The Turkish parliament began debating a controversial bill last week to clear and destroy mines along the border with Syria. A private contractor plans to carry out the de-mining and secure the allocation of the cleared area for its agricultural use. The bill once again exposed divisions between the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition parties, as well as within the ruling party. The prospects that the tender might be awarded to foreign and especially Israeli companies, alarmed opposition parties, which have argued that the proposed legislation is another indication that the AKP is betraying Turkish national interests.
Following its ratification of the Ottawa Convention on the destruction of anti-personnel mines (APM’s) in 2003, Turkey pledged to destroy its existing stockpiles and those already placed along its borders. According to the Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, Turkey has since destroyed 43 percent of its 2,690,929 APM’s and plans to remove the remainder by 2010. Moreover, there are currently around 981,790 APM’s deployed along its borders and in strategic locations. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has started mine-clearing operations within some provinces (ANKA, May 17).
Around two-thirds of the 900,000 APM’s on Turkey’s borders are located on the Turkish-Syrian border. The finance and defense ministries supported the view of the Turkish military authorities that the best option was to sub-contract the de-mining of the border. Under that tender, to be conducted in accordance with the Public Procurement Law, the company awarded the mine-clearing rights will be required to complete its work within five years. Moreover, it will have the right to lease cleared areas belonging to the treasury for agricultural use for up to 44 years (Today’s Zaman, June 24, 2008; www.cnnturk.com, May 3). The management of underground resources, such as oil and minerals, is not covered by the tender. The Turkish petroleum company TPAO plans to explore drilling for oil in this area (Cihan Haber Ajansi, May 18).
The plan to sub-contract the clean-up project to private companies has long been featured on the government’s agenda. The MHP and CHP opposition parties expressed concern that foreign companies, especially Israeli firms, might become involved in the project. An earlier tender was canceled by the council of state owing to such objections. The government has delayed parliamentary discussions on a revised bill, which is intended to provide a more solid legal framework to conduct the project (www.rotahaber.com, March 17, 2008). Since it has also come under increasing pressure to meet the deadline set by the Ottawa Convention, the bill was finally presented to parliament last week, prompting heated discussion.
The opposition parties raised several objections. They claimed that allowing foreign companies to operate on Turkey’s borders might pose a threat to its national security. Consequently, they demanded that the TSK should be given the sole responsibility for mine-clearing. Moreover, they alleged that the TSK also harbored reservations over the bill. In their defense, government officials referred to "classified" correspondence with the TSK in which the latter expressed a preference for sub-contracting to private companies. Equally, they noted the military’s concerns had been incorporated into the draft bill. According to the government, land required for ensuring border security will not be leased to the contractor (Anadolu Ajansi, May 14). However, those statements failed to satisfy the opposition, who argued that the government had misled the public. One CHP representative invited the TSK to issue a statement clarifying its stance on the bill. He also called for its withdrawal, saying that if approved in parliament, the party will refer the issue to the constitutional court (Anadolu Ajansi, May 18).
Moreover, some opposition deputies claimed that the wording within the bill indicates it was drafted to favor awarding the tender to Israeli companies. They alleged that this proved the hypocrisy of the AKP’s foreign policy, given Erdogan’s earlier anti-Israeli rhetoric (ANKA, May 16). In response, the Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek denied that this was intended, and said fourteen companies were currently in competition for the tender. He added that although there are no Turkish companies specializing both in mine-clearance and agriculture, some might consider forming consortiums with foreign partners to compete for the tender (www.cnnturk.com, May 13). Although Simsek did not disclose the identity of any company involved, one Turkish daily said that it had obtained the list of contenders which included companies from Britain, Croatia, Denmark, France, Israel, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine and the United States (Today’s Zaman, May 17).
In addition, many opposition deputies, including those from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society, demanded that the areas designated for mine-clearance should be distributed locally, in order to benefit the rural economy. Simsek, however, contends that such redistribution might result in the inefficient use of agricultural land, and therefore the government prefers to lease it en masse. Many AKP parliamentarians also share the opposition’s concerns (www.nethaber.com, May 16). Owing to these objections, the government has been unable to rapidly pass the bill in parliament.
Moreover, given the continued controversy over the possible involvement of Israeli firms, the conservative press favoring the AKP has also joined the rising criticism of the bill (Yeni Safak, May 20). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a hastily convened closed door meeting to allay the concerns of the AKP deputies. In a bid to reassure them that bill adequately protected Turkish national interests, Erdogan allegedly claimed that "the controversy was a product of the opposition parties, trying to wear us down through their unfair accusations" (Hurriyet Daily News, May 20).
The heated discussion surrounding the bill reveals that concern over national security remains high on the domestic political agenda. Across the political spectrum there is sensitivity to any initiative that might imply an infringement of the country’s territorial integrity. The presence on Turkish soil of foreign capital or troops, can easily be manipulated to garner opposition against any effort to develop closer ties with the outside world.