“Sister, can you turn off the microphone?” asks a carpet seller in Istanbul’s old town before commenting on the economic situation. Who should help the little man when he’s locked up, he adds apologetically, when even the prominent intellectuals aren’t released anymore.
“If I were to say, for example, that Germany is to blame for our economic misery, then that would be fine – I could say that into the microphone.” Complaining about the crushing inflation and criticizing the economic policy of the Turkish government is too risky .
His money is no longer enough, says the man who works in a carpet shop. Official inflation in Turkey is now 73.5 percent, the highest since 1998. Independent experts and the opposition accuse the government of embellishing this shocking figure. Enag, a group of independent economists, put the inflation rate at 160 percent.
Soaring energy prices and the Ukraine war are fueling inflation around the world, but Turkey’s home-grown problems are compounding it. According to mainstream economics, a country should raise interest rates to make money tighter as a way to combat inflation, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disagrees.
On his orders, the Turkish central bank has cut interest rates several times, accelerating inflation and the depreciation of the lira. The Turkish national currency has lost half of its value against the euro since the beginning of last year. Nevertheless, Erdogan wants to lower interest rates further.
For ordinary people, it’s about more than economic theory. An early retiree who has to get by on the equivalent of 150 euros a month lists his expenses: rent, water, electricity – “I can hardly buy anything to eat anymore”. The price of a loaf of bread has doubled in a year. According to a UN estimate, 15 million Turks do not have enough to eat.
The crisis is particularly acute at weekly markets like Sali Pazari in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district, where low-income people buy their groceries, clothes and household items, while wealthy Turks shop in malls and supermarkets like Germans.
Hundreds of stalls set up in an underground car park in Kadikoy every Tuesday, selling everything from tomatoes and cheese to underwear and children’s clothing at a fraction of retail prices. Even there, buyers are now turning every lira three times over, the dealers report.
Petrol, electricity and gas are also becoming more and more expensive. The rise in prices has accelerated so much that the relief provided by a 50 percent increase in the minimum wage last December has already fizzled out. Millions of Turkish workers depend on the 4,253 lira of the current net minimum wage. In December the sum was still worth 345 euros, today it is still 234 euros.
There is often not enough money even for small pleasures. Cheese toast is one of the most popular Turkish snacks. Kasarli Tost can be found in small shops and kiosks on every street corner. Because many Turks can no longer afford the cheese, the cheese toast is now offered in some places without cheese: it consists only of toast, ketchup and a piece of paprika.
Despite the crisis, citizens are not rebelling against the government because many are afraid of going to jail for making critical statements. A journalist, whose anti-government street surveys get millions of clicks on the Internet, reports on more than a hundred criminal cases against himself and citizens interviewed.
Anonymous surveys give an idea of how difficult everyday life has become for many. Accordingly, only three percent of Turks can live comfortably with their income. Two-thirds of those surveyed have great difficulty getting by with their money until the end of the month; the others make it through, often with the help of relatives. Others continue to charge their credit cards or add more credit cards to pay their bills or to pay off debts with other card providers.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government is vacillating between whitewashing and emergency measures. The President claimed a few days ago that Turkey has no problem at all with inflation. The only problem is the rising cost of living, Erdogan said. What the difference should be for the consumer, he kept to himself. Shortly thereafter, the government imposed a cap on rents, which can only be increased by 25 percent between now and next year.