Turkey Weighs European Union Membership
On December 6, Turkey's prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, was all smiles as he set off for the French Riviera to take part in the European Union's last summit of the year. The outcome of the Nice gathering, he assured reporters, would be "most auspicious" for the Turkish nation. But less than a week earlier, the hawkish, veteran Leftist had threatened to freeze relations with the EU.
Turkey's latest bout of prickliness was triggered by the wording of an EU document unveiled in November, which sets out the conditions Turkey needs to fulfill before it can begin membership talks with Brussels. Turkish fury was centered on Greece's last minute attempts to link the start of Turkey's membership negotiations to progress on territorial disputes over the Aegean and Cyprus. A defiant Ecevit declared that even long-courted European membership was not worth "sacrificing the legitimate rights of the Turkish Cypriots" and accused the Europeans of "treachery" and "deceit."
Tempers flared anew when the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted to ask Turkey to publicly acknowledge the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenian Turks during the First World War as "genocide." The EU further humiliated Turkey by rejecting its demands that Turkey be included in the decision making mechanism of the planned European rapid reaction force, which will rely heavily on NATO assets, even though Turkey has NATO's second largest army. Within days, Ecevit announced that his government would back the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash's decision to pull out of UN-sponsored peace talks aimed at re-uniting Cyprus. His foreign minister, Ismail Cem, accused EU officials of acting like "colonial governors." "We are reaching a point where we cannot trust the word of [the] EU," he said.
As Turkey threatened to yield to a fresh period of belligerent isolationism, President Clinton stepped in, persuading Greece to soften its stance. During the event, demands that Turkey and Greece settle their disputes as a pre-condition for membership talks were taken out of the operational paragraphs of the Accession Partnership Document and placed under an innocuous heading. A placated Ecevit said he would travel to Nice after all.
Turkey has wanted to join the EU for nearly four decades now. It was not until last December that European leaders finally agreed to add Turkey's name to the list of applicants with which it would open membership talks. Many Turks suspect that Europe continues to erect barriers to its membership simply because it does not want a Muslim country in its midst. Clearly, even for the most open-minded Europeans, Turkey's entry into the EU is a daunting prospect. Among all the current members and candidates only Germany has a larger population. In addition, Turkey's per capita income is barely a third of the EU average.
Yet for all the bluster on both sides, this latest tiff proves anew that neither Turkey nor the EU can afford to reject ties to the other. If anything, Turkey's strategic value in the eyes of its Western allies was highlighted once again when the International Monetary Fund announced (just hours before Ecevit took off for France) that it would disburse up to ten billion dollars in aid to the country. These funds would help end a two-week financial crisis that threatened to derail the government's year-old IMF-backed disinflation program. "The size of the aid package goes to show just how very important Turkey is," said Suzan Sabanci Dincer, the general manager of one of Turkey's top five banks, Akbank.
Still, a growing number of policy makers here acknowledge that Turkey cannot rely forever on its geo-political influence, or on what a retired Turkish ambassador Yalim Eralp terms the country's "nuisance value," as a bargaining chip in its relations with the EU. According to Karen Fogg, the EU's outspoken ambassador in Ankara, Turkey's membership will be assessed "on the basis of the same criteria applied to other candidate states." "It's all there in the Accession Partnership Document," she said in a recent televised debate.
Topping the EU's long list of demands is the proposed reform of Turkey's abysmal human rights. After decades of foot-dragging, there are encouraging signs that Ecevit's government is prepared to do just that. As of December 6th Ecevit and his coalition partners were close to sealing a deal under which thousands of prisoners, including some incarcerated for political reasons, would be freed under an amnesty scheduled to coincide with the Muslim Bayram festival at the end of the year.
The parliament has already enacted legislation stiffening penalties for torturers and is making it harder for prosecutors to ban political parties. The government has booted military judges out of its civilian courts, and has also agreed to stay the execution of the captured Kurdish rebel chief, Abdullah Ocalan, pending a review of his case by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Even Turkey's harshest critics were impressed when the country's intelligence chief, Senkal Atasagun, publicly stated last week that lifting bans on broadcasting in the Kurdish language was "in the national interest," and that hanging Ocalan was not.
Diluting the continuing political influence of Turkey's armed forces, another EU condition, will clearly be the toughest challenge of all. The generals view themselves as the custodians of Ataturk's secular legacy. Armed with a constitutional mandate to that effect, they have kept up pressure on Islamists of all hues and played a key role in forcing the country's first pro-Islamic government to step down in 1997. Most opinion polls consistently place the army ahead of the country's largely crooked politicians as the most popular institution. Turkey's new president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is now pressing for a major overhaul of the constitution written by the country's generals when they last seized power in 1980. Sami Selcuk, the head of the appeals court, says it should be rejected wholesale together with the ingrained notion that the "Turkish people exist to serve the state rather than the other way around."
As such, EU membership poses a dilemma for the most ardently pro-European Turks who see the military as a guarantee against the possibility of a fundamentalist takeover. On the other hand, they also believe that EU membership could have the same result. However, laws that penalize public discussion of any subject deemed "threatening to the integrity of the unitary and secular state" means that debate on such thorny issues is not likely to take place in the near future.
Amberin Zaman is The Economists corespondent in Turkey.
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