Prime Minister’s health and the Brezhnev Syndrome

Prime Minister’s health and the Brezhnev Syndrome


I hope Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recovers fast and whatever disease that warranted his surgery leaves his body without a scar. I also hope his life will not be affected negatively and we will soon see him start working with his usual exhaustless energy. And when we want to criticize or applaud him, we will be able to do this without any concerns in our minds about his health.

United States President Barack Obama turned 50 in August. He is 1.86 meters tall and weighs 82 kilograms. His lungs are clean; he has no infections and no problems in his respiratory system. As of November his colon cancer test was “negative.”

You know, his smoking habit has been harshly criticized. But under pressure from his family, his doctors and the public, the U.S. president finally quit at the beginning of this year. As far as I understand, he has already started seeing the positive results of this. For example, his cholesterol level was 209 in February 2010; now it is 193. Nevertheless, we also know that his weight has increased by 450 grams. For the voter who might be concerned, “Whoops, is this the start of a trend of putting on weight?” doctors remind them: “The president works out for 40 minutes almost every day, including running on the treadmill and weightlifting.”

I think those people whose vitality, ability to work and to demonstrate good performance concerns the whole country due to the mission society has granted them or because of a role they have undertaken lose their privacy to an extent. The physical condition of the U.S. president or the Turkish prime minister concerns a much wider circle than simply themselves and their families. People in such roles should be both careful and responsible for their health and transparent in regards to any issues they are having to a certain extent.

As a matter of fact, while I can like other world citizens read the U.S. president’s latest health check-up reports, I do not know very much about the Turkish prime minister’s health condition. No doubt this is not unique to Erdoğan: For all past leaders – Ecevit, Çiller, Demirel, Özal, Bayar, İnönü, Atatürk or whoever comes to mind – the same ignorance was true. That suspicions surrounding Özal’s and even Ecevit’s death still exist partially stems from this ignorance or, more precisely, the state’s culture of secrecy that nourishes such ignorance.

There is indeed an inverse proportion between the secrecy culture of the state and a democratic order, as well as the maturing of a democratic mentality in society. As regimes democratize they become transparent. Personal health data of leaders, if not the first and the most significant factor of this transparency, is indeed an inevitable portion.

As a matter of fact, the world has lived to see the most extreme example of this secrecy culture with the Soviet experience. There, not only the leaders’ health, but also the right to know anything about matters that directly concerned public health most of the time, bumped into stiff armor of state confidentiality. The world learned about the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, for example, not through Soviet officials’ statements but through the radiation measurements of Sweden.

Confidentiality was essential in regards to personal information of Kremlin leaders. Facts that emerged after the deaths of Andropov and Brezhnev showed that both leaders’ critical health conditions were hidden from society and the world. News about the sickness of Brezhnev was labeled as “the black propaganda of the capitalist West.” He “suddenly” died a day later.

I am thinking of the same thing since talk about Erdoğan’s surgery, accompanied by loaded words such as “cancer,” started roaming around the newsrooms of newspapers yesterday afternoon. Even though this secrecy is “understandable” to a point, it is a vicious thing. A prime minister going under surgery very quietly on a Saturday, the fact that the official statement about the surgery was limited to two or three lines only and issued after 48 hours and only after the rumor had spread is a thing that exceeds the boundaries of personal privacy and violates the transparency demanded by democratic culture and also the right to know.

During those hours when news channels did not utter one sentence and when the officials we called replied “No” or “Wait,” we were chatting and I said this was the “Brezhnev Syndrome”: to be bound to not knowing the conditions of leaders.

For example, if Obama is to go through serious or light surgery, the American public will be informed fast, because they consider this an essential duty toward the voter who has made him “the president.” They refrain from the Brezhnev Syndrome; they consider transparency as a requirement of democracy. May our turn come next.

Yasemin Çongar is a columnist for daily Taraf in which this piece appeared Nov. 29. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.