06 May 1993 - 08 May 1993

Turkey: Problems and Prospects

Chair: Ambassador Ekkehard Eickhoff KCVO

Our conference on Turkey was held soon after the sudden death of President Turgut Ozal; and this provided, albeit sadly, an apt moment to take stock of the country in which his energy and special qualities had made his political contribution so important.

The manifold changes in the global environment suggested at the outset a simplistic question: was Turkey in any way minded to reconsider now the basic course - international and social - which Kemal Ataturk had set? A notably distinguished contingent of Turkish participants gave a firm and unanimous No. Turkey’s prime outlook had, from far earlier than the 1920s, been westward - even at worst, “the sick man of Europe” - and for all the interesting novelty of recent events in other directions, nothing either in popular sentiment or in pragmatic national interest suggested a material shift. Europe was the only major economic pole nearby for Turkey’s development, and NATO remained by every test the surest basis for Turkish security. There was, we acknowledged, sometimes a strand of feeling in other countries of the Continent which - perhaps minded instinctively to identify Europeanness with the Judaeo-Christian heritage – questioned how truly European Turkey’s vocation could be; but this found little answering echo in the key sectors of Turkish opinion.

Even the Bosnian tragedy, with its scope for focusing, through the increased social penetration of modern media within Turkey, a sense of Islamic awareness, did not, as we judged, seriously challenge this position. Though this awareness was not politically negligible, the Islamic tradition in Turkey - a country with a coherent and confident history not marked by colonisation or external domination, and so not tempted to conceive of Islamic identity as a banner of revolt - was one of tolerance and individual allegiance; the full content of formal Sharia law had little resonance or even understanding in Turkey, and forces weighing against its import should be safely proof against anything but the most sweeping failure of political and social management. Turkey might accordingly - and moreover as Islam’s one major democracy - be an important model for a constructive alternative to the wilder interpretations of Islam’s message for political life.

Inability to secure early membership of the European Community had become a less vividly salient issue than a few years ago, and it was recognised that this did not have to be the central test of acceptance as European; but it was stressed to us that membership as a long-term goal remained a key element in the Turkish outlook.

Against this background, we saw the shortcomings of metaphors like “bridge”, “broker” and “crossroads” to describe Turkey’s situation and stance. Particularly in the security context and given the loyal importance Turkey continued to attach to the North Atlantic Alliance, that stance did not envisage any partial or qualified membership of NATO’s common security space. We reminded ourselves also that, whether or not it was appropriate to characterise Turkey as having taken over from Germany as the key “consumer” of NATO-provided security, Turkey could not afford, as some other members increasingly believed they could, to regard the military aspect of security as yesterday’s business.

Some concern was voiced at how Turkey was seen by neighbours East and South. Even aside from the Kurdish complication, relationships with Iran and Iraq in their present political configurations were inevitably awkward; but a few participants queried whether Turkey always took a sufficiently informed and long-term view in its dealings with others in the region.

We were largely dismissive of the briefly fashionable notion - never home-grown - of Turkey as having some special mission in regard to the newly- independent Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia. These shared no border with Turkey and had never been part of the Ottoman Empire; their political cultures were not democratic, and they themselves looked mostly towards Russia, and thereafter East and South-East, for their most important interfaces. Turkey had given them much help, and in particular did not wish to see them in the orbit of Iran; but beyond that, the concern of Turkish policy in relation to these as to other states of its region like those of the Caucasus was not for expansionist hegemony, whether political, economic or cultural, but simply for stability and the customary norms of inter-state relations.

We found less time than we should have liked for discussion of the relationships - each of special importance, albeit for very different reasons - with the United States and with Greece. On the former, we recalled that the US had no superior as consistent champion of Turkey within NATO, and that approach of bilateral policy should continue to rest on deeply-shared interest, not quid pro quo bargaining. On the latter, we recognised that Cyprus was not a primary issue for Turkey, and that both parties moreover had been content to lower its salience, but we recalled that it still entailed costs for Turkey. The issue would not fade away; both needed before long to recover the will to move, and to that end should maintain the realistic education of their public opinions.

We were constantly aware that economic success or failure lay at the heart of Turkey’s prospects. The achievements of the past decade had been impressive along dimensions like GDP growth and industrial export success. Population increase, though slowing notably in the West of the country, nevertheless remained high, and the remarkable pace of movement from rural to urban living carried further costs. The public-sector deficit was formidable, and annual inflation stood at close on 60% - this latter a level that seemed certain to produce severe problems, adding to those already posed by agriculture, as customs union with the European Community took shape. We accepted however that the limitations of official statistics understated the strength of the Turkish economy (though an imperfect information base must itself be in some degree an economic handicap).

A good deal of unease was expressed about the ability of current political structures, at least in the near term, to handle the tough decisions on which further economic advance would depend. Hard structural choices lay close ahead, especially if Turkey - no longer a low-labour-cost economy - was to stay ahead of its regional neighbours. The defence industries could not provide an engine of growth; much more was needed from the programme of privatisation, exploiting the natural strengths of the country’s entrepreneurial tradition, yet the next elements of the programme would require politicians to tackle interests - especially some very inefficient labour complexes - for which change on the necessary scale would be deeply painful. Though the discussion showed differences in emphasis, many participants feared that present or likely coalitions, in a fragmented party system now often based on personalities rather than clear and consistent ideology or policy approach, would find it hard to rise to the real challenges over the next year or two.

The difficulties might be compounded, we heard, by shortcomings in the supporting public institutions. The armed forces, though still often indoctrinated to see themselves as last-resort internal guardians of the state and public order, were now much more minded then in the past - the mistakes of which they had indeed acknowledged - to stand back from the political process. But Western countries, accustomed to dealing with a Foreign Service of high standard, might not yet be fully aware that domestic bureaucracies were not comparable; much change seemed needed, with less politicisation, more professionalism and integrity, and a determination to secure (perhaps, despite presentational difficulty, by escaping from chronic under-remuneration) a proper share of national talent to provide effective management, dependable revenue collection and sound strategic planning.

The Kurdish question impacted on several aspects of our debate. Kurdishness could not be easily defined and was neither neatly homogenous nor conveniently compartmentalised in location; this made the scale of the issues it raised hard to measure unarguably. But we knew that the very recognition of “Kurdish reality” by the Turkish Government was a big and radical step. It was strongly argued that the Kurds must be given cultural rights, but that separate civic rights from those of general Turkish citizenships were a different matter. We speculated about a “Basque” model; but a strong view was however urged that the true way forward must lie with good pluralist democracy, and probably with effective devolution from the centre available to all, not just to one segment. One or two of us argued that Turkey was at or near a crucial point of opportunity, where both Government and Kurdish leadership should undertake - and would therein find general public support - real movement to help entrench non-violence and end the extraordinary security regime. It would be important that Turkey’s allies should do nothing that might encourage Kurdish leaders to overplay their hand.

The handling of the Kurdish problems inescapably interacted with general questions of respect for human rights within the Turkish system of law and order. We acknowledged that any campaign of terrorism must make improvement more difficult. Criticism was however still often to be heard about matters like prison conditions, torture and extra-judicial killings, and there had been disappointment that draft legislation for better penal procedure had not progressed further. Substantive as well as presentational advance in these fields seemed essential both in its own right and to lighten a burden which still sometimes beset external reactions to Turkey.

Even with the limited span of this conference the picture of Turkey, present and prospective, that emerged was far too complex for brief encapsulation without caricature. But we shared deepened insight into a country of very high yet often undervalued importance, of rich human and material resource, of determined European and Western alignment, and in a situation with many sides crucial in world affairs. We recognised formidable domestic tasks, and much yet to be done if these were to be mastered and Turkey’s full part consequently played in the wider international context. Were we, in the round, optimists about the future? I believe we were; certainly, we wanted to be.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Ambassador Ekkehard Eickhoff KCVO
Retired as German Ambassador to Turkey


Dr Shirin Akiner
Director, Central Asia Research Forum, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Mr David Barchard
Ludgate Communications; author of several books on Turkey

Professor Clement Dodd
Chairman, Modern Turkish Studies Programme, Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Mr Bruce George MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Walsall South
Mr Jeremy Greenstock CMG
Deputy Political Director and Assistant Under Secretary of State, (Western and Southern Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr Mark Moody-Stuart
Managing Director, Royal Dutch/Shell Group

Mr Edward Mortimer
Assistant Foreign Editor, Financial Times

Mr Sidney Nowill OBE
Senior Associate, The Bosphorus Institute, Inc., Istanbul

Dr Philip Robins
Head, Middle East Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Sir Sigmund Sternberg OStJ KCSG JP
Chairman, ISYS Ltd

Mr Peter Strafford        
Editor, Foreign Special Reports, The Times

Mr Costa Carras
Member of Friends of Cyprus Committee

Dr Heinz Kramer
Senior research fellow, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Research institute for International Affairs), Ebenhausen

Professor Dr Klaus Kreiser
Professor of Turkish Studies, University of Bamberg

Dr Otmar Oehring          
Head of Africa/Near East Section, Missio (Internationales Katholisches Missionswerk), Aachen

Professor Dr Sina Akşin
Department of Political Science, University of Ankara

Mr Mehmet Ali Birand
Columnist, Sabah (daily newspaper), and expert on Turkey’s foreign policy

Professor Dr Orhan Güvenen
President, State Institute of Statistics, Prime Ministry, Republic of Turkey

Mr Murat Karayalçin
Lord Mayor of Ankara

HE Mr Tugay Özceri
Permanent Representative of Turkey on the NATO Council

Mr Özdem Sanberk
Under-Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ankara

The Hon Morton I Abramowitz
President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Dr Henri J Barkey
Visiting Research Fellow, Middle East Institute, Columbia University

Professor James Brown
Professor of Political Science, Chairman, Political Science Department and Ora Nixon Arnold Research Fellow in American Statesmanship and Diplomacy, Southern Methodist University

Dr George S Harris
Director of Analysis for Near East and South Asia, Department of State

Ms Judith Kipper
Guest Scholar, (Middle East specialist), The Brookings Institution, Washington DC

Dr Bruce R Kuniholm
Director and Professor of Public Policy and History, Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Ms Ellen Laipson
National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia, National Intelligence Council

Dr Ian O Lesser
Staff member, International Policy Department, RAND, Santa Monica, specialising in southern Europe, the Mediterranean and Turkey

Dr Heath W Lowry
Executive Director, Institute of Turkish Studies Inc., Washington DC

Dr Nicholas X Rizopoulos
Vice President and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, New York

Professor Barnett R Rubin
Associate Professor of Political Science and Director, Cento1 for Study of Central Asia at Columbia University, New York

The Hon Paul D Wolfowitz
Visiting Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington DC