Grounded Firefighting Aircraft Haunt Erdogan as Blazes Rage
(Bloomberg) -- The amphibious firefighting planes sitting idle at an airport while Turkey’s worst ever wildfires ravage its southwestern coast are coming to haunt President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For decades, the Turkish Aeronautical Association or THK, established by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1925, has fought back the forest blazes that sporadically took hold in hot and dry Mediterranean summers.
This year, though, its Canadair CL-215 planes, a model known as the “Scooper,” are parked on a strip of tarmac outside Ankara, where they’ve been since 2019 when the government, having restricted the association’s income stream, first refused to pay an increase in its fees.
Authorities the following year insisted aircraft combating wildfires must be able to carry 5,000 liters of water, just beyond the 4,900 liters the THK’s hold. Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli on Aug. 2 said the decision was taken to prevent congestion in the skies. Poor maintenance has anyway left the planes unfit to fly.
Fires this week tore along Turkey’s coastline, razing more than 50,000 hectares of forest, damaging about 12,000 buildings, threatening power plants and forcing tens of thousands of desperate residents and holidaymakers to flee. The disaster may further erode support for Erdogan, who remains Turkey’s most popular politician despite a slump in approval over the government’s handling of the pandemic-hit economy.
The THK had for much of its history primarily relied on tithes worth millions of dollars paid by Turks sacrificing sheep during Eid festivals, receiving no government funding. The agency collected about 60% of the levies, but Erdogan ended its legal monopoly over the practice in 2013, encouraging Islamic charities to dominate the lucrative business.
“The THK has been financially squeezed into a corner and abandoned to death,” Erdogan Toprak, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said by phone on Thursday. “It is an institution that relies on donations.”
In 2015, aviation authorities barred the THK’s Dromader M-18 planes, made in Poland, from firefighting and agricultural spraying missions, citing safety risks. The agency took loans from banks to buy second-hand Canadair aircraft, and has sold real estate to raise funds and pay debt to banks.
“Erdogan gutted out the agency so religious brotherhoods can collect the tithes,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tweeted. “The agency imploded.”
With its own aircraft out of action, Turkey has leased 20 planes and dozens of helicopters from countries including Russia and Iran. A dozen fires in five provinces were still underway along the Mediterranean coast on Thursday, according to Pakdemirli.
The THK’s court-appointed trustee, Cenap Asci, who was Erdogan’s minister of trade and customs in 2015, drew criticism for quickly rejecting responsibility for the poor condition of the agency’s aircraft, and later said he was at a wedding while fires spread.
The THK planes can battle “forest fires when they break out next year if we start working today and put the institution” back on its feet, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said after meeting with Asci on Wednesday. His party, which rules many of the worst-hit coastal municipalities, said local administrations could cover the cost.
The president has dismissed claims his government’s fire response has been inadequate. The government’s probing social-media posts with the hashtag #helpturkey, accusing the accounts of sowing fear and panic. Officials countered with a #strongturkiye campaign. Turkey’s media watchdog ordered TV networks to restrain their coverage of the wildfires.
Erdogan accused opposition parties of disseminating “lies” as he hit back during an interview with Ahaber television late Wednesday.
“The government is responsible for putting out forest fires, but who’s responsible when the fire reaches residential areas? It is the responsibility of municipalities there,” he said.
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