When Your Favorite Vacation Destinations Are Run by Dictators

Where can one flee? To anti-liberal Hungary? Oligarchic Bulgaria? Nationalist Austria? Rapidly deteriorating Italy? More and more countries are succumbing to the powers of darkness

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A campaign poster for President Erdogan seen through the window of an Istanbul tram shortly before last June’s election reminds voters that “Turkey wants strong leaders.”
A campaign poster for President Erdogan seen through the window of an Istanbul tram shortly before last June’s election reminds voters that “Turkey wants strong leaders.”Credit: Emrah Gurel / AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

On a layover of a few hours in the Istanbul airport, I connected to the internet with my laptop. Earlier, during the flight, I’d been thinking about something that I wanted to check out on Wikipedia when we landed.

But the site wouldn’t load. I’d forgotten: One no longer has access to Wikipedia in Turkey. The president doesn’t allow it. Having no other choice, I took out my copy of the Daily Sabah, which I had been given on the plane. It’s a freebie, kind of a Turkish version of Israel Hayom, except that here Netanyahu is the one who’s trashed and Erdogan is the hero.

On the front page: kudos to the ruler, reports about the country’s excellent economic situation and nationalist commentators sniping at the battered opposition. The literary section has dredged up from oblivion religiously observant poets who were persecuted under the secular government during the Kemalist era.

Until a few years ago, most of the world’s press seemed to be publishing the same text in different languages – items praising reforms, economic growth and human rights. Now the situation has changed: The papers still resemble one another, but each of them is heaping accolades on some anxious autocratic ruler, and bad-mouthing the ruler of the neighboring country.

On the next leg of my trip to Thailand, I was given a copy of that country’s English-language The Nation. Thailand is a marvelous place: beaches, temples, curry. But people tend to forget that for the past few years the enchanted kingdom has been controlled by a military junta. Thailand is one of those countries where the populist leader – in this case, Thaksin Shinawatra – was overthrown in by the army before he could consolidate his centralist rule. Try to imagine a scenario in which the generals in Turkey were to succeed in toppling President Recip Tayyip Erdogan and sending him off into exile, and you get something that recalls the regime in Thailand. The country was saved from the talons of the despot, but it still finds itself needing to prevent him and his backers from reestablishing their power. Elections have been suspended, and freedom of expression is almost as severely restricted as in Turkey.

The Thai generals maintain a low profile, while playing up the role of the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose huge portrait is ubiquitous throughout the kingdom. He appears both sociable and determined in his colorful uniform, adorned with flowers like a god. But beware: The king of Thailand is particularly sensitive about his honor. The laws prohibiting displays of contempt of the monarchy are frighteningly draconic, and since the junta seized power, in 2014, the number of convictions for such crimes has spiraled by hundreds of percentage points. Last summer, a Thai citizen was sentenced to 70 years in prison for publishing a Facebook post that was deemed offensive to the royal house. (In the end, his term was reduced to just 35 years.) The king has a private prison in his palace, where he incarcerates subjects as he pleases, including Buddhist monks.

Just a few years ago, an almost uniform political style seemed to dominate regimes around the world. At the UN General Assembly, it was difficult to keep straight the names of the heads of state, because wherever you looked, the prime minister or the president wore a blue-gray suit, had a neat haircut and pursued the same tepid policy as the leader in the next country. These were the leader-CEOs of the liberal world order during the quarter-century after the fall of communism. But of late that picture has changed unrecognizably. Now, every leader is a world unto himself. They compete with one another in capriciousness and wickedness, which each personifies in his own distinct way.

The media in these countries enjoy relative freedom, as long as the subject of coverage is rival countries. They can be slammed with the best of clichés left over from the era of human rights. The Turkish papers meticulously cover Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, while in Thailand the press is outraged by the atrocities being perpetrated in neighboring Burma. The Russian news network RT is also apparently a reliable source of information – as long as it’s covering Turkey.

Junta journeys

Ahead of the Jewish holidays, a friend asked me to recommend a calm, pleasant place to travel to that would be suitable for a sensitive person with frayed nerves. I suggested a few countries that I’d visited in the past decade, but was unsettled when I realized that every one of them is now subject to the whims of some uninhibited leader. A trip abroad has now become a journey among semi-fascist regimes, military juntas and plain old dictatorships, at different levels of ascendancy or degeneracy. Of course, it’s always possible to shut your eyes and ears and entrench yourself in a gated resort. But even there it’s hard to escape the eyes of the leader peering down from portraits – or at least from the air that’s polluted by xenophobia and nationalism.

Take Warsaw, for example. Until five years ago, the Central European city was considered the “new Berlin” – a cosmopolitan metropolis with a hipster vibe and a flourishing culinary scene. But even before Poland managed to realize its latent potential, the authoritarian Law and Justice party came to power. In short order, the country morphed into a kind of Russia-on-the-Vistula. The restaurant scene continues to flourish (chefs have never stood out as subversive elements), but the political and cultural atmosphere is no longer pleasant. Poland, too, is now a hot spot of nationalist rallies, laws prohibiting the demeaning of the nation and hatred of foreigners.

Where can one flee? To anti-liberal Hungary? Oligarchic Bulgaria? Nationalist Austria? Rapidly deteriorating Italy? More and more countries are succumbing to the powers of darkness. Naturally, not all jingoist rulers are as colorful as Duterte or Trump. There are also figures who have won less media coverage, such as Czech President Milos Zeman or the recently elected prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison.

In many cases, tourism has become a gloomy safari between authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. In China, for example, advanced technologies of population supervision are evident everywhere: Two-hundred-million cameras monitor everyone, 24/7; giant screens on the street display the faces of criminals who jaywalk. In India, there are yogi priests who lead violent nationalist militias in support of the state.

Until recently, the Israeli leisure class used to escape the country in the summer months, to bask in the coolness and comfort of “decently run countries.” But that logic has been undermined in our time. True, nothing has improved in Israel, but the world has definitely started going to the dogs. In Europe it’s not really chilly in the summer anymore, nor really decent.

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