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Cablegate: Deeds for Sale! Get Your Property Deeds Right Here!

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 ISTANBUL 001348

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV ECON TK
SUBJECT: DEEDS FOR SALE! GET YOUR PROPERTY DEEDS RIGHT HERE!


REF: ISTANBUL 1039


1. (SBU) Summary: A property amnesty currently being planned
by the Justice and Development (AK) Party government has set
off a flurry of debate and criticism in Istanbul. AK sees
the measure as a potential major source of revenue, a
realistic solution to a long-ignored problem (i.e., "illegal"
settlements and the political and social limbo squatters live
under), and a popular pre-local election vote-getter in the
poor and disenfranchised voter base of Istanbul's crowded
urban sprawl. Opponents in Istanbul charge, however, that
what they dismiss as a populist measure will undermine what
they allege are existing sensible land-use, environmental,
and disaster-mitigation policies and encourage illegal
land-grabs and construction. End Summary.


2. (U) Having wiped out the detailed Ottoman land registry
system, the Republic of Turkey has never carried out a
systematic survey or introduced a new and complete land
registry system. Nor has the Turkish state controlled the
use of state-owned lands or enforced zoning laws. With this
lack of control, and under succeeding national and local
governments of all political stripes -- including CHP --
squatter communities, including some of the most stable
neighborhoods in Turkey's largest cities, have mushroomed
since the 1960's, with periodic commitments by local
governments to supply utilities and paved roads on a catch-up
basis. The provision of utilities in turn has spurred
developers to offer squatters free apartments in return for
letting them consolidate squatter plots and build apartment
blocks.


3. (SBU) In this context, the Justice and Development (AK)
Party government is planning a property amnesty as a means to
generate revenue and regularize the quasi-legal resident
status of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Turkey's major
cities. The impact of such an amnesty would be felt
particularly in Istanbul where approximately 700,000
buildings, or 60-65 percent of the total, are believed to be
illegally constructed (i.e., without proper building
permits), with many of them built on state lands (i.e.,
without deeds). In addition to new laws and regulations, a
comprehensive amnesty will require a constitutional amendment
(which could eventually go to a national referendum) to
enable the government to reclassify some "forest lands" which
have long been built on or used as agricultural land. (Note:
Currently the proposal would cover only lands which had been
converted by 1981, but it is unclear how all such
determinations could be accurately documented. End Note.)


------------------------------------------
Property Amnesties = Votes and Cheap Labor
------------------------------------------
4. (SBU) The history of property amnesties in Turkey has
paralleled (and, some believe, contributed to) the massive
waves of rural-to-urban migration over the last five decades.
Since the first amnesty in 1949, there have been six more
culminating in the most recent one in 1986. In the early
years, the unavailability and/or inaffordability of proper
housing forced newly-arrived migrants to construct their own
"gecekondu," or squatter residences, recreating their village
lifestyle in the greater Istanbul region. Although built on
state property and without the requisite building permits,
both industry and politicians benefited, tapping the
settlements for cheap labor and votes. As such, the early
amnesties that allowed gecekondu owners to "purchase" permits
and legal titles to their property were win-win propositions
for the politicians: they were popular vote-getters that also
generated extra revenue for the government coffers.


5. (SBU) In the 1980s and 1990s, Istanbul grew to become
Europe's most populous city and was increasingly unable to
absorb and manage the massive population influx, reaching as
high as 500,000 migrants each year. With time, the clear-cut
populist equation of property amnesties became murkier. Land
speculators and corner-cutting contractors built sub-standard
multi-story apartment buildings to rent out to poorer
families, making money on the ever-increasing demand for
housing and gambling on the expectation that future
governments would legalize their properties. More and more
people objected to new amnesties as "unfair" (i.e., they
provided legal cover to law-breakers) and municipal
authorities in more affluent areas became increasingly
frustrated with the negative effect they had on their
attempts to conduct sensible urban planning and management.
Amnesties aside, however, politicians and bureaucrats
continued to profit from the fresh supply of potential voters
and the endemic corruption involved in turning a blind eye to
new, illegal properties.


------------
AK's Amnesty
------------
6. (SBU) A chronic lack of comprehensive urban land-use
planning in the last several decades has left the current AK
government with an untenable situation in which hundreds of
thousands of city-dwellers live in quasi-legal or illegal
residences. Thousands of acres of so-called "forest lands"
in and around the cities have long been cleared and developed
to accommodate rural migrants or wealthy city apartment
dwellers in search of homes with gardens. Even the
opposition CHP party campaigned last year with a pledge to
transfer such lands to the current residents. AKP, however,
has emphasized the revenue-generating potential of a new
property amnesty. In discussing the issue, Prime Minister
Erdogan has made repeated references to expected revenues, a
figure that some government officials put as high as USD 25
billion. Some we have talked to, however, note that
amnesties never generate the revenue anticipated and have
labeled the latest proposal as merely another in a long
series of amnesties that will reward supporters and win
votes:


-- Eyup Muhcu, Chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of
Architects, railed against the proposed amnesty, calling it a
blatant attempt to make money and win votes that violates
most people's "sense of justice," encourages more illegal
construction, and complicates efforts to prepare for a major
earthquake (reftel).


-- Selami Ozturk, the Republican People's Party (CHP) Mayor
of Kadikoy (where approximately 1 million Istanbul residents
live), told poloff that a new amnesty would make it "nearly
impossible" for him to provide municipal services to
gecekondu neighborhoods that developed without any urban
planning or oversight. Moreover, pointing to detailed
neighborhood maps overlaid with the 2002 voting results,
Ozturk noted how the amnesty would primarily benefit those
neighborhoods that had voted heavily for the AK Party.


-- While careful not to directly criticize the AK
government's policies, Irfan Uzun, Head of the Planning and
Property for the Istanbul Greater Municipality, told poloff
that city land-use plans would be undermined if completely
illegal buildings without deeds or permits are provided
amnesty. Uzun worried aloud that the city may have to "buy
back" deeds awarded during an amnesty in order to expropriate
and destroy properties that conflict with city infrastructure
projects.


7. (SBU) The proposed amnesty has its share of supporters:


-- AKP founding member and independent businessman Cuneyt
Zapsu defended the amnesty as sensible economic policy,
arguing that the government must acknowledge the irreversible
fact that many of these "forest lands" can not be restored
and that thousands of illegal settlements can not be
destroyed. By legalizing these properties and "bringing them
into the system," the amnesty will not only generate revenue,
but will also change now untransferrable assets into
convertible ones, benefiting the economy as a whole.


-- Yahya Karakaya, the Saadet Party mayor of Sultanbeyli
listed the lack of legal property deeds as one of his
district's major problems, arguing that even the residents of
his poor district would be willing to purchase building
permits and deeds to escape the constant threat of eviction.
(Note: Approximately 75 percent of the buildings in
Sultanbeyli lack permits and 25 percent are built on state
lands and lack deeds. End Note.)


8. (SBU) Even opponents of a new amnesty conceded that
certain strict conditions could theoretically minimize the
negative effects of an amnesty: mandating basic building
codes and safety standards, authorizing municipal authorities
to retrofit neighborhoods for services, limiting the amnesty
to owner/residents, and ensuring that this be the "final"
amnesty. Uzun from the Istanbul Greater Municipality claimed
that most of the buildings without permits have only minor
problems, but that an amnesty that allowed the city to
examine and reissue permits to buildings with minor
construction problems would actually be beneficial.


-----------------------------
Forest Lands and Forest Fires
-----------------------------
9. (SBU) Perhaps the most controversial part of the amnesty
plan relates to a proposed constitutional amendment to
reclassify a portion of the country's designated "forest
lands" (those which lost their forest nature by 1981) to
enable the government to sell off properties that have long
since been illegally cleared and settled. Although the first
effort to pass such an amendment was vetoed by President
Sezer earlier this year, the government is determined to push
forward, even if it means risking the chance that the
President will submit it to a national referendum (Note: The
President has the authority to veto such bills only once.) A
rash of summer forest fires this year (summer forest fires
have been a problem for at least a decade but the press
reports a large increase last year) may be an indication that
some unscrupulous speculators hoping to profit from newly
"cleared" land expect the amendment and a broad amnesty to
pass. (Note: They would need to produce fake documentation
to show that the lands had been deforested long before, or
perhaps they see the proposed amnesty as the first in a new
series of such amnesties. End Note.)


-------
Comment
-------
9. (SBU) AK is motivated by an understanding that
regularizing the status of people who now live in fear of
constant eviction will win them votes and by wishful thinking
that an amnesty will bring in substantial revenue. Seeking
to balance popular measures with the dictates of an IMF
package, the government desperately needs the increased
flexibility that any extra fiscal revenue will provide.
This, combined with the fact that AK would benefit directly
at the ballot box from a property amnesty, gives the
government a powerful incentive to press forward with this
proposal.


10. (SBU) The impact on Istanbul from an urban planning
perspective will likely be negative. An amnesty without
strict conditions (and past experience and realistic
expectations suggest that such conditions are unlikely to be
adopted) will complicate the city's efforts to prepare for an
earthquake, provide municipal services, and plan for
sustainable growth.


11. (SBU) Although many in Istanbul are uninterested, or at
least ambivalent, about the idea of a property amnesty, they
would likely be more decisive if the "forest land" issue
comes to a referendum. Unaware of or despairing over the
extent of deforestation in Istanbul, large numbers of voters
living in the heart of the long built-up urban area would
probably turn out in opposition, thereby setting the stage
for a divisive vote that government critics will bill as a
referendum on the AK government's overall performance.
ARNETT

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