All in the Family

by Nikos Konstandaras

(“Athens”, February 24, 2001)

Turkey’s travails this week demonstrate how each nation, like each family, is condemned to live with itself, its strengths, quirks and weaknesses all coming together in dealing with challenges. Unless we manage to surpass ourselves, the result is predictable. In Greece, for example, emotions running high can assume a life of their own and dictate policy. We often leap to conclusions based on half-baked reports and accusations, committing ourselves to uncompromising positions from which we cannot extricate ourselves without losing face. And losing face is almost suicidal with our fractious politics.

It is fitting that the political and financial crisis that hit Turkey began in the National Security Council, at a meeting to discuss European Union-mandated reforms necessary for EU membership. The NSC itself is an obstacle to that goal: No other EU candidate allows its military such a major say in affairs of state. The meeting’s most useful outcome would have been to abolish itself. But instead of tackling this problem, the country’s two top civilian officials chose to go up in a fireball themselves, suggesting their determination to prevent debate on the military’s political role. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, formerly a top judge now in this largely ceremonial role, apparently insulted Ecevit for his purportedly soft stand corruption in Turkey—another of the country’s great problems which, like the military, will determine its fate. Ecevit storms out and, in his customarily dramatic manner, says he has been insulted and that “this is a grave crisis.” It wasn’t before, but the prime minister’s merely saying so makes it a crisis. The Istanbul stock exchange plummets, sending shock waves across the world’s emerging markets. The central bank spends nearly $5 billion to shore up the lira and interest rates skyrocket to 7,500 percent.

It is awesome that the frail shoulders of the sickly Ecevit should bear the sole burden for this profound shock to his country’s stability, but that’s life. It is not nearly so awesome as the price Cyprus has paid because of a decision by Ecevit in 1974, which had made him a hero to his countrymen - until this past week. (Although one day history will most likely judge Turkey’s dead-end Cyprus adventure as having cost the country far more than any purely financial crisis in terms of money and lost political development.) It is astonishing how the experienced Ecevit allowed his feelings over Sezer’s statements to cause a national crisis, or what seized Sezer to lecture the prime minister in public. Either the two have spent too much time haranguing each other in private without anyone prevailing, or Ecevit was truly taken aback by a surprise attack.

It often helps to look at Turkey’s way of dealing with things from a Turkish point of view, as our vantage point, even if well-meaning, may make our observations appear tainted. In a comment to The New York Times following the death of an opposition party MP who was involved in a fistfight in Parliament, Dogu Ergil of Ankara University said, “Terms of engagement in Turkish politics are not based on reconciliation, but rather on opposing each other and subduing the other side. It’s part of Turkish social and political cultures.” The dead man, True Path party member Mehmet Fevzi Sihanlioglu, was one of many MPs known to carry guns in Parliament. “It’s really a shame to see that people who ought to bring peace and stability to the country are bearing instruments of violence and warfare,” Ergil noted. (IHT, February 13.)

As for us, Greece has a wealth of experience in meeting the EU’s criteria for Economic and Monetary Union, which the Turks could find useful. Turkey badly needs to see the need for reconciliation, rather than the threat of force, as the necessary guiding principle for Greek-Turkish relations, and to comprehend the need to raise its own standards rather than demanding the EU march to its tune. That tune is finished. Our Turkish friends would get enormous benefit, both home and abroad, from learning to argue, hear the other’s point and compromise.

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