Nationalist strain deepens as Turkey leans toward Europe
ISTANBUL — In a country accustomed to political flaps sparked by what might seem like trivial matters, a recent brouhaha may be the icing on the cake - literally.
During a ceremony in the eastern town of Ezerum that was hosted by the German ambassador, cakes were decorated as the flags of Germany and Turkey. But among the guests was the local chief prosecutor, who warned that cutting into the cake would violate a law forbidding the desecration of the Turkish flag.
The incident occurred shortly after two boys apparently tried to set fire to a flag during a Kurdish celebration in Mersin, on the Mediterranean. Turks responded - egged on by politicians and the military - by hanging flags en masse. Unions and other organizations held flagwaving demonstrations and TV stations put a flag in the corner of the screen.
The military also weighed in, stating that its forces were "ready to shed their last drop of blood to protect the country and its flag."
The patriotic outburst was the latest indication of what observers in Turkey say is a troubling rise in nationalism, one that is linked to - and could negatively affect - Turkey's push for European Union membership. A Dec. 17 EU summit in Brussels set the framework for talks on Turkish membership, although only after a long period of negotiations.
"The flag issue is an indication of a new form of politicization [based on] nationalism, and distrust of a world that many Turks believe is either rejecting Turkey or openly hostile to it," says Dogu Ergil, a political scientist at Ankara University. And in Turkey, he adds, "It's very easy to whip up nationalist sentiments."
Recently, a high court overturned a new law allowing for the sale of land to foreigners after an opposition party asked that it be scrapped on national-security grounds. In bookshops, Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is currently a bestseller, along with several conspiracy-minded books that see Turkey under attack by external forces.
Meanwhile, after staying out of civilian affairs in order not to jeopardize Turkey's EU bid, the country's military is again making its voice heard. A few weeks ago, high-ranking military officials took part in a commemoration for six policemen killed by the British in World War I. The ceremony had been moribund since the 1950s.
Suat Kiniklioglu, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Turkey office, says Turks appear to be turning inward.
"The current mood is a reaction to an anxiety felt by some people that some of the values that are important to us are being sold out by the EU drive," he says. "Before Dec. 17, the country's hopes and forward-looking vision were behind the EU drive. Now people are becoming confused. There is a fatigue, and nationalism becomes an escape route."
Many Turks appear to believe that the EU discussions will only lead to a dead end. Meanwhile, there is growing concern that in order to join the EU, Turkey will have to make one-sided concessions regarding the divided island of Cyprus, accept the Armenian claims of genocide by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, and accede to EU pressure on dealing with its minorities.
"These were things that Turks were accustomed not to address all these decades. But if you want to be in the EU process, you have to address these issues," says political analyst Cengiz Candar. "It seems like it's very painful for Turks to redefine their identity according to EU norms."
The growing nationalism comes at a time when Turkey's government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is beset by internal problems that appear to be stalling its reform drive.
The AKP government has yet to appoint a chief negotiator for its talks with the European Union, while more than a dozen parliamentarians and one cabinet member have recently resigned from the party.
An EU diplomat in Ankara said the Turkish government has so far been slow to respond to the resurgent nationalism.
"The lack of leadership by government in the reform-minded, European direction that we've seen previously does raise question marks," the diplomat says. "There is a sense in Ankara, and I think also in Brussels, that this version of Turkish nationalism is incompatible with the European Union."