“Coal isn’t free” – Turkish government culpability for Soma

soma protest 2

Much of the anger that has enveloped Turkey since the Soma mining disaster twelve days ago has been directed at the government. “Prime Minister resign!” shout the crowds of protestors marching all over the country. “Soma was a massacre, not an accident!” People are sickened by the scale of the tragedy and the apparent negligence of the mining company, but there is also a strong sense that the government was complicit in this disaster. The day after the blast, during a protest in Istanbul, I saw a young woman with a coal-smeared face, quietly holding a placard which read: “So it seems coal isn’t free”.

Here was a cynical message that got to the heart of Turks’ anger at the government. It referred to something more serious and deeply grounded than the spectacularly botched PR job of the Prime Minister’s visit to Soma, his insensitive cataloguing of 19th century European mining disasters, apparent slapping of a Soma local, the use of force by riot police on mourning relatives of the miners and the absence of apologies, resignations or explanations days after the blast.

“Coal isn’t free” is a darkly significant statement in today’s Turkey. Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made itself extremely popular over its twelve years in power by declaring itself the champion of the masses and giving out subsidies to poor families all over the country. These subsidies have included bread, macaroni and coal and are often bestowed in the run-up to elections. So far, so socialist, at least superficially. At the same time, however, the AKP has thrown itself into accelerating the program of privatization in Turkey that began in 1984. While government spokesmen boast of the billions of lira generated by these sales, the AKP’s critics accuse it of selling assets cheaply and strategically to sole bidders, and failing to check up on workers’ standards post-sale. A statement from the four main Turkish unions shortly after the blast accused the government of complicit guilt, for “even privatizing the safety supervision in the workplace”.

The Soma mine was privatised in 2005, and Soma Holding now pays royalties to the government in the form of 15% of its coal production. The mine still technically belongs to the state, which guarantees that it will buy all coal produced at the site, giving every incentive to the mining company to ramp up production while cutting costs. In an interview in 2012, the owner of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, boasted that he had reduced the extraction cost of coal from £77 per tonne to £14 through measures like making electric transformers on site rather than importing them. Miners who worked at the site also said that the company employed cheap technical specialists who were not union members, and failed to replace old, outdated equipment, which became particularly dangerous given the furious rate of production. When asked why the mine did not have a refuge chamber, Gürkan replied that it was not required by law.

All this adds up to a powerful impression that the government does not legislate on safety measures and the mine owners do not bother to meet them because this is mutually beneficial. Only two weeks before the blast, on 29th April, the AKP majority rejected the opposition’s parliamentary proposal to look into safety standards at this particular mine, saying that the mine was perfectly satisfactory and that “God willing, nothing will happen – not even a nose bleed”. The Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and branded it “an example to all mines in Turkey”. Despite Prime Minister Erodgan’s claims that the Soma disaster was on a par with almost any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking at seven lives per million tonnes of coal, compared to China’s four. In terms of general workplace safety, Turkey is third worst in the world.

The incriminatory facts and figures of the Soma disaster were compounded by the government’s response to public anger. Dramatic images from the past ten days speak volumes of the government’s zero tolerance to criticism: a top aide of the Prime Minister kicking a mourner in Soma, lawyers handcuffed, a weeping 10 year old protestor dragged away by police in Izmir and journalists under custody in Istanbul. One Turkish lawyer said to me: “What has Turkey become? It feels like living in a Central Asian dictatorship; it feels like Borat.”

In the wake of outrage over Erdogan’s handling of the crisis many are adamant he should not stand for President in August. If he does, they don’t want him. Given that the AKP’s core voting base continue to support him wholeheartedly, however, this mining disaster has contributed to what feels more and more like sectarianism in a country that once gave so much cause for hope.

Article first published in the New Statesman, 23rd March issue. Since then, Soma mining officials have been arrested and released in a limp scape goat operation. Erdogan has addressed a rally of Turks in Cologne, Germany, slamming the German government (and “the West” in general) to wild applause and accusing his opponents of smelling the Bosphorus rather than the Soma mine. A bizarre and aggressive speech.

Photograph from the BBC