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Douglas Frantz: Great Divide Widens as Economy Worsens – NYTimes

This article on the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in Turkey by Douglas Frantz appeared in the NYTimes on 21st of July. Worth to pay attention…

A black Porsche Carrera swings to the curb and two doormen in tuxedos rush to open the doors for the driver, who is in wraparound designer sunglasses and his passenger, a young woman wearing a short red silk dress and improbably high heels. Whisked past the paparazzi, they disappear into Laila, a sprawling club on the Bosporus where the city’s hip and rich party away the summer nights.

Not far away, Unsal Akayoglu is pulling off his white jacket and ending another 12-hour day as a waiter in a sweltering traditional Turkish restaurant. He will take three buses home to the small apartment he shares with his mother. He pays almost half his monthly earnings of $160 in rent and can no longer buy meat or fresh fruit.

Istanbul is like many cosmopolitan cities with its mix of rich and poor. But as Turkey ends the fifth month of the worst economic crisis in its modern history, the gap between the wealthy elite and struggling poor is growing wider and more visible.

The Turkish lira has lost nearly 50 percent of its value against the dollar, sending the purchasing power of average Turks plunging as accompanying inflation pushes prices higher at double-digit rates.

Though Turkey is not prone to mass demonstrations, concerns have increased among political leaders about the potential for a social explosion as the poor watch the rich glide along seemingly unscathed, particularly in the country’s showcase city.

Istanbul has long regarded itself as a first world city in a developing country. The Bosporus is lined with spectacular villas, and the best boulevards boast chic European shops and five-star restaurants. Affluent young Turks are educated at private universities here and abroad.

But over the last three decades, the character of the city has been transformed by the arrival of millions of people escaping the impoverished villages of the Anatolian heartland. Instead of a haven of last resort, these internal migrants more often confront another empty dream of social mobility, without the skills or education to make a living.

Even those with a job barely earn a living wage. Base pay for the majority of Turkey’s workers is about $85 a month. Per capita income among Turkey’s wealthiest 5 percent last year was $10,172 a year, compared with $396 for the poorest 5 percent. Instead of being kept out of sight as they are in many places, Istanbul’s poor live in hovels with no running water, a stone’s throw from mansions. Thousands of unemployed men line the Bosporus, fishing for their meal as yachts glide past. For every shiny Porsche, there is an old man pushing a cart heavy with scraps gleaned from garbage bins.

“Turks live more intimately than people in the United States,” said Faruk Birtek, chairman of the sociology department at Bosporus University. “The poor are much more visible because they live around the corner.”

One of the most popular new television shows follows two contestants trying to live on $85 a month. More often, however, Turkish television focuses on the lives of celebrities and the rich. Newspapers were filled with stories last week of a businessman who spent $1 million on a party in Istanbul to celebrate his son’s circumcision.

Ostentatious displays of wealth were once taboo in Turkey, so the differences were less obvious. Close- knit families also served as a safety net and psychological buffer against poverty. But many people left extended families behind when they moved to Istanbul, and the grinding poverty has brought new strains.

The Istanbul police reported a third more muggings in the first five months of this year than in all of last year, though the city is still regarded as safe.

The country’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, vetoed legislation to reduce subsidies for tobacco farmers this month, saying it would cause too much added suffering. The military-dominated National Security Council discussed the potential for social unrest at a recent closed meeting, according to newspapers.

Laila’s high-flying customers got a taste of social unrest on a recent Saturday. As the sports cars and limousines lined up to deposit their occupants, 20 young men appeared, chanting slogans. “The plunderers are here,” they shouted. “Where are the laborers?” The club’s security guards hustled them away.

Sefik Oztek, Laila’s owner, was philosophical about the demonstration. “They once demonstrated outside Parliament,” he said. “Now it’s Laila, because this is where the power is.”

Mr. Oztek, 38, surveyed his domain from a banquette near the top of the multilevel club on the Bosporus. Seven restaurants, three bars, several huge video screens and countless speakers blasting music were arrayed before him. On a busy night, 4,000 people jam the club. Most pay a $16 cover charge, though V.I.P. cards were sent to 2,500 celebrities and big spenders before the season started in June. Prices vary at the restaurants, but dinner and drinks for two runs about $100.

Mr. Oztek, who pays $1.25 million to rent the space for the summer, said the hard times have not hurt business. “People are conscious of the crisis, so we pay extra attention to prices and quality,” he said. “But we offer a few hours of escape and relaxation.”

The story is different at most restaurants in Istanbul. Managers of places in all price ranges said the devalued lira and economic uncertainty had cut revenues deeply.

“In the last six months, we have lost two-thirds of our clients,” said Kazim Kaya, who owns the traditional restaurant in the Taksim neighborhood where Mr. Akayoglu works as a waiter. “My costs keep increasing,” Mr. Kaya said, “but I can’t reflect it in my prices. I don’t want to lose any more customers.”

Mr. Kaya, 38, knows the wages he pays do not allow his waiters to live comfortably. Sometimes he does not have the money to pay them on time, he said, and no one can afford to take time off, let alone have a vacation.

Sitting at a small table in a corner of the mostly empty restaurant, Mr. Akayoglu, 46, was pessimistic. “This country is a third world country,” he said. “They say it is improving, but it is not. We spend only on basic nutrition, just trying to live through another day.”

Distrust of the government is high. If elections were held today, no established party, including the three that make up the current government, would get enough votes to sit in Parliament, according to a recent nationwide poll.

“You have extreme lack of trust in the state about anything getting better, and the economic insecurity for an overwhelming majority of society,” said Hale Boratav, chairman of the psychology department at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “It’s hard for people to be optimistic.”

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