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ANKARA: Tough challenges call for bold action in 2009

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  • ANKARA: Tough challenges call for bold action in 2009

    Today's Zaman, Turkey
    Dec 31 2008

    Tough challenges call for bold action in 2009

    The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has had its share of
    difficult times in government since it first came to power in 2002,
    but it may have to face the most critical tests of its six-year tenure
    in the year that is about to begin.

    Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union, a heartfelt
    commitment for the government until around two years ago, faces a
    major stumbling block over Cyprus and the EU's growing impatience over
    the stalled reform process. The government of Prime Minister Recep
    Tayyip ErdoÄ?an, by far the most reformist government of Turkey
    in the past few decades, has built its reformist agenda mainly on the
    goal of EU membership. It has said several times that Turkey will go
    ahead with reforms even without the objective of EU membership, but
    the marked decrease in the intensity of reforms over the past two
    years is obvious -- even to the remotest observers.

    The EU issued a loud and clear warning in November that it was high
    time to focus again on the stalled reform efforts after two years of
    distraction amid fierce fighting between the AK Party government and
    the secularist state establishment. The EU deadline will expire at the
    end of March, when local elections are due to take place in Turkey. A
    further slackening in reform efforts after the first quarter of the
    year could well mean irreversible damage to the EU membership
    process. A fresh drive for reform does not, as the government now
    appears to believe, mean new packages of measures to help Turkish law
    adjust to European norms, mostly in technical fields.

    Turkey's friends in the EU, a number which is shrinking by the day,
    expect Ankara to restore its supporters' confidence by taking
    undisputedly bold and radical steps in the political field and a
    credible shift in the government's increasingly pro-status quo
    rhetoric, rather than cosmetic changes in technical and bureaucratic

    2009 may be a make-or-break year with the EU for another reason as
    well: Cyprus. In a solid warning, the EU suspended accession talks
    with Turkey over eight chapters due to Turkey's refusal to open its
    ports and airports to traffic from Greek Cyprus, and said it would
    review the situation once again in 2009. The government is calm,
    saying it did not expect any major hurdles over Cyprus, but Turkey's
    opponents within the EU -- perhaps the biggest group within the
    27-nation bloc -- are likely to seize the opportunity and press for a
    halt if Turkey continues to keep its ports and airports closed to
    traffic from EU-member Greek Cyprus despite pressure from Brussels to
    open them.

    One growing concern is that no matter how strongly it rejects the
    idea, the Turkish government may be steering Turkey towards a
    `privileged partnership,' that opponents to Turkey's EU membership in
    the EU are promoting. The concern is based on the fact that the
    government is increasingly shying away from democratic reforms at home
    that the EU says are at the heart of the membership bid of any
    country, while boosting Turkey's appeal for the EU as a foreign policy
    partner by undertaking successful efforts to expand its influence in
    the troubled Middle East and Caucasus.

    President Abdullah Gül's courageous visit to Yerevan to watch a
    football game between the national teams of the two countries in
    September was obviously a step that proved Turkey's readiness to
    undertake bold initiatives for peace, but 2009 will be a period when
    this manifest readiness will be put to the test. Failure will not only
    mean a collapse in the rapprochement with Armenia but also may have
    serious repercussions its relations with the United States, which has
    just elected a Democratic administration that has openly committed
    itself to recognizing the Armenian `genocide.'

    Threshold in Kurdish issue

    Another litmus test where inaction could spell danger is the Kurdish
    problem, both at home and in regard to the newly instigated period of
    dialogue with Iraqi Kurds. Prime Minister ErdoÄ?an has upped the
    ante in a fierce competition with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society
    Party (DTP) for Kurdish votes in southeastern Anatolia with a visit to
    the region in autumn that was widely protested in violent
    demonstrations by DTP supporters. He poured petrol onto the fire when
    he said those who do not accept that this is a `one-nation, one-flag
    country' should leave and he defended `a citizen's right to
    self-defense' in the face of violent demonstrations by DTP supporters
    in the Southeast and elsewhere in Turkey.

    The run up to the local elections in March will truly demonstrate if
    ErdoÄ?an will stick to his fiery rhetoric in bid to marginalize
    the DTP or soften his line in search for a tension-free election.
    Analysts say ErdoÄ?an may wish to pressure the DTP, hoping that
    it will become a small party supported by a marginal radical group
    with just a few percent of the vote, as his government has initiated
    dialogue with Iraqi Kurds who run the northern Iraqi administration in
    an effort to fight the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Many,
    including a top state prosecutor seeking the DTP's closure, believe
    that the PKK has links with the DTP. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud
    Barzani is believed to enjoy widespread sympathy among Turkey's Kurds
    and the DTP may well be alienated if Barzani starts acting in concert
    with Turkey, ErdoÄ?an's advisors believe. Others are worried
    that ErdoÄ?an's furious rhetoric against the DTP will alienate
    not only DTP supporters but also the wider Kurdish community in

    As tension has escalated with the DTP on the one hand, the government
    is trying to win Kurdish support by pledging economic development and
    launching Turkey's first state television station broadcasting in
    Kurdish as of Jan. 1, 2009. The election results will be a major
    indication of whether the government's `attack-the-DTP-woo-the-Kurds'
    strategy will bring it Kurdish votes.

    The government will also have to decide what to do with growing calls
    from Iraqi Kurds for an amnesty for PKK members as a way to eliminate
    the PKK threat. ErdoÄ?an and other officials have declined to
    openly dismiss a prospect of an amnesty amid reports that Turkey and
    the Iraqi Kurds are working on a plan to get rid of the PKK, which may
    also include an amnesty. But any amnesty is certain to be an unpopular
    move in a country where tens of thousands of people have died as a
    result of PKK terrorism and will be met with fierce resistance from
    the nationalist opposition.

    Fears of populism

    2008 drew to a close amid an economic downturn in global markets that
    has also begun to take its toll on Turkish businesses. The fact that
    the March elections are looming on the horizon leaves the government
    with yet another difficult decision on whether to stick to fiscal
    discipline in order to protect the national economy from the adverse
    impacts of the global crisis or to increase spending ahead of the
    polls particularly in the Southeast to win big against the DTP.

    The government will have to make some tough decisions in domestic and
    foreign policy amid a global financial crisis that will force Turkey
    to tighten its belt and come to terms with a growth rate that will be
    far below the average for the past few years. Increased spending could
    mean sweeteners for a population that is most likely to continue
    facing crises and traumatic shifts in the year to come, but failure to
    manage the economic crisis could be simply devastating.

    31 December 2008, Wednesday