Ankara's huge new palace is fit for a sultan

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. Turkey’s president has a lot to worry about. For starters, the fight against Islamist extremists next door in the Syrian border town of Kobane. But it was also moving day this week for Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan. He just took up residence in a new, lavish palace. Just how lavish? I’ll let reporter Jacob Resneck in Istanbul answer that one.


Jacob Resneck: It’s really enormous. It’s over a thousand rooms, over two million square feet and cost over $350 million to build. It’s been called neo-Ottoman, but I don’t really know what architectural style I would call it. It’s quite modernist looking. You can’t get very close because there’s high walls and fences all around it that keep pretty far back. Unlike the previous presidential palace, it’s on the outskirts of Ankara and not really in the mix of things where people are usually able to walk.


Werman: ErdoÄŸan’s called it “The White Palace.” Is he trying to approximate the White House? What’s the message he’s sending?


Resneck: Well, the name is interesting. Actually in Turkish it’s Ak Saray, which is “White Palace,” and the “Ak” is also the first two initials of the AK Party, which is the justice and development party. So actually, a lot of people are the comparison that the Ak Saray is the AK Party, which is Mr. ErdoÄŸan’s political party. So the message there is that this party is here to stay as the ruling political force in the new Turkey.


Werman: Wow. How do Turks feel about that? This is like an architectural declaration of “I’m here forever.”


Resneck: It’s actually been very, very controversial. Turkey is a very polarized society politically, and so people either love ErdoÄŸan or they pretty much hate him, and it’s pretty split. Legally, this is very controversial because actually they built the Ak Saray, the White Palace over protected forest land on the outskirts of Ankara. It was actually a model farm built by Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic, and there was all kinds of court battles. Opposition people and environmentalists were able to get injunctions against the construction, but the government just ignored the court. ErdoÄŸan famously remarked “If the court has the power to stop us, they’ll stop us.” But apparently they don’t. The contractors continue to build the thing.


Werman: When I saw the photographs of the finished construction, suddenly those protests in the Spring of 2013 at Gezi Park seem to make a lot of sense. We heard that those were about raising a city park, but how much have the Turks also been angered by this ostentatious display of presidential residence?


Resneck: The interesting thing about this is it’s definitely built personally for one man, ErdoÄŸan, and not for one position, because when this was first in the planning stages a few years ago, it was going to be for the prime minister's residency. That was when ErdoÄŸan was planning on changing the constitution to have another term as prime minister. But Mr. ErdoÄŸan has been unsuccessful in amending the constitution, so instead he changed over to take the office of presidency, which is supposed to be a ceremonial position with very little constitutional power. But he hasn't acted that way. He’s wielding it like the head of the government. So, it’s very interesting because this was supposed to be built for the prime minister, but once Mr. ErdoÄŸan was no longer in the prime ministry, they just decided to change it -- “Actually it will be for the presidency.” So, it’s been a real bait-and-switch thing here. This is definitely Mr. ErdoÄŸan’s new domicile.


Werman: Did he pay for it with taxpayer money?


Resneck: Yeah. It’s been paid for by the treasury, and that’s another thing that makes it very, very expensive. The opposition parties have put official questions to the parliament, asking why it was so expensive, and there’s been all kinds of allegations that the work was funneled to contractors who are very close to the government and actually that they overbuilt. They made things very expensive. It’s kind of reminiscent of the 1980’s, when we heard about the $250 toilet seat for defense contracts in the United States. So, people got really rich off of this project and there’s a lot of anger here because, of course, that’s public money being spent.


Werman: Jacob Resneck in Istanbul, thanks so much for your time.


Resneck: Thank you.