‘New’ Turkey, mostly Asian, eyes Europe

Paradise Post, CA
Nov 9 2004

‘New’ Turkey, mostly Asian, eyes Europe

By Lowell Blankfort

Statues of Kemal Ataturk, hero of Turkeys resurgence after the post
World War I loss of its vast Ottoman Empire, adorn every Turkish city
and town. As dictator for 15 years, he undercut the power of Islam,
founded modern secular Turkey. This statute is in Istanbul.

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The Middle East’s largest country and straddling both Europe and
Asia, crucial U.S. ally Turkey is undergoing big changes. Lowell
Blankfort, a prize-winning writer and former Post co-owner, and his
wife April have just returned from a three-week reporting trip there.
This is the first of a series of articles.

The past has vanished.
Everything that was uttered belongs there.
Now is the time to think of new things.

– Jelaluddin Rumi,
Turkish poet (1207-1273)

Viewed from a cruise ship’s deck, my first sight of Turkey is a huge
black statue on a fog-shrouded hillside, barely discernible amidst
the early-morning mist that shrouds the small Aegean Sea port of
The statue’s right arm points northeastward, toward our ultimate
destination this morning, the ruins of ancient Ephesus, now 12 miles
inland but Asia Minor’s greatest port 2,600 years ago. Before
tide-carried silt deposits separated it from the sea, Ephesus was the
gateway of European traders venturing eastward to seek access to the
wandering tribes and riches of long-ago Asia.
Today, Turks are trying to reverse that process. A poor nation 99
percent Muslim and 93 percent in Asia, Turkey is looking westward,
seeking to join the 25-country “club of Christian nations,” the rich
European Union. Calling this “a reconciliation between
civilizations,” Turks hope membership will open up trade
opportunities for Turkish firms, invite more foreign investment,
enhance the nation’s prestige, boost incomes that are barely a fifth
of Europeans – and facilitate Turkey becoming a “bridge” between
Christian Europe and an increasingly restive Arab Muslim world beset
with hate-spewing fundamentalists.
Europeans are hardly unanimous in their eagerness to accept the
Turks. But there’s no doubt that the Turkish national hero honored in
that hillside statue would have welcomed the effort – and most
(though not all) of the profound and positive changes already
occurring in a Turkey of 71 million people revolutionizing itself to
meet European standards.

General Mustafa Kemal – renamed simply Ataturk, “Father of All Turks”
by Parliament in the 1920’s – salvaged today’s
bigger-than-Texas-sized Turkey from the ruins of its defeated Ottoman
Empire after World War I.
Gone was a vast empire that lasted longer and at its peak was larger
than either the Roman or British empire – and had held sway over the
entire Balkans, all of North Africa and the entire Arab Middle East
for 450 years.
Ataturk, who overthrew the once-omnipotent sultan, said Turkey lost
its empire because it was obsessively religious and old-fashioned.
He vowed to remake the new Turkish Republic into “a normal modern
nation” and one “modeled on Europe.”
During his 15 years as dictator-president, secularism became Turkey’s
new religion.
Ataturk moved the capital from Istanbul, the former Constantinople
redolent with mosques and religious history, to Ankara, a small city
hundreds of miles east of the Islamic power structure. He shut down
the dominant Muslim caliphate, put its imams on the government
payroll to better control what they preached, banned religious
headscarves for women and fezzes for men, converted the alphabet from
Arabic into Latin, and moved the day of rest to Sunday from the
Muslim Friday.
Today, ironically, Turkey’s attempt to fulfill Ataturk’s secular,
European dream is being led by a devout Muslim. When Prime Minister
Recep Rayip Erdogan (pronounced Ehr-duh-won) was mayor of Istanbul,
he was jailed in 1999 and banned from public life for three years for
reciting in public a poem that talked of Muslim minarets as bayonets
– deemed an incitement to a religious uprising.
But only three years later, fed up with corrupt politicians and a
sick economy, Turkish voters gave a huge victory to Erdogan’s new
Justice and Development Party, ostensibly secular but many of whose
leaders were those of a more militantly Muslim party deposed by the
army in 1997.
Aided by the votes of newly politicized devout rural Muslims who were
swarming into the cities, Erdogan’s party, in a multi-party election,
won 38 percent of votes and almost two-thirds of legislative seats.
Paradoxically, because he was still on probation, Erdogan had to wait
several months after his party’s victory before assuming the prime
ministry. Moreover, because his wife insists on wearing headscarves,
she is barred from attending government functions.

Still, to all Turks, religious or not, almost three quarters of a
century after his untimely death from alcoholism in 1938 at the age
of 57, Ataturk remains a virtual deity. Large photos of him bedeck
every classroom, huge statues of him dominate public squares in every
city and town, portraits of him on glass or on plates or in oil or
watercolors decorate walls and mantelpieces throughout the country.

It is slightly before dusk, the end of an ordinary September weekday,
at Ankara’s massive two-square-block Ataturk Mausoleum and Museum.
But even this late the crowds are huge and the lines are long to view
his coffin. Many on line have come from the provinces and are dressed
very formally, as if going to visit the great man himself, rather
than simply his coffin.
I think back to when I viewed the preserved waxed bodies of Lenin in
Moscow and Mao Zedong in Beijing.
There the crowds are hustled along by guards after a quick look.
But here, even though there is no body to see, those on line pause
long and solemnly before the coffin, to think some thoughts, be in
touch with their own feelings, as they savor the moment. Many have
cameras, and husbands take pictures of wives, and wives of husbands,
and then of the children, before the coffin that was the resting
place of the remains of Turkey’s greatest hero.
Some simply stand and stare, their eyes visibly swelling up with

In a nation of uncertain ethnic identity for most, Ataturk had little
patience for the problems of ethnic minorities or disputes over where
Turks came from.
To him, every resident of the Turkish Republic should simply consider
himself a Turk. And those who weren’t were kicked out in 1920’s
exchanges of population (except in cities) — even though the
families of many, like those of Greek ancestry, had lived in Turkey
for hundreds of years.
Same for the Armenians who had been the target of a genocide or at
least a massacre a decade earlier. Ataturk was hardly a devotee of
He ruled with a heavy hand, backed up by a military lionized by the
population for having retaken a lot of Turkish land lost during World
War I.
He did not hesitate to be tough or torture or execute his political
enemies. Turkey did not have an election for more than a decade after
he assumed office and remained a one-party state, Ataturk’s party,
until 1946, some 23 years after he took power and eight years after
his death.
Ataturk’s constitution provided a special role for the military, as
guardians of the nation’s secularism and stability. Under it, the
military forcibly overthrew elected (and corrupt and unpopular)
governments in 1960, 1970 and 1980, and forced the resignation in
1997 of a coalition government headed by an avowedly devout prime
But the European Union insists on tight civilian control over the
So, officially at least, the Turkey’s conscripted military, half a
million strong, this year was defanged – with its consent, the
constitution was changed to take away its majority and chairmanship
of the all-powerful National Security Council.
Still, many Turks view the military favorably, noting that even under
the sultans its officer corps attracted Turkey’s best and brightest,
that it has been a hedge against corrupt and inept leaders, and that
when it has seized power, it has relinquished it to civilians after
relatively short periods.
The military’s declining influence is costing it money. This year,
for the first time in modern Turkey’s 81-year history, the nation
will spend more on education than on defense.
It also proved costly to the United States which last year wanted to
use Turkey as a base for 62,000 troops to invade Iraq from the north.
Insiders say the Turkish military backed the U.S. request and in the
old days would have gotten its wish.
But, mindful that Turkish public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed,
the Turkish Parliament turned down the Americans (by one vote).

Turkey first applied for European Union membership in 1987 but let
its application languish because tariff-protected Turkish companies
were reluctant to abide by European free-trade rules.
But when, with its economy faltering, it revived its application in
2001, the EU made clear that Turkey would have to start cleaning up
its act if it were to be considered.
To comply, Parliament in September adopted an entirely new, more
humane penal code. It reduced hundreds of draconian sentences,
outlawed torture (long a staple of Turkish police interrogations),
banned the death penalty, wiped out censorship laws and restrictions
on free speech, eliminated barriers to expressions of ethnic identity
and required juveniles who break the law to be treated in juvenile
courts until 18 (before, they were treated as criminals as young as
15). Gone too were laws that provided more severe penalties for abuse
of virgins than non-virgins.
“Nowhere in the world have so many laws that affect you from the day
you are born until the day you die been passed in such a rush,” said
Sezgin Tankirikulu, Bar Association president in Dyarbakir, a
stronghold of the long-persecuted Kurdish minority, about the new
penal codes and civil codes rushed through to meet European Union
Unfortunately, he added, the codes don’t allow a lot of time (a month
for the civil code, six months for the penal one) for judges and the
public to easily adapt.
But many Turks are delighted.
“The best thing about our EU application,” said a prominent Turk who
asked to remain anonymous “isn’t that it will open up a huge market
for our products or that we’ll get economic support to elevate our
standard of living. That’s all years away. The best thing is that
they’ve pressured us into doing the things that we should have been
doing on our own initiative decades ago.”
But some people aren’t so sure.

Professor Muntaz Soysal is a man of principle. That’s why we’re
interviewing him in his tiny office in a small newspaper where he is
a columnist; he used to be a columnist for Turkey’s biggest newspaper
but the owner fired him, he said, because he refused to use his
political contacts to further the owner’s business dealings.
And principle is why, at 75. he is founding a new political party.
He thinks that his previous party, the junior party in a two-party
parliament, in its eagerness to embrace the EU, is betraying
Ataturk’s principles.
But the allegedly betrayed principle that the four of us interviewing
Soysal found most curious (my wife and I were joined on the reporting
trip by Professor Richard Feinberg, a former member of President
Clinton’s National Security Council, and his wife) was Soysal’s
defense of a military establishment that imprisoned him for a year
and a half after its 1970 coup.
Soysal explained he was dean of the faculty at Ankara University when
military officers accused him of “subverting youth” – because, he
explained, they objected to the university curriculum that included
readings about the world’s communist regimes.
Nevertheless, Soysal, son of a naval officer says, “The military is
one of the few progressive forces in Turkey that, despite its
occasional mistakes and the fact that it can be cruel, has very
little corruption compared with other sectors, is a force for
progress and enjoys the respect and confidence of the people.”
Soysal says the Erdogan government is using the European Union as an
excuse to undermine the military.
He is not necessarily opposed to Turkey joining the EU, he says, but
as a Turkish nationalist follower of Ataturk, he is opposed to its
emphasis on globalization and business privatization – he believes
the Turkish people are better off with Turkey’s government, not
profit-seeking companies and particularly not foreign ones, in
control of its crucial resources and economic sectors. He also
objects to the EU’s stress on the rights of ethnic groups and

Turkey’s application to join the European Union got a boost last
month when the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, ruled
that Turkey had made enough progress toward fulfilling EU standards
to merit beginning long-term negotiations, taking 10 to 15 years,
toward eventual membership.
In a ringing endorsement, the commission’s president, Italy’s Romano
Prodi, said, “We cannot imagine a Europe in which Turkey is not
firmly aboard.”
But the decision survived some harrowing moments when, in adopting
the new penal code, the Erodogan government inserted a clause to
criminalize adultery.
It said legal punishment (three years in prison) for adultery would
diminish “honor killings” still sometimes imposed in rural Turkey by
relatives against women whose extra-marital sexual activities are
frowned upon.
Faced with opposition from women’s groups and from legislators, large
numbers of whom Turkish newspapers said had mistresses (Islam permits
up to four wives, though Turkish law doesn’t), the government
capitulated when EU officials declared that criminalizing adultery
would contravene European standards – i.e., be a deal-breaker.
Still, the Financial Times said the adultery proposal underscored a
major problem in Turkey joining the European Union – “Turkey is
becoming a re-religious society in a post-religious Europe.”
If this is true, it would undercut a major reason of Europeans
favoring Turkey’s EU entry – that it would be an example to
fundamentalist-leaning Middle East countries that secularization
offers economic advantages and international acceptance.
Next month, on Dec. 17, the European Parliament will make a final
decision on whether to begin serious negotiations with Turkey. One
big problem Europe faces is the disparity in Turkey’s economy – the
European Union subsidizes its poorer countries to bring about mutual
prosperity; with a European’s average annual income now over five
times a Turk’s $4,000 per person, this could become expensive.
The income gap was even greater only three years ago when Turkey’s
economy was in chaos. It’s less now but, if they act quickly, foreign
visitors can still enjoy a unique pleasure, a hangover from the bad
old days.

Wanna feel like a millionaire, spend like a millionaire? It’s pretty
easy in today’s Turkey. The country has the world’s
highest-denomination banknotes,
Simply exchange $10, for example, and instantly you have 1,500,000
Turkish lira. That’s enough to buy a decent American breakfast in a
good restaurant along Istanbul’s up-scale Istiklal Boulevard,
including tip and some Turkish touches like feta cheese, olives and
yogurt. If you’re into Turkish carpets, you could even feel like a
billionaire. A thousand-dollar carpet, for example, comes to 1.5
billion lira.
That’s because decades of runaway inflation saw prices escalating as
much as 70 percent annually over many years.
But, thanks to belt-tightening measures that the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded in return for big loans, the annual
inflation rate has tumbled to below 10 percent – lowest since the
early 1930s. That’s good news to Turks whose salary increases
constantly was lagging behind price increases but bad news for those
who like to continue to feel like millionaires or billionaires.
Convinced the currency is now stable, the government on Jan. 1 will
issue new currency knocking off the last six digits on lira notes;
thus 15,000,000 lira will become simply 15 lira. But it will require
the same $10 to buy the same breakfast.

Before the IMF bailout, the Turkish government in 2001 owed so much
money that it faced bankruptcy.
In return for the loan, the IMF offered – indeed ordered-tough
love…a slash in government expenses that included many employee
layoffs, government takeover of banks loaded with uncollectable
loans, opening the Turkish market to foreign companies, ending
Ataturk-legacy protectionism, privatizing many state-owned
enterprises, enforcing tax laws long collecting dust on the shelves
but not collecting money for the treasury.
Not all of these measures are fully operative, and some have
increased unemployment but their start and the consequent currency
stability has sent the Turkish stock market soaring and interest
rates tumbling, encouraging a whopping 8 percent growth in the
economy this year.
Interest rates, 70 percent at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, in
18 months have dropped by almost two-thirds, to below 25 percent. The
Iraq war has helped.
Turkey, bordering Iraq, is the world’s biggest overland conduit for
Iraqi food and other supplies.
Despite several tragic killings and hostage-taking of drivers, almost
a thousand Turkish trucks, traveling in convoys, regularly funnel
goods to Iraq.
At the start of the last century, Turkey was called “the sick man of
Europe.” Though its Ottoman Empire still held most of the Balkans,
Turkey by then had lost Greece as well as Egypt, the Balkans were
restive, Russia armies were nipping at its heels, and its economy was
Today, Europeans who question Turkey’s European Union overtures
wonder whether Turkey, sick or not, is even European, in fact and at
Former French President Giscard d’Estaing, for example, says Turkey
is not a European country and its EU membership would mean “the end
of Europe.”
Only 7 percent of its land lies in Europe and, questioners contend,
its legacy of torture, militarism, executions and disrespect of human
rights indicate a lack of European values.
They also wonder whether the European Union should extend itself to
the very borders of troubled Middle East countries like Iran, Syria
and Iraq, all of which abut Turkey, or whether, on the other hand,
this might influence these important resource-rich nations positively
in a democratic non-fundamentalist direction.
But, with or without Turkey, Europeans will have no choice in
interacting with Muslims, integration supporters point out.
About 20 million Muslims already live in Europe, and with low
European birth rates presaging a severe future labor shortage,
demographers say Europe could well have a majority Muslim population
by the end of this century. So can it much longer call itself a
Christian continent?
Meanwhile, though, Turkey’s shadow looms large. With 71 million
people and growing, it will soon be more populous than any single
European country.
Under the EU’s proposed population-based weighted voting system, it
thus could be decisive in forming alliances with other countries to
become the biggest factor in determining European political and
economic policies.

The European Parliament will weigh all of these factors Dec. 17. Even
as European leaders assure their own dubious people that it would be
a long time before Turkey is admitted (and at the time would be
subject to referendum in some countries), those close to the scene
expect Turkey to get the unanimous go-ahead that is required to start
serious talks.
“It’s irreversible,” said Ozdem Sanberk, over coffee in our Istanbul
hotel. Sanberk was Turkey’s ambassador to Great Britain for 10 years
and is now a think-tank leader and TV personality. He added, “It is
impossible to continue to hold Turkey in uncertainty in perpetuity.”
And if Turkey is rejected – if not on Dec. 17, some time later?
Some say, I note, that Turkey’s rejection would be viewed by Arab
terrorists as confirming their view that the West is anti-Muslim and
even anti-Arab (though Turkey is not an Arab country).
“It is difficult to foresee the consequence once hope is lost,”
Sanberk replied. “A surge of anti-western activity in Turkey? A
turning of the Turks to Arab nations? An internal battle between the
middle class and the religious? A breakup of the country into
something like the Arab emirates?
Once Pandora’s box is opened, the repercussions are severe. But I
don’t foresee anything bad happening.
Turkey is pinning its hopes on Europe and I don’t think the Europeans
will let us down.”
Next: Turkey and the U.S: Old buddies, new realities.


From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress