2002: The Critical Year for Turkey

By
Mehmet Ali Birand

April 2002 - The year 2002 is--and will continue to be--full of challenges for Turkey. The country's 70-year-old economic and political systems are being debated, old taboos are being broken, and long-accepted dogmas are being abandoned.

It is time that both those governing Turkey and those that are governed set aside their old belief systems and adapt to the winds of change that started to blow through Turkey in 2001, especially after the onset of the country's economic crisis and the mounting emphasis on fulfilling IMF and EU criteria.

This is not an easy thing to do. The transformation process is putting pressure on Turkish society and, as the pressure builds, it makes life increasingly difficult for some. It is inevitable that reconciliation efforts and attempts to find compromises will cause tension.

However, as Turkey passes through this transition phase, it is fortunate to be led by a three-party coalition that is taking the needed strides forward despite the fact that the parties represent people of different worlds. The Nationalist Action Party is conservative and skeptical of EU accession, while the centrist Motherland Party and the euro-socialist Democratic Left Party are pro-EU.

The changes may not be happening as quickly as needed, but the coalition is making them without going for one another's throats.

These transformational issues requiring immediate attention have converged to make 2002 one of the most critical years in Turkey's history.

From Turkey's perspective, the most important challenge is ending the economic crisis by faithfully executing economic reforms that have been designated in conjunction with the IMF. These reforms have to be implemented to the letter if the economic recovery is to proceed. This is what the Turkish people, and domestic and foreign investors, are expecting.

A malfunctioning watch has been repaired. Now, everyone wants to see if it is going to work correctly. Just one step backwards will give the impression that the measures are, in effect, window-dressing. If this is the case, Turkey will revert to its old ways.

There is enormous pressure for such a reversion. A return to the status quo is the desire of some reactionary segments of society and some people in political circles that are tempted to use budgetary sources for their own political gain, as was the case in the past.

However, Turkey is grasping its last chance to escape from this vicious cycle. It is either going to modernize its economic system by giving market forces room to maneuver, or it is going to sink into a swamp of high inflation and foreign debt from which it will never emerge.

Another critical benchmark is the December EU summit, where the EU is going to pass out Christmas presents. Ten candidate countries, including Cyprus, will receive membership packages. Two other candidates, Romania and Bulgaria, will be given roadmaps to membership.

The only candidate left standing will be Turkey, which has yet to start membership discussions. Turkey must implement the Copenhagen criteria before these proceedings can begin. If it fails to do so, it will miss the EU's last expansion train and will have to wait 10 to 15 years for another expansion process to begin.

The longer Turkey remains excluded from the EU, the more the government's drive to reform will diminish, and Turkish society will be deeply disappointed.

Cyprus and the Aegean issues constitute another critical matter with respect to Turkish-EU relations. Cyprus is the key to Turkish-Greek relations. This problem has to be solved by fall 2002.

There are two possible scenarios. The desirable scenario will be a formula, agreed to by both the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, which will allow both sides to simultaneously attain EU membership status within one state. This scenario will transform the Aegean into a sea of peace, allowing the traditional enmity between Turkey and Greece to dissipate. A new relationship between the countries will begin, to everyone's benefit.

The disastrous scenario will be a failure to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. As a result, while southern Cyprus becomes an EU member, northern Cyprus will be excluded from the process as it becomes mired in the Turkish-EU relationship. This will be felt not only in Cyprus, but also in the Aegean region as a whole. Ankara's strides toward the EU will falter, and Turkish-Greek relations will again become tense.

This scenario should not be allowed to happen. Turkey, Greece, and both Cypriot communities share responsibility in making sure it does not.

Turkey and Greece have to stop watching from the sidelines and should become directly involved in helping to find a Cyprus solution. Both will be affected significantly by the outcome in Cyprus. Therefore, they should emulate the actions of Karamanlis and Averoff in Greece and Menderes and Zorlu in Turkey, who took the necessary steps in 1960 to create the independent state of Cyprus.

Until December 2001, pressure was brought to bear on Rauf Denktash, who then made concessions and opened the way for direct discussions with Glafcos Clerides. Now it is Clerides' turn.

Greek Cypriots have to refrain from flipping the calendar back to the years before 1974. They have to ignore the past and accept the conditions that exist today. Denktash's proposal for a partner state formula with a weak federal structure has to be closely considered as a way of facilitating a Cyprus solution.

If the Greek diaspora wants the Aegean to become a sea of peace, it has to encourage Clerides to seek a settlement based on the island's realities. It should not let him be held hostage by the Greek Cypriot opposition. This is a historical opportunity that cannot be thrown away.

Another issue that will make its mark in 2002, especially with regard to the Kurdish problem, will be Turkey's implementation of constitutional reforms relating to democracy and human rights. Important strides have been taken to this end, but efforts to put these new laws into effect have to continue this year.

Important changes will also be made this year to laws governing political parties and elections.

The relationship between Turkey and the United States took on new meaning after September 11. Washington's partnership with Turkey, which took hold particularly during President Clinton's second term, has been augmented.

For the first time, Turkey has proved in a clear and forthright manner that it can be a trusted U.S. ally. The U.S. has also provided clear gestures indicating that Ankara holds a unique place in the region.

The year 2002 may also be marked by an important testing of the Turkish-U.S. relationship with respect to Iraq. Turkey cannot remain neutral on the Iraq issue. Despite the risks involved, it has to lend full support to Washington's handling of Baghdad.

This will be the correct stance to take, both in terms of the relationship Turkey has developed with the U.S. and in terms of the benefits for Turkey if a democratic Iraq without Saddam at the helm, no longer facing international sanctions, emerges.

Turkey is the most stable, democratic, secular country in the Islamic world. If it meets the challenges it faces in 2002, this will be beneficial not only for Turkey, but also for its neighbors and the United States.
 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant