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Disquiet over Turkish PM's pharaonic megaprojects

AFP , Friday 28 Mar 2014
Turkey
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, is seen in an election billboard of his Justice and Development Party with Haghia Sophia in the background in Istanbu, Turkey, Thursday, March 27, 2014 (Photo: AP)
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Osman Erkov's farm sits pretty in a seaside village near Istanbul, but soon it will make way for one of Turkey's many new megaprojects, billed the "world's biggest airport".

"Look how beautiful it is, this landscape," said the dairy farmer, looking across the Black Sea village of Yenikoy on the rural fringes of the sprawling megacity of over 15 million people.

"Well, all that will disappear," he said, gazing at the future site of Istanbul's third airport, one of many grand projects of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who was once the city's mayor.

Erkov has worried about the future since surveyors showed up to map the wooded landscape which bulldozers are set to clear to build new runways and terminals within four years.

"Here everyone lives off raising livestock," he said. "What do we do now?"

Fellow farmer Arif Akdemir said the state offered him compensation of 50 lira ($23/17 euros) per square metre (10.7 square feet), which he claims was a tenth of the market value.

"They told us 'take this money and start a new life somewhere else'. But what kind of life can you have with such a sum?"

On Sunday, voters like Erkov and Akdemir will go to the polls in local elections that are seen as a crucial popularity test for Erdogan and the building boom under his rule that has changed the face of the city.

Since Erdogan took power 11 years ago, he has driven rapid economic growth and boosted Turkey's image as a regional player, a record now tinged by street protests against him and a festering corruption scandal.

Whatever his legacy will be, he has already left his mark on the skyline of Turkey's cultural and commercial centre.

Under the rule of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, there has been a frenzy of construction in Istanbul, with new skyscrapers, highways and residential towers shooting out of the ground.

To millions of Turks the modernisation has been a source of national pride.

A new train tunnel opened in October under the Bosphorus strait that divides the city's European and Asian sides, and work has started on a second tunnel for road traffic.

Other, far bolder plans include a "second Bosphorus", a 40-kilometre (25-mile) canal that would cut through Istanbul's European side to divert shipping, with new million-strong cities planned on its banks.

Some critics have dubbed such pharaonic visions "crazy projects".

Environmentalists are alarmed about the building boom, which also includes a new highway that will link the new airport to a third bridge over the Bosphorus.

The plan will destroy more than 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) of forest.

"Here you have Istanbul's last forest area and the water catchment area that supplies the city," said Hakan Ganimgil of the Association for the Defence of the Northern Forest, who dubbed the plan an "environmental disaster".

Cultural heritage experts warn the highway will cut through eight archaeological sites, a frequent concern in the former Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine and then Ottoman empires.

The government camp stands by the ambitious infrastructure drive.

"We must pay attention to the environment, but we can't stand idly by with our arms crossed," said Cemal Demir, head of a think tank close to the AKP.

"These projects will help create new jobs and give confidence to our people."

It was plans for another new development -- razing the city's small green space of Gezi park for an Ottoman-style museum and shopping complex -- that last June sparked unprecedented protests against Erdogan.

The local polls on Sunday will be the AKP's first ballot box test since that unrest, and since a major corruption scandal broke in December, implicating Erdogan and his political and business allies.

The tales of sleaze -- based on leaked audio recordings that have spread on social media -- paint a murky picture of official bribes and backhanders, some for re-zoning of public lands.

In many of the biggest projects, said urban planner Tuta Inal Cekic, "the common feature is government expropriation of public land for privatisation in juicy real estate deals".

Jean-Francois Perouse, of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies, argued many of the projects are unnecessary as Istanbul's urban growth has slowed.

"This development model reveals delusions of grandeur that are hardly justifiable in the era of sustainable cities," he said.

The government says all criticism and graft probes are part of a foreign plot to stop the construction of Istanbul's giant future airport.

Erdogan has regularly told crowds at campaign events that "they want to stop us from building a new Turkey".

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