Monday, June 3, 2013

Turkey fights for the right to drink alcohol

Better days ahead for Turkey? The seaside at Izmir, a cosmopolitan town near Istanbul
Turks have rioted in the streets for the past few days in an uprising that might have big repercussions for the US.

The cause -- anger at repressive government -- is similar to the Arab Spring uprising we've seen in other Muslim countries. But this is different for a lot of reasons, and one is that the right to drink alcohol was the spark.

Some US media are reporting that protests took off when the Turkish government announced plans to convert a park into a shopping mall. But that wasn't the real beginning. Ten days ago, the socially conservative Turkish government pushed through a bill banning retail alcohol sales between 10 pm and 6 am and also banned alcohol advertising of any kind, and protests began.

This was the last straw for the many social moderates who live in Istanbul. They took to the streets in a protest that we haven't seen the last of yet.

I went to Turkey last year for the European Wine Bloggers' Conference, and stayed on to visit a number of Turkish wineries. I had some interesting off-the-record discussions. Turks with a government license to make and sell wine do not want to be quoted criticizing the government. Some people told me that the reason the EWBC was in Turkey in the first place is that the government wants foreigners to get interested in Turkey's wines so there will be less of them to sell at home.

Vineyards in eastern Turkey, where grapes were first domesticated and are often still farmed the same way

Turkey's wine industry is in interesting times. As recently as 2003, the government owned the nation's largest winery and it made crap wine basically on purpose. Today, wine quality has never been better, and winemakers (some from the US and France) are discovering the charms of indigenous grapes in an area where grapevines were originally domesticated.

But the Turkish government isn't exactly supporting this nascent industry. It taxes alcohol production nearly 50%, and there's another 18% VAT on sales. Ordinary table wines sell in Istanbul for $75 or more.

Increasingly, people in Istanbul can afford this indulgence -- the economy is booming, a contrast to neighboring Greece. Istanbul has plenty of mosques and most people are Muslim, but it's a cosmopolitan European city with great food and a great restaurant culture.

However, go to eastern Turkey, basically anywhere east of Ankara, and you're in another culture entirely. Some grape growers require companies buying their crop to sign a statement saying it won't be used to make alcohol. Most restaurants don't serve alcohol and when people do drink, they do so surreptitiously. Politically, the money in Turkey comes from Istanbul, but there are lots of votes in the east.

45% alcohol, but not in the Koran
There's an interesting debate going on in Turkey about the Koran itself that might have greater repercussions for the world. One reason Turks have always drunk lots of raki (pronounced ra-koo), anise-flavored hard liquor, is that raki, only a few centuries old, is not mentioned in the Koran, unlike wine, which existed in Mohammed's day. But some Turks are questioning whether Mohammed really proscribed wine. Take a look at this Turkish blog post in English, which presents this argument.

Turkey plays a crucial role in world politics for a number of reasons: it's the most secular of large Muslim nations. Geographically, it sits in a volatile area. The US has long invested time and money into good relations with Turkey and that has been a great investment. So you know the White House is carefully watching these riots, with mixed feelings. The authoritarian, increasingly Islamic government of Turkey isn't a natural US ally, but it has in fact been a good friend to the US, cooperating much more than not on any number of issues involving Syria, Israel, Russia, etc.

Istanbul has lively nightlife, but that is under threat
US foreign policy has traditionally been on the side of the dictator we know, rather than messy street politics that could lead to an anti-US populist government. But to be fair, it's always tricky to decide which side to support in a revolution. The US shipped arms to mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union, and later found its own soldiers facing those weapons. There are plenty of calls for the US to support rebels in Syria today, and maybe we will, but there's no guarantee that whatever government they might form will be either less repressive or friendlier to the US than the one currently trying to hold onto power.

Street protests in Turkey are a challenge to US foreign policy, especially as they are currently disorganized expressions of disagreement. But while you watch the coverage and wonder which side you should be on emotionally, keep in mind that for many people in those squares, they're fighting for their right to have a glass of raki, wine or beer, and that's something we should support.

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Wojciech Bońkowski said...

I guess it is all a matter of context. Poland actually has a wine legislation in many points identical to what has just been passed in Turkey: ban on wine ads, wine can't be sold near schools or churches, shops need a special licence that is difficult to obtain. Poland has excise on wine as well as 23% VAT. The red tape involved in importing wine is horrendous. There is an anti-alcohol agency financed with 6m EUR per year by the state which is very aggressive.
Yet nobody in Poland sees this as very oppressive. Many European countries have similar, or even more stringent, regulations. The UK levies in incredible amount of tax on wine. France bans advertising. Sweden has a state monopoly on wine sales. Are Turkish liberals wanting to be more liberal about alcohol than the UE they are trying to join?

W. Blake Gray said...

Nerval: A very provocative question. But you have to look at in social and historical context. Turkey doesn't have the same background of alcohol culture as France or Poland.

Sweden's an interesting comparison. Regarding alcohol, it seems as if Sweden's government wishes it were Islamic, right down to encouraging export business while discouraging domestic consumption.

Wojciech Bońkowski said...

What I wanted to say is that anti-alcohol legislation is being pushed all around the world. It is not exclusively an Islamic phenomenon. The WHO has published a very aggressive report on "alcohol consumption issues" and is advocating measures such as limiting availability.

Perhaps our Turkish friends (whom I fully support in many other matters) aren't quite aware of this. But alcohol (including wine) consumption in the Western world will be increasingly discouraged in the years to come.

latour said...

The lawful hours in California for retail sale of alcoholic beverage is from 6 am to 2 am. From 2:00 am to 6:00 am it is unlawful to purchase any alcoholic beverage. The Turkish ban is 4 H. longer no big deal. The repressive government and old social/political structures are more serous issues for the younger generation.

W. Blake Gray said...

The point isn't whether we think it's a big deal: it's that they think it's a big deal.