A proud Turkey hesitates at the EU crossroads

The ins and outs of joining Turks are growing angry at the tight conditions
being imposed on their entry into Europe. As support for joining wanes,
Jason Burke reports on the divisions besetting Istanbul

Sunday October 2, 2005
The Observer

Just off the bustling Istiklal Street on a hill above the Golden Horn is a
small art gallery. With its open space and whitewashed walls, it is an
island of peace in a teeming, noisy city. At its centre is what looks like a
straightforward piece of contemporary art - four huge fibreglass horses and
a set of flat-screen video displays.

Yet, in fact, the artwork is more nuanced, revealing more about Turkey's
complex love-hate relationship with the continent to its west and with
modernity than any number of surveys. The horses are replicas of Roman works
looted by Crusaders from Istanbul, then Byzantine Constantinople, 800 years
ago and symbolically brought back to the city by the artist, a Turk.

'I like it very much,' said Shirin Karadeniz, 24, a music student selling
tickets at the gallery door. 'Having the horses back in my city makes me
feel proud. And it's a really cool installation too, just like the ones in
Paris or London.'

Tomorrow, assuming last-minute negotiations overcome all hitches, Turkey
will formally start negotiations to bring its 70 million-plus citizens into
the EU some time between 2015 and 2020.
Yet in Europe and in Turkey there are signs that a backlash might have
started. Polls show that support for EU accession has slumped from 75 per
cent in December last year, when the EU set the date for the start of
negotiations, to just over 60 per cent now, and the opposition is becoming
increasingly vocal. The major reason, say analysts, is the conservative
reaction in many EU nations against Turkish entry which has led to
increasingly tough entry tests and statements that imply, or even explicitly
declare, the 'Christian' roots of Europe and fears of being 'swamped' by
immigrants. This weekend the Austrian government is still insisting that
Turkey should be offered 'privileged partnership' instead of full membership
of the EU.

Such demands are keenly resented in Turkey. 'It's like telling someone you
love them and being asked to go away and come back when you've lost some
weight,' said one analyst. 'It's insulting and humiliating. Eventually you
just lose interest altogether and look elsewhere.'

Though the reforming pro-European Justice and Development party (AKP) of
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a majority in parliament, the
reluctance of many EU members is strengthening a ragtag alliance of
right-wingers, hardline patriots, conservative bureaucrats, military men and
ultra-left-wingers, who see opposition to Europe as a potential platform for
a bid for power.

Their views are emotional, inchoate and rooted in an increasingly
anachronistic vision of Turkey's past and its destiny. However, they are
tapping into a vein of resentment that could derail the accession. A whole
range of issues underpin the reaction, and most of them, according to Halil
Berktay, professor of history at Sabanci University, are beyond Western
politicians with limited understanding of the Turkish national psyche.

Though still limited, anti-European feeling, Berktay said, could easily
spread: 'There is a grave danger of a much broader nationalist backlash, led
by retired soldiers, intellectual poseurs, political opportunists and
journalists who pander to a conservative, quasi-fascistic nationalism.'

Such men are not difficult to find. For Emim Emir, of the Great Union party,
which polled 2 per cent in Turkey's 2002 election, it is the 'Kurdish
question' that is most important. Speaking in his office at the top of a
malodorous apartment block in a working-class suburb of the city, Emir, 44,
said the demand that Turkey end discrimination against the Kurdish minority
of around 15 million people would lead to the disintegration of the country.
'No one can accept this internal interference and meddling. It is our duty
as Turks to resist,' he said.

Many right-wingers like Emir believe the EU wants to see both the Kurds in
the south-east of Turkey and the small Christian Armenian minority
concentrated in the north-east, in effect granted independence. The evidence
for this, they say, is the call by the EU for Turkey to recognise that the
massacres of Armenians in 1915 amounted to 'genocide'. The call, said
Berktay, played directly into the nationalists' hands.

In another low-rise block in another working-class suburb, Kemal Kerincsiz,
chief executive of the Turkish Lawyers' Association, explained why he had
led legal moves to ban a historians' conference on the Armenian killings two
weeks ago. 'Our aim was to stop discussion of claims of a genocide that did
not take place. This is the first battle to stop the partition of Turkey,'
Kerincsiz, 46, said. 'I am acting as a patriot to stop the disintegration of
my nation.'

In the offices of the Turkish Workers' party, portraits of Marx and Mao hang
near those of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. According
to Erkan Onsel, the party secretary, the EU is the 'club of rich,
imperialist' nations while Turkey is one of the 'oppressed'. He said: 'All
we would do in the EU is provide cheap labour for the capitalists. America
wants to redraw our borders and is using the EU to do it. We should be
looking east.'

Fuelling the rhetoric are columnists such as Emin Colaan, who writes in the
mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper. He constantly refers to the
'humiliation' of the Turks by the EU, which he says considers itself a
'Christian club'.

The demands for Turkey to recognise Cyprus are a particular insult. Last
week he claimed, falsely, that Andrew Duff, a British MEP, had called for
the portraits of Ataturk, seen everywhere from schools to teashops, to be
taken down. Duff said he had been the target of thousands of abusive emails,
some threatening violence, after Colaan's article. Despite calls to his
office, Colaan was unavailable for comment.

Little is further from the reactionaries' vision of Turkey than the new
Istanbul Modern. The gallery, built with private finance in a warehouse by
the Bosphorus, has had nearly 350,000 visitors since it opened last
December. Its current exhibition features work by major world artists such
as Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons, its permanent collection
explores the relationship of Western and Turkish modern art and it even
sports a chic, expensive new restaurant where Istanbul's literati gossip
over coffee. The gallery - along with the thriving bars and clubs scene -
has earned Istanbul a cover in Newsweek magazine as 'the coolest city in
Europe'. 'This is a flamboyant, 24-hour city,' said Oya Eczacibasi, 45, the
director.

One of the key backers of the Istanbul Modern was Recep Tayyip Erdogan
himself. 'Without the Prime Minister's personal support, the museum would
not exist,' Eczacibasi said. 'Many of the visitors we've had from the art
world in America or elsewhere can't believe how helpful he has been.'
The visitors had presumed that Erdogan, a devout Muslim who leads a socially
conservative party with a political vision that draws heavily on religious
values, would oppose the museum. Instead, the former street vendor
recognised both the museum's cultural significance and its value in
promoting his nation as a modern state in the West.

Erdogan, who won a landslide victory in 2002, sums up the paradox of
Turkey's situation. It is a secular state with an overwhelmingly Muslim
population. Its Prime Minister leads a moderate 'Islamist' government that
is more reforming, democratising, pro-Western and European than the secular
opposition. He has forced through a series of civil and human rights reforms
which, though still seen as inadequate by many, have been radical.

He has repeatedly rejected force as a means to crush a recent upsurge of
Kurdish separatist violence. Backed by much of Turkey's business community,
Erdogan, who once served a jail sentence for making radical Islamic
statements at a rally, has presided over the implementation of an
International Monetary Fund financial stability programme that, after years
of economic chaos, has helped growth rates rise to 9 per cent. He has also
campaigned against corruption. 'Erdogan's a pious Muslim and a social
conservative but very open to modern ideas,' said Fadi Hakura, a specialist
at Chatham House think-tank in London.

Other analysts say it is easy to over-stress the pace of reforms. Human
rights groups last week criticised the closing of a gay and lesbian group by
one local administration and the minister for women's affairs called
Turkey's record on sexual harassment 'a national shame'. A recent row over a
law against adultery caused controversy. The famous Turkish writer Orhan
Pamuk is facing trial for talking to journalists about the killings of
Armenians. He, like many others contacted by The Observer, was unwilling to
talk for fear of unspecified consequences.

Much depends on Erdogan and the reformists maintaining their strong
following. But it is clear that could easily waver. Fatih is a suburb
overlooking the Bosphorus that is known for its Islamic conservatism. Here,
around two-thirds of women wear headscarves, and the tight T-shirts and
jeans favoured by young women elsewhere in the city are rare.
Eighty-year-old Saphi, sitting in the courtyard of the main mosque, said
that he would oppose the accession because 'a lifetime of experience' had
taught him the Europeans could not be trusted. Religion was not a factor, he
said, 'at least not for us, though it seems to be for the Europeans'.
Another worshipper said that he wanted to be part of Europe but 'not if we
have to go begging'. Yet most agree that Turkey's future lies in closer ties
with the West. In the narrow lanes outside the mosque, Nazim Kalag, 30,
slicing chicken for kebabs, said that the Turks really want to be part of
Europe: 'We want a nice, orderly, prosperous life here. All neat and tidy.
No problems for anyone.'

Turkey, all analysts agree, is 'on the cusp' of enormous changes that could
take it further towards a European-style secular, pluralist modernity or
into something else, possibly based in a more aggressive Islamic identity or
on a retrograde conservative statist radicalism.

'It is a case of what sort of identity can be created and what works,' said
Berktay. 'Turkey is creating an entirely new relationship with the West...
The process is ongoing.'

Is Turkey ready for the EU?

Not yet. Economic growth is strong - around 8 per cent a year - and there
have been major reforms in recent years in politics, economy, law, human and
civil rights. But the largely rural country of 73 million has an average
income of about a third of Western levels. Literacy rates are low, the army
remains powerful and free speech is stifled.

Won't Turkey be a black hole for EU subsidies?

It will not join the EU for a decade at least, by which time it is likely to
be much more prosperous and the EU subsidy system, currently facing reform
following recent enlargement, will be far less generous.

What about the size of Turkey?

Critics say Europe will be swamped with poor Turks. Supporters say Europe,
with its ageing population and low economic growth, needs a massive infusion
of youthful energy and cheap labour. Turkey would be a new market for
Western goods and capital.

Isn't this really about what sort of Europe we want?

Yes. Conservatives in France, Germany and especially Austria have relied on
populist rhetoric, implying that the EU is a wealthy, white Christian club.
Supporters of Turkey's accession say that the membership of a Muslim country
will promote Europe as an example of diversity in an increasingly polarised
world.

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