Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Talking Turkey: Turkey Stuck in Vise between EU Pressures, Financial and Political Crises at Home

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Talking Turkey: Turkey Stuck in Vise between EU Pressures, Financial and Political Crises at Home

Article excerpt

TALKING TURKEY: Turkey Stuck in Vise Between EU Pressures, Financial and Political Crises at Home

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul.

In recent weeks, the sound of skirmishing between Turkey's military and civilians, and between its pro-EU and anti-EU camps (not necessarily the same), has been getting closer and closer to the country's economic and social frontlines.

With the sound of gunfire still echoing from Interior Minister Sadettin Tantan's sadly misnamed "Operation Return to Life"--a paramilitary police attack on the nation's political prisons in late December, which broke a leftist hunger strike and killed upward of 60 people--the chief of Turkey's leading business body was characteristically blunt.

"We are at the last bend before the edge," said Bulent Eczacibasi.

What the leading industrialist meant was that for months commentators had been saying that Turkey was at an "important turning point," a "crucial junction" or a "decisive fork." But taking the road analogy further, Eczacibasi's automobile of state had passed those junctures, and was heading straight for the abyss--with perhaps one last chance remaining.

Although it seemed a grim picture, after the end-of-year financial crisis, and with the prison violence sparking bomb attacks and shootings across Istanbul, the image managed to sum up a particular feeling of tension among Turkey's movers and shakers.

"Ankara has got itself well and truly stuck in a vise," wrote leading commentator Mehmet Ali Birand in his column in the daily Hurriyet. To escape the financial crisis, control of the economy had been handed over even further to the IMF. The Fund's austerity program would likely be extremely unpopular with the country's workers, but the government would be unable to back out without the financial markets collapsing again.

Similarly, Birand pointed to Cyprus, where EU accession for the island's Greek Cypriot government was progressing swiftly. Unless Ankara managed to reach some agreement on Cyprus, where it alone recognizes the northern Turkish Cypriot government, its own chances of EU membership would be badly damaged. Meanwhile, delays in producing Turkey's National Program, the action plan for bringing the country into line with EU norms, was yet another factor holding up EU accession.

The National Program must specify how Turkey will meet the Copenhagen Criteria, a set of economic, social and political rules for EU states. In Turkey's case, this includes such controversial measures as winding down the military's political role, granting rights to Kurds and other minorities, and dramatically shrinking the size and power of the state.

As if to demonstrate the increasing pressure building up in Birand's vise, a corruption investigation in early January suddenly erupted into a major confrontation between the country's rival power blocs.

"Operation White Energy" seemingly was a straightforward investigation into corruption in energy distribution privatization tendering, in particular over the Konya-Yesilhisar power transmission line project. An investigation by the gendarmerie--Turkey's paramilitary police, who have jurisdiction over non-urban areas--had revealed a number of businessmen and state employees to have fixed the tendering.

All well and good--except that an almighty row then erupted. First of all, Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer claimed that he had ordered the investigation. An unnamed gendarmerie general was then quoted in Hurriyet, however, saying that in fact Ersumer had been quite out of the loop and the operation had been entirely a gendarmerie affair. Immediately, the leader of Ersumer's Motherland Party, the smallest of the three parties in the coalition government, responded by saying that the gendarmerie statement was part of "a systematic campaign against civilian politics" and part of a "coup lovers'" plot. …

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