Talking Turkey

Talking Turkey

Mini Teaser: Europe has long viewed Turkey as a parent would a troubled stepchild. But a vibrant and increasingly powerful Turkey is making such an attitude absurd--and dangerous.

by Author(s): Norman Stone

The earthquake of August 1999 struck Turkey very hard, and did so at a time that could not have been worse-at three o'clock in the morning during a summer holiday, when homes were crowded with visiting relatives. But it also struck at a desperately unfortunate moment for Turkey as a whole: the point at which it was at last becoming a First World country. This fact occurred to some of the international teams who came in to help sift through the rubble: with some surprise, they acknowledged on television that Turkey actually did have earth-moving equipment and life-saving devices on hand. The earthquake set the economy back some way, of course, but as economic modernity these days is really a matter of knowledge and organization rather than of material goods, the country will no doubt continue on a promising path.

The list of positive trends is impressive. Turkey is a NATO ally, with a substantial army of proven efficiency. It is a crucial friend of both the United States and Israel, and is just about the only Islamic country with fair elections. It wields far more economic power than any of its Arab neighbors to the south (and does so despite having no oil to speak of). The Bosporus is a chief conduit for oil tankers, and the chief proposed pipeline for Caspian oil will pass substantially through eastern Turkey. Turkey's foreign trade, approaching $100 billion annually, may well overtake Russia's in the next five years, even though the country has little in the way of raw materials. The twelve million Turks of 1923 have now become sixty-five million, and, as the demographic pressure is at last easing, there will be eighty-five million by 2020.

But say "Turkey" and various problems are at once on offer: weak governments, the Kurds, Islamism, human rights violations and military interventions in politics. One problem stands out: inflation. For thirty years the currency has been losing value at anywhere between 60 and 80 percent per annum. It is not a real inflation, in the sense that prices in dollars do not go up by very much, and the currency can be exchanged at the press of a few buttons in a bank machine (of which Turkey has many, even in outlying parts). But it is a headache for people who derive their money in the local currency and a deterrent for foreign investors. The truth is, inflation has been a weapon of last resort for governments that could not otherwise pay their bills, and help from the International Monetary Fund (imf)-that is, America-has been essential. The trick is simple enough. In a state of great flux, with a very large black economy (maybe a third of the total), you cannot really collect direct taxes. Yet there are three fixed budget items that can only grow: defense (quite apart from the need to modernize and upgrade the armed forces, there is a guerrilla war in the southeast); state enterprises, which are extensively subsidized; and social spending.

An extremely important process is now under way to turn Turkey into a modern, democratic and more or less European country, and the first step in that process is to stabilize the currency. This cannot be done without a government with a substantial and stable majority. Elections in April 1999 at last threw together such a thing: a coalition of three rather unlikely allies led by a socialist reformer, BŸlent Ecevit. The main economic posts are held by liberals (in the free-trade sense of the word). True, they share power with one-time socialists and also with nationalists, who believe in a strong Turkish state and in the past have distrusted foreigners, especially Europeans. But now that they are in government these nationalists seem to regard Europe as useful. It is, as the Germans said of a similar such coalition in 1907, a mating of carps and rabbits, but nonetheless it is a coalition with a coherent program.
Turkey has been undergoing the rigors of the by now familiar IMF "package" in hopes of stabilizing the currency. Much remains to be done. Government deficits must be curtailed, drastic privatization measures must be undertaken. On the political side, human rights must be respected, and the army's role in politics reduced. These aims will likely be achieved, for Turkey desires to become a Spain, which, subcutaneously, Turkey quite resembles. Its reward for trying has been a place on the European Union's candidate list since late 1999.

Is Turkey, then, going to become, as so many of its educated people seem to think it should, a full member of the European Union? The European Christian Democrats, meeting in Brussels in 1997, had something of a fit about the prospect: Europe, said a Belgian, could only be a Christian club. This is pretty well nonsense, not least because there are more practicing Muslims than Christians (in the sense of churchgoers) in many European countries today, and in any case there are powerful arguments for regarding Turkey historically as a European country. There is an interesting debate among historians as to how much the Ottoman Empire was actually a continuation of the eastern Roman Empire. The conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet Fatih, described himself as "successor of Constantine", corresponded with the Pope, and had Bellini paint his portrait-not Islamic things to have done. To this day some Kurds call Anatolian Turks "Rumi", meaning, "Romans."

But the Europeans, nevertheless, have been reluctant to admit Turkey into the EU, even as a candidate, and did so only under considerable American (and British) pressure. As I write, there has been another revealing episode. The Turkish constitution forbids expressions likely to stir trouble over religion or separatism. Recently, a Turkish court sentenced the former prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to a year in prison for a speech he made in 1994. "This is a suppression of freedom of speech", cried the Europeans, "we shall have to reconsider Turkey's membership." But here is what Dr. Erbakan actually said:
The slave regime that is part and parcel of the economic system in Turkey did not come about by its own accord. It is a consequence of . . . colonial initiatives of the Imperialist and Zionist forces of this earth. The Zionists have taken control of world imperialism. Using the vehicle of interest-bearing capital, they have colonized the whole of humanity. . . . Turkey's false parties are supported by Imperialism and Zionism.

Now, Dr. Erbakan may defend himself on the grounds that he did not really mean it, but in how many European countries today would such talk be allowed? Witness the Europeans themselves, who lay down sanctions against Austria for producing a right-wing government, with an allegedly proto-Nazi component, hostile to immigrants.

There is no doubt much to criticize about the state of Turkey today, but critics need to remember what a long and difficult road it has traveled. After the First World War, the Ottoman and Romanov empires crumbled, and modern Turkey, the Anatolian heartland, was reconstituted as a republic under Kemal AtatŸrk. His "modernizing project" was the creation of a secular state that would implement political, economic and cultural reforms. Initially it was very tough going. Indeed, for generations after the end of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was reduced to the position of overseer of the Bosporus, through which only modest traffic-save a Soviet battleship or two-passed on its way from the Black Sea to the Aegean. In addition, the country was exposed to the usual strains of modern times: medical improvements brought a population explosion, which, as SŸleyman Demirel complained when he was prime minister a quarter century ago, added the equivalent of the population of Denmark every year. Energy was short. There was little to be hoped for from exports. (An energetic Turkish woman of my acquaintance contributed a considerable share of them when she drove lorry loads of hazelnuts from Turkey to Newcastle, England.)

In Turkish politics, there was constant chaos, not so much because of the deep gulf between Left and Right, but because of the confusions within each of those blocs. By the 1970s, Turkey ceased to have a functioning government. The immediately identifiable problem was the disintegration of the Left: trade unions, civil servants, intellectuals and young revolutionaries responded in different ways, as the state was clearly failing.

For example, in the late 1970s, Turkey's Statistical Commission for the Five-Year Plan-well-trained statisticians armed with slide rules, graph paper and doctorates-met and solemnly discussed the subsidy for bituminous coal that was to be delivered from the Zonguldak mines to the steel factory at Kirsehir for the export of low-grade steel. It was a complicated, five-corner barter trade involving Egypt, Venezuela and Romania-and it was conducted entirely by candlelight. Outside the meeting, Ankara was experiencing queues for olive oil and toilet paper. In the universities, a civil war raged as nationalists, communists and Islamists fought it out, to the despair of liberal-minded university administrators (policemen had to sit in on lectures). Parts of Ankara and Istanbul had been cordoned off by rival groups and subgroups, and twenty people a day were being killed.

The army intervened, in September 1980, to bring order, and did so without loss of life. (The coup leader, General Kenan Evren, was a humane man. Realizing that the politicians who were about to be imprisoned were on the corpulent side and likely to have heart attacks if confronted by soldiers at 3 a.m., he quietly asked friends of theirs to accompany the soldiers and be first to appear in the doorway.) A great many members of the Turkish educated classes felt humiliated that their country, whose modernization in the twenties and thirties had caught the world's attention, had been taken over by someone they saw as a Pinochet. Nowadays, though still not reconciled to the coup, they admit that it spurred considerable improvement.

The period of 1979-80 was decisive, when, with American and imf backing, liberalizing reforms were implemented. The man of the hour was the American-trained Turgut Özal, who would dominate Turkey over the next decade. To this day, he divides opinion in that country much as do Reagan and Thatcher in the United States and Great Britain. In Turkey, one often hears the same tale: the economic recovery would have happened anyway; …zal opened up a great income gap; corruption pervaded politics and business as never before; he allowed Islam to subvert the secular state, building 80,000 mosques as against 50,000 schools. But it is hard to dispute that during Özal's time the face of Turkey changed beyond recognition. Thirty years ago, its economy was half the size of Sweden's. Now it is the other way around. Turkey, until recently mainly a manufacturer of textiles, is now a major industrial center. A tenth of the television sets sold in Great Britain, for instance, are Turkish. The country's foreign currency service sector is expanding faster than those of nearly all other countries. In Turkey today there is now considerable hope for the future, a state of affairs that has not really existed since the eighteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire was turning into what Czar Nicholas I famously labeled "the sick man of Europe."

Interestingly enough, the cause of Turkish membership of the EU unites people who are otherwise far apart in their verdicts of Özal. The secularist classes think that Europe will insist on secular standards, by which Turkish politicians will then have to abide. The Özal inheritors (he died in 1993) look to free trade and the rich European market. Reformist Islamic politicians join the chorus because Europe protects religion, at least as far as schooling is concerned. But on two outstanding matters, Turkey and the Europeans are on a collision course.


Up until 1974, Cyprus, a former British colony, had been a single state, the population of which was roughly three-quarters Greek and one-fifth Turkish. When the British left in 1959-60, the Turks were given various legal rights designed to make them feel more secure. There was good reason for this: the Greek Cypriots were keen on union with Greece, and the Turks knew what that would portend. The precedent was Crete, which had also had a mixed population. Before the First World War, with the blessing of the Europeans, it joined up with Greece. The result was an exodus, with accompanying massacres of the Muslim population (many of whom spoke Greek, as their descendants sometimes still do in today's Turkey).

A year or two after Cyprus became independent, the Greek persecution of the Turks intensified. It is a horrible story, the Turks being pushed into enclaves and humiliated (or worse) for a decade. What is so particularly maddening about the story is that the Turkish Cypriots were in no way a threat. Over a decade or two, one-third would probably have been assimilated, another third would have left, and the other third would have been an interesting piece of folklore for the tourists and evidence that the Greeks were really tolerant of minorities. Turkey "invaded" Cyprus in 1974, and occupied the northern third of the island to protect the Turks from the mayhem-as, under international treaties, it had a perfect right to do. Then, it refused to vacate the island when invited to do so, and was condemned by the United Nations. There is now a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey (and, for some strange reason, North Korea).

The Greek Cypriots, none too good when it actually came to fighting, proved quite adept at selling a hard-luck story to the rest of the world. It had all been the cia's fault, or Kissinger's fault, or in any case somebody else's doing. The British, tired of colonial problems such as this (and anyway short of money), decided that if Greece were to stay in NATO its Cyprus cause must be adopted. United Nations resolutions followed, framed by the British and supported by the usual Bloc and Third World suspects. An embargo was imposed on Turkish Cyprus, and, to this day, one can only fly there indirectly (it is well worth the journey, as it is the last unspoiled part of the Mediterranean). Greek Cyprus-with Greek defense money, mass tourism and a provision for offshore banking, which has officially attracted $20 billion from Russia alone (and who knows what else unofficially)-has flourished, its per capita gnp now being larger than Greece's. If Greece is European, then Cyprus, its Channel Island, might as well be too; but which Cyprus, and when? The Turks are now being pressed to make "concessions": the island should again be a unified country, with this or that "safeguard" for the Turkish "minority." Back and forth the emissaries go, and the whisper is that Turkish Cyprus might just be abandoned in return for Turkish membership of the European Union.

But why should it be abandoned? The simplest answer is surely just to have Turkish Cyprus recognized as a separate state-there are many smaller ones-and then see what happens next. Greeks may call the Turks aggressors, but in the past century and more it has been the Greeks who did the attacking-in 1897 over Crete, in 1912-13 to take Salonica, in 1920 to seize western Anatolia, in 1962 over Cyprus. In three out of four cases they very deservedly lost, although they then persisted in endless complaint, to the effect that the Turks were very bad people who, if provoked, tended to win battles.

The Kurds

But we are talking now of a grand bargain to sort out the problems of the entire area of the old Ottoman Empire, from the Adriatic and Aegean far into Mesopotamia and old Syria. There is a further question, also related to Greece, which suggests that, somewhere in the Greek machine, there are elements that are seriously interested in this grand bargain. This has to do with the Kurds, a people who bestraddle the center of the entire old Ottoman area, and with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (pkk), a Maoist terrorist movement that claims to speak for them.

In mid-February 1999, the leader of the Kurdish terrorist movement in eastern Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan, was abducted by Turkish military intelligence from the airport at Nairobi, Kenya. He had been hiding in the residence of the Greek ambassador to Kenya. Four months before, after a Turkish ultimatum, he had been expelled from Syria, where, since 1979, he had been directing terrorist operations in eastern Turkey. Then he went on an odyssey-Greece; Russia; Italy; Belarus; Greece again; then Kenya. Greek agents had been looking after him, supplying safe houses and aircraft, as well as false passports (a Greek Cypriot one gave him access to countries of the European Union without a visa). Turkish agents caught him and brought him back to Turkey to face trial, where he was eventually sentenced to death. The European Court of Human Rights has been invited to pronounce on this; meanwhile, Ocalan sits in prison, making the occasional pronouncement himself. But his organization seems mainly to have given up the fight, and eastern Turkey is recovering. Moreover, the silly nationalists in Greece who supported Ocalan's movement have been discredited; sensible Greeks can now deal with sensible Turks.

There is more to the affair than meets the eye. On the face of things, the Greek government was caught red-handed (literally so, in view of Ocalan's long and murderous career). Three senior ministers resigned, including the foreign minister, one Theodoros Pangalos, who had previously said on television that Turks were "thieves, rapists and murderers." Then, after a few weeks, came a Turco-Greek rapprochement at a public relations level, when Greek teams gave unstinting and very professional help in the great earthquake that struck northwestern Turkey. Since then, businessmen from both sides have been back and forth; it is very clearly in the interest of both that this long quarrel should be ended. Then the party of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis, pasok, which represents a species of left-wing nationalism, barely made it back to power in elections. Pangalos, ostensibly discredited, came back to the government, this time as minister of culture. The prime minister had been hospitalized as the affair unfolded, conveniently placing him out of harm's way. Simitis has in fact done rather well out of this affair, when you reflect. With a huge majority in the parliament, he would have been at the mercy of a nationalist rebellion from his back-benchers. With a very thin majority, he can "Europeanize" Greece-join up with the euro, get the budget under control by cutting back on pork barrel spending, introduce identity cards that omit any reference to religion, and, who knows, come to terms with Turkey over Cyprus and much else.

In other words, the Ocalan scandal, desperately discrediting to the Greek regime, has been put to some productive use after all. After Ocalan was captured, there were demonstrations outside Greek embassies by indignant Kurdish nationalists, who were furious that the Greeks had not kept their man. At the time, this seemed incomprehensible. But those Kurdish demonstrators maybe knew a thing or two: the Greeks were hardly safeguarding Ocalan. Some Greeks had been using Ocalan against other Greeks.

Two books have appeared recently by journalists with a fairly obvious inside track on the Ocalan story. It seems that the Turkish military intelligence itself did not really want to capture Ocalan. Rather, the Americans wanted to destroy the pkk, as part of a general pacification of the Middle East. The Americans had insisted that Ocalan be captured and, early in February 1999, informed Turkish intelligence where the man might be found. Ocalan had been spotted in the Greek embassy in Kenya. Why Kenya? Pangalos later said that it was because customs and security there would not be advanced enough to detect a clumsily faked passport, which Ocalan apparently carried on him. But Kenya would surely be a place with heightened American security systems, in view of the embassy bombing in 1997. Was Ocalan simply being dropped into it through an American deal with Simitis? Ocalan himself guessed as much, in his first interrogation: NATO had an undercover organization, Gladio, that accounted not just for his betrayal by the Greeks, but also for his letdown by the Italians earlier. But perhaps this goes too far. Certainly, the pkk seems to have been extraordinarily careless in its use of cellular telephones, possibly inviting an alert American or Turkish security service to take action. But the whole affair looks suspicious.

According to prevailing wisdom, the Kurds are a minority struggling to free themselves from Turkish oppression, forbidden from being educated in their own language. It is not so simple. Kurds and Turks intermarry, and the share of Kurds in all parts of life in Turkey is considerably more than their proportion warrants. There is no single Kurdish language to teach to the young, but several. The main one in Turkey is called Kirmanci, but there is a substantially different one, Zaza, and both differ in turn from the main two languages of northern Iraq, which cannot be effectively standardized. The Kurdish nationalists themselves use Turkish as their means of communication, and so, in the main, does their West European television station, med-TV. Turgut …zal, as president, made himself unpopular with other cabinet members in 1993 when he said that broadcasting in Kurdish should be allowed. It was a magnanimous, but empty, gesture: no one would really exercise the right, just as immigrants in the United States seldom use their native languages after more than a generation or two.

At bottom, most Turks cannot really see what the problem is about. Why should the Kurds, divided and poor, aspire to any sort of separation when so many of them flourish in Turkey? And why should European busybodies-those ineffable, preachy Scandinavians in particular-offer money for education in dialect languages when schools not far from Ankara cannot afford textbooks in the national language? A great many people of Kurdish origin seem to agree, at least if you take the electoral results seriously. There is a party, hadep, that purports to speak for all Kurds but garners substantial numbers of votes only in the Kurdish southeast. Life there, during the two decade-long guerrilla war, has been grim, and the chief town, Diyarbakir, has become swollen with refugees. But hadep gets under 5 percent of the vote in western and central Turkey, where at least half of the country's Kurds now live. Kurdish nationalism is barely alive there. Indeed, most Kurds are not interested in their alleged grievances, and instead wish to distance themselves from the troublemakers in their midst.

A grand bargain is coming into view: Turkey seems poised to join the European family, on the grounds that she has many, many very strong cards, for once, and for the first time since about 1700. If Europe intends to be anything other than, in the words of the French critic, Marc Fumaroli, an enormous version of Venice in 1770, it is Europe, not Turkey, that will have to come to terms, just as the Greek government has been sensible enough to do. This will do both sides a great deal of good.

Early in July, there was a conference on the Caucasus held in a town called Kars, in eastern Turkey. Kars is a historic town, once the easternmost outpost of the Roman Empire. Fifty miles to the east is an extraordinary ruined town, Ani, the old capital of greater Georgia. Before the First World War, Kars was Russian; Lenin, as part of a bargain with Atatürk, handed it back to republican Turkey. Kars did not have a good twentieth century: people kept fighting on its borders or sealing them. But now that the pkk war is almost over, Kars can think of the future. The planned oil pipeline from the Caspian will pass just north of it. And it has set up a University of the Caucasus, hoping that talents from the region will be drawn to a prosperous Turkey, as they were in the past. With a new energetic mayor, Naif Alibeyoglu, Kars may be unrecognizable in ten years' time.

The university has potential, of course, but as one sits in the lecture hall, talking about the politics of oil or the Russian-Turkish relationship, in the neighboring villages the locals live with their animals in the winter and make bricks of straw and animal dung, which they dry out in the summer, to supplement the heating. Two-dimensional Europeans will no doubt hold up their hands in horror at the idea of such a people calling themselves European. Wrong, and wrong again: the dynamism that made Europe in the first place has now been transferred to Turkey. And it is Europe, not Turkey, that will have to come to terms.

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