Trabzon, 24 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Six years ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of Russians and Georgians living near the Black Sea began pouring into the Turkish port of Trabzon, home to some 300,000 inhabitants, to shop and trade.
They came by boat, bus and airplane; shopping bags full of belongings -- heirlooms, fur hats, and shoddy merchandise they hoped to sell. And they bought Turkish goods, mainly clothing, for resale back home.
Others came to sell their bodies -- prostitutes as well as housewives in desperate need of cash. Those who spoke some Turkish -- especially Tartars, Bashkirs and Turkmen -- easily found jobs as interpreters and sales personnel.
Trabzon responded to the onslaught of shopping bag tourists by setting aside a covered market near the port, officially renaming it the "Russian market." Numerous travel agencies soon opened up, plastering their windows with offers of passage to Sochi, Stavropol, Odessa, Batumi, Tbilisi, Nakhichevan, Baku, even a weekly bus via Georgia to Yerevan.
But over the past two years, the crowds have vanished and the demand of travel has dried up. The Russians have all but disappeared and only a few Georgians still try to sell their wares. Even the prostitutes, colloquially known as "Natashas," have left, apparently for more lucrative climes: Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya.
What the street walkers and vendors have left behind is a considerably richer city than what they found, a city undergoing an economic boom thanks to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Trabzon's Mayor, Asim Aykan notes the city has 4,000 years of history, as he puts it, at the crossroads of cultures, and that commerce has always been the driving force of its development.
"After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the border with Russia was shut and eastern Turkey was left with its domestic economy. In the past few years since the border was reopened, Trabzon has regained its role as an economic hub. Trade with Russia, Georgia and Central Asia is contributing to the city's development even though the private sector in these countries is still not developed."
Mayor Aykan says that during the first years the border was opened, Trabzon was inundated by some 500,000 visitors annually from Russia and the Caucasus. He says this period was followed by the arrival of Russians and Georgians "with money," who were interested in a considerably larger scale of business.
This new business is injecting an estimated $4 billion annually into the Turkish economy, of which Mayor Aykan says, some $500 million a year in new trade is flowing into Trabzon's economy and work is under way to attract foreign investment to the city. Russia and Georgia have consulates in Trabzon and Turkey intends to open a consulate in Sochi.
The mayor says, however, that the influx of Russians brought a variety of problems to Trabzon including crime, drugs and sexually transmitted disease. He says, "The border was opened fairly suddenly and without sufficient control."
The mayor says it would have been better if more attention had been paid to public security on both sides of the border. He notes that as a result of prostitution and drug trafficking, diseases became increasingly common. As he puts it, when people who previously had earned $15 to $20 a month in the Soviet Union found that in Trabzon they could earn $100 a day, they poured in."
Yasar Biyikli is the general manager of the 80-member Trabzon-based Black Sea Young Managers' Association, in existence since 1995. He says the Black Sea region remains Turkey's economically least developed region.
In the Soviet era, when the border was still closed, the Trabzon region was a relatively small market dependent solely on domestic commerce. Now after the opening of the crossing at Sarp (on the Georgian border), the economy has begun to develop. Major investments are to be made in Trabzon."
Biyikli says the city now boasts 35 medium sized industrial manufacturers of a variety of goods ranging from computer equipment to textiles and construction materials. He says only 40 percent of the output of Trabzon's industries is destined for the domestic market. The balance is exported, above all to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia.
Biyikli says that the Russians quickly learned how the market works in Turkey. In his words, "anyone who has money in Russia no longer comes laden down with shopping bags but with and offers to cooperate, trade and invest with large firms."
Biyikli adds, "The Russians have given up trading with whatever they could put in a shopping bag. They have set up firms. They pick up the telephone or send a fax and order a shipment by truck, freighter or air. It is better economically because they are paying taxes, which the shopping bag tourists were not, and standards of living on both sides are improving as a result."
Biyikli says the Russians are now exporting chemicals, coal and timber to Trabzon and importing textiles and foodstuffs. He says his association wants to improve freight and passenger transportation and calls for construction of a railway to Trabzon and better roads linking the city with the industrialized west of Turkey and the Georgian border at Sarp. The nearest domestic railway lines are 300 km distant.
The association also offers consulting services to businessmen and provides training to Easterners studying business administration in Trabzon. It is helping to set up construction companies, in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Central Asia and has set up a secondary school (lycee) in Kazakhstan.
Biyikli complains about problems encountered in commerce with Georgia and Azerbaijan because of what he terms "weak legislation" that, he says, hinders business activity. Biyikli says his association is lobbying the Turkish government to pressure the Georgian and Azeri authorities to do something about it.
This view is echoed by the president of the Trabzon Chamber of Commerce, Nazhar Afacan, who complains of bureaucracy, particularly in Russia, where he says the banking and insurance sectors are still poorly developed. This, he says, is compounded by insufficient public security.
"Just like America went through a phase of being the Wild West and is now the world's business leader, after cowboys became businessmen, so too the mafias and bandits in these republics are quickly turning into leading business people."
Afacan says that eight years ago, only four firms in Trabzon were engaged in foreign trade. Today, he says, some 600 local firms are involved in import-export business, above all with Eastern states and Iran, which also provides a transit point for consumer goods bound for Armenia. Afacan says 150 Turkish companies are currently operating in Sochi.
Khosrov Kurbanov, a native of Bashkortostan, runs a leather goods shop that caters to the Russians and Georgians who still pass through Trabzon.
Kurbanov says, "There were so many tourists crowded into this street here a couple of years ago that if you had thrown a hat up into the air it would not have landed on the ground but on a tourist's head. There were only people from Russia and Georgia... and they were amazed by the difference in price and now it is as if there had been two lakes, one empty, the other full and water was poured into the empty one and now they are the same. Everything is available here and there. People are satisfied."