Energetic, honest and transformed - so why does Turkey need us anyway?

NORMAN STONE, Guest contributors

The Times. UK
October 03, 2005

THREE OF THE greatest engineering projects of modern times are under way in
Turkey. By the Maiden's Tower, on the Bosphorus, a famous old landmark, two
elaborate structures have appeared. They are the surface end of an enormous
underwater enterprise, to link the European and Asian sides of the city by
tunnel. It will widen the traffic bottleneck that so besets Istanbul, and do
much to make it once again one of the great European cities. Already, huge
areas of the old European part of the city are being restored, brought back
to where they were in 1900, when the city was the heart of a Mediterranean
empire.

Then there is the vast Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that brings oil from the Caspian
to the Mediterranean; again a gigantic enterprise, negotiating its way
through poor mountain country, to keep Europe going. It also brings life to
towns such as Kars, in northeastern Turkey, where, with an endless winter,
the inhabitants had to heat themselves with `straw bricks' - combinations of
animal dung and straw, dried out in the open in the summer and then used to
keep the people going in a cold that reaches well below zero. These things -
tezek - were used in Alpine Europe until the Fifties, and then, not. Turkey
is following that path.


The greatest of these engineering enterprises is the GAP, the `southeastern
Anatolian project', by which great dams are to be placed on the biblical
rivers Tigris and Euphrates, flooding an area the size of Belgium and
turning what, for centuries, has been a dirt-poor area back into `the
fertile crescent' that it used to be. If you go to that mainly Kurdish part
of south-east Turkey, you can see the green areas spreading, and towns such
as Urfa, on the Syrian border, growing ever more prosperous.

These projects are the background to the debate about whether Turkey should
be allowed to join the European Union. A stage army of Euro-Lilliputs has
put up objections, humiliating for the Turks in general: too many of them,
too poor, too Muslim, too nasty to their minorities, too likely to migrate
in droves and set up kebab houses all over the place. The country has, of
course, its problems, but the history of the Turks is about getting there in
the end.

It is true that in the 1970s there was a Third World demographic problem;
Turkey added, every year, the population of Denmark to itself. Schools could
not cope, hospitals were swamped, electricity failed for six hours every
day, a smog fell across the cities. But Turkish birthrates have fallen to
replacement-rate (though there are pockets in the east where the old ways go
on).
Nor is the country nearly as poor as legend would have it. Turkish males die
on average at 70, Russian ones at 60. The growth rate is enormous and you
can see the signs all around: the restoration of battered old parts of
Istanbul, or the chains and chains of Central Europe-bound lorries on the
main roads. (Kayseri, the old Caesarea, is now a key industrial town, and so
is Antep, both of them making things that Western Europe no longer makes for
itself.)

If Western Europe opened up the agricultural market as well as the
industrial one, you would see a similar process in the countryside of
Anatolia. At the moment it is a very odd mixture: near-biblical villages,
complete with donkeys and lines of men chewing the cud in teahouses, only a
mile or so from a modern farm with irrigation sprinklers pumping away.

Is there a European country of which the above might, easily within living
memory, have been said? There is. It is Spain, under Franco. Not long ago
the backwardness and cultural difference of Spain were held to be
incompatible with EU membership. Turkey also has a Mediterranean culture,
complete with clientelistic politics, a family sense of sometimes forbidding
strength, and very good hot dinners. Once Spain joined Europe it rapidly
`modernised'. Nor did poor Spanish ` guest workers' migrate in droves. In
fact, as within Spain, the cultural differences within Anatolia are at least
as great as those between Turks and Europeans.

Comparison with Spain brings up another contentious question: minorities.
Spain had a vicious civil war, involving them. The Catalans were ahead of
the rest of the country, in much the same way as Greeks or Armenians were in
old Turkey. Turkey's minorities had more and better schools; in fact the
Turkish language had to be radically reformed in order for the masses to be
at all literate (the old, Arabic-based, script could cater for four `z's and
three vowels, whereas Turkish has one `z' and eight vowels).

The problem in Turkey was complicated during and after the First World War,
when the Western powers used local Greeks and Armenians to try to carve up
Anatolia. Much massacre resulted, with whole regions being `ethnically
cleansed'. In the Thirties roughly half the urban population of Turkey was
made up of refugees and their descendants, and these can hardly be expected
to take kindly to the European Parliament's resolving that one of these
ethnic cleansings, and one only - the Armenian - should be recognised as
`genocide'.

The other minority question concerns the Kurds. They are like the Basques:
mountaineers, in part religious-reactionary, in part bandit-revolutionary,
in part successful migrants, with several different languages, none much
developed. When Kurds move to the cities - two thirds have now done so -
they do not vote for the nationalist parties. They do do so in the
southeast, but that area has not flourished as the rest of the country has
been doing because it is on the Iraqi and Iranian borders.

Problems of `ethnicity' among the north-eastern Kurds are much less than to
the south, where a tradition of tribal rivalry persists, making for a sort
of civil war that the communist PKK exploited. The answer? Very obviously,
an end to the unemployment that these circumstances have created. The
southeastern Anatolian project, the GAP, should matter, though much will
depend on whether the EU allows free movement of the resulting agricultural
produce. That would do more for the Kurds than preaching about minority
rights.

The Europeans should forget their objections to Turkey. The country is much
more of a prize than all the other new Eastern European countries put
together: it has a tradition of hard work and honesty that was never
destroyed by communism. It is a Spain in the making.

The country has been doing so well that you wonder if it really needs to
join Europe at all. At present the motivation for doing so is mixed: an end
to visa queues (the British are gruesome), an escape from the puritanism of
small-town Anatolia, a prospect of waves of foreign investment, a hope that
`Europe' will mean an end to what the secularists see as religious takeover
and what the religious see as a secularist takeover.

But the Europeans arrive with health-and-safety regulations and much else
that could just mean the end of much of what makes Turkey tick: those small
shops and artisans working till all hours, ignoring silly rules in proper
Mediterranean manner and keeping families together in a way that makes for a
very healthy social atmosphere (if a handbag is stolen here, it makes the
television news).

Can Turkey stand the unemployment, bureaucracy and taxation that the EU
really portends? Up to the Turks. But there are those of us who might think
that they can carry out the beneficial changes on their own and who might
even say that, if they really want membership of the EU, they can have ours.

Norman Stone is Professor of History at Koç University, Istanbul