- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus - To Turkish generals, Cyprus is a “dagger pointing at Turkey’s heart,” the main cause of the Muslim country’s growing alienation from Europe and of its search for succor in the Middle East.

The feeling of European rejection is increasing not only among the military, but also across Turkey after the European Union’s demand last week for Turkish recognition of the Greek government on southern Cyprus, in effect the price for continuing membership negotiations with the “Christian club” of the 25 EU nations.

That recognition, whether it takes the form of trade links or a political act, is something no Turkish government has risked contemplating for fear of being disavowed by its people and the inhabitants of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Some analysts in Europe think the Cyprus issue is a smoke screen to keep Turkey out of the European Union as long as possible. Turkey, according to this view, is too big, too poor and too Islamic to be absorbed by the union, which is still searching for political cohesion.

Looking east

Despite recent reforms demanded by the European Union a commitment to secularism and Western values by politicians and the influential military Turks increasingly look for comfort in the Middle East, an area still marked by centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks and a strong involvement with Islam.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has Islamic roots, has made moves that some regard as shifting Turkey’s foreign-policy focus from Europe to the Islamic world. These moves include trips to several Arab countries, a speech at a meeting of the Arab League and a statement that Israel “is trying to wipe out the Palestinians.”

Some in the secular opposition press have warned that “Islam is strengthening its grip on our daily life.” The mass-circulation daily Hurriyet said the governing party “is slowly wrapping the Islamic blanket around us.”

Turkey’s European partners and the United States are concerned that any definitive move “eastward” by Ankara could antagonize Turkish generals and, at the same time, strengthen the Islamic movement both of which could be destabilizing.

“Foreign policy is definitely taking a more Islamic tone,” said Ali Tekin, an Ankara professor. “Erdogan’s agenda and that of the EU are now clashing.”

Difference of opinion

One of the latest opinion polls showed that 81 percent of Turks feel that the European Union’s treatment of Turkey has been “insincere and unjust” and that fewer than 50 percent are interested in joining the union a goal that remains the cornerstone of Mr. Erdogan’s foreign policy.

At the same time, opinion polls show a steady and, to some, alarming erosion of popular sympathy in Turkey for the United States and its objectives in the region. Washington has been steadily urging the European Union to accept Turkey, regarded as a crucial bridge between the West and the Islamic East.

Regardless of the recent EU decision to suspend talks on almost one-fourth of the “chapters” of the negotiating package, Mr. Erdogan insists that his government will continue efforts to link Turkey with Europe. However, he added that “if the EU puts unacceptable conditions before us, it will be impossible to make progress.”

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said, “Issues such as Cyprus cannot be solved with deadlines or blackmail.”

Foreign analysts agree that although concessions on Cyprus would be applauded by the European club, they would antagonize the Turkish electorate, which overwhelmingly supports the presence of more than 30,000 Turkish troops on the divided Mediterranean island.

Into the fire

With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, significant concessions on the Cyprus question would be political suicide for the governing party and for Mr. Erdogan, who some observers say has presidential ambitions.

By freezing talks with Turkey on eight out of 35 accession “chapters,” last week’s EU summit showed European reluctance toward Turkey’s candidacy and its impotence in dealing with the Cyprus problem.

By admitting the Greek-Cypriot government in 2004, the European Union inadvertently became what one European politician described as “a permanent hostage to the Cyprus problem.”

The candidacy of Turkey, with its 70 million Muslims and only about 5 percent of its 297,000 square miles in Europe, has created a major dilemma for all protagonists.

Europeans cannot decide whether to rebuff the candidate or embrace it. Opined the Athens daily Kathimerini: “Europeans treat Turkey with a mix of cynicism and fear.”

Standing their ground

Some argue that Turkey in Europe can be better controlled than Turkey outside Europe.

While Greek Cypriots and their backers in Athens clamor for a solution that would unite Cyprus and restore their supremacy, the Turks show no intention of removing their expeditionary corps or of abandoning the TRNC, which they created after the 1974 invasion to prevent the union of Cyprus with Greece.

This attitude has not changed since Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit declared as the Turkish tanks rolled in clouds of Cypriot summer dust: “Genuine peace will be achieved on the island, this time to remain forever.”

Mr. Ecevit had in mind a “Turkish peace,” guaranteeing Turkish interests on the strategic island as well as the unperturbed existence of the Turkish-Cypriot minority, formerly a frequent victim of Hellenic nationalism and its demands for “enosis” union with Greece now relegated to history books.

Today, 32 years later, most Turks consider the presence of their army in Cyprus to be essential to peace, while the generals also see it as a crucial military outpost against Hellenic ambitions. The Turkish military is the self-appointed guardian of the republican system and has proved it with four purges of elected political leaders.

‘Cornered by Cyprus’

Sedat Laciner, of the International Strategic Research Organization, said that in negotiations on the conditions of EU membership, “the Turkish side feels cornered by Cyprus. There is no room for maneuver, and the public is against concessions.”

The partial suspension of accession talks with Turkey was not just a pinprick or a delaying action. For the European Union, it was the beginning of another stage of haggling, an annoying balancing act between Turkish stubbornness and pride on one side, and Greek and Greek-Cypriot threats of veto on the other. Although the Erdogan government has been trying to camouflage the setback with reassuring slogans, the electorate remains unsatisfied.

The official and legal reason for the EU decision was Turkey’s refusal to open its airports and harbors to Greek-Cypriot planes and ships, as specified in the “Ankara Protocol” signed by Turkey. The Erdogan government said it was willing to comply, but only when the European Union removes its economic sanctions on the Turkish-Cypriot entity.

Ankara also argues that admitting traffic from the Greek-Cypriot portion of Cyprus is tantamount to recognizing the government in Nicosia, which Turkey accuses of suppressing the Turkish-Cypriot minority after the island’s 1960 independence.

New direction

Although Western chanceries speculate whether, because of the European Union’s stance, “Turkey is lost to Europe,” many Europeans think that their bloc has become too involved with the Cyprus problem, something the union did not anticipate when it admitted the Greek-Cypriot government in 2004.

After the recent EU summit, some Turkish journalists complained that “being pro-Western has done little for Turkey” and urged withdrawal from the EU negotiations.

Mehmet Dulger, a legislator from Mr. Erdogan’s AKP and head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “The West risks losing a vital bridge to the Islamic world at a time when having this bridge is more important than ever.”

With the European Union showing no signs of humoring Turkey on the Cyprus issue, voices favoring a shift in Turkey’s foreign policy grow louder, fueled by nationalism and nostalgia for the Ottoman conquests.

“The loss of faith in the EU process increases interest and involvement in the Middle East,” said the English-language New Anatolian newspaper.

And political columnist Ayhan Simsek wrote: “Turkey was the country that led the (Middle East) region. The government would like Turkey to take the leadership again.”

It is too early to assess the likelihood of such an outcome or Arab willingness to accept it. Some diplomats in Ankara think that Turkey could be overreaching at this point.

“Turkey has ambitions for a foreign policy that stretches beyond Europe, but it is now trying to punch above its weight,” one diplomat said.

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