Turkey and Europe Set to Bury The Scimitar as EU Votes on Pact
CRUSADE TO JOIN EU
ISTANBUL — TOMORROW, the Crusades might finally be over.
The European Parliament will vote on a historic trade pact with Turkey, a first step toward EU membership that would help bring a largely Muslim nation of 60 million into the Western fold.
Turkish leaders, proud of their secular government, see the vote's likely passage as confirmation that they are part of the West - despite a dramatic rise in popularity by the nation's pro-Islamic party.
A ''yes'' vote could bury the scimitar on centuries of Turkish conflict with Europe, which once sparked religious wars from Sarajevo to Vienna and more recently has surfaced in Turkey's resistance to conforming to Western standards of human rights.
Turkey has lobbied hard in Europe for the pact in the face of deep European concerns that it still does not fully comply with the EU's democratic standards.
The Parliament is expected to make clear that Turkey will come under close scrutiny after the pact takes effect. In the eyes of the West, Turkey falls particularly short in its treatment of the Kurds, a minority of about 4 million. Charges against the government include torture and curbs on free speech.
To boost its image with the EU, Turkey recently amended its Constitution and its antiterrorism act, enabling the release of nearly 200 political prisoners, mainly charged with pro-Kurdish separatist propaganda. But the EU is still pressing for the release of four Kurdish members of the National Assembly, who were tried and sentenced for links with the Kurdish guerrilla organization PKK.
The fact that the Turkish military supports the trade pact indicates that EU demands on human rights have not seriously limited their autonomy in their treatment of the Kurds. Turks are sensitive to what they call interference by Europeans on these matters, stressing that Turkey is faced with an armed Kurdish rebellion.
Islam as a rising force
Turkey's government also faces a serious challenge from the pro-Islamic Welfare Party in parliamentary elections Dec. 24. The vast majority of Turks are Muslim, and if the Welfare Party - which leads in the polls - takes control of government, Turkey's future ties to Europe will be unclear.
The Welfare Party is ideologically opposed to any closer ties with the EU. Its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, attacks Turkey joining the customs union with the EU, claiming that it will make Turkey ''a slave of the West.'' He advocates instead forming an ''Islamic common market.''
Many Western nations want Turkey closer to Europe to prevent the rise of Islamic forces in government. An Islamic-run Turkey could shift the balance of power in the region at a time when Muslim-Christian tensions still boil in the Balkans and fundamentalists vie for power in Arab nations from Algeria to Egypt.
The Dec. 24 election has triggered a campaign by the opposition parties and other critics of the EU pact. But opinion polls before the campaign showed almost 70 percent of Turks supporting the idea of closer ties with Europe.
''This is part of a vision that will carry Turkey through the 21st century to progress and prosperity,'' Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller told reporters last week.
Many prominent Turkish business executives also favor the customs union, saying it will boost the nation's troubled economy by giving Turkey's famous carpets and other textiles bigger markets and access to Western capital.
''One of the major benefits of the customs union [for Turkey] will be that it will lead both private and the state sectors to be more productive, more competitive, and more disciplined,'' says Emre Gonensay, Mrs. Ciller's chief adviser.
He warned, however, against exaggerated expectations by people who think that the Turkish economy ''will change and improve overnight.'' Turkey now faces an 80 percent inflation rate and a 15 percent unemployment rate. In an argument similar to the one that took place in the US against the North American Free Trade Agreement, many Turks argue that a free trade pact will not help create jobs.
Two political parties (besides the pro-Islamic Welfare Party) criticize the customs union. The Motherland Party and Democratic Left Party leaders say the present government made too many concessions to the Europeans. ''The government did not properly negotiate the accord, bearing in mind Turkey's national interests,'' says Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the conservative Motherland Party in a campaign speech last week.
Those parties are hoping to take over the government from Ciller's True Path Party after elections, and say they want to renegotiate the pact.
Looking to the West
But some say closer ties to Europe are natural for Turkey since it is already part of NATO. ''For Turkey, it is mainly a question of orientation,'' says Sedat Aloglu, the head of the Economic Development Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing Turkey and Europe closer together. ''The 'yes' vote by the European Parliament will mean acceptance of Turkey into the European community.... Most Turks identify themselves with the West and not with the Orient.''
Mr. Aloglu and others maintain that the new partnership with the EU will push Turkey to raise its democratic and human rights standards.
''No one can deny that the positive measures taken recently are a result of the desire to comply with the EU rules and pressures from the Europeans,'' says M. Ali Birand, a leading foreign affairs writer. ''Without it, such progress in such a short time would not have taken place.''