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1999 In Review: Turkey's Tumultuous Year

  • Bruce Jacobs

The year 1999 brought dramatic developments to Turkey across the political, economic and social spectrums. RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs looks back at the year's developments.

Prague, 22 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Earthquakes shook the nation to its depths. The capture of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan grabbed the headlines. The European Union opened the door, at least a little. Those are just some of the moments which combined to make 1999 a tumultuous year for Turkey.

The massive earthquake that struck western Turkey on August 17 dealt a devastating blow, killing at least 18,000 people. Dozens of apartment blocks collapsed on victims, highlighting the weak enforcement of Turkey's building codes. Another quake in November caused more damage and took more lives.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Sermet Atacanli says the earthquakes hurt the country economically. But he says that many negatives can be turned into positives.

"Of course, its effects on the economy were bad in the short-run, but they say in the mid-term or longer-term period its going to have an opposite effect. It's going to boost construction business and so forth, so in the long-run its immediate bad effects will somehow be balanced by expansion in the economy."

One thing that did get an immediate lift after the earthquake was relations with Turkey's rival, Greece. It even gave rise to a new term in the political lexicon: earthquake diplomacy.

Greece sent emergency aid and rescue workers to Turkey, and, after a September earthquake in Athens, the Ankara government sent help to Athens.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said this helped to warm attitudes of citizens and politicians on both sides.

"The governments, I believe, are taking note of this sentiment and we have already initiated a limited sort of dialogue between Turkey and Greece. Our foreign ministers have established a really warm relationship, really a working relationship. We have established six committees who have met quite a number of times so far to deal with less important issues between the two countries, like tourism, culture, and trade and so forth. We are cautiously optimistic. We think that this might be a good start."

Turkey and Greece have long-standing territorial disputes over islands in the Aegean. And one of the biggest sore points remains the division of the island of Cyprus. The northern third of Cyprus has been under Turkish control since Turkish troops invaded in 1974 in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt to unite the island with Greece.

But late this year, Turkey agreed to the possibility of arbitration on some of the territorial disagreements. And in return, Greece lifted its veto against the offer of candidacy for Turkey to join the European Union. The result was that Turkey was officially made a candidate at an EU summit meeting in Helsinki this month.

Mr. Atacanli says its only natural for Turkey to be integrated into the EU.

"Well, it has always been Turkey's basic orientation, since the establishment of the republic, 75 or 76 years ago -- even earlier than that. Turkey has always considered it a part of Europe and has already taken part in a number of other European institutions. In fact we are among the founding members of the Council of Europe, for example. We took part in almost all other major European institutions--NATO, OECD and so forth. So this is a basic orientation as far as we are concerned."

Julie Smith of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London says Turkey has made some progress toward meeting European Union standards for membership. But she is also quick to say that Ankara still has a long way to go in reforming its political system.

"At present, the government seems to be willing to look toward consolidation of democratic practices. The idea of membership to act as a carrot, to push those democratic practices further, so that the possibility of EU membership could actually be seen as encouraging the Turks to improve their democratic practices. The commitment I think is there, but the reality hasn't been as significant as would have been desirable."

One of the other major stumbling blocks for Turkish EU membership is the human rights issue. Last month, a Council of Europe committee called on Turkey to recognize the rights of minorities, including Kurds, to free cultural and political expression.

It currently is forbidden to teach in minority languages in Turkish schools. Many Kurdish organizations and publications have been banned. Five mostly-Kurdish provinces in southeastern Turkey are still under emergency rule, which allows local governors to impose curfews, ban rallies, and suppress illegal demonstrations. Journalists have been imprisoned for writing too favorably about Kurdish causes.

At this month's Helsinki summit, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit openly conceded that his country needs to make changes.

"I am well-aware that we have some ground to cover in further raising the standards in the fields of human rights and democracy, as well as remedying a number shortcomings in our economy. Separatist terrorism, which has continued for a long time, bears the prime responsibility in this regard."

When the Turkish prime minister talks about separatist terrorism, he is talking about the guerrilla war for Kurdish autonomy led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). More than 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict over the last 15 years. The group's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured by Turkish secret agents in February and sentenced to death in June. Both events were widely celebrated in Turkey.

The European Union has made clear that if the sentence is carried out, the execution will also kill Turkey's bid for EU membership. Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponnen and other European leaders say that the death sentence does not belong in Europe.

Ocalan and the PKK have now changed tactics and called for an end to an armed struggle against the Turkish government and for peaceful negotiations for Kurdish cultural rights.

But the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr. Atacanli, says his government will never negotiate with Ocalan or the PKK.

"What he says means nothing really. He is not a legitimate interlocutor for us. He is a criminal. There is no war going on in Turkey, anyway. There is only a group of terrorists and they have been brought under control. So to see him or present him as a peacemaker or something like that would be a big mistake."

Even if Turkey improves its human rights situation, its economy is also far short of EU standards. Inflation has averaged some 64 percent through most of this year. The country also has a heavy debt burden. Turkey's finance minister says that 75 percent of tax revenues were used to meet interest payments this year.

Corruption also remains a serious problem, according to Mr. Atacanli:

"Well it�s a big issue. People are not happy with the way things are being done in this country. There is an obvious need for reform in major institutions but these things are not easy to accomplish."

One bright spot on the horizon is the deal reached last month in Istanbul for the building of an oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Plans call for it to cross more than 1,600 kilometers, from Azerbaijan, through Georgia and a big part of Turkey to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The deal could mean big money for Turkey if Caspian oil fields can be developed properly.

The deal also is a sign of Ankara's strong relations with the United States, which saw it as strategically important that the pipeline from the Caspian avoid Iran and Russia. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan also signed the accord.

Despite an economy, a population, and a military that dwarfs nearby nations in terms of size, Turkey does not see itself as dominating its neighbors. Foreign Ministry spokesman Atacanli:

"We don't consider ourselves as the regional leader. We are not looking for any leadership role as such. Of course, Turkey is an important country, that's another thing. But you know, we seek cooperation, not leadership or domination."

Turkey is clearly a nation at a crossroads. As this millennium comes to an end, it faces new and difficult challenges and decisions on just what kind of nation it wants to be in the next.