Turkey gets creative in raising cash after quake

A bill awaiting parliament will allow men to shorten their military

For Ayhan, a writer in Istanbul, the earthquake that hit Aug. 17 has produced a silver lining.

For the past four years since he finished school, Ayhan has been avoiding his country's compulsory military service. "If I had to stop my career to serve in the military, my life would be in shambles," he says. "I just haven't shown myself in military offices. They couldn't find me."

But recently, he lined up at those offices voluntarily with thousands of other young men in the same situation. They signed up for service, because now they can do it for only two months, rather than the usual 18. There are no questions asked about where they've been all these years. But opting for the shortened service comes at a cost: Men must pay the equivalent of $8,250 each.

Why is Turkey offering this option? The country needs cash, and fast, to recover from the earthquake. World Bank inspectors recently stated that Turkey would require $3.5 billion to $4 billion to recover from the earthquake, while Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has estimated $8 billion.

Although numerous countries have pledged aid to Turkey, it's not enough to cover the costs of reconstruction - and in some cases won't arrive soon enough. Turkish citizens have been generous with cash donations to foundations and other private-sector groups active in the relief effort, but they are reluctant to give money to the government voluntarily, according to Fikret Adaman, head of the economics department at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

So the government is left to raise money with investment incentives such as "earthquake bonds" it just issued and creative programs like paid military service.

The paid-service arrangement is actually in bill form right now, awaiting a vote by parliament, which is widely expected to pass it. Other proposals to raise cash, such as a surcharge on the ubiquitous cellular telephones and taxes on gas, tobacco, and last year's income, haven't even made it yet to parliament, which opened its fall session on Oct. 1.

The proposal for the paid-service arrangement originated with Army officers, according to Army chief Huseyin Kivrikoglu. The military has less need of men in uniform now that tensions with Kurdish rebels have eased following the capture and conviction of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The arrangement is expected to raise at least half a billion dollars. General Kivrikoglu has estimated that 200,000 men are eligible. Some 50,000 men, including Ayhan, already signed up during a preregistration period.

"This will secure a significant amount of revenue for the state," Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said when he announced the proposal on Sept. 3. "We do not know how much it will be, but the money will be used to meet economic needs that have grown worse after the earthquake."

What stops many from taking advantage of the offer is that $8,250 is prohibitively expensive for the majority of Turkish workers. Some men like Ayhan say they are already searching for second jobs to pay the fee.

Ali, an engineer who, like Ayhan, would be interviewed only if his last name were not used, signed up on the second day of the preregistration. "I was so happy," he said. "I don't have the money, but I hope and believe I can raise it somehow, by saving, getting a loan, or even borrowing from friends if I have to."

The bill is reviving tensions, however, between those who can get out of the usual service and those who cannot. For some time now, Turks working abroad for three years have been able to pay $5,500 to shorten their service to a month. And twice before, the government has allowed paid service under similar terms as now.

"In 1987 and in 1992, they also had a rationale, and each time they say it's the only time it will happen," Professor Adaman says. "People had the anticipation there would be a third round, and the earthquake has turned out to provide an important rationale for this."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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