Once eager to join EU, Turkey grows apprehensive

Turkish commentators have been saying for months that the country's rapid efforts to bring its political structures into line with EU requirements would eventually hit a wall. But when the crunch came, it took a form that few expected.

In mid-February, the quirky, extreme-left-wing weekly Aydinlik began to publish snippets from the hacked e-mail correspondence of Karen Fogg, the EU's representative in Turkey. To an outsider, the contents of the e-mails are innocuous.

To Turks, who haven't forgotten British and French plans to carve up Turkey after World War I, they are explosive. Aydinlik columnist Ozcan Buze is convinced that Ms. Fogg "has secretly been working to undermine Turkish interests." He describes e-mail in which she discusses the money the EU has set aside to give financial support to a Kurdish language newspaper – a policy in line with the EU's championing of Kurdish cultural rights – as proof that "the EU sponsors separatist activity."

And her fondness for translating the names of senior Turkish officials into their colorful English equivalents (she refers to the two deputy prime ministers Devlet Bahceli and Mesut Yilmaz as "State Garden" and "Happy Unyielding," respectively) is evidence, Mr. Buze says, "of the deep contempt in which she holds our country."

Aydinlik's revelations have threatened not only to unbalance Turkey's unlikely government coalition of ultranationalists and pro-European liberals. They have also stoked a national debate given new urgency by the events of Sept. 11.

With its strategic importance enhanced by America's "war on terrorism," is Turkey's full-throttle push for European Union membership still necessary? Or can it afford to look for less exacting allies?

On Mar. 7, Turkey's usually taciturn military joined the fray.

Speaking at an Istanbul conference on foreign policy, Gen. Tuncer Kilinc, the secretary-general of Turkey's powerful National Security Council, told delegates that in the 40 years it has been knocking on Europe's door, "Turkey hasn't seen the slightest assistance from the EU." While it should do nothing to compromise its relations with the US, he argued, Turkey would do well "to begin a new search [for allies] that would include Iran and the Russian Federation."

Though Gen. Kilinc emphasized he was speaking in a personal capacity, his words sent shock waves through the Turkish establishment. First, because they were a sharp departure from the Army's usual claims to be pro-European. Second, because it is common knowledge in Turkey that the Army speaks with one voice.

Turkish-EU differences have now been whittled down to two issues.

Nationalists, who want to see the imprisoned Kurdish-separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan hanged, have strongly resisted European calls for the death penalty to be abolished.

Far more delicate is the question of Kurdish rights. Europe sees Turkey's 10 to 12 million Kurds as an oppressed minority. The vast majority of Turks disagree. Even pro-Europeans like Seyfi Tashan, director of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute, describe EU policy toward the Kurds as wrong-headed. "Europe is asking for the impossible," says Professor Tashan. "The Kurdish issue is not a minority issue for Turkey."

In addition to the struggle over the Kurds, some experts say the present row has roots in the events of Sept. 11.

Cengiz Aktar says now that the EU is aware as never before of the value of having a secular, Muslim country like Turkey among its members, Europe has stepped up the pressure on Turkey's flagging efforts to transform its political structures. "Until Sept. 11," Professor Aktar says, "Turkey was at point zero. Since then, major progress has been made to bring the country in line with European requirements."

The Constitution has been overhauled. Turkey has dropped its intransigent attitude to the EU's fledgling rapid-reaction force. Steps are even being taken to resolve that perennial bugbear of Turkey-EU relations, Cyprus.

Mr. Ulsever jokes, somewhat cynically, that pictures of Osama Bin Laden should be put up in government offices alongside portraits of Ataturk. "By giving Turkey a new strategic significance, he saved the country from the same fate as Argentina," he says.

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