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Questions from the quake

by Neville Teller

On August 17, 1999, Turkey suffered an earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter scale that killed some 176,000 people. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the opposition leader in Turkey’s parliament at the time, was very harsh in his criticism of a government that hadn’t done enough to prepare the country for natural disasters, which were known to happen from time to time.

Shortly afterward, Turkey’s parliament approved a special tax, the earthquake tax, whose proceeds would be earmarked to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, reinforce buildings, and prepare cities to cope better with earthquakes.  Temporary at the time, it was made permanent when Erdogan and his AKP party swept to power in 2002. 

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Over the past 23 years, this special tax has raised about $4.7 billion.  Unfortunately, when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck south-eastern Turkey on February 6, there was little evidence that any earthquake preparation or strengthened building construction had occurred. Residential tower blocks collapsed like packs of cards, and hundreds of ordinary homes and low-level buildings were razed to the ground.  As rescuers toiled to pull bodies from the urban devastation and survivors shivered in the freezing temperatures, questions were asked about what had happened to the huge sums raised by the earthquake tax.

These questions came as no surprise to Erdogan’s government.  They had already been raised in the aftermath of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Izmir on November 13, 2020.  The government was pressed then to account for the billions of dollars raised by the earthquake tax.  The opposition party, the CHP, said that had the revenue been used properly, millions of buildings around the country could have been strengthened to help them survive.

Alpay Antmen, a lawyer and CHP politician, said: “This money was meant to be used for urban transformation and making housing areas in the earthquake zones much more resilient. However, about 70 billion lira of these taxes was… transferred to the builders close to the government.”

This allegation was clarified in a recent media report. In 2018, the Erdogan-led government launched a special amnesty called “zoning peace.”  On payment of a fee, anyone could legalize whatever property they may have built or renovated in violation of building regulations.  Thanks to this loophole, about 13 million non-compliant buildings across Turkey became legal, according to industry estimates.

Professor Pelin Pinar Giritlioghlu, head of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Turkish Engineers and Architects, is reported to have said: “Many new buildings have become earthquake-fraught after unauthorized renovations.  The state has pardoned those buildings in exchange for money…With the earthquake, we have come up with the tragic outcome of this set-up.”

This issue could have very big political consequences for Erdogan and his party, the AKP. With parliamentary and presidential elections coming up on May 14, people are angry that they don’t know how the money from the large earthquake tax has been spent. There are suspicions they may have been misappropriated or at best, used to little effect.   Turkey’s building boom was marked by shoddy work and the government turning a blind eye to companies that didn’t follow the rules for making buildings safe in an earthquake.  Erdogan and his allies know that the AKP came to power in 2002 due to the previous government’s failures in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake. 

While calling for national unity and a week of mourning for the victims of the disaster, Erdoğan has the elections in mind.  On February 6, he called AKP municipalities, offering help, but made no such offer to the leadership in opposition-controlled areas.  On February 7, he went on TV to defend the government’s actions after the earthquakes and declare a three-month state of emergency in the 10 southern provinces of Turkey.  It would be lifted just a week before the scheduled elections.  Later the same day, the Istanbul State Prosecutor initiated criminal investigations into the journalists who had reported the criticism.

The crisis facing Turkey is truly monumental, but Erdogan must surely turn his attention away from silencing his critics, and focus on relieving the plight of his fellow citizens, regardless of their political affiliations.

Much the same obligation rests on the shoulders of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who had been insisting that his regime must be solely responsible for delivering aid in Syria. The government had a stranglehold on international aid supplies, most of which flowed through Damascus, with very little reaching rebel-held areas in the northwest.  The same was true of aid workers.  Assad allowed them to assist people in regime-controlled areas, but very rarely let them enter the northwest.  

This might have changed on February 10, when state-run media said the government would let humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas. We don’t know yet if this change of heart will help to stop the suffering there. The easiest way to get aid directly into the non-regime region would be from Turkey across the border, but there is only one land crossing from Turkey into Syria, Bab al-Hawa, which was damaged by the earthquakes.

The US has already ruled out giving aid directly to Bashar’s regime.  Secretary of State spokesman Ned Price has said: “it would be ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over a dozen years now, gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured.”

Experts say that a vast amount of aid is necessary. Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: “For northwestern Syria, this earthquake represents a crisis within a crisis. After 12 years of brutal shelling by the Syrian regime, at least 65 per cent of the area’s basic infrastructure was already destroyed or heavily damaged… the scale of the needed response is huge.”

Basic humanity requires solutions to alleviate the immense suffering imposed by nature on the peoples of Turkey and Syria, even if that suffering has been exacerbated many times over by their politicians’ failures. 

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.  His latest book is“Trump and the Holy Land:  2016-2020”.  Follow him at:



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