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Europe’s Turkish Conundrum 8 novembre 2007

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.

National Observer (Australia), December 22, 2007, Pg. 51(6) No. 73

Joseph Poprzeczny *

Is the 71-million-strong, nominally secular, Turkish state suited to become a fully-fledged member of the European Union (EU)? That is a question which increasing numbers of European politicians and voters are asking themselves and will continue to ask over coming years, with many already concluding in the negative.

And this despite Turkey having been a NATO member since 1952, ongoing commercial ties with the EU and its predecessor, the European Common Market (ECM), plus a sizeable Turkish minority living within the EU’s borders, especially Germany’s, since the 1960s. Not widely knownis that Turkey was the first country outside the ECM’s six foundation members to seek membership in 1960. When it realized this would nothappen, it gained associate status in 1963, following Israel.

It is perhaps also worth recalling that when Turkey was at the centre of the powerful Ottoman Empire, its formidable armies besieged Vienna twice–in 1529 and 1683–first under Sultan Suleiman I (the magnificent) and then under Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha. The intention, in 1683 at least, was to establish an Islamic fiefdom that stretched across central Europe–the lands of present-day Austriaand Bavaria.

If the Hussars of Poland’s King Jan III Sobieski (1629-1696) hadn’t arrived in the nick of time to help rout the Ottomans outside Vienna’s walls, Europe would now be Islamised in part or in whole from theAtlantic to the Polish-Russian border, and resemble, on a larger scale, multi-ethnic present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina, with Muslims in the majority. Instead, Austria’s Habsburgs, through the military genius of French-born Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), who fought with Sobieski outside besieged Vienna, steadily rolled back the 200year Ottoman advance into the heart of Europe, southwards towards Belgrade.

Thereafter, Austria’s Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780)and her son Joseph II (1714-1790) fostered costly ongoing colonisation programmes to re-Europeanise or re-Christianise Hungarian and northern Balkan lands which were largely depopulated and Islamised, as Spain had been until the late fifteenth century. It was only in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Turkey was finally forced out of all of Greece, the spiritual home of Western art, literature and philosophy, and out of neighbouring lands which it had held for centuries.

The EU’s final decision on Turkey, whether for full membership or a special status, which may involve referendums in all member states,therefore promises to be a truly historic one since it could be viewed as an accommodation of two earlier Turkish attempts to enter Europe, even if under markedly different terms and circumstances. Althoughthere is nothing happening in Turkey today to suggest the likelihoodof anything resembling the 1529 and 1683 attempted entries into Europe, there are nevertheless a range of disturbing features that make Europeans uneasy.

Tensions in modern Turkey

In highlighting some of these it must be stressed that Turkey conducted a national election on 25 July that received widespread acclamation from unbiased observers. Even so, it would be myopic to ignore several other proclivities within modern Turkish society, especially its political landscape. The first is that the majority party that forms Turkey’s new government is the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which strengthened its hold on the parliament. The AKP–a 17-group coalition–is headed by Istanbul’s former mayor, long-time Islamist Recep Tayyib Erdogan, whose family is descended from Georgian immigrants. (Interestingly, the iconic Kemal Ataturk, who stamped secularism upon Turkey in the 1920s and earlier had commanded a division against the ANZACS at Gallipoli, was born in Greece.)

Erdogan set about remoulding the AKP into a broadly-based, centre-right entity that is ostensibly seeking EU membership. He has argued that Turkey’s established secularist parties had failed to manage theeconomy effectively, especially during the crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In July, the AKP boosted its vote from 34 to 47 per cent with a voter turnout of 81 per cent, up from 79 per cent in 2003. Most attribute this success as due to Erdogan’s competent economic management record, which followed precepts laid down by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The next-largest party, the People’s Republic Party (CHP), which seeks to preserve a secular or European-style Turkey, won 112 seats, or just over 20 per cent. After that, with 70-seats, came the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), which strongly opposes Turkey’s entry into the EU. According to Middle East expert Amir Tahiri:

« Instead, it preaches a milder version of the classical pan-Turkism–the idea that Turkic nations should unite under Ankara’s leadership and create a new ‘superpower’. The pan-Turkists believe that Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) should join Turkey to create the ‘broad Turkic space’ that would also include Finland and Hungary, two European nationsthat they regard as of Turkish origin. The ‘broad Turkic space’ could also be extended to northern Iraq, where a few hundred thousand Turkmen live, and northwest Iran that is home to some 15 million Azeri speakers. In a sense, the surprise return of the pan-Turkists is a reaction to fears that the AKP is harboring pan-Islamist ambitions. »

The MHP’s nationalism is therefore based on a quasi-historical fantasy that claims common Turkish ancestry for a disunited but raciallyhomogeneous set of peoples living in a diverse number of countries, two of which are EU members. One of the party’s ideological tracts reads:

« Turks, do not have any friend or ally other than other Turks. Turks! Turn to your roots. Our words are to those that have Turkish ancestry and are Turks…. Those that have torn down this nation [referring to the Ottoman Empire] are Greek, Armenian and Jew traitors, and Kurdish, Bosnian and Albanians…. How can you, as a Turk, tolerate these dirty minorities? Remove, from within, the Armenians and Kurds and all Turkish enemies. »

As well as such revanchistes, Turkey’s new parliament now has 27 Kurdish politicians who won as independents, signalling that Ankara also faces a continued Kurdish nationalism on top of a racially-based Turkic nationalism. Also worth noting is the fact that all this occurred in the context of an expanding economy, the only one in the Islamic world that is generating jobs–so much so that Turks have virtuallyceased seeking employment in Europe and oil-rich Middle Eastern states.

Secularism and islamism

Although the 2007 election was the first in Turkish political history in which an incumbent prime minister and his party were re-elected, standing over Erdogan is the military, the ultimate protector of the 1920s transforming revolution that Ataturk led in order to infuse secularism into a hardly willing Islamic nation–though even the officer class presumably harbours quite a few members who silently favourErdogan.

Just as one swallow does not make a spring, one democratic election has not transformed Turkey into an ongoing democracy. Any bid to further Islamise Turkey must inevitably confront both the pan-Turkists on the right, militant atheists on the far left, secularists across the middle, and the military overseeing all. Moreover, if Erdogan misjudges his Kurdish problem, he’ll find himself confronting not just 27 Kurdish parliamentarians (who on entering parliament swore their oath in Kurdish, causing much upset amongst the Turkic majority), but also the long-time rebellious and battle-hardened separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is not averse to terrorist tactics. Thus,below the surface of institutions such as a parliament, beyond the control of the governing majority, outside the democratic framework ofparliamentary elections, and underneath the expanding economy, an array of turbulent and contradictory currents flow.

Could, or more pertinently, should, Europe be expected to accommodate all or even some of these?

Suspicions about AKP’s intentions

Overriding these uniquely Turkish problems is the full gamut of the Islamisation question, in other words, the stances being taken by the AKP on one side and the CHP, plus the military, on the other. The crucial point, which Erdogan’s AKP coalitionists no doubt realise, isthat, even though they attracted 47 per cent of the vote, the majority–53 per cent–of Turks voted otherwise, including for some ardent anti-Islamic political entities. And amongst the leadership of those representing that other Turkey–the 53 per cent–great suspicion about the AKP prevails.

The AKP is seen as a party that has embarked on a transformationist path, and many of those in its 17 groups are perceived by its enemies as wishing slowly to remove the secularist or Kemalist facets thathave been adopted over the past 80 years. Put bluntly, the AKP is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a purposive party that is secretly seekingto restore the Caliphate so as to transform Turkey into a second, but rival Sunni, not Shiite, Iran. If the frequently voiced suspicions (admittedly self-serving) of those who head up the 53 per cent of Turks opposed to Erdogan are correct, then Turkey’s destiny will certainly fall well short of the kind of state that would qualify for EU membership.

The AKP is suspected by its enemies of having embarked on what hasbeen described as a « slow or silent purge » of Turkish institutions, with Islamists taking control of all the « commanding heights ». The fact that July’s election was sparked by the AKP attempt to elevate itsforeign minister, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency is significant. MrGul’s nomination not only triggered a political crisis but also a warning from the military that it could intervene. Secularists rejectedGul’s bid to gain the presidency because of his career in the pro-Islamist Welfare Party and the fact that his wife, like Erdogan’s wife,wears the headscarf–an extremely divisive symbol in Turkey.

But that is just the tip of what secularists believe is a far larger Islamic iceberg that is threatening the nation. The AKP’s supposed »transformationism » is seen as being embedded in covert or highly conspiratorial politics. Taheri put it as follows:

« There is plenty of evidence that the party is engaged in a silentpurge of its political opponents, and placing its cadres in control of the machinery of state and the state-controlled public sector of the economy. Over the past four years, many judges of secularist persuasion have been pushed into retirement, or demoted, and replaced by AKP sympathizers. A slow purge has also hit the nation’s educational apparatus, with an unknown number of those « not Islamic enough » replaced by individuals close to the party. A similar change of personnel has been taking place within the armed forces that have always acted as guarantors of the secular republic. As far as appointments to key posts in the public sector of the economy are concerned, the AKP has gone beyond the limits of normal grace and favour or even straight nepotistic politics. »

The AKP’s bosses have been acting like the nomenclatura of the Chinese Communist Party that has promoted a « privatised » economy by frequently favouring relatives and friends to man the new class of capitalists. Such crony-capitalism, which helps enrich the party in campaigning and propaganda, alongside family members and ideological pals, is common to both. « The joke in Ankara is that while the IMF sets the policies that produce prosperity in Turkey, it is the AKP that distributes the fruits, » Taheri says.

Turkey’s future

Turkey has, after nearly half a century of close association with Europe and Western institutions, such as the IMF, NATO, and the WorldBank, been greatly helped to elevate itself towards what Ataturk andhis heirs, particularly those within the military, sought. It is up to the AKP to continue along that path if it is really seeking modernity, and all that that means.

However, if the « transformationism » its enemies perceive is reallythere strongly beneath all the disclaimers, if the party has really set out to construct something that has more in common with, say, Tehran, than Europe, then unanimity will inevitably emerge across European electorates in the view that the Erdogan-created Turkey has no place in the EU. Time will tell.

Meanwhile the question remains: does Erdogan and do those heading the AKP’s 17-segment coalition aspire to something resembling what Ataturk’s heirs and over half the electorate desire, or do they secretly wish to associate themselves far more with the ideological aspirations, though of course not the same military aims and methods, that marked the reigns of Suleiman I and Mustafa Pasha?

* Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher. He is author of Odilo Globocnik, Hitler’s Man in theEast (2004)


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