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Turkey: Pessimism Permeates The Country

  • Ben Partridge



London, 30 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recent report says the Europeans' decision indefinitely to postpone talks with Turkey on its possible accession to the EU has removed incentives for greater democratization and an improvement there in human rights.

The EU announced its decision at the Luxembourg summit last December, subsequently agreeing that only five Central and East European nations, plus Cyprus, were ready to open membership talks. In effect, the EU has allowed the former communist countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia) to jump the queue ahead of long-time NATO partner Turkey, an applicant for membership since 1964.

The 1997/98 Strategic Survey, issued by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, says the exclusion of Turkey came as a "bitter blow" and prompted a "bout of national introspection."

It says most Turks felt a sense of humiliation and rejection at the decision which many suspect was prompted primarily by racial and religious prejudice. Their reaction was compounded by anger at the reasons cited by the EU for saying "no" -- Turkey's poor human rights record and the treatment of its Kurdish minority.

Much of the Turkish anger was directed at Germany, souring relations between Ankara and Bonn. Germany is wary of Turkish membership: it fears that its large Turkish population would likely expand with the freedom of movement required by EU rules.

The rejection was doubly painful for Turkey's western-oriented political establishment which was fond of saying, in the late 1980s, that Turkey was a "Muslim country with a European vocation".

Many had hoped Turkey would soon become an EU member as a culmination of a process of westernisation that began with the Turkish republic in 1923. For Turks, EU membership meant more than economic or political benefits: It was a case of being able to number themselves among what they saw as the "elite of nations."

Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz reacted to the rejection by announcing the severance of all official contacts with the EU, except for the customs union. He said in future Turkey will confine itself to bilateral relations with the 15 EU member states

Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot administration also announced that talks on the Cyprus problem would be frozen until the north of the divided island receives recognition as an independent state.

But Turkey was unable to find solace elsewhere in the international arena. The Central Asian nations, "once touted as offering Ankara a belt of influence stretching from the Caspian to the Chinese border", have kept their distance; while other Muslim countries have been critical of Turkey's close ties with Israel.

The report quotes an old saying that Turkey is "a man running West on a ship heading East." For many Turks, the Luxembourg "no" brought an uncomfortable realization that the division between east and west lay not along the country's eastern or western border but "ran like a fault-line through the heart of their society."

The EU rejection led Turkey's western-oriented elite and its grass-roots Islamists to question what their country's role in the world might be, and how they should see themselves. It raised the issue of whether Europe saw Muslim Turkey as truly European and, if not, whether Turks could consider themselves as such.

It also raised questions about Turkey's future strategic alignment.

The malaise deepened because of disillusionment with a failure of the political system to produce solutions to social and economic problems, including inflation running at over 60 percent for a decade. There was mounting concern, too, that anti-guerrilla units, formed to combat the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), are involved in narcotics smuggling, assassinations and death squads.

Turkey is still suffering from the collision between the Islamist Refah-led government and the military. The Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party, under its veteran leader Necmettin Erbakan, took power for the first time in June, 1996. But the grass-roots Islamist movement was removed from power without a coup by Turkey's secularist military and banned by the Constitutional Court.

Seventeen years after it last staged a coup, the Turkish military had again shown it is the supreme arbiter of power. Despite over 50 years of theoretical multiparty democracy, the political culture remains "authoritarian and hierarchical rather than participatory".

Today, Turkey is permeated by pessimism -- about the political process, the economy, about its future place in the world. Most damagingly, the toppling of the Rafah-led coalition has revealed a social polarization that questioned one of the most cherished of all Turkish sayings, namely, that a Turk's only friend is another Turk.

The report says the withdrawal of the prospect of early EU membership removed one of Turkey's main source s of momentum, whether in harmonizing its legislative and regulatory framework with that of the EU, or providing Ankara with an incentive for greater democratization and an improvement in human rights.

It says Turkey's foreign and domestic policy has lost its sense of direction, leaving it facing "a prolonged period of injured, uneasy introspection" with no clear indication of the outcome.

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