Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Hand in hand

In Turkey, the way to do business is to create an almost familial relationship - but too often, government and big business are too close for comfort.

When I first arrived in Turkey, I found it fascinating, sometimes exhilarating, often confusing, occasionally infuriating amd, where relationships between people were concerned, somewhat....weird.

Take touching, for instance. We Brits are not famed for physical contact: If someone brushes pasr us accidentally, we become a flurry of 'excuse mes' and 'sorrys'. It;'s weird that we say 'sorry' to the person who has intruded on our personal space. As for having accidental leg contact as you sit down on a bus or train, that's basically Social Armageddon.

Turkey, by contrast, is much more touchy-feely - but outside the immediate family, only so between people of the same gender. Men walk down the street with their arms round each others shoulders, or walk arm-in-arm. They kiss each other on the cheeks (OK, an air kiss, but it still kissing between men). A colleague, one evening, went to link his arm in mine, and I more or less jumped across the road.

Obviously, I got used to it as time went on: We all learn to understand (if not necessarily appreciate) the ways and means of other cultures as we live within them.
I found it difficult to understand, however, when it came to work and business. The Turkish way of getting things done is far more circumlocutory that what we consider to be good practice here in the UK. It's all about building close relationships, creating familiar bonds. It sometimes feels, to outside eyes, that the relationship is actualy far more important than the work itself. And there's a very distinct atmosphere of 'You scratxh my back, I'll scratch yours' about it. Nowhere is this seen more than the way in which the government awards contracts to its favourites.

OK, business and government cosying up to each other is nothing new - it's just that we do have strict laws in place regarding competition and the awarding of contracts. This doesn't really happen in Turkey, and it has become far worse since the AKP took control.

Let me take you somewhere pretty by way of illustration. This is Artvin, in the North East of Turkey:

Pretty, isn't it? It's famed for its beauty, its green pastures, its mountains and its people - some call it the home of poetry.
And this is where a company called Cengiz Holdings is trying to whack open a bloody huge copper mine and chop down (allegedly) over 50,000 trees. For the past fortnight, there have been violent clashes between protestors and police and gendarmerie (Jandarma) units. The police have been acting with impunity and have been taking orders directly, according to reports, from the mine owners. As of a few hours ago, the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has ordered a halt to mining operations prior to a judicial decision, expected within  the next few days.
Right, so you're probably wondering 'so what?' right now.  It's probably best to look at this company and its owner, Mehmet Cengiz, a little more closely.
Anyone who cast an eye over the company account books couldn't help but approve - the balance is looking very favourable, thank you very much. A little too favourable, however. And it seems to have a remarkable ability to win very large capital infrastructure projects. This illustration shows some of the work they have done or are engaged in, including the third Bosphorus Bridge and third Istanbul Airport:

In fact, since the AKP came to power, it has won pretty much every big project that's been put up for competitive tender. It seems that the ruling party like them very, very much, because not only have they handed over all these projects, but they also wrote off the 424 million lira (currently about £100m) debt Cengiz Holdings had to the taxman.
And guess who happen to be best buddies? Why, Mr Mehmet Cengiz and Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President and former Prime Minister of Turkey, of course.
This is only one example. It is remarkable how many of the ruling party are very, very rich men who seem to have become much, much richer over the last decade. Not that it quite goes all their way: Erdogan was at the centre of a wiretapping scandal where he was caught discussing with his son Bilal about ways of getting rid of a siazeable chunk of cash. Indeed, Erdogan Junior is currently facing money laundering charges in, of all places, Italy. Now, if the Italians are throwing the book at someone for dodgy financial dealings, you know it's got to be serious.
 However, I will point out that this kind of chicanery is nothing new in the country - indeed, the political elite have always been the richest in the country and have always walked arm in arm with whoever would make them richer. The AKP, in fact, came into power on the premise that they were not like this, that they would bring, well, Justice and Development - hence their party name. Instead, they have turned out to be even worse than the venal, corrupt old political guard, because they use the veil of faith to hide their dirty tricks. I suspect there's a bit more than a bit of touchy-feely when it comes to the relationship between Erdogan and Big Business.

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