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Turkey: Frustration Mounting Over EU Demands For Reform

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Last week, a prominent Turkish army general lashed out at the European Union, suggesting that Ankara should look for more obliging partners -- namely, Russia and Iran. But the remarks, rather than reflecting a true shift in Turkey's strategic orientation, may signal the frustration many in the country feel over the EU's numerous demands ahead of accession talks.

Prague, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Ankara's deadline for meeting short-term European Union requirements approaches, resentment of the 15-nation bloc is growing among Turkey's right-wing parties, army generals, and even parts of the political left.

Turkey, which applied for EU membership in 1987, was granted candidate status only two years ago. And Brussels is now insisting that Ankara push through reforms to bring the country in line with the so-called Copenhagen criteria -- the political and human rights requirements set for EU membership -- before accession talks can even begin. Of the 13 EU candidate countries, Turkey stands in last place.

One year ago, Prime Minster Bulent Ecevit's coalition cabinet adopted a program of short- and medium-term reforms aimed at putting Turkey on track with membership goals. And Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, the leader of the liberal conservative Motherland Party and the man who oversees the government's relations with the EU -- now says a new set of proposals aimed at conforming Turkish laws to European democracy standards would be submitted to the legislature next week.

The EU, which decides next fall which candidates will be invited to join the first wave of enlargement, is scheduled to assess Ankara's short-term reform progress within days.

Turkey hopes to begin accession talks before the mandate of its current legislature expires in 2004, with an eye on possible membership in 2007. Ankara would also like to obtain a timeframe for accession talks by the end of this year.

But in a report published last week, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says this is unlikely to happen. The report says: "Turkey seems to be heading toward the kind of disappointment that will prompt a review of its goal of integration with Western Europe."

Some analysts believe uneasy relations between Brussels and Ankara -- as well as unending political wrangling among cabinet members over what the country should concede to Brussels -- may eventually damage Turkey's membership bid.

Last week, a senior Turkish army general, Tuncer Kilinc, entered the fray, accusing the EU of being a "Christian club," and describing predominantly Muslim Turkey's efforts to join the body as doomed to fail.

Kilinc, who is the secretary-general of the powerful National Security Council -- Turkey's main decision-making body and a powerful political tool of the army -- suggested that instead of focusing on relations with Europe, Turkey should look for alternative alliances:

"Regarding those issues that touch upon its national interests, Turkey has not received the slightest assistance from the EU. On the contrary, it is obvious that the EU holds a negative view on these issues. It is, therefore, necessary for Turkey to explore new possibilities. Russia, too, feels isolated and is trying to get closer to the United States. Without disregarding the U.S., we could cooperate with Russia in the region. If possible, let us also [cooperate with] Iran and look for new options in the region." Although Kilinc said he was merely expressing a personal opinion and was not speaking in the name of the military, his comments raised alarm among proponents of Ankara's EU membership.

Some commentators noted that this was the first time Turkey's anti-EU lobby has so clearly voiced its concerns. Others suggested the high-ranking officer would not have indulged in such harsh criticism of the EU without the approval of his political superiors.

Analysts also expressed dismay at Kilinc's direct reference to Iran and Russia. Despite increasing economic cooperation between Ankara and these two countries, both are still regarded by the military establishment as threats to NATO-member Turkey's strategic interests.

The day after Kilinc's remarks, Prime Minister Ecevit issued a brief statement reasserting Turkey's commitment to joining the EU. While acknowledging the difficulties Ankara faces and may continue to face on the road to membership, Ecevit said that "geographically, historically, and culturally, Turkey is a European nation."

Turkish-EU relations have been rocky in recent years, most notably regarding the status of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, a frontrunner among EU candidates, which Ankara has been partially occupying since 1974.

However, since inter-Cypriot peace talks resumed last January under the aegis of the United Nations, the animosity between Brussels and Ankara seems to have been temporarily redirected toward other issues.

Kilinc's comments came amid controversy sparked by the recent publication in Turkish newspapers of confidential e-mails sent by the European Commission envoy to Ankara, Britain's Karen Fogg, to journalists, politicians, and human rights activists, as well as to EU officials in Brussels.

Fogg's private correspondence was first made public by Dogu Perincek, the outspoken leader of the left-wing Workers' Party, who accuses the EU envoy of spying against the government and working against Turkey's national interests.

Many in Turkey believe Perincek, who claims he has close links with the military and who has refused to say how he had obtained Fogg's correspondence, did not act alone. Both the Army General Staff and the MIT -- Turkey's intelligence services -- have denied any involvement in the incident.

Although judicial authorities have launched legal procedures against Perincek, who faces up to three years in jail, the case has sparked a wave of public hostility toward the EU in Turkey. Perincek earlier this week accused the EU of supporting separatist and "terrorist" organizations. His remark cuts to the core of the so-called "Fogg affair" -- controversial e-mails referring to an alleged EU project to fund a newspaper in the Kurdish language.

Granting greater cultural rights to Turkey's 12 million ethnic Kurds -- whom Ankara refuses to recognize as a fully-fledged minority -- is one of the prerequisites set by the EU to start accession talks. Yet, many in Turkey -- especially in the military and in the far-right Nationalist Action Party, a coalition partner in Ecevit's cabinet -- reject such a possibility lest it add fuel to Kurdish separatism.

Since the 11 September attacks against the United States, Ankara has been pressing European countries to ban or take legal action against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other radical left-wing organizations, such as the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, which operate legally outside Turkey.

But, unlike the U.S. and Britain, the EU has so far refused to include these groups on its list of terrorist organizations.

CSIS Turkey Project Research Assistant Seda Ciftci told RFE/RL that this refusal may have contributed in large part to the widespread perception among Turkish army generals and nationalist political leaders that the EU is acting against Ankara's security interests:

"The main criticism [toward the EU] has come from the military because the EU has not considered the PKK a terrorist organization. This has kind of [upset] the military establishment, and the political establishment too."

The Kurdish fight for independence has claimed more than 30,000 lives during the 15 years leading up to 1999, when PKK militants agreed to stop fighting Turkish government troops and set up their main base of operations in northern Iraq following the arrest of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in Kenya.

Sentenced to death in 1999, Ocalan is now on death row in the Imrali high-security jail, where he is the only inmate.

Turkey has been observing a moratorium on executions since 1984, but the EU demands that capital punishment be abolished as a prerequisite to accession talks.

Last autumn, Turkey's lawmakers passed constitutional changes limiting the use of the death penalty in cases involving terrorism and crimes committed in wartime. The changes also eased the media ban on languages other than Turkish -- a move presented by Ankara as giving the green light to Kurdish-language broadcasting but described as purely symbolic by human rights groups.

Similarly, amendments to existing laws governing freedom of expression passed in parliament last month (6 February) were deemed inadequate by EU officials, Turkish lawyers, liberal politicians, and rights activists.

Ciftci of CSIS says the Turkish population is caught between its desire to join the EU and its reluctance to accept concessions implied by Turkey's eventual entry into the bloc:

"When you look at opinion polls, you see that the Turkish [population] really [wants] Turkey to be a EU member. But, on the other hand, there are some problems with the EU such as Cyprus, the death penalty, [or] human rights [issues]. Also, the EU has been pressing for constitutional changes [to grant] rights to Turkey's ethnic minorities, especially [to] the Kurds. So there is a reaction in Turkey, saying: OK, we are going to comply with the Copenhagen criteria, but this is not going [to happen] at any cost."

Recent polls show that up to 68 percent of Turks favor entry into the EU, which they associate with greater civil liberties and economic welfare.

Bolstered by these surveys, Deputy Prime Minister Yilmaz would like to organize a referendum on Turkey's EU membership to end what he has described as "sterile debates" between his own party and the Nationalist Action Party. Addressing fellow party members earlier this week in parliament, Yilmaz said:

"Some people are trying to spread doubt in the mind of the citizens, and we believe that, if we organize a referendum on that issue (Turkey's accession to the EU), these doubts will be radically dispelled. To those who are afraid of a referendum, I would point out that we should fear neither the nation nor its decisions."

In a further bid to defuse tension between Turkey and the EU, Ecevit said this week that the National Security Council was drawing up a "plan of action" regarding Kurdish broadcasting. Ecevit did not elaborate, but Turkey's NTV private television channel earlier this week (10 March) reported that the Army General Staff and other security agencies would not object to some limited broadcasting in the Kurdish language as long as it remains under strict government control.

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