Peace” who signed a petition in January calling for an end to the military campaign against the Kurds and accusing the government of breaching international law. Branding them traitors and whipping up threats of violence from nationalists, the authorities put all the more than 1,000 Turkish signatories under investigation, detaining many. On March 15, three of those academics were jailed by an Istanbul court on suspicion of “making terrorist propaganda”.

“President Erdogan’s vicious campaign against the academics is part of his drive to banish, punish, and silence all critical voices in Turkey,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey’s universities, prosecutors, and courts should respect and protect free speech and the rule of law by immediately dropping all investigations and punitive measures against all those who signed the declaration.”

Foreign academics too appear fair game. Chris Stephenson, a British academic at Istanbul Bilgi University, who has been living in Istanbul for the last 25 years, was taken into custody on March 15 on suspicion of “conducting terrorist propaganda” by possessing a leaflet on Nevruz – a Kurdish festival for welcoming spring. “The prosecutor decided not to prosecute me. However, he wrote an administrative recommendation for my deportation, and I have been deported,” Stephenson tells bne IntelliNews.

Stephenson's deportation is being taken as a message for foreign academics and other expats in Turkey: obey or go away.

Expat exit

Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine – which has adopted a critical tone over the authoritarian moves of Erdogan and his government – withdrew on March 17 its correspondent in Turkey after he was denied an extension to his governmental press accreditation.

This is a clear widening of the crackdown on the domestic media in Turkey that has seen several anti-government newspapers either closed or taken over. Most recent was the takeover of Turkey’s biggest selling daily, Zaman, which is now run by fawning Erdogan-friendly trustees, says Suna Erdem, a columnist for bne IntelliNews. Star newspaper, yet another Erdogan mouthpiece, predicts that left-wing anti-government daily Cumhuriyet will be next.

It’s not just the foreign media that are running scared. Speaking to bne IntelliNews on condition of anonymity, a top executive of a multinational that has a branch in Istanbul said that when he came to Turkey in early 2015, the political atmosphere was not so tense, with relatively better conditions for democratic rights. “But, in time, I’m witnessing a deterioration of the freedoms for Turkish citizens, which is drawing a pessimistic picture for the improvement of the business environment as well. I will stay in Turkey for a limited period of time, but the instability in the country with heightened terror attacks makes me feel more and more insecure,” he says.

Cem Baslevent, an economist at Istanbul's Bilgi University, says that this type of thinking will affect foreign companies’ ability to recruit and keep staff. “To replace foreign executives and expats who want to leave the country, companies will have to offer higher wages for candidates,” Baslevent tells bne IntelliNews.

Naz Masraff, director for Europe at Eurasia Group in London, doesn’t think existing investors are considering pulling out of Turkey, but says there could be a real problem in attracting new investors. So far, foreign direct investment (FDI) into Turkey appears to be holding up. According to data released by the Central Bank of Turkey in February, FDI reached $16.5bn in 2015, up 32% from the preceding year, which was the highest annual FDI figure since the global financial crisis hit in 2008.

“At a time when crackdowns on media outlets and businesses are rising and there are questions about the independence of the rule of law, investors are going to have second thoughts about entering this market,” Masraff tells bne IntelliNews. “This is negative for the country’s long-term growth and export potential.”