Turkey on trial
The Ocalan case highlights problems with EU membership
The explosive reaction by Turkey following Italy's release of the leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, highlights the irony inherent in Ankara's self-declared right to European Union membership. How can a country expect to be a member of Europe's community when it can hardly behave like a member of the international community?Skip to next paragraph
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As the Ocalan case swiftly grew into one of the most volatile international controversies in recent months, Turkey's relations with Europe deteriorated to their lowest point since the country's rejection by the EU a year ago. This time Ankara issued threats of revenge if the long-sought Kurdish separatist leader was not returned. That stoked the ever-hot political debate over Turkey's preparedness to join the EU.
The US is uneasily caught in the middle, trying to maintain traditional strategic ties with Turkey while calling for broad democratic reforms in that country. Mr. Ocalan's situation creates a possible head-on clash of aims for Washington.
Italy's refusal last week to turn Ocalan over to Turkey was in accordance with EU law that does not allow for the extradition of suspected criminals to countries with the death penalty. Latest reports indicate Italian legal authorities may try to reverse that decision and extradite Ocalan on noncapital charges. But Italy's action, nonetheless, points to a gap between Turkish and European standards.
Germany had earlier renounced a prior arrest warrant for Ocalan, and an EU proposal to try him in a pan-European court provoked a fierce reaction from Ankara.
President Suleyman Demirel, Turkey's elder statesman, warned: "Wherever [Ocalan] goes in the world, we will hunt him down. No one can shelter him; the Turkish state is powerful." Recently deposed Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz threatened to export local instability and economic boycotts for Europe's lack of cooperation. And another veteran political leader, Bulent Ecevit, called Italy's recent move "playing with Turkish fire." Though diplomatic apologies followed, such hostility has only served to reinforce the main point behind Turkey's unfulfilled EU ambitions: that there are standards for civil behavior among countries.
Ocalan - as much a terrorist as so-called freedom fighter - has thrust the 14-year-old Kurdish question to the forefront of the European agenda since his Oct. 12 arrest in Rome. He says he wants a fair hearing, like Northern Ireland's IRA, or the Basques in Spain. Although the Turkish government claims to aspire to Western judicial standards, the high-profile Ocalan controversy not only puts the Kurdish leader on trial, but Turkey as well. The main issue now is whether Turkey will choose to comply with the collective Western institutional will and outlook, or remain defiant - and, with that, permanently isolated.
The dilemma is an urgent one, for Italy, Greece, and Germany have all come under Turkey's wrath. Each confronts possible destabilization by a problem that originates in Turkey, but which Turkey cannot effectively deal with. Italy has to contend with Kurds arriving weekly by the hundreds. Germany has a 2 million mixed population of Kurds and Turks, who are at each other's throats over Ocalan. Greece, trying to keep a low profile, has loud, daily demonstrations by Kurds in central Athens - easy fodder for Turkey's accusations that its rival harbors PKK terrorists.
Though he may be a murderer, terrorist, and dictator rolled in one, Ocalan deserves a fair trial - which spotlights the most glaring gap in Turkey's EU aspirations. Although Turkey has signed four major human rights conventions on torture - the Geneva Convention of 1949, the European Convention for Human Rights of 1954, the 1988 UN Anti-Torture Convention, and the 1992 Council of Europe Convention Against Torture - it has flagrantly violated such treaties. Turkey is routinely charged by the United Nations and the US State Department with systematic torture of prisoners. In 1996, the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty of such charges.
Complicating matters is the US dimension to Turkish-EU relations. Washington has sided with Turkey on the membership question - much to the shock of international human-rights groups. The US argues that Turkey deserves compensation - for its monitoring of Iraq and Syria, its part in lucrative Caspian oil pipelines, its strong ties to Israel. Holding the country to standards of political preparedness is a secondary matter. Little has been done to encourage Turkey to change its ways; Turkey is thus not convinced it really needs to.
At the same time, one must be fair to Turkey with regard to its PKK battle. The PKK's struggle is too easily romanticized. While the political conditions of the Kurdish people are among the world's worst, the PKK's main battle is a power play with two other rival factions spread between Turkey and Iraq - that is, Kurds killing Kurds. There have been clear cut and deliberate acts of terrorism - Amnesty International has cited the PKK for indiscriminate bombing targeting women and children.
In view of this, no fair observer of Turkey could wish to cheapen the seriousness of its internal and regional problems. But if a country is to anchor itself in Europe, it must cultivate political institutions and political behavior that prove its readiness to be there. Too many of Turkey's actions - exemplified by this latest round concerning Ocalan - do the opposite. The problem is not that Europe is against Turkey. It is that Europe expects better from it.
* Marcia Kurop writes for the magazine Euromoney and is an associate for the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.