Camel greeting

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Price of Progress - Turkey's Economic Miracle

Turkey’s economy is booming. Reputable sources (the World Bank, the IMF and the CIA) rank Turkey as the 15th or 16th largest in the world by GDP, with an annual growth rate of 6 to 8%, putting it up there with China and India. The Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’ ran an article recently on the Turkish ‘Economic Miracle’, citing as its chief symbol, the Istanbul Sapphire Tower, currently, at 261 metres, the tallest building in Europe.

In 1973, the Bosporus was spanned by an impressive suspension bridge. In 1988, a second was opened to keep pace with Istanbul’s growth. Last year, the go-ahead was given for a third bridge; a rail tube/tunnel is due to open in 2013, linking the Asian and European sides of the city – and plans are currently afoot for a road tunnel. There are 38 universities listed in Istanbul alone, and 74 modern shopping malls, with ten new ones scheduled to open in the next two years.

Last month, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced the grandest project yet – a proposed 50-kilometre canal linking the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, allowing much of the tanker and container ship traffic that currently passes through the centre of the city, to bypass the Bosporus Strait. PM Erdoğan has attracted a fair amount of flak locally for his ‘crazy and magnificent’ scheme, but, in fact, it looks like a modest proposal when measured against the Grand Canal of China, completed in 609 CE, and reputed to measure 1794 kilometres in length! Nevertheless, if it comes to fruition, the Istanbul canal will not be much inferior in scale to the Suez or Panama waterways.

This exponential growth is not confined to Istanbul alone. The former imperial capital is, of course, by far the country’s largest urban area, with an estimated population of over 13 million. However, there are at least eight other cities exceeding the one million mark. A month or so ago, I was in Konya for a conference. I had been there twelve years previously when it was a rather sleepy central Anatolian city best known for its Seljuk architecture and as a place of pilgrimage for those visiting the tomb of Mevlana Rumi. On my latest visit, the view from my hotel window was dominated by a 42-storey office tower rising from the opposite side of the street – this in Turkey’s seventh largest city.

Number 8 on the list is Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, which I also had the pleasure of visiting recently. Antalya, the ancient Greek city of Attalia, is one of the jewels on what is sometimes referred to as the Turkish Riviera. We EFL teachers were treated to three nights at the Vogue Avantgarde, a 5-star establishment near the village of Göynük. A sign at reception announced the price of a single room as $450, with a reduction to $660 if you could find someone to share a double. I doubt if any of the guests, us or the Russian tourists, were actually paying that much, but it was a pretty nice place, with multi-lingual staff, its own beach plus several swimming pools, entertainment on tap, and food that wouldn’t have disappointed the guests at Kate and William’s wedding.

Now I couldn’t begin to guess how many similar palaces of hospitality line Turkey’s 4300 km of Mediterranean and Aegean coastline – and no doubt it must still be possible to find a relatively unspoiled beach. Nevertheless, it’s becoming increasingly difficult, and this entry in a recent edition of ‘Lonely Planet Turkey’ for the resort of Ölüdeniz is representative: ‘Unfortunately, the paradise that many past travellers fondly recall has all but been ruined by the tightly packed belt of hotels behind the beach. [This] used to be one of the highlights of independent travel in Turkey but the development of identical air-conditioned hotels, loud bars and over-priced restaurants has hardly bolstered its appeal.’

Some friends of mine from Istanbul moved down south to Antalya a few years ago to build their dream house in a village somewhere out of town amidst the orange groves, with views of the Taurus mountains. Most of us have dreams, but not many of us get to fulfil them, so I hope Andy and Burcu (not their real names) will forgive my mentioning them here. They have a beautiful place to live, and we denizens of megalopolitan Istanbul can only envy them, and hope that the urban sprawl of Antalya will leave them in peace.

Nuclear power comes with a cost
Some 300 kilometres to the east of Antalya, citizens of another important Turkish city are bracing for the approach of a different aspect of modernity. Mersin is another urban centre approaching the magic 1 million population, Turkey’s largest port, and proud possessor of a 52-story tower, the nation’s tallest when it was built in 1987. A hundred kilometres down the road from Mersin is the town of Akkuyu, where Turkey’s first nuclear power plant for the generation of electricity will be built by the Russian state nuclear company Rosatom. Some folks may find it a little strange that Turkey, a notoriously seismically unstable land, is going ahead with a nuclear power station at a time when Japan is struggling to contain the fallout from its crippled plant at Fukushima, damaged by the tsunami in the aftermath of the March earthquake. Nevertheless, Akkuyu is only one of two sites which the Turkish government has earmarked for nuclear-powered electricity generation – the second being at Sinop on the Black Sea coast.

Some may also question Turkey’s wisdom in entrusting the building of these facilities to a Russian company. 1986 is fading from living memory, and becoming ancient history, but Turks have good cause to remember the Soviet-era nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in nearby Ukraine. Perhaps the effects of the radiation leakage are less immediate these days. However, the Russian government is currently engaged in building a huge concrete shield to cover the still threatening Chernobyl plant. An expert was asked how long the site would remain a danger. His answer? Around 20,000 years!

Well, Turkey needs energy, there’s no questioning that. The country’s GDP may exceed that of Saudi Arabia, but it does not possess the oil riches that bless (or curse) its neighbouring guardian of the holy cities of Islam. Turkey is rich in water, a resource arguably more beneficial in the long-term than oil. The GAP project, harnessing the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers includes the world’s fourth largest dam. However, the rising waters will soon cover the ancient city of Zeugma, location of some of the most magnificent mosaics of the ancient world. Highlighting the paradoxical truth that a blessing can also be a curse, Turkey’s treasury of historical riches adds hugely to the cost of every development project. The Istanbul Metro system is several years behind schedule, and no doubt considerably over budget because excavations constantly turn up remains of Greek and Roman temples, harbours, churches and cemeteries, which demand the attentions of armies of archeologists before construction can continue. A bridge which will carry the Metro trains over the Golden Horn has had to be redesigned several times to comply with UNESCO demands that it must not blight the domed and minaretted skyline of ancient Istanbul with incongruous modernity.

So that brings us back to nuclear power stations. Nobody wants to live next door to one, but what can you do? George Bush the Elder Is notorious for his refusal to accept the recommendations of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 with the immortal line: ‘The American way of life is non-negotiable.’ Back then, perhaps, the danger we face as a planet was not so clear, at least not to the GOP and its supporters. Now that China, with its 1.3 billion population, has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy, we are starting to get it. What happens when those rising Chinese middle classes are able to afford the ‘American way of life’ to which they probably aspire? And then there’s India, picked to succeed China as the most populous nation by 2025. I don’t know their figures, but I can extrapolate from what I know about Turkey, with its comparatively miniscule population of 75 million. Anyone who lives in Istanbul will tell you about the nightmare of traffic in the city  - yet the ratio of motor vehicles per capita in Turkey is less than 25%. What will happen when that figure approaches the Western norm of 70 to 80%? Then do the maths for India and China. Then give some thought to installing a solar water heater and a wind-powered generator on your rooftop.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Turkey's Foreign Policy - Alone on the World Stage

I read an interesting article in a recent issue of ‘Time’ magazine. It was entitled ‘How Syria and Libya got to be Turkey’s Headaches’. It interested me on two counts - first, because it seemed to contradict my own feelings about how events in the Arab world would affect Turkey; and second, because it was written by a Turk who seemed to be portraying her country in an unnecessarily pessimistic light in an international news magazine.

The writer, Pelin Turgut, began by announcing that, with the current crisis in Syria, the ‘Arab Spring [had] arrived on Turkey’s doorstep.’ What do you take from that? It seemed to me an unfortunate statement, pandering, as it does, to misinformed Western stereotypes of Turkey. Turks are not Arabs. Unlike the Arab nations experiencing popular unrest, Turkey has a democratically elected parliament and government. Further, there has been no sign of the kind of grass roots protests that have racked neighbouring states. Ms Turgut knows these things, yet she seemed to be implying something different.

In her article, Ms Turgut seems to have compiled a litany of innuendo aimed at discrediting the Turkish Government, with little solid foundation. She calls the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ‘Islamic-rooted’. What does that mean? Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and any government that does not at least pay lip service to that fact has no chance of success at the polls. For nine years I have heard ‘secular’ Turks claim that Mr Erdoğan’s party has a secret agenda to dismantle the secular state and introduce shariah law. If that is the case, they are showing remarkable stealth and patience.

Ms Turgut goes on to suggest, with weasel words, that the Turkish government has forsaken attempts to join the European Union, and instead, moved closer to Islamic Arab states. She highlights Mr Erdoğan’s criticism of Israel, and seems to imply that his government’s bridge-building with Syria and Libya were in some way, a bad thing. In fact, as I read it, world opinion has been shifting against Israel’s intransigence in the West Bank. It is Israel who is defying the United Nations, not the Turkish government. Similarly, it is the European Union that, rightly or wrongly, has been rejecting Turkey’s attempts to gain membership for fifty years – not the other way around. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the USA or Europe would have been happy to see Turkey and Syria go to war – yet Pelin Turgut seems to be implying some kind of hypocrisy in Turkey’s peaceful overtures under Mr Erdoğan’s leadership.

Similarly, she criticizes what she seems to see as inconsistency in Turkey’s attitude to neighbours experiencing the ‘Arab Spring.’ She notes that the Turkish PM ‘denounced’ Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, while remaining silent on Libya and Syria - ignoring the fact that the Turkish PM got it right with Egypt, and the jury is still out on Libya. Turks have to live in this part of the world. They don’t have the luxury of 2000 km of Europe and 5000 km of Atlantic Ocean buffering them against the realities of the Middle East, so it’s hardly surprising that they are less than enthusiastic about charging into neigbouring nations with guns blazing.

Ms Turgut enlists the support of a couple of ‘Turkey experts’, Soli Ozel, ‘international relations professor at Bilgi University and a political columnist’, and Henri Barkey who apparently wrote ‘an article for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’. With all due respect to these gentlemen, despite Turkey’s increasing interest in playing a peace-keeping and mediating role in the Middle East, it has no power to, and probably no desire to coerce neighbours to follow its wishes. The ‘neo-Ottoman’ label may have a catchy ring to Turkey’s detractors, but on examination, it is a largely meaningless tag. The Ottomans were a religion-centred, autocratic, monarchic empire. The modern Turkish republic is none of these things. However, should a lack of power to enforce its wishes prevent Turkey from attempting a moderating role in the region? Surely no one with a genuine interest in world peace would argue so.

As an example of failed policies, Pelin Turgut cites the presence of Turkish construction companies and workers in Libya. Admittedly, the Turkish government has had to evacuate large numbers of its citizens from that troubled nation – but one could argue that sending builders to construct projects is preferable to sending bombers and cruise missiles to destroy them. How many soldiers does the US have in Iraq and Afghanistan? And has their presence there been more successful than the Turkish presence in Libya? Henri Barkey is quoted as criticizing Turkey for having become ‘a status quo power’ in the region. That may be a little unfair, given Erdoğan’s reprimands of Israel and Egypt’s Mubarak, and the United States’s record arms sale to Saudi Arabia and its major financial contributions to Mubarak’s military machine. In the end, a nation’s foreign policy is its own affair – and who is to say that Turkey’s foreign policy is any more self-serving than that of the United States or France?

Soli Özel, the international relations expert from Bilgi University asserts, almost gleefully, that "Turkey now finds itself very alone on the world stage." It may be so, but who is to blame? Turkey will never be truly accepted by the Arab Islamic countries, because Turks are not Arabs, and they espouse secular democratic ideals. By its very existence, Turkey is a threat to its autocratic Arab neighbours. On the other hand, it will (most likely) never be fully accepted as one of the Western democracies because it is a Muslim country. Being alone on the world stage is nothing new for Turks. Nevertheless, United Sates foreign policy-makers at least, recognize Turkey’s value as a key player on the spot in the volatile but vital Middle East. And Turks themselves, in my opinion, should recognize their need to work together in their isolation.