Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast has been the center of a bloody 20-year conflict between the Turkish state and Kurds fighting for autonomy. For decades, the region has remained one of the poorest in the country, despite widespread calls for greater economic development. Earlier this month, the Turkish prime minister announced a commitment to invest in the region. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul on this latest program,
Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood before cheering supporters in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern city of Batman and announced plans for $12 billion of investment in the region.
"Mr. Erdogan said the money will be used to complete dams and irrigation projects, develop organic agriculture and improve roads," he said. "He promised that in five years the people of the region will realize the benefits of the program and when it is complete, there will be no difference between the east and west of county.
The economic development initiative is seen as a central pillar of government policy to bring peace to this region. Since 1984, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have been fighting the Turkish state for autonomy. And Ankara has been under international pressure from the European Union and the United States to revitalize the region.
During a recent visit to Turkey, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stressed the importance of economic development to undermining the insurgency.
"It should be clear military action alone will not alone end this terrorist threat, while it is certainly part of the equation there must be simultaneous efforts with non military initiative with economic programs and political outreach," he said.
Not far from where the prime minister unveiled his plan is Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region.
In one of the city's numerous coffee houses businessmen chat about the government's economic development program. Among them is Ahmet Ocal, head of the local branch of Musiad, one of Turkey's main business confederations. He welcomes the program, but questions whether it will end the long years of economic stagnation and decline.
In the last 4 years, since I have been in charge he says, four new companies joined our business organization and four have closed. He says the reality in the region is stagnation and mass unemployment. He says the latest government initiative is important and infrastructure development will help. But, he says, our real problem is lack of private sector investment.
Since the start of the conflict in the early 1980s, there have been 17 economic packages aimed at the revitalizing the region. During that time, the main pillars of the local economy, animal husbandry, agriculture and textiles have collapsed. Despite billions of dollars being committed to the region. In Diyarbakir, like other cities in the region, unemployment is estimated by local NGOs to be more than 50 percent.
"If I were the prime minister of Turkey, I would first question why were so many plans decided upon and the resources dedicated, but still these plans were not implemented," said Retired General Haldun Solmazturk.
He says he has witnessed many of the previous projects while serving in the region during the 1990s. And he says Prime Minister Erdogan needs to learn from the past.
"It is not a matter of decisions, but the implementation of decisions," he added. "There is a weakness of state, there is a poor governance, there is huge scale corruption throughout turkey. I mean as long as this weakness of the state [continues], as long as this poor governance persists, no plan - however comprehensive - will achieve anything."
But it is not only the problem of implementation, politics too remain a major hindrance
Truck drivers waiting at the Iraqi border. They wait on average 2 -3 weeks to cross the only border crossing into the Iraqi Kurdish controlled enclave. Tensions and suspicions between Kurdish leaders and Ankara, has seen Turkey restrict bi-lateral trade to a trickle. The Iraqi Kurdish enclave,, which enjoys relative stability is booming especially in the field of construction. But Turkish businessmen Ilnur Cevick says he is facing a stonewall in helping the turkey south east to benefit from this boom.
"I have already proposed to the Turkish government , 'Why don't do we start 2 big cement factories. I am preparing to do that,' I said. But the European Union has to help as well it is no use preaching. it is no nothing is being done in southeastern turkey. I said let the EU give me the credits I can get the land from the government, they say this is a priority area for development, southeastern turkey. So give me the means, I can give 40,000 families jobs. If people are sincere, the Europoean Union and the Turkish government have to help me. Because the trade is there, the business is there, [but] it needs some minds to change in Ankara."
Turkey's southeast borders Iran Iraq Syria, all seen as potential major markets, but all countries mired in international tensions. U.S. Vice President Cheney while visiting Turkey in March, pressed Ankara to support international sanctions against Iran, that would deal the region another blow, to its already sagging economy. Many observers say until economic stimuli for the region is matched by a change in state mentality, this latest initiative seems doomed to share the fate of the previous 17 initiatives.
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