- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

ISTANBUL — When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned from Brussels in December with a provisional date to start negotiations with the European Union, many Turks hailed him as a miracle worker.

In the 40 years since Turkey first applied for membership, it had lurched from crisis to crisis, from coup to coup. Here, finally, was a leader whose pro-European sentiments seemed unimpeachable.

Less than a hundred days later, the festivities have been replaced by general bafflement.

With a final decision on Turkey’s accession bid due in October, Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues haven’t even gotten around to choosing a senior negotiator. Last year they revolutionized Ankara’s traditionally inflexible policy on Cyprus. Now they now appear petrified of signing a customs protocol with the Greek-Cypriot government.

“Since December they have been treading water,” said one EU diplomat.

But it is not just the government’s lethargy that troubles observers. They are equally alarmed by the president’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) increasing reliance on the hawkish discourse and nationalist politics many Turks had hoped were a thing of the past.

Faced with international condemnation when police beat female protesters on March 6, Mr. Erdogan responded by accusing the Turkish press of pandering to the West. At the Environment Ministry, meanwhile, his Cabinet colleague raised smirks by removing references to Armenia and Kurdistan from the scientific names of a local species of fox and sheep.

Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica and Ovis armeniana, Osman Pepe explained, were a threat to national unity.

Shaken by the recent resignations of half a dozen members of parliament and one Cabinet minister, AKP whips are tightening party discipline. With the leaks drying up, analysts can only speculate on the reasons behind the government’s apparent change of direction.

For some, Cyprus is the key. Mr. Erdogan, they argue, had gone to Brussels Dec. 17 hoping his support for pro-European Turkish Cypriots had finally convinced the international community that it was Greek Cyprus, not Turkey, that was responsible for stalling reunification of the island, divided since 1974.

To an outsider, EU insistence that he sign a customs union with Cyprus seems a trifle. To many Turks, it means recognizing a state they believe once tried to wipe out the island’s Muslims.

That is a major issue. Earlier this month, Turkey’s president cancelled an official visit to Finland when he heard he would be sharing a dinner table with the Greek-Cypriot leader.

Holding almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament, AKP should have little reason to fear a nationalist backlash. The trouble is, it is less powerful than it looks.

Built from the wreckage of a string of traditional anti-Western Islamist parties, AKP owed its success in the 2002 elections to support for its pro-European policies that extended far beyond its traditional religious base. Now splits are beginning to appear among its supporters.

“For many conservative supporters, AKP has done enough on Europe for the time being,” said Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist with the mass-market daily Hurriyet. “They want the party to concentrate on issues they consider important — lifting the ban on headscarves in universities, and so on.” It is an opinion shared by senior party officials, around 70 percent of whom are known to have political roots in the unreconstructed political Islam of the 1970s and 1980s.

Political scientist Ihsan Dagi said AKP’s fundamental problem lies in gauging even its traditional support base. “Opinion polls regularly show AKP’s conservative supporters to be more pro-European than Turks as a whole,” he said. “Yet at the same time, these are the people most susceptible to nationalist rhetoric.”

So far, AKP’s efforts to patch up such contradictions have been counterproductive. Last year’s aborted plans to criminalize adultery were just the start of a progressive alienation of supporters in the mainstream media and business community.

“The government must realize that its strength is rooted in support for its policy of change, not in the party itself,” columnist Ali Bayramoglu wrote recently in the Islamist daily Zaman.

Upping the nationalist stakes, he said, could be suicidal. “AKP contains nationalist elements, but others — the ultra-right wing, the army, the judiciary — represent nationalism much better.” With parliamentary opposition in disarray, the government shouldn’t have to worry about its temporary loss of direction. But nature abhors a vacuum, and in Turkey there is always someone to fill the gaps.

Since last August, when Turkey’s chief of staff told his men to shut up, the generals have been unusually quiet. Last week, though, one pointedly commemorated six Turkish policemen killed by the British in World War I. The ceremony had been dropped in the 1950s.

A couple of days later, to the anger of ministers, the general tipped to take over the top post in a year’s time also weighed in with a criticism of government policy on Iraq. It could be the start of a trend.

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