Ozal lifts restrictions on Turkey's economy, but who will benefit?
Istanbul — Turks are suddenly seeing them in the local press: big advertisements for Volvos and Porsches, Bosch dishwashers and Sony video recorders. Travel agencies are announcing package tours to all parts of the world. Local banks have started to allow Turkish citizens to open dollar accounts with an 11 percent interest rate.
These are some of the novelties just introduced by Prime Minister Turgut Ozal to the economic and daily life of this nation which for decades has lived under economic austerity.
Possession of foreign currency used to be punishable by heavy penalties. Travel abroad was restricted to once every two years, with a minimal allocation of foreign money. Importing commodities already manufactured in Turkey (from refrigerators to television sets) or considered luxurious (such as Mercedes cars) was banned.
Only Turks who had worked in West Germany or other foreign countries were allowed to bring in such goods, which they then sold at high profit to wealthy people here.
The liberalization of foreign trade and the lifting of foreign currency restrictions are part of Ozal's economic program. Many observers have described the changes as ''revolutionary.'' Others have used terms ranging from ''courageous'' to ''shocking.'' Most Turks are excited but confused over it.
Ozal's reforms, based on a free-market economy, have two major objectives: to bring down the 40 percent inflation to at least 25 percent this year, and to boost exports in the coming years and thus narrow the foreign payments deficit.
To curb inflation, the government has raised the interest rates on bank deposits to up to 49 percent. The government expects this will encourage savings , and divert money from investments in speculative fields such as gold or land assets. In fact, there has been a rush to the banks for such deposits.
The new administration hopes its new measures will strengthen the middle class, which includes farmers, workers, civil servants, and pensioners.
Ozal's critics, however, claim that Turkey's middle class has been impoverished by rising inflation in recent years and therefore has hardly any money to save. They also say that the freedom to import luxury items and travel abroad interests only the wealthier people, not the middle class.
This criticism has some justification. A pensioner who barely makes ends meet with his monthly $90 check explained cynically: ''The only time I go to the bank is to draw my check. How can I save money and put it in a high-interest rate account?''
A young secretary who makes $120 a month noted: ''Ads about traveling to beautiful places abroad are a dream for me, just like a Hollywood film.''
Ozal and his aides insist, however, that the anti-inflationary measures will in the long run benefit the middle class. They appeal repeatedly to middle-class people to sell their gold or other nonprofitable assets and invest the money in banks or stocks.
The other main element in Ozal's economic package is the liberalization of foreign trade, with incentives for exports and fewer restrictions on imports. The government hopes that the policy will make local industry and agriculture more competitive and more open to the outside world.
Dairy producers and local manufacturers, particularly of household and electronic products, textiles, cars, and other consumer goods, are very concerned about this new policy. Some industrialists and economists say that Turkish manufacturers will go bankrupt if foreign goods invade the Turkish market. They are also concerned that Turkey's limited hard currency reserves - now below $2 billion - will be exhausted within a few months.
Administration officials say that the high import duties, which will go in part to a special fund for social housing projects, will protect the local industries and brake lavish spending of foreign currency. Imported refrigerators and TV sets will cost twice as much as those manufactured locally. The demand for luxurious automobiles and French cognac and Swiss cheese will therefore be limited.
Ozal believes that the revitalization of the economy along these lines will create new jobs and reduce the 20 percent unemployment. He also hopes his new policy will promote foreign capital investments in such areas as industry, agriculture, and tourism. Foreign investors are now allowed to purchase property and transfer profits and capital abroad in hard currency.
The new program, wrote a commentator in the daily Milliyet, will ''revolutionize not only Turkey's economic system, but also the people's way of life.''
Time will tell in which way.