As the death toll from the deadly earthquake spanning Turkey, Syria and Kurdistan approaches 45,000, political recriminations continue to grow over economic mismanagement, corruption and authoritarian centralisation on behalf of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, all factors alleged to have contributed to the scale of the humanitarian disaster.
Kurdish and pro-Kurdish political bodies have long sounded the alarm over the Turkish government’s construction policies, failure to invest in earthquake-proofing and preparation, systematic diversion of funds away from Kurdish and other minority areas, and refusal to allow Kurdish and other humanitarian actors not controlled by the government to operate freely. Following the recent humanitarian disaster, which has affected a reported 18 million people and left at least 6 million people homeless, these accusations have taken on fresh urgency, with President Erdoğan using the catastrophe to force through more abuses of civil rights and the rule of law.
Nilüfer Koç is a leading representative of the Kurdish political movement in Europe, and a member of the executive congress for umbrella political platform the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK). Medya News spoke to Koç to ask what role Turkish government policy played in the crisis, and what a Kurdish-led political administration in Turkey might have done differently before, during and after the natural disaster to limit the humanitarian cost.
Even while the death toll continues to rise, questions are being asked over Turkish government mismanagement and corruption prior to the deadly earthquake
Given major earthquakes in 1999 and 2011, how and why has the Erdoğan government failed to prepare for this crisis?
Quite simply, Erdoğan could not prevent this disaster because, since 2017, Turkey’s model of governance has changed radically. In April 2017, Erdoğan changed Turkey’s ruling system to a presidential system. That means: All power to the president! He is not only the head of the state, but also head of the government, governing by decree. He has influence on the judiciary, as we have seen in the case of imprisoned HDP members. The Erdoğan regime is only focused on maintaining power, and to achieve this, civil society must remain silent. The Kurds do not obey him, hence all the war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kurdistan.
As usual with autocrats, appearances are very important. Under the name of modernisation and bringing Turkey to the level of the G7 countries, he has ruined the state budget without considering the needs of society. Time and again, he has spent vast amounts of money on road construction, airports, drones and other military industries. Now, as we can see, most of Turkey’s highways and buildings have been destroyed in the earthquake.
After the earthquake in 1999 the government passed new legislation in 2018, establishing a presidential bureau for Disaster and Emergency Management. This included many regulations on the construction of buildings, but this regulation remained on paper. Just as medieval kings immortalised themselves with the construction of huge churches and castles, so Erdoğan erects huge tower-blocks, highways and airports.
Earthquake funds put in place after previous, deadly earthquakes were reassigned to other projects, resulting in a lack of preparedness, Koç says
In the face of the major economic crisis in Turkey and the rapid devaluation of the Turkish lira against foreign currencies, the governing AKP-MHP coalition uses state facilities to ensure the flow of black money into Turkey. To achieve this, Erdoğan needs the complicity of large Turkish companies. The construction industry is therefore flourishing in Turkey. Since Erdoğan’s rule, the construction industry has become the leading industry in Turkey. The owners of the construction companies are chosen by Erdoğan. Since they have the favour of the president they can do whatever they want. These contractors use cheap materials, without oversight. Billions of Turkish lira have been given to Erdoğan’s favoured construction companies, while ecological urban planning is not on Erdoğan’s agenda.
Erdoğan is accused of of privatising construction and awarding contracts to ‘big five’ businessmen. Has this affected preparation for natural disasters?
Corruption, nepotism, criminal behavior, aggression and cronyism have all made Turkey unable to protect its citizens. By the ‘big five’, I guess you mean Cengiz Construction, Mapa Construction, Limak Construction, Kolin Construction and Kalyon Construction. It is not only the construction industry that has been privatised. Eighty-eight percent of privatisations in Turkey to date were carried out during the Erdoğan era. Just in last year, a total of $413 million worth of privatisation was carried out. It is said that the AKP government, which has sold off so many public assets, is the ‘leader of privatisation” in Turkey.
I am not necessarily on the side of the state, but privatisation of public wealth always means uncontrollable competition between capitalistic companies. This leads to economic Darwinianism, with the citizens as the powerless losers.
How would a HDP administration prepare for a disaster like this differently to the current government?
There are still thousands of people under the rubble. Their relatives are crying for help. The Turkish state is looking on passively, because for Erdoğan, a dead Kurd is a better Kurd. Those whom he could not eradicate via his military, police and security apparatus, he lets die as a result of a natural disaster. Hence the recent decision to declare a state of emergency. https://medyanews.net/medya-news-panel-spotlights-barriers-to-kurdish-earthquake-aid/ This earthquake has facilitated Erdoğan’s war against the Kurds. After all, the death toll is expected to triple, but for autocrats, people are just numbers.
Certainly, crisis management would have taken place under the HDP. The HDP has an ecological consciousness. At the time the HDP controlled municipalities in Kurdistan, for example, there were urban plans that also took natural crises into consideration. These municipalities tried to create a balance between urban and rural areas. They tried to create job opportunities in the countryside with co-operatives in the rural areas so that the cities would not become urban centers.
The HDP’s People’s and Women’s Councils also provided for local organising, with self-determination at the local level. In times of crisis, therefore, society would be able to help itself without depending on a central structure like the state. This is particularly important for the Kurds, since Kurdistan is a colony of the Turkish state, and the Kurds shouldn’t depend on the state. This was one of the reasons why Erdoğan wiped out all Kurdish municipalities and local structures and imprisoned all of their co-mayors and community activists. Local organisation is also an essential element of freedom through self-determination. But since Kurdistan is a colony of the Turkish state, Erdoğan has destroyed all these achievements.
The HDP stands for local autonomy for all ethnic and religious communities in Turkey. A new definition of the relationship between the state and its citizens is needed; the understanding that Turkey is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country must be put into practice, so that Turkey can develop into a democratic republic.
Kurdish-majority regions would have been better served by the devolved form of administration HDP sought to promote, Koç says
What immediate steps can be taken in the face of this crisis?
Even though thousands of activists of the HDP have been arrested and all active members live under constant threat, they are not afraid to travel to the crisis areas. The HDP does not call for help from the state, but from civil society, because it knows the Erdoğan administration.
Look at Rojava. There is no state there, and nobody asks for the state to come to help.
The example of Rojava, and the whole of North and East Syria, is a perfect example that societies without central state organisation can take care of themselves.
For the past 10 years, the local society has been able to survive and develop despite unstable political conditions, permanent military attacks by the Turkish state, and the lurking danger posed by ISIS and other jihadist groups.
My appeal to all who read this interview is to help the people of Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria in this time of need and donate to the Kurdish Red Crescent, as they have 30 years of experience in bringing humanitarian aid to those in need, despite efforts by dictators to oppose them.