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A Good Friday in the New Turkey: ‘It’s a Gas-Gas-Gas’


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promoting the discovery of a major natural gas reserve off Black Sea coast, at the Dolmabahce Palace Presidential Work Office in Istanbul, Turkey on 21 August 2020. (Image Source: TCCB/Murat Çetinmühürdar – Anadolu Agency)

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

On Friday, 21 August 2020, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) took to the stage to make a well-publicised announcement: “Turkey has made its biggest natural gas discovery,” and he went on to speak about  a”new era” for the country and its standing in the world.

And always an optimist with unshaken faith in his creator, the Prez also stated that “[n]ew discoveries of natural gas are highly possible,” expressing his hope that Turkish exploration teams will discover more hidden oil and gas wealth in due time.

Creating a Buzz: Good Tidings Ahead

Speaking at the Kalyon Güneş Teknolojileri factory on Wednesday, 19 August, Turkey’s President announced that he would have ‘good tidings’ (or müjde, in Turkish) to announce on the following Friday. While opening a factory that has received a $1.4b investment in order to produce solar panels, a clearly proud and happy Erdoğan made the announcement, leading many to speculate that his announced-and-as-yet-undeclared ‘good tidings’ would be about some kind of energy-related enterprise and and/or discovery.  And, writing for Bloomberg on the same day and at about the same time, Çağan Koc, Selcan Hacaoğlu, and Aslı Kandemir all but confirmed this expectation while taking the wind our of the Prez’s sails:

“Turkey has discovered energy in the Black Sea, most likely natural gas, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said Wednesday [, 19 August 2020], but gave no indication of the size and depth of the find, nor how difficult it will be to extract.”

In fact, Bloomberg even tweeted about their scoop, in this way totally deflating Tayyip Erdoğan’s best-laid plans to surprise Turkey and the world with his müjde. In fact, last year, Turkey’s strongman had already made such stunning statements – statements that subsequently proved all but illusory if not misleading. Speaking in Edirne in February last year, he declared: “[w]e have discovered new gas fields [holding] 3 billion cubic metres of natural gas reserves, which will double the gas production present in [the province of] Thrace. This figure is in the order of a capacity that will meet 10 years’ worth of gas demand of 300,000 households.” At the time,  Erdoğan was speaking in the run up to the national local elections (31 March 2019). In spite of these encouraging words, Edirne’s mayoral seat was nevertheless won by the opposition CHP (or Republican People’s Party)’s Recep Gürkan with a %44.9 share of the vote. As a result, some voices have now aired the opinion that the recent ‘good tidings’ should also be understood as an electioneering stunt, as general elections are scheduled to be held in Turkey on or before 25 June 2023

Turkey’s Thwarted Energy Ambitions

The veteran Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin, who famously left the one-time flagship daily Hürriyet following the hostile take-over of the Doğan Haber Ajansı (DHA) that became the pro-AKP Demirören Haber Ajansı (DHA), all but confirms such an impression. Writing on his personal blog, Yetkin does not mince his words: “Erdoğan wants some kind of election guarantee from the citizens as he says the gas extraction will start in 2023. It looks as if the President wants to give an impression that any other government else than his would not like to benefit from this valuable discovery that the country made after such long years of research.”

As a Middle-Eastern country lacking serious hydrocarbon reserves of its own, Turkey has been largely reliant upon gas and oil imports – from Russia and Iran primarily. At the same time, the AKP-led governments have over the years been prospecting for oil and gas throughout the whole of the country. In fact, Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen have been enthusiastically investigating the land and its past in order to discover hitherto unknown sources of energy within Turkey’s borders. Yetkin insightfully remarks that before “the 2007 elections, it was announced that natural gas was found in Thrace and Salt Lake, and oil in Manisa. Before the 2010 constitutional referendum, Turkey found oil in Manisa and Ergani.” More than ten year ago, the then-Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yıldız spoke at the 9th International Oil and Gas Conference at Ankara’s Sheraton Hotel (16-17 March 2010), to declare that “there are big and significant natural gas and oil reserves in the east of Turkey. Turkey shapes its energy policies and diplomacy by taking them into consideration.” Yıldız’s statement was clearly devoid of any truth, and three years later, he even went as far as fearlessly combining economic needs and necessities with the nation’s leaders’ pseudo-Ottoman proclivities, saying that Turkey has “as many [oil] wells as Saudi Arabia, but [the Saudis] are only able to extract 10 million barrels [of oil]. [Turkey, on the other hand] is able to extract 50 million barrels.” Though his statement made on national television also clearly lacked any base in reality, Yıldız’s bold claims relied on information contained on a 100-year old ‘Oil Map,’ commissioned by Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909). In 2012, Taner Yıldız had presented Abdülhamid’s ‘Oil Map’ to the Turkish press, as historical evidence of Turkey’s untapped energy resources. This map was in fact prepared by a German team in the year 1901, in the context of the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad-Basra rail link. According to  the AKP Minister Yıldız, “[t]his map also includes such places like Batman and Adıyaman where we are now [effectively] looking for oil.” And in February 2013, speaking on the state broadcaster TRT’s programme Neler Oluyor, Yıldız said that “[t]his map can become real. This map is congruent with today’s scientific research. That is the interesting [part].”

In reality though Sultan Abdülhamid’s ‘Oil Map’ proved to be yet another pipe dream. As related by Yetkin, before “the 2014 elections, the good news [was] the finding of shale gas in Diyarbakır that would [meet] Turkey’s demand for 40 years. Ahead of the June 7, 2015 election, it was announced that natural gas was found in Thrace, and before the Nov. 1, 2015 election, natural gas was discovered in the Black Sea. Before the 2018 elections, new oil fields were found in Mardin, Şırnak, Hakkari, Batman and Siirt and natural gas in Thrace.” But now, the Prez himself is adamant that the drillship Fatih has discovered rich gas holdings (“some 320 billion cubic metres”) under the Black Sea, within Turkey’s territorial waters. But the online news website Ahval puts forward that many ‘analysts and officials have said Erdoğan’s recent foreign and domestic ventures – including converting the Hagia Sopha landmark into a mosque and risking a direct confrontation with neighbouring Greece over territorial disputes – are designed to divert the Turkish public’s attention away from Turkey’s cratering economy.’ For, one should not lose track of the fact that though the drillship Fatih discovered gas under the Black Sea, the New Turkey is also prospecting the Mediterranean, while claiming a special territorial relationship with Libya across the water on the African continent. As the Greek journalist John Psaropoulos, whom I am happy to call my friend, points out: “Twice in three weeks this summer, Greece and Turkey poised to clash in the Eastern Mediterranean . . .  Greek and Turkish navies fanned out across the Aegean and east Mediterranean. The two NATO allies have come closer to open conflict than they have since 1996, when Turkey planted a flag on a rocky Greek islet in the Aegean, and since 1987, when Turkey again sent a survey ship into the north Aegean.” But in spite of this recent and loud sabre-rattling, Psaropoulos correctly point out that “Turkey seeks to corner Greece into a maritime territorial settlement.” For, the Prez is really looking for a deal, a deal would skirt “past established international legal norms, [a deal that would] force Greece, and later Cyprus, to declare their vast continental shelves joint development zones with Turkey.” The kind of deal that would allow the Prez to replicate his Black Sea ‘good tidings.’ As Fatih’s find does not really appear to be that significant at the end of the day, as underlined by the Turkish economist Uğur Gürses: Turkey’s domestic “consumption of roughly 45 billion square cubes [of natural gas] a year roughly translates to seven years of production.” And that means, that the drillship Fatih might just be able to carry the Prez and his AKP henchmen into the uncharted territories beyond the centenary year of 2023. For, the second century of Turkey’s existence promises to be an era quite unlike any in the Republic’s history, an era that would undoubtedly flourish with Mediterranean gas to fund and uphold Tayyip Erdoğan’s pseudo-Ottoman dreams of the New Turkey as an Islamic state in its own right.

A Blessed Friday: Continuing the Countdown to 2023

Other than Erdoğan’s müjde on 21 August, another event also occupied the headlines and shocked people all around the world: The Kariye Museum, which had previously been known as the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, was namely re-converted to a mosque.  Following last month’s re-conversion of the Ayasofya, this 11th-century Orthodox church that had been a mosque following the conquest of Istanbul but was used as a museum since 1945 – the building namely houses most exquisite examples of Byzantine frescoes and mosaics – was also turned into a mosque again. Still, this event should not have come  as a surprise: a “Turkish court [already] in November [2019] annulled Chora’s museum status and [now] on Friday [, 21 August 2020], Erdogan declared ‘the management of the Kariye Mosque be transferred to the Religious Affairs Directorate [or Diyanet], and opened to worship.’ The pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported that Turkey’s religious authorities plan to cover the renowned Byzantine-era frescoes and mosaics during prayers.” In this way, in the space of but a month, the Prez turned two important samples of Istanbul’s pre-Ottoman cultural heritage into Muslim places of worship. At the same time, another well-known relic of the city’s pre-Ottoman past is also under attack now: namely, the Galata tower, built by the Genoese in 1348 as part of the city wall surrounding its trade colony in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. Following the conquest of the city, Sultan Mehmed II (1451-81), popularly known as “Fatih” or “The Conqueror in Turkey,” ordered the demolition of the wall, but allowed the tower to remain. In the following centuries, the Galata Tower became part and parcel of the Ottoman city and entered the popular imagination. Yet now, the tower which had been part of the remit of the Istanbul Municipality for the past 164 years, became subject to the AKP Ministry of Culture and Tourism by means of a sudden legal decree. And subsequently, the Ministry set to work straightaway, initiating its renovation, “one jackhammer blow at a time.” Whether this is but the outcome of the common misapprehension present in Turkey when it comes to renovation and restoration, or the result of Ankara’s attempt to rid the erstwhile Ottoman capital of its pre-Islamic heritage remains an open question.

At the same time, employing the ongoing coronavirus hysteria as an excuse, the Ankara government has cancelled this year’s Victory Day celebrations (Zafer Bayramı), commemorating  Mustafa Kemal’s victory over the Greek military at Dumlupınar in 1922. This victory ended the War of Independence (1919-22) and directly led to the signature of the Treary of Lausanne (24 July 1923) and the subsequent foundation of the Republic of Turkey (29 October 1923).

Are these portents indicating that Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP henchmen are really getting ready to bring back Islamic rule to Turkey on the 100th anniversary of the Turkish state’s foundation . . . Will the culmination of the AKP policy of Sunnification be the foundation of a pseudo-Ottoman Federation of Islamic Peoples of Anatolia, arguably still called Turkey yet ruled by Sharia law? Will this also lead to a revived Caliphate and a united Islamic world following Turkey’s lead? We will arguably find out in about three years’ time . . .

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21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in Today’s Zaman and in Hürriyet Daily News. In the next instance, he became the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @theerimtanangle. Read Can’s archive here.

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