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Cook: Pope’s Visit Finds Turkey Preoccupied with European, Kurdish, Cypriot Issues

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 20, 2006

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Steven A. Cook, CFR’s leading expert on Turkey, says the country is so preoccupied with issues of European Union membership, continuing problems over divided Cyprus, and the Kurdish issues that the pending visit of Pope Benedict XVI has not aroused much interest.

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about Turkey. You’ve just come back from a recent visit. What are the key issues on the Turkish political agenda these days?

There are three issues. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s been following Turkey even tangentially. They are whether Turkey will secure European Union membership; the situation on the island of Cyprus; and of course the issue of Kurds, which includes PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] violence, the status of the city of Diyarbakir, the principal Kurdish city in Turkey, and Kurdish nationalism in general. Those are the things that are taking up the minds of Turkish policymakers and taking up space in the Turkish press.

Let’s start with the Kurdish problem since the United States is inevitably involved in that. There has been a lot of talk about dividing up Iraq. And if that happened, it is no secret that Iraqi Kurds would like to see their own state. Why is Turkey so opposed to a Kurdish separate state or some variation there of in Iraq?

If an independent Kurdish state were to emerge in northern Iraq the concern is that Turkey’s large number of Kurds, the majority of whom live in the southeastern part of the country abutting northern Iraq, would either want to join this new Kurdish state or seek encouragement for their own nationalist goals. The Kurdish world would inevitably look on the emergence of an independent Kurdish state as a model to emulate if not to join. Turks feel very strongly that this would be a prelude to ultimately splitting up Turkey and carving out a portion of Turkey from the southeast to either join this Kurdish state or to form a new Kurdish state. This revives fears about the Treaty of Sevres signed in 1920 after World War I in which the Allied Powers actually sought to carve up Turkey amongst themselves. The treaty was strongly opposed by the nascent national movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, so it was never put into effect, but its memory remains in Turkish consciousness.

Let’s go to Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. What is the status of these negotiations? Most of the European states that have voted on this have been opposed to it, right?

Those states that have had referendums on the proposed European constitution have rejected the constitution and people believe that was a cover for rejecting an extension of membership to Turkey. The sense is that while European leaders publicly support Turkey’s entry into the European Union and while the EU commissioners can make a wonderfully elegant technocratic argument as to why Turkey should become an EU member, the European public is opposed to membership. In fact the French government has said we will bring it to a referendum for the French people before it accepts Turkey into the European Union.

This has become an issue of Muslims in Europe, right?

It’s clearly a religious issue although many Europeans would never admit to it. But you have to think about it from a European perspective. Let’s say Turkey would enter the European Union ten years from now. That would mean eighty million Muslims would enter into the European Union along with the thirty to forty million Muslims that are already there. For a German or an Austrian who has seen Turks sweeping their streets for the last twenty years this would mean that all of a sudden Turks would have more representation in the European parliament than either of those two countries.

So this would create tremendous cognitive dissonance for Europeans. Critics also point to the fact that Turkey’s GDP per capita is only $6,000 a year. The massive amounts of aid in transfers that would have to be made to bring Turkey up to European standards in terms of economic development would be crippling to the rest of the European Union. The fact remains though that Europe needs Turkey. It has a population that’s dropping. Turkey has a dynamic economy, it has the workers. It would make a lot of sense if Turkey would enter the European Union.

But as it is now, Turks migrate to Europeany way, right?

There are large numbers of Turks in Europe, obviously working throughout the European Union. If you look at it economically Turkey is already part of the European Union. There is a tremendous amount of European investment in Turkey. So what do the Turks gain by getting official membership? Well, it would add more to Turkey’s economic development. It would finally resolve a number of political issues for Turks. It would resolve issues of secularism and how people can worship. It would resolve issues of freedom of expression. It would resolve the border problem that Turkey has with the Kurds. Bringing Turkey into the European Union would finally resolve this issue of Kurdish nationalism because Turkey would be brought in with its Kurdish population. Under those circumstances it would be very hard to carve out the southeastern portion of Turkey to either join a Kurdish entity in northern Iraq or its own state. So Europe has become an anchor of political and economic reform for the Turks.

And how much of this debate is fanned by the fact that the current Turkish government is a more religious-oriented government?

I’m not sure the debate in the highest councils of Europe is driven by the fact that the majority party in Turkey, AKP, has its roots in Islam. The name of the party means Justice and Development. I think its origins are perhaps driving the critical views of people in Europe, but this government has done more than any government to undertake the reforms necessary to prepare Turkey for EU membership. This government in the course of two short years, from 2003 to 2005, ran through an extraordinary number of institutional reforms that forced the Europeans to offer them a date for membership negotiations.

Have these negotiations started?

They started formally last spring and they have been through one chapter of the number of chapters to the process. Now they’ve stumbled a bit on this question of Cyprus. There was a progress report that was supposed to have been submitted. The commission for the European Union submits progress reports on candidate countries. They were to have submitted a report on November 8. They’ve delayed that because there’s a problem over the question of Turkey, its relationship with Cyprus, and the divided status of that island. There is an ongoing diplomatic initiative by the Finnish president of the European Union to resolve that issue so the commission would not have to report or recommend a suspension or dramatic downgrading of the negotiations.

For those who have now lost track of this issue, Cyprus is divided in half. The Turks have the northern part and the Greeks the southern part. The issue at hand is whether the Cyprus government, which is essentially Greek, has the right to have free access to Turkish ports and airports.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus—the Greek Cypriots—has become a member of the European Union, despite the divided status of the island and despite the fact that the conflict on the island has not been resolved. As a result, Turkey as an aspirant to EU membership must fulfill its obligations to all the members of the European Union. As part of that Turkey is obligated to open its ports and its airports to Greek Cypriot vessels and airports.

The Turks say this is manifestly unfair. The United States supported, along with the Turkish Cypriots, the Kofi Annan plan that would have reunified the island, whereas the Greek Cypriots led by the Greek Cypriot government actively opposed it. Yet they were allowed in the European Union. After the failure of the referendum in 2004, the Turks said, “Look if you’re going to ask us to open our ports to the Greek Cypriots, you’re going to have to work harder to break the Turkish Cypriots out of their international isolation, and you’re going to have to open up Turkish Cypriot ports as well to Greek Cypriot shipping, and airplanes as well as to European shipping because right now the Greek Cypriots and the Greek government have a veto over that.”

So there isn’t easy access even for tourists between the two halves?

There has been some change over the course of the last few years. There has been a flow of people across the line there, but the fact remains that the Turks are looking for reciprocity. If they have to open their ports to Greek Cypriot shipping, from their perspective the Greek Cypriots and the Europeans should reciprocate and work to break the Turkish Cypriots out of international isolation. Although the resolution of the Cyprus problem is not a requirement of Turkish membership in the European Union, it obviously has become linked in a variety of ways.

What about U.S. relations with Turkey? Back in 2003 the United States was shocked when the Turkish parliament by most narrow votes voted against letting U.S. troops into Turkey to go into Iraq.

First of all, they shouldn’t have been shocked. Actually, if you want to get really technical about it, more members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly actually voted for the resolution that would have allowed U.S. troops to transit through Turkey then voted against it. They just didn’t have enough deputies in the chamber in order for it to pass. So the effect was the same, which was a no vote. I think the United States has not gotten past the March 1 incident. There is a lot of latent anger on the part of the U.S. Central Command and people within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy over what was perceived as Turkey being uncooperative. But at the same time we have often counseled Turkey to be more democratic. In 2003 you can arguably say it was the height of our democracy promotion in that part of the world and the vast majority of Turks did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was a new government that was going out on the ledge and they couldn’t get it done.

My sense is that people in the Bush administration felt the Turkish military in the end would deliver because the Turkish military has always delivered to the United States, but the Turkish military did not see Saddam Hussein as a threat. Saddam kept a lid on things there. The Kurds were not a problem there at that time, the PKK had been decimated, and they were abiding by a unilateral ceasefire. The generals were only concerned that an invasion and a toppling of Saddam Hussein would unleash Turkish nationalism and violence and create all kinds of national security problem for the Turks. So, on the one hand you had popular will that was opposed to this war, you had a new Turkish government that was ambivalent about it, and you had a constituency that didn’t love Saddam, but didn’t think this was a threat to their national security.

There will be a visit by Pope Benedict XVI next week. I think the ostensible purpose of the visit is to improve relations with the Orthodox Christians. In the West people have looked at this as a danger for the pope because of the statements he made in September that were sharply condemned by many Muslims. Did you get a sense the Turks are looking at this as a very important visit?

In a week in Turkey I don’t think one person mentioned it to me. But that may be a function, of course, of all the things that were going on in Turkey at the time, the anticipation of the progress report from the European Union, the death of former prime minister Bulent Ecevit who actually ordered Turkish troops into Cyprus, and the preparations for his funeral. So there was a lot on the Turkish agenda. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may not meet with the pope, not for lack of willingness, but he will be at a NATO summit. The Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, will meet with the pope. Because of the response to Benedict’s statements in September about the Muslim world, people around the world are looking at this visit to see what will happen. There were demonstrations on the streets of Turkish cities over what the pope had said. But as best as I can tell there was not pent-up energy on the eve of the pope’s visit. But that might change as we come closer to the visit. I spent the weekend with a congressional study group on Turkey in which there were a lot of Turks present and there was no discussion of the upcoming visit of the pope.

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