Analysis |

Erdogan's Environmental Mess Might Pale Compared to Washington's Ire

Pollution is badly marring the water near Istanbul, but amid Turkish corruption allegations, the U.S. Justice Department under Biden might prove a tougher foe

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Joe Biden during the NATO summit in Brussels last week.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Joe Biden during the NATO summit in Brussels last week.Credit: Olivier Matthys / Pool / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The magnificent photos recently published by The Atlantic can be deceiving. They show swimmers making their way across frothy water as if they were in a giant pool of soap. Meanwhile, colorful sailboats cut through the thick froth, creating a bluish trail as if they were traversing a melting iceberg.

But these are pictures of a natural disaster that for about three weeks has been racking the stunning Turkish coastline west of Istanbul. The white foam is called sea snot, or mucilage, to use its more technical term. It’s the result of industrial and other pollution that, when combined with organisms at sufficiently high temperatures, turns into a goop that covers the water and can do in marine wildlife.

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Turkey is now seeking ways to repair the damage; it's injecting oxygen to dissolve the white mud and scooping up the destructive foam. For Turkey, this isn't only a question of ecological damage, it's a serious threat to tourism and a national project announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: the construction of a canal linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara to create a sea lane paralleling the Bosporus.

The fight against the sea snot has cast a shadow over two key events that could signal a new era in Turkey’s efforts to exit the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, Turkey opened up to 12,000 Russian tourists who landed in Istanbul, Ankara and the resort town of Antalya – this was after Turkey had barred passengers from Russia in April.

And over the coming weekend, the cornerstone will be laid for a bridge to link the two sides of the Istanbul Canal, as the canal project is called and which Erdogan hopes to finish by 2023, a presidential election year.

Russia is the main lifeline for the country’s tourism industry. In 2019 Turkey welcomed 45 million tourists, injecting $34.5 billion into the economy. About 6 million of those visitors were from Russia.

But last year, afflicted by the pandemic, tourism revenues plunged more than 70 percent. Turkey will try to make up the difference this year with 140 expected flights a day during the summer from 26 Russian cities. The plan is to attract about 3 million Russian tourists over the summer and up to 7 million by the end of the year.

The reopening of the Russia routes stoked concerns that Moscow would halt the flights at the last moment – and not because of the pandemic. Turkey and Russia have been on a collision course ever since Erdogan announced a deal to sell drones to Ukraine, saying he would stand with Ukraine against any aggression.

People shopping at a market in Istanbul in April.Credit: Emrah Gurel / AP

Fewer Russian and COVID woes

He didn’t need to mention the possible aggressor. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quick to say: “We strongly recommend that our Turkish colleagues carefully analyze the situation and stop fueling Kyiv’s militaristic sentiment.”

Russia also hasn’t forgotten the military assistance that Turkey gave Azerbaijan in last year's Nagorno-Karabakh war with Russian-client Armenia, or the Russian-Turkish rivalry in the fighting in Libya. There, the recognized government has the support of Turkey and Qatar, while the rebel general Khalifa Hifter has enjoyed the support of Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

As far back as 2016, Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey over the downing of a Russian warplane, and this time it could have turned off the tourism lifeline to Turkey. But such concerns have been dispelled. When the Russian tourists landed Sunday, the flights and pictures in the media were evidence of a new atmosphere. For now anyway.

Turkey has managed to halt the spread of COVID-19. About a third of its people have received a first vaccine dose, and everyone in the tourism sector has been vaccinated, though according to official reports, about 5,000 people a day are still being infected. Still, that’s an impressive improvement from 50,000 in April.

Despite the criticism of the Istanbul Canal at home and abroad, the project is expected to generate major economic benefits after a construction investment of $15 billion. New cities are slated to be built on nearby banks, including two cities where half a million people will live.

Erdogan has presided over megaprojects as president, including a huge presidential palace with an army of guards in traditional dress. There has also been the construction of a new airport, a new bridge over the Bosporus and hospitals across the country.

The Istanbul Canal is his flagship project, and he brushes off criticism of it by Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. Erdogan even had the mayor put on trial for insulting public servants after Imamoglu criticized the members of the election committee who invalidated the results of the 2019 mayoral election after Imamoglu won. A revote was ordered and he won again.

Imamoglu is a tough political rival. Not only did he oust Erdogan’s Justice and Development party from the Istanbul mayor’s seat after a quarter of a century, opinion polls say he's more popular than the president and might threaten Erdogan in the next presidential race.

Rebounding economy

In Erdogan’s favor is his country’s 7 percent growth rate in the first quarter of this year, along with notable signs of a recovery in industrial production and the information and communications sector. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the Turkish economy will grow 6 percent this year.

Still, Turkey’s statistics bureau has released gloomy numbers on the country's poverty rate, which has reached 22 percent, along with huge gaps between the rich and poor. The average income of the top 5 percent is 30 times that of the bottom 5 percent. Turkish economists warn that such disparities are similar to those in Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

Meanwhile, prices have been rising rapidly, the Turkish lira has plummeted against the dollar, and Turkey’s aid to its people has been inadequate during the pandemic. All of this is clearly reflected in the opinion polls.

On top of all that, two scandals are brewing. One involves underworld boss Sedat Peker, who a few weeks ago began posting fascinating YouTube videos in which he accuses Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu of links to organized crime – while also accusing a member of parliament of rape.

Peker, who is believed to be staying in Dubai, is still posting videos and recently claimed that Soylu warned a Turkish businessman, Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, that he was wanted by Turkey and the United States.

Korkmaz, who owns the conglomerate SBK Holding, fled to Austria. The U.S. Justice Department has issued an extradition request against him on suspicions of $133 million in money laundering. Turkey is also seeking his extradition to try him on charges on which he would be expected to receive a lenient sentence and perhaps not serve any time in prison.

Korkmaz is a close associate of Interior Minister Soylu and of Erdogan himself. In the past, the president has been able to evade allegations of corruption by his associates and even of his own household. But when the U.S. administration is involved, particularly under President Joe Biden, Erdogan might find himself in a much tougher spot than when a U.S. court during Donald Trump’s presidency convicted an executive at one of Turkey’s leading banks of skirting sanctions on Iran.

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