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Turkey is investigating and has arrested some contractors, but the entire political and economic system is implicated.
Turkey is still in the middle of an emergency, reeling from the earthquake that killed at least 35,000 people last week. But the finger-pointing has already begun.
The rush to punishment comes amid the grief, but also the mounting fury and frustration over the Turkish government’s earthquake response. Much of that is focused on the emergency response — waiting for aid and rescue teams — but it is also extending to anger about policies before the earthquake, about how shoddy building construction may have exacerbated the devastation of the disaster.
Turkey’s Justice Ministry said this weekend that 134 people were being investigated for their roles in constructing buildings that collapsed during the quake — some advertised as complying with building regulations. At least 10 people were arrested, and a handful of others were barred from traveling abroad, according to the New York Times. Some of those arrested had tried to flee. Turkey’s Justice Ministry also said it was creating earthquake crimes investigation bureaus to probe deaths and injuries. (Vox emailed the ministry for comment but has not yet received a response.)
“We will follow this up meticulously until the necessary judicial process is concluded, especially for buildings that suffered heavy damage and buildings that caused deaths and injuries,” Vice President Fuat Oktay told reporters at a Saturday briefing.
This looks like an effort at accountability, but it is far from a robust accounting of Turkey’s earthquake failures.
Turkey sits along two major fault lines, and after a deadly 1999 earthquake, the country passed stricter building codes, but they were not consistently enforced. And that goes beyond builders and contractors cutting corners or using inferior materials. There are also likely inspectors and municipal and state officials who issued permits when they shouldn’t have, or who looked the other way. There are those who lobbied for (and the politicians who backed) amnesty laws for buildings, essentially overriding ordinances in the name of quick construction and profit.
“Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon. Yes, it happens. But the consequences of the earthquake are quite, I would say, governmental and political and administrative,” said Hişyar Özsoy, a deputy chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party and an opposition member of Parliament representing Diyarbakır, a city near the quake’s devastation.
All of this happened under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, along with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been in power for about two decades. Erdoğan made a construction boom the centerpiece of Turkey’s economic growth. At the same time, he has consolidated his power over institutions, the press, and the judiciary. This rapid economic growth, happening alongside democratic erosion, created layers of corruption and government mismanagement that allowed contractors to construct the buildings the way that they did.
“This is very much about the entire system that Erdoğan built — not just the politics of it, but also the economies behind it,” said Sebnem Gumuscu, a professor of political science at Middlebury College who has studied democracy and authoritarianism in Turkey. “The entire system is built around these corrupt networks, crony networks, and it is all levels: local level, national level, local branches of the party, local construction, developers — they’re all in this together.”
Accountability after the quake — but for whom?
In 2019, on the campaign trail, Erdoğan touted efforts to grant amnesty to builders. “We have solved the problems of 205,000 citizens of Hatay with zoning peace,” he said, according to NPR’s translation of Turkish news site Diken. These amnesty policies were a kind of red-tape cutting that allowed buildings to be built and certified even if they didn’t meet safety and code requirements. Developers had to pay a fine, but it was essentially an exemption to the rules.
The granting of these building amnesties predates Erdoğan, and also predates the 1999 earthquake that prompted Turkey to reform its safety and building standards to better withstand the next quake.
After the most recent amnesty law was passed in 2018, tens of thousands of amnesties were granted, including in earthquake-affected areas. Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, the Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects’ Chamber of City Planners, told the BBC last week that the number could be as high as 75,000 in the earthquake zone. (Vox reached out to Giritlioğlu for comment and will update with her comments if we hear back.)
Another amnesty law was awaiting approval in parliament before the earthquake, reports the BBC.
The amnesty is a window into the kind of practices that enabled the mismatch between what regulations and codes existed and what was actually enforced — and what allowed that gap to be so widespread. Even those individual policies, like amnesty, are hard to separate from the broader dynamics of the economy and politics.
As experts said, construction was the engine of the economy and so everything went into keeping that running.
That meant all layers of the political and economic structure, from the very bottom to the very top. Construction was also a source of political power for Erdoğan and the AKP, as major Turkish construction companies enriched themselves with government contracts and cozied up to the regime. That construction boom, which fueled other sectors of the economy, helped make Erdoğan and the AKP popular; that in turn allowed him to bolster his own authority, and helped put AKP into power at all levels of government, including state and municipal offices — often the ones tasked with overseeing permits or enforcing construction codes.
Politicians had incentives to approve things like amnesty laws. People enriched themselves through this ecosystem of cronyism, so there was no incentive to make sure earthquake-safe standards were applied. And the institutions that might hold these players and politicians accountable — the press, the civil service, the courts — were being hollowed out and eroded by Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian bent.
So, yes, developers and contractors likely were negligent, constructing buildings with cheap materials or designs that could not withstand a 7.8-magnitude quake. But these shortcuts couldn’t happen without the complicity or encouragement of government institutions, all of which knew the country’s vulnerabilities and pushed ahead anyway.
“Rounding up contractors is a deed to respond to public outcry,” Taner Yuzgec, a former president of the Chamber of Construction Engineers, told the New York Times. “The true culprits are the current government and the previous governments that kept the system as it is.”
The justice ministry’s investigations also could be an effort to take the pressure off not just the past misdeeds, but also the criticisms and complaints about the government’s earthquake response. Erdoğan has centralized many institutions under his control, which means many functions of the state run through him. Experts and critics have said that likely contributed to some delays in disaster response, including from the military.
These questions around Turkey’s response — felt most acutely by people waiting to find loved ones or sleeping out in the cold — are generating the most fury right now. Still, investigations targeting individual builders could take some of the pressure off Erdoğan, his party, and those tied to his government. “He’s doing a good job in going after some of the easy targets, to show that he’s serious. ‘I am looking after my people’s interests, and I’m going to make these people accountable for whatever they’ve done,’” Gumuscu said.
The question now is whether scapegoating a few low-level folks will be enough, or if this could potentially represent a decisive factor in Erdoğan’s political undoing. Elections are scheduled for May, and the country’s economic crisis and Erdoğan’s long hold on power already made him vulnerable, even with his deliberate erosion of democracy.
Whether the earthquake fully challenges Erdoğan’s hold on power is an open question, but what happens in the aftermath of the quake will determine Turkey’s future. Millions were left homeless after thousands of buildings and apartments crumbled. Those houses must be replaced. Turkey will rebuild. But how?
A third object in as many days was taken out Sunday afternoon in Michigan after passing over Montana.
An as-yet unidentified object was shot down over Michigan’s Lake Huron Sunday afternoon, the third over three consecutive days. A US jet shot down a flying object over Canada Saturday, and on Friday a US fighter brought down another over Alaska.
According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the objects taken down Friday and Saturday are likely Chinese balloons, “much smaller” than the one shot down in US coastal waters off South Carolina last week. CNN reports a Pentagon memo states the unidentified object shot down over Canada Saturday was a “small, metallic balloon with a tethered payload.” North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) temporarily closed the airspace over Montana on Saturday and Lake Michigan on Sunday “during NORAD operations.”
Debris from three of the objects is still being recovered. Officials within the Biden administration have been cautious about connecting the most recent objects with the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, which officials said had been gathering limited intelligence about US military installations.
“We’re going to probably be able to piece together this whole surveillance balloon and know exactly what’s going on,” Schumer said of the balloon shot down last weekend.
US officials only discovered China’s air balloon surveillance program within the past year, though the program dates at least as far back as the administration of former President Donald Trump. “We did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of US Northern Command and NORAD, a joint operation with Canada, told reporters Monday. The US intelligence community reportedly told NORAD that the balloons were a threat, but VanHerck didn’t specify at the time what US intelligence knows about the balloon program or how it discovered the information.
President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered Canadian and US fighters — whichever had the better shot — to take down the object Saturday. US F-22 aircraft using Sidewinder missiles shot down the object, and Canadian aircraft joined US jets Friday to track it as it transited from US airspace to Canadian. US Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said in a press conference Tuesday that the first missile shot at the as-yet-unidentified object Sunday over Lake Huron missed and landed in the lake’s waters.
“Canadian Forces will now recover and analyze the wreckage of the object,” Trudeau wrote in a Twitter post.
“It is wild that we didn’t know” about the Chinese balloon surveillance program until recently, Schumer said Sunday, despite the fact that such devices crossed into US airspace at least three times under former President Donald Trump, and similar devices have been spotted over 40 countries on five different continents, according to Axios.
A US program studying UFOs may have helped detect the Chinese balloon program
It’s unclear how extensive the Chinese program is; US systems often encounter “unexplained anomalous phenomena” (UAP) as the government calls such objects, and the objects that have been identified are mostly foreign intelligence gathering or human-made trash.
The US government does have a program to study UAP under the Department of Defense, called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The Pentagon and the intelligence community coordinate through this group to “detect, identify and attribute objects of interest in Special Use Airspace and to assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.”
US programming to study UAP isn’t new; former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) urged Congress to fund the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, the predecessor of the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, starting in 2007. Though the Pentagon claimed to have shut down the effort in 2012 and reportedly eliminated funding for it at the time, the New York Times reported in 2017 that the program continued.
ABC’s Luis Martinez reported on Tuesday that information from Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, as disclosed in reports to Congress, was one of the programs used to help identify China’s balloon surveillance program. Many of the most recent incidents of UAPs that the group has tracked have been found to have been balloons or balloon-like objects.
These incidents could cause a bigger rift between the US and China
“All countries spy on each other, and the US and China are no exception,” Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote last week, “and they have a myriad of techniques and tactics to do so, many of which are less intrusive and more precise than a massive balloon.” Given that, the balloon — and potentially the three objects downed over the weekend — might serve another purpose, or tell us more about what China and its President Xi Jinping are trying to accomplish.
There are legitimate security concerns about China’s surveillance tactics, and what it is doing with the information gathered — but honestly, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t need a balloon for that, just maybe your cellphone. And it’s still not clear why China would let this balloon head to the US on the eve of this meeting with Blinken. Some possible theories include a bureaucratic slip-up or miscommunication, which may reveal disorganization within the Chinese government, and raises questions about Xi’s competence. Signs of such dysfunction are equally troubling, as it increases the possibility of a much more serious miscalculation that could spark an even more serious confrontation.
In addition to concerns about national security, the objects the US has recently downed raise questions about the fragile relationship between the US and China. Last week, after news of the first object now determined to be a Chinese surveillance balloon broke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided to postpone his trip to China, indicating further rupture in the relationship between the two nations.
“While a ‘balloon’ sounds insignificant — even laughable — the fact is these are tremendously sophisticated surveillance and collection systems that are designed to linger over highly sensitive military facilities,” Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), told Vox via email last week. “The idea of the secretary of state visiting Beijing while this slow-moving platform was still drifting across the United States was undoubtedly a factor in the decision to postpone the trip, as was the recognition that the incident would dominate the agenda and crowd out the strategic issues.”
China responded to the downing of what they claimed was a civilian weather monitoring balloon, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying in a statement, “For the United States to insist on using armed force is clearly an excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention.” Thus far, China has not responded to the downing of the objects on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Update, February 14, 11:40 am ET: This piece was originally published on February 12, 2023; it has been updated to reflect new reporting about the nature of one object, and information about how another was taken down.