TURKEY: AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE
CRS Report for Congress
Turkey: After the Earthquake
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On August 17, 1999, Turkey was struck by a severe earthquake, leaving about
15,000 dead, 24,000 injured, and 250,000 homeless. The high casualty toll, aggravated
by shoddy construction, has been partly attributed to corrupt builders and government
officials. Turkish media, earthquake victims, and other observers criticized the
government and military for their slow responses to the disaster. Yet, neither the
political system nor the government are likely to change soon. Turkey had been in a
recession before the quake, and economic growth will continue to decline in the short
term but will pick up with spending on recovery. Parliament has passed macroeconomic
reforms, paving the way for an International Monetary Fund standby agreement.
International support for the earthquake victims has been remarkable. The U.S.
Administration provided aid for rescue and relief, no longer-term assistance. Israel’s
response may cement bilateral ties, while those of the European Union and Greece may
help heal strained relations. H.Con.Res. 188, introduced on September 22, commends
Greece and Turkey for putting aside their differences in responses to earthquakes in both
countries. See also, see CRS Report RS20253, Turkey: Continuity and Change after
Elections, July 6, 1999. This report will not be updated.
On August 17, 1999, an earthquake registering 7.4 on the Richter scale, one of theth
most powerful recorded in the 20 century, struck northwest Turkey. Over 20% of the
Turkish population lives in the affected provinces. The hardest hit areas include Izmit, an
industrial city and location of the country’s largest refinery, Golcuk, home of the largest
naval base, nearby cities, towns, and villages, and eastern districts of Istanbul, Turkey’s
largest city. Severe aftershocks caused more injuries and damage. The death toll, which
includes seven Americans, exceeds 15,000,1 with 24,000 injured, and 250,000 homeless.
1 The official death toll was revised downward by about 5,500 on August 24. Critics accused the
government of downplaying the magnitude of the disaster to mask its poor response. Amberin
Zaman, Critics Say Turkey is Understating Earthquake Death Toll, The Washington Post,
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Over 60,000 houses were destroyed, 58,000 moderately damaged, and 68,000 lightly
damaged, costing many lives. This high number has been attributed to shoddy
construction by corrupt contractors on unsuitable land and to lack or inadequacy of2
inspections by dishonest local officials.
Government officials and the armed forces were not seen to act for the critical first
36 to 48 hours after the earthquake.3 The government blamed its slow response on the
destruction of transportation and communications infrastructure, but it was clearly
deficient in emergency preparedness, typified by lack of civil defense operations,
coordination, search and rescue teams and equipment, or other trained personnel. The
government did not commandeer equipment from the private sector for rescue efforts
until August 21. These deficiencies are striking since Turkey often experiences
earthquakes. Smarting at the criticism, Chief of Staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu insisted
that the armed forces had mobilized for rescue immediately, and the military's public affairs
office claimed thousands of rescues.
Turkish civil society stepped into the void left by government inaction. Non-
governmental organizations, businesses, and individual citizens mobilized for rescue efforts
and to provide immediate relief. Some members of the government criticized these efforts
as publicity stunts. The government confiscated the bank accounts of some non-
governmental groups to prevent “mismanagement,” and perhaps also to avoid being
upstaged by Islamists and others.
Possible Political Ramifications
Domestic criticism of the state’s response was unprecedented in its scope, and some
analysts hoped that the earthquake would spur changes to the political system. How long
popular anger at the state will last is uncertain. Political reform is unlikely in Turkey under
present conditions, however. The government and military closed ranks and turned on
media critics for “demoralizing” the people and troops. State censors suspended
operations of a television station because of its castigating commentary. Other critics then
stopped reproaching the military, and some journalists defended it.
In other countries, a government that responded so poorly to a natural disaster might
fall. A three-party coalition took office in June with a large parliamentary majority. It is
the fifth government in four years and its longevity has never been assured, but the
earthquake probably will not hasten its departure. The government is composed of the
September 9, 1999, p. A-15.
2 Jon Hemming, Builders Pilloried after Turkey Quake, Reuters, August 18, 1999; Celestine
Bohlen, Quick Destruction follows Istanbul’s Haste to Build, The New York Times, August 19,
1999, p. 12; Richard Boudreaux, Turkey’s Builders face Probe over Quake Ruin, Los Angeles
Times, August 20, 1999, p. A-1.
3 Stephen Kinzer, Sidelined for Days, Turkey’s Army Joins Rescue, The New York Times, August
Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Motherland Party (ANAP), and the Nationalist Action
Party (MHP). DSP and, even more often, ANAP had participated in prior governments
and might be viewed as at least partly liable for deficiencies in the official response to the
quake. MHP is a newcomer to government and might be considered less culpable, but it
heads ministries that are in the forefront of relief and recovery efforts. Thus, its actions
were more closely scrutinized than its partners, and the results were mixed. MHP Health
Minister Osman Durmus’s made xenophobic statements as he rejected an Armenian search
and rescue team and Greek blood donations, and denigrated foreign medical assistance.
MHP's coalition partners did not join in calls for his resignation, however, and Durmus
remains in office. By contrast, MHP Minister of Housing and Public Works Koray Aydin
appeared organized and reassuring. Aydin’s ministry is responsible for housing
earthquake victims and announced a three-phase plan of immediate shelter, prefabricated
temporary homes, and permanent reconstruction. The government also offered rent
subsidies to those seeking alternative housing.
The opposition Islamist Virtue Party (FP) finished third in the April national election
and is experiencing generational infighting among its leaders. Yet, it is not debilitated,
and FP-led municipalities rapidly sent representatives to the disaster to provide food,
medical aid, and clothing to earthquake victims. These actions prompted some fear that
FP would exploit the situation for political gain.
Finally, as the constitutionally mandated guarantor of the state, the military is the
major political power in Turkey. Since a change of command in summer 1998, the military
had been lowering its public profile, which it had raised when it forced an Islamist-led
government from power in June 1997. The commanders reportedly recommended a state
of emergency or martial law after the earthquake, but the government said it was not
needed and the military deferred to civilians, who proved wanting. The military possesses
transport and communications that could have helped overcome some the problems that
the government blamed for its inaction in the early hours of the disaster. Turks questioned
their armed forces’ absence, but the extent that the quake has tarnished the military’s
popular image remains unclear.
Cost estimates of earthquake damage vary. The Turkish government estimates losses
at between $9 billion and $13 billion. The World Bank's assessment includes $6.5 billion
for earthquake damage plus $2 billion in lost production. The Turkish Industrialists and
Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD) estimates the cost at $17 billion — $10 billion in
infrastructure damage, $5 billion in lost production, and $2 billion in emergency relief.
Productivity may fall due to workers’ fear of returning to work or flight from the region,
and tax revenues also may decline
The Turkish economy had been in recession before the earthquake. In the first half
of 1999, its gross national product declined, largely because continuing factors related to
the global financial crisis, particularly in Russia, one of Turkey’s major trading partners.
Growth will continue to fall during the remainder of the year due to effects of the
earthquake. A contraction in the gross national product of -1% to -1.5% is forecast for
however, is expected to spur growth of the gross national product by about +5% in 2000,
when concern about inflation also may return.
To meet conditions set earlier by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a
standby agreement of $1.5 billion to $3 billion, parliament has passed macroeconomic
reforms, including banking oversight, international arbitration of commercial disputes, and
social security reform. The IMF still expects to complete negotiations with Turkey on an
agreement this year. It offered a $500 million emergency loan after the quake. The World
Bank also is preparing a large loan package for reconstruction and recovery.
International Responses and Policy Implications
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has4
recorded donations in kind and cash from over 60 countries and many charities.
United States. On August 18, President Clinton telephoned Turkish President
Suleyman Demirel to express his condolences and promise help. In his August 21 radio
address, President Clinton urged the American people to provide charitable donations to
assist Turkey. He said, “Turkey is our long-time ally and the people of Turkey are our
friends ... we must do all we can to help and we will.” On September 1, the President
made an unusual second plea to encourage Americans to support the relief effort. Many
Americans answered his appeal.
The official U.S. response took many forms and funding came from a variety of5
sources. As of September 13, the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of
Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) had provided $14,460,080 in humanitarian
assistance. The Department of Defense assisted with personnel, military transport, and
equipment (tents, body bags, medical supplies) totaling $10 million. After search and
rescue, U.S. effort were to shift to mid- and long-term assistance.
Disaster Assistance.6 USAID deployed two search and rescue teams to help recover
victims. Each team included rescue experts, search dogs, and sensory and earthmoving
equipment. AID furnished medical supplies, blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, and
three water purification units capable of meeting the needs of 27,000 people each. The
U.S. Geological Survey participated in an overflight assessment of the earthquake zone.
The USS Kearsarge, the USS Gunston Hall, and the USS Ponce arrived at Golcuk
on August 23 and were used for air humanitarian support operations — lifting support,
moving relief supplies, and rendering medical teams. Three additional U.S. naval ships
with the capacity to generate 100,000 gallons of water per day arrived later. The
Department of Defense established Task Force AVID RESPONSE to support in-country
relief agencies. Its Civil Military Operations Center organized and facilitated the
distribution of supplies and other relief efforts for earthquake victims.
4 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Situation Reports,
5 For background and comparison, see CRS Report 98-1030, Central America: Reconstruction
after Hurricane Mitch, by Lois McHugh, updated regularly.
6 U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau for Humanitarian Response, Office of U.S.
Foreign Disaster Assistance, Turkish Earthquake Fact Sheets.
Longer-term Aid.7 On September 2, The Washington Post reported that the
Administration would request $100 to $300 million for Turkey as part of a $12 billion8
emergency funding request. The Administration later took account of budget and
congressional constraints and emphasized other measures for Turkey. Its view may have
suppressed several ambitious ideas that Prime Minister Ecevit and the Turkish media had
floated for U.S. consideration before Ecevit’s September 28 meeting with President
Clinton. On August 30, Ecevit said that he would ask the United States to guarantee a
bond issue to raise money for reconstruction.9 Sources suggested that the request would10
be for a guarantee of $5 billion in 10-year bonds. Turkey has a good debt repayment
record, but Congress would have had to approve an annual loan subsidy to protect the
United States against possible default. Although Turkish newspapers alleged that the
Administration had turned down Turkey’s request for a guarantee,11 a Turkish official
asserted on September 24 that the government had decided that a bond issue was not
needed.12 Other sources indicated that Ecevit would ask for forgiveness of debts incurred13
from foreign military financing (FMF), especially loans from the 1980s which bear high
interest rates. U.S. Treasury and congressional approval would have been needed, and
Administration officials noted “substantial” difficulties with debt forgiveness. Ecevit
claimed after meeting President Clinton that the latter said he would consider it, while U.S.
officials said the President did not respond. Ecevit also said that he had asked President
Clinton to resume military aid to Turkey because of its role in Bosnia, Kosovo, and
Northern Watch over Iraq, and claimed that President Clinton wanted to resume aid before
the end of his term.14 Finally, Turkish journalists and others suggested a U.S.-Turkish free
trade agreement, perhaps unaware that the United States is party to only two accords --
the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and an accord with Israel -- and that
Congressional approval would been needed and unlikely. Ecevit did not propose an
agreement, but requested consideration of a qualified industrial zone whose products could
enter the United States tax free, for Turkey’s southeast, which is recovering from 15 years
of guerrilla warfare. The main economic results of Ecevit’s visit are a $108 million
increase in quotas for Turkish textile exports to the United States, a trade and investment
framework agreement, several U.S. agency programs to encourage U.S. businesses to
participate in reconstruction and investment in Turkey, and continued U.S. support for
Turkey in international financial institutions..
7 Turkey last received U.S. economic and military aid in FY1998. The latter was in loans at
market rates. Turkey still receives International Military Education and Training funds and
assistance for narcotics control.
8 Eric Pianin and George Hager, Clinton to See at Least $12 Billion More in Spending, The
Washington Post, September 2, 1999, p. A-8.
9 Stephen Kinzer, Turkey to visit U.S. Focus on Aid and Rights, The New York Times, August 30,
10 Dow Jones Newswires, August 27, 1999.
11 Dow Jones Newswires, September 21, 1999, citing Hurriyet and Milliyet.
12 Turkey gives up on U.S.-backed quake bond, Reuters, September 24, 1999.
13 Ecevit to Urge US to Erase Turkey’s FMS Debts, Milliyet, September 14, 1999, p. 9, translation
entered on Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) on line, September 15, 1999.
14 Speech at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 28, 1999.
Israel. Turkish-Israeli friendship has developed rapidly since 1996,15 and some
Israelis visiting Turkey were earthquake victims. The size, diversity, and speed of Israel’s
humanitarian aid were striking, as were Israeli popular concern and Turkish gratitude. The
Israeli government immediately dispatched the largest search and rescue team, and
supplied food, medical aid, and tents. Bilateral ties, launched by each side’s defense
establishment, are expected to have a stronger popular foundation in the future.
European Union. The European Union (EU) provided about $32 million in aid for
housing, $205 million in economic aid, and $635 million in soft loans for reconstruction.
All EU member states gave bilateral donations. In December 1997, the EU had failed to
include Turkey as a candidate for EU membership with 11 other countries. Turkey was
insulted and ended all political discussions with the EU. France, Britain, Italy, and, more
recently Germany, have advocated a more accommodating policy toward Turkey. After
the earthquake, all have reiterated this view. Many EU members also have expressed
willingness to name Turkey a candidate for membership at the EU summit in Helsinki this
December. Some EU members had questioned Turkey’s eligibility for candidacy and
membership, primarily because of because of its poor human rights record.
Greece. The quake could prove to be a major step on the improving path of Greek-
Turkish relations. Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and his Turkish
counterpart, Ismail Cem, consulted regularly on humanitarian issues during the Kosovo
conflict earlier in 1999. In July, their representatives began talks on five issues of mutual
interest: tourism, environment, culture, security, and trade, excluding the more sensitive
Cyprus and Aegean sovereignty issues. Papandreou was the first foreign official to offer
aid to Turkey in the aftermath of the earthquake, and his government immediately
provided search and rescue teams, and medical and other assistance. Greek citizens also
gave generously. The leading EU countries had been pressing Greece to lift its veto of a
financial protocol that had been promised to Turkey as part of a Turkish-EU customs
union accord in March 1995. Those differences may have been superseded by events.
Despite its long-standing grievances against Turkey, Greece advocated a major EU outlay
of humanitarian aid for quake-devastated Turkey and lifted its veto of some other
previously slated financial assistance. When a severe earthquake struck Athens on
September 7, Turkey responded rapidly. H.Con.Res. 188, introduced on September 22,
commends Greece and Turkey for putting aside their differences in responses to the
earthquakes. Improving relations with Turkey remains controversial in Greece, however.
Some politicians contend that the veto policy has outlived its usefulness, while others
demand a more substantial return from Turkey in exchange for lifting vetoes. Greece has
said that it will agree to the EU’s naming Turkey a candidate for membership, but it will
insist that the EU retain conditions for membership concerning respect for borders, a
Cyprus settlement, and human rights.
Others. Nearby countries that have had troubled relations with Turkey also made
notable donations. Armenia, which lacks diplomatic ties to Turkey, and Syria both sent
medicine and other supplies. The United Nations approved an Iraqi request to sell $10
million in oil and donate the proceeds to Turkey.
15 See CRS Report 98-633, Israeli-Turkish Relations, July 17, 1998.