The Ottoman Footprint

Posted by dianamuir on June 18, 2012
Uncategorized / Comments Off on The Ottoman Footprint

The Ottoman Empire had a terrible and enduring impact on the lands it conquered.   Look at the map.  Start in Algiers and let your eye follow the footprint of Ottoman occupied land around the Mediterranean until you reach Sarajevo.  Country after country, all of them political and economic disasters, with only minor exceptions.  Turkey itself is not too badly off, but the lands the Osmanli Turks conquered and ruled are in bad condition.

It’s something about the Ottomans, and Morocco and Greece are the proof.   Morocco, never conquered by the Ottomans, is far from perfect, but it is more peaceful and better governed than most of former Ottoman lands. Greece has been an independent country since 1821, but twentieth century Greek political history is a litany of crises, coups, and wars.   Nobody pays their taxes and nothing gets done outside the patronage system.   Until it entered the European Union in 1981, the Greek economy consisted of olives, sheep, tourism, and shipping magnates.   Shipping was the great exception in a peasant economy.  All of this was very like the story of rest of the former Ottoman world, peasant economies from which huge numbers of people emigrate.

Since joining the European Union Greece has been on the dole.  Rivers of German money have poured in, building roads and luring young people off the farms.  By the 1990’s the impact of EU transfers was so great that people abandoned the  farms on the islands and in the mountains to move to the cities, and a forest began to grow on  mountains of the Peloponnese that had been pastures since the Homer was young.     But despite all the lovely EU money and an enormous tourism boom, no industries developed, nobody started paying taxes, and you still need patronage to get anything done.

Is there a former Ottoman colony that has done better?   You can make a case for Hungary.  Jordan, Tunisia and Cyprus are not  the world’s worst governed or poorest countries.   The Saudis, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait have oil.   Israel has both democratic government and one of the world’s most dynamic economies, but is under constant attack from badly governed neighbors.    Overall, the Ottoman lands are in terrible shape.   The Balkan  states may be beginning to recover from a decade of war, but almost all the countries from Iraq to Algeria have been political and economic disasters.

The footprint of Ottoman rule outlines a series of countries with bad – often brutal – governments and pathetic economies.


It’s not genetic.  Immigrants form the old Ottoman lands are often successful: the Syrian Christians who immigrated to South America are famous for their commercial success, the United States has large numbers of Arab immigrants who arrived as students and stayed to make successful careers, and Greeks appear to be able to become successful, even rich, everywhere except Greece.

The problem with the former Ottoman lands is that  cultural patters are very hard to change.   There was no security of property under the Ottomans, and taxation  was erratic and confiscatory; it trained people to cheat, hide their assets and bribe tax collectors.    In the former Ottoman lands today tax evasion is endemic.

The Ottoman government was routinely unable to keep its subjects safe.    The Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf were overrun by pirates,  while large areas of fertile land lay abandoned because it was too unsafe to farm them.   Bedouin,  Kurds and other tribal groups lived largely by raiding farmers and caravans.   Everyone was armed, even Christians villagers in some regions were armed although for a Christian to carry a weapon was against the law.   Survival depended on having a group of people who you could trust to defend you: a tribe.   It was unwise to trust anyone  outside the family or  tribe.  Many people in the old Ottoman lands still do not.  No where except in Israel has a former Ottoman colony  been able to produce the kind of mutual trust that enables nations to achieve democratic governments and fair courts; the kind of government that citizens of nation-states like Denmark and the United States take for granted.   That kind of government is based on our ability to trust strangers: bank officers, government officials, judges and, in general, everyone we deal with to apply the same set of rules to each of us.   In the old Ottoman lands shopkeepers have different prices for different customers, clerks in the Department of Motor Vehicles  decide whether or not to give an applicant a  valuable commercial driver’s license, and  school officials decide  whether or not to register a child depending on what family the applicant is from and whether some powerful person is willing to speak in his favor.

The Ottoman footprint can be seen in the enormous trust deficit that stretches from Bagdhad, to Algiers to Belgrade.   When the World Values Survey tries to measure trust, Turkey shows up as one of the least trusting places on earth.

The Ottoman Empire  still holds the power to ruin lives, after all these years.



Addendum – Life Satisfaction

There are 36 countries in the OECD.  Here’s how the former Ottoman countries rank in the Life Satisfaction Index

Israel – 8

Greece – 32

Turkey – 33

Hungary – 36


Pretty dismal.  The rest of the former Ottoman lands aren’t even in the OECD.

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