INTERVIEW: Fikret Adaman on the Turkish economy and the environment under Erdoğan

INTERVIEW: Fikret Adaman on the Turkish economy and the environment under Erdoğan

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Fikret Adaman on the Turkish economy and the environment under Erdoğan

Speaking earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to push ahead with his “dream” of building a second Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. If it goes ahead, Kanal Istanbul will be the latest eye-catching “megaproject” reshaping Turkey’s landscape, following a series of bridges, tunnels, airports and energy plants.

The economic value of these projects is debatable and the ecological impact is always negative. But they play a useful political role for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which says they help to elevate Turkey to its rightful place among great nations. “Neoliberal Turkey and its Discontents: Economic Policy and the Environment under Erdoğan,” edited by Fikret Adaman, Bengi Akbulut and Murat Arsel, examines the nexus of environmental effects and politics in the country’s current development model.

Adaman, a professor of economics at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the book (reviewed in HDN here) and environmental policy in today’s Turkey.


This past summer saw a number of freakish weather events in Turkey, leading to flash floods, wild swings in temperature and unprecedented hail storms. Do you think these weather events had any broader significance, or was it just bad luck?

This has been on the agenda for a while. My colleagues have long been warning us that the impact of climate change would be felt very seriously across the entire country. So what we have seen in Istanbul in recent months is just a small portion of a worsening situation. I hope those people who claim that the fear of climate change is overly pumped will be thinking twice now.

Certainly the climate issue in particular and environmental issues in general are very complex. The current state of science in most cases isn't able to very accurately predict the future. But ultimately you need to take appropriate measures at least as a precaution. It seems that the entire world, including Turkey, has failed to take these measures and unfortunately we're facing a difficult reality today.


People often talk about a predicted earthquake that Istanbul is at particular risk of. Turkey is situated on many fault-lines and has seen a lot of earthquakes in its history. The government has been pushing urban transformation projects across Turkey, where it basically rebuilds entire neighborhoods using the justification of earthquake preparedness. What do you make of these projects, and the prospect of an earthquake hitting Istanbul?

I'm glad you've raised this issue because normally the earthquake question is not considered an environmental issue. But it should be. Certainly the government’s policy to rebuild many parts of the city is something to be discussed seriously. From a technical point of view, if it's economically not feasible to fortify a building then you need to build a new one. But what we should be investigating is the fact that this comes with a political economy side as well: There are losers and winners. So we need to carefully investigate whether the entire issue has been dealt with in a just manner. This aspect has not been dealt with openly and that's why we have opposition from discontented people who feel they've been treated unfairly through this process.


Much of the book is focused on megaprojects. Huge infrastructure projects, funded for profit by private companies, have reshaped the Turkish landscape in recent years. Last year the third bridge over the Bosphorus opened, while the third airport is currently under construction in the middle of a forest to the north of Istanbul, energy projects across the country, dams, etc. Talk about why these megaprojects are so significant in Turkey.

First of all they have huge social and ecological impacts. They are megaprojects in the sense that their impact is likely to be truly "mega." The other aspect is that they are huge projects in terms of the financial burden. You need to have a huge budget to build airports, bridges, and now the Istanbul canal project that is back on the table.

Another aspect is that the AKP has been able to solidify its hegemony over society through these projects. Construction and megaprojects enable the government to say: "Look, we're on the road of modernization and growth."

A third dimension is the fact that there hasn't been any serious public debate about whether we should actually have these projects. They have been implemented in a very top-down manner. By and large the citizens of Istanbul were not consulted about these projects. And we should remember that when Mr. Erdoğan was the mayor of Istanbul in the early 1990s he was very much against use of the northern forested area of Istanbul. But now we have the third bridge and the new airport is also under construction there, destroying the northern green area of the city.


These megaprojects exude power and prestige for the government. But they also provide a great chance to dole out lucrative business opportunities and win support in that way.

We can ask this question in any country where governments engage in big projects, sub-contracting these projects to third parties and private companies. You can always question whether there is a kind of crony capitalism in the sense that firms close to the government are selected in a kind of patron-client relationship. In Turkey this issue has been on the table for years. It is not something that emerged only with the AKP. This has been a relevant question throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. I myself have written a lot on the fact that Turkey’s system can be characterized as a system in which patron-client networks have always been very strong. From the very early days of the republic, the government has always opted for certain specific firms or people. It's actually part of the society and in every aspect of life. It's a structural problem.


What’s the latest with Kanal Istanbul? This is the so-called “crazy project" to build a second Bosphorus Strait through Istanbul, effectively turning much of the city into an island. There have been all kinds of apocalyptic warnings from biologists and environmental experts about the dangers of such a project. What’s the latest?

The World Wildlife Fund [WFF] back in 2015 held a mini-conference on the Kanal Istanbul project where most participants raised their concerns. On that day we realized that we knew nothing at all about the specifics of the project. Two years later we're still in total darkness. We don't know what kind of canal this will be, or what its effects on the eco-system will be, despite our continued efforts to get more details. Either the project is just an idea and they don't know any details, or they have the details but for whatever reason they don't want to make them public. This is very concerning and it should concern everyone living in and around Istanbul. Perhaps it should worry ecologists all over the world. But our knowledge level is still basically zero.


What about the state guarantees provided for many of the megaprojects? This is where the government promises to pay the difference to companies that undertake these projects if they don’t make a minimum profit. There are reports, for example, that the third Bosphorus Bridge is falling well short of the guaranteed minimum profit agreed before it was built, which means that the state could end up paying billions of liras for these supposedly "free" projects.

There is also the Osman Gazi Bridge spanning the Gulf of İzmit. They have made mistaken calculations about the demand for these new bridges. A conspiracy theory could be that they knew the calculations beforehand and they knew they would have to subsidize these private firms for months, if not years. The government has benefited a lot from these projects, so the political gains from them may simply outweigh the economic loss. If it is not deliberate then it simply means that they've made a big mistake in terms of estimating the volume of traffic, for example, and taxpayers will have to shoulder the costs.


The book references the creation of the Ministry of Urban Development and Environment in 2011. This was a very important step because it made it possible to bypass obstacles to large urban projects due to negative environmental impacts. Talk about the creation of this ministry and why it was so important and what it changed.

After around 2010 the AKP government felt the need to pump the economy, as well as political life, through the construction and energy sectors. In the energy sector it was eager to build hydroelectric plants, wind turbines, etc. mainly to deal with the current account deficit problem. It was clear from the speeches of Erdogan and other key government figures that they wanted to have a big push there. Also there were these huge urban development projects, which basically mean destroying parts of the city and then rebuilding them. At that junction I think the government felt the need to bypass any kind of bureaucratic difficulties and they wanted to act in a very speedy manner. The main reason why they created this ministry was that sort of practical concern.


One of the pieces you jointly wrote in the book examines the link between the AKP’s development model and political divides. Environmental concerns inevitably clash with the government’s narrative of national glory, which is closely connected to infrastructure development and megaprojects. As a result, environmental campaigners are routinely accused of trying to undermining the state and even being servants of Turkey’s internal and external enemies. Could you just talk a bit about this aspect?

This growth fetishism of growing at any cost has been on the table since the early days of the republic. It has been shared by almost all political parties. The AKP has realized this growth fetishism in a much more effective manner. The government builds its hegemony by providing growth figures: Lately, we have achieved a growth rate of 5.2 percent and in the next quarter it might be even higher. This will provide a kind of success story. Meanwhile, by and large the opposition runs its opposition by again discussing this growth rate, saying that if the growth rate hasn't been high enough then the government hasn't been successful. There is a kind of shared understanding that if Turkey grows at 6 or 7 percent per year this will solve all social, political and cultural problems. But we know that it does not. It hasn't solved, for example, the unemployment issue, or the education issue, or the poverty issue, or the income distribution issue. So perhaps we need to start thinking again about the meaning of high growth rates. We should start critically analyzing this growth fetishism, which is not unique to Turkey.


But what about voters who are happy with the way things are going? There are many people who feel they have benefited from growth. Many voters through the 2000s opted for the AKP and Erdoğan because they saw them as being responsible for rising living standards. The extension of health insurance and health services to the broader masses, for example, is one of the positive practical effects that voters associate with the AKP.

Certainly increased levels of consumption bring about satisfaction and satisfaction translates into political support. But on the other hand there's a kind of collective action problem here that needs to be carefully considered. It's nice for more people to get a car, but if suddenly thousands of people get cars then all traffic will come to a complete halt. Indeed, that is the current situation in Istanbul. It takes ages to get from one side of the city to the other, despite the fact that there have been many public transport projects. But if you're talking about the kind of benefits that middle class people have enjoyed over the past 10 years or so, these changes are ones that came with huge negative spillovers. Istanbul and other big cities are becoming almost unbearable in terms of noise pollution, transport problems and all kinds of other ecological issues. Why have we lost most green areas in the city? We have a big new airport and a new third bridge, but what about the ecological aspects of this development? We have been myopic in that sense.


All this dovetails neatly with the class aspect of the AKP’s "culture war." The environment is generally seen as an upper middle-class issue, distant from the concerns of “ordinary” voters. Those lower class voters, who tend to be sympathetic to the AKP, are far keener on these megaprojects.

You're right to say that mainly that it's mainly middle and upper-middle class people who are more concerned about environmental issues. But there are many occasions when everyone will be affected. In the case of floods after heavy rain, for example, everyone gets affected, not only the upper-middle classes. But people from lower socio-economic status have generally not been so sensitive about ecological issues. There has been a strong opposition claiming that the AKP government's development model comes with a heavy ecological cost but the majority of the country doesn't pay much attention and is not too concerned with the side-effects. It seems that the majority that supports the AKP regime is not sensitive enough about these side-effects; perhaps they don't see the link between these effects and this kind of developmentalism.


What about the recent resignations of AKP-linked mayors in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities? The resignation of Kadir Topbaş, for example, reportedly came as a result of infighting in the AKP and he is said to have been resisting five lucrative construction projects that Istanbul council members wanted to pass. So what about the role that local municipalities play in the system of construction and graft?

The fact is that municipalities grant most of the construction permits. This explains more or less everything. Of course there's an appetite for construction in big cities, but the power to grant or not grant permission lies with municipalities. So if you want to understand the changes in cities you need to look at the way municipalities act. In some cases we're talking about mayors in line with the Ankara government, but in other cases we're talking about mayors from opposition parties. Again this is a structural problem in Turkey. The main source of revenue for municipalities is often construction permits.

We opened our discussion by referring to the possibility of Istanbul being hit by a big earthquake. Readers will remember the deadly Yalova earthquake in 1999. One of the main reasons why there were so many casualties were the decisions taken by municipalities to grant construction permits for areas that weren't suitable for such construction. You can see the same picture everywhere in the country. We cannot isolate the AKP era from these deeper structural problems