Reacting to a calculated snub by the European Union (EU), prime minister Mesut Yilmaz has threatened to withdraw Turkey’s application for full membership if it is not formally accepted as a candidate before June, and to incorporate Turkish Cyprus if the island is offered membership without Ankara’s agreement. But the threat is not credible since the country’s ruling secular elite has nowhere else to go, having permanently disowned its Islamic heritage and connections in a false quest for western traditions and alliances.
It was no accident that when the snub came Ankara hailed its close relations with America and signed a multi-billion-dollar gas contract with Russia in a hardly credible move to show it had other options to pursue. Significantly none of those options included the development of close ties or alliances with fellow Muslim countries. In fact, several days earlier president Suleyman Demirel had to leave the OIC Tehran summit before its conclusion to avoid the expected dressing down for Turkey’s military pact with Israel. And in a gratuitous insult to the 54 leaders at the summit, Ankara announced that it was upgrading its pact with Israel into a strategic treaty.
Turkey first made its application to join the EEC (now the EU) as long ago as 1963 but it has been repeatedly snubbed while other countries have been admitted at short notice. The Turkish ruling elite has been able to absorb the humiliation heaped upon it because it considers its eventual admission into the EU as a guarantee of its secular tradition as well as a mark of respect.
But the EU summit at Luxembourg announced on December 13, for the first time, that Turkey was not a candidate. A statement said that the group was inviting five East and Central European countries plus Cyprus, to start membership talks early next year. A further five countries would join formal membership talks later. Turkey was not included in either group but was invited to join a special European conference on enlargement.
Even the invitation to the conference was conditional. The conditions ranged from human rights reforms to improved relations with Greece, an EU member and a longstanding rival.
Yilmaz said the following day that Turkey would not attend the conference because it was conditional. He also vowed to freeze ties with the EU, speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting convened to consider the Luxembourg summit’s decision. ‘We will not change our position until we are put in a basket with the 11 countries,’ he said.
He went back to the fray on December 17, saying he would withdraw Turkey’s application by June if the EU does not change its position. The group must hold a summit including Turkey to avoid a withdrawal of the application, he told reporters.
Yilmaz was on his way to the US to meet president Bill Clinton and other American officials when he made his remarks. In a bid to show he has other options, he told reporters: ‘Turkish-US cooperation is of major importance to the peace and stability of the region surrounding Turkey.’
The Russian option was also in evidence on December 15, when prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited Ankara to sign a $13 billion deal to provide Turkey with Russian natural gas from a pipeline to be built under the Black Sea. Chernomyrdin spoke of the formation of a strategic economic partnership.
But Russia, a historic rival, is also in competition with Ankara over Central Asian countries, where Turkey enjoys cultural and linguistic advantages. Turkey has also close relations with Chechenya to the great resentment of Moscow.
Some Turkish politicians have expressed concern that the gas deal might make Ankara dependent on Moscow, giving the Russians an edge in the competition for the rich mineral resources of Central Asian countries, and that Turkey might be pressured into abandoning the Chechens.
In any case, EU countries are confident that Turkey is not keen on developing close relations with Russia and that Ankara’s American card is limited by geography. As the London-based Guardian newspaper put on December 18, the US is the one country that Turkey really respects, but geographical distance hardly makes it a plausible substitute for the EU. And in any case Washington is a strong supporter of Turkey’s eventual integration into Europe.
The Americans want Turkey to be closely associated with the EU to keep it in isolation from its Islamic environment and tradition. Such isolation will also continue to strengthen Ankara’s ties with Israel. And links with Israel will more Turkey more vulnerable to US pressure, eventually reducing to the status of ‘strategic partner’ in the Middle East - a euphemism for a US gendarme in the region.
Only one course of action would ensure that Turkey receives the respect and weight its strategic position and historical Islamic achievements merit. And that is to accept its Islamic roots and drop its pretensions to a European heritage that can only demean its predominantly Muslim people.
Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1998