Dating back to before the Crimean War, the Russian military has always had a place in the psyche of Turks. In “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” Orhan Pamuk recalls Soviet destroyers stealthily moving north through the Bosphorus in the dead of night during the peak of the cold war, invisible except for their eerie black silhouettes.
So Turkey scrambling jets following an incursion of a Russian aircraft into Turkish airspace over the Black Sea is one of those reminders that the long dormant little volcano of history between the two still shows signs of life now and then. (A nice summary of the history of Turkish-Russian/Ukranian relations can be found here.)
But it’s the liras and the “hryvnia” that do the talking now. Posturing aside, Turkey does a brisk trade with Ukraine, around $6.2 billion in 2012. Everything from Natashas in Trabzon, to the majority ownership Turkcell has in life:), the third largest mobile operator in Ukraine, reminds us that there a number of economic links between the two, born out of geography and transcending socio-economic strata. It shows the inexorable link between the Black Sea neighbors. In fact, Turkey is Ukraine’s largest trading partner, after Russia.
However, trade between Russia and Turkey is significant as well, to the tune of $33 billion, with the two sides eager for more. This could explain why the government has been cautious about reacting to the recent flare ups. Foreign Minister Davutoglu recently made an unscheduled trip to our northern neighbor, but his tone was diplomatic, with no outward bias.
Then there are the pan-Turkic heartstrings. complicating all this is the ethnic sympathies with Turkic minorities in the former Soviet Union’s continuing sphere of influence.
There is a sizeable Turkic Tatar minority in the Crimean peninsula, a minority which has taken a pro-Ukrainian stance as of late. A recent protest in Ankara against Russian aggression by the Crimean-Tatar Turkish community is testament to that.
Anyone who remembers the ethnic strife in Uyhgar western China that that took place in 2009 can attest to the protests and the resulting pro-Uyghar declarations of solidarity on social media.
An estimate 300,000 now live in Crimea, the majority of whom relocated after being kicked out of Crimea during Soviet times. There is a very large community of Crimean Tatars who resettled in Eskisehir, a city in western Anatolia.
I suspect Turkey will lay low: maintain its neutrality, a task that will be easy compared to the current shit storm wiretapping scandal engulfing the government before the March 30 elections. More on that to come later.
What do you think?
February 23, 2014
Last Valentine’s Day, it began to rain at sunset and didn’t stop till around noon the next day. While the deluge disappointed lovers hoping to take a stroll along the Bosphorus in the unseasonably warm weather, it was great news for just about everyone else, because a serious drought is in the making all over Turkey.
If you’re from the States or follow US news casually, you probably have heard about the drought in California. You probably haven’t heard about the drought unfolding in Anatolia, another major global exporter of a variety of nuts, fruits, rice and other foodstuffs.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence. Local elections are in March. The ruling AK Party — which controls information coming out of ministries such as the Forest and Water Ministry and water utilities — doesn’t want to bear bad news at this sensitive time. Not a word about the drought on the “latest news” sections of the homepage of either the ministry or ISKI (Istanbul’s water authority).
Meanwhile, there has been coverage on TV and on the web about it. This article (in Turkish) claims there is just 120 days of water left in Istanbul’s ten reservoirs. The ITU professor interviewed in it stresses the need for public awareness and education about conserving water, while this article (in Turkish) which quotes the Forest and Water guys, says that, hey, everything is fine! Quit blowing your horns! They say the media has the figures wrong. They say nationwide, Turkey consumes 7.5 billion cubic meters per year, while there is currently 10.5 billion m3 of potable water on hand.
The media, like they do with everything from Gezi Park to shoeboxes filled with cash, is exaggerating, it seems. Or is it? The article doesn’t take into account the growing population and the varying drought intensity by region (it speaks in very general terms about the whole country’s water supply).
Also of note, on its website, ISKI claims that that city consumes 1.25 million cubic meters of water per day, while the ITU professor claims about twice that. Given the poor state of plumbing, the water stealing and the lack of awareness about water conservation, I am more inclined to believe the higher figure.
(Watch “Istanbul’da Suyun Hikayesi” (the Story of Istanbul’s Water) which shows how shitty everything was (pun intended) before a smiling, younger Erdogan became mayor in the 1990’s and opened some of the newer water purification centers and water carrying infrastructure. It’s in Turkish but the montage tells the story.)
So while California’s authorities sound the alarm and will no doubt spread the word about water conservation, as they did in the early 1990’s, Istanbul — which adds thousands of commercial, industrial and residential water using accounts every year — Istanbul’s lesser educated will stay in the dark about how they ought to save water.
Meanwhile, the government says it will “evaluate” the situation in April.
After the local elections, of course.
February 13, 2014
There are sexier topics to cover — such as the recent restrictions of internet usage passed by the Turkish Parliament and the resultant protests — but I will focus this post on a topic that hits close to home for most of us living in and connected to Turkey: our dearly beloved lira and exchange rates!
Turkey has got into the news lately for its currency problems. At the time of writing, the Turkish Lira has traded at about 2.20 to 1 to the dollar and about 3 to 1 to the euro. The most recent devaluation started around the middle of December when corruption charges surfaced against members of Erdogan’s inner circle and those infamous images of shoeboxes full of stolen money were broadcasted into people’s homes.
My salary and that of thousands of English teachers are paid in lira. Some of my lira-earning friends and colleagues have had a “run for the hills” attitude, asking their bosses to pay in dollars, switching accounts to dollars, and even using this as a reason to leave the country altogether. Investor confidence in separation of central bank and political interests, as well as political stability overall, as gone down.
But that isn’t the whole story. Other macroeconomic factors are at play that explain why the lira has shriveled against the dollar. The Federal Reserve last year began a policy of tightening their money supply, buying fewer bonds in developing economies. This “tapering”, as it is known, means a stronger dollar and less foreign dollar cash reserves for developing economies like Turkey.
So, how bad is it? When I came to this country the lira was trading at around 1.6 to the dollar. In nearly 5 years time, that represents a devaluation of nearly 38 percent. While no one would see this as a good, strong performance over the past 5 years, it isn’t a bottomless pit drop that has citizens shopping with wheelbarrows of nearly worthless money. Compared to the old days, when in less than a lifetime a loaf of bread went from 1 to 1,000,000 lira, things seem comparatively stable.
To stabilize the lira, the Turkish central bank raising interest rates a whopping four percent overnight in late January. Central banks raise interest rates to stop money from getting too cheap and causing inflation. However, as one column pointed out, this drastic rate rise can have the effect of causing inflation and slowing the economy — stagflation, if you remember that one from your Econ 101 class in college.
What will happen remains to be seen, but the Turkish government recently successfully issued a 30-year bond, managed by major brokerage firms such as Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, a preliminary indicator that things are settling down and investors worldwide are still taking Turkey seriously. The exchange rate has responded, heading from a high of about 2.33 to about 2.18 as of Valentine’s Day.
I heart you, lira.
The ramifications for the us expats are that salaries drop, but for those with foreign currency hoping to buy property, it could be a boon. For regular folks like me considering buying a home in Istanbul, I suspect home prices could go down while interest rates could go up. There is already whispers of a mild housing bubble in Istanbul, and higher interest rates could incite this.
Shazam! Let the world know where you think things are headed.
February 2, 2014
Partly to mock nationalism, partly because of hunger but mainly just coincidence, we munched on Doritos ala Turca chips in a park by a fenced border between Turkish Lefkosa and Greek Nicosia. We peered over to another side, a side that my fiancée Zeynep has to travel 1000 kilometers in a completely other direction just to enter. Signs for parking in Greek and English, tidier streets with palms, people in an EU country walking around speaking a totally different language. It seems like looking through a portal into another world where you helplessly wonder how it could have been different. It’s a division between two ethnic groups that’s coming up on a sad 40-year anniversary.
Nearly four years ago I blogged about a visit to Turkey’s “banana republic”. Not a lot has changed since then in Lefkosa, so I won’t comment on the sites except to say I still find it to be one of the most underrated small cities I’ve ever been to.
Fast forward, then, to two days later visiting Maras, a militarized ghost town. Varosha, as it’s still known, once a chic Mediterranean playground, now the domain of rats, weeds, a blistering Cyprus sun and the occasional bored Turkish soldier telling tourists not to take photos. The Greeks claim Turkey dangles the town over the Greek Cypriots as a bargaining chip for a future reconciliation between the two sides that doesn’t seem like it will materialize.
Meanwhile, back at my fiancée’s cousin’s house in a new suburban district of Lefkosa.
“Can you travel to the other side?”
“Yes, of course,” says my fiancée’s cousin’s husband, a native of northern Cyprus. “Oh, but there must be a limit, you know, do you have to come back before nightfall or something?”
“No, I can stay for a week…a month…whatever I want,” said the bank IT professional. I was surprised. I thought it was a no go for Turkish Cypriots as well.
But he doesn’t, of course he won’t, he’s been able to travel freely to the other side, a birthright given to every native born Turk Cypriot. I used to just assume that the northern Cypriots were barred from the south because of what I thought was obvious: a back door escape to greener EU pastures. And although I’ve overheard that an average of one person per week illegally tries to escape through the UN demilitarized zone to the south side, Turks certainly going there in droves, not like they did to London or Australia decades ago.
A friend of my fiancee’s, Koray, works in a multi-cultural environment on the Greek side, commuting to and from his home in Lefkosa, claims the only hassle is crossing the border. “Many Many turkish cypriots (apparently not preferring to cross to south) I met, once I told them that I work in the south, happened to ask me if it is safe to park and leave my car at work, or whether the Greek Cypriot police creates trouble at check points, etc.” Other than the border, he has found his work experience pleasant.
Koray believes the best solution is reunification. After all, he points out, the south calls the shots when it comes to the island. And, even with the discovery of natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, the island’s future doesn’t look good, as whether some of the gas will be refined on the island is a long-shot challenged by opposition from Turkey.
“Turkey should revise its political approach on the (Cyprus) problem,” he notes.
Not Seen as the Saviors
Fanning the flames of ethnic nationalism are places like the not so subtly named “Museum of Barbarism” in downtown Lefkosa, a not so subtle memorial of inter-ethnic violence. The one sided portrayal of Greek irregulars shooting up innocent Turks is a narrative put on a pedestal by Turkey. It’s good to have monuments to atrocities, but not when they are blatantly one sided. One friend of Zeynep’s I spoke to even claimed that it was likely have Turks themselves who committed atrocities that took place against the family that once lived in the house turned museum.
Living in mainland Turkey, it’s easy to believe that Turkey is the benevolent big brother, the hero saving the Cypriot damsel in distress from fascist Greeks in 1974 to save their brothers, but the karasakallar (literally the “black beards”, a slightly pejorative nickname for mainland Turks) are not really seen that way, even if the same Turkish products — from furniture to soap operas — are consumed there.
There is some resentment toward Turks, and the “oh those Turks always messing things up” sentiment can be felt. Turkish Cypriots feel they are puppets of Ankara, which callously casts its will over a region that, paradoxically, Turkey and only Turkey recognizes as an independent country. While Turkish Cypriots understandably resent the fact that the Greek side is an EU country and was accepted easily with little international inquisition, there is roughly an equal amount of resentment toward Turkey for meddling and gumming up hope of reconciliation in the near future.
So…Then…Grab a Mountain Bike!
None of that means much to the traveller if you don’t want it to. Cyprus doesn’t have that
politically steeped atmosphere that a visitor to Israel, for example, notices more easily. And, thanks to Tugberk, one can explore the outdoor splendor of northern Cyprus: mountains to sea, all in a half a day, to escape some of the lesser aspects of northern Cyprus life.
Tugberk is a 1990 beat-up-four-by-four-driving, gruff outdoorsy young man who runs Agama Outdoor and invited us on an exploratory mountain biking test tour that he plans to offer during high season from the snazzy Korineum Golf & Beach Resort, which about a 20 minute drive east of Girne, the capital of northern Cyprus tourism.
Tugberk, through his outdoor adventure company, was piloting a new mountain bike tour. A group of about 10 were driven up about 1000 meters, new Trek bikes in tow, above the once-Greek village of Esentepe. We rode along a ridgeline, blue skies blue sea to the left and the central Cyprus plain to the right. Heaven on an 18-degree day. Nothing too challenging.
Then things started to get tricky with a steep decent that required summoning all my meager mountain biking muscle memory from childhood. Thanks to the kind help of Gary, a Canadian of Turk Cypriot decent who has retired to a tiny village on the island, and some patience, we learned some finer points of real mountain biking. After descending the soft sand stone hillsides and into British retiree country by the sea, we rested in a small bay. There, wind and water have carved giant rocks into smooth long shapes paralleling the coastline. We continued along the old coast road, past thickets, grasses, rocky beaches and Mediterranean McVillas.
We were picked up along the new coast highway in the afternoon, exhausted but content with getting a little fortuitous January sun and a little grit on our socks and shoes.
But outdoor adventure companies aside, one mustn’t forget that casinos are largely what turns the wheel of northern Cyprus. It’s the land of cheap booze and smokes for mainland Turks, throw in some blackjack tables and the ruling AK Party seems much farther than an hour plane ride away.
With that in mind, later that night we stopped an old college friend of Zeynep’s (she went to school at Girne American University) at Merit Park, a monstrous casino, a nugget of faux Monte Carlo about 10 km west of the Girne center. It rises suddenly alongside shoddy cinder block homes and modest storefronts. Going from mountain biking to four-star resort and casino, sitting on a VIP balcony sipping Johnny Walker Black, it was easy to forget that once upon a time, 40 years ago, Brits, Greeks and Turks alike may have been mingling in a similarly swank resort casino, thinking the high-rolling façade will last forever.
March 25, 2013
Once I had a girlfriend in the States whom I had met one October. The December of that same year, we went to her parent’s house out of town and met her parents and her little brother. That night I stayed in her room, in the same bed with her. We had no intention of marrying.
I repeat: I stayed in the same house…while her parents were down the hall!…., slept in the same bed and woke up the next morning with no bullet holes in me, no angry cousins waiting around the corner to beat me to a pulp – not a scratch on my carriage. In fact, her mother even made breakfast.
That seems unusual, almost unthinkable to me now – at my ripe 31 years of age no less.
I’ve lived in Turkey for a long time.
I share this tidbit because my beautiful girlfriend and I recently took a first formal step to marriage and had dinner, together with her family, in her family’s home on the Asian side of Istanbul. It was not only my first time meeting her father, it was the first time I had set foot inside the house where the love of my life has been living for a good chunk of her life.
Zeynep and I have been together for 14 months.
It was a relatively modern and low-key affair on that recent late winter evening at the Senturk residence. A delicious dinner of kereviz (celery with walnut and yogurt) salad and chicken with soft jasmine rice was served, a Turkish national soccer match was watched (Turkey beat the tiny principality of Andorra 2-0), delicious out of season fruit was consumed, cay was drunk.
Her father’s name is Ahmet, a name so mainstream its practically ironic (Americans have John and Mary, Turks have Ayse and Ahmet). A smallish man, but tough without an ounce of fat on his frame, Ahmet picks his words carefully. Like me, he is a bit tough to read. He is a warm Anatolian, but never too far from dumping a young man’s body in the Bosphorus if he lays a hand on one of his daughters.
However, the interrogation from father wasn’t as tense as I thought. Sure there were questions about my family, what my father does, where exactly I am from, what I do, where I do my banking, what I think was the real reason behind Sept. 11, etc. But the hardened dad actually cracked a couple smiles before the night was through. The evening ended amicably.
The proverbial application form is in and chances of being a member of the Senturk club were looking good as I headed for the door. I experienced for the 985th time the Turkish tradition of the whole family/friend group coming to the door to stand not three feet away while I put on my shoes, watching with love as if I were a Panda giving birth at the zoo. I had a couple of homemade gul boregi to take home with me for breakfast the next morning
I also carried with me a sense of accomplishment on the jerky minibus ride home that rainy night. A sense that you have to earn the trust of your woman not only as an individual, but also as a member of a family with all her sacred bonds that entails.
It’s a link to another time, but with a modern twist. In fact, the family is modern and secular by any Turkish yardstick, yet Turkish is Turkish, and being embraced by all family members is never something to take for granted.
By comparison, our family units are like loose affiliations, chambers of commerce of individuals bounded by love, gloriously free to choose their own lives, but sometimes limited in terms of the support and the “reach out and touch someone” factor the members give and receive. I speak not of my own family, for I have been blessed, but I make a sweeping cultural generalization.
The day will come when I can get overnight privileges at their home. Until then the acceptance process has gotten started – and the fun is just getting started.
Gentlemen with a Turkish wife, feel free to add your stories.