Semih İdiz

The Obama victory raises fresh hopes for the world

23 Ocak 2009
The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the president of the most powerful country in the world has injected a sense of new hope around the globe. The belief is that the United States, with all its might, has proved that it is capable of wreaking great international havoc when its high military capabilities combine with the low administrative capacities of its leaders. The hope now is that the same strength of this country, when applied properly and under competent leadership, will "wreak a lot of good." A sentiment around the globe is that a bad dream has come to an end and we are on the threshold of what will hopefully be a new and much more conciliatory and human era based on mutual respect.

The cynics are there of course and their argument is that once Obama makes some headway in his new job he will be confronted with the bitter realities of life and fall in line.

It is of course true to and extent, as the late American historian Stephen Ambrose once said, that it is the office that makes the man and not the other way around. But this is not an absolute fact and, given the prevailing political and economic environment at the time, history has produced leaders who have changed the world for the better. Put another way, "the man can sometimes make the office." This, at any rate, is the hope that has been invested in President Obama and his administration. Obama's first advantage is the devastation he is taking over both domestically and internationally from the Bush administration. This is a negative factor of course but it does provide him with very concrete examples of "what should definitely not be done in the future."

Obama’s second advantage is that, unlike former President Bush, his election victory was clear-cut, which gives him a solid mandate for serious social change. And finally, the fact that he has generated so much hope around the world is an advantage that makes it easier to take bold or even revolutionary steps.

As an aside here, anyone listening to Obama’s inaugural speech probably has a much better understanding of why the militarists that have taken hold of Israel were in such a hurry to visit their vengeance on the people of Gaza. If I was a member of that militarist administration, I certainly would be unhappy with Obama’s speech.

The Obama victory has also raised hopes for improved ties between Ankara and Washington. These ties continue of course but not with much love in them, mainly due to the debacle engineered in Iraq by the Bush administration and a handful of "neocons". It is clear from out discussions with high officials that Ankara is not fully at ease concerning the promises made by Obama to the Armenian lobby in the United States. We have mentioned in this column before that there is forward thinking on this score.

Put another way the government is considering now how it will react, as if feels it must, if something that causes outrage in Turkish public opinion should come out of Washington on this score. The manner in which Prime Minister Erdoğan pandered to the public over Israel’s attack on Gaza has also left many diplomats in Ankara feeling that should the Obama administration offend Turkey then the government is more likely to pander to the outrage in Turkish public opinion.

Foreign Minister Babacan openly suggested to a group of journalists -- this one included -- in a live interview last Friday night on NTV that should and Armenian genocide bill pass in the United States, then this will harm the historic opening in relations presently.

This seems to suggest that if the Armenian lobby should have its way in Washington, Turkey will most likely punish Armenia first in retaliation and thus "hit back at U.S. interests in the Caucasus." This may be mere speculation on our part, but it is a fact that when France adopted and Armenian genocide bill in the early part of this decade Ankara’s first move was to revoke visa privileges for citizens of Armenia (these were reinstated later.)

There is a Turkish saying. It refers to "poking an eye out while trying to trim the brow." Our belief is that even if the Obama administration tries to "trim the Armenian brow," apropos of the promises given, it will nevertheless try and ensure that it does not poke an eye out in its relations with Ankara. Put another way the Obama administration is cognizant of the fact that these relations are becoming more important by the day, given developments in this part of the work which ensure that the two countries will need each other for the foreseeable future. Put another way, "the strategic interest" can not be overlooked by the United States, as indeed by Ankara, in the long run. But President Obama has also charted a vision of democracy, human rights, equality for all, non violent responses to crises etc, as he must in order to fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream properly. This means that if the Erdoğan government can move in a noticeable way along these lines, and contribute to better democracy and human rights in Turkey, then the ties between the two countries Ñ which are now based on loveless strategic interests Ñ can move in the direction of mutual respect and understanding. This clearly will be the best way to also combat anti-Americanism in Turkey.
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Israel loses its humanity

16 Ocak 2009
Israel has long since lost its innocence. Fewer and fewer people around the world today have the feelings for the Israeli people that they might have had a generation or two ago due to the dreadful history of the Jews and the unspeakable suffering they have been subjected to by anti-Semitic racists in Europe. Israeli military tactics against the Palestinians in the recent past had already whittled away at such feelings. Now Israel is in the process of loosing not just its innocence but its humanity as well. It is now turning itself into a supremacist and racist country, and there are Israelis, such as Gideon Levy of Haaretz, who are saying this openly and courageously.

"This war, perhaps more than its predecessors, is exposing the true deep veins of Israeli society. Racism and hatred are rearing their heads, as is the impulse for revenge and the thirst for blood."

Levy wrote this on Jan. 9 in his column, going on to add the following further on in his commentary:

"The unbridled aggression and brutality are justified as ’exercising caution:’ the frightening balance of blood Ñ about 100 Palestinian dead for every Israeli killed, isn’t raising any questions, as if we’ve decided that their blood is worth 100 times less than ours, in acknowledgment of our inherent racism."

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Levy is among the most hated people, not just in Israel, but also among hard-line Jews elsewhere.

Little do the people that vilify him realize, however, that he and those like him in Israel, and among the Jews elsewhere, are the best antidotes against anti-Semites around the world.

The reason is clearly that they represent the Jewish conscience against the barbarity being displayed by the Olmert government and the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, now. It is inevitable that this barbarity should also be reigniting anti-Semitism.

We have written in our column in Milliyet that this scourge of humanity is first cousin to Islamophobia (both by the way Western inventions) and should be condemned in the strongest possible manner.

But it is also hard to understand what Israelis expect in such a situation, given the ground swell of anger around the globe at their country which is increasing by the minute. Of course there is the other side of the coin too, and that is that Israeli authorities are themselves using the "anti-Semitism argument," within the context of their pathetic propaganda onslaught, by trying to label, a priori, almost all criticism of Israel as being "anti-Semitic."

They do not appear to realize that by "instrumentalizing" this evil for their own ends in this way, they are in effect undermining the importance of fighting against this phenomenon. To return to Levy, he indicates that Israel cannot have it both ways and says the following:

"Yet there are some who still want it both ways. To kill and destroy indiscriminately and also to come out looking good, with a clean conscience. To go ahead with war crimes without any sense of the heavy guilt that should accompany them. It takes some nerve. Anyone who justifies this war also justifies all its crimes."

It is highly apparent that the Israeli government and the IDF could not care two hoots for international public opinion, the United Nations, its own friends, the countries with which it will have to work with in its region, or its own citizens of conscience who see the whole Gaza operation from the perspective of a humanity being raped.

From being the epitome of suffering innocence to becoming a country accused of committing horrendous war crimes is quite a transformation by any account. Israelis who believe that their country will come out of all this "looking good," to use Levy’s words, or by having increased their sense of security are engaged in a very serious bout of self-delusion.
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Israel needs Turkey more

9 Ocak 2009
There is no way that anyone with the slightest trace of a conscience can condone what Israel is doing in the name of retaliation in Gaza. It is also highly doubtful that such brutality will achieve its goals in the end.

History should tell Israeli’s that such heavy handed measures, which fly in the face of the notion of "proportionality" have ultimately achieved little in the past in terms of their security. All that will be achieved in the end is that Israel -- having satiated it’s apparent need for vengeance -- will have gained a respite until the now even more radicalized Islamic elements in the region, and the world, recoup to hit back in some way. In the meantime, there appears to be a somewhat smug notion in Israel that whatever Prime Minister Erdogan may be saying about Israel, and however inflamed Turkish public opinion gets, that Turkish-Israeli ties will survive because the Turkish military, in the first instance, needs these relations badly. While it is true that there is a strong "strategic link" between the two militaries, we don’t believe that Israeli’s should be that sure in their belief that "Turkey is in the bag, no matter what." With a public opinion that is now almost 99 percent anti-Israeli, and with a Islamist government at the helm it is hard to see how even the most cynical Turkish officer can believe that it will be business as usual no matter what. Unless Israel returns to the political track and displays an honest interest in ensuring that the Palestinians get their fundamental rights, rather than being kept in Israel’s security fold behind high walls, where they are subject to a kind of "Apartheid regime," while Jewish settlements continue to go up on their occupied lands, it is hard to see how these ties will progress, let alone how peace will come to the Middle East, and to Israel. Another smug notion on the Israeli side appears to be that "Washington will always step in to set Turkey right as far as Israel is concerned." At any rate, Washington got a bitter lesson in March 2003 when it learned, prior to its invasion of Iraq, that one should only take Turkey for granted at one’s own peril. We are of course referring to the decision by the Turkish Parliament not to allow U.S. forces to use Turkey for invading Iraq. Then there is the hope in Israel that is invested in the Jewish lobby in the United States. It is said that this lobby will ensure, through it’s clout on issues such as preventing Armenian genocide bills, that Turkey falls in line. Conversely it is suggested that if Turkey does not fall in line, that the same lobby will punish her by refusing to help on this score, or even by ensuring that such bills pass. It remains doubtful that come April, the Obama administration will want to alienate Turkey at a time when this country will have become so vital to it vis-a-vis Iraq. But if it is prepared to support an Armenian genocide bill despite this, and President-elect Obama has in fact promised to do so during his campaign, then it will most certainly not be "business as usual in Turkish-American ties." There are also new and positive developments in terms of the Turkish-Armenian issue that the Obama administration will have to consider in taking such a step. Given the ongoing Azeri-Armenian dispute, the Obama administration will also want to consider the implications for its ties with Baku if it goes ahead and supports any Armenian bill. The Azeri’s at the present time are even more touchy on this score than Turks, and the proof is that they are even opposed to the positive overtures by Ankara in its ties with Yerevan. But if the Obama camp and the U.S. Congress nevertheless go ahead on this score -- with encouragement form the Jewish lobby -- we can assure our readers based on the best of authority that Ankara will not remain indifferent in the face of such a development. In actual fact it is not that Ankara "will not remain indifferent," it is a case that "it can not remain indifferent" due to public opinion given that this is the touchiest of subjects for Turks. Contrary to what some may believe, therefore, Turkey is not in "a brace yourself, wait and see" stance here. There is significant "possibility evaluation" and "forward planning" on this score. Given the actual situation on the ground and the complex set of circumstances that are involved in this part of the world, some mentioned above, it increasingly evident that it is Israel that needs Turkey, both politically and psychologically -- not the other way around -- in order to show the world that it is not isolated and alone in a hostile part of the world that is growing more hostile by the minute. What we are trying to ultimately say here is that Turkish -- Israeli ties are not as one-sided and amenable to the preconceptions that some of the commentators in the Israeli media are being led to believe by Israel officials. If things continue as they are, they will certainly get ample opportunity to understand this.

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Turkish-Israeli ties take a further battering

2 Ocak 2009
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s angry response to Israel for its brutal operation in Gazza has again attracted international attention, especially in the Arab world. Erdoğan is noted for previously accusing Israel of "state terrorism" following such military operations. He has not gone as far as the late Prime Minister Ecevit in using the "genocide" trump. But one can believe that his basic sentiment is not too far from this. The explanation given for Erdoğan’s anger is that he feels he was tricked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was in Turkey just before the operation began. The Erdoğan camp indicates that the Israeli prime minister gave no indication whatsoever that such an operation was about to be launched, allegedly assuring his host that "there would be no humanitarian tragedy in Gazza." 

Whatever Olmert’s words were, the Turkish side reportedly took this as meaning that the Israeli blockade of Gazza would somehow be eased to meet the urgent needs of its inhabitants. It was not taken as meaning, "we will be embarking on a massive operation soon, but will assure minimum casualties."

Erdoğan is said to have also been angered because the Israeli operation has put an abrupt halt to Turkey’s efforts to bring negotiated peace to the region. The most telling example here is the breaking off by Syria from its Turkey sponsored indirect talks with Israel following the attack on Gazza.

Another reason for Erdoğan’s anger is the fact that there are quarters in Turkey who say he knew about the operation Ğ having been told by Olmert - but kept it from the public. Such a suggestion has the potential to be politically devastating for the AKP in a pre-election period.

At any rate it is clearer now that Israel is only nominally interested in any peace track initiated by Turkey or the security of innocent civilians in the Gazza, where a million and a half people are squeezed into one of the world’s most congested areas. The pictures from the region belie any humanitarian assurances coming out of Israel .

The bottom line seems to be what Israel’s supposed dove-turned warlord of a defense minister Ehud Barak said. As far as Israel is concerned "now is the time for war and this is total war against Hamas" (which given the images from Gazza may be read as "the Palestinians").

Given the overall situation, it is not difficult to understand why Erdoğan feels he was hoodwinked by the Israelis, for whom he obviously has little love anyway, even if he has to maintain these ties for the sake of "raison d’etat."

Erdoğan’s one-sided accusations against Israel, without any reference to the Hamas rockets fired on Israeli settlements, was also noted in the West and the Middle East as suggesting that he is taking sides in this dispute Ğ which again would be his natural inclination given his Islamist background.

This position was of course applauded on the street level across the Middle East. Many ordinary Arabs read about this in their papers and castigated their own leaders for their confused and divided positions. They accused these leaders of displaying cowardly behavior yet again in the face of what Israel has been visiting on the Palestinians for decades now, while the Turkish Prime Minister was being brave.

Erdoğan also attracted a lot of public support in Turkey, where anti-Israeli sentiments always float near the surface anyway, a fact that which ties in with the very prevalent anti-Americanism among Turks.He was nevertheless criticized by Turks who realize that the reality of the Middle East that Turkey has to cope with is not on the street level, but with Israel and the various administrations in the region. It was said in this context that it was wrong of Erdoğan to appear to be putting Turkey on the side of Hamas, when so many Arab administrations in the region are not doing this.

The basic suggestion, also supported by us, was that even if Erdogan’s sentiments were understandable, he should have been more statesmanlike in his approach to an issue that has a complex background. Whatever the case may be, such operations by Israel will make it increasingly difficult for Turkey to maintain normal ties with this country. Given the course of developments in Gazza one can even predict the possibility of a reduction in the level of diplomatic ties if the Israelis engage in further massacres Ğ retaliatory or not - or are seen to be making Palestinians lives even more of a hell than they already have.

It is highly apparent that ties between the two countries do not have the warmth of the "pre-AKP era" anyway. There is much speculation as to what Israeli is trying to do here, but the fact is that when it embarks on such operations it is clear it too has little concern for what damage these might do to its ties with Turkey.

Cleary the Israeli side relies cynically on the cooperation between the two militaries, which still seem strong, to prevent any break in ties. How long the Turkish military can maintain this support in the face of an increasing public outcry is not clear however. Already people are complaining about the fact that the Turkish General Staff has allowed the Israeli air force to use Turkish airspace to practice low level attack tactics. The images out of Gazza, they argue, are the results of this.

While it may be alone in a dangerous region, it is also apparent that losing the few friends it has in this part of the world is not of great concern for the Israeli government, as long as it has the United States on its side and can utilize the growing Islamophobia in Europe to its advantage. But it is hard to understand what security value Israel will get out of providing the world with images reminiscent of 65 years ago, where the killing of one German could invite merciless and massive retribution on whole communities, a fact that is castigated in European history books today as "inhuman."

It is sad that Israel Ğ a nation that has suffered so much injustice in the past - should have come to this. But it is worth asking again whether Israel will get the peace and comfort it desires from all this? All we have to do here is look at the past and the answer is there. If Israeli’s want to live in peace they have to understand that their enemies in this case are prepared to die, in large numbers if necessary, to ensure that this will never happen. When looked back on, therefore, this operation against Gazza will most likely appear to be just another brutal episode in what is a never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East.

In the end it is not just a question of Hamas accepting Israel’s right to exist Ğ which it of course must. It is also a question of Israelis accepting both psychologically and politically the basic right of Palestinians as a nation to exist in their secure borders through a negotiated settlement.
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The ’Armenian apology’ issue

26 Aralık 2008
The "Apology to the Armenians" campaign that a group of well-known and influential Turkish intellectuals have initiated has seriously divided the nation. Judging by the angry reactions from various quarters opposing this campaign it is clear that if some kind of a referendum were held today, the majority would vote against such an apology. The reason is because the people that know the least about the events that lead to the tragedy of 1915 are contemporary Turks, who have been raised on large doses of official history.

Official history in Turkey says that the Armenian rose up in arms, collaborated with the enemy, and therefore were the self-initiators of what befell them in a civil war that they lost.

The fact that a "genocide" was perpetrated, however, is vehemently denied by the Turkish state, and a large portion of the population, their explanation being that people killed and were killed on both sides.

However the shroud on 1915 has been slowly lifting in recent years in this country. There is today in Turkey an increasing body of literature on the Armenian issue, both for and against as far as the genocide debate is concerned.

Few who castigate Turkey for denying the freedom of expression on the Armenian issue appear to be aware that you can even purchase the famous "Blue Book" on the events of 1915, co-authored by historian Arnold Toynbee, in bookshops.

The campaign by the intellectuals is just the latest and most forward step in the direction of fully lifting this shroud over the Armenian issue. More and more Turks are coming around to understanding that "something very serious" happened a century ago in these lands.

The signatories to the apology petition, whose number has reached over 23,500 as of yesterday, include diplomats, academics, journalists, actors, businessmen etc. The fact that they would be grossly outnumbered were a referendum to be held is, ultimately, of little consequence.

It is the intellectuals in a society who represent the "quality" of that society, rather than the crowd that merely represents a "quantity." Therefore one cannot dismiss the campaign by the intellectuals as "irrelevant," as some in this country are doing.

What is not clear is how this campaign will be received on the Armenian side. While some appear happy, the hard-core "Dashnak elements" are wary, considering this to be "a new Turkish ploy to drag attention away from the genocide, and the question of compensation."

One has to understand that for many Armenians the concept of "justice for 1915" is synonymous with "vengeance for 1915." The reluctance on the Armenian side to respond to the Turkish intellectuals with any sign of empathy for the millions of Muslims that died during the same period, in the same geography, is also noteworthy.

It is equally telling that no Armenian organization should have come out and displayed even an iota of empathy for the large number of Turkish diplomats and members of their families who died at the hands of Armenian terrorists.

Had some Armenians done so, this would have strengthened the hand of the "Apology to the Armenians" campaign. Instead an angry debate is raging among Armenians about whether there should be a rapprochement with the Turks at all.

The latest victim in this context appears to be Ara Sarafian, of the London based Gomidas Institute, who is being attacked by some members of the Armenian diaspora for "going Turk," due to some objective and reconciliatory remarks he has been making.

The fact that the Turkish petition by the Turkish intellectuals empathizes with the "Great Tragedy" of 1915, rather than using the word "genocide," has also angered Armenians who refuse to see the important development that this step represents for Turkey and for Turkish-Armenian relations as far as for well-intentioned people on both sides are concerned.

In fact, the campaign in question probably has more to do with the "post-modern civil war" that is raging in Turkey between liberal and democratic groups and the more atavistic and autocratic elements, than it has with the Armenian issue.

In the meantime, the disgusting insinuation by Republican People’s Party, or CHP, deputy Canan Aritman, to the effect that President Gul did not oppose the intellectuals’ campaign strongly because his grandmother was a secret Armenian, also drove many to signing the petition.

The simple fact is that the petition, which can be seen in, has turned out to be a powerful devise for people to avail of if they want the world to see which groups in this country they do not identify with, or belong to, in any way.

This, of course, begs the question of whether I personally signed the petition, as many of my friends have done. I did not, even if I support the idea behind it, and explained my reasons why in my column in Milliyet. These I will repeat here.

I completely agree with the first sentence of the petition. My conscience too does not accept a denial or a belittling of the "Great Tragedy" that befell the Armenian people in 1915. I stand opposed to everything that prevents us from learning everything there is to know about these events.

I support the carrying of the objective facts acquired about these events to new generations so that "the lesson of history" may be learned and such ugliness not be repeated, wishful thinking as this may be.

I do not, however, agree with the second part of the petition which wants me to come up "with my share of the apology" to the Armenians. I see nothing in my family history that should make me apologize personally, unlike of the signatories.

Neither do I believe in the concept of "collective guilt" on the basis of race or religion, as this has dangerous connotations, and is an idea that should not be toyed with in these dangerous times.

Besides, as one Western ambassador underlined very aptly recently, what is expected on the Armenian side is not the "personal apologies" of individual Turks, even if they act collectively.

What is expected is that the "Turkish state" apologizes to the Armenians, the way Willy Brandt did to the Jews, in an act of "mea culpa." This I simply do not see happening any time soon.

The campaign by the intellectuals, given the acrimonious debate it has stirred in Turkey, has probably made the state even more reluctant than ever not to come up with even a semblance of an apology, let alone a bona fide apology.

It might arguably, therefore, have been more effective for the intellectuals to call on the Turkish state to recognize the events of "The Great Disaster of 1915," rather than perpetuating a policy of total denial.

This does not mean, however, that this petition has been a useless exercise. It has, to the contrary, been very useful in terms of representing a fresh stepping stone in the process of Turkey’s maturation as a society.
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A ’make or break’ year for Turkey-EU ties

19 Aralık 2008
Paris - The influential and prestigious International Crisis Group (ICG) has issued a report on the critical juncture that Turkish-EU ties will enter in the new year. The suggestion is that if the sides are not careful these ties could be severed in 2009. Robert the Picchia, a leading French Senator, says that he is for Turkish accession because of its geopolitical importance, which will become increasingly vital for European interests. His suggestion is therefore that a severance in ties will be to Europe’s dire disadvantage.

There appears to be a growing awareness on this score across Europe among the wiser elements. But will this solve the problem between Turkey and some countries or groups in Europe? Listening to Picchia, as I did in the French Senate building in Paris yesterday, the answer to this question appears to be "no." The reason is because there are politicians, particularly in France, who are willing to unabashedly instrumentalise the Turkish issue in order to get votes, and who do not refrain from playing on the fears of the public concerning Islam for this purpose. But it is precisely these politicians who are creating an environment whereby Islamisation, and to that extent anti-westernization, gains added ground in Turkey, thus actualizing the fears that they play on today.

It is clear that the secular element will become weaker and the Islamic element stronger if Turkey looses its "Western orientation." There will, after all, be less reason to concentrated on this vocation, given the snub from the West Turkey will have received after its bid for EU membership.

Those "seculars" who are anti-EU today, for their part, will realize too late the cost of their not supporting this dimension. Many Turks would not accept this, and I include a large number of these "seculars" in this group; but it is clear to many people that it will be difficult to sustain and reinforce secularism and democracy without the prospect of EU membership.

Put another way, those in this country who argue that Turkey’s western vocation has been a waste of time, "because Europeans will never look on Turks as equals" will have gained ground to the detriment of much that has been achieved in this country over the past 8 decades.

Europe’s effort for nearly 150 years has been to reform Turkey in order to include it in the European sphere on influence. The EU dimension is only the most contemporary expression of this. It is no surprise; therefore, that the most pronounced words among EU diplomats today, in referring to Turkey, is "reform."

Pro-EU Turks have also been talking almost non-stop about the need for social and political reform in Turkey. They see that this is the only way to maintain the country’s Western orientation. So for them the EU dimension is as vital as it is for Senator Picchia.

But a Europe that is not willing to play with them leaves them out in the cold. It strengthens the hands of those who look at other regions of the world that are developing economically without such niceties as "human rights" or "democracy" or even "secularism." So to return to the ICG assessment, 2009 will indeed be a make-it-or-break-it year for Turkey-EU relations. But to assume that the cost of a breakage will be borne merely by Turkey is false. There will be a cost for Europe as well.

As I indicated to my French interlocutors yesterday, France’s "No to Turkey in the EU" position has as yet not had a concrete cost for Ankara, despite causing much headache politically. But the ’no to France in Turkey" attitude in Turkey has cost France to the tune of billions of dollars in lost interests, if we are to go by what the French are saying themselves. This cost could easily spread to the political domain in the near future. The bottom line therefore is that it is not just Turkey that has to sit back and worry in 2009. It is also the EU side. In fact Turkey can and probably will create alternatives to the EU, much to the satisfaction of many nationalists and Islamists in this country.

Turkey’s geographic location and its growing geopolitical importance will provide the necessary environment for this. So the basic question here is whether Turkey will go the course of Italy, or that of Malaysia, which in itself is not an unsuccessful model.

The converse of this is that while Turkey may be able to create alternatives to the EU, will the EU be able to create an alternative for Turkey. In addition to this, will the EU be happy with a less secular, more Islamic, and less democratic country where the majority is strongly anti-European.
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AKP to EU: Size of bread determines amount of meatballs

13 Aralık 2008
European leaders meeting in Brussels this week once again confirmed their opinion that Turkey has slowed down its reform process, and expressed disappointment over this. The government, on the other hand, insists that the reform process is continuing apace. Both Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Babacan are quick to list a litany of all that has been achieved to date on this score. But this does not appear to please the EU and both sides continue to discuss the matter at cross purposes. We are of the opinion that the reform process in Turkey has indeed slowed down and that while new reforms are late in coming, the reforms enacted over the past few years have still to be implemented properly. The most glaring example here is the question of rising police brutality and the inability, or lack of desire, by the government to intervene effectively, even though it has promised to pursue a policy of "zero tolerance" towards torture and ill treatment by officials, be they policemen, prison wardens or otherwise.

As for some key political reforms, and legal reforms, that are required desperately by the country - regardless of what the EU may want on this score - there appears no sense of urgency over these either, even though the government received a very strong mandate from the people in the July 2007 general elections. Talking to highly placed officials, and asking them about the declining EU enthusiasm in Turkey, not just among the public but also at the level of the government, we have come out with a better understanding of the government’s stance at the present time.

The best way to describe this policy is by means of a Turkish saying which, when translated roughly into English, means "The amount of bread you give determines the quantity of meatballs you get."

Put another way, the government has apparently decided to pursue the EU perspective at a pace that if believes has been set by the EU itself when it slapped on a host of artificial restrictions on Turkey’s negotiating process by using - Turks would say abusing - the Cyprus issue. One highly placed official, who for obvious reasons wishes to remain anonymous, told us recently that there was little reason to take the EU seriously on this score. "To what extent have they unblocked and opened our path that they expect us to rush on it" he said.

He added that if Turkey were to speed itself up now, it could very well end up in a short space of time not having anything left to negotiate since so many chapters have been blocked due to the Cyprus issue.

When asked if Foreign Minster Babacan should not give up his job as chief EU negotiator, since this is a full time job that is difficult to maintain together with the job of Foreign Minister, this official had a similar reply. He basically suggested that there was no point to this, since the situation on the ground did not bring with it a great sense of urgency to merit such a move.

Officials we have talked to also indicated across the board that if the EU were to act honestly towards Turkey Ğ and hardly anyone in Turkey believes it does Ğ and to give a date for accession (provided conditions are met by that date) then they would see a completely different Turkey moving towards the EU by displaying a startling enthusiasm.

All of this may sound logical to the ear but it still points to a cynical approach by the government, which is hardly welcome for the average Turk. After all, everyone recalls Prime Minister Erdogan saying in effect, and on numerous occasions, that if the EU decided not to play ball with Turkey, then his government would name the "Copenhagen Criteria" as the "Ankara criteria" and continue soldiering on, "because what was being done was for the sake of Turkey, and not simply to please the EU."

These words of defiance of course sound nice to the ears but in fact are completely hollow. The current government policy, as described above, completely belies this approach. The slowed pace of the reform process shows, contrary to what it argues, that the government is not thinking of Turkey, when the subject of reforms comes up, but of pleasing the EU.

This, at the end of the day, is what is worrying for supporters of EU membership in Turkey, because if the prospect of this membership is no longer sufficient as a driving force vis a vis the reform process, then the EU has little, if any, significance left for Turks as a political phenomenon to be aspired to.
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Turkey, together with Europe, tackles a resurgent Russia

5 Aralık 2008
Helsinki - Nearly 50 foreign ministers gathered here in Helsinki on Thursday for a two-day Ministerial Council meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, during which Russia will try to convince the participants of the need for a new security arrangement in the "Old Continent." But the tone of proceedings was set by the OSCE chairman-in-office, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who said at a news conference ahead of the gathering that the Ministerial Council this time would not be "business as usual." The simple reason for this stern observation was the fact that the proceedings in Helsinki would be conducted under the shadow of developments in the Caucasus following the invasion and division of Georgia by Moscow.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev first outlined plans for a new European Security Treaty modeled on the discussions that led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and based on the United Nations Charter. "When one takes a close look at the situation in Europe, one finds it difficult not to come to the conclusion that its current architecture bears the stamp of an ideology inherited from the past," Medvedev said in June in Berlin.

Washington and NATO are, however, extremely reluctant to see Medvedev's proposal go through. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer made this amply clear in a statement before the Ministerial. "It is ...crystal clear that the present security structure should remain intact, that NATO is NATO and there is not a glimmer of chance that in whatever discussion NATO could or would be negotiated away. That is totally out of the question," de Hoop Scheffer said.

There are of course countries in Europe who are keen to discuss the Medvedev plan and France appears to be in the forefront in this respect. Whether all the countries of "New Europe" - i.e. the former satellites of the Soviet Union, are so keen, however, remains an open question. Talking to journalists and diplomats here in Helsinki from some of these countries, it is clear that there is a belief that Moscow is after a "Russia-friendly" security arrangement in Europe, that will entail less of a presence on the continent by the United States.

This alone shows that the ministerial gathering in Helsinki would not only be tough, but also has the potential of turning acrimonious due to developments in the Caucasus, and the sensitivities this has caused in central and eastern Europe. The Finnish chairmanship is trying to push through a "forward-looking" political declaration to be agreed by all 56 OSCE participating states, but even Finnish diplomats were not too hopeful that this could be achieved.

"The odds are against us ... we have the crisis in Georgia, this sets the tone, so we should not have high expectations," Aleksi Harkonen, head of the Finnish OSCE Chairmanship Task Force, said of the prospects of agreeing a joint declaration. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not attending the meeting in Helsinki because she will be in India where developments appear more urgent for Washington today than discussing Russian plans for new European security architecture.

But even if she were present, Finnish officials understand that it would have been difficult to secure firm U.S. commitments on any issue prior to President-elect Barack Obama’s taking office on Jan. 20. Turkey, which is being represented here by Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, is of course following these proceedings with great interest and a fair bit of concern. The reason is that the discussions here involve a geography that is of vital strategic importance for Ankara.

The fact is that Turkey has to perform a very careful tight-rope walking act here, given that it is not only a NATO member, but also has close ties with Russia and Georgia. Then there is the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the reflections this has on Turkish-Armenian relations to consider. While Ankara would not be keen to support any development that would water down NATO’s influence in Europe, it is nevertheless aware that more consideration has to be given to some concerns of Russia’s, and that for this there has to be a mechanism of proactive dialogue with Moscow.

Foreign Minister Babacan is also following the Armenian-Azerbaijan talks that are taking place here in Helsinki under the auspices of the OSCE’s so-called "Minsk Group." Turkish diplomats say that the remarks on the Karabakh dispute to come out of Helsinki will be important as an indication of how Europe wants to see the situation in this territory disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan resolved.

Ankara is pleased that Russia, as a keen player in the region, has taken an initiative in trying to solve this problem. Turkey believes that if Moscow can be brought to a position of playing a positive role in such disputes it will also clear its image tarnished as a result of Georgia. Put another way Turkey is not keen to see Russia isolated or punished over Georgia, which it believes would only aggravate the situation in the Caucasus further. This does not mean, however, that Turkey is not concerned by Moscow’s moves.

Turkish diplomats are not blind to attempts by Russia to control developments in Europe and increase its influence on the continent. Diplomatic sources tell us that Turkey has even been lobbying the European Union on behalf of the Central Asian Republics in an attempt to get closer cooperation going between the sides, and thus balance the rising influence of Russian over these countries by providing them a perspective of increased cooperation with the European Union.

At it is, NATO’s ministerial meeting in Brussels, which concluded a day before the Helsinki gathering, actually demonstrated Russia’s rising global influence. Key European countries not only blocked Georgia’s NATO path at that meeting, but also decided to restart the dialogue with Russia, severed in August over developments in Georgia.

This is enough to show all and sundry that relations with Moscow are not just an academic proposition for Europeans given the direct or indirect influence Russia yields over Europe.

The short of all this is that while the meeting here in Helsinki is not expected to produce any major breakthrough, it will set the agenda for Europe and provide hints as to what will be the key issues concerning European security for the coming period.

It is clear that these developments will also concern Turkey extremely closely.
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