TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

The Turkish Election on Sunday is an

Occasion for the U.S. and Europe

to Revise Their Relationship




April 14th, 1999

LONDON- If Turkey were China there would have been over the years a massive and continuous uproar in the U.S. Congress. With a human rights record that far outranks in the sadistic impulses league anything that goes on in China and with its continuing, unrelenting, uncompromising, suppression of its Kurdish minority, not even allowing instruction in the Kurdish language in schools, it far exceeds the way Beijing treats Tibet. Yet Turkey continues as a member of Nato, a favourite of American military largesse. Turkey now has the largest fleet of F-16 fighter jets outside the U.S., most of them provided either free or on highly subsidised terms.

Neither the Clinton administration nor the Republican opposition raises its voice a decibel to criticize Turkey. That seems to be left to the Europeans, but that has its own problems. Led by Helmut Kohl when he was chancellor of Germany, it was a no-holds fight to tear up the promise made over thirty years ago to consider Turkey for membership of the European Union.

Although human rights and the Kurds were used as weapons the underlying impulse was Germany's fear of being swamped by Turkish immigrants and Islamic culture. Erasmus' question, "Is not the Turk also a man and a brother?" still meets, in most of Europe, with an embarrassed turn of the head.

Yet, for all its problems, Turkey IS part of Europe. For centuries Constantinople was the founding seat of Christian power. It was the official capital of the Roman empire for a thousand years. Although today the majority of the people are Muslims the alphabet of modern Turkey is Latin, the working week is western, the political arrangements are democratic, the press is relatively free and even the fundamentalists, who did better than ever before in the last general election, still attracted only 21% of the electorate. As Edie Oymen, a senior journalist at Milliyet, a national daily, put it, "Turkey is like a buoy in the Bosporus. It may seem to be pulled by the Asian currents from time to time but, in fact, it is firmly anchored on the European sea bed".

Turkey is not, as the caricature has it, some Wooden Horse, from ancient Troy in western Turkey, to be wheeled into the heart of Europe, only to have jump out hobgoblins of Islamic fundamentalism, strident nationalism and authoritarian police practices. It is a country as developed economically and more developed politically than were Spain and Portugal when they were given membership of Europe. Today it can be counted ahead of member state Greece and the front-of-the-line applicants, Poland and Hungary.

On Sunday, Turkey goes to the polls and once again, by implication at least, it will assert its right to be considered a member of the western world. Yet the election will not solve Turkey's dilemmas. It will not produce a clear majority in favour of improving its human rights practices. (The only way that could happen would be for acting prime minister Bulent Ecevit and his Democratic Left party to take the enormous risk of confronting Turkey's powerful generals and team up with Virtue, the Islamists' party.) It will certainly not produce a concensus on a rapprochement with the Kurds--even though, now that their leader Abdullah Ocalan is behind bars, it is the most opportune time for compromise.

All the indications are that, as before, no party leader will easily summon up an acceptable majority. The Turkey of the immediate future will produce more of what has gone on before--weak governments, leading to weak economic policies and short-sighted, even counter-productive, army-dominated policies towards the Kurds.

Turkey is stuck in a deep rut. Neither American forbearance nor European antipathy is producing an answer. The means of influencing the polity of Turkey needs to be re-thought.

On the domestic side there needs to be less of a blind eye. Turkey may live "in a bad neighbourhood", as Washington policy makers love to say, but the source of the trouble, at least half the time, originates in Ankara. This is certainly true of its relationship with Cyprus and Greece and, until recently, with Russia. Turkey's long hostility towards Syria, given the refuge it extended to Ocalan, was understandable, but now there is no reason why it shouldn't be repaired. Likewise, now that Washington's relationship with Iran is improving, Turkey, as it is doing, can afford to develop a more co-operative relationship of its own.

Turkey is still a front-line state vis a vis Iraq, and Washington, for the forseeable future, will need to bribe Turkey not to follow its natural inclination--and economic self-interest--to make peace with Saddam Hussein.

But all in all Turkey is much less vulnerable and beleaguered than it was. There is less and less excuse for Washington not to start to push hard both on human rights and a better deal for the Kurds.

The Europeans have a different role. Already fully engaged with the stick, they need to re-invent the carrot. They should re-affirm their old commitment that they expect Turkey before too long to join the EU. They need to tell Turkey that they expect that it will put its house in order in time to enter the EU along with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

This combination of carrot and stick--a reversal of roles for America and Europe--could change the political landscape in Turkey within five years. Nothing else is likely to.



Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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