Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to lead economic policy in person if he won re-election as Turkish president. A majority of voters backed his vision, but a rising number of business people are deciding that they can no longer operate under those conditions.
Exiled Turkish media tycoon Hamdi Akin Ipek is among them. He is suing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington. Ipek claims the confiscation of his multi-billion dollar empire, Koza Ipek Group, was politically motivated and is seeking $6 billion (€5.1 billion) in damages.
“Pirates hijacked my ship,” said Ipek, who spoke with Euronews in London, where he established Ipek Investment Ltd in 2015 when he sought to mitigate risk amid what he sees as Turkey’s mounting climate of oppression.
While Ipek is one of the most high-profile businessmen to depart Turkey in recent years, he is by no means alone, although many others are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of reprisals.
Increase in visas abroad
The UK has been an attractive destination for many of Turkey’s best and brightest leaving in recent years. In 2015 there were 390 applicants for the ‘Ankara Agreement’ (ECAA Turkish Businessperson visa) from inside Turkey. As tensions reached a boiling point in Turkey, applications to the UK doubled in 2016, followed by 1,190 applicants in 2017 — an increase of 200% over those two years. Elsewhere, the picture is similar: the number of Turks awarded EU Blue Card in Germany rose by 58% in 2017 to 1,022.
New York-based immigration lawyer Andrew Johnson says he has seen an increase in Turkish clients applying for EB-5 visas to the US, which require an upfront investment of $550,000. Johnson told Euronews his clients are keen to get their money out of Turkey to mitigate risk on their assets.
For Ipek, the stakes are not only financial. He took control of his late father’s greeting card business in 1997 and rapidly expanded it into a diverse conglomerate, becoming a major player in multiple Turkish business sectors. Through mining, tourism and media groups, Ipek contributed to Turkey’s economic boom of the early 2000s during Erdogan’s terms as Prime Minister. Turkey’s GDP per capita more than doubled during Erdogan’s first six years in government.
Ipek began to feel pressure from the regime after he founded Ipek University, a liberal fine arts school with more than 1,000 students, including expats studying in Turkey on artist visas. Ipek says the school was completely shut down by the regime in a single day, when they accused the university of "educating terrorists".
Ipek’s Bugün newspaper and Kanaltürk TV station were also seized by the Turkish government after, Ipek says, he refused to give the government editorial control over which stories they could or could not publish. This culminated with accusations of Ipek financing and supporting the Gulen movement, a group Erdogan refers to as "terrorists" and holds responsible for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt.
Many of Ipek’s employees are among the more than 70 journalists jailed in Turkey, which currently incarcerates more journalists than any other country on earth.
Ipek denies financing the Gulen movement and does not believe he can receive a fair trial in Turkey, where he says a fate worse than prison would await him.
“Lawyers became too scared in Turkey to defend our rights in court and I can’t even say how many judges and prosecutors there are now in prison,” says Ipek. He described the personal heartbreak he feels of not being able to communicate with his brother Tekin, who has been in jail for over two years.
Changes to the UK visa scheme?
Aydin, who didn’t want to give his full name, is a bio-medical engineer who came to the UK for higher education, a common thread among Turkish entrepreneurs. At 27, he has completed two master’s degrees and is now working on his PhD. As he reflects on Turkey today, both politically and economically he compares himself to his peers.
“I didn’t want to become a medical device sales representative like many of my classmates from university,” says Aydin “I wanted to concentrate on the science and research part, an aspect that is severely lacking in Turkey these days.”
Aydin is now seeking investors for a robotic prosthetics start-up, which will improve comfort for patients.
“Prosthetic technology is stuck in the 19th century, this invention will adapt with changes in the human body and save the NHS millions of pounds a year in replacements.”
However, changes to the rules governing the conditions under which Turkish citizens can come to the UK may begin to act as a deterrent for potential investors. The requirement before applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the country has been raised from four to five years and a £2,389 (€2,703) per person fee has been added to the application, which was formerly free of charge.
The UK Home Office said the price increase is part of a larger policy of reducing the burden on taxpayers by making sure that the visa system is fully funded by those who use it.
Erdogan's grip tightens
Dr. Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Euronews that Erdogan now has de-facto control of the judicial and legislative branches, as well as being head of state, head of police, and head of the military.
“He has a blank canvas to sketch his ideals of what Turkey can be and has more power than any previous Turkish leader could dream of. I believe a new republic has begun in Turkey,” says Cagaptay.
There is still much economic uncertainty revolving around Turkey. The lira continues to struggle while inflation surged to an alarming 15.4% in June. Turkey is heavily dependent on foreign money but some analysts are now describing the emerging market as "un-investable". The markets also reacted poorly when Erdogan announced his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, will run a new combined ministry of treasury and finance.
Turkey occupies a crucial position both geographically and ideologically between Europe and the Middle East. It is the largest economy and oldest democracy between Italy and India. They have also felt major repercussions from war in neighbouring Syria, and host more than 3.5 million refugees from the conflict.
Cagaptay told Euronews Erdogan’s power consolidation could lead to an increased "brain drain" from Turkey
The Turkish government declined to respond to requests to comment directed to the office of the Presidency, Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Treasury and Finance.