- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus - After a 40-year struggle against European reluctance, Muslim Turkey stands on the precarious threshold of the predominantly Christian European Union (EU).

The accession negotiating process that formally opens tomorrow is fraught with uncertainty amid European doubts about Turkey’s credentials. The talks may last 10 years or more and could easily stumble over new obstacles.

Until virtually the last minute, Austria objected to the nature to the talks, insisting on a “privileged partnership” status for Turkey rather than full EU membership. An emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers was called for today in Luxembourg to find an acceptable formula before the talks convene.

As Yasar Yakis, a former Turkish foreign minister and member of the governing Justice and Development Party put it: “It is too early to celebrate. The talks will be very tough, tougher than for any other candidate country.”

Nonetheless, it is a major step for Turkey in its bid to join a lukewarm Europe where the image of Ottoman conquests “by fire and sword” is still very much a part of history texts, while some populist politicians still speak of “the scourge of Christendom.”

In Turkey, where Islam and secular principles clash almost daily, enthusiasm for membership in what politicians describe as “a Christian club” has waned somewhat as the Europeans stalled at the green light.

When it finally came last Dec. 17, even more doubts emerged and it took more than nine months to prepare the talks.

Some issues ignored

Leaders of the 25-nation EU, apparently disregarding opinion polls hostile to Turkey’s membership, insisted on opening the negotiations on time, even if it required glossing over certain Turkish acts said to be contrary to European principles.

These include the relentless war against the Kurdish rebels that has caused more than 35,000 deaths, the denial of certain Kurdish cultural and nationalist demands, refusal to admit Turkey’s role in the World War I massacre of Armenians, the recent indictment against a prominent author accused of “insulting Turkishness,” and the persistent shadow of the influential Turkish military over the country’s politics.

Equally troubling to the Europeans is Cyprus, where Turkey benefited from the EU’s reluctance to become mired in yet another problem: Although Turkey refused to recognize the Greek Cypriot government — an EU member — and has kept its seaports closed to Greek Cypriot vessels, the EU preferred not to penalize it or delay admission talks.

Stubborn over Cyprus

A joint declaration by the EU said merely that Turkey should recognize Cyprus before it is allowed to join the union — when the protracted negotiations end.

Commented the Athens daily Kathimerini: “The outcome involved endless talks between European officials, behind the scene contacts … and much wasting of time and energy.”

Even the presence of some 30,000 Turkish troops in northern Cyprus, in effect occupying 37 percent of the territory of an EU nation, was not allowed to hinder or delay the accession talks at this stage.

The government in Ankara has shown considerable stubbornness in the dispute over Cyprus, with statements from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that no Turkish concession on the issue of the divided island would be made before the start of the talks. Even stronger was a statement by Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul that Turkey’s position on Cyprus “will never change.”

Hopes remain strong

However, to attenuate such categorical views, senior officials in Ankara explain that once the Cyprus problem has been solved (to Turkey’s satisfaction), recognition of the Greek Cypriot government in the southern part of the island would be considered, but only if a parallel “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” is internationally recognized.

Turkey’s size and its possible stabilizing role in a highly volatile area where Europe and Asia meet has been systematically underlined by some EU politicians, who feel that rejecting Turkey would push it either toward radical Islam or equally radical nationalism.

Even Greece, Turkey’s historic foe, feels that when Turkey belongs to the EU, its nationalism and military ambitions could be more easily controlled. For the time being, both countries, which are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, continue improving their military equipment while staging mock dogfights over the contested waters of the Aegean Sea.

Population is growing

A number of politicians led by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing continue to insist that Turkey “has nothing in common with Europe,” even though 5 percent of its territory of 297,000 square miles lies on the European side of the Bosporus.

While the European business community points to Turkey’s growth over the past three years and its value as a business partner, politicians worry about the possible burden of a poor country of 71 million with a rising population that soon will exceed Germany’s present 82 million people.

Europe’s reluctance to admit Turkey was partly caused by the presence of more than 3 million Turkish workers, mainly in Germany, Austria, France and several north European countries. On the whole, these temporary immigrants have shown little inclination to integrate or adjust to European lifestyles.

Two negative referendums

What alarmed some EU officials was that France and the Netherlands rejected the proposed European constitution in referendums last spring, mainly because voters interpreted the charter as paving the road to Turkey’s EU membership.

Somewhat reluctantly, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, admitted that the union’s executive body could not ignore “the signal sent by the electorate regarding Turkey.” Yet the commission continued pushing for Turkey’s accession talks, a policy seen by some as part of a drive to increase the EC’s influence and economic clout.

To most Turks, being “European” has little meaning.

Ataturk was decisive

In 1923, when the country reeled from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the republic and simply ordered it to “face West.” This included such measures as dropping Arabic script and adopting the Latin alphabet instead and a ban on the fez, the traditional colorful headgear.

Christian Sunday replaced the Muslim Friday as the official day of rest, but Islam has remained a powerful spiritual influence for most Turks. Even now, the country is torn by a debate over how Islamic or secular modern Turkey should be.

Islamic revivals in some Turkish cities and universities, including resistance to a ban on women wearing head scarves in government buildings, has caused concern among some Europeans about “the Islamic cloud over Europe.”

Ankara fully committed

Although throughout much of its modern history Turkey has been regarded as a power crippled by its internal problems, Turkish officials now point to an unquestionably impressive list of recent reforms. In statements and interviews, Mr. Erdogan stigmatized “the campaign against us,” which raised European concern about “the growth of militant Turkish chauvinism.”

Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly stressed that Turkey is “fully committed to the European process” and said Ankara would work to change the nation’s mentality and “take whatever steps are required from us.”

Yet on key issues such as the Turkish military presence in Cyprus, the Turkish government allowed little room for discussion or compromise, saying the Turkish Cypriot approval of the U.N. unification plan, rejected by the Greek side, was a sufficient gesture of good will.

Old ghosts linger

An especially sensitive subject is the fate of its Armenian population during World War I, when an estimated 1.5 million perished during their forced “resettlement march” to desert areas. Despite European pressure, Turkey refuses to call the deaths a genocide and says the “resettlement” was prompted by Armenian support for Russia, then Turkey’s enemy.

Last month, the European Commission decried the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author who told a Swiss magazine “30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it.”

Mr. Pamuk was accused of insulting “Turkey’s national character” and could face a prison term for possible violation of Turkey’s new penal code.

The problem of the Kurds — the long-suffering “orphans of the universe” scattered throughout Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria — has poisoned Turkey’s internal peace for more than two centuries, with 32 uprisings drowned in blood. Despite some official Turkish concessions to Kurdish demands for self-expression, any bid for autonomy is rejected as undermining national unity.

After several pauses in its guerrilla war, the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party recently resumed its harassing attacks; Kurdish nationalist demonstrations spread to several cities and were suppressed by police. However, rebel demands for autonomy do not appear to be shared by all Kurds, many of whom have been integrated into the mainstream. What tarnished Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds is the slow application of promised reforms recognizing their language and culture.

European concern about Turkey’s democracy has been heightened by the high profile of the Turkish military, considered the guardian of the secular system introduced by Ataturk and known as “Kemalism.”

Military calls shots

On four occasions since Ataturk’s death in 1938, the military has intervened in Turkey’s politics — most recently in 1980, when the country was in turmoil and the government seemed helpless. Three years later, after crushing terrorist groups and purging the ranks of quarreling politicians, the generals and their troops returned to barracks.

Under EU pressure, the role of the military in the powerful National Security Council has been reduced, though senior officers issue periodic statements to show vigilance.

The last such statement — in April, by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff — was a blunt assessment of Turkey’s domestic and foreign concerns, proving that the military is not yet ready to take a back seat.

Gen. Ozkok described Turkey’s military presence in Cyprus as essential to security.

Gen. Ozkok, known for pro-EU sympathies, is due to retire next year and his likely replacement, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, is described by diplomats as “an unknown quantity.”

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