The hard bargaining that has characterized the early stage of Ankara's effort to gain European Union membership appears to be sapping Turkish public support for accession.
Recent opinion polls register an increase of nationalist sentiment in Turkey a mood generally at odds with EU membership. Some local and foreign observers say the growing popularity of the nationalist outlook is the direct result of Turks' frustration over the European Union's grudging approval to proceed with the accession process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many Turks perceive the EU stance toward Turkey to be unfair and full of double standards.
Turkish nationalists have never been particularly enthused about the notion of European integration. On October 2, one day before the EU membership talks began, Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) held a huge rally in Ankara at which its leaders called on the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to ditch the "European project." The legal and social changes required by the EU as a prerequisite for membership undermines some of the bedrock principles upon which the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, MHP leaders contend.
Feelings of resentment and of "Euro-fatigue" are not limited to nationalist quarters. Liberal political analysts Semih Idiz suggested in a recent article published in the English-language Turkish Daily News that "if the government were to announce tomorrow that it was going to suspend relations with the EU, the support it would get from the public would soar."
Increasingly, Western diplomats and Western-oriented Turkish analysts see the concept of nationalism, along with the role of a nation-state in modern life, as a potential stumbling block for the accession process. The concept tends to be interpreted differently in Brussels and Ankara, stemming from the dissimilar historical circumstances in which the European Community and modern Turkey emerged. The EU's founders in the 1950s desired to build an alliance that would help overcome the divisive and, often bellicose nationalism that fueled two world wars that devastated the continent during the first half of the 20th century. Nationalism, meanwhile, played a vital role in galvanizing the modern Turkish state. The country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forged the new nation and the Turkish national identity amid chaotic circumstances arising from the War of Independence. It was in the early 1920s that Turkish nationalist myth was born, and from that time on nationalism has continued to play an important role in buttressing the Turkish Republic.
The overwhelming majority of Turks and, more importantly, the leaders of the Turkish military, remain unswervingly loyal to the Kemalist nationalist legacy. In a speech made earlier this fall, Turkey's land forces commander, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit stated that "our understanding [of the issue] is built on Ataturk's understanding of nationalism." The Anatolia news agency also quoted the general as saying; "We will, of course, love our nation and we'll hate those who don't love it."
EU leaders have exerted considerable pressure on Ankara to expand minority rights, recognize Greek-controlled portion of Cyprus and normalize relations with neighboring Armenia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pressing Turkey on such "national issues," especially on Cyprus and the killings of Ottoman Armenians, risks causing a backlash in a country where nationalist sentiment traditionally runs high, even some Turkish analysts who support European integration say.
Influential Turkish generals remain suspicious of the EU's intentions. Europe is "trying to change our national culture by imposing foreign values, fashion and languages that do not match Turkish customs and traditions," complained Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Ozkok earlier this year. Such statements are unlikely to sit well with EU leaders, who are working to foster a single European identity. They also potentially heighten existing doubts in some EU capitals about whether Turkey, given its large population and cultural traditions, can be easily integrated into the union. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The ongoing debate within Turkish society concerning the normalization of relations with Armenia underscores the difficulties facing Ankara as it proceeds with European integration. Brussels has indicated that Turkey must normalize relations with Armenia before it can accede to the EU. The most prominent obstacle to normalization is connected with the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey starting in 1915. Armenian leaders insist that the Turkish actions, in which approximately 1.5 million people died, constituted genocide. Turkish officials deny the genocide claim, saying the mass deaths were mainly caused by civil strife that accompanied World War I and its aftermath.
Discussions at a major historical conference on Ottoman Armenians held at an Istanbul university in September demonstrate that official attitudes on the concepts of nation-state and national minorities hinders discussion of Turkey's controversial pre-republican past, and thus hampers a rapprochement with Armenia.
Several independent Turkish historians who attended the conference titled "Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire: Issues of Democracy and Scientific Responsibility," held September 24-25 at Bilgi University suggested that although the slaughter of Armenians whatever its precise legal characterization -- predates the foundation of the Turkish Republic, it is still very closely connected with the process of establishing the existing unitary nation-state. Modern Turkey took shape amid conflict, ethnic cleansing and the rejection of the past, some Turkish scholars argue.
The reaction of Erdogan's government to the Armenian conference reflected official Ankara's highly ambiguous stance on the issue. While welcoming the scholarly gathering as an example of Turkey's mature democracy in fact, the conference was postponed last May due to the pressure and nationalist threats Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul indicated that the government wasn't going to radically change its position and accept Turkey's responsibility for the 1915-1923 atrocities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Instead, in a letter to the conference's organizing committee, Gul spoke about European "imperialist-colonial powers" which "ruthlessly exploited [Ottoman Empire's] peoples' ethno-religious sensitivities in their own interests."
"The Turkish people are at peace with themselves and with their history," Gul's letter concluded. This stance will hardly find an understanding in Europe. Accordingly, some Turkish commentators are predicting tough times ahead for Turkish-EU relations. For example, while welcoming the beginning of the membership talks, Yusuf Kanli, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News, predicted that the "future path is full of mines."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.