A basket stuffed with rotten apples

The corruption affair is still shaking Turkey. It’s a week ago now that the sons of three Ministers and some businessmen, among whom the filthy rich real estate magnate Ali Agaoglu, were taken into custody, suspected of corruption. That was followed by a wave of policemen getting fired: the government sees the affair as a political game and aneffort to damage the power of the government and the position of Turkey in the world.

Problematic of course, for the AKP. The party won its first elections in 2002, partly because of the promise it would deal with the wid-spread corruption in Turkey. This message was even in the name of the party, which is officially not AKP but AK Party, with AK meaning ‘pure’, ‘clean’.

In that year, 2002, Turkey was at 64th place on the corruption list of Transparency International, together with Thailand: a worse score than China but just a bit better than Senegal. During the next general elections, in 2007, Turkey was still at 64th place, but was doing slightly better during the elections of 2011: place 61. In 2013 Turkey made it to53rd place.

A huge traffic fine

These are not hard statistics about how much corruption there really is in a country, the ranking is based on ‘perception’ and is thus about how much corruption people experience. In that respect, it’s going in the right direction in Turkey. But there are different kinds of corruption. It can very well be that the people experience less corruption because it occurs less on a level that bothers or helps people. You don’t have to slip some money to a civil servant anymore to get a passport quickly, and the days that you can pay a cop some money so he will tear up a huge traffic fine are also over. But what if the corruption has removed itself to the level at which a normal citizen doesn’t notice it? To the highest posts in the government, to the richest businessmen?

I think that’s exactly what’s going on. Turkey has turned into a ‘constructocracy’ over the last decade: politics is dominated by the construction sector. With amazing speed everywhere in the country TOKI complexes have appeared: groups of concrete apartment blocks, often on the outskirts of cities, for middle class incomes. TOKI is a government project and there are unimaginable amounts of money at stake. And TOKI is only a small part of the building fever of the AKP government.

Not a soul

Two whole new cities will be built on the coast north of Istanbul, a sort of second Bosporus will be dug in the western part of the city, the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus has started and there will be a third airport, and the metro tunnel under the Bosporus was opened recently. Add to that the dozens, no hundreds of shopping malls appearing everywhere in the country, including where I live, in Diyarbakir – not a soul comes to any of the shops and only the fast food restaurants in the malls seem to do good business, but who cares, the leaders of the constructocracy got their money.

And the sons of which ministers are now suspects in the corruption scandal? Those of the Ministers of Environment and Urbanisation, of Interior Affairs and of Economy.

It is exaclty this overload of construction works that triggered the protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities in the spring and summer of this year: the construction bosses have, directed by the AKP, taken over the cities, and people are fed up with it. The motto of a big demonstration a few days ago in Istanbul made that clear again. It was: ‘The city is ours!’ But also this was, until now, not really linked to corruption, which doesn’t directly affect people’s daily lives like the everlasting and immense construction sites, the disappearance of parks and cultural heritage and the total lack of power that the people have over the development of their cities.

‘I am AKP’

So, this scandal must be a blow to the AKP? The party that said it would fight corruption has now totally fallen out of grace with its supporter base? Well, no, I don’t think so, actually. The local elections of 30 March 2014 will make things more clear, but for now it seems many AKP voters still support their party.

A few days ago I read an article about reactions to the scandal of AKP voters in the daily Radikal. The owner of a small shop said that not the whole government can be blamed for what’s happening: ‘There are rotten apples in every basket’. But what also drew my attention is that he didn’t say that he voted for the AKP, but ‘I am AKP’. For him the AKP is not just a party to vote for, but an identity.

And I think that counts for many AKP voters. They are often members of a group that was close to invisible before the AKP came to power: devout Muslims who were ignored by the Turkish establishment and who had no political or economic power. The AKP changed that. The economic policies of the party brought these people and the Anatolian cities they live in (Kayseri, Gaziantep, Konya, Denizli, etc) prosperity, they got more religious freedom and the old establishment (among whom the staunchly anti-religious army) were sidelined. These people identify themselves with the party, and see the leaders of it as sincere Muslims who live by Islamic morals and only want the best for the country.

Sixth ship

It’s quite something, I reckon, to then admit that there are not just a few rotten apples in the AKPbasket, but that the beautiful shiny healthy apples are actually the exception. That it’s not even worth the trouble to take the untouched apples out, because the many rotten ones in the basket no doubt give the good ones stains too. To admit that the religiousness of the AKP is just keeping up appearances, and that under the surface it’s all only about money and power.

Why would it be that Erdogan doesn’t clean up his government by sacking the tainted ministers and state that he will continue with a clean team? Why does he fire the cops that are involved in this investigation, and why does he propose a law that arranges that policemen from now on need permission from their superior for any corruption investigation, even if that superior is the subject of it? Is it possible the current scandal is only the tip of the iceberg? And would the sixth (!) ship the son of Erdogan recently bought shatter on that iceberg?

Homeless and disregarded

And imagine that the AKP voter does open his eyes, then where can he go, politically? There is no alternative. The biggest opposition party, CHP, represents the old elite that looks down on AKP voters, and is not even for CHP voters a real choice because they lack an alternative. The smaller ultra nationalist and also religious MHP is an option for some AKP voters, but they are too nationalistic for others, and they are also too small to break the power of the AKP. The pro-Kurdish BDP is still regarded by many Turks as close to terrorism, and the party is also not attractive for AKP voters because it doesn’t care much about religion.

And see how this corruption in Turkey starts touching the daily lives of normal, average Turks again. Another group in society that, when it has the guts to open its eyes, becomes politically homeless, and doesn’t get represented but is on the contrary deeply disregarded.


How did the lipstick affair make it into the news? Did Turkish Airlines issue a press release in which it stated that as of now red lipstick is forbidden for stewardesses? No, they reacted only after the discussion started. Probably it was the group of stewardesses that protested the ban by putting pics of themselves with red lips online. Fact is, lipstick is on the political agenda. It is actually – can you believe it – world news that Turkey’s national carrier doesn’t want its cabin crew to use red lipstick anymore.

According to journalism standards, an airline that decides which make-up its staff should and should not use is not news. Except if it orders its stewardesses to wear black lipstick and nail polish, or if it demands its male cabin crew use lipstick too, because that is exceptional.

Make-up classes

It is perfectly normal for an airline to decide how its staff looks. You know that when you become a stewardess. You won’t even get hired if you don’t fit the average beauty standards. Before you can fly, you get make-up classes, to make sure you appear at work the way the company likes it. You get handed the uniform, and you don’t get a say in whether you like it or not. Because in the air (and the same goes for ground staff), you are not supposed to be a personality in your own right, but a  representative  of the company.

So why is the lipstick affair news? Because it can be framed as an ‘Islamization in Turkey’ story. Imagine a Turkey correspondent mailing his paper or agency abroad, writing: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick!’ Will the editor somewhere in New York, Paris or Hong Kong get excited? No, he will shrug his shoulders. But what if you mail: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick, and some say it’s a sign of Turkey’s Islamization!’ Bingo.

The question is: does it have anything to do with Islamization? There is no proof whatsoever of that. Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yollari, THY) apparently wants its personnel to look natural, and bright colour lipstick or nail polish doesn’t suit that image. I bet there are hundreds of airlines in the world that have similar rules. Nobody ever wrote a news story about that.

Basic economic sense

Just like some time ago, when Turkish Airlines announced it would no longer serve alcohol on some domestic flights and on some international flights. You can imagine how that was immediately framed. If you made any effort to get a little bit of extra information, you would have found out that alcohol was taken off the menu on domestic flights on which alcohol was never ordered. I would say its basic economic sense to not take up in the air what you don’t need anyway. On flights to destinations where people do want to drink – from Istanbul to coastal cities like Antalya, Bordum and Izmir – alcohol is still being served. Custom made service, right?

The international flights? Turkish Airlines is expanding its number of destinations rapidly, also in the Arabic world. At some destinations, you don’t get landing rights if you serve alcohol. So what do you do if you want to earn money? You take alcohol off the menu. Which pilgrim on the way to Medina would order wine anyway? Besides, worldwide there are a whole lot of airlines that don’t serve alcohol on short flights. Ever read throbbing news articles about those?

Islamization scaremongers

But the uniform, remember the uniform! Yes, I remember the uniform. Not too long ago, a picture of ‘the new THY uniform’ leaked to the Turkish press. Long skirts to the ankles,  caftan-like overcoats. See, Islamization! Soon it turned out that it was just one of the many new uniform designs that were considered by THY, and that they hadn’t yet made up their mind about which one to pick. They still haven’t, as far as I know. But the Islamization scaremongers don’t care, they only see the story they want to see.

The Islamization scaremongers say this lipstick policy is one of the steps towards making women invisible and curtailing women’s rights. You wait and see, before you know it, red lipstick will be banned on the street too! And then high heels! And before you know it, the burka is obligatory! They forget that this is a legitimate company regulation, and that there is no law involved, and that the governing party AKP has nothing to do with this.

And, for that matter, the AKP has been in power now for ten years and has not issued one law that restricts the way people are dressed in any way. Yes, they gave the headscarf more freedom. Which leads to higher levels of education for women who wear the scarf. I think that’s good for women’s emancipation, and it complies with the freedom of religion. And it has absolutely nothing to do with lipstick at Turkish Airlines.

Variety of customers

The lipstick policy of THY has to do with the rapid growth of the company. They no longer only fly to Berlin and Amsterdam, but also to Addis Ababa, Jeddah, Beijing, Bahrein, Capetown, Sapporo, Sao Paulo, Ndjamena and Islamabad – you name any corner in the world and THY goes there. Their company profile has to fit the expectations of an ever-extending variety of customers. So you keep it as plain and natural as possible. You try to ban exceptions to the rules, and turn back freedoms that individual employees have started to permit themselves. Logical, because the bigger your company gets, the more important it is that all employees disseminate your company profile properly, so your brand can be easily recognized.

The people framing this into internal Turkish politics make the domestic profile and the domestic market of Turkish Airlines way too important. Turkish Airlines is a global player. It’s not Islamization that you see, it’s plain capitalism. You know, the same ideology that got the company into trouble with workers unions.

And the stewardesses who complained about the red lipstick ban by putting pictures of themselves online with red lipstick? Really, if you wanted to pursue a career in which you have the right to express your individuality with your outfit, you should have chosen another profession.

Sneijder to Galatasaray ‘transfer of the century’

ISTANBUL – It’s the ‘transfer of the century’, according to the big Turkish sports paper Fanatik. Competitor FotoMac brings the news too and adds that ‘it’s not a joke but reality’ and that Sneijder is ‘very excited’.


Many normal newspapers also report the transfer of the Dutch star player to the Istanbul club Galatasaray on their front pages. The biggest Turkish TVchannel NTV blew a passing remark by Sneijder that he ‘loves big games and wants to play against Besiktas’ out of proportion: ‘Sneijders’ first statement is for Besiktas!’ Besiktas, together with Galatasaray and Fenerbahce at the top of Turkish soccer, is second in the competition, Galatasaray is in the leading position.

When the news broke on Sunday, Sneijder immediately became the most debated subject among Turkish twitter users, with the ‘hashtag’ WelcomeToGalatasarayWesleySnijder. And on Monday morning ‘Sneijder’ is still the most popular subject on the micro blogging site.

Sweet messages

Besides the news about Sneijder himself, his spouse Yolanthe also makes it into the papers. She wrote in Turkish on twitter: ‘Thanks for your sweet messages!’ which turned out to be enough for a news article, of course with picture.

Sports paper Fanatik will make it a Sneijder week. The front page promises a Wesley Sneijder poster on Tuesday, and on Wednesday and Thursday a picture album in two takes. They start by showing Sneijders’ Galatasaray shirt, which they claim ‘is ready!’.

Good friend

Galatasaray is doing well in the Turkish competition: they lead the list with 33 points from 18 games. Sneijder, captain of the Dutch national team, undoubtedly has been in touch about his transfer to Galatasaray with his good friend Dirk Kuijt, deputy captain, who signed a contract with Fenerbahce last year. That club is doing less well, even though Kuijt often scores: they are currently in fourth place.

Wesley Sneijder will come to Istanbul on Monday afternoon to sign his contract. At 15.30, writes FotoMac. There will no doubt be a huge group of fans waiting to welcome him at the airport.

Oh electricity

After a few months in Diyarbakir, I’m flying back to Istanbul later today. I’m not sure for how long, but I hope to be back in my new base camp Diyarbakir very soon. What gives me no choice but to leave now is the totally deplorable electricity situation here, which makes it impossible to write the first chapter of my book. Luckily though, the situation has been rather educational too.

How bad is it? Very bad. The electricity is off several times a day, up to fifteen times, for shorter (2 minutes) or longer (hours) periods of time. I depend on electricity not only for light (and it gets dark at 4pm) and my internet connection, but also for my shower and for heating. I remember a few weeks ago I spent half the day in bed just to stay warm – the electricity was off from when I woke up till about 3pm for two or three consecutive days.

A follower on twitter offered me this drawing of hers to publish in this post. I totally love it, both the drawing and the offer! Copyright: Storiesbyster, find her on twitter as @Yekbuns. Click to enlarge.

I tried to deal with it, for example by working at night because then the situation is usually better, but to no avail. It exhausted me, made me sleep till noon or later and at 4 it turns dark again – very depressing. Besides, the outages are so unpredictable that you can never plan to do anything at all, from having a few straight hours of work to something as simple as taking a shower. More than once I found myself suddenly under a cold shower in the total dark when I had of course just shampooed my hair. Stay warm by the heater? Think again. And don’t laugh!

“What causes these very frequent power cuts?” I asked the public relations office at the local branch of the state electricity company this week, when I went there to pay the bill. They asked me where I live. I named the neighbourhood, and their answer was ready: ‘There are road constructions going on around there as you know, and this causes some trouble now and then. The good news is: this all ends today, so starting tomorrow everything is fine again!’

I didn’t buy that, and of course it wasn’t true. Road constructions don’t cause ten electricity cuts in three hours. I asked: ‘Does it have to do with people stealing energy?’ They said they really couldn’t go into that.

I know it has a lot to do with the people in my neighbourhood stealing electricity. Recently an inspection was made and I heard from my next-door neighbour that a lot of people were fined for illegal electricity use. She said it can cost up to 2000tl (some €900) and if you can’t pay, you can spend a few days in jail instead. Tampering with the electricity meter is usually done by professional electricians, who ask 300 to 400tl to do the job.

My neighbourhood is ‘medium’

I’m not a power station expert so I don’t know exactly how it works, but the distribution stations just cannot cope with all this pilfering and it leads to outages all the time. That this must be part of the problem is also shown by the fact that poorer neighbourhoods, where more stealing is done, have outages more often. Two friends who live in Diclekent, a richer part of the city, hardly ever experience this problem. My neighbourhood is ‘medium’, and in Baglar, the poorest district, the power situation is the poorest too. I can imagine it’s the distribution stations themselves too that are part of the problem: old ones in Baglar that are not fit to serve the growing population, brand new and modern ones in much newer Diclekent.

Turks often get hot headed about the stealing of energy in the South-east of Turkey. Because all this energy has to be paid for and the richer parts of the country end up taking care of the bills. Of course, that’s not nice, and stealing is wrong. And now I’m going to do a ‘but’.

But, face it, people are poor here. The unemployment rate is around 60%, a local AKP politician recently told me. And if you have a job, the payment is often not enough to support a family, especially not in the more expensive winter months. Please also take a look at the background of people in Diyarbakir. How did this city get so big in the first place? Migration from the villages in the region. In the nineteen nineties, when the army burned down hundreds of villages and took people’s homes and lives away, confiscated their lands and animals and forced them to go to the city. In the villages they didn’t have the burden of paying for housing, they were often self-sufficient, life was cheap. By comparison Diyarbakir is incredibly expensive. Of course, part of these migrants did manage to build a life here, but many struggle to stay alive. Stealing energy is a way to make ends meet.

The little money I spend

But one of my friends in Diclekent told me it’s not only poor people who steal energy: ‘Some people can pay the bill, but have their meters tampered with anyway. They are angry at the state and want to get back at it or just be a nuisance to it. I don’t blame them, even though stealing is against Islam. What the state has done to these people is against Islam too, isn’t it?’

Still, the stealing is, as far as I can see, not the only cause. Part of the problem is that Turkey can’t produce enough energy for the whole country. For bigger cities which contribute more to Turkey’s economy, electricity cuts are considered more harmful, so electricity is directed there, instead of to Diyarbakir. Which causes a viscious circle of course: the power outages hamper Diyarbakir’s economic growth. As if the ongoing Kurdish issue isn’t doing enough of that already.*)

I too am now taking the little money I spend to Istanbul. That saddens me – I would have loved to spend it here. Luckily it’s only temporary: in the spring, when electricity usage goes down again, the situation will improve. I’ll be back in less than two months. Just in time for Newroz, the celebration of returning light!

*) Want to read a blog post about the negotiations between the PKK and the state, the topic everybody talks about in Turkey? You can, on my site Kurdish Matters, in English, Kurdish and Turkish!

Slowly but surely

In Turkey, the need for reform is large – as is the country’s capacity to implement these reforms. So, how effectively does governance in Turkey serve the needs of present and future generations, asks Fréderike Geerdink.

Let’s start with the good news. Starting with the bad news would mean stating that Turkey is performing rather badly when comparing OECD countries in terms of governance and quality of democracy. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’sSustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2011 rank Turkey at the very bottom of 31 nations in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). This might give the impression that the country is making no progress whatsoever – and this isn’t true.

Turkey is making good progress in some economical fields and in social affairs when it comes to creating a more equitable pension system, for example. These issues contribute to the state of democratization and sustainability of a country – and that is what the SGI is about.

The SGI is a cross-national survey of governance in the OECD that identifies reform needs and highlights forward-looking practices. Whereas the Status Index examines states’ reform needs in terms of the quality of democracy and performance in policy fields, the Management Index focuses on governance capacities in terms of steering capability and accountability. The survey was done for the first time in 2009; this article is based on the 2011 report. The next edition will be available in 2014.

31 developed, industrialized nations, committed to human rights, democratic pluralism and with an open-market economy were selected. The overall winner in the Status Index to date is Sweden, followed by Norway. The overall looser, however, is Turkey mainly due to some deficiencies in terms of the quality of democracy..

Fiscal Targets

Let’s talk about the economy. Turkey hasn’t been hugely affected by the global economic crisis. The government was optimistic about its own economy, based on for example having a healthy banking system and following prudent fiscal and monetary policies over the past few years. Nevertheless, Turkey’s economy didn’t do well in the first half of 2009 and the government decided to take measures to deal with the effects of the global crisis on the economy. A medium-term program was announced in the same year, outlining fiscal targets, proposing an exit strategy from the crisis and providing forecasts for major macroeconomic variables. The purpose is to achieve a sustainable growth rate in the aftermath of the crisis and to raise society’s welfare. The program runs till the end of 2012.

Moreover, policies regarding the budget composition led to a raise in the budget share dedicated to social security spending. That turned out to be a serious step in the direction of more social equality as well as sustainability. For the first time in the history of the republic military expenditures were cut in favor of spending on health and education.

Since 2007, Turkey’s budget deficit has grown: from 1.6 per cent of GDP to 5.5 per cent of GDP in 2009. In this field Turkey is doing better than other countries examined in the SGI such as Ireland and Italy. Turkey is also in better shape than Portugal and Spain, and the country has managed the financial crisis without help from the International Monetary Fund.

Thus, regarding the question as to whether budgetary policy is fiscally sustainable Turkey scores 6.5 points out of 10: better than Germany and Austria, but slightly worse than Canada, Denmark and Australia.

Turkey is Aging Fast

Turkey’s pension policy is also making progress. It scores 6 points out of 10, leaving a whole list of countries behind it, for example Greece, Portugal, Italy, Mexico, France and Belgium. But it’s still doing a bit worse than Poland, Hungary, Austria and South Korea.

With the Social Security and General Health Insurance Law, which went into force in October 2008, the pension and health system was radically modified. The new law embraces all social groups, including those not formally employed, and assures universal access to health services on equal terms. Those under the age of 18 years are covered by the health insurance scheme without having to pay premiums.

The pension system was changed with the new law as well. And there was dire need for this: Turkey’s population may be young, but it is aging fast: In 2001, 4 million people received pension benefits, in 2010 that number grew to 7.25 million. Groups that were not entitled to any pension security before do now get a pay-out, although the payments are far from assuring a livelihood. Further reforms are needed, if only to close the financial gap in the system: the revenues by far don’t meet the expenses.

Media Freedom

In many fields where Turkey is not doing well, however, good policies on paper don’t always lead to good practice. This is true, for example, when examining media freedom and pluralism.

For example, the Turkish law restricts media owners’ shareholders rights, but Turkey’s biggest media owners have substantial investments in other sectors, including energy and construction, which undermines media independence. The government appoints the general director of the public broadcast institution which makes it possible for the government to exercise tutelage over the administration of the public media.

Media companies are split into “proponents” and “opponents” of the government. It is argued that the government has facilitated the establishment of “proponent” media organizations by providing easy credit and also by indirectly threatening “opponent” media owners by opening tax-related procedures against them.

As of February 2008, there were 24 business groups in the national print and broadcast media; two of them control the majority of the sector which leads to the dominance of certain ideas and opinions. In short, the SGI state that the current media structure has nothing to do with the principles of the Council of Europe on promoting media pluralism.

Turkey does leave some other countries behind, though, when discussing the question if the media are independent and express a diversity of opinion and if government information is accessible: Here the SGI awards Turkey 6 points(the same as Greece, France and Austria), with South Korea scoring only 4.7 points and Slovakia 5 points out of 10. Better than Turkey? Among others Canada, Mexico and Spain.

Graveyard of Political Parties

Another interesting question that SGI discusses is if the Turkish state protects political liberties. A striking description of Turkey here is that the country is the graveyard of political parties. It was so in the past, and it is today. The Constitutional Court has banned 25 parties since it was established in 1961. Outlawed parties are usually accused of pursuing Kurdish nationalist or Islamist politics. In 2008, the court stopped just short of outlawing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Furthermore, Turkey still uses a 10 per cent election threshold for parliamentary representation. This represents the most significant legal obstacle to fair political representation. Smaller groups are not represented in the parliament, and also in other ways they are often not taken seriously. That becomes clear when examining the anti-discrimination policies of Turkey.

Article 10 of the Turkish constitution states that “all individuals are equal without any discrimination before the law, irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion and sect, or any such considerations.” Besides that, however, there are no laws to fight discrimination, affecting mostly ethnic and religious minorities, disabled persons, persons with non-mainstream sexual orientations, women and elderly people.

How deeply discrimination against, for example, gays and lesbians is rooted in society became apparent when the Court of Cassation ruled against the closure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transgender “Lambda Istanbul Solidarity Association”. And it added a statement saying that the association should not “encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual behavior with the aim of spreading such sexual orientations.”

Good Outlook

However, let’s end on an encouraging note: Firstly, when examining how effectively the Turkish government develops strategic policy solutions and fosters dialogue in the process, Turkey scores rather well: SGI ranks it on place 19 of 31 nations in the OECD – ahead of Belgium, France and South Korea, for example.

Secondly, comparing the SGI 2009 and 2011, Turkey made improvements in all fields in the survey except security policy. Also regarding the quality of democracy Turkey’s score rose slightly. Yet several minor improvements in areas such as economy and employment, social affairs and environmental and education policies have been achieved, particularly with regard to improving the sustainability of public budgets and creating a more equitable pension system. Turkey is making progress, albeit slowly.

You can find this article on the site of SGI News here.

Dutch PM Rutte con-gra-tu-lates Erdogan

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was in Turkey last week with a business mission. We, Dutch journalists in Turkey, were invited to have a chat with him, and with the brand new Minister of Foreign Trade (the new government was installed recently, but Rutte lead the previous government as well). Rutte also had a meeting with PM Erdogan, and of course we wanted to know more about it. A colleague of mine brought up human rights. Of course, Rutte said, he brought that up. But to be honest, I am still flabbergasted by the way he did it.

Of course, Rutte said, I told the Turkish Prime Minister that we are concerned about human rights. But, he said with a happy serious face: ‘I also congratulated the Turkish Prime Minister on the fact that Turkey will allow Kurdish as an official language in court rooms.’ I brought up press freedom, but no, that wasn’t discussed. ‘But it’s a very important issue, there are many journalists in jail’, I tried again. True, Rutte said, but of course, you can’t raise every subject.

Gestures and an intonation

So, time was limited, I understand that. But then, of all the human rights subjects he could have brought up, he chose to congratulate Erdogan on a step he is taking in the Kurdish issue that hasn’t even been taken yet. Let that sink in for a minute.

While there have been at least 700 Kurdish prisoners (mostly political prisoners) on an indefinite hunger strike for almost two months now demanding basic human rights, while Erdogan doesn’t even acknowledge there is a hunger strike, while the government again focuses mainly on a military ‘solution’ to the Kurdish issue, while children of this country die (both soldiers and PKK fighters), while the arrests in the KCK case are going on, while there are dozens of journalists in prison, the Dutch PM decides to con-gra-tu-late Erdogan on a policy change that the Justice Minister mentioned but that hasn’t even been brought before parliament yet.

I can still picture Rutte’s face when he told us about the congrats. Raising his eyebrows, and using gestures and an intonation that suggested: let’s not forget that also good steps are being taken in the handling of the Kurdish issue. But he can say human rights were brought up, so he did his duty. I bet Erdogan laughed his ass off after Rutte left. Oh these Dutchmen, anything for trade!

A vaguely promised breadcrumb

I don’t know if Rutte is really this much out of touch with the realities of the human rights situation in Turkey in general and with the Kurdish issue in particular. Of course, it would be good if Kurdish were allowed in court rooms, but does he realize that this is how Erdogan fools the Turkish electorate? The reality is that such steps are like breadcrumbs to a hungry child that is entitled to have a full meal, but the government makes it seem as if a full meal was given and the child is still nagging. And, let’s not forget: the bill to allow Kurdish in court rooms (one of the demands of the people on hunger strike) hasn’t even been sent to parliament yet. It’s not a given, but a vaguely promised breadcrumb.

When I travel in the southeast of Turkey and I tell people I am from the Netherlands, I always get the question why the European Union isn’t raising its voice louder on the situation of the Kurds. I usually say (among other things) that the economic situation in Europe makes the continent more concerned about itself than about others and about human rights.

It would be great if Rutte just acknowledged that. If he just said: ‘Sorry, the Netherlands is in a bad economic situation, this is a trade mission, Turkey has economic potential for our companies, that’s why I’m here. Human rights are just not our priority now.’ Because that’s how it is. Bringing up human rights this way, actually congratulating Erdogan on how he handles the Kurdish issue and that way misusing the Kurdish issue for business and night sleep purposes, is even worse than not bringing it up at all.

Agriculture sector also profits from trade mission

ISTANBUL – Conducting trade with Turkey often also involves politics. And that counts even more for agricultural trade, as became apparent during the trade mission to Turkey of the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte this week. For the agricultural businessmen who were travelling with the mission, import taxes are still a problem to overcome.

It is busy at the Dutch consulate in Istanbul. Prime Minister Rutte and the new Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Aid, Lilianne Ploumen, are visiting, and along with them some sixty Dutch business men and women. Besides business representatives from the branches of medical technology, traffic safety and clean technology, agricultural companies also played an important role in the mission. One of the participants is a huge veal meat producer, the Van Drie Group.

During the meeting at the consulate several business deals are signed, closely observed by PM Rutte and Minister Ploumen. During those ceremonies Henny Swinkels, Director Corporate Affairs of Van Drie Group, has time for an interview. He is not signing any contracts on this trip, nor did he intend to. He is there purely to establish contact and to lobby for a more free meat trade between Turkey and the Netherlands. Swinkels: ‘I often join such missions, because I see it as an important investment in the future of Van Drie Group.’

Protect own production

Swinkels would love to conquer the Turkish market with his veal meat, but for now the circumstances don’t allow it. Swinkels: ‘The import tax on veal meat is 100%. That’s clear, isn’t it? But we would love to export to Turkey, a country where veal meat is considered a delicacy that is served on special occasions. There are 75 million people in this country, 75 million meat eaters; of course that’s an interesting market.’

Veal meat in an early stage

How big the demand in Turkey is for veal meat of high quality, he experienced when he ordered a veal schnitzel during one of the dinners this week. The quality was nothing special to write home about.  Swinkels: ‘It would be great if this 100% tax could be abolished, or at least lowered. We talked about that during a meeting with Deputy MP Babacan. He said he is proud that a company like ours wants to enter the Turkish market, but that he also has to protect Turkey’s own production. Understandable, but on the other hand: Turkey doesn’t produce enough so they eventually will have to get the meat elsewhere to meet the demand.’

That’s clearly a political matter, in which the company cannot directly get involved. That’s why, says Swinkels, it is so important that during this trade mission the government and the businesses cooperate. ‘Of course, the government doesn’t do business, but it does have the job of facilitating trade as well as possible. And that’s exactly what’s being done during this trip. In the meantime, the businesses can do their networking.’

Despite the obstacles on several points, agricultural trade between the Netherlands and Turkey is growing. According to figures from the Dutch Agriculture Ministry, in 2011 the Netherlands exported meat and meat by-products worth €8.415.000 to Turkey, up from €914.000 in 2009. In other fields of agriculture too there is growth: dairy exports rose in the same period from €8.879.000 to €1.4766.000.  Total exports in agriculture rose between 2009 and 2011 from €258.161.000 to 375.369.000. Imports from Turkey shouldn’t be disregarded either: they grew in the same period from €285.059.000 to €325.654.000, mainly in the trade in fruits, nuts and sugar.

Trade and aid

During the press conference Minister of Foreign Trade Lilianne Ploumen pointed out that there are also possibilities for Dutch companies in the field of high technology agriculture. ‘There is work being done to start great cooperative ventures that can make production go up’, she said. Asked for concrete results, Ploumen said it’s not the first aim of such a mission to sign as many business deals as possible: ‘As a Minister of Foreign Trade I have to be abroad more than I am in the Netherlands, and represent the Netherlands as well as possible for Dutch companies. A mission like this is part of that. Besides which, the new approach of the Ministry will be: combine aid and trade. Yes, even when it comes to Turkey. Turkey exports hazelnuts to the Netherlands, but there is still a lot of child labour in that industry. We want to halt that in cooperation with the Turkish government and the international union, the ILO.’

Whether the import taxes will be abolished or not, it’s too early to say. But Henny Swinkels of Van Drie Group is optimistic, and after a bit of pressure he dares to predict that he can start conquering the Turkish market in 2013. Swinkels: ‘No promises have been made, but I sense it in every meeting we have had. The demand is enormous, the Turkish government can’t deny that much longer. Besides, they are looking for foreign investors.’

Who knows, during the next trade mission he might be the one signing a contract and getting overwhelming applause from those present in Istanbul.

These women don’t choose… between Istanbul and Amsterdam!

Move to Istanbul? Or stay in Amsterdam after all? Aygül, Cigdem, Mine and Ebru decided not to choose, but live their lives in both cities!

(These are not the pictures used in ELLE, these were provided by the interviewed women themselves.)

She remembers exactly how it was twenty five, thirty years ago. Her parents would buy plane tickets to Turkey months in advance. And on the day of travel, the whole family went with them from the small eastern-Dutch town of Westerveld to Schiphol airport, to wave them goodbye.

Aygül Sonkaya (32) sometimes thinks about it whenever she arrives at or leaves from Schiphol again. ‘Of course I plan my trips in advance as well, but not months in advance, and it often happens that I buy a ticket online in the morning and fly the same day.’

Aygül lives in Amsterdam, but also in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul. Every three, four weeks she travels between the two cities. Choose between the two? She would never consider that. Aygül: ‘I have both identities in me and I want to feel, to experience them both. That is only possible if I don’t restrict myself to either Amsterdam or Istanbul.’

Aygül Sonkaya

Her own company makes it possible: she wanted her own advertising agency, and decided that Istanbul was a better location for it than Amsterdam. Aygül: ‘In the Netherlands, the advertising market is full and the economy is very slow. In Turkey the economy keeps on growing and there is much more development going on in the advertising business. But it’s a small world and it’s not easy to find a place in it. My business partner and I had to find a way to compete, and we do that by offering European quality for a good price. In practice that means that we do all the production, like making video footage, in Istanbul, because the production costs are low. The post-production is done in Amsterdam. Clients love it, rushing off to the Netherlands for montage and final touches. And me too!’

Every time she comes to Amsterdam, she has a feeling of relief, she says. ‘In Amsterdam I feel free. As a woman you don’t have to be constantly aware of your attitude and behaviour, like in Istanbul. The Netherlands has no class society, everybody is equal and I can’t live without that feeling.’ But it would be boring to only live in the Netherlands, she thinks: ‘Istanbul gives out so much energy. I need that too.’

Aygül is far from being the only young Turkish-Dutch woman who refuses to choose between Istanbul and Amsterdam. Who found a place to live in both cities, and who planned their work just right so it can just continue wherever they are, and who pack their suitcases again every few weeks to fly either east or west. There are no statistics, but if you ask around, you find one example after another. About migration itself of course there are statistics: in 2010 more people than ever moved from the Netherlands to Turkey: 2607 to be precise. 1569 of them were born in Turkey, the rest were born in the Netherlands and are either fully Dutch or have one or two Turkish parents.

‘Choosing would feel like a hindrance’

Cigdem Senel (33) is a good example too. The interview with her was to take place in Istanbul, but suddenly a text message came: ‘Sorry, I’m flying to Amsterdam today, can we do the interview when I get back?’ We decide to do the interview by phone so as not to miss the deadline. She gives her Dutch mobile number and a few days later she elaborates about her life in two cities.

Cigdem was brought up in a cosmopolitan environment. She was born in Amsterdam, lived in the North-Turkish province of Ordu from age five to sixteen, returned to the Netherlands, enrolled in an international school and built a colourful social life. ‘My father’, she says, ‘was an international furniture removalist. When we lived in turkey, we often went to Holland. And we travelled through the whole of Europe when we were on holidays.’

Cigdem Senel

She studied in Amsterdam and England, worked as a project coordinator for the Amsterdam municipality and was often in Istanbul, even more so after she found love there some five years ago. Coincidentally she came in touch with an American firm selling biological food supplements and energy drinks that wanted to open a branch in Turkey, starting from their office in Amsterdam. The perfect combination and Cigdem took the opportunity immediately: ‘I spend most of my time in Istanbul, but go to Amsterdam often, mainly for meetings and training. Of course, the travelling is tiring sometimes, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. If I had to choose one of the cities, it would feel like a hindrance.’

Cigdem likes the Netherlands because it’s quiet. ‘Amsterdam is a big village, I feel safe and sound there. ButI can’t be there too long: Holland is so structured and predictable. In Amsterdam, you don’t have to make an effort to exist. In Istanbul you do, nothing is certain there, it’s so dynamic and gives out so much energy. That is great and I couldn’t live without it. In Amsterdam I enjoy the canals, the small streets, I love to cycle, and Holland is so green.’

She explains the interaction: her life suits her personality, and at the same time her personality is shaped by the life she leads. ‘I don’t really plan my life, I only know I don’t want to be in one place. I want to be open to whatever comes my way, I want both rest and energy, and that’s what I have now.’

The urge to live in Istanbul

The differences between Amsterdam and Istanbul and between the Netherlands and Turkey are big. Istanbul has some 16 million inhabitants, Amsterdam less than 1 million. The average age of Turkey’s population is 28, in the Netherlands just under forty. The Dutch economy is very slow, the Turkish economy grew the last couple of years by at least five percent per year. For many Dutch people with Turkish roots, these differences give them just the last push to dare to move to Turkey.

Besides that, both cities are only three hours flying time from each other, the price of tickets keeps going down, and the cost of living in Istanbul compares favourably to that in Amsterdam. In short: no need to choose any longer. Life as a city hopper has become easy, now when the number of self-employed people is increasing.

Mine Önsöz

That’s all great for Mine Önsöz (30); she can’t even choose what to drink when she’s on a night out. ‘AndI don’t let go of things easily’, she adds. She has been living in both Amsterdam and Istanbul since 2008. When she is in Istanbul for a longer period of time, like five months, then she just has to fly to Amsterdam once. And the other way around it’s the same: because of her work she stays in Amsterdam now for a few months, but at least once a month she flies to Turkey.

She feels at home in both cities, but if she’s honest: just a little bit more in Amsterdam. Because of the family and friends she has there. But the urge to try to live in Istanbul was just irresistible years ago. She had her own business as an event organizer, had a job in Istanbul for a few months in 2006, and felt that she belonged there too, just like she belonged in Amsterdam. Her sister Ebru (33) was yearning to live in the Turkish metropolis as well. Ebru, in her office on the outskirts of Istanbul: ‘I wanted to leave the Netherlands soon after secondary school, but my parents stopped me. They insisted I study first. I did, and I got settled in Amsterdam with a boyfriend.’ But the relationship didn’t last, she didn’t feel she could get ahead in her job for the Amsterdam municipality, and the old dream reappeared.

The conclusion of the sisters was only logical: start a bureau for event organizing together, have an office in Istanbul and work for both Dutch and Turkish clients. Four years ago they got on a plane and kept one home in Amsterdam, because they would have to visit the city often.

Mine and Ebru talk in superlatives when they speak about that first year in Istanbul. Ebru: ‘Everything was an adventure, even paying the bills. Sometimes we had no idea how things worked, but it didn’t matter, we had such a good time.’ Mine: ‘Everything was exciting and positive. Ebru and I are sisters and friends, we complete each other and had the time of our lives.’

‘I sometimes wondered where my home was’

The sisters worked very hard, were flying back and forth to Amsterdam and had a lot of visitors from the Netherlands, who they took from club to restaurant to lunch cafe. Mine: ‘Our business was doing well enough to make a living in two cities. That was a grand feeling really. But it was also exhausting. I travelled more than Ebru, sometimes up to three times a month. It was kind of a strange life. I sometimes wondered where my home was.’

Ebru Önsöz

After a year the intial excitement was gone and the Big Adventure feeling slowly subsided. Mine missed Amsterdam and longed for a rather quieter life, a bit less travel. Ebru felt the event organizing business wasn’t stable enough and wanted something that would give more security. They both found a new path: Mine kept the business and would operate more from the apartment in Amsterdam, Ebru found a business partner in packing materials in Istanbul.

But by doing that, they didn’t choose for either Istanbul or Amsterdam, but still for both cities. Ebru produces her merchandise in Istanbul but sells it to Dutch businesses, and therefore she needs to be in Holland often. She might even open an office there. Mine still organizes events in Istanbul when they come her way: last year she spent months in the city organizing a ‘birthday party bigger than ten weddings’. And she just started organizing medical trips to Turkey, not for groups but for individuals who want full attention. ‘When that part of my company gets bigger, I will again spend more time in Istanbul. I’ll rent an apartment there, that’s very easy to arrange in Istanbul.’

Mine and Ebru mainly point at their parents as the ones who gave them their talent for living in two worlds. Ebru: ‘As a family, we never had the wish to return to Turkey. Our parents sent us to schools with few immigrant children, so we could put down roots in the Netherlands as much as possible. That was very successful, we never felt we were living between two cultures. But we did go to Turkey on holidays, and at home we learned to speak proper Turkish. I think our parents did that just right. We are anchored in the Netherlands, feel secure there, and that’s why we can easily adapt to life in Istanbul.’

A reflection of her personality

Mine adds: ‘In fact, we only got to really know our Turkish side when we discovered a youth club in Amsterdam where many Turks came. Turkish parties with Turkish music, and we met people who knew life in Istanbul very well. We were intrigued by that. When we visited our nephews and nieces in Istanbul on holidays, we saw their exciting life. That’s what we wanted too!’

And now they have it. Ebru says in the life she lives now, she can perfectly use her ‘luggage of life’. ‘In my job at the Amsterdam municipality I could also have worked with both my identities, but in the Netherlands that usually means you get a job in ‘integration policies’. I do find that important, but it’s also work with a negative angle, focusing on problems and differences between people. In my current life, the quietness of the Netherlands and the excitement of Istanbul come together, the both sides I find in myself too.’

For Aygül Sonkaya that’s exactly the same. How she works – offering European quality for competitive Turkish prices – could be seen as a reflection of her personality. Aygül: ‘I wanted to combine Amsterdam and Istanbul to get closer to myself, and I sure succeeded in that.’

Working on a Greek beach

(I was on a short holiday in Greece and couldn’t resist making a story.)

They earn some €30 a day, Greek youngsters working in tourism during the summer. While their country is going through hard economic times, they are happy they found a summer job. ‘Without this work, I wouldn’t be able to go to university’, says Chris (18). A story from the beaches of Greece.

Chris (18), Lesvos island

Their luck is that beach bars and restaurants, souvenir shops and other businesses in tourism usually employ the same people every year. So they don’t have to fight to get a new job every season, but just hope they can work for the same boss again. Chris Kovras (18) was lucky indeed: he’s been working for the third summer now, five to six days a week, for a cafe right on the beach in the tourist town of Eressos on the island of Lesbos.

‘I have no choice but to work all summer, because without it I can’t go to university’, says Chris. ‘My parents work in tourism too, they have their own business but it’s not doing so well now. If I didn’t have a job, it would be very hard to continue my studies.’

He walks back and forth to the bar and the kitchen with drinks and snacks, the outdoor seating is full. He loves the island he grew up on, but he’s not sure if he will be living there in a couple of years’ time. Chris: ‘I’m going to do a technical course, and I’m supposed to finish that in four years. But I don’t think the Greek economy will be doing much better by then, and finding a job sure won’t be easy.’ He is considering drastic measures: ‘I have an uncle in Canada. If things get really difficult after my graduation, I might go to him and find a job there.’

Areti (16), Lesvos island

Areti Trentou (16) works down the coastal road in a clothing and jewellery shop. She works every morning, her sister every afternoon. Her parents own the shop. ‘We all have to contribute to make enough money’, Areti says. ‘It is nice work, we sell nice stuff and you get to meet a lot of people. So no, I really don’t mind working every day.’
Her afternoons are free, and she usually spends them with her friends. ‘I earn €15 every morning. So I can go have a drink in the afternoon, and I try to save up part of the money.’

On Chios, an island to the south, Marialena Leodi (18) is working on the beach. She too works in a family business: her uncle owns the place. She earns €60 to €90 a week, working two or three days. ”Two cousins of mine work here the other days. Like that, the whole family can profit a bit from my uncle’s business”, she says.

It’s her first job. And no, the family doesn’t need her to work. ‘My parents work in mastic, that’s a tree that is unique for Chios. The liquid from the tree can be used for all kinds of purposes, for example in medical applications. They still earn enough money from that.’ Marialena works purely for her own target: a driving license.

Marialena (18), Chios island

Marialena will go to university after the summer to study economics. And even though that sounds smart in a country that isn’t doing so well economically, she’s not at all sure to find a job after graduating. ‘But I don’t really worry about it’, she says. ‘We will cross that bridge when we get there. You know, on the islands, the economy is not that bad yet, especially in summer. People in the big cities, like Athens, have a much harder time.’

Areti doesn’t worry much either. At least not about ‘later’. She does worry a bit about now. Because at home she notices that her parents don’t make as much money as in previous seasons. ‘I’ve been working here since I was 14, and there are fewer tourists now. At home I see it too, we have less money. We do have enough to eat, but there’s no money for extras. That is another reason why I like to earn some money for myself. If I manage to save up a bit for the winter, then I won’t have to ask my parents for money if I need anything. That would be nice.’

Turkey follows own course in agricultural policy

ISTANBUL – Within a few weeks, when the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice approaches, they will be shipped into Turkish harbours again: thousands of cows and sheep. Production in Turkey isn’t enough to meet the high demand during the Feast of Sacrifice. For those few weeks, Turkey gets closer to Europe, which demands that import restrictions that Turkey has for cattle be abolished.

The temporary easing of import restrictions on meat have nothing to do with demands of the European Union. That’s why they will most probably be re-imposed again some time after the Feast. Professor Erol Cakmak of TED University in the Turkish capital Ankara, an expert on Turkey’s agricultural policy, understands that perfectly: ‘The agricultural chapter in the accession talks between Turkey and the EU hasn’t been opened yet because of the disagreement about Cyprus. Nobody can say when the Cyprusissue will be solved, so it’s also unclear when the agricultural chapter will be opened. So why should Turkey now harmonize its policy with the EU, while its policy works for the domestic market?’

Two years ago, Turkey levied a 135% tax on imported cattle. That was reduced to 40% and is by now down to 30%. Bovine animals are mainly imported from SouthAmerica and countries close to Turkey, like Bulgaria. Sheep are mainly shipped in from Australia and NewZealand. The trade is intended to meet demand and to keep meat prices at reasonable levels.
They are much higher than the average European price: last year more than €12.50 per kilo for beef, almost €26 for a kilo of lamb. During the previous Feast of Sacrifice, last November, Turks used to joke about the high meat prices: ‘This year, we won’t slaughter animals but tomatoes’.

Good profits

Turkey’s economy is growing, despite the worldwide crisis, and in agriculture too things are going well, says professor Cakmak: ‘It’s even going so well that the sector is attracting private investors, including from abroad. That didn’t exist before, but nowadays it can make good profits.’
Also in the animal breeding sector foreign investors are no longer an exception. Especially in the West and the South of the country, for example, Argentinean companies are moving in seeking to profit from the 72 million Turkish meat eaters. ‘They settle here despite the insecurities that come with the Turkish policies’, says Professor Cakmak. ‘Meat will be imported for as long as the domestic market can’t meet the demand, nothing more. Turkey tries to manage the prices as much as possible. The idea is that the domestic prices shouldn’t be influenced too much by the prices on the international market.’

And that is against EU policy, which has tried to have the prices set as much as possible by market mechanisms. ‘Yes, in that respect, Turkey is drifting away from Europe’, says Cakmak. ‘But Turkey has that freedom. Don’t forget, the country went through a deep economic crisis more than ten years ago and recovered from that with help from the World Bank and by all sorts of reforms, including in agriculture.’ Since 2009 the interference of the World Bank is over and Turkey maps out its own plan. That includes agricultural subsidies: as much as 75% to 80% of production receives tariff support, a percentage that is contrarily decreasing in the EU.

No problem, says Cakmak: ‘It is not so difficult to adjust the agricultural policy when the time is right’, referring to a realistic prospect on EU accession, including an accession date. ‘The EU tends to solve these things with new members. Just like the EU did with earlier new members whose agricultural policy was very different from the EU’s, like Poland and Romania. So I’m confident the same can be done with Turkey.’

Model country

He remarks how Turkey has over the last year been seen as a model country, ever since the start of the Arab Spring. What has that to do with agriculture policies? ‘Not too much, you would say’, he laughs. ‘But really, it’s amazing how many requests I get to speak about Turkey’s agricultural policy. I travel a lot to NorthAfrica and the Middle East. Turkey matters in the region, apparently they want to know how Turkey outlines its policies, including on agriculture.’

And that is: on its own. Just like the foreign policy of the country, which doesn’t spinelessly bow to EU wishes or the interests of its good friend the United States. Cakmak points out that it’s also no sure bet to adjust to the EU when it comes to agriculture. He smiles and says: ‘Do you know how unstable European agricultural policy is? How can Turkey adjust to rules that are being changed constantly? That’s like aiming at a moving target.’