Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Turkey’s search for a new European identity casts a long shadow over eastern Mediterranean countries, where there is considerable confusion as to Ankara’s intentions. Until now, Turkey has rarely bothered to explain to the international community the reasons for its decisions, thus causing misunderstandings.

For Europeans, Turkey’s traditional Islamic roots and its quest for a modern outlook contradict each other. On this divided island, a third of which is patrolled by Turkish troops, Ankara’s hopes to join the European Union are viewed with misgivings.

Equally concerned is Greece, the motherland of Greek Cypriots, which feels that Turkey’s foreign policy, its contested European credentials and the slow pace of its reforms do not bode well.

This month, diplomatic alarms rang in Athens again as Turkey repeated the threat of war if Greece extended its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. The nuances of that controversy often confuse most Europeans.

“Threats don’t help Turkey come closer to Europe, which it has said is its main goal,” said Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis.

Six months after Turkey was invited to begin membership negotiations with the EU, worries surfaced in several capitals that the talks could collapse unless Turkey conforms totally to the union’s requirements. These include the demand that it open its ports and air space to Cypriot ships and aircraft and that it recognizes the island’s Greek-Cypriot government. So far, Turkey has refused both demands.

U.S. sees Ankara as ally

Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, warned of negative consequences for Turkey’s uncompromising attitude. “We have kept our word and opened up accession negotiations. Now we expect Turkey to keep its word,” he said.

Despite rising anti-Americanism and Turkish criticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Washington regards Ankara as an important ally in a turbulent part of the world, and has supported its EU candidacy. The EU is deeply divided on the admission of 71 million Muslim Turks into the European “Christian club.”

Several European leaders have challenged Turkey’s European qualifications. Only 5 percent of Turkey’s 297,000 square miles lies on the European side of the Bosporus strait.

The recent warning came from Vice Chancellor Hubert Gorbach of Austria, who currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency. “If we pretend we are ready to take on a member country like Turkey, we are ignoring reality,” he said.

The EU expects negotiations to last 10 years or more as Turkey complies with all requirements. The Turks regard this as excessive procrastination, and many have lost interest in “becoming Europeans.” Some are tempted by closer links to the Middle East instead.

According to a recent opinion poll, 40 percent of Turks — 30 million people — oppose EU membership at this stage. Turkish media are becoming increasingly critical of Europe’s attitude toward their country, frequently considering it as demeaning.

Commented Mehmet Dulger, a major figure in the governing Justice and Development Party, which is known by its Turkish acronym, AKP, “For a long time I have been a partisan of the EU, but my patience has its limits … If the EU restricts itself to Eastern Europe and the West, then it will die.”

There is little doubt that educated Turks want to belong to Europe, and in fact consider themselves Europeans already, despite their rejection by much of Europe. Turkey’s connection with the Middle East is tenuous, mainly because of centuries of Ottoman domination of that region, rarely benign and remembered for its cruelty.

Most EU governments support the idea of expansion to include Turkey; opposition to Turkish membership comes at the grass-roots level. The most outspoken signal was the rejection by French and Dutch voters in separate referendums last year of the proposed European Constitution, partly for fear it would speed Turkey’s accession.

A stark reflection of this feeling was a statement by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, one of the authors of the defeated constitution, who said; “The question is whether Turkey is or is not a European country. History and geography say no.”

A wave of nationalism

The obvious European procrastination with Turkey’s candidacy has spurred already intense nationalism in a country where soldiers on parade roar “one Turk is worth the whole world,” and where children begin the school day by reciting “Lucky is the man who was born a Turk” — a saying coined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.

Lately, the intensity of Turkish nationalism has been reflected in its arts and literature.

“The Third World War,” a novel in which the Turkish army defeats the EU and establishes a “new world order,” was an instant best-seller, as was “Metal Storm,” which tells the story of an imaginary U.S. invasion of Turkey and the destruction of Washington by a Turkish atomic bomb.

Equally popular, if not more so, was this year’s film “The Valley of Wolves: Iraq,” featuring a Turkish “Rambo” who specializes in killing American invaders in Iraq. It was an unparalleled box-office success, applauded by audiences across Turkey.

Apart from its limited European territory and Muslim religion, the list of other European objections is long. It includes the restriction of self-expression for the Kurdish minority and repression of Kurdish nationalist guerrillas with more than 35,000 deaths; the influence of the military on Turkey’s political life; punishment for any form of criticism of the state, and Ankara’s refusal to admit the World War I massacre of its Armenian minority, considered by many in Europe as genocide.

Then there is the problem of divided Cyprus, where Turkey landed an expeditionary corps in 1974 following a Greek coup intended to unite the island with Greece. The Turkish army is still firmly in control of northern Cyprus, now a state for the Turkish-Cypriot minority.

The Turkish military considers its presence in Cyprus to be strategically important, and so far Ankara has refused to discuss the island’s demilitarization. This has become a permanent irritant for international diplomacy and another hurdle for Turkey’s EU aspirations.

Europeans seem confused by Turkey’s contradictions. It is a country where the army considers itself the republic’s guardian, where women are not allowed to wear kerchiefs in government buildings because these are seen as an Islamic political statement, but where the prime minister’s wife wears one at public functions.

Erdogan seems ambiguous

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tries on one hand to lead the country toward Europe, but on the other hand favors certain laws that reflects Islamic fundamentalism.

Said Ankara commentator Burak Bekdil: “The government is accused of promoting Islamic issues, including building a mosque in an Istanbul park, banning alcoholic beverages by local authorities and setting new Islamic standards for food.”

Opined the Athens daily Kathimerini: “The Islamic rhetorical tone adopted lately by Turkey’s prime minister is at odds with his EU ambitions.” And the Istanbul mass-circulation daily Hurryiet commented that Mr. Erdogan’s party “is slowly wrapping the Islamic blanket around us.”

Turkey’s European partners have yet to be convinced of the Turkish army’s avowed commitment to democracy. It is a force that overthrew the country’s civilian governments in 1960 and 1980, but after forcing political changes, it returned to barracks. In 1997, the army forced the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamic prime minister.

Thanks to EU pressure, an army general no longer presides over Turkey’s powerful National Security Council, but other generals maintain a high public profile with the government’s blessing. Thus, when a public prosecutor tried to investigate reports about a secret military unit set up by Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, head of Turkey’s land forces, to fight Kurdish rebels, Mr. Erdogan quickly quashed the probe.

“No one will gain anything by making the country’s military weak,” the prime minister said. “The army is one of our most important institutions.”

Some commentators call the Turkish army — the second-largest in NATO — “a pressure group with heavy weapons.” Others think its role is crucial in educating conscripts and instilling patriotism.

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