The two suspension bridges spanning the Bosphorous at Istanbul are reflective of Turkey’s historic role – and its recent advances towards hopeful European Union membership. Literally the bridge between two continents, Turkey also connects the longtime reality of Islam with the modern ideal of a secular state.
The quest to join Europe began in 1963, when Turkey signed an association agreement with the forerunner of today’s EU. But only since 1999, when Turkey was deemed a candidate for admission, has Ankara’s ambition moved forward. Getting there required an at-times painful overhaul of its laws and structures in line with the EU’s criteria, which mandate democracy, a market economy and compatibility with EU laws.
The death penalty was abolished. Ankara imposed tough rules regarding police conduct towards prisoners. It now allows broadcasting and education in languages other than Turkish. Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Faruk Logoglu outlines why EU membership is worth undertaking. "This will bring benefits to Turkey and the Turkish people in the political, social, economic, strategic, and cultural spheres," he tells VOA.
Support for Turkey’s internal overhaul has been driven by a broad coalition of groups outlined by Ankara Daily News managing editor Yusuf Kanli. "The strongest supporters," he says "are the liberals, moderate Islamist groups, businessmen, and social democrats who believe EU membership will be the guarantor of the secular democratic republic in this country."
But in any society, a surge in one direction meets resistance from another. Istanbul newspaper columnist Cengiz Candar says opponents include ultra-nationalists, xenophobes – those who fear change, and entrenched members of the state bureaucracy who benefit from the status quo. "Now, some in the Turkish ruling circles will have to lose their privileges, and understandably they don’t have much appetite for change," he says.
Turkey’s military has strongly influenced government and society as the so-called guarantor of the secular state. But the military’s historic influence, according to Soli Ozel at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, has been checked by the desire to win over Europe. "The EU accession process, as it continues, acts as a brake on responding too forcefully or precipitously," he says. The Turkish military in the past has taken over the government during certain periods.
Despite Turkey’s extensive reforms, human rights monitors say they have not been fully carried out in significant areas. Human Rights Watch cites the lack of full freedom of expression, including press freedom. The group also notes problems with enforcing a state-mandated ban on police torture, and addressing the needs of hundreds of thousands of Kurds removed from villages in eastern Turkey during government anti-terrorism operations in the early 1990’s.
Human Rights Watch’s monitor for Turkey, Jonathan Sugden, questions Ankara’s efforts to restore those villages and return their inhabitants. "The government since 1995 has launched a series of projects, one after another," he says. "All of them are more or less completely empty. They were developed for cosmetic purposes. There’s no money, no political will behind these projects whatsoever."
While Turkey’s Kurds have recently been given more freedom for cultural expression, former Turkish parliamentarian and Kurdish politician Hasim Hasimi asserts that Ankara’s changes were not voluntary. "If it was not for joining the European Union," he says "the Turkish state would have never accepted the Kurdish issue and would not have dealt with them they way they are dealing today." Mr. Hasimi says that Ankara has historically denied that the Kurds were a distinct minority group, and did not allow their language and culture to be openly expressed until very recently.
Despite its changes, Turkey still faces the challenge of convincing EU countries that a Muslim state of nearly 70-million persons is compatible with their own values and interests. Skepticism is substantial -- the last EU wide poll taken two years ago found 49% against Turkey’s EU membership and only 32% in favor. Observers say Ankara also needs to reassure EU members that Turkey’s large population will not upset the present balance in the European Parliament.