Eric Rouleau. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 5. November/December 1993.
Turkey, having emerged from a long isolation into a new international conjuncture fraught with opportunities and risks, pulled in various directions by the conflicting aspirations of a diverse population, stands before a number of choices. Rich in natural resources, endowed with a hardworking, disciplined population inured to hardship, a relatively large and well-educated middle class, a competent bureaucracy, and entrepreneurial talent, Turkey would seem to have all the ingredients for a bright future. In the economic sphere, it is showing a willingness to make the painful sacrifices needed to integrate itself into Europe, despite the problems such integration inevitably entails in terms of economic dislocation, social tensions, and cultural backlash. Given all this, it would be tragic if Turkey’s prospects are put at risk by the continuation of a war against the Kurds that can only be disastrous and for which there is no military solution. In the end, however, given Turkey’s regional and international influence and the support of Western powers anxious to preserve its unity and existing borders, there is reason to hope that Turkey will be able to overcome its difficulties and assume the leadership role for which it seems destined.
The Contradictions of Ataturk’s Legacy
Istanbul is an apt metaphor for Turkey: at once multifaceted, diverse, and unitary; Byzantine, Ottoman, Asiatic, and European; modern and traditional; parochial and cosmopolitan; Muslim and Christian, even Jewish. Astride two continents—figuratively and and literally, then, of Asia and Europe—the megapolis bears the marks of a succession of civilizations that are not merely superimposed, but that continue to coexist. The splendid domes of the Byzantine churches, built under the Eastern Roman Empire between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, are set off by the thousand and one graceful minarets of the mosques later built to the glory of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire: the basilica of Sancta Sophia, disguised as a mosque, symbolizes the synthesis. The presence in the city of the Greek patriarchate, the “Vatican” of Orthodox Christendom, testifies to the tolerance that allowed the sultans to reign over a multitude of peoples and races, religions and sects, in an empire that stretched from the Arab east to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from the Balkans to North Africa. The astonishing range of physical types and complexions in Istanbul today is a reflection of that great diversity.
In founding the republic on the ashes of empire following the debacle of World War I, Kemal Ataturk imposed upon these disparate peoples the dogma of the homogeneity of the Turkish nation. He saw the elimination of ethnic and cultural differences as the only way to forge the cohesion needed to create a modern nation state on the European model. Through persuasion, but also by draconian decrees and repressive measures, he succeeded in imposing an identity that sought to be monolithic a culture of Western inspiration.
The vestiges of Kemalist policy are considerable, but atavisms and centuries-old traditions began to resurface soon after Ataturk’s death. They have continued to gather force with the democratization that has been proceeding by fits and starts since the 1950s, and especially since the early 1980s. Taboos are falling one by one. Not so long ago, favorable references to the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire were frowned upon in “politically correct’ circles. Today, Turks speak with pride of their Ottoman heritage even while retaining a certain critical distance. They likewise readily refer to their ethnic origins without in any way diminishing their “Turkishness,” in much the way an American might speak of being “Irish” or “Italian.”
Former President Ozal, who died earlier this year, contributed a great deal to reconciling the Turks with their past and promoting the synthesis between Kemalism and what he considered to be the positive aspects of Ottomanism. He believed that diversity in unity could contribute to strength and stability, just as it had under the empire.
Beyond Kemalist Isolation
Ozal’s convictions were well suited to the geopolitical needs of a new international situation. The fall of the Berlin Wall ended Turkey’s long-standing strategic role in a bipolar world. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent independence of the Central Asian republics opened Turkey’s eyes to a vast territory inhabited by some 150 million fellow Muslim Turkic-speakers on its northern borders. The years of claustrophobia abruptly ended, while the isolationist doctrine Ataturk had imposed to safeguard the vulnerable young republic was now seen as obsolete.
The potential benefits of this ethnic and religious kinship in states often rich in natural resources were not lost on Ankara. Businessmen, entrepreneurs, industrialists, bankers, merchants—preceded or followed by high government officials, politicians, functionaries and experts—flocked to the six “sister” republics to the north. Some hundred protocols and cooperation agreements in diverse areas—banking, industry, agriculture, trade, aeronautics, education, publishing, academic and military training, among others—were concluded. Aspiring to become the cultural Mecca of the Turkic-speaking world, Turkey began flooding the Central Asian republics with journals, books, and television programs beamed via a French-built satellite station.
It was not long, however, before the euphoria began to be tempered by the realities. Turkish publications, in Latin characters, were little accessible to populations who knew only Cyrillic. And even if the Central Asian republics were to adopt the Latin alphabet, as several of them considered doing immediately after their independence, a common language and religion are not sufficient bases for tight cooperation, to say nothing of osmosis, between peoples—as the Arabs discovered some time ago. Moreover, the hoped-for “privileged partnership” could not develop: it soon became clear that links between the Turkey’s financial and technological means were too limited to meet the immense socioeconomic needs of the underdeveloped former Soviet republics, and in any case Turkey would have been no match for rival powers in the scramble for Central Asia’s resources. Increasingly, then, the new republics are turning towards the great industrial powers. Finally, Ankara discovered that the links between the Central Asian republics and Russia, in some cases forged over centuries and at all events reinforced by need and dependency, were far more solid than originally suspected.
The limits of the romance with Central Asia are well exemplified in the latest developments in Azerbaijan, the most favorably disposed toward Turkey of all the republics. It appears that President Geidar Alyev is on the point of joining the Commonwealth of Independent States, thus consolidating Azerbaiian’s relations with Moscow, and will probably scrap the pipeline project that was to carry oil from Kazakhastan and Azerbaiian to the Mediterranean through Turkish territory. The cooling of relations between Baku and Ankara is partly due to Turkish policy in the Caucasus. The Azerbaijanis were dissappointed by the refusal of their “big brother” to help oppose the Armenian army whose military victories led to the fall of President Ebulfez Elcibey, a warm supporter of Turkey. The ostensible reason for this refusal was Ankara’s fidelity to the Kemalist credo of nonintervention in conflicts beyond its borders formulated in the National Pact of 1920. This same principle contributed to Turkey’s decision not to participate directly in the Persian GulfWar and, more recently, not to support the Bosnian Muslims militarily against their Serbian and Croatian enemies.
In fact, diplomatic pressures from Russia and certain Western powers may not have been foreign to Turkey’s standing apart from the Azerbaijani and Bosnian conflicts. In the case of the GulfWar, Turkey’s allowing the coalition forces to attack Iraq from Turkish territory was already at odds with Ataturk’s precepts; to a lesser extent, so is Ankara’s “active solidarity” with Turkic-speaking or Muslim populations beyond its borders. It is thus that the Kemalist doctrine has already been adapted to the new situation, even though the Ankara government continues to honor the tradition by strongly condemning all forms of expansionism, including pan-Turanism and pan-Islamism.
Despite its extreme caution, the diplomacy of Ankara has shown a remarkable dynamism. It is true that the international context has never since the birth of the republic been as favorable to Turkey as it is today. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the destruction of Iraq’s military and economic potential, the exhaustion of Iran through eight years of war, all contributed to raising Turkey to the level of the preeminent regional power. Ankara wasted no time building on this new situation, launching various initiatives aimed at extending its sphere of influence. It was the prime mover behind the creation of an Association of Black Sea Countries, a free trade zone now being set up whose economic function may well mask political ambitions. The association, which comprises Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldavia, Greece, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in addition to Turkey, should lead, among other things, to the lowering of trade barriers, the free circulation of capital, and the creation of a common parliamentary assembly whose essential task would be to harmonize legislations of the member states. In parallel fashion Ankara has directed what could be called a charm offensive at the Balkan states, concluding a number of cooperation agreements, particularly in the military field, with Albania, Romania and Bulgaria; predictably enough, these moves have heightened Greek worries about being “besieged” by Turkey and its new allies. Finally, it was under Ankara’s sponsorship that the six Muslim republics of Central Asia were admitted to the Economic Cooperation Organization along with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.
Overcoming Arab Suspicions
Ankara also hopes to play a guiding role in the Middle East. Its determining support during the gulf crisis earned it the gratitude—sometimes expressed in concrete form—of a number of Arab states, especially in the gulf. Thus, despite considerable economic interests in Iraq, Turkey did not hesitate to enforce the U.N. embargo (thereby having to sacrifice, among other things, its royalties from the transport of Iraqi oil), placed the air base of Incerlik at the disposal of the coalition forces and, finally, came to the aid of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the horrors of Iraq.
Turkey’s full participation in the Israeli-Arab multilateral negotiations has confirmed its status as a regional power and assured it a significant role in the new era now dawning in the Middle East. Turkey has some valuable trump cards in this regard. As the first Muslim country to recognize Israel at the time of its creation in 1948, it has maintained excellent relations with the Jewish state ever since. It was also the first non-Arab Muslim country to support the Palestine Liberation Organization’s proclamation of the State of Palestine in 1988. Of particular importance in the regional context are its abundant water resources which, while creating tensions with Syria and Iraq because of its control of the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, will enable it to play a positive role in attenuating a major area of dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
A number of other factors should make Turkey an attractive model for the Arab world. As a Muslim power with a moderate secular system, it offers a credible alternative to the fundamentalism that ravages the region and constitutes as well a counterweight to Khomeinist Iran. Its successful adaptation to the market economy and its evolution toward democracy could serve as an example for a number of Arab states that fear democracy’s possibly destabilizing effects and that have resisted adapting to the modern world.
Nonetheless, an important obstacle stands in the way of Turkey’s full integration into the Middle East and, as a result, could deprive it of the role it deserves. Seventy years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a mutual suspicion—largely unfounded—persists. The former rulers have not forgotten what they saw as the Arab “betrayal” of rallying to the British during World War I to gain their independence. The former subject peoples have not forgotten the centuries of Ottoman rule and the harsh repression that followed the emergence of their national movements, and some Arabs suspect Ankara of harboring “Ottoman ambitions.” Psychological barriers being more difficult to overcome than material disputes, Turkish-Arab relations are unlikely to grow significantly in the near future.
Wanting a Leg Up from a Toehold
But even when Turkish enthusiasm over prospects in Central Asia and the Middle East was at its height, Ankara never deviated from its long-standing and deep conviction that Turkey’s future lies with Europe. While analysts were still overestimating regional potential, the authorities steadfastly maintained that there was no substitute for the European Community, and that Turkey’s integration would be accelerated the day Europeans understood that Turkey alone could serve as a bridge, or even a buffer, between East and West. Turkey’s determination to become an integral part of Europe is the fruit of a national consensus that could seem strange in a Muslim country with nothing more than a geographical toehold in Europe. In fact, this aspiration is not recent. The Ottoman Empire was itself a European power by virtue of vast possessions in the continent, and as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, the reformist sultans sought to modernize the empire by adopting the structures, behaviors and customs of its more developed Western neighbors (and especially, paradoxically, of Republican France). The Young Turk Revolution at the beginning of this century, and especially Ataturk’s revolution to decades later transformed what had been an orientation into a deliberate policy, if not a dogma: Turkey’s rebirth, modernization and democratization could be achieved only through full integration in the advanced industrial world, Western and more precisely European.
The heirs of Ataturk have neglected nothing to achieve this objective. With conviction and determination, they brought Turkey into NATO, the European Economic Community (as an associate member), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Council of Europe, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Western European Union (likewise as an associate). Turkey also adhered to a whole range of European conventions. Two thirds of Turkey’s exports go to the OECD countries, half to members of the European Community alone. Investment capital, technoogy transfers, remittances from millions of “guest workers,” and equally considerable tourism revenues all flow from Europe. In the light of all this, it is hardly surprising that Turkey places such importance on becoming a full member of the EC.
The 1989 decision of the Commission of Brussels to adjourn sine die the review of Turkey’s membership application unleashed such an explosion of indignation that it took many observers by surprise. The EC ambassadors in Ankara were overwhelmed by the unrling of protests, bitter reproaches and accusations of racist discrimination and anti-Muslim prejudices directed at them by government representatives, political parties and the media alike. It was at this juncture, to boot, that certain American high officials deemed it appropriate to “deplore” the ostracism directed against “a faith and loyal ally of the West” and to offer its good offices to persuade the Community to revoke its decision, adding to the difficulty of making any kind of rational explanation of the Brussels decision. However understandable the Turkish anger, the fact remains that Turkey was far from fulfilling the strict admission requirements for this very select club of affluent, democratic states.
Ozal’s Unfinished Business
It is true that Turkey success in moving from a statist, centrally guided, autarkic economic system to a market economy in less than 15 years is nothing short of spectacular—and this thanks to Turgut Ozal, designated in a recent poll as the best prime minister the country has ever known. With a rare combination of firmness and flexibility, this former World Bank expert was able to loosen the grip of Kemalist dogmas, entrenched habits and bureaucratic mentalities in order to bring Turkey into the modern world. Under his impetus, the Turkish economy experienced a remarkable expansion. Since 1981, and except for 1991 (the year of the Gulf War), its annual growth rate has oscillated between six and eight percent, the highest rate for any member of the OECD, including Japan.
Manufacturing witnessed such a boom that the value of industrial exports quadrupled, and they now constitute 80 percent of total exports, compared to only 35 percent ten years ago. Agricultural production, which has always satisfied domestic consumption, is likewise undergoing a strong expansion, and once the 22 dams currently under construction in the southeast (the GAP project) are completed, opening an additional 1.5 million hectares to cultivation, Turkey will have a substantial agricultural surplus in need of markets. Other infrastructure is being developed: electricity production has increased by 150 percent over the past ten years, while the road network and the telecommunications system are superior to those in Eastern and Central Europe. Capital market infrastructures are also being developed and the Turkish currency, the lira, freed of exchange controls, is virtually convertible.
Nonetheless, these positive developments cannot mask the structural weaknesses and the disequilibriums of the Turkish economy, which are incompatible with EC norms. The chronic and constantly rising budget deficit is over 14 percent of the GDP, while the auuthorized ceiling in the EC is 3 percent. The national debt of $60 billion—which makes Turkey the eighth largest debtor nation in the world—also contributes to a persistent inflation that this year will hit 70 percent—ten times the average rate in the EC countries.
The prohibitively high cost of credit—80 to 100 percent a year—as well as the intrinsic weakness of the national investment capital, among other factors, limits productive investments, which are proportionally three times lower than the average in the Community (13 percent of GDP against 44.6 percent). Such conditions raise the question of whether job creation will be able to keep pace with a population growth expected to rise from its current level of 56 million to 90 million over the next 30 years. Chronic unemployment, the loss of purchasing power of wage earners and the erosion of the currency have already led some five million Turks to seek employment in Europe before Europe itself was struck full force by recession. Given the current unemployment situation in the EC countries, Turkey’s admission to the organization, which would involve the lifting of all restrictions on population movement, would result in an intolerable situation for the European member states.
Ankara is by now fully aware that the Community is not in a position to assume the burden of an economy in the throes of restructuring, especially at a time when the Maastricht Treaty is confronting it with new and formidable problems. Nor could Turkey itself bear the obligations arising from the creation of a single currency, which its membership would entail. It was thus that, by mutual agreement, it was decided to proceed by stages: Turkey has agreed to integrate itself fully in the customs union before January 1995. This first operation will be painful, because the reduction of anticipated customs duties on some 18,000 products imported from Europe will force domestic industries to carry out far-reaching and risky changes.
In addition to these economic deficiencies, Turkey has a number of political problems that, left unsolved, stand in the way of its EC admission. The first of these is democratization, which will have to be completed before Turkey can join. Here, too, it should be noted that Turkey has achieved significant and rapid progress despite three military coups d’etat since 1960. The multiparty system and an elected parliament both operate quite satisfactorily and many of the public freedoms, particularly of the press, are to a great extent respected. Newspapers can—and do—write libelously of the prime minister and president in the secure knowledge that at worst they will have to pay fines or damages. This does not change the fact that certain aftereffects of the military regime that ruled from 1980 to 1983 have not been eliminated. The constitution and a number of laws and regulations significantly curtail other basic rights, or are worded in such a way as to enable the courts and the security services to interpret them in an abusive manner.
Democracy and the Islamic Genie
An additional political problem seen as vital for the stability of the Turkish republic and of particuar concern to the Europeans, is Islamic revivalism. Westerners are often misled by erroneous comparisons with Khomeinist Iran, confusing Islam with fundamentalism and failing to distinguish between a practicing Muslim and a partisan of an Islamic state governed by the sharia. It is true that Islamic-style beards and veiled women have proliferated in Turkey, that mosques are drawing ever larger crowds, and that some bookstores are overflowing with books and journals, cassettes, compact disks and videos glorifying Islamic history, precepts and way of life and exalting the Ottoman Empire’s role in preserving the values of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the Turkish Daily News, a respected English-language newspaper, at the beginning of this year Turkey had no fewer than 290 publishing houses and printing presses, 300 publications including four dailies, some hundred unlicensed radio stations and about 30 likewise unlicensed television channels, all propagating Islamic ideology.
Most Turks do not see this phenomenon as cause for alarm. After all, they say, what could be more natural in a world shaken by sudden and far-reaching change than for people to turn toward religion or seek to affirm an identity confused by a fast-paced Westernization imposed from above? And how different is the Islamic revival that has followed the erosion of secular Kemalist doctrines from the resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russia following the collapse of communism?
Kemalist secularists, on the other hand—and they are legion among the Westernized, well-off classes—tend to see in every practicing Muslim a potential Islamist. They are concerned about the lack of vigilance on the part of the authorities and shocked by certain indulgent measures that would have been unheard of under Ataturk, such as setting aside rooms in public offices and government buildings for prayers, allowing girls to wear Islamic head coverings to public schools, and so on. Many of these practices, it is true, either existed under the Ottoman Empire or could well have been approved by its rulers, but this does not make them less shocking for those weaned on Kemalist doctrine. The great Muslim tarikas, banned and persecuted during the reign of Ataturk, are now operating with impunity even though they are still technically illegal. The influence of these secret societies, with their Masonic-type rituals and solidarity and their social welfare activities, reaches to the heart of the ost tensibly secular political parties, which seek their electoral support.
For better or worse, democracy has brought Islam out of the closet in which it had been barricaded during the era of one-party rule that, in practice, prevailed under Atatrk. In their eagerness to curry favor with the public and gain votes, politlclans—and even the military, the very bastion and guardian of secularism—had to take into account the religious aspirations of the population: not a few of the concessions they granted smacked of demagoguery. Thus, along with the public schools, the state has been financing Islamic-oriented schools, the so-called imam hatip schools, where tens of thousand of young people, many of whom will certainly enter government service, are imbued with the precepts of the Prophet. Mosques are being built with government funds, and Kemalist critics complain that the government is building more mosques than public schools. Under the current constitution, promulgated by the military government, the teaching of religion (i.e., Islam) is compulsory in all schools “to cement national unity,” in the words of General Kenan Evren, head of the military coup d’etat of 1980.
In practice, the principle of secularism, or the separation of church and state, has been replaced by a system that places Islam under the control of a secular government—a compromise between Kemalism and Ottomanism. Indeed, the Office of Religious Afairs, whose budget is larger than that of some ministries, ls ln charge of everything having to do with Islam, from religious schools to mosques. The imams, who are paid by the state, often receive instructions on what to say or not to say in their sermons. In the short term, at least, the realistic approach of these “neo-Ottomans”—one of whose champions was Turgut Ozal—has paid off. Secularism, at least in its essentials, has resisted the wave of Islamism that has engulfed the region. The Turkish republic continues to be governed according to various secular laws, notably French and Swiss, that Ataturk adopted to replace the sharia of the imperial era. Alcohol still flows freely in public establishments and young girls in miniskirts or jeans, moving about unhindered, still clearly outnumber veiled women in the cities; magazines plastered with nudes are sold on the streets in full view of indifferent passers-by, and pornographic movie houses advertise their fare with suggestive photos more appropriate to Amsterdam or New York.
Since the constitution outlaws parties based on religion, the Islamists are concentrated in the Prosperity Party. They carry on their activities and propagate their cause without interference and enjoy a respectable representation in parliament. In all legislative elections since the 1950s, the Islamist parties have generally received an average of ten percent—never more than 15 percent—of the vote, although they are on the rise in local elections, especially in Istanbul. Still, those who fear the “Islamic threat” in Turkey would do well to consider that these percentages are equivalent to the electoral showings of France’s extreme rightist National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen.
As for the Islamists’ future prospects, much depends on the ability of the government and the secular parties to cope with the grave problems Turkey could face. In Algeria and Iran, for example, it was the powerlessness of the secular forces in the face of the challenges posed by their respective national crises that enabled the Islamists to present a credible alternative to those in power.
Kurds: Slow-Motion Catastrophe?
The national crisis facing Turkey today, and on which it risks running aground, is beyond question the Kurdish crisis. The problem—to use an understatement—is all the more difficult to resolve in that the Kurds officially do not exist. The Turkish system, like the French nation-state concept on which it is modeled, does not recognize the legal existence of indigenous minorities, whether ethnic or religious. Citizenship is based on the individual rather than on ethnic or religious identity: Kemalist doctrine posits that nationhood and citizenship are one. It is thus that there is no distinction between Turks and Kurds in government records or statistics, which means no one knows the exact size or geographic distribution of the Kurdish population. Nonetheless, from various estimates it would appear that Turkey has about 10 million Kurds, or about 17 percent of the population. Anywhere between one half and two thirds of these live outside the southeastern provinces, or Turkish “Kurdistan.”
Whatever the uncertainties in terms of demographics, there is no doubt that the Kurdish problem increasingly dominates domestic politics. It undermines the credibility and stability of the government. It poisons the traditionally harmonious relations between Turkey’s two main ethnic groups, and in the long run could even threaten the country’s cohesion. Indeed, the growth of the PKK separatist movement during the last few years has been such that fears of civil war of the Yugoslav type can no longer be considered farfetched.
Nine years ago, when the PKK launched its guerrilla warfare, it totaled a mere 200 fighters and enjoyed little support among the Kurdish population. Today, according to a confidential report prepared for the president and cited by the Turkish Daily News, some 10,000 to 15,000 PKK guerrillas, battle-hardened and well armed, are entrenched in mountain strongholds; when one adds the militia, working underground against government security forces in the cities, the PKK fighting force reaches as high as 60,000. In total, according to the report, the organization numbers about 375,000 fighters, sympathizers, and active supporters in the southeastern provinces alone, or about one-fifth of the adult population there. Nor is the organization’s support limited to the southeast, as can be seen in the increasing number of bomb attacks and other incidents in the cities of the south and west.
The surge witnessed by the PKK cannot be explained either by its Marxist-Leninist ideology, which is alien to the local mentality, or by its ultimate goal of establishing an independent state—a goal the majority of the Kurdish population does not share. Assimilated, integrated, rarely subject to any kind of discrimination, and living for the most part in western Turkey and in large cities, especially Istanbul, they would not wish to abandon their homes and jobs to settle in a hypothetical state that would be surrounded on all sides by hostile countries. Indeed, the governments of Ankara, Tehran and Damascus, despite their conflicting interests in other domains, have already held several meetings on the Kurdish issue and have agreed to oppose “through any means” all secessionist attempts by the Iraqi Kurds. In other words, the three governments would be ready to come to the aid of their erstwhile arch-enemy Saddam Hussein in order to “preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq”—and, needless to say, of their own states.
What are the aspirations of the Kurds of Turkey? Most observers agree that even those who claim the right to independence would settle for what would be considered normal democratic rights in the West—the rights to a specific identity, to schooling in their own language as well as in Turkish, to broadcast and publish in Kurdish, to organize their own cultural activities, and—why not?—to form political parties dedicated to defending their moral and material interests.
There are indications that former President Ozal did not consider such demands as necessarily contrary to the interests of national unity. He even hinted at the possibility of a far-reaching decentralization, albeit short of full autonomy, aimed at satisfying Kurdish aspirations. Ozal, referred to as “the Sultan” as much for his Ottomanist attitudes as for what critics considered a certain high-handedness, apparently believed that decentralization measures would be necessary to preserve the unity of the Turkish republic—just as the Ottomans had preserved their empire for centuries by allowing its constituent ethnic and religious groups a large measure of cultural and administrative autonomy. But Ozal had to tread carefully so as not to antagonize Kemalist and indeed nationalist sensibilities, and he died before being able to change the minds and policies of his fellow politicians.
It is true that the actions of the Turkish authorities against the Kurdish separatists are at least partly motivated by deep fears of dismemberment, an obsession dating to allied attempts following World War I to carve up even the Anatolian remains of the Ottoman Empire, leaving for “Turkey” a mere province around Ankara. But it also true that government policy is contributing to the growth of Kurdish separatism more than any other factor—more than the impact of Kurdish autonomy in the no-fly zone across the Iraqi border, more than the upsurge in ethnic identity that seems to be sweeping much of the world.
There are many in the Turkish intelligentsia and the press who decry what they see as the short-sightedness not to say the folly of the policy pursued by Ozal’s successors. Indeed, for the present government, the problem is not one of Kurds but of “terrorists;” It is not a question of real grievances but of false problems stirred up by foreign powers—by Syria, Iran, Iraq, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, and so on. And while the PKK has without doubt committed atrocities, which have been widely and repeatedly condemned by Western powers, governments must be held to higher standards than outlaws.
The government’s handling of the problem is now essentially reduced to mobilizing a significant part of the Turkish armed forces, supported by units of the gendarmerie and the anti-guerrilla “special forces,” against the PKK fighters and their suspected civilian accomplices. The Turkish press reports military operations on a grand scale involving infantry, mechanized units, heavy artillery, tanks, helicopters and even fighter planes. Hundreds of hamlets and villages are reportedly evacuated and often razed to the ground, their houses and all their furnishings burned down in full view of terrorized inhabitants suspected of supporting the PKK. The harvest of such operations was summed up by a Turkish army officer quoted in the Turkis Daily News: “Half the men then go up to join the PKK. The other half move to the cities where they become the militia.” In the war against the PKK, there are also allegations of summary executions of captured “terrorists.” Scores of assassinations have been carried out: 14 journalists, numerous notables suspected of PKK sympathies and a member of parliament are among those who have been gunned down. Most of these crimes have been claimed by shadowy groups of unknown backing; none has been solved; no arrests have been made.
In nine years of fighting, the number of deaths in the two camps reaches some 10,000, according to a semi-official estimate—more than 22,000 according to figures published by the PKK last August. That was a month after Prime Minister Tansu Ciller announced that “victory is within reach”—an announcement repeated in virtually identical terms on countless occasions by her predecessors. The prime minister went on to elaborate that the war between the “elephant” (the Turkish forces) and the “fly” (the PKK) would soon be over, remark that prompted the editor of the Turkish Daily News, Ilnur Cevik, to write: “Our elephant, while trying to crush the fly, seems to be missing the insect and in the process is destroying everything it steps on.” Cevik concluded his editorial with the assertion that the government’s ill-conceived policy greatly contributes to the growing popularity of the PKK and is leading the country to catastrophe.
Risking a Bright Future
Turkey, having emerged from a long isolation into a new international conjuncture fraught with opportunities and risks, pulled in various directions by the conflicting aspirations of a diverse population, stands before a number of choices. Rich in natural resources, endowed with a hardworking, disciplined population inured to hardship, a relatively large and well-educated middle class, a competent bureaucracy, and entrepreneurial talent, Turkey would seem to have all the ingredients for a bright future.
In the economic sphere, it is showing willingness to make the painful sacrifices needed to integrate itself into Europe, despite the problems such integration inevitably entails in terms of economic dislocation, social tensions and cultural backlash (one form of which is Islamic revivalism). In the international conjuncture, the pie-in-the-sky hopes initially inspired by the opening to Central Asia and the Middle East appear to have given way to more sober assessments a and a determination to move forward with a more solid, rational approach.
Given all this, it would be tragic if Turkey’s prospects are put at risk by the continuation of a war against the Kurds that can only be disastrous and for which there is no military solution; similar situations in other parts of the world have amply shown that only a negotiated political solution in a democratic environment can lead to reconciliation and national cohesion. The war in the southeast risks in the long run undermining an economy that is basically sound, discrediting the conventional political parties that are responsible for the situation, and playing into the hands of the Islamists or—perhaps the greater danger—reversing the progress toward democracy.
Such bleak prospects may well be exaggerated. As an old nation Turkey has that capacity for adaptation conferred by great civilizations. Given its regional and international influence and the support of Western powers anxious to preserve its unity and existing borders, there is reason to hope that Turkey will be able to overcome its difficulties and assume the leadership role for which it seems destined.