Turkey or Türkiye: Erdogan's nationalism drowns a global brand
by Dario Salvi

The president behind the country's international name change. A desire to erase the association with the Christmas bird and "offensive" parodies. But Turkish authorities themselves are victims of confusion and contradictions. The airline is also targeted, but the change could cause billions in losses. And some are launching petitions to mock the sultan.

Milan (AsiaNews) - "Turkey or Türkiye?" spelled strictly using the sign (¨), the metaphony on the letter u. Now the dispute is not only literal, it masks yet another campaign by Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan to boost the country's image abroad and shore up a shaky domestic leadership ahead of the 2023 presidential election. The politics of nationalism and Islam promoted in recent years by Ankara's leader are ill-suited on the international stage to a country name that is associated with the bird among the signature dishes of Christmas or Thanksgiving meals in the United States.

However, the launch from the beginning of the month of a new name, and a new brand, also involving the main national air carrier is already encountering the first criticisms and triggering opposing initiatives, including ironic and irreverent ones. "On the one hand," explains an AsiaNews diplomatic source on condition of anonymity, "it is clear that those with a nationalist spirit are satisfied with the use of a Turkish word, because there is sensitivity about names as there is about the flag. On the other hand, however, it is not the number one problem of the population grappling with the economic crisis, the pandemic that cannot be said to be behind us, inflation and refugees ... it remains mainly a way to tickle domestic sensitivities." 

A name, parodies and confusion

A controversial example emerged recently during a press conference by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. "You mean Türkiye, right?" said the diplomatic chief in Ankara, correcting albeit in a joking tone a journalist who asked him if Turkey (Turkey the term used by the reporter) intended to lift its veto on Sweden and Finland's NATO membership. "Of course," replied the reporter after an initial moment of embarrassment, except to add, "Do I have to repeat the question for that?"

Since the United Nations officially recognized the change-which, moreover, is the prerogative of the individual country and there are no restrictions-similar moments of confusion have occurred with some frequency. Dignitaries, diplomats and politicians including the Atlantic alliance secretary himself, Jens Stoltenberg, have used the name Türkiye in their official speeches, except to fall back on the more common and familiar "Turkey" in informal talks or interviews. Cavusoglu himself, among the big lobbyists for Erdogan's desired name change, stumbles over the old name, used after all for nearly a century since the founding of republican Turkey in 1923.

On the domestic front, reactions to the name change are varied: for many, it is just yet another invention to divert attention from economic difficulties, not least because the majority has always used the name Türkiye regardless of what is happening internationally. Others, on the other hand, say they are satisfied that they are no longer associated with a bird "eaten at Christmas or Thanksgiving."

Moreover, Turkey is the subject of jokes and parodies, such as in Mel Brooks' 1983 musical in which "a piece of Poland" and "a slice of Turkey" are evoked. Among those who have appreciated it is 2006 Turkish Nobel laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk. "Now when English speakers say the name Türkiye," he told the Financial Times, "they will not think of the bird that is eaten at Christmas. And I am very happy about that." 

However, the change is a source of confusion and contradictions, as is already evident on the Foreign Ministry's website: official reports, departments, and press releases mention the new name. Still others, even though they are official documents as in the case of relations between Ankara and the European Union, carry the old name, ignoring the path of change that started on Dec. 4, 2021, with Erdogan's signature sealing "the glory of our nation's culture and values." It should be mentioned that as early as the 1990s, some Turkish exporters tried to launch the "made in Türkiye" label on goods, but there was a lack of unity and state support at the time. 

The national airline

In a recent days meeting with the group of deputies of the Akp, the ruling party, Erdogan said that "our national airline will operate international flights no longer as Turkish Airlines, but as Türkiye Hava Yollari." That is, the Turkish language translation of the original name, which will be affixed to the fuselages of the entire fleet. It is a revolution that will certainly not be painless, also and above all on an economic level, since the national airline now has as many as 318 aircraft and risks, according to some observers, to wipe out the value of a brand that in recent years has been able to carve out a substantial slice of the market. A upheaval that has surprised the employees themselves, who anonymously point out that they "received no information about the name change. On the surface, it was Erdogan's decision." 

Over the past three years Turkish Airlines has emerged as the most popular Turkish brand in the world, with a value of nearly 1.5 billion euros and connections to 334 destinations in 128 nations, third in terms of flights after United and America Airlines. Former chief executive Candan Karlitekin spares no criticism, speaking of brand destruction after sponsorships of stars such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Costner, as well as partnerships with Barcelona and Manchester United. Marketing Turkiye also expresses concerns about a possible negative impact, with the globalization attempt "irreversibly damaged." Adding to this is the cost figure, with changes ranging from livery to menus to seats, wherever Turkish Airlines is marked. All of which, an inside source points out, would entail "expenses and timelines that are impossible to estimate." 

Mock petition

Finally, the efforts put forth by Erdogan risk being thwarted by a campaign launched in recent days on change.org, an online platform famous for hosting petitions of various kinds. Perhaps not in terms of results, but one that certainly already represents a snub when compared to the sultan's reasons for changing the name. Specifically, the petition seeks to change the turkey's name from turkey to türkiye, making a mockery of Erdogan. One of the signatories, in fact, says he joined because he finds the initiative funny, while the Turkish president "doesn't even know what funny is."

Moreover, for many nations the change is of no value because "the Spanish will continue to use the old name (Turquía)," partly because the new one "is much more difficult and hostile to pronounce" and for most people it results in "a useless effort: like Myanmar for the former Burma." A few days after launching the page, perhaps to avoid violent reactions, the initiator of the campaign-which has garnered just under a thousand endorsements-has discontinued the initiative, stressing that he does not want to foment hatred and that he intends to continue "being served in his favorite kebab restaurant."