“The wiretap tapes were vile fabrications. I can ban Twitter. The Gezi Park protesters are all just vandals and marauders.”

The statements above, which PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made, are lies, of course.

But when do lies stop mattering? It seems that PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has blurred the lines between lying and truth telling.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter for most of the Turkish populace. By campaigning all over the country in a blitzkrieg unrivaled by anyone else on hte national stage, the AKP has confirmed that it is still in power and is likely to win most of the key races in the March 30 local election.

Ever since bombs were dropped in the form of leaked wiretapped phone conversations between Erdoğan and his son surfaced, and since the blue bird “bombs” being dropped by Twitter users since the Twitter “ban” began a few days ago, Erdogan has seemed to stumble at the most inopportune time. Rumors are that he has cancer. A guy I played basketball with in Kadikoy today said “we will slap him right out of power, don’t worry.” But what tangible effect it will have on the outcome of the elections remains to be seen.

Are the Turkish local elections important?

With all this, it’s sometimes hard to forget that Tayyip isn’t even running for office. It’s just the local elections.

This begs the question: are the local elections important? While it is true that they are a barometer of national sentiment heading into national elections in 2015, they are more than that:

“Nowadays local governments are also a significant laboratory of political life and a genuine springboard into national politics for successful leaders. Many current ministers and parliamentarians have served as mayors or held local government positions in the past, including the Prime Minister Erdogan, who was the former metropolitan mayor of Istanbul.   –Al Jazeera Center for Studies

The study also highlights that local governments have taken a larger role in the social welfare of society, account for more than 30 percent of all infrastructure projects, and employ nearly 300,000 civil servants.

CHP (Republican People's Party) election banners strung up all around Kadıköy's Altıyol area. Kadıköy is considered a CHP lock

CHP (Republican People’s Party) election banners strung up all around Kadıköy’s Altıyol area. Kadıköy is considered a CHP safe zone.

Is the silent majority still the majority? On the local level, it is for now. The government runs about 1,400 local municipalities, while the CHP and MHP combined control less than a 1,000. The mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara might be tight, but those in the smaller provinces around Anatolia still will go to the AKP.

Distracting ads and an international incident

Crafty marketing, a ruler ripe for the take down be damned, it seems that because of the dynamics of most voters here, there won’t be too much in the way of real change following the local elections — bluntly, the majority of the voting population is uneducated to just how much Erdogan and his cronies have gone off the deep end to suppress opposition.

On top of that, the time seemed to be ripe for a tangible distraction. Today, Turkish military has struck down a Syrian F-16 fighter jet on the border. Turkey says the plane crossed into Turkish airspace, Syria says it remained in Syrian airspace and that the event was a provocation.

This seems to be a last ditch distraction for a party that is nervous, despite its heady previous returns. The party has already stated that anything above its 38.8 percent it took in the 2009 local elections would be considered a victory. And, emotion aside, it would be a victory indeed for a party that has caught so much negative publicity to get anything more than 36 percent.

Another shrewd distraction was a recent AKP ad, a 3-minute patriotic tear jerker which shows Turks literally running from all corners of society to save a massive Turkish flag from falling off an impossibly high flagpole (the flag was cut down by a shadowy, faceless man). Using some CGI, the people are depicted literally piled on top of each other to reach high enough to save the flag.

AKP knows full well that the national flag and images of Ataturk cannot be used in political advertisements, but the government seems to want to start a national discussion — using their trademarked hubris — so as to get people to say “why not use the Flag in local elections! Those crying foul are unpatriotic! Let’s change this law! Good for Tayyip for having the will (irade) to change things!”

At the end of this illegal ad is a slogan that reads “The people will not be bent, Turkey will not be defeated” alongside a picture of Erdoğan.

The slogan isn’t a lie, but it’s going to take someone else in power to make it the truth.

Watch the controversial ad below:

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.

UPDATE: Turkey’s Erdogan tells Putin crisis must be resolved by Ukrainians

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?

A drought intensity map over the last three months shows Istanbul and other regions shaded black to be in the most severely affected.

A drought intensity map over the last three months shows Istanbul and other regions shaded black to be in the most severely affected.Click to enlarge. Source

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.

Maybe instead of praying for rain, more public awareness about water conservation can be provided -- drought or no.

Maybe instead of praying for rain, more public awareness about water conservation can be provided — drought or no.

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).

 An unusually strong Azores High in the North Atlantic -- fueled by higher sea temperatures -- has been pushing the storm track north of the Med (just ask the Brits).

An unusually strong Azores High in the North Atlantic — fueled by higher sea temperatures — has been pushing the storm track north of the Med (just ask the Brits). So, little rain for Turkey.

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.

This person has obviously never been paid in lira

This person has obviously never been paid in Turkish liras!

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.

Well, its not going to get this bad anytime soon.

Children stacking money during the 1920’s hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic. Well, its not going to get this bad anytime soon.

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.

Lunch at a fenced border of the Greek side.

Lunch at a fenced border with the Greek side of Nicosia.

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.

Ghost shell of a hotel in Varosha,

A foreboding shell of a hotel in Varosha

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.

No one wins

No one wins with walls, except people taking artsy zoom shots of barbed wire.

“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

Looking out over the plains of Cyprus

Looking out over the plains of Cyprus

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.

Rock formations on the north coast

Rock formations on the north coast

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.


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