Will Erdoğan pay a political price for the forest fires?

The basic question in this round is whether Erdoğan will pay a political price this time around at last. Or, as usual, will the burden of misgovernment be deflected and dispersed again among the deafening propaganda noise?

Punditry knocked their heads for the umpteenth time again in a huddle. The basic question in this round is whether Erdoğan will pay a political price this time around at last. Or, as usual, will the burden of misgovernment be deflected and dispersed again among the deafening propaganda noise? That dovetails with the central bedevilling “how to get rid of authoritarian leaders who hijack democracies –fledgling or not?” question.

Erdoğan’s scorecard in managing the devastating forest fires is abysmal. He kept the THK (Turkish Aviation Institution) firefighting aircraft on the ground for –allegedly- lack of funds to cover their maintenance that totaled a mere four million USD. Then, turned around and leased three of those same type of planes from Russia for the cost of 23 million USD and guess what? Two out of those three immediately broke down and stayed on the ground too.

Israel offered to help by sending aircraft. Ankara refused flat out. Then, few businessmen leased those planes. And then guess what? The members of the same cabinet applauded this generous and all the more so ingenuous enterprise.

In May 2015, while Fuat Oktay was still chief of Turkey's Disaster Management Agency (AFAD) he himself had signed the membership treaty enabling admission of AFAD into the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism. Oktay is today Erdoğan’s Vice President. Lo and behold, it took six full days for Ankara to activate that same EU solidarity mechanism immediately mobilising one Canadair plane from Croatia and two Canadairs from Spain as part of “rescEU”.

In the meantime the omnipresent presidential propaganda manager Fahrettin Altun busied himself to try and suppress civil society calls for help in social media by getting into utterly absurd and useless hashtag wars. Altun energetically propagated –with taxpayers' money- #StrongTürkiye (beware: God forbid, not “Turkey” but “Türkiye”). The so-called High Council for Radio and Television (RTÜK), which in fact is THE highest censorship authority, sent written official warnings to media outlets that “inappropriate” coverage of forest fires will be severely penalized. Prosecutors kept themselves busy by going after those –citizens or subjects?- who dared use social media to relay the global call for help.

Then Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who happens to hail from the fire-ravaged tourist destination Antalya, entered the scene. He placed numerous phone calls around the world and was happy to prove himself as taking the lead in getting global support. Erdoğan magnanimously thanked all those nations which sent help including Russia and Iran to Turkey. Almost within the same breath, he signed off a decree to assign the task of allocating natural sites for tourism purposes solely to the Tourism Ministry.

One can go on and on “ad infinitum”. Absurdity, ruthlessness and lack of accountability go hand in hand down here. There is indeed such a monumental even bottomless trove of governmental misconduct. Yet, all that talk is still of technical nature. To connect those shortcomings with the supreme leader remains the political heavy-lifting and is now the main task of the opposition.

It already started raining on parts of the fire-ravaged areas. Turkish people are known for having a short memory. The next big question around the corner is whether schools will really open in early September following the pandemic. Snap elections? Those may be around the corner as well. Therefore, the 1999 earthquake that then sealed the fate of the establishment occupies the minds of the punditry. Sezin Öney writes (translation is mine): “Perhaps, the pain of falling flat on your face (i.e. being left to your own devices by the government -AS) did not acquire such a collective, such a social repercussion since the 1999 earthquake.” Back to square one then as cited above: Will the opposition manage to get his act together to bring the buck back to Erdoğan’s door?

Not only the Mediterranean, but also far-flung places on earth like California and Australia burned and are burning as well. Climate Crisis is here with its melting glaciers, floods, fires, hailstorms and droughts. Nowhere else as in Anatolia one can walk among ruins of past civilizations and turn around to look at the present and rather pitiful situation. One can visit the magnificent Sagalassos and ponder at the poor state of present day Ağlasun next door. One can swim over the sunken ruins in Myndos and Kekova. There burnt to ground, here left out due to changing trade routes, there again ruined following an earthquake or a war all those ancient -mostly Hellenic- civilisations tell us a human story. At which point humanity loses its faith in the future? When do we come to the realisation that the next generation will fare worse than ours?

Burak Acerakis came up with a modest but realistic embryo of a plan of his own: “If Greece and Turkey had joint firefighting fleets:

-The island of Evia (“Eğriboz” in Turkish-AS) would be saved by the first day,

-At least five (fire-AS) locations would be under control within the first two days including Manavgat,

-Papillion Valley Rodos would be saved, the number of risk areas would drop,

-Six (fire-AS) locations, including Çökertme, would be extinguished completely.”

Yes, in these very same days, a Greek patrol boat dropped refugees caught in international waters to an inhibited islet right off the coast of Kaş on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, but never mind. One has to start at some point, somewhere, in my humble opinion. Why not now?

Climate crisis is global and way beyond the combined capacity of Greece and Turkey to tackle. But will it be too optimistic even to re-think the “RescEU”? In Turkish we say: “One calamity is better than a thousand advice.” If I will be allowed to get even more cheesier I would also remind you of the title of Obama’s book: “The Audacity of Hope.” Global war against the climate crisis has just begun. The Mediterranean appears to be one of the main fronts of that herculean effort.

We can bury our reciprocal hatchets once and for all, at last, thousands of years after the Trojan War. Greece and Turkey can show to the others, for example the US and China, the way forward. They should. As for Erdoğan’s political future, distant bells are chiming.

*To my Greek readers if I have any and foremost to my Greek friends, of which I have many: During the last years before the pandemic I had had the opportunity to visit Athens quite regularly. Just few weeks ago I was wondering how much I missed Greece and how much I had felt at home there too -while watching (why not, even contemplating) the lyrical shots of the great master Angelopoulos’ classic “Beekeper” and “The Eternity and A Day” movies from MUBI. Your city is my city, if I may. My heart is broken and my thoughts are with you. I am truly sorry for your loss.

September 13, 2021 The new cold war