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Turkey/EU: Analysis From Washington -- Nationalism And Human Rights

Washington, 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International efforts to promote human rights sometimes have the unintended consequence of powering nationalism among both ethnic minorities and dominant groups.

Ethnic minorities often view such international efforts as providing them just the protection they need to promote their agendas against governments and communities who have tried to keep them in a subordinate position.

And dominant groups sometimes view the same international efforts as a threat to their position and thus react by becoming more nationalistic than they were before and, in some cases, more repressive as well.

To note this pattern is not to argue against international efforts to promote universal principles of human rights but only to point out that these efforts can backfire unless they are very carefully adapted to a particular situation.

All of these dangers appear to be playing themselves out in Turkey as Ankara attempts to meet the requirements for membership in the European Union.

When the EU reversed itself in December and made Turkey an official candidate for future membership, Turkey's political elite was elated. And Ankara committed itself to doing whatever was necessary to meet EU requirements.

But one set of those requirements in the area of human rights has now triggered a public debate over what kind of a country Turkey should be and whether it should change itself in fundamental ways in order to join Europe.

Most Turkish leaders remain committed to improving Ankara's human rights record, to provide better guarantees for basic freedoms including freedom of speech, and to provide more cultural and political rights to the Kurds.

They view all these changes as a price worth paying for the full inclusion of Turkey into Europe.

But other Turkish officials and intellectuals insist that the European Union is setting too high a price for Ankara's membership and that Turkey may be better off outside as it now is than inside and fundamentally changed.

The intensity of this debate was highlighted last month when the two sides went beyond the media to press their respective cases. At that time, those opposing Turkish entry into Europe succeeded in arresting three Kurdish mayors on charges of supporting terrorism.

But within a few days, those supporting Turkish membership in the EU succeeded in getting the three released and even returned to their official duties.

The opponents then took revenge by the successful prosecution of former Prime Minister Necmetting Erbakan for a speech he made in 1994. Many in Europe see his one-year prison sentence as an effort by Turkish nationalists to ban his Islamist political party.

Frightened by the implications of that view, some Turkish officials have called for the repeal of the law under which Erbakan was prosecuted. But a senior prosecutor argued that its repeal would "damage the fight against subversion."

Because each of these sides has so much support, Turkey's current prime minister Bulent Evecit is now seeking to stake out a position in the middle. He reaffirmed this week that he still supports getting his country into the European Union.

But he added that the EU is going to have to modify its demands in this area in the face of ever greater intransigence in Ankara. "The EU countries," he said, "have a plan to put us under harsher pressure than before. We won't be part of this game."

Ecevit's remarks put the European Union and the broader international community in a very difficult position. If the EU continues to press Turkey on these points, Turkey may react by moving in an ever more nationalistic and authoritarian direction.

But if the EU modifies its demands on these issues, other countries may seek to get special treatment as well, especially given the success some states have had recently in invoking the fight against terrorism as a justification for ignoring human rights.

Neither of these outcomes appears likely to promote human rights in the ways the EU and others would like to see. Instead, these two risks define the long and difficult path those who support human rights are going to have follow if they hope to achieve their goal.