x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Opening of third Bosphorus bridge sparks protests in Istanbul

While the government insists that the crossing will alleviate Istanbul's notoriously heavy traffic, opponents say the project is merely an attempt to stimulate lucrative development

An activist holds a sign reading 'The bridge has been built at the cost of nature's destruction' during a rally in Istanbul on August 25, 2016. Paul Osterlund for The National
An activist holds a sign reading 'The bridge has been built at the cost of nature's destruction' during a rally in Istanbul on August 25, 2016. Paul Osterlund for The National
ISTANBUL // A third bridge over Istanbul's Bosphorus strait is set to open on Friday amid much controversy, with activists arguing that the crossing will have a disastrous environmental impact on the city and nearby forests.

The bridge, which will be opened at a much-publicised ceremony attended by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and prime minister Binali Yildirim, has long been touted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a success.

While the government insists that the crossing will alleviate Istanbul's notoriously heavy traffic, opponents say the project is merely an attempt to stimulate development in the already disappearing forests north of the city that will likely prove lucrative for contactors friendly with the government. To back up this claim they point to the development that occurred following the opening of the second bridge over the Bosphorous in 1988.

Opponents of the bridge also say that far from alleviating the city's traffic problem, the crossing will in fact exacerbate it.

"The traffic problem that could not be solved by two bridges will not be solved by a third. Bridges do not decrease traffic, they create their own traffic because bridges transport cars, not passengers," Seda Elhan, a member of the Northern Forests Defence (Kos) activist group, said on Thursday.

The environmental debate over the third bridge and other major urban projects has taken a back seat over the past few months following a string of bombings by militant groups and the attempted military coup.

But a new debate - this time over the bridge's name - has seen the project pushed back into parliamentary discussions in recent weeks.

Back in 2013, the government announced that it was naming the bridge after 16th century Ottoman sultan Yavuz Selim, also known as Selim the Grim. The news infuriated Turkey's Alevi community, thousands of who were killed on Selim's orders. Adhering to a Sufi-influenced form of Shiite Islam, Alevis make up around 15 per cent of Turkey's population.

Then, earlier this month, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy, Ozgur Ozel, suggested that the bridge instead be named after Sultan Pir Abdal, a beloved Alevi poet from the 15th century. Shortly after, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu made another proposition - that the project should be named after the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. However, the countless billboards prominently displayed throughout the city advertising Friday's opening indicate that the name is here to stay.

On Thursday, activists from Kos assembled in central Istanbul to demonstrate their opposition to the bridge's construction. In typical Istanbul fashion, the throng of riot police outnumbered the around 50 demonstrators and journalists.

"I came to defend my city," 45-year-old Kos member, Kiymet Aram, told The National when asked why she had chosen to attend the demonstration. Ms Aram lives in Gokturk, an area located in the heart of the northern forests on the western side of the Bosphorus, close to the third bridge's connecting roadway and near the construction site of another hotly-contested project - Istanbul's third airport.

"Due to the hundreds of construction vehicles working 24/7, we are witnessing the wild animals in the area die out," Ms Aram said.

In 1995, during his tenure as Istanbul's mayor, Mr Erdogan said that a third bridge would mean "murder" for the city. He has since emerged as its biggest advocate.

During Thursday's protests, activists held posters featuring phrases similar to Mr Erdogan's 1995 remarks, including "The third bridge is murder", and brandished photos of the bridge and its connecting roads, which have sharply sliced through the northern forests like a knife.

Transport minister Ahmet Arslan told the Haberturk daily newspaper on Wednesday that the forestland alongside the connecting roads of the third bridge will not be zoned for development. But Kos members say this isn't true.

According to another Kos activist, Onur Akgul, 34, large sections of land in the village of Agacli, which lies immediately adjacent to the bridge's connecting roadway on the western side of the Bosphorus and near the third airport construction site, have already been expropriated by the government and slated for development.

"We ask once again, what are your goals after the third bridge? A new Istanbul with new fairgrounds, convention centres, health care facilities and residential projects?" queried Kos member Ms Elhan.

"Don't forget about the old Istanbul, the apple of the world's eye. You are killing the old Istanbul."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae