Political doors open for Turks

Since the Aug. 17 quake, Ankara has faced a friendlier

Just as scientists have found that Turkey's earthquake moved its landmass about four feet closer to Europe, so too has the outpouring of aid and sympathy from Europe - including archrival Greece - brought Turkey closer politically to the Continent.

The disastrous Aug. 17 quake that measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, flattening Turkey's northwest industrial heartland and leaving more than 14,000 dead at last count, is changing attitudes in Turkey and across the European Union, although the extent of any policy change remains to be seen.

"Western Europe never welcomed Turkey with open arms, but they realize it is impossible to think about Europe without Turkey," says Ilter Turan, president of Istanbul Bilgi University.

The dramatic events of the past two weeks have provided an opportunity for all sides to mend fences, and for the EU to modify what Mr. Turan calls "its insulting policy toward Turkey."

Though Turkey is the eastern anchor of NATO, Brussels put Turkey's decades-old application for full EU membership on hold in 1997 while accepting 11 other countries for consideration. The EU faulted Turkey's human rights record, especially its brutal handling of the war against Kurdish separatists. Mostly Muslim Turks, however, saw the snub as a sign of religious prejudice, claiming that the EU was a Christian club.

But in the aftermath of the quake, Turks have discovered that they have more friends than foes. "Most, if not all, members want to put Turkey-EU ties on a sounder footing, and we are looking for a way to carry the relationship forward," says a European diplomat in the capital, Ankara, who asked not to be identified. "If anything positive comes out of the earthquake, it has created conditions where more is possible than before."

Turkey wants its candidacy for EU membership officially confirmed at the next EU summit in December, calling this the "last chance." French President Jacques Chirac has asked for a "new strategy" of working with Turkey, and Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen of Finland, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has said funding earmarked for Ankara should be released and, "We hope that this tragedy can increase understanding between Turkey and the EU."

Those sentiments have taken shape in the media, and, with a few hard-line exceptions, politicians have taken stock of the public mood. "This for us means more than humanitarian aid," said Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, praising Turkey's rivals Greece, Armenia, and Syria, which joined 65 other countries to help with the catastrophe. "The moral force of this support will have a lasting impact."

Already there have been many surprises, with Greece the most striking example. Greece and Turkey nearly went to war in 1996 in a territorial dispute over an uninhabited rocky island in the Aegean. They remain deeply at odds over the divided island of Cyprus. And for years, Greece has blocked millions in EU funds for Turkey.

But after the quake, Greek teams dug with their bare hands to save the life of a young Turkish boy. Greek search-and-rescue teams were at the disaster scene within hours, and Greek aircraft were part of the effort to put out a large fire at Turkey's major oil refinery at Izmet. Greeks lined up to donate blood, and businessmen offered the use of their factories to allow Turkish counterparts to continue manufacturing. The mayor of Athens, Dimitris Avramopolous, rushed to the devastated areas to comfort victims. "I hope this disaster will mark the start of peaceful coexistence between our two nations," he said.

The Turkish press responded in kind, with the nationalist Hurriyet running a banner headline - in Greek - saying "Thank you, our friends." The daily Zaman said the earthquake had disproved the old saying that "A Turk has no other friend but a Turk."

Not long before the disaster, Greece and Turkey had begun a dialogue, and the next round of meetings are due in September.

But no one doubts that beneath the current bubble of optimism lie very thorny issues. "Most Turks are happy with the support of the Greeks, though they were surprised and not expecting help of such dimensions," says one young professional woman, who is between jobs. "They feel that the hostility can turn into a close friendship, but in the future, I don't know. Most people still don't trust the Greeks in the EU. They want to have good relations, but they don't want to step back from their positions [which are unacceptable to Athens] on those issues."

The capture of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan - who was arrested in Kenya, while under the protection of the Greek Embassy there - and revelations during Mr. Ocalan's trial of Greek support for his Kurdish Workers Party guerrillas drove relations to a new low.

But the trial process was seen to be conducted according to Western standards, and new legislation on torture, an amnesty for Kurdish rebels, and other laws have sought to bring Turkey closer to compliance with EU membership criteria.

"These things are all planned to open Turkey to the West, and the national mood is one of reconciliation, not isolation or nationalism," says Seyfi Tashan, the director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara. "But it doesn't mean that, because of a sudden humanitarian emergency, Turkey will give up its position on Cyprus."

Turkish expectations are nonetheless high for the EU summit in Helsinki, Finland. The government expects Greece to lift its veto on financial assistance. Greece has signaled it may, or that ways would be found to grant EU funds to Turkey.

"At this stage, these are symbolic things, and nobody is thinking in terms of early full membership [for Turkey], but there are plenty of things in between," says the European diplomat.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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