The fires started on Friday. Beginning in the forests on the Asian side of Turkey’s Bosphorus Straits, flames reduced five hectares of woodland to ash, their plume of smoke blotting out visibility on a nearby highway filled with cars heading into Istanbul. Such minor summer disasters happen naturally at times all around the Mediterranean, but around Turkey’s largest city nothing seems to be that straightforward anymore. The fires appeared to be set off in five places, suggesting arson, while the forests they burned were in the area where Istanbul’s third Bosphorus Bridge is set to be constructed, a prime site for development that’s been made all the more prime by the bridge’s planned arrival.
No one is explicitly linking the fires with the government, but the bridge is fast becoming the most contested project among the many challenged by Turkey’s protestors – not least because it seems the government will stop at nothing to get it built. Authorities maintain that the bridge is essential to the further growth Istanbul’s economy, which has been buoyant compared to Turkey’s stricken neighbors. Opponents say it will destroy one of the region’s last green areas and, rather than solving traffic problems, just attract more cars to a city that hasn’t as yet completed a metro link between its European and Asian halves. Even the bridge’s name is controversial: the plan is to name it after former Sultan Selim the Grim, known for expanding the Ottoman empire but also for massacring thousands of members of Turkey’s still embattled Alevi religious minority.
Sensing the project under attack, the government has been using new legislation as its main weapon. The Turkish parliament is tabling a law that will exempt major projects from submitting to an Environmental Impact Assessment, a move mentioned quietly in this pro-bridge report. An EIA is no minor bureaucratic hurdle, it’s a basic, essential building block of any major project, along with the standard cost/benefit analysis. As well as calculating what stresses the bridge might cause to the area, it would be an essential step if the project were to gain foreign credit.
Bypassing this standard, vital step is just the sort of thing the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers would protest strongly – except that in another coup the government removed the Chamber’s power to contest any city planning decisions earlier this month. With the laws changed and the country’s development advisory sidelined, the brakes are now off.
That doesn’t mean the government isn’t listening to public protest. They’re just not admitting it publicly. Municipalities around the proposed bridge site received a letter last month suggesting that the route will be changed. Could this be a response to public pressure? It’s hard to say, because there’s been an official denial that any change has taken place at all, let alone any details of what those changes might be.
Whether or not all this bridge trouble is a sign of a government gone off the democratic rails is moot. Crucially, the new laws concentrating power in government hands have passed through an elected parliament. It’s hard to see the democratic benefit, however, in harassing and sidelining any group that questions government decisions, in criminalizing dissent, in dispensing with any planning process that might offer a challenge, in whittling away at civil society until what’s left is hollow and flimsy. Istanbul’s third bridge risks becoming a monument to growing autocracy, as all the while new fires in Istanbul’s forests keep burning.