Turkey’s ‘windows to the West’

Turkey’s ‘windows to the West’

İzmir Mayor Aziz Kocaoğlu describes his Aegean city as “Turkey’s window to the West.” One would like to think that in these days, when the European Parliament has recommended freezing accession talks with Turkey, there is still a window opening to the West on this land. 

I was in İzmir recently and I was able to better understand the uniqueness of the city. İzmir is not locked within Turkey’s current depressing agenda. It has its own tempo, its own dynamics. As Kocaoğlu says, it does not compromise an inch on its lifestyle. İzmir does not accept impositions, and it is a city where women can be more powerful than men. 

According to Kocaoğlu, those who have migrated to İzmir are better able to adapt to the culture of the city thanks to the huge role played by women. During our conversation, the mayor said they are currently discussing how to develop the city with the İzmir Economic Development Coordination Council. The council brings together 81 institutions and organizations that play a role in the city’s economy. At it, participants from academia, industry, trade unions and other civil society organizations consider the development of İzmir. 

Kocaoğlu calls this “participatory democracy.” Indeed, the work of the council must have borne fruit, because according to the “Global Metro Monitor” published two years ago by the Brookings Institution and JP Morgan Chase, İzmir is the second fastest developing city in the world. 

On the other hand, İzmir, which has multiplied its investments by 15 times in 13 years to reach 11.4 billion Turkish Liras, is rated top by Moody’s at the national level with an AAA rating. In its September 2016 report, Moody’s emphasized İzmir’s positive performance, adequate liquidity and manageable debt level.

İzmir, which has adopted the “Local Development” model, has grown 2.5 times faster than Turkey’s average in agriculture: 5.5 percent against 2.1 percent. Because İzmir has supported model cooperatives, it is not a coincidence that the rate of cooperatives in İzmir is twice the national average. Today, when one thinks of “milk,” it is İzmir that first comes to mind. 

Sometimes Kocaoğlu visits 10 villages in a single day. He is continuing to develop the infrastructure of the city, as well as advancing its cultural and artistic life. 

In fact, the first building ever designed purely as an Opera House in Turkey is set to be built in İzmir. While Istanbul still does not have a dedicated opera house, İzmir is getting ready to build architect Mehmet Kütükçüoğlu’s project, who represented Turkey at the last Venice International Architecture Biennale. 

It should be stressed that it is not only İzmir that is Turkey’s window to the West. Shortly after visiting İzmir, I travelled to the border city of Edirne, which created the same impression. The second capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne, which hosts Mimar Sinan’s historic Selimiye Mosque, (on the UNESCO World Heritage List along with many of Sinan’s other masterpieces), is on its way to becoming a tourism star. 

Edirne, like İzmir, also has “red lines” when it comes to its lifestyle. Its mayor is from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as in İzmir, and Edirne Mayor Recep Gürkan prioritizes the rights of women just like İzmir Mayor Kocaoğlu. 

Edirne is the city where women’s employment is highest in Turkey. “Edirne people love to have fun. At times they cross over to Greece to have a good meal, or to Bulgaria to have a fun night at a casino or nightclub,” Gürkan told me with a smile. 

I guess in Turkey we are all in need of more “windows” that open to the West.