Thursday, April 02, 2009

Obama's visit may inspire the 'change' Turkey itself needs

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star
Friday, April 03, 2009
Obama's visit may inspire the 'change' Turkey itself needs 

by Ilhan Tanir

Early next week, President barack Obama makes his first visit to a Muslim-majority country within his first 100 days in office and by doing that he will have fulfilled another campaign promise. According to the news reports, many bilateral issues will be discussed, such as assistance for US troop withdrawal from Iraq through Turkey; stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan; policies against Iran and Syria, as well as the wider Middle East peace process. At the same time, the Obama administration must have noticed by now that Turkey has been accomplishing some positive results by reaching out to its neighbors in recent years. New Turkish foreign policies such as disentangling historic conflicts with surrounding countries have started to bear fruit. Turkish officials now visit any country in the wider region and can shoulder an exhausted US in the region, as some US State Department officials recently elaborated the need for these regional strategic partnerships in broad-spectrum speeches at the US Institute of Peace conference in Washington, DC.

In the meantime, Turkey's full EU membership ambitions have been somewhat disappointing. It is true that, especially after the EU granted official-candidate status to Turkey for full EU membership in 2005, the Turkish administration has slowed the much-praised reform agenda. Turkish officials have given many reasons for this sluggishness though none of them are sufficient to explain this attitude. After all, these reforms are essential for Turkish citizens who strive to live better.

The Turkish government also has been making a lot of progress when it comes to re-establishing its relationship with its Kurdish population. Only 18 years ago, the Kurdish language was prohibited in Turkey and Kurdish identity was mostly denied. Today, an official State television channel broadcasts in Kurdish.

However, much more work needs to be accomplished in regards to other minorities. "The threat is growing nationalism and frustration with the US and Europe," a new US Assistant Secretary of State, Philip H. Gordon wrote as a co-author of a book on Turkey. Also, if the upcoming Armenian Genocide legislation passes in the House, this would further vent the chauvinistic flames in Turkey and could possibly set back much of the newly gained progress as well as newly improving relations with Armenia.

Today, Turkey is trying to turn yet another important corner toward fostering its democracy, with facing its own recent history. The judicial investigation into a shadowy ultranationalist group known as Ergenekon is continuing. In order to prove that democracy and Islam can properly function hand-in-hand, the Turkish democratic escapade must reach its final destination as a fully democratic, secular and modern country. But, still a mix of ineptitude, politicization and disinformation has disheartened many observers who wish to see the trials as a step toward an accountable and democratic Turkey, not a day for vengeance.

All the same, the Turkish democratic struggle is not moving forward linearly. First off, laws that govern Turkish political parties give utmost power to party leadership. This dysfunctional process enables party leaders to become impervious party dictators, who can annul local party organizations, cherry-pick the MP candidates and hold hostage the party members by various means to keep themselves "voted in" forever. For example, Deniz Baykal, a leader of the main opposition party, is still the strongest man in his party despite decades of election defeats, including one Sunday.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is another example. Erdogan has been running a one-man show in the government as the other founding fathers of the AKP have been eliminated one way or another in the recent years, though the local elections last Sunday promised some hope for the future of checks and balances amid dwindling support for the AKP. Yet, the AKP is still the winner and whether it learned necessary lessons, or whether the opposition parties can resonate with the people remains to be seen.

And there is the Turkish free press. In recent months there have been many disturbing episodes that have distressed many spectators who follow Turkey closely. First, Erdogan irately targeted the outspoken Dogan Media group urging people not to buy their newspapers. Then, tax inspectors decided to fine the same media outlet a huge amount, which unsurprisingly overlapped with the local elections. Freedom of speech, tolerance and harsh humor are also under fire, as Erdogan persists in suing writers and caricaturists as he deems that he should be above such criticism. This state of emotion gives another sample of untouchable psychology and many Turkish experts now echo Erdogan's authoritarian ambitions during off-the-record talks. Perhaps hearing about some of Turkey's shortcomings from a popular and transformational American president during the upcoming visit will do the trick and assist in preparing the groundwork, this time, for Turkey's "change."


Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star

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