The "Sick Man" of Europe
Almost a century ago, the dying Ottoman Empire was known as the "sick man of Europe." As it lay prostrate, the great powers circled like vultures, jockeying for position besides Balkan hopefuls like Greece and Bulgaria, intent on carving up the dead beast. Yet at the final hour, the beast was resuscitated by the dashing Kemal Mustafa Attaturk, a military leader who refused the orders of the last Ottoman sultan to disband, and instead drove the foreigners out, in order to establish the secular, modern, and strong nation that exists today.
While Turkey is not currently gripped in the mortal throes of a wasting disease, it is perhaps in danger of being eclipsed. Here the Turks are divided into two camps: the pro-Western elite, who see Turkey's future as an EU member state well-integrated with Europe, and the pro-religious sector of the populace, who detest Attaturk's secular designation, and wish for a Turkish Islamic government – like in Iran, the Arab states, and Afghanistan. Controlling the latter (as well as Turkey's many mostly imagined enemies) has required a constant and costly show of force, in the form of a highly visible military presence.
Turkey's military strength can sometimes work against it. Paradoxically, even though the army is there to protect and nurture a pro-democratic, pro-European climate, the resulting image of Turkey as a police state run by humorless generals has caused many Westerners to criticize the apparent suppression of dissent and free speech. Besides the political hindrance presented by the military, a second and more basic factor is the inordinate expense of maintaining and outfitting such a force. A large percentage of the Turkish budget goes to defense – thereby reducing the funding for education and social programs, and increase the skills and aptitude of the Turkish labor force. Yet with perceived enemies on every border – the Russians, Iraqis, Syrians and Greeks, not to mention the internal religious separatists and restless Kurdish minority – it's unlikely that Turkey will change its policy anytime soon.
While it will undoubtedly get a reassuring pat on the back from America for the continuing US air force presence in Incirlik, Turkey is uneasy at the prospect of mass anti-Western protests. Should America start bombing Islamic countries, many fear that the government might suffer from guilt by association – and become an object of attack from within. More so than any other Islamic country, a radicalized Turkey would pose an unpredictable and immediate danger to Europe. Once again, the dependence on a strong military can become a potential liability.
Complaints From the Turkish Cypriots
Most embarrassing for Turkey is the current crisis of morale in Northern Cyprus. The minority population of the majority Greek island, which the Turkish army is allegedly there to "protect," is allegedly chafing under a demoralizing existence of repression and poverty, brought about by the thirty-year rule of Rauf Denktash, a bilious curmudgeon comparable to the equally rancorous Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland.
Allegiance to Ankara has largely been a given for the Turkish population of Cyprus since the invasion of 1974. For strategic reasons, and to guarantee a diplomatic card, Turkey pursued the military occupation of one-third of the island, and set up a "republic" of Northern Cyprus that has gone unrecognized by every country but Ankara. To strengthen their claims to the island, a significant number of Anatolian Turks were relocated to Cyprus, many leaving a life of relative prosperity for one of poverty. Now the usually docile Turkish Cypriots are angry; they gaze enviously across the barbed wire at affluent Greek Cyprus, modern, European and forward-looking. Now, with Cyprus being sped along to EU membership by 2004 – whether or not a settlement is reached with Turkey – the Northern Cypriots are beginning to feel betrayed and unjustly hindered by their own leaders. A report in the Guardian of 25 September captures the mood:
"Please tell the world that the TRNC is an open prison," Ahmet Barcin, president of the zone's secondary-school teachers' union, said. "It's one big, militarised zone and all the gates are locked. Our only key to freedom is a quick peace settlement [with the Greek south of the island], entry to the EU and reintegration with the rest of the world."
Denktash: Out of Touch or Out of Office?
Although applications for passports have almost doubled, and desperate Turkish Cypriots have organized a diverse collection of opposition parties into a front called "the Group of 41," their ill-tempered throwback of a leader continually denies the existence of any problem – or even of any unique local culture:
"Those who are against Turkey are wrong. There is no Cypriot culture, apart from our national custom of drinking brandy. There are Turks of Cyprus and Greeks of Cyprus, that's all," he snapped.
But last year tear gas was used in northern Nicosia to break up supporters of the Group of 41 demonstrating under the slogan "This is our country."
Not long after that the opposition newspaper Avrupa (Europe) was bombed, and there was a severe crackdown on all informal contacts with Greek Cypriots. "What's the point of such contacts?" Mr Denktash said. "I've heard the only thing people seem to do at these meetings is have sex."
Ouch! In striking quite literally below the belt, Denktash betrays his failure to connect with the modern generation of Turkish-Cypriots. Will he be replaced? The warm Mediterranean sun, which should really be shining down equally on Cyprus as a whole, casts its benevolent rays solely on the Greek section of the island. With EU accession looming, Turkish Cypriots seem determined to avoid being frozen out. Unlike their compatriots on the Anatolian mainland, the Turkish Cypriots have a chance – and damned if they're going to let one cranky old man stand in their way.
What Would a Re-unified Cyprus Mean for Ankara?
The Cyprus stalemate is so longstanding now that any concession on either side would inevitably be seen as a sign of weakness and failure. Therefore, a unified Cypriot state, ineluctably to be dominated by its more affluent, educated and Europeanized Greek majority, would be considered a step backwards. The loss of control of the northern section of the island would come as a tremendous military setback and admission of weakness. Indeed, could there be any scenario more distressing to the Turks than a unified Cyprus?
Thinking the Unthinkable
Yes, in fact, we can go one better, with the ultimate scenario that would give every Turkish leader an instant stroke – that is, the thought of Cyprus joining the Greek state,, This is admittedly a long shot of an option; but could a Greek-controlled Cyprus actually benefit Ankara?
First of all, such a capitulation on Turkey's part would of necessity engender a similarly major concession on the Greek side. If Turkey wanted, a guarantee of EU membership would be the absolute minimum required, and they would no doubt win additionally in trade concessions and other economic relief. The second reason why Turkey would benefit is that, as the past decade in the Balkans has shown, being an ethnic minority in someone else's country is much better than having an ethnic minority within one's own country. By championing the rights of the Turkish minority in Cyprus, Ankara would acquire greater leverage (indeed, it would gain practically a veto power on all policy decisions).
The Fallout, on Two Fronts
While analysts have shivered at the thought of Turkey's "wrath" at potentially being locked out of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, there would seem to be little to fear. At worst, the US could lose access to its strategic bases, but Turkey is not about to start a war with anyone, anyway.
The traditionally hostile Turko-Russian relationship could well get worse, and the outlines of a realpolitik cold war showdown are already emerging in the Caucasus. In the Adjara region of southern Georgia, the Turkish minority has spoken of independence. A little further to the east, Georgia's Armenians are protesting the withdrawal of Russian troops, who they believe are essential to protect them against the Turks. Whether or not there fears are justified nowadays, many of the Armenian Georgians are old enough to remember when they were.
Modern Turkey continues to be attacked by Europe for its "human rights" deficiencies, both old and new. In this regard, John Paul II, feeble as he is, has still got that Catholic instinct for twisting the knife. The Pope condemned Turkey for yeghern (Armenian for "genocide") against its Armenian minority, a designation also made by European governments but for which Clinton apparently lacked the guts. Although Turkey denies it, Armenian scholars claim that 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up and killed by the Ottomans between 1915-1923. Turkey, on the other hand, claims that Armenians were also guilty of massacres and of abetting Russian invading forces. In any case, students of Anatolian history knows that the region of "Armenia" (a powerful kingdom in the Middle Ages) was much larger than the pitifully small country it is today.
For Europe, the Cynical View May be Hard to Swallow
Since Greek dropped its objections to Turkish EU accession in 1998, the rest of Europe has been scrambling to find a way to keep the Turks out of Europe. Countries like Sweden and Ireland fear that immigration levels will rise tremendously should Turkey join the EU. Yet they don't want to say it. Since European countries have always fancied themselves as being so advanced and humanitarian, it was easy to make Turkey all kinds of promises before – the "oh, we'd love to have you, if Greece would just drop their objection" duplicity.
Yet the Greeks know well that if Turkey does join the EU, immigrants won't stop at Athens – no, it'll be all the way to Brussels, Stockholm, or London. And then those caring Northern Europeans will have to put their money where their mouth is. To avoid doing this, it is easier to just make Turkey run the gauntlet of "human rights" – a Sisyphisean labor involving prisoners' rights, or Kurdish rights, or recognizing the Armenian genocide, or abolishing the death penalty. And so the Turks (the pro-Western elite, anyway) have been rushing around frantically to do their masters' bidding.
Preparing for the Worst – or Not
As if all this were not enough, there is one final disaster waiting to happen in Turkey, which could plunge the country – and even the whole region – into chaos.
Ever since the major earthquake in Izmit, in August 1999, in which over 20,000 were killed (mostly due to illegally built, poor quality housing), seismologists have been predicting an even worse catastrophe – a massive earthquake in Istanbul. Following the historical progression of seismic activity during the 20th century, it is clear that the Turkish fault line has been steadily activated in a westward direction, with periodic quakes roughly following the contours of the Black Sea coast. Over the past hundred years, subterranean pressure has been slowly building, so that the final rupture, the epicenter of which is anticipated to be the Sea of Marmara, just offshore from Istanbul, is likely to be the most devastating of all. Simply put, a massive earthquake in Istanbul would be catastrophic – and the Turks are completely unprepared for it.
That an earthquake here would be so destructive owes to Istanbul's location, construction and also its historic value. Situated on a tiny peninsula jutting into the Bosphorous, this sprawling city of 17 million is a decrepit maze of ancient, tiny streets and ramshackle buildings, flimsy constructions that are hardly strong enough to withstand a major quake. The prospect of oil, gas and chemicals flooding the Sea of Marmara, and the islands of Greece further on, is an almost unimaginable environmental nightmare. Moreover, Istanbul's wealth of historical ruins from Byzantine and Ottoman times make it Turkey's top tourist draw. On any given day, an estimated 2 million tourists throng its streets and shore up the Turkish economy. An earthquake in Istanbul, Turkey's most vibrant and important city, would be a shock to the Turkish economy, livelihood and culture. If the earthquake of 1999 is anything to go by, unscrupulous thieves would soon start cutting body organs from the still-warm bodies of the dead, to sell on the black market. Experts are not optimistic that the inevitable can be avoided. One hopes that they can find a way to do so, for the benefit of a country that has so much in the way of natural resources and economic potential.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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