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Talking Turkey

01 October 2004

Turkey's long-standing relationship with the EU has from time to time been overshadowed by crises. However, there has never been a total breakdown in relations, and Turkey's bid for eventual EU membership has remained alive, if not always well. Now that the time for decisions has come, however, most political analysts expect a positive answer from the EU and the opening of formal accession negotiations some time in 2005.
A positive vote could almost be a guarantee of the irreversibility of Turkey's reforms and would boost both economic development and further democratisation, and have an extraordinary impact in further stabilising the country. It would also be seen as clear support for the Western- and democratically minded segments of Turkish society, and strengthen the developing civil society and the pro-reform forces in the élites, the administration and the population.
n Further, it would affect the way in which the EU is perceived throughout the Islamic world, where the EU's handling of Muslim Turkey's membership application is closely followed. Most certainly, it would help to dispel the image of the EU as nothing more than a `Christian club' or even hostile towards Islam in general.
A `yes' vote - despite popular reservations in the EU over Turkey's membership - would be positive because otherwise the general frustration in Turkey might in due course lead to a standstill or at least a watering-down of the necessary and painful Turkish reform process, with possible negative consequences for Turkey's foreign policy.
In foreign policy, Turkey has been able to ease tensions with most of its neighbours in the last few years. In some cases real rapprochement has been achieved, as with Syria, after Damascus broke with the PKK, Greece and Bulgaria. In each case, relations have been de-emotionalised and are now constructive. There are of course still problems to solve, like the disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea, the question of Cyprus, which has reached deadlock for the time being, and relations with Armenia. In the latter case the border still remains closed but direct dialogue has begun that is more or less decoupled from historical tragedies and the Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Needless to say, further progress on these issues will also depend on whether negotiations with the EU start and proceed smoothly, acting as a restraining factor on Turkey's foreign and security policy.
Turkey's relations with Central Asia and Iran are other examples of this positive trend in Turkish foreign policy. Regarding the Central Asian republics, enthusiastic expectations have given way to a realistic assessment of Turkey's own policy capabilities and economic potential. As a result Turkey can claim a visible presence and friendly relations with all countries of the region. In the case of Iran, relations are now less tense. At the same time Turkey is able to continue good relations, including security cooperation, with Israel. Hence, the Turkish government has not hesitated to criticise both Israeli politics and the Palestinian use of suicide attacks. For the time being Turkey is not playing a significant role in the Middle East conflict but its credibility in Israel and Islamic countries will be a valuable asset in the future. <br />In the short term, however, the biggest challenge for Turkey is undoubtedly Iraq, more precisely developments in Northern Iraq. Here, Turkish and American interests meet but do not converge on certain issues like the future of the PKK's remaining splinter groups or the degree of Kurdish autonomy. Turkey and the United States would like to see a united, democratic and secular Iraq. However, Turkey's main concerns are attempts to achieve Kurdish independence in Iraq and its possible repercussions on Turkey's own Kurdish minority. Yet a military intervention such as happened a decade ago is very unlikely due to Turkey's self-restraint and international disapproval. Ankara is nowadays more willing to heed objections from the international community. This has become possible since civilian and military hardliners no longer dominate Turkish foreign policy. The erosion of their power is a result of the general transformation of Turkish domestic and foreign policy, which was in part initiated and is pushed forward by Turkey's EU membership bid.
Although one should be realistic about the timeframe for its admission, one has to recognise that policy reforms in Turkey have been remarkable.