ISTANBUL — I thought Madonna had arrived. The place was the Ulus restaurant on an Istanbul bluff overlooking the Bosporus. The commotion started with police sirens blaring. Then there was a gaggle of a dozen television cameras and reporters, flashes popping. A murmur started to spread through the restaurant. Then the doors flew open, the reporters cleared a path, and the star walked in: Turkey’s minister of economy, Kemal Dervis, had arrived for dinner.
Say what? Turkey’s economy minister getting the Madonna treatment? Gotta tell you, it’s the darndest thing I’ve ever seen. “Everywhere I go they follow me,” shrugged Mr. Dervis sheepishly. This scene tells you everything you need to know about the unusual drama playing out in Turkey today.
Quite simply, Turkey’s economy is on the brink of disaster. In mid-February the Turkish currency was devalued by 25 percent in one day. It was the culmination of decades of mismanagement and corruption, in which politicians used state banks and factories to pass out patronage and their patrons then used the money to buy and support the politicians.
With little fanfare, the Bush team, which came to office swearing it would never do bailouts, as President Clinton did, quietly arranged for a $17 billion rescue package for Turkey from the I.M.F. and the World Bank. But on one condition — that this time Turkey get real. Because there would be no next time. Turkey’s feckless and squabbling politicians had no choice but to look for someone outside the political system who knew Turkey, knew economics and was not corrupt.
Enter Mr. Dervis, a respected Turkish economist and vice president of the World Bank. Turkey’s cabinet anointed him economic czar, with authority to drive through 15 reform laws that Turkey promised the I.M.F. and the U.S. it would pass in return for loans — laws to end subsidies, create open bidding for government contracts and sell off state-owned assets, such as the phone company. If implemented, they will produce a revolution in Turkish politics.
And that’s the drama. The politicians know they have to implement these reforms. But they also know that in destroying the patronage system they will be undercutting their power bases and elevating Mr. Dervis, of whom they are insanely jealous. The Turkish public is widely rooting for the untainted, soft-spoken Mr. Dervis to succeed, hence the fascination with his every move. When he got up to use the restroom at the Ulus restaurant the elderly lady attendant handed him a towel and whispered, “Please don’t quit.”
But at the same time, people fear losing control of their lives to the I.M.F. “I really appreciate what the I.M.F. is doing,” says Aysuda Kolemen, a student at Istanbul Bilgi University, “but I know that they are not doing it for me personally, so in the future they are likely to do things that I may not like or approve of, but I don’t have a say in it. So I feel powerless, because any power I have as a citizen has now been transferred to some international technocrats.”
So Mr. Dervis is constantly, and so far deftly, walking a tightrope between coaxing his countrymen to do the right thing and not appearing to be a foreign agent. It’s not easy. He regularly has to remind his cabinet colleagues, “But we promised the I.M.F. . . .” After the government slashed wheat subsidies, Agriculture Minister Husnu Yusuf Gokalp was asked why, and he said, alluding to Mr. Dervis, “You should pose that question to those having breakfast at the Hilton [with foreign bankers].”
Last Thursday was a typical day here. At 10 a.m. State Minister for Privatization Yuksel Yalova declares that he will not sign a law — which Turkey promised the I.M.F. it would pass — ending subsidies to tobacco farms, which employ 600,000 people. At 11 a.m. Turkey’s currency and stock market plunge. At noon I.M.F. officials complain. At 2 p.m. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit repudiates Mr. Yalova. At 2:30 p.m. Turkey’s markets recover. At 4 p.m. Mr. Yalova is forced to resign.
The last act of this drama is still to be written. Andrew Finkel, a longtime analyst here, remarked to me that for decades Turkey’s politicians had enjoyed “power without responsibility” — lining their pockets without worrying about the future. Now, says Mr. Finkel, they have “responsibility without power.” On one hand, they deserve it. On the other hand, they may not be up to it. Stay tuned. This is going to get interesting.