Erdoğan’s Earthquake: Corruption Created the Catastrophe
By Matt Broomfield
Following natural disasters, wars, and other catastrophes, it has become almost commonplace for Kurdish journalists and activists to condemn the way their homeland is written out of the headlines. Consecutive deadly earthquakes in southeast Turkey (Northern Kurdistan) and north Syria (Rojava) have brought a similar outcry. As the death toll climbed above 50,000, the Kurds’ absence from the media narrative was more than just a question of ‘representation’ in the blurred ticker at the foot of the 24-hour news coverage.
Rather, Kurdish political representatives have long braved repression and imprisonment to articulate broader criticisms of Turkish government policy – both cronyism and discriminatory distribution of funds at home, and deeply-entrenched occupation marked by rampant corruption across the Syrian border. Nilüfer Koç of the Kurdistan National Congress has argued that Turkish President Erdoğan is “only focused on maintaining power” and so “could not prevent the disaster of the current earthquake.” With thousands of Kurds among the dead, she and other Kurdish political representatives hope the present crisis will bring a reckoning for the Erdoğan regime ahead of crucial 2023 elections.
It is therefore no coincidence that Erdoğan compared the present catastrophe – one of the century’s deadliest – to a 1933 quake, rather than a much more recent disaster. Ironically, it was a botched government response to a 1999 earthquake, which claimed 17,000 lives, that helped the incumbent Erdoğan sweep to power two years later. But seismologists have long warned the lessons of 1999 were being willfully ignored.
An ‘earthquake tax’ meant to cover reparations was used by the government to fund motorways and other projects, with former Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek accusing the government of misusing 47 billion lira ($30 billion at the 2011 exchange rate) raised for earthquake reparations. In Istanbul, epicenter of the 1999 catastrophe, the Turkish government allocated less than $25,000 to the earthquake budget in 2020 and $96,000 the following year, despite warnings from seismologists that they were sleepwalking into a fresh disaster. A deadly 2011 earthquake in the country’s Kurdish southeast left tens of thousands of locals living under canvas for years, prompting the Kurdish-led opposition to point out structural discrimination in funding and relief efforts. The warning signs were there for all to see.
This is a result not just of fiscal mismanagement, but cynical profiteering. Erdoğan also came to power on the back of a promise to adhere to an International Monetary Fund program of aggressive privatization in response to the country’s financial travails at the turn of the millennium. While his relations with the IMF have soured, Erdoğan continues to transfer vast sums of public money into the pockets of a coterie of companies close to his regime. Simply criticizing these companies may soon incur a 3-year jail sentence for ‘undermining corporate credibility’.
The ‘Big Five’ companies have been awarded more public-private partnership projects in the 1990-2019 period than any other companies worldwide, according to the World Bank, with Kolin, Cegniz, Limak, Kalyon and MNG alone winning more than half of all government contracts. These construction heavyweights are propped up, the opposition allege, by illegally awarded tenders amounting to far more than the projects are actually worth, enabling them to prosper in the midst of runaway inflation and a national financial catastrophe. Meanwhile, megaprojects like Istanbul’s colossal airport have turned into white elephants, with that flagship project seeing an 83% decline in passenger traffic.
“Privatization of public wealth always means the uncontrollable competition war of the capitalistic companies”, says Koç, with her adding:
“Just last year, a total of $413 million worth of privatisation was carried out. It was not for nothing that people in the construction industry were treated like slaves. Safety measures to protect them were not taken, so many workers died as a result of accidents in the construction industry. Both labour conditions and cheap building materials have made housing blocks and highways unsafe.”
In 2011, an earthquake close to the 2023 epicenter killed 41 people, leading to calls for reform of the corrupt construction industry, which prioritized profits over safe and stable building-work. Aggressive privatization has not only led to shoddy building-work. The privatization of the power grid also led to electrical shutdowns which caused deaths from a blizzard in Isparta, a deadly runway crash at the aforementioned airport, and a deadly train crash in Corlu in 2018. More broadly, as Koç notes, “unplanned urbanization has led to the metropolisation of Turkey’s cities, which results in major damages in highly populated areas.”
Neglecting Occupied Afrin
If Turkey is at the mercy of cowboy construction, Turkish-occupied north Syria is the ‘Wild West’. Successive invasions and brutal occupations have killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, leaving Turkey jointly responsible with the Syrian government for forcing millions of displaced locals to live under canvas in overcrowded camps.
Cheleng Omar, a Kurdish economist expelled from Afrin and his post at the region’s university when Turkey invaded and ethnically cleansed the region in 2018, has noted how:
“Turkey has not put many services in place in the region – only those building projects which serve to further the agenda of their occupation and demographic change. Settlements… are being funded by Islamist organisations, alongside private sector companies which conduct this work on the ground.”
Omar identifies Turkish NGOs such as IHH, the government’s AFAD agency, and state religious institution Diyanet as carrying out construction projects with the backing of Turkish capital and assistance of local partner companies. These are often linked to the patchwork of Turkish proxy militias united under the banner of the ‘Syrian National Army’, accused of a wide swathe of war crimes and recruiting former ISIS members by the UN, US Treasury Department, and other observers.
While profits are there for the taking, as far as the Turkish government is concerned, construction in occupied Afrin serves a political agenda. New religious institutions promulgate Islamist ideology, Omar says, while roads are only repaired to facilitate the illegal expropriation of the region’s olive harvest. Settlements are hastily thrown up to mask the scars of ethnic cleansing, housing either Turkmen or Arab militiamen and their families, or the refugees Erdoğan hopes to forcibly repatriate in vast numbers in order to bolster his domestic electoral chances.
“The fear is that there will be no reconstruction efforts on behalf of the genuine local residents and those Kurds still remaining in the area,” Omar says. Rather, he expects the occupying power and its proxies to seize the opportunity to erect settlements to entrench ongoing ethnic change, and particularly to facilitate the establishment of a ‘Turkmen belt’ populated with Turkish-speaking militiamen loyal to Ankara. “Following the earthquake, these groups are playing no active role whatsoever in relief efforts on the ground”, Omar adds. “None of the Islamist civil organisations have taken a single step, nor the [Turkish-controlled] native councils, nor the armed groups. Their bulldozers and excavators stand idle.”
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava) is attempting to send unprecedented humanitarian aid to Afrin, though Turkish-backed militias are reportedly blocking the delivery. The AANES has re-emphasized its willingness to open borders to IDPs from across Syria. As Serwan Bery of Rojava’s Kurdish Red Crescent recalled: “We are the biggest NGO in northern Syria, and so it would be better if we had access to Afrin and other regions, to support people living under the SNA.”
As these efforts suggest, it is the decentralized, federal autonomy as modelled by AANES which can best allow all Syrians to rebuild their communities despite the challenges posed by political, ethnic, and religious cleavages. Continued Turkish occupation will only see more settlements hastily thrown up to further Ankara’s political agenda. The crisis also illustrates the reality that in the breach Ankara will always direct funds to the Turkish heartlands rather than the Kurdish south, let alone the cross-border regions effectively operated as private fiefdoms by militia commanders.
Criminalizing Kurdish Aid
In Turkey, too, the country’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is urging both open access for Kurdish charities and solidarity organizations alongside their Turkish state-controlled counterparts, and wider reform of the political culture which led to the catastrophe. “At the time of HDP [governance in] municipalities in Kurdistan, there were urban plans that also took natural crises into consideration,” Koç says. “These municipalities also tried to create a balance between urban and rural areas.”
But Ankara has aggressively seized power in most municipalities where HDP had democratically-elected mayors and deputies, deposing 59 of 65 mayors and jailing 11 of the party’s MPs. Now, steps are underway to ban the party outright. Kurdish aid and solidarity initiatives are being denied access to the worst-affected Kurdish heartlands, while journalists are facing jail for reporting on the catastrophe. A newly-introduced ‘state of emergency’ bringing curfews, travel bans, and other restrictions on civil rights raises the specter of a second colossal power grab like that which followed the 2016 coup, and will certainly provide Erdoğan with more opportunities to force through the criminalization of the country’s third-largest party.
Right now, Kurdish parties and NGOs are focused on urgent and immediate humanitarian intervention, and removing the obstacles Ankara is placing in the way of these efforts. HDP recommends the establishment of a cross-party crisis relief center incorporating diverse political and humanitarian actors, including HD, TTB, KESK, DISK and Egitim-Sen, alongside international institutions. HDP has further called for withdrawing any state of emergency and re-establishing the rule of law; and long-term monitoring of reconstruction assistance to prevent misuse of aid funds. But as the dust subsides and the death-toll reaches its final count – now over 57,000, the time may soon come for a deeper reckoning of Erdoğan’s kleptocratic greed, profiteering, and corruption which led the region to its present end.
You can make earthquake relief donations to the Kurdish Red Crescent → here