Greeks are baffled by Erdoğan

Greeks are baffled by Erdoğan

When the phone rang yesterday, it was already late, just after the end of most evening TV news, from which the majority of Greeks get their daily feed of world events. A schoolmate friend from Thessaloniki was on the other end of the line to wish me a Happy New Year. She has been doing so every year since I left Greece several years ago, but her phone calls always confirm my belief that friendships do not rely solely on physical presence.

Like most, my friend has been hit badly by the economic crisis. She and her husband are in the car repair business, which is one of the worst sectors to be in at a time of economic crisis. People cannot afford to buy cars and worse, cannot maintain them due to heavy taxes and high petrol prices. The ones who still have cars do not repair them. “Most cars running on Greek roads are in terrible condition,” says my friend, who has seen her thriving, good-earning business shrink to a barely surviving spare-parts shop in the center of the city.

My friend, like many in Greece, was an admirer of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; or at least of his role in the economic drive that pushed Turkey to become a strong economic player in the region during the last few years. A daughter and granddaughter of immigrants from the Black Sea who arrived in Thessaloniki in destitute state decades ago and made a good living through pure hard work, she is a close follower of politics, business and honesty in her country, only to confirm that the last does not comply with the first two.

“I see that you have problems there, too,” she said, going immediately to the point after the preliminary seasonal niceties. She had just watched the evening news with a full coverage of the clashes in Taksim and the speech of the Turkish prime minister.

“But why did things end up like this? A customer of ours, who knows the region, came to the shop the other day and told me that after Egypt and Syria, Turkey is next.”

My friend, whose political leanings were always toward the left, tends to explain what is happening in our region as a result of a major powers’ cookbook and for her, Turkey is part of a big regional plan to serve mainly the Americans.

Like many in Greece, her admiration for the Turkish prime minister was a feeling that grew inverse to the Greek political leadership’s loss of credibility. Like many, she thought that it is the lack of old-time leaders who could stand up to foreign pressure that has brought her country to the present state. Erdoğan epitomized an independent, strong leader as well as somebody who facilitated economic development so lacking in the commercial hub that her city, Thessaloniki, once was.

Her ideas started to change with the Gezi events. But she was mostly upset by the police violence and did not go as far as personalizing the problem. She preferred to see the whole event as a youth rebellion on lifestyle issues.

It has been even harder for her – and for many others – to understand political Islam let alone the intricate differences between one sect and the other.

But one thing sounded very familiar to her. Political corruption. As a businesswoman she has many stories to tell about her local politicians, so do many Greeks who are now experiencing the detrimental effect of nepotism on their country’s economy.

“It is like us, there,” she tells me. “But at least people go on the streets and protest. Not like us. Nobody is going on the streets anymore.”

My friend’s approach should not be seen as an isolated case. The Greeks follow what is happening in Turkey right now with mixed feelings: they are perplexed as to how religious belief can get so deeply involved in the running of the state and they are afraid that this crisis may spill over into open Greek-Turkish issues such as Cyprus and the Aegean. Erdoğan still has many friends in Greece as a strong leader and as somebody who pushed the generals out of politics who were also involved with Turkish-Greek affairs.

“The prime minister of Turkey has learnt to overcome crises but nobody knows how deep the corruption goes … this time, things are even more mature, more complicated and more widespread “ a prominent Greek analyst writes in To Vima newspaper and concludes: “If he survives now, he will never fall.”