Culture, politics hampering Turkey EU bid

ANKARA, TURKEY — ANKARA, TURKEY -- They're calling it a train crash here, the seemingly inevitable collision between this huge Muslim nation and the Europe it has courted for years.

Those gauging Turkey's once promising program of reforms aimed at modernizing its democracy and joining the European Union see a troubled landscape: Turkish writers, journalists and even a 93-year-old academic are hauled into court on charges they insulted their country. Military commanders known for staging coups in the past make veiled threats.


Anti-Western nationalism is on the rise, conservative Islam is spreading and public opinion in favor of joining the EU has plummeted to an all-time low.

At the same time, many in Europe have soured on the prospect of welcoming a poor, officially Muslim country of 70 million people to the 25-member European club.


Tomorrow, the EU will issue its annual progress report. It is expected to sharply criticize Turkey as failing to sufficiently improve human rights, freedom of speech, cultural rights for minority Kurds and civilian control over the military, according to portions that have been leaked to the media.

It now seems likely that Turkey's EU bid will be put on hold - not formally suspended but frozen for possibly as long as a year. The danger, diplomats say, is the difficulty in reviving a complex membership drive after such a long hiatus.

The consequences are potentially dire for Washington and the West, not to mention Ankara. A breakdown could further strain relations between the West and the Muslim world, ending for now Turkey's perceived role as bridge between the two civilizations. It was precisely that status that once made a partnership with Turkey so appealing to Western nations.

"We will have turbulence here in Turkey, undoubtedly, but the EU will not go away unscathed," said Soli Ozel, a specialist in international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

After an exhilarating start, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slowed the pace of reform, in part because of presidential and parliamentary elections next year. Aides say he is reluctant to further provoke secular nationalists, who are at once suspicious of his Islamic leanings and fearful that concessions his administration has made to the EU will erode Turkey's sovereignty.

The EU is most sharply critical of Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, a provision enacted last year and used by a group of ultranationalist lawyers to open court cases against dozens of writers and academics deemed to have "denigrated" Turkish national identity or the state. Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was among those targeted.

Erdogan on Sunday invited a group of activists to his office and said he would consider revisions in Article 301, which he acknowledged is vague. But diplomats and senior Turkish officials said Erdogan is in fact virtually crippled by his fear of losing political ground to closed-minded nationalists who see the prosecutions as a way to protect Turkish pride and contain dissent.

"If this matter had been left up to this Islamist but reformist government, they never would have enacted Article 301 to begin with," said Baskin Oran, a political scientist on trial for a report he wrote on the plight of religious minorities in Turkey. "But the government is very much afraid."


The nationalists, thousands of whom marched on the streets of Ankara this past weekend, also complain of Erdogan's tilt to Islam.

Erdogan has advocated permitting women to wear head scarves in universities and government offices, a lightning rod issue for many secular Turks; enhanced the status of Islamic schools; and placed Islamic colleagues in key civil service posts and within his inner circle of advisers. Some municipalities where his party holds office have attempted to ban the sale of alcohol.

But the prime minister also has vowed to defend Turkey's secular tradition, and his supporters say the Islam he promotes is moderate and democratic - precisely the version of the faith that many in Europe say they want to see more of.

Those who suspect that Erdogan has a hidden agenda, however, are worried that he will seek the presidency next May, when President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a fervent secularist, retires. In the likely case that Erdogan's party then retains control of the parliament in elections next November, analysts say, Islamists would hold the major levers of political power and find it easier to push through laws favorable to their goals of spreading Islam in society.

At last month's gala Republic Day reception in the Cankaya Presidential Palace, celebrating the 83rd anniversary of the founding of the Turkish state, those in attendance sipped cocktails, tasted hors d'oeuvres and pondered this very question.

"Will we be here next year?" Turkish Daily News editor Yusuf Kanli recalled the conversations in a column last week. "How many ladies will be here next year with their heads covered? Do you think alcohol will be served next year as well, or will guests be offered lemonade and ayran?" Kanli recounted, referring to a Turkish drink made of yogurt.


Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.