Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are facing increased criticism over their poor response and inadequate preparedness to contain wildfires that have been devastating Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts since July 28.
The blazes continue to ravage forests, killing animals and forcing the evacuation of residents from their villages and tourists from their hotels. According to the latest data, the large-scale wildfires have left nine people dead and forced thousands to flee their homes.
Turks, who already feel the consequences of political and economic crises that have shaken the country for the last several years, are criticizing Erdoğan for his government’s environmentally irresponsible policies, especially for depleting firefighting resources over the years, and are calling for him to step down.
Turkish Minute spoke with climate and energy expert Önder Algedik, who says meteorologists were waiting for these forest fires and were issuing warnings about them.
“The government did not take precautions in time for these fires, which were expected by meteorologists. The reason is that the simple protection of nature is no longer a priority of the state,” said Algedik.
According to Algedik the government’s technical incompetence and mismanagement are obvious, but the main problem is the lack of implementation of the right kind of policies to protect nature.
On Aug. 4 President Erdoğan said metropolitan municipalities have the responsibility of battling wildfires in residential areas. Days before, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli similarly blamed municipalities for an inadequate response to the wildfires.
A heatwave in southern Europe, fed by hot air from North Africa, has led to wildfires across the Mediterranean, including in Italy and Greece. The Turkish meteorology authority had previously warned that temperatures would rise between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius above seasonal norms around the country’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
Ümit Kıvanç, a Turkish journalist and writer, thinks environmental protection is not a priority for the AKP government.
“We realized because of this disaster that forests are not vital for the AKP. If the government had nature- and environmentally-friendly policies, it would have taken the necessary steps before today,” said Kıvanç in an interview with Turkish Minute.
According to him, it is not realistic to expect environmental sensitivity from a government that consistently tries to use green spaces for housing construction.
Kıvanç says scientists from all over the world for years have deemed forest fires as among the possible first-stage consequences of global warming but that the Turkish government continues to ignore them.
“Our country is in a critical zone for forest fires. We knew it in the past, and now we are experiencing it. Because of global warming, fires will become more frequent. So why doesn’t the government have any firefighting aircraft? We Turkish citizens still haven’t received a satisfactory answer to that question,” Kıvanç said.
However, according to Kıvanç, people in Turkey, no longer expect honest answers from the AKP government. “We can’t be sure that anyone in office will tell us the truth and think of our welfare before their own interests. Therefore, we naturally don’t believe the official narrative.”
A few days after devastating wildfires started, the AKP government sought help from the European Union, which agreed to send four planes to the affected areas. It had already accepted help, including several aircraft, from countries including Russia and Azerbaijan.
Erdogan’s government has been accused of compromising firefighting efforts by allegedly refusing assistance from Western countries in the early stages of the fires.
“Help from abroad, especially from European countries, was not received positively at first because it would lead to questioning the government and officials,” Algedik said and added that according to some politicians, accepting help means that the government is not capable of handling the country’s disasters.
Pakdemirli rejected the accusations, saying the government had only refused offers for small water-dumping planes.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu also denied the claim, saying Turkey accepted all offers for assistance that met its needs. “In times of disaster, we would, of course, accept assistance from other countries in the same way that we provide assistance to other countries,” he said.
While citizens and firefighters heroically fought the wildfires, the government appeared to be ineffective, so people launched the “#HelpTurkey” campaign on social media. Mayors posted videos pleading for aerial firefighting equipment for local wildfires that were shared by hundreds of thousands of people including Turkish celebrities.
“We need fire planes and assistance to put a stop to the forest fires raging across more than 60 locations on the beautiful turquoise coast and mountains,” said the global call, which became the top trending topic on Twitter and had been shared by more than 2.8 million people.
According to AKP supporters, seeking the help of the international community is aimed at humiliating Turkey, and that instead people should say, “Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing tall.”
“The so-called aid campaign, which has been organized from a single center abroad, has been launched out of ideological motivations to portray our state as powerless and to weaken our unity,” Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s director of communications, said.
On Aug. 5 the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched a probe into social media accounts that asked for foreign help in the face of the devastating forest fires.
According to the prosecutor’s office, some social media accounts and media outlets “tried to create panic, fear, and concern among the public” by using the “#HelpTurkey” hashtag. It also claimed that some accounts tried to humiliate the Turkish state and government.