Turkey has a serious mine problem; there are an estimated 600,000 anti-personnel mines buried along the border with Syria, and another 300,000 in other areas. After signing the 2003 Ottawa Convention on the destruction of anti-personnel mines (APM's), Turkey pledged to destroy its mines by 2014. Although the Turkish military had initially started doing some of this work already before 2003, it was determined that it lacks the equipment and expertise to finish the job. One solution, proposed by the government, was to subcontract the work to a private company that specializes in mine clearing. The proposal has a kind of beating mines into plowshares angle, with the subcontractor also getting a 44-year lease on the land to use it for organic farming.
But the possible involvement of foreign companies -- particularly Israeli ones -- in the project has complicated things. From a new report by the Jamestown Foundation:
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)........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).
You can read the full report here. Speaking to Today's Zaman, Mehmet Günal, a MHP MP from Antalya had this to say on the subject:
"Awarding the contract to a foreign company will threaten our national security. Demining is a matter of national security, not of agriculture," he said. Günal underlined that the problem was that the tenders for demining and for agriculture were to be simultaneously held.
"We suggest that agricultural use of such a big and strategic stretch of land should not be merged with the mine-clearing tender. If such merging is made, we see that Israeli companies are being described. It would be a big thing for the Turkish-Syrian border to be controlled by Israel for a period of 44 years. We have identified that out of 14 applicants, seven have ties with Israel. Three more have indirect connections with Israel. If demining is merged with agriculture, there is no other company to do this besides the Israel companies," he said.
You can read the rest of the Today's Zaman article, which has some very good background on this story, here.
Ultimately, it seems like the demining issue has become hostage to a combination of nationalist reflexes and the ongoing power struggle between the AKP government and its opponents. "It’s turned into a mess, simply because of a kind of anachronistic, nationalistic approach," one Ankara-based analyst I spoke with told me. "They are diverting attention from the real problem of mines in the southeast."
(Photo from Today's Zaman)