“Yusufeli is giving you its past and future”


District head of İyi Party and lawyer Recep Akyürek explains the Yusufeli Dam lawsuit which has been taken to the European Court of Human Rights as well as the effects of both the dam which caused the district of Yusufeli to be displaced and the viaduct which is being constructed for the new settlement.

Yusufeli, September 2019

Could you please tell us about the dam in Yusufeli?

In 1997, the groundbreaking ceremony of the Deriner Dam was held in Artvin. At the commencement of that ceremony then prime minister Süleyman Demirel heralded the construction of the Yusufeli Dam. This news stirred the village. At the time, I had already completed my studies at the university and was doing my internship as a lawyer. As a person, above everything else, I am sensitive to the environment and people. I realized that not everything can be explained in terms of investment. Until that date, there were rumors about the construction of a dam here. People were speculating whether or not the district center would be affected by the dam. These were just hearsay; we were not able to verify the information we have.

However, once the then prime minister voiced such a prospect, the NGOs in the city came together. In 1997, all the political parties, associations –chairs and mukhtars– in Yusufeli got together and founded an association called the Yusufeli District Beautification, Sustainability and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Association. The association is still active. In the beginning, the association carried out important works. In 2000, Süleyman Demirel was the president. They met with president Süleyman Demirel, then prime minister of the coalition government Bülent Ecevit, Devlet Bahçeli and Mesut Yılmaz. Not only the chairs of associations, but the people of Yusufeli supported the demand to seek alternatives. People were saying “we do not want to give away our village for the construction of a dam, alternatives should be investigated”.

In 2002, I filed a lawsuit on behalf of the association at the administrative court. And a few months later, I became the chair of the association. Since then, for the past 17-18 years, I have been acting as the chair. During this period, we not only pursued the lawsuit, but also held three big demonstrations against the project in the district.

The dissolution of social cohesion affected by politics in Turkey manifested itself here as well. I am currently the district head of the İyi Party. I have been raised as a nationalist and I am proud of it. There is this understanding which depicts the nationalists as people who love the state but not the nature nor the people. This is a false understanding. I do not see anyone who loves nature and the people more than I do. And I believe that in the past twenty years I have proved this through the struggle I took up.

During the dam process, as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), we were in power. In this center, we held demonstrations against our own party. The leader of our party invited and hosted us. He asked us about what our problems are and what we are thinking. With the changing political atmosphere since 2002, we can no longer witness such an approach. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) not only influenced but also tore apart the society; and in so doing, as it gained more power our association got weaker. We have experienced a serious social cleavage in Turkey. The strengthening of this political will is as powerful in Yusufeli as it is in other parts of Turkey. AKP gets more than %70 of the votes in many elections. These developments have hindered many of the works carried out by our association. The participation rate in a demonstration we held in 2008 was very low. We did our best for it to be a trumpeted demonstration. However, when the number of people who showed up were low, we were demotivated. We decided to only maintain the association and pursue administrative cases.

I would like to add one thing. The lawsuit that addresses the environmental and human rights violation due to the construction of the Yusufeli Dam was issued in 2002 and currently it is on the agenda of the European Court of Human Rights. For three years we have been waiting for our turn to come. I have taken the lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights.

What is the lawsuit that you filed at the administrative court about?

We had three main principles. First of all, this project has to be included in the environmental impact assessment. Or rather the environmental impact assessment has been made but the official procedure was not followed. This report was prepared not with the intention of submitting it to the Ministry of Environment, but to the World Bank and other banks from which loans would be borrowed. And the state had covered the cost of this assessment. If they decide to spend this money to conduct an assessment, then they should follow the legal procedures and in compliance with the regulations should seek the approval of the Directorate General of Environmental Impact Assessment, Permit and Inspection—whether or not the decision turns out to be positive. By arguing that the regulation of the Directorate General of Environmental Impact Assessment was first written down in 1991, they try to keep this project out of its reach. However, we know that many phases of this project were completed in 1996. Four years later. We got into a legal dispute on this point. This was our first argument.

The second argument is that “the project is not in the interest of the public”. The difference between the profit that is expected this project to generate and the cost of the project is miscalculated. This project will never generate the profit economically, it is not a project that serves the interest of the public.

Our third argument is that the tenders are unlawful. They issue the tenders via an international consortium; there is no competition. They will build it and hand it over to the state. They did not investigate whether or not there are other bidders who can construct this project for lower costs. They did not take into consideration the criteria of the World Bank about the loans. They did not take into consideration the criteria of the European banks. Many provisions of the project have been transgressed with mistakes. 

Actually, we issued a lawsuit about these three points at the 10th Chamber of the Council State and we won. The court validated all three of our claims and argued that the tender is unlawful and unsubstantiated, that the project does not serve public interest, and that the project must be subjected to the regulations of the Directorate General of Environmental Impact Assessment.

In the court, our addressees were the Ministry of Energy, the Directorate General of State Hydraulic Works, and the prime ministry. They referred the case to the Council of State for Administrative Cases. There, 13 members out of 29 voted for the decision to be annulled. One of the members purported a different justification as to why the decision “should be annulled”. 15 of them claimed the following: “This is the jurisdiction of the administration. The court cannot monitor whether or not the project in in public interest.” As for the environmental impact assessment the court reversed the decision ruling that “in 1992 the feasibility assessment of this project have been carried out and the results are compelling.”

We took the case to the Constitutional Court. Since we applied as an association, the Constitutional Court ruled that “the association does not have the right to individually apply to the Constitutional Court. This decision turned out to be a precedent decision. They are using this decision as an example everywhere saying, “associations cannot make an individual application”. Following this decision, in 2014, we took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The file has been at the ECHR since 2014. They conducted a preliminary investigation in 2017. It lasted for three years. The file passed the preliminary investigation, and we asked for a hearing. If they decide to hold a hearing, we will go. Yoksa da esastan görüşmek için bekliyoruz.

As a lawyer I can say that we have the necessary laws. There is the Environmental Law dating from 1983. It is a perfect law given its date. However, the politicians and the bureaucrats are in the habit of figuring out ways not to implement regulations and finding loopholes. Today, even for the construction of a turbine the environment impact assessment is mandatory. However, for a project that will affect 30,000 people in the Çoruh valley, it is not.

Moreover, it will affect not only humans but…

If you ask me —and I am not saying this because I live here— this place offers a perfect gene pool. Only on the İspir side, in the valley you have traveled through, there are 114 different kinds of beans. The university is carrying out works for these beans to not go extinct. This place is a natural organic factory. We will understand what we have lost in time. The weather here is mild due to the valley. All kinds of vegetables and fruits can be grown here, from citrus to olives. You cannot produce tea, but all other plants that are grown in Antalya, in the Mediterranean or in Central Anatolia can be grown here in this climate. The land is not copious. That said, even if it is considered as a center for cultivating seedlings, this region has a lot of potential to contribute to the agricultural production in Turkey. On top of that, our water is clean spring water.

In some villages, they started to empty the sewage using the construction of the dam as an excuse. The water was drinkable until 15-20 years ago. It was not contaminated. You would not be able to stay in it if those sewers hadn’t polluted it. It is spring water; it is ice cold. I mean really cold, it does not heat up. It travels here from a distance of 30-40 kilometers. As humans, we are losing these natural assets.

What the 30,000 people living here lose is nothing when compared to what Turkey and the world in general loses. We were not able to convey these things, we were not powerful enough. There were many people who wanted to financially help us. We were selective. We said: “We are a civil society movement that came out naturally from this region. We will not lean back against anyone. We will do everything all by ourselves.”

The association carried out works similar to those of Green Artvin, but apparently you did not receive as much support…

No, we did not because they compared us to the people in Bergama. They said things such as “You were bought by the Germans. You were bought by the Russians.” In such an environment of hearsay, we decided to go “transparent”. Maybe we were mistaken. We wanted to avoid such associations. This was a very delicate matter for us. We had to face up to rumors and slender. We were struggling against a project that was backed up by the companies and banks of French, English, and Swiss as well as by the governments of the Turkish state… I am not accusing only this government; the previous governments were also very keen on this project. At this stage, when the support of civil society abated, we are not left with many options. When the association’s power starts to decline, you are left face to face with the society. Instead of struggling against our own people, we said, “Ok, we are leaving the field to you, we are going to continue our legal fight.” When you walk around in the district and ask people you would see that almost everyone who opposed us back in the day today admit that we were right, and they were mistaken. But this helps no one anymore.

What has changed? Why do you think people now acknowledge that you were right?

I think they figured out that they were mistaken. At the time, we had worries and made predictions about the future. There is the example of Hasankeyf, a similar struggle. There is a completed dam in Ilısu. We took into consideration the experiences of the people who went through similar processes in cases of smaller dams and started to convey these experiences to the people. In doing so, we observed and predicted things. Today, many people remember the points we made. A point we made comes to the mind of someone and he says “Recep Bey had warned us about this back in the day”. Or we say, “We have told you so”. Most of those people who opposed and slandered us when we were fighting against the dam project today say, “we have fought against this”. I remember them, if they had the chance, they would have stoned us back then. But today, overwhelmed, they claim that they moved in concert with us in the past. w

In Yusufeli, CHP’s vote used to oscillate between %5-10%. In the last municipal elections, together with the influence of the truth of our discourses, the combined votes of the AKP and MHP dropped to 45%-50% from 90% (70% AKP, 20% MHP).

What do people complain the most about when it comes to the expropriation processes?

People complain the most about the following: Based on the request of the Directorate General of State Hydraulic Works a law was passed with the justification that people construct buildings, houses and barns, and plant trees to receive higher amounts of expropriation payments. In other words, it was claimed that a place which costs 5 TL is being sold thrice that amount to the state. The law states that “for a period of five years, the cost of buildings constructed and trees planted 15 days after the announcement of the decision for expropriation will not be covered.” The people and the constructors have undertaken a construction project in 2010 which will last for three years. I have also bought a flat there. It was half complete when the law was enacted. They took photographs and said, “this building currently has four floors, and if you build more floors, the state will not cover the costs for those parts of the building.” Currently, the building has nine floors.

In Yusufeli, there are not enough houses for rent. Because there are not enough places, two or three people get together to live in the same flat. Those who are married cannot bring their families over. This is because since 2013 no new buildings have been constructed. They have constructed 230 houses since 2013. However, the State Hydraulic Works and the state officials say that they will not cover the costs of these buildings under the pretext that they were built after the photographs had been taken. I am talking about a real need here. Currently, some of the state officials are living in the villages. There are people who travel from the villages because there aren’t enough houses at the center. Ask any state official, he will tell you the same story about housing. People rent their places six months in advance, there are no vacant places. And they call these “buildings with no purpose”. They claim that these houses were built simply to get more money from the state. They categorize these houses under the status “buildings constructed to get expropriation money” and thus they do not cover the expropriation costs of these buildings. 

Are there really any such buildings?

No. Nobody would deign to do something like that. You should know about the people who live in these buildings. The guy living in that building saved up for 20 years to get that flat. Some people are still paying off their debts. For instance, you get a flat for 100,000 TL. You save up 70,000 or 50,000 of that amount for 20 years and for another 10-11 years you are going to pay the rest of your debt. And they are telling this person that his apartment is a building with no purpose and that he would get nothing in return. 230 flats amount to 15% of Yusufeli’s population. This situation affects 15%-20% of the population.

I bought the office we currently sit in from the municipality via a tender. In 2011, I paid 97 billion TL. Now they offer the amount designated by the State Hydraulic Works, and they offer, after 10 years, 45,000 TL. What else is left for the people but to protest this situation?

They try to justify what they do by saying that there is an economic crisis and that the costs are high. This is not our problem. I had corresponded with Veysel Eroğlu, when he was working as the General Director at the State Hydraulic Works. When I wrote to him saying that “this project will not profit, you are going to make a loss, this is harmful for the public, and all this has been validated by a court decision”, he replied to me saying, “if you cannot prove, this I will file a criminal complaint against you.” We have said all these things back then.  We told them that the costs they calculated for road construction and expropriation in this project are ridiculous. The actual costs are ten to twenty times higher than what they predicted. The damage they caused manifests itself now.

They made a loss when it came to the road construction. The costs for the construction of the new settlement and the main body of the dam have increased. How are they going to cut the costs? They decided to reduce the costs by cutting from what people are going to receive. Yusufeli is already giving away and donating its past and future to them. On top of that they make a loss because of the dam. If you try to buy their property for half or a third of its actual price just because the dam and the country is losing money, it is normal for people to react against this. This is the fundamental problem. At the moment, we cannot receive the expropriation amounts we used to receive in 2015 and 2016. The money they offer gradually decreases. There is a two to threefold difference between what they offered in 2015 and what they offer today. There is inflation, there is growth, the numbers are supposed to go up not down.

Do you face any problems in the new settlement area?

There are serious problems in the new settlement area. The thing is we are kind of used to living in this kind of dwelling. However, 45%-50% of the district’s population are used to living in neighborhoods where there are houses with gardens. What we will do is to put these people into prisons where they will no longer have a garden or a terrace to walk on. The houses built by the Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) are not the kind of dwellings where locals of Yusufeli are used to living. It feels as if we are asylum seekers. There is this understanding of “become satisfied with what we give you” when it comes to the flats that will be sold for their market value.

People’s businesses will be ruined. Whereas as they have to transform the place into a center of attraction and add something to it, everything goes for the worse. For instance the house that I am currently living in… Where am I going to find another office like this one? I have a view of the river. It is the same for the house I am living in, my balcony has a river view. They will cram me in a flat somewhere over there. If I have to, I will stay; but if I do not have to, I will leave immediately. 90% of the well-off people will leave.

Can people change their minds about buying places in the new settlement area with the expropriation money and leave?

Yes, they will leave. Everyone I talk to says the same thing. I agree with them. I have already told you that I have been fighting against this dam since my early twenties. I became the chair of the association when I was 23. I have been involved in these struggles. I do not care about the politics or the criticism. I think about leaving. Why? What am I going to prove to myself by staying and living there? Or to my wife and children. What am I going to prove? Will I prove that “I love Yusufeli dearly, and I would stay here no matter what”. No way.

Did the construction process of the new settlement involve the participation of the locals of Yusufeli?

No, it did not. They did as they pleased. Moreover, they held a meeting. In that meeting people kept asking questions. Two or three officials from the Directorate General of State Hydraulic Works came here saying that they will provide the people with information. All they said was “We do not know”. I could not help it, and in the end, I asked the mayor. He said, “If I have any information, you would have it as well.” So, I said, “This is absurd. We, the people, are not informed about anything. They are building residences for us. This district has a mayor. He is also the chair of the city council, and he will sign the construction plan. Yet, he does not know anything. The project belongs to the Directorate General of State Hydraulic Works. They cover the costs of the project. Yet, they do not know.” I added “Is the headquarters of the Housing Development Administration of Turkey in Mars? Then, the project should be assigned to some other institution.” TOKİ is paying for the project, yet they do not know anything. They do not share information.

After that, with the initiative taken by the mayor, they formed a commission which included the State Hydraulic Works. Only the mayor had the means to make small interventions. But that was not enough. After that meeting, they invited the mayor to some other meetings. He intervened in some things. They accepted some of his demands and rejected the others. The locals are not a part of the process in any way. They keep them out of the process. You cannot go and visit the location where the residences are being built due to security reasons. I went there three times; they did not let me in. So, it is very confidential… They say people gossip about it and criticize them. You are building a residential area here; isn’t criticism my most natural right? They do not allow people into the residential area to avoid criticism. And I occupy the position of the chair of an association. I am a lawyer. I am also a party leader. And still, I cannot get into that area. We have no idea about what kind of residences they are building. They keep it a secret. In that location my mother, my siblings and I will have flats. I have the right for a new workplace. And I am not allowed to enter and see the flats and workplaces that are being built for me.  We receive information from the mayor and the workers. Rumors circulate. They are building a safe district, obviously. They will perhaps circumvent it with city walls. What they do is truly against human beings, the services they offer are not human friendly. In that respect, the project is failing at every point, but we should hold our horses.

What about the viaduct?

The viaduct is a must for providing access to the district. But they made mistakes in its planning. Once again, we are seeing that the State Hydraulic Works make the citizens pay for its mistakes in planning. This is also the case for the expropriation costs; they made a planning mistake. From the start, they try to bill the citizens for the planning mistakes of the past thirty years. “The project costs a lot, we will not be able to profit from it, so, let’s reduce the expropriation costs.” This mentality is unacceptable. You cannot profit by cutting from what the citizens should receive. The same is the case with the viaduct. They made a timing mistake.

For the body of the dam, the President marked the date as April 2021. The date he gives is one and a half years later. The construction of the viaduct will take 1.5 to 2 years. But almost 30% of the people living in this district live underneath it. As far as I know, there are 100 houses, and they are all full. These people were told to evict their homes because of the construction works. Where will these people go? To where will they move their stores? We are already facing a serious housing problem. Where will these people work? Where will they live? They started saying things like “Let’s give them temporary prefabricated houses.” People do not want to live in those things. They do not want their rhythms and established order to be disturbed. The newest shopkeeper has been living here for at least ten years. There are people who have been running their shops for the past 40 to 50 years. Taking away the workplace of a man who has been engaging in commercial activities in the same location for 40 years and telling him “You continue your activities there” is a form of torment. For all these reasons, people will suffer.

There are road constructions on both sides of the valley, there is the new settlement construction up there, there is the dam construction down there. In İspir there are the road and dam constructions. They suffocate us with the dust clouds here. The dust comes mostly from dynamites. It is possible that many people here will get respiratory diseases. The construction of the viaduct will not only produce more dust clouds but also it will block the roads, the entrance and exit to the district and cause safety issues. All these will destroy the district. Either they should not have planned to build the viaduct in that location, or they should have finished the new settlement and started construction after they evicted the district.

On the one hand, people will continue doing commerce, they will pass over and under the construction site. The upper side is dangerous, and the lower side is dangerous until this location. One of the legs of the viaduct will be placed at the location of the school. They will evict the shopkeeper there completely. They will demolish all the houses located in that region. Where will all these people work? These are not very wealthy people. Most of our shopkeepers rely on banks, credits, etc. to keep on going. A smallest intervention will result in the economic downfall of these people. There is nothing being done and no effort is shown to address this issue. There are shortcomings in that respect too.

The viaduct is a must, it should be built, however, as I said, there are many planning mistakes. Perhaps it would have been better if they started the construction of the dam’s body, but they began with it. The whole project should have been implemented the other way around. Since they are determined to construct these structures, why not first build the district? Let us settle down first. Then take this space and use it as you wish; turn it into a construction site or start constructing a viaduct. Rather, they hastily laid the foundations, made a contract with the company, and began the construction works. Then, they realized that there are people living here, oops. They always act and then think about what they have done. If people do not raise their voices, they will not even know that these people exist. When people react, their presence catches the eye of someone. With that respect, the viaduct is a serious problem for that region. The timing of the project and its construction posits serious problems.

Now, they say that the construction of some of the houses in the new settlement are about to be finished. However, there is no infrastructure, no water there. The company which has been issued the water tender had left, they did not care. Why don’t you organize these things on time? Now, when we move to the new area, perhaps we will not have water. We will move to a new district with no water. It is not the people’s job to follow these things. The State Hydraulic Works, as an institution, has failed at every stage of the project in Yusufeli, from top to bottom.

Don’t you think that this is kind of startling given that the mayor is from the political party in power? One would be inclined to think that they would cooperate.

What they do there, what they think, we do not know. I will share with you my own analysis. I have already said this to their faces so I am speaking freely: These fellows from Yusuefli, who are members of the ruling parties, and particularly the current ruling party, have only one goal. They want to meet with the ministers and the President, get their photos taken, and post them on Facebook. These fellows do not care about anything else. I do not think that they care about Yusufeli. It is like the elephant story of Nasreddin Hodja. It is like going to Timur and saying, “we cannot feed one of the elephants” and getting another elephant out of fear. I compare our politicians, the politicians from the ruling party to him. When we say to them “we have a problem, voice this issue”, if they do not come back with a new problem, we consider those fellows successful.  We have some shortcomings in that respect, we cannot say anything. That party is popular here. And that party thinks those people are fit for this job. We are in an impasse; we are not able to voice our comments. When it comes to the ballot box, we say “people are always right” and we step aside. But these problems do not subside.