The terraced rows of tea plants climbing the hills above the Black Sea used to glint like money. Lately, they look like another casualty of Turkey’s long, grinding economic crisis.
Lipton, the multinational giant, recently scrapped production at one of its three tea-processing factories in the area. It has slashed purchases of tea from local farmers, depressing commerce in surrounding towns and villages.
“Everything is connected,” laments the mayor of this town, Vasfi Kurdoglu. “The Lipton factory closure is the worst thing that has happened. It has hit everyone — food stores, bakers, truck drivers who carry tea from here to Istanbul. We are going through a very hard time.”
More than a year after the onset of an economic calamity that has shaken the once-indomitable hold of Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this nation of 80 million people remains stuck in uncomfortable proximity to crisis.
The latest indication came on Monday, as the Turkish currency, the lira, surrendered more than 3 percent of its value against the dollar in early trading in Asia before slightly recovering. The drop came in reaction to Mr. Erdogan’s abrupt dismissal of the nation’s central bank governor on Saturday. Global investors absorbed the sacking as a signal that Mr. Erdogan is intent on recklessly lowering interest rates to accelerate economic growth, like a debt-saturated homeowner who resorts to a second mortgage rather than accepting a budget.
Turkey has avoided the meltdown that seemed possible last summer when the lira plunged precipitously, but safety is remote. The palpable threat of imminent collapse has given way to a sense of muddling through as the government unleashes credit to defer an inevitable reckoning. Meanwhile, anyone with money stashes it away in the face of gnawing fears, depriving the economy of vitality.
Turkey’s currency remains battered, while its foreign debts remain vast. Inflation and joblessness are alarmingly high.
Economic growth is minimal, and anxiety considerable amid the sense that more trouble lies ahead.
This is playing out as Turkey contends with political uncertainty after the shocking rebuke of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party in the recent Istanbul mayoral election. A president with a reputation for ignoring unpalatable facts, or thrashing those who wield them, now appears at the mercy of forces he cannot command: international markets.
For Mr. Erdogan, all available choices entail peril.
Most economists maintain that he must accept interest rates above the now-stultifying level of 24 percent to dissuade investors from abandoning Turkey. That should prevent the lira from falling further, limiting inflation. But it would also deprive businesses of capital, yielding bankruptcy and joblessness, while constraining economic growth.
Mr. Erdogan has consistently opted for growth at any cost. He has famously argued that high-interest rates cause inflation, which is like blaming abstinence for a hangover. He fired the central bank chief precisely because he refused to lower rates, according to reports in Turkey.
All signs now point to Mr. Erdogan forcing interest rates lower, while pumping credit to Turkish businesses and households. That should spur spending and economic growth, but at the cost of remaining faith in the currency, yielding more inflation and bank losses that risk eventually exploding into a full-blown crisis.
“It’s all coming apart,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House, a research institution in London. “The government is so wedded to this consumption model this will ultimately lead to an economic breakdown.”
During his 16 years in power, Mr. Erdogan has proved a maestro of economic growth, using influence over the financial apparatus to steer credit to his cronies in the construction industry. They have erected monuments in his honor — a new Istanbul airport, high-rise office towers, and an ever-expanding trove of shopping malls and resorts.
But as international investors have taken note of the mounting debt produced by this development, they have fled. Over the last two years, the lira has surrendered 40 percent of its value against the American dollar. The drop has lifted the prices of imported goods, from fuel to fertilizer, yielding inflation running at 19 percent.
From corporate offices in Istanbul to open-air markets across the nation, frustration over rising prices has gained force, reinforcing thrift and diminishing national fortunes.
“If people were going to buy two kilograms of fruit, now they buy one,” says Fuat Kar, as he tended to his produce stand at a market in the blue-collar Istanbul neighborhood of Silahtaraga.
The price for his cherries has soared from 6 lira a kilogram to 15, as farmers charge him more. The cost he bears for plastic pallets and paper bags has risen.
As his income falls, he is spreading the pain by eating out less.
The biggest immediate threat to the economy remains loans in foreign currency.
After the 2008 financial crisis, as the American central bank dropped interest rates to zero to spur revival, Turkish banks took advantage of free money by borrowing dollars. They lent greenbacks to Turkish businesses eager for an alternative to the lira’s high borrowing costs.
Such transactions were attractive because the lira was then appreciating and the Turkish economy was rapidly expanding. But in recent years, as the lira has fallen, companies with revenues in lira and debts in dollars have seen their burdens expand.
Turkey’s medium- and long-term foreign currency debts exceeded $328 billion as of the end of 2018, according to official data, with private companies responsible for about two-thirds. Private companies confronted a further $138 billion in foreign exchange debt due in the next year. Given that Turkey’s overall economic production was about $766 billion last year, these numbers were disturbing.
“I don’t think companies will be able to pay back their debts,” says Selva Demiralp, an economist who previously worked at the Federal Reserve bank in Washington and now teaches at Koc University in Istanbul. “It may spill over to the local banking system. They are the ones who are going to be on the hook for the bad loans.”
Some say the government has room to help companies in trouble. Officially, government debt last year amounted to a manageable 30 percent of annual economic output.
But Turkey’s financial workings are opaque and vulnerable to political manipulation. Mr. Erdogan has tapped state-owned banks to finance favored projects. Partnerships between the state and private companies have kept debts off government ledgers.
“These major projects, when they fail, it’s going to be the government that is going to have to bail them out,” says Mr. Hakura, the Chatham House expert. “The public debt numbers are a mirage.”
The savviest companies are exploiting weakness as an opportunity. Reha Medin Global, a real estate company with offices in a dozen Turkish cities, has seen domestic sales plunge given weak spending and mortgage rates running above 20 percent a year.
“Everybody is waiting,” says the company’s owner, Tamer Cicekci, 41.
But his business has grown by focusing on buyers from Iraq, Iran and China. They have taken advantage of the weak lira to snap up properties at discounted prices. Sales to foreigners have increased 40 percent over the past year, Mr. Cicekci said.
But the forces of decline are so potent that even successful companies are vulnerable.
Since it opened its first retail furniture shop in 2012, Hamm Design has been embraced by Turks who favor its retro chic sensibility. It now has seven shops. As recently as last year, its sales were doubling.
This year, sales are down by one-third, while the cost of raw materials has soared. The company has iced plans to open three new stores.
“People have lost their jobs and they don’t have security,” says Idil Ozbek, 50, a co-owner of the company. “They don’t know what will happen in two months, three months. They think, ‘It’s better I keep what I have and not spend any money.’”
Near the border with Georgia, the weakness of the economy has ravaged businesses built on attracting tourists to the Black Sea region, with recent months especially severe.
At Merkez Rent-A-Car in Arhavi, business has plunged by 80 percent over the past year, says Cemal Kesti, 45, who owns the company with his brother. They recently sold 20 of their 50 cars at a steep loss.
At Falez, a seafood restaurant on a hill with a commanding view of the sea, the owner, Dursun Ali Hacifazlioglu, 56, worries that his business will not survive. His electricity bill has climbed along with the cost of fish and vegetables.
“Tourists are decreasing, and local people are eating at home,” he says.
The greatest source of concern centers on tea, the dominant local industry.
In April, Mustafa Yuksel, head of the union that represents 400 workers at three Lipton factories, received word from the company that it would not resume production at the Arhavi plant once the harvest began in May.
“I asked why?” Mr. Yuksel recalled. “They said, ‘Because of the economic crisis.’”
When he was quoted saying so in a local newspaper, Lipton’s corporate parent, Unilever, demanded that he keep quiet, he says, telling him that Mr. Erdogan’s administration had been angered by mention of a crisis.
Unilever declined to answer questions, while a spokeswoman in London, Gemma Shaw, emailed a brief statement: “The size and scale of our tea business around the world means that we regularly flex production up and down depending on the needs of the business.”
According to Mr. Yuksel, Lipton must pay higher wages, but has been unable to pass on extra costs. Until a recent hike, Caykur, a state-owned tea company that dominates the industry, has maintained low prices under pressure from the government. Lipton could not lift prices without losing sales.
The union mounted protests that brought an agreement from Lipton to transfer workers from the shuttered Arhavi plant to two other factories in the region.
Hasan Ataselim, 48, grows tea in the hills above Arhavi, selling much of his crop to Lipton. His earnings have stagnated over the last five years, while the costs for fertilizer and fuel for his pickup truck have skyrocketed.
A father of three, he used to put away money for his children’s college education. No longer.
“It has affected us dramatically,” he says.
His cellphone comes to life with a musical ringtone — Lionel Richie’s “Easy.” His brother is calling to let him know that friends are arriving from out of town. They should treat them to a dinner out. Mr. Ataselim’s face tightens uncomfortably.
“I can’t do it,” he says. “Work is going up. Fun is going down.”