- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

The most interesting aspect of Turkey's latest financial crisis is what caused it. Neither speculation nor scandal were the cause, but politics. Egos clashed, and it led to currency devaluation. In a nutshell, government was oblivious to market sensitivities, therefore harming the nation's image.

Such is the accepted commentary. Questions about Turkey's readiness to join the European Union suddenly arise, while Ankara soul-searches for a remedy. Granted that the open spat between Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer wasn't a good public relations exercise, but the public's resultant $7.5 billion bank withdrawal seemed overwrought. Explanations range from the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) preference for "pegged" exchange rates (part of a recent $11 billion reform program for Ankara) to military takeover fears. Combine these observations and the main culprit appears to be Eurostress.

Turkey's effort to attain EU membership has become a virtual obsession. It's the crowning point of an eighty year push towards Westernization that Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founding father initiated. Although this has been a circuitous process due to various and sundry reasons, Ankara senses it'sfinally within striking distance.

Crossing the EU goal line will be a formidable task however. Turkey must carefully choose its tactics at this juncture. At present, Prime Minister Ecevit's coalition is an unlikely assortment of ex-leftwingers, conservatives and far right nationalists. Since its 1999 formation, this varied cabinet has received Brussels approval as a candidate for full EU membership, begun the aforementioned IMF package and improved relations with archrival Greece. Inflation has been significantly lowered and there's continued, albeit slowing economic growth. Compared to previous administrations, Mr. Ecevit's gunning the motor.

Yet Brussels expects more. Besides wanting the faster privatization of state industries, Turkish laws must adjust to EU guidelines within the next four years. As a Turkish official told me amid the recent turmoil, "The Union is burdening us with so much in such a short time."

Mr. Sezer heightened this underlying anxiety. Although Mr. Ecevit recommended him for the position (presidents are appointed instead of elected by popular vote in Turkey), their relationship has been a disaster. Both men are considered to be Turkey's most honest public officials, so it's somewhat ironic that Mr. Sezer accused the prime minister of obstructing anti-corruption probes. Taken aback, the 75-year-old Mr. Ecevit retorted that the president had made "a serious allegation" against him and that "a serious crisis" had erupted. Considering that the Turkish Treasury was ready to hold its biggest ever bond auction and that the IMF's deputy managing director had just flown into Ankara for high level meetings, this dispute couldn't have come at a worse time. Perhaps the president was testing Mr. Ecevit's EU resolve, but it resulted in financial mayhem.

Essentially the heads of state believe in different methodologies. Mr. Sezer comes from a judicial background that's altogether different from the haggling nature of Turkish politics. His approach is entirely legalistic whereby EU standards can't be modified. It's a strict, constructivist interpretation at odds with governmental ways.

Prime Minister Ecevit's approach is the complete opposite. Call it the yavas ("slow") process. This is Turkey's variation of the "manana" rationale in which things get accomplished per a cultural timeframe. Anybody who's dealt with Ankara's bureaucratic mores knows it well. Nothing gets started without a customary glass of tea, followed by cigarettes (though smoke-free environments have begun to appear) and friendly, at times philosophical conversation. Inevitably business gets accomplished, but it's totally anathema to clockwise efficiency.

However desirable it may seem to Western senses, quickly overhauling this mentality would cause Turkey more harm than benefits. Reform is undoubtedly necessary, but within a context that's suitable for Ankara instead of Brussels. Squeeze too hard and the sense that yabancis (foreigners) are forcing uniformity can arise. This isn't mere speculation; a backlash did occur among small enterprises after Turkey's 1996 customs union with the EU. Faced with greater competition and hardship, many of these businesses switched their support to Islamic and nationalist parties. Mr. Ecevit recognizes such dilemmas and is irked by President Sezer's single minded approach.

Nevertheless, public sentiment views things differently. Corruption, not bureaucratic inertia is the average Turk's primary concern. They hope that Brussels scrutiny will beget a better society. By disallowing any investigation of his political alliance, Mr. Ecevit has become the heavy in contrast to Mr. Sezer's Mr. Clean image. The prime minister's virtuous image may be tarnished, but there's really no other politico who merits that trait. Save for the highly respected military who would only be considered in a worse-case scenario, an Ecevit-led coalition is the public's safest bet.

It's astonishing that an outburst has caused so much havoc. Nonetheless, Turkey has taken an economic hit and needs to regroup. The Turkish Lira's 36 percent fall since this situation began means consumer belt tightening and a more burdensome IMF program. Still, the recent carnage doesn't match what beset Russia in 1998 or the Asian crisis several years ago.

"Keep Calmer Thinking" urges a recent Turkish newspaper headline. It's a welcome message that all respective parties should heed in the existing aftermath. Brussels is still the destination, but it doesn't have to be via the Autobahn.

Gerald Robbins is a writer based in New York.


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