"Residence in Bulgaria", St. Clair and Brophy



Constantinople and many other towns exempt from taxation - Encouragement to fraudulent commerce - Monomania a la Haussman - Favouritism towards foreigners - Stamp tax licenses and town property tax - "Improvements" at Varna.

WHEN Mahomet II. had conquered the capital of the last of the Caesars he found the town almost deserted, and in order to induce the inhabitants to remain, as well as to attract others, he exempted from all taxes the dwellers in Constantinople.

In a time when Turkey was but one vast camp, the resources of the country districts of but little importance compared with the welfare of Stamboul, and the science of political economy completely unknown, such an idea of creating a vast and splendid capital was consistent with the reasoning of the period; but in our days when every statesman, worthy of the name, seeks for means of dividing as equitably as possible amongst the people the burdens rendered necessary by the expenses of the State, when every sensible Government calls in the aid of political economy to assist in developing the resources and utilizing the dormant wealth of the country, when it encourages all industry which tends to increase the riches of the nation, and in every possible way diminishes the parasitism which would mar its prosperity, such an infatuation in favour of the towns on the part of the present rulers of Turkey is more than illogical, it is inexplicable.

According to some old statistics, unfortunately the only ones we have, the inhabitants of the towns number nearly two millions, of which Constantinople absorbs about half, and the total population of European Turkey is given as eleven millions; thus if the capital alone were exempted from taxes, there would still be one-eleventh of the entire population thus favoured, but this privilege is shared by many other towns, and forms a still more sensible burden upon the country, and a great diminution of the revenues of the state. When we proceed to compare the position of the dwellers in the towns with that of the inhabitants of the country, the evil becomes still more apparent.

Besides the Pashas in office, or looking out for office, with their households and the crowds which fill their anti-chambers - besides these parasites who fatten upon the blood of the State - the population of the towns is composed (with numerically few exceptions, consisting of artizans, labourers, &.c.), of the members of the great Affiliated Society of Eastern Commerce, their servants and their subordinates, in short, of all the horse-leeches of Turkey.

To exempt the towns from all taxes is to multiply ad infinitum these leeches, whose application has weakened the country almost beyond the power of remedy; it is a folly or a crime.

When we remember that of the two million inhabitants of the towns, at least fifteen hundred thousand are engaged in this commerce that we have described, that they are people who live and grow rich without working, that every morsel of bread they eat, and every penny they put into their pockets, has, by means of proceedings, which in England would come under the ban of the law, been robbed from the poor peasant who had earned them by honest labour; when we remember that the country, the producer, is crushed down by the burden of taxation, whilst the self-styled banker, who makes 800 l. a year out of a fictitious capital of 400 l. by clipping gold coins, by inventing or speculating upon an Agio as fictitious as his capital, by the use of false weights and measures, or by any other of the thousand and one tricks of Eastern commerce, pays not a farthing of taxes for his house and shop, for the stamp which he puts upon his fraudulent invoices, or even for the license to ruin the country by his trade - recollecting all this, we no longer wonder at the statesmen of Stamboul, but we despair of them!

“The encouragement of commerce" is the plea usually advanced; we admit that there are evils which it is necessary to tolerate, but we deny the right of a Government to protect them, and the commerce of the East is an evil, not a good-a curse, not a blessing. The conduct of the Government might perhaps be explained on the theory that it is unwilling to sully the purity of its treasure-chests by the contact of such ill-gotten gains; but it must not be forgotten that when Eastern commerce is exonerated from all taxation, the country districts are in a manner forced to pay tribute to it, and it thus acquires a legalized right to levy another indirect tax upon the producers in addition to those other direct and illegal ones which it exacts on its own authority; such is in fact the effect of a measure which in reality only encourages parasitism while it discourages production.

The greatest, if not the only real riches of Turkey, consist in the extent and fertility of her soil, and it is therefore in agriculture that the capital and energy of the nation should be employed, it is agriculture which the Government should encourage by all the means, direct, or indirect, in its power.

Unfortunately Government does just the contrary.

We have already shown in the preceding chapter that landed property can scarcely be considered as property, that by the abuse of the system of Mira bad tillage is authorized and protected, and that, thanks to the manner in which the taxes are at present made to press upon the produce, intelligent farming would be simply ruin to the intelligent farmer; in all these cases the Government sins, by omission or negligence, against agriculture, for not to extirpate abuses which crush and cheek all progress is as bad as actual oppression.

The Turkish Government is either too short-sighted to see, or does not give itself the trouble to look at these causes of ruin to the country, and in our opinion it is the latter of these two reasons which accounts for the laws at present in force in the country districts; for from, the smallest Pasha to the greatest Vizier one sole idea fills the mind of the Turkish authorities, that of embellishing, enriching, and developing the towns.

There is not a petty Kaimakam [Lieutenant-Governor.] whose heart is not set upon boulevards, an exchange, public walks, and gardens, for the rickety assemblage of wooden sheds overlooking rivers of mud, [It is a remarkable fact that the urban improvements of Turkey, however tasteful and European they may be in other respects, never include the removal of the ubiquitous streams of mud; the man who first invents mud carts and scavengers in this country will certainly deserve, and probably receive, a handsome pension from the Sublime Porte.] from the centre of which rises his yellow-fronted Conac with its green or red roof. What matters to him the state of the interior country, that people are robbed in broad daylight within two miles of the newly-painted walls of his beloved town, that the peasants are dying of disease or hunger, that the Beylikji ruins the country, whilst the locusts devour the crops; what is the importance of all this compared with a yard and a half of macadamized boulevard, or the zoological gardens he dreams of so fondly? In the time of misery and disease he will send neither food nor physicians to the peasants; but he will order a corvee for the laying out of his gardens, and the making of a bit of road planted with trees on either side - not to open the country, but that he may drive along it in his new carriage, and fancy himself in Paris again. Yet this Pasha, instead of being sent to finish his days in an asylum for criminal lunatics, will be decorated and promoted to some wider field for his talents of civilization and re-organization, so strongly has this monomania a la Haussman taken possession of all those connected with the Government of Turkey. Perhaps it may have a political cause, and the secret thoughts of the governor of a Turkish town may be thus put into words: “So long as I keep my position or obtain promotion, what does it matter what becomes of the villages, or whether the country makes any progress or no." He knows that the arbiters of his destiny are Europe and those high functionaries of Constantinople who pay such persevering court to her, so he continues his reflections: "Either foreigners or my official superiors will decide my fate; but as neither of these will risk themselves in the country districts, it is in the town and its immediate neighbourhood that my capacity will be judged, so let me beautify the town, and let the country look after itself as best it can."

Such is a sketch of the probable arguments of these reformers, and alas! of their actual organization. The authorities forget that it is the country and not the town which pays them; but to forget benefits and benefactor is not a vice exclusively Turkish.

The exemption of towns from taxation naturally tends to draw to them, and from the country, the well-to-do classes, and thus acts as a cheek upon agriculture; it is a grave economical error to discourage the only industry profitable to the nation, and to encourage that which is its ruin.

An objection may be raised, that unless commerce be encouraged produce becomes worthless, as no market will exist. We answer that a market will always be found, for Europe every year requires more and more raw produce, and consequently commerce will find its way to Turkey at any hazard; and from the day when it shall be impossible for a fictitious capital to profit by the position of middleman between producer and consumer, when the law shall punish usury, fraud, and the other companions of commerce as it exists in the East, legitimate commerce based upon capital, and acting according to the precepts of justice and integrity, will be able to compete with the present parasitism, and even to drive it from the field. Encourage honest commerce in every possible way, but do not protect roguery, in the mantle of trade.

It is to commerce at least, as much as; to England owes her prosperity, and yet English commerce is heavily taxed, more heavily perhaps than any branch of industry, and certainly a merchant after the fashion of the East could not do business in England not merely on account of the police, but because there commerce demands capital, and is taxed accordingly to its profits; but then England is a far-sighted country, whose statesmen think before acting, and are patriotic enough to act even against their own private interests for the benefit of the nation; in England, too, there are mad-houses for madmen, in Turkey their occasional asylum is office.

It appears just and reasonable, since the rule seems to be to tax the profits, and as the labourer pays the tithe of the produce of the soil in which he has invested a certain capital of labour and seed, that the trader, who generally puts into his business neither labour nor capital, should be liable to a similar tax upon his raw produce. But the Capitulations are there to guard the monopoly of commerce for foreigners; if Turkey is not mistress in her own house whose fault is it? It is a false calculation to dread the expense and risk of a war, which after all might be a successful one for Turkey, and prefer a state of things which is ruining the country, and leading surely to the political death of the Ottoman Empire.

This protection of foreign commerce is also detrimental to native enterprise, since the native trader, except in towns, pays certain taxes, whilst the foreign merchant pockets his gains without any such drawbacks.

The Turkish Government is so weak that it dare not decree that every foreign trader shall be subject to the laws of the country; why then does it impose upon the foreign landed proprietor obligations from which it exempts the foreign trader?

Being avowed enemies of the present system of taxation, we do not advocate even a tax upon the produce of the merchants, though an income tax (which is unjust to the producer, especially if it fall upon the gross produce), might fairly be paid by them; such a tax as this last would, however, be too easily evaded by such ingenious gentlemen, and therefore it might be more advisable to levy a stamp tax, since the merchant is always obliged to take a Teskere to load or unload his goods, whilst he could easily falsify the return of his income.

It will be necessary, however, to prevent this tax falling, like that of the exports and imports, upon the peasant instead of the trader; a method of securing this result would be the establishment by Government of houses of commerce in connection with the Ottoman Bank, which should be bound to content themselves with a profit of (say) 10 per cent. upon their exports and imports. Not only would these do good by ridding the country of the present traders, and offering better prices to the agriculturists, whilst supplying them with foreign wares at a cheap rate, but they would also have the financial and economical advantage of causing a part of the profits, at present pocketed by Greeks, to come into the coffers of the National Bank, and of keeping the money in the country.

In order to equalize in some measure the respective positions of town and country, it is necessary to proceed logically, and to tax each in the same proportion.

A peasant who sows one Varna kile of grain, of the average value of 100 piastres, reaps (as a minimum) ten Varna kiles value 1000 piastres, of which he pays, besides personal taxes, &c., one-tenth, or 100 piastres, as dime; in other words, a tax of ten per cent. on the whole revenue of his agricultural speculation.

The owner of land in a town, of the superficies of 400 square metres, lets his ground for at least 1600 piastres per annum, or four piastres per square metre, whilst the average income of the peasant from four times the same extent of cultivated land is 200 piastres, or one-eight of a piastre per square metre, out of which he has to pay a tax of twenty piastres, whilst the inhabitant of the town pays nothing; to put each on the same level, the latter should be taxed four-tenths of a piastre for every square metre of ground owned by him.

Besides a stamp tax, a license to buy or sell, and a rate fixed upon land owned in towns according to its position and their importance, it might be only just to impose another sort of trade license of so much, say ten piastres, upon every square metre of ground upon which is any building destined for commercial purposes, and to punish by confiscation, and even by imprisonment, any evasion of this tax. Thus, the Eastern trader who stores his goods in an unlicensed house should be liable to have them forfeited, as well as to a heavy fine; if he signs a contract, or does business in an unlicensed house, the sum affected by the contract should be paid as a fine by the two contracting parties.

If contracts upon unstamped paper were invalid, and their amount liable to forfeiture, this law would be very difficult to evade.

We shall be told that such absurd exactions would have the effect of destroying Eastern commerce entirely; to annihilate the commerce of Turkey as it at present exists, and to see it replaced by a sound and healthy system of trade, is exactly what we should most desire, and in our opinion it is always better to kill a venomous snake than to “scotch" it.

The towns would not suffer, but benefit, by such a land tax as we have proposed, for the proprietor, finding himself obliged to pay, would naturally try to get as much for his ground as possible, and build respectable and solid houses instead of the flimsy structures which now exist in all Oriental towns. Take the example of Pera, where the municipality have taxed pretty heavily, and see the improvement which has taken place in domestic architecture.

One word upon the municipalities; they are a quite recent creation, but with the exception of the Sixth Circle of Constantinople - that is, Pera - they exist only in name. Municipal guards, a sort of sergents de ville, have been established, and French institutions are copied in other ways; but all this does not prevent people from selling with fraudulent weights and measures under the very eyes of the new police, or the streets from being fathomless mud-holes, and the towns themselves a collection of sheds, compared with which the huts of Little Kamiesch or Balaklava would have appeared palaces. If it is necessary to reform and embellish the towns, some other and more practical plan must be struck out; as for the country, it would perhaps be better for its welfare that the Turkish reformers of the present day should forget its existence and leave it to itself.

Last year, however, they recollected it sufficiently to raise the dime from 10 to 15 per cent., whilst they whitened the tumble-clown walls of Varna, planted a few trees, and pulled down a street of huts painted blue, to replace it by a street of huts painted yellow.

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