In a land where East meets West and old meets new, Turkey feels like and unlike every place I have ever traveled. Like Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, Turkey hangs in the “denge” (the Turkish word for balance) between its long-history beginning in the cradle of civilization and a modern infrastructure and growing economy.
Today’s Turkish politics demand discussions focused on both domestic and foreign policy. Unlike the United States, where candidates and voters tend to narrowly focus on national issues like jobs and the economy, Turks don’t have the luxury of separating the internal and external policies. Shared borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria lead to constant worries about economic and social stability. And after spending a day on the Syrian border with refugees, it’s no longer surprising to me that energy policy isn’t at the top of the Turks discussion list, let alone an easy subject to unpack.
But, these are the great things about traveling to a new country; opening yourself to different cultures, ways of thinking and breaking your pre-existing expectations. Like assuming energy policy would dominate every conversation in this Middle East country that is dependent on its fossil fuels from Russia. In fact, according to one political science professor I spoke with, Turkey spends nearly $55 billion a year for energy from Russia alone. Along with worries about violence in nearby border countries, Turks are also concerned about Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s standing in the world could impact fuel prices.
And while it may not be the first topic on the afternoon tea discussion agenda, energy policy and energy efficiency were engrained in my day-to-day experiences. Every hotel I stayed in required key card access to turn on the electricity in the room. This meant I couldn’t charge my iPad during the day, but it also meant that I was keenly aware of my personal energy consumption.
Energy usage aside, no advanced energy visual was as striking as standing in Mesopotamia on the Stone Age Mountain Sanctuary archeological dig contemplating the meaning of “old” when I saw solar panels. Below me, 10th and 9th millennium BC artifacts were unearthed, but next to me stood a modern, clean, renewable energy source powering the dig.
This would seem like the perfect dichotomy, but rather it is the quintessential struggle of the country on many fronts. How do you keep the rich traditions and history of your religion and nation, while growing your economy and positioning yourself as a leader among other Middle East nations?
Like a choose your own ending book, Turkey stands on the cusp of the choice between what some would call a total authoritarian rule or the potential of becoming a truly democratic society. With just a few weeks until their first national democratic presidential elections, Turkish voters face a clear choice. But with half the electorate under the age of 30, it’s still to be seen whether or not they will come out to vote.
With the announcement that current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run for President, energy policy is likely to slide to the back burner, while serious allegations of mistrust of his leadership are debated by the electorate, including corruption allegations and freedom of the press. Just two weeks prior to my arrival in Istanbul, CNN reporter Ivan Watson, was detained by police on live television. And while visiting with journalists from Turkish television and newspapers, I learned of the numerous news stories they are currently prohibited by law from being reported on, including the recent situation in Iraq when ISIS militants kidnapped Turkish diplomats at their consulate in Mosul.
While nine days in a country doesn’t make me an expert, I tend to agree with Turkish Member of Parliament Aykan Erdemir, who shared with our group that what Turkey needs most right now is a government focused on a comprehensive security plan. A plan that provides security from things like climate change and cyber threats, while also providing the necessary answers for other pressing issues like housing costs and healthcare concerns.
While no democracy is perfect, the only true chance for progress in Turkey is under a fully functioning democratic government. So like every first Tuesday in November in America, this August 10, I will be closely monitoring election results, only this time it will be in anticipation of what’s next for Turkey.
Melissa Harrison is the Communications Director for the NRDC Action Fund. She traveled to Turkey as a Truman National Security Project partner with the Rumi Forum. This is the first blog in a series she will write about her journey.