As my old Turkish teacher would say on entering the classroom, “Time to talk Turkey.” The resounding victory last Sunday by the AK Party in Turkey´s general assembly elections will no doubt have all the media “talking Turkey,” particularly the eternal question of accession to the European Union.
Fascinating man, my Turkish teacher. His name was Suad Demiray which he joking interpreted to mean, “Half-bright.” In fact Demiray meant “Iron Moon.” He was a Turk with vivid blue eyes born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, the country´s second largest city whose main tourist sights are the magnificent Crusader castle that lies in the heart of the old city and a once glamorous hotel that legend says T.E. Lawrence famously rode his horse into the lobby to demand a room .
I like Turkey and its people. In fact my older daughter was born in Ankara and to this day raises the eyebrows of immigration officials of all lands when they see Turkey as her place of birth in her passport. The Turks offered her Turkish citizenship when she was born but we said it was not necessary. In a bit of poetic justice she has accomplished the dream of all Ottoman rulers, to live in Vienna, Austria.
The question of Turkey entering the EU goes to the heart of the Turkish persona. I describe Turks as not being hesitant to say, “I am a Turk,” with obvious pride and self confidence. However, he does not really know what a Turk is. I refer here to the question, “Is a Turk from the East or the West?” The city of Istanbul is a perfect metaphor for the constant struggle in the Turkish mind, one foot in Asia and one foot in Europe.
And why shouldn´t Turkey be in the EU? The Ottoman Empire ruled all of Europe east of Vienna and south of Warsaw, an area that included at least six present members of the EU, and the next one to join. However, I see three barriers to Turkish entry into the EU, which would be a clear signal that it is of the “West.”
First would be the role given the military by the country´s constitution. In it the military is the ultimate arbitrator of Turkey with the ability to step in and takeover the government whenever it believes it needs to do so. This is one of the legacies left by Mustafa Kamal (”Ataturk”) who, coming from a military background, felt that the orderly military would be a better manager of state affairs than an elected government in a crisis. The present regime that has been in power since 2002 wants to adopt a new constitution that would, ala the American model, make the military subservient to civilian authority. And while the ruling party did not get the two-thirds majority it required to rewrite the constitution on its own, it could do so with the support of any of the opposition parties.
The rewriting of the constitution to diminish the role of the military is no small goal. Before taking up my post at our embassy in Ankara in 1978 I had a briefing on the country by the Turkish experts at the Department of State. I admitted to them that I had no more knowledge of the country than what my father had told me about Ataturk, who he greatly admired, and that gained from crossing the country by railway on a visit. But I did say I knew that the country had experienced two military takeovers of the government and asked what were the chances that it would occur again. I was assured that Turkey was different by then and that there would be no more military coups. Just after I left Turkey in 1980 the military seized control of the government for the third time. So rewriting the constitution to downgrade the military´s role will not be easy.
Second obstacle. When I ran the PR firm Hill and Knowlton´s operation in Ankara from 1990 to 1991, I made a concerted effort to get the PR contract to massage Turkey´s entry into the EU. Through my connection with the then Minister of Information, who was an old friend from my embassy days, and my still good contacts in the Foreign Ministry, I was given a special opportunity to resubmit a bid to get the contract that had been awarded to another firm. The Turks were not happy with the work being done so said they would give me a chance.
Unfortunately, Hill and Knowlton in Germany, who had lost out in the original bidding, would not provide me with the required info and previous bid I needed to redo the offer. This was a real shame since I honestly believed we could have promoted Turkey into the EU then. This is not the case now. Post September 11 and similar terrorist attacks in Europe the Europeans look with thinly disguised hostility toward admitting a country of 74 million Muslims into their club.
Third obstacle. As I always say, the main problem with Turkey is that the, “the Kurds are still in the way,” although most miss the joke. Until Turkey adjusts its policies to really acknowledge the rights of minorities, such as the Kurds and religions other than Islam, it is still against the law there to introduce new religions and spread those already there other than Islam, EU members will have a ready block to throw in front of Turkey´s entry. And the fact that the ruling party is regarded as a “religious” party, does not bode well for changing this situation.
So Turkey is still left with one foot in Europe and one in Asia. But the foot in Asia seems to be on more fertile ground.