Letters from Ankara

Fellows Spring 2004

By Siobhan Roth

June 04, 2009

In Turkey these days, the national conversation revolves around one topic: European Union membership. Ankara’s bid to join the exclusive club drives everything from the way traffic tickets are processed to resolving the decades-long Cyprus standoff. The recent local elections, usually contentious, felt like a distraction. In December, the 25-member EU will decide whether to initiate negotiations on Turkey’s accession. The countdown has begun.

Turkey has always bridged East and West, but today the country is also an officially pro-Western buffer between Europe and its volatile neighbors to the east. The fall of the Soviet Union appeared to have lessened Ankara’s strategic importance within NATO, but the rise of international terrorism, continued turmoil in the Greater Middle East, and the country’s emergence as an oil and gas corridor have resurrected Turkey’s significance—and the desire of Western nations, including the United States, for Turkey to bind closely with the West. The fear on both sides of the Atlantic is that another delay, or rejection by the EU, will propel Turkish sentiments eastward.

At stake domestically in Turkey’s accession bid are the most dramatic political, social and economic reforms since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the republic in 1923.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has formed the first non-coalition Turkish government in almost 20 years. Surprising to those who mistrust the party’s Islamist roots, AK has championed the reform packages as the key to Europe. In response, Turkish voters, 75 percent of whom favor EU membership, overwhelmingly supported AK in local elections March 28. Most significant among the reforms are extending human rights protections to minorities—specifically, Kurds, who compose 20 percent of the population—and curtailing the military’s role in politics.

Meanwhile, the government has pulled off the Herculean feat of stabilizing the Turkish lira and trimming inflation to 18.4 percent, down from 68.5 percent in 2001.

Despite Ankara’s fiscal magic, unemployment hovers around 10 percent, and the standard of living for many Turks falls far below that of their EU counterparts. Per capita annual gross domestic product is 5,500 euros, compared with 24,010 euros for the original EU member states and 11,250 euros for those that joined May 1. In impoverished Diyarbakir, locals say the most obvious benefit of accession is easier migration to Western Europe. But in both Turkey and Europe, the question persists whether Turkey is European.

The answer, for many Turks, is not yet. “Turkey is not Europe,” says Oya Sa∂diç, a Diyarbakir teacher. “But we look toward Europe. For our future, we must be European.”

Certainly, Turkey’s southeastern provinces don’t feel European. In Diyarbakir, women bargain for groceries in black robes revealing only their faces and hands. Men pack the teashops from morning until night, drinking endless cups of sugary brew. Children, grime ringing their necks and wrists, wind through the crowded streets selling tissues and 20-cent shoeshines to supplement the family income. Farmers turn the soil, pulling wooden tills behind them. “Honor killings” of girls and women thought to have disgraced the family, though illegal, are prevalent.

A culture clash with Turkey’s backwaters is not the only thing that could make the transition to Europe difficult.

Powerful segments of Turkey’s elite reject the promises of European inclusion. In March, a document was leaked to the press detailing military plans to keep track of—among others—pro-EU and pro-U.S. groups, foreigners, ethnic minorities, Freemasons and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. Further evidence of discontent surfaced in another leak revealing that the gendarmerie had ordered members to read an anti-Western magazine.

The EU-driven reforms will likely continue to diminish military influence. No one in Turkey has forgotten the bloodless 1997 coup, when the military pushed out the elected Islamist government. A risk remains that the military could act to derail Turkey’s EU bid, says one U.S. Embassy official in Ankara.

Despite support from key European leaders, Turkey may not get what many Turks want this December. In a recent report, a European Parliament committee lauded Turkey’s reform plans but warned that more concrete progress must follow soon. Implementation of the reform agenda is an issue, agrees the U.S. Embassy official. He expresses optimism, however, about the chances of the government’s Western-leading reforms.

“Bringing Turkey into the EU . . . is a further guarantee of Turkey’s stability, that it is pro-Western,” he says. He warns, however, “If the EU turns Turkey away, it will strengthen the hand of those who would turn the country eastward.”

— Siobhan Roth