European Union seems far away in southeast Turkey

European Union seems far away in southeast Turkey

In the shadow of mountains bordering Iraq and Iran, Turkey's Hakkari province may one day be an outpost of the European Union. But for now, it feels cut off from the world.

Its picturesque valleys and snowy peaks shelter communities ravaged by more than 20 years of separatist conflict, which has devastated traditional livestock farming and forced many local Kurds to turn to smuggling to earn a living.

Trade opportunities are limited. Hakkari's border to Iraq is closed, trade with Iran is sporadic and there are only limited road links to the rest of Turkey across mountain passes.

"All the doors have been shut in our face and hopes have been dashed. We are effectively being told: 'don't trade officially, smuggle instead'," said Adnan Hatipoglu, general secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce.

In October, Turkey began EU entry talks which are expected to last 10-15 years. Brussels has urged the country to do more to bridge the gap between its prosperous west and the southeast.

Poorest area of Turkey

With annual per capita income of US$800 - around a quarter of western Turkish levels - Hakkari is one of the poorest areas but its problems are felt across the mainly Kurdish southeast.

Successive governments, 1,300 kilometers away in Ankara, have failed to implement bold development plans. Incentive schemes have done little to overcome the concerns of businessmen about investing in a region torn apart by a rebel insurgency.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the government in 1984, and 30,000 people have been killed in their fight for an ethnic homeland in the region.

Violence tailed off after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 but last year, the PKK called off a six-year unilateral ceasefire and resumed its attacks on security and civilian targets.

"Life in the region has become unbearable. Unemployment has reached 70 percent, livestock farming has been decimated and villages emptied," Hatipoglu said.

Fuel smuggling

One of the few ways to make money is by smuggling fuel. The state turns a blind eye to the semi-illicit trade given the deep poverty in the region.

Some 4,000 trucks ply their trade in the neighboring Van province near the border, queuing in their hundreds at police checkpoints after bringing in diesel fuel from Iran.

"All the drivers you see here are doing this work because there is no other work," said 39-year-old truck driver Servet, who declined to give his surname.

Locals want the government to scrap restrictions on when fuel can be transported as well as introduce measures to boost investment in the region. Some would also like authorities to open the border crossing to Iraq to spur trade.

The government has taken some measures to encourage local industry, for example establishing carpet weaving centers but these have met with mitigated success.

In one of the workshops near the Hakkari governor's office, dozens of teenage girls sit at looms, weaving bright patterns into 'kilim' carpets.

For men, livestock was historically the economic mainstay. That too has been dealt a fierce blow with the destruction of some 70 villages in Hakkari in the 1990s as the state looked to choke off support for the PKK rebels in the mountains.

The loss of income was only partially offset by the employment of thousands of Kurds as village guards in a state militia fighting alongside soldiers against the PKK.

Locals now warn the latest violence may undermine widespread Kurdish hopes for the EU process, encouraging youths to join PKK fighters holed up in the nearby mountains of northern Iraq.

In the southeast's main city Diyarbakir, business official Lezgin Yalcin said activity had picked up in the service sector, construction and public investment in recent years but this came to a halt when attacks started again.

Much of the local economy depends on the income of tens of thousands of civil servants and security force personnel, which can give a misleading appearance of relative prosperity in the city's main district where streets are crowded with banks and shops found across the west.

"In appearance life has improved, but the new businesses are not making any money," Yalcin said. "What the region needs is an end to the violence."

Updated : 2021-03-04 23:48 GMT+08:00