As most Turks prepare for a quiet New Year’s Eve amid economic woes and a surge in COVID-19 cases, a nationwide crackdown on bootleg alcohol has revealed thousands of counterfeit bottles that were likely to literally poison the new year.
A statement from the Interior Ministry on Dec. 28 revealed the participation of more than 20,000 police and gendarmerie officers in Operation Alcohol in the country’s 81 provinces, seizing 20,000 liters of counterfeit liquor — mostly vodka, whiskey and raki, Turkey’s aniseed national drink. Called by the pro-government press one of the biggest operations against bootleg alcohol ever, the police said they also seized thousands of empty bottles that would have been refilled with the counterfeit alcohol, fake alcohol labels, along with some guns and drugs. The Istanbul police continued Wednesday with an operation at a warehouse in Tarabya, one of Istanbul's chic districts.
“New Year’s Eve is the top event on a bootlegger’s calendar because this is when there is a high demand for alcohol and people want to stretch their budget as much as they can,” Erol Dundar, chairman of Turkey’s Alcohol Shops Association, told Al-Monitor. “So the Interior Ministry habitually launches such operations, which we, alcohol shop owners, support.”
“What we do not support is to put high taxes on booze so that people are unable to afford legal alcohol products, or make use of a few bad apples to demonize all alcohol consumption,” he added.
The exchange rate that takes most imported alcohol out of Turks’ reach and high taxes on both local and foreign alcoholic beverages have turned many Turks to homemade alcohol or counterfeit booze. Monday’s bootleg alcohol crackdown follows a fresh wave of deaths related to counterfeit alcohol deaths in several cities of Turkey, from the conservative Black Sea city of Ordu to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest cosmopolis and its capital of entertainment as well as the production center of bootleg alcohol. The death toll in the last 30 days is more than 80, 30 of which is in Istanbul, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.
According to Israfil Ozkan, founder of a watchdog association on public policy on alcohol, there have been 110 deaths from bootleg liquor in 2021 so far. Ozkan’s Turkish Public Alcohol Policy Watch, a two-year-old nongovernmental group, told Al-Monitor that the government held some 720 operations against bootleg alcohol and claimed to seize 1,135,000 liters of bootleg alcohol in 2021.
But critics worry that the high-profile bootleg operations are also used as a tool of the conservative government to demonize alcohol — one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pet peeves. “Even the name of the Interior Ministry’s operation, Operation Alcohol, is strange,” Ozkan told Al-Monitor. “Why not call it Operation Illegal Alcohol or Operation Bootleg? This is all an attempt to create a perception that all alcohol, legal or illegal, is bad and best avoided.”
“Obviously, the easiest way to fight illegal alcohol is making legal alcohol affordable by lowering the taxes on the bottle,” said Dundar. “Take a bottle of raki, which is currently 250 Turkish liras ($20) — 43 Turkish liras, less than one-fifth, is the price of the bottle. The rest is taxes.”
The conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been consistently tightening the regulations around alcohol production, sales, promotion and consumption since 2002, its first year in power. Through a series of laws and regulations, it has made alcoholic drinks too expensive to buy, unprofitable to sell because of the licenses involved, and impossible to promote through advertisement or event sponsorships.
In 2002, the AKP adopted a Special Consumption Tax (OTV), which raised the tax on alcoholic beverages from 18% (the standard VAT rate) to an astounding 48% and kept increasing it over the years. In 2007, it imposed limitations on alcohol advertisements that made it practically impossible to advertise wine, beer or raki, and four years later in 2011, it banned alcohol ads altogether. In 2013, it prevented sports teams from using the names of alcoholic drinks in their names, so the popular Turkish basketball team Efes Pilsen (after Turkey's most popular beer) changed its name to Anadolu Efes. A year later, a new regulation obliged supermarkets to isolate their alcoholic drinks sections, close them down after 10 p.m. and take alcoholic drinks out of New Year gift packs. Given this year’s soaring inflation rates on food, many Turks have posted photos of old New Year packs from the year 2014, when a pack contained a bottle each of whiskey, wine and raki, as opposed to the 2021 gift pack that consisted of an empty wicker basket.
The most vocal advocate of the teetotal policy is Erdogan, who repetitively warns youths against tobacco and alcohol, praises the Ottoman Empire erroneously for its teetotal policy (which historically is not true, as most Sultans' tables contained alcohol), and blames the Republican People’s Party’s single rule in the 1930s and '40s of introducing drinking to Turkish society “as an attempt of modernization and Westernization.”
According to international surveys and the studies made by the Turkish Public Alcohol Policy Watch, alcohol consumption remains modest in Turkey compared with European countries.