by: Aditya Bothra
European Union Accession
One of Turkey’s most immediate and perhaps greatest challenge in terms of diplomatic efforts over the next five years will be its drive for inclusion in the European Union (EU) and, in the process, overcoming the significant political, economic and social barriers that it faces to admission. Turkey first began the process to join the EU way back in 1987 when it filled out the application for what then used to be the European Economic Community (EEC). Since then, more than two decades have passed and there is yet to be any sizable progress. The next five years will be critical for Turkey to amend many of its economic, social and political policies while continuing negotiations with the EU.
Turkey’s application for membership to the EU union is unlike any that the authority has encountered since its creation, and is a contentious one in many ways. Turkey is a large country with over seventy million people, 99% of whom are Muslims that trace their origins to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, making Turkey, according to many, not culturally “European.” Its inclusion will significantly change characteristics of the EU, with the Muslim population projected to rise from the current 6% to 20%. A large country such as Turkey is also expected to exercise significant power within the EU and therefore considerably changing the union’s affairs and policies in ways much to the detriment of current members. Furthermore, many countries, such as France and Austria, are opposed to granting Turkey full membership on the grounds that it is not geographically “European,” Turkey is situated mostly in the Asian continent, with only small portions that fall within the boundaries of continental Europe. But most importantly, Turkey is a poor developing country that, upon being incorporated into the EU, will disperse waves of Turkish immigrants and be entitled to billions of dollars in EU aid and economic incentives.
Turkey has to date failed to comply with the required standards for recognition as a full member state as ascribed by the European Union. In general the requirements call for a democratic form of government with stable institutional bodies that enforce the rule of law, guarantee human rights and protect minorities, the establishment of a market economy that can adjust to the single European Union market, and compliance to the EU Laws and obligations that come with EU membership. Over the past decade, Turkey has continually sought to make progress in its bid to fall within requirements set out by the EU only to be hindered in its drive by a few contentious and controversial subjects. Within the past year Turkey has, among other developments, introduced a ban on death penalty, strictly enforced a zero-tolerance policy towards torture in prisons, curbed ties between military influences in state affairs as part of a comprehensive set of nine reform packages only to encounter a roadblock on the question of ban on adultery. Even in the realm of human rights, a key source of criticism from the EU, Turkey has made progress such as removing prior ban on Kurdish media and releasing four Kurdish political activists. While Turkey has made progress on the front of human rights abuse, it continues to lag behind its European counterparts based on reports published by Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, much to the dismay of supporters of the country’s bid for EU membership. Over the next few years, Turkey will have to continue on its path of reforms to guarantee citizens greater autonomy, in line with the policies of the European Union.
Economic factors have been significant to Turkey’s failure in being accepted into the EU. Turkey is relatively underdeveloped and poor when compared to other member states of the European Union. A study carried out by the World Bank showed that Turkey’s living standards is a quarter of that of the EU and that its population is young and growing a steady pace. Going by the current pace of population growth, Turkey will have surpassed Germany, currently the most populous member of the EU, by 2010. This idea of a poor, densely populated and young country joining the EU, which allows for free labor movement between its member states, is alarming to many of the more developed countries within the Union. According to those critical of Turkey’s membership, the projected wave of Turkish labor movement throughout the EU will lead to severe shortage of jobs for local population and a resurgence of anti-immigration movements throughout the EU
Turkey’s fragile record with democracy and disputes with fellow EU members is on top of those opposed to its admission into the Union. Throughout its history to as recent as 1997 the country has seen coups take place to bring political change. The coups, orchestrated and planned by the powerful heads of the Turkish armed forces, the “self-appointed custodians of secularism,” are defended on the grounds that they are necessary to keep the country on path to achieveing ideals established during Turkish nationalist revolution and subsequent reforms carried out by its founders. Even in the 21st century, the military is a key player in state affairs and has frequency made veiled remarks of intefering in the future if need be to shore any weaknesses it identifies. In additonal to frequent military intervention in domestic politcs, Turkey has had years of strained relationship witht Greece and Cyprus on grounds of territorial and political disputes. Greece and Cyprus being full EU members has prompted Turkey to adopt a more conservative policy against the two in recent year after almost going to full blown war at the end of 20th century.
Going forward, Turkey must continue its reforms to enter the European Union; the next five year will be critical as it has been widely touted that EU will take final steps in its ongoing negotiation to incoroporate Turkey into its community. The reforms must not be looked at solely on the basis of EU membership, but from the prespective of giving Turkish citizens a country that is better equipped to face the challenges of the next century.
Turkey’s relations with its Kurdish minority has been a critical issue for over five decades, but the next five years will hold special importance given the rise of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state with its “own flag, own language, and parliament” just across its border with Iraq. The steps Turkey takes to diffuse this serious challenge over the next few years will determine its internal politics and international relations for decades to come. Turkey is composed of approximately seventeen million Kurds, an ethnic group that is indigenous to a region historically known as Kurdistan that is inclusive of parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The Kurds or “mountain people” as they are referred to by the Turks differ from the Turkish people mainly due to their language which they have preserved for centuries. Given their sizable presence in Turkey, the Kurds make up almost 20% of the population and yet are the single most persecuted ethnic group within Turkey due to their sheer size and potential threat to national unity and security. Fear of the Kurds is not unfounded among the members of the Turkish government and armed forces, as the ethnic group has led to more than six rebellions since the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1919. The last major rebellion in 1937 was violently crushed by more than fifty-thousand Turkish troops backed by the air force, resulting in the massacre or imprisonment of approximately forty thousand Kurds.
The Kurds have been the target of Turkish led assimilation drives since the 1930s, which foremost has sought to suppress the Kurdish language by publicizing the Turkish language and, until recently, banning the publishing and broadcasting of the Kurdish language anywhere in Turkey. Overall, decades of suppressing the ethnic identity of the Kurds has led the southeastern region of Turkey, home to a majority of the Kurds in Turkey, to be considerably underdeveloped and poorer in comparison to the riches of Istanbul. This stark reality of the Kurdish people has only further fueled the drive for separate homeland amongst the dissidents. While conditions for the Kurdish people changed slightly for the better during the presidency of Turgut Özal in the early 1990s, today they still remain on the fringes of Turkish society with incidents such as one in June 2007 when a popularly elected Turkish mayor was sacked in a move supported by the High Court on the grounds of “giving information on various municipal services such as culture, art, environment, city cleaning and health in languages other than Turkish is against the Constitution” brings to light the plight of the Kurds in Turkey.
The main opposition to Turkish led efforts to suppress the Kurdish minority has been the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Founded in the 1970s on the ideologies of Kurdish nationalism and Marxism-Leninism, PKK is a separatist terrorist organization that seeks the formation of an independent Kurdistan for the Kurdish people in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Since its formation, the PKK has targeted both the Turkish public and military in order to achieve its objectives; it is believed that more than thirty-five thousand people have died in conflicts triggered by the organization that have ensued since 1984. In response to guerilla tactics and suicide bombings carried out by PKK, the Turkish military has aggressively targeted its militants with counter insurgency and widely criticized their “vigilante justice” tactics. Throughout Turkey’s fight against separatist movements, the army has acted independent of government initiatives and has run its own campaigns and strategy to counter the Kurds.
Recent years have seen significant new developments in the PKK and Turkish conflict with the arrest of its founder in 1999 and recent rise in attacks from across the border in Iraq. Since his arrest, Abdullah Ocalan has called for the PKK to declare a ceasefire as it is "very important to build a democratic union between Turks and Kurds. With this process, the way to democratic dialogue will be also opened." To this statement, the Turkish prime minister responded by stating that “a ceasefire is done between states. It is not something for a terrorist organization.” The increasing backlash faced by the PKK comes on the back of efforts internationally to significantly cut funding and increasing Turkish civilian protests to its activities. The PKK in response has increased its presence in the autonomously governed Kurdish region of Iraq located to launch attacks across the border in Turkey. Factions friendly to PKK in Kurd administered part of Iraq has been accused by Turkey of aiding the movements of the PKK and resulted in Turkish parliament approving military strikes by a margin of 507 to 19 in 2007 after the death of approximately three dozen Turkish troops to PKK ambushes. The December 2007 and January 2008 attacks led by Turkish jets claimed to destroy several key PKK establishments in Northern Iraq and kill approximately two hundred rebels. While future attacks cannot be ruled out by Turkey’s government, there is considerable pressure on it by the international community led by the United States to avoid military intervention in Iraq, as it may jeopardize ongoing efforts to return stability to the region. But Turkey in the bigger scheme of things sees the Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to its unity because, as Johnathan Power of the International Herald Tribune notes, “Kurds are impressed with the degree of political and economic autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds have won during the recent negotiations on the Iraqi constitution” and can quite possibly demand a similar setting in Turkey.
The next couple of years are crucial for Turkey in seeking a resolution to the “Kurdish problem” that it has harbored since its independence. Additional efforts must be made to further integrate the Kurdish people in Turkish society by providing for them similar facilities and funding that are allotted to the Turks. It is hard to associate oneself with a country when the biggest concerns of the Kurdish majority parts of Turkey are finding clean drinking water and other problems plaguing third world nations. If the induction of Kurdish MPs in parliament is any indication, a solution to the Kurdish problem is well within reach of the current administration in Ankara.
Secularism or Islam? The choice between the two has been at the forefront of domestic politics in Turkey since its independence in 1923. While Turkey long established strong secular credentials under the guidance of its revolutionary hero, founder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, religion has remained and continues to remain a potent force among its people. As Turkey’s outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer warned, the country’s secularist ideals today faces its greatest threat since its establishment with attempts to bring religion into politics.
Secularism in Turkey was perhaps one of the most important legacies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Six Arrows policy during the Turkish nationalist movement of the early 20th century. Once inaugurated as the first president of the new nation, Ataturk in a string of controversial reforms sought to give Turkey a strong secular foundation as part of its modernization, but in doing so isolated the country from the rest of the Islamic world. Beginning in 1924 Turkey abolished the caliphate, the supreme governing body of Islam worldwide and subjugated religious institutions to state control, thereby removing all its secular powers and restricted religious education. These policies were complimented by the replacement of Sha’ria law with European influenced legal system, adoption of the Gregorian calendar and Latin over the Hijri and Arabic, ban on any clothing that depicted religious association, including the veil for women and fez for the men, and an overall push by the government to promote the ideas of science and enlightened thinkers in public and restrict religion to the private quarters. As Ataturk declared, "Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men." Religion was at best a hindrance to Turkey's drive for modernization according to Ataturk.
While Ataturk’s modernization reforms helped bring about a period of rapid development and growth, but as noted by Middle Eastern scholar Dr. Jacob M. Landau, “the occasion for Islam's re-entry into the political arena came, ironically also came as a result of one of the aspects of modernization.” Turkey’s secularism today is threatened by democracy and its own people. Starting in the 1970s the influence and power of Muslim political parties such as Justice and Development Party, National Salvation Party, The Party for National Order, and the Democratic Party have been on the uptrend with more seats in the Parliament and elections to both the seats of the Prime Minister and Presidency. The names of the parties have changed over time starting with The Party for National Order in 1970, but they remain common in their support for Islamic revitalization in Turkey and consider themselves fulfilling a role similar to the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. A round up of recent accomplishments of the Muslim parties such as allocating time to reading of Koran on state-owned radio, state funding for Islamic institutes where curriculum stresses the study of the Koran and Arabic, failed bills to make it a serious misdemeanor to make statements against Islam and change the weekend holiday from Sunday to Friday and government funded campaign against the gambling, consumption and sale of alcohol and obscenity. The parties have been careful to present secularist beliefs as being central on their agenda, but clearly recent developments in Turkey are clearly “characteristic of the previous and subsequent stand of the protagonists of Islamism and their antagonism to the secularization of Turkey.” Whatever the ultimate objective of the political changes and debate taking place in Turkey, it remains clear that it has led to polarization of the nation with religious Muslims in one side and secular urban elite backed by the armed forces on the other. Protests, rallies and marches are there for all to see on any given day in modern Turkey with supporters from both sides voicing concern over issues such as the headscarf on the basis of human rights, religious duty and political activism. The Turkey of today finds sizable supporters on both sides.
While democracy has given rise to degrees of Islamism in recent times, the military has taken upon itself to secure the bastion of secularism in Turkey. Since Ataturk’s departure, the army has assumed the role of “the defender of Ataturk’s legacy of secularism — a thinly veiled threat, given that the armed forces have ousted four elected governments in the past 50 years.” These coups have taken place as recently as 1980 and 1997 to remove the Islamic influenced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. These frequent interventions by the army has led the country to the crossroads of supporting democracy or secularism and in the process set up a dangerous precedent. As recently as 2007, the military has issued statements saying that "the Turkish Armed Forces maintain their sound determination to carry out their duties stemming from laws to protect the unchangeable characteristics of the Republic of Turkey” in response to election of Abdullah Gul, a former foreign minister and Islamist politician from the Justice and Development Party. Ironically enough, the Republican People's Party (CHP), founded by Ataturk and supported by the military have been out of power for more than a decade today have little to show in comparison to the Islamic parties accomplishments in maintaining growth, curtailing inflation and support of closer ties with EU with a drive for full membership. While Mr. Gul has faced numerous veiled threats by the military of possible action if Turkey is to retract from secular principles since his election to presidency, he has continued to champion the tenets under which the party rose to power and has pushed forward reforms necessary to join the European Union. As for CHP, Akif Emre, a columnist for Yeni Safak, a conservative newspaper, quipped, “they continue to defend secularism in a religious, dogmatic way.”
Islam is a critical component of Turkish identity. This claim has been made by pious Muslims throughout Turkey and there is no denying the strong foundations of such a statement. Secularism cannot hide and should not hide the Islamic past and present of Turkey. But at the same time it is important to understand and to come to consensus that Islam cannot become the defining feature of the Turkish identity for doing so will undermine its rich history, culture and the very tenets under which the country won its independence. The debate of secularism or Islamism that has been taking place does not sanction the intervention of the armed forces as doing so will shun Ataturk’s vision of a democratic and westward looking Turkey. The Turkish people themselves have to reach a consensus in the coming years over the boundaries of state and religion, though the recent marches for secularist policies in Ankara and Istanbul indicate that a choice has already been made.
Turkey’s challenges in the five years ahead are many and complex, ranging from religion to economy to human rights. Perhaps many of these problem will not come to a resolution within five years or even ten, but the world can rest assured that Turkey has the tools necessary to resolve each and every one of its problems with its democratic institutions. Turkey is an optimistic representation of a more democratic, secular and modern Middle East as envisioned in the 21st century.