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Turkey: EU membership is distant concern for Turkish voters June 27, 2011

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
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Turkey’s EU bid has been largely absent from the campaign ahead of Sunday’s general elections, mirroring a dwindling Turkish confidence in the bloc as membership talks linger at a standstill.

Turkey: EU membership is distant concern for Turkish voters as Syrians flood over border

Syrian refugees crossed over into Turkey late Tuesday, most of them from the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur  Photo: AFP


A recent survey by the research institute TESEV showed that 69 percent of Turks support their country’s endeavour to join the European Union, but only 36 percent of them believe it will happen in the next 10 years.

The survey, conducted among 1,000 people, revealed that 30 percent of Turks believe Turkey would never be allowed into the 27-nation bloc, while 21 percent said “I don’t know” when asked whether it is ever possible or not.

The data fail to provide a comfortable environment for political parties to campaign in favor of Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

The issue of the EU has been totally absent in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign speeches. It only appears on the 151st sheet of the 160 pages long election programme of his Islamist rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

AKP, a liberal offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, reaffirms its commitment to full EU membership in the programme, but strongly denounces “unfair and unfounded opposition” of certain EU countries to Turkey’s bid.

Turkey opened accession talks with the EU in 2005. However, out of the 35 policy chapters that candidate countries must negotiate, Turkey has opened talks only on 13.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has supported Turkey’s EU membership without much joy, is not different from AKP as it devotes only one page to European issues in its 136 pages long programme.

AKP’s Egemen Bagis, the minister in charge of negotiations with the EU told AFP that the entire programme of AKP, from its aim to strengthen democracy and economy, to its emphasis on diplomacy and environmental issues reflects the European ambitions of his party.

However, he still admits that the Turkish electorate is not buying the EU issue any more. According to Bagis, this does not prevent the AKP following the European path, but only draws it to proceed on that way quietly.

“It’s because the EU has lost credibility in Turkey,” he said.

Relations with the EU are at an impasse as eight chapters remain frozen due to a sanction to Turkey’s refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels under a trade pact with the EU, with France blocking several others in line with its vocal opposition to Turkey’s accession.

“The EU has a credibility problem and the main reason for this problem is not only not opening negotiation chapters, but also that we are not getting enough cooperation in the fight against terrorism from our EU allies. And we are still having a double standard on the visa situation,” Bagis said.

Turkey calls on the EU to liberalise its visa regime for Turkish citizens.

Turkey had joined the EU customs union in 1995, but Turkish businessmen still found it difficult to get EU visas and could not, for example, attend business fairs to sell goods their companies made, Turkey complains.

When asked whether the government is going to stick to its EU pledge, Cengiz Aktar, an EU expert, said he doubted that.

“I presume Turkey will be more introvert in coming years and look after its own economic, political and social issues, rather than focusing on external matters,” Aktar said.

The debate on rewriting Turkey’s constitution, a legacy of a 1980 military coup, will overshadow other issues after the elections, according to Aktar. The EU issues will wait, he said.

EU wants Turkey with it but not within it June 27, 2011

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
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At the end of last week I organized a seminar on the outcome of the Turkish elections. I was very happy that my fellow columnist from Today’s Zaman, Şahin Alpay, joined our panel together with the brilliant Semih Idiz from Milliyet and Andrew Duff from the European Parliament. These three men have a wealth of experience between them, having, in the case of Alpay and Idiz, been swimming in the Ankara fish tank for decades, and in the case of Duff, having had a prestigious academic career before becoming an MEP.

One thing all the speakers agreed on was that the election results would have no positive impact on Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. The EU hardly figured in the election campaign with Turkey becoming increasingly self-confident and Turks believing membership is no longer the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that they once thought it was. Rather, what is driving Turkey these days is its own sociological dynamics of democratization and liberation.

Duff was extremely blunt, saying that Turkey’s negotiations with the EU had come to a standstill now that there are only a few negotiating chapters left to open. And even to get these opened is proving something of a mountain to climb. In late 2010, the EU Commission opted not to open the competition chapter amid opposition from several EU states. This blocking came as a particularly strong blow because Ankara had delivered all that was required of it. While the incoming Polish presidency, which is enlargement and Turkey friendly, has said it wants to give Ankara’s membership talks a push, unless there is some change related to the Cyprus problem it will find its hands tied. There has been much talk of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan making steps on Cyprus, in particular by fully meeting Turkey’s obligations under its customs union with the EU and opening ports and airports to Republic of Cyprus traffic, now that he has such a strong mandate. However this is very unlikely, particularly given he has not taken any steps to prepare Turkish public opinion to what Turks would classify as a huge “concession.” Perhaps if the EU were able to demonstrate it is ready to “reset” talks with Ankara and get a two or three chapters opened, it may offer him some incentive. However, while the current climate exists I doubt he will lift a finger.

Because the EU continues to create unnecessary obstacles or is unable to give Turkey a clear membership perspective, the leverage that it now has on Turkey is almost zero, including in the reform process. This lack of commitment from the EU simply allows Turkey to cherry pick at the reforms it wants to do. As was said by Turkey’s ambassador to the EU earlier this week, “In the absence of any clear accession perspective, there’s no reason why Turkey should align its legislation toward narrow EU standards.” Of course Turkey will continue to read the recommendations delivered in the European Commission’s annual Progress Report, but that does not mean Ankara is going to follow them word for word, which was the case when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) first came to power in 2002.

In fact, while Turkey is a candidate country, the approach the EU takes is similar to the one it has with the countries of Eastern Europe — those countries that are part of its European Neighbourhood Policy, or Eastern Partnership Policy. However, even these countries — such as Moldova and Ukraine, while they may have no membership perspective, they are at least negotiating visa-free regimes with the EU, something that is continually refused to Turkey. And it is not just these countries, as even Russia is engaged with the EU in talks for visa-free travel for its citizens, while Turkey, a key ally and partner of the EU, is denied. This is particularly humiliating for Turks, who have been negotiating membership for five years but yet still have to queue up for hours for a visa, which is frequently refused.

The EU’s approach towards Turkey has no logic. On the one hand you have a blatant rejection of the very notion of Turkish membership, even though the EU has offered Turkey this very thing, while at the same time the EU is practically begging Turkey to save the situation in Syria. At an EU foreign ministers’ meeting last week it was clear that the EU was pinning all its hopes on Turkey helping to stop the violence in Syria, with foreign ministers stating they hoped Turkey would be able to play a big role in curbing the violence in Syria stating “the EU acknowledges the efforts by Turkey … on the different aspects of the crisis, in particular the humanitarian aspects and will work with them to address the situation in Syria.” While Greeks and Greek Cypriots tried to block the statement they were — for once — overruled. It’s a pity the EU could not take such a pragmatic approach to other aspects of its relations with Turkey.

Turkey: time for reassessment June 27, 2011

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
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Supporters of Turkey’s ruling party AKP ‘Justice and Development Party’ celebrate with party flags and pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan after the first results of the parliamentary election in front of party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, 12 June 2011 |EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU

The remarkable thing about the Turkish election result is not that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won but the unanimity in the international press that it would not be good for Turkish democracy if they gained 330 seats or more in the Turkish parliament. In the event, half the votes only resulted in 326 seats, falling short of the 330 seats needed to change the constitution with a referendum and the 367 seats which would have made it possible for the government to change the constitution alone.

The other common denominator was the fear that an overwhelming victory would reinforce what the Financial Times called the AKP’s “unsettling authoritarian tendencies”. This was demonstrated when The Economist recommended that Turks voted for the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) to put a brake on Erdoğan’s autocratic style of government.

The reaction was not long coming. Erdoğan blasted The Economist for being part of  “a global gang” which took its orders from Israel, and for good measure blasted the CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for also being “a project of international gangs”. The Wall Street Journal in turn accused Erdoğan of “reviving the crackpot anti-Semitic media theories of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad”.

In a report published five days before the election the Pew Research Center confirmed the reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s success. 49% of the Turks interviewed were upbeat about the economy as opposed to 14%  in 2002  (when the AKP was first elected) and 46% in 2007 (the second election). In addition, 62% expressed confidence that Erdoğan would do the right thing in world affairs.

Correspondingly, strong majorities of Egyptians, Jordanians and Lebanese expressed confidence in the Turkish prime minister whereas, somewhat surprisingly, he enjoyed less support in the Palestinian territories. Predictably, Erdoğan received resoundingly negative ratings (95%) from Israeli Jews, whereas 60% of the minority Arab community expressed their confidence.

The AKP government’s foreign policy orientation was clearly displayed in Erdoğan’s victory speech when he declared: “Today Sarajevo won as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza won as much as Diyarbakır. Today the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans and Europe won as much as Turkey.” ´

Another reason for Erdoğan’s popularity is his no nonsense style of speaking – that of the Kasımpaşa (district of Istanbul) kabadayı (tough guy). He won acclaim not only in Turkey but also the Middle East for his “you know well how to kill” confrontation with Israel’s president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009.

Erdoğan also laid it on the line at a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg in April, when he was confronted with critical questions. Here it should be noted that Turkey has been a member of the Council for 61 years and Turkey now chairs both the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Ministers.

According to Burak Bekdil, a Turkish columnist, Turkey behaves like a nouveau riche businessman. “With a newly-gained self-confidence and the deep layers of an inferiority complex that stems from a past full of poverty and disgrace, he insults, provokes, agitates and tests the limits of his powers.”

As Erdoğan underlined in Strasbourg, Turkey is no longer the supplicant at the gates, but Turkey needs Europe as much as Europe needs Turkey. Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center’s survey points out that only 17% of Turks believe their country should look to Europe in the future, whereas 25% look to the Middle East. 37% believe that both regions are equally important.

The exercise of Turkey’s “soft power” and its policy of “zero problems with neighbours” have already met their first setbacks in Libya and Syria, and Erdoğan has been forced to distance himself from Bashar al-Assad’s savage repression. A greater  challenge lies with the growing unrest in Turkey’s southeast and Kurdish demands for regional autonomy, which will not diminish now that the Kurdish BDP (Peace andDemocracy Party) has almost doubled its number of seats in the Turkish parliament.

Erdoğan, who in 2005 was the first Turkish leader to acknowledge “the Kurdish problem”, recently declared there is no longer a Kurdish problem in Turkey, and  stated he would have hanged the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan if he had been given the opportunity. As Öcalan has the same iconic status among many Kurds that Mandela has in South Africa, this statement can hardly have won many Kurdish votes.
The main stumbling block to Turkey’s EU accession prospects is Cyprus. To date only limited progress has been made in the current negotiations and the core issues of property, territory and the Turkish settlers remain to be broached. At a meeting of the European Parliament’s Friends of Turkey at the end of March Andrew Duff stated Turkey would be making “a profound and historic strategic mistake” if it put Cyprus before the European Union. But the onus now lies on Turkey – and in particular Erdoğan – to take the necessary steps to end the impasse.

Turkish columnist Semih Idiz recently mooted the notion that Ankara’s relations with Europe should be based more on economic self-interest than integration, and called for the establishment of a new “modus vivendi” and a new narrative between Turkey and Europe.

Now that a number of European and Turkish politicians are no longer labouring underthe illusion of Turkish EU membership, this might be an opportune moment to reassessthe situation.

Who does Alexander the Great belong to? June 27, 2011

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia, Yunanistan.
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by Hajrudin Somun

Workers lift a massive statue of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus in Skopje ‘s Central Square on June 21. The statue, whose installation in the square is part of a cultural project “Skopje 2014,” is 12.5 meters high and stands on a 10 meter pedestal.
There was a cultural event in Skopje that would not for a moment draw the world’s attention from much more important events — such as the uprisings in Syria and Libya — for example, if it did not have such an intense political background, connotation and reaction. A giant statue of an ancient warrior on a horse was erected in the main square of the Macedonian capital on June 21. It was greeted with an ecstatic welcome from thousands of Macedonians present at the square and caused a great deal of anger in neighboring Greece.
There was a cultural event in Skopje that would not for a moment draw the world’s attention from much more important events — such as the uprisings in Syria and Libya — for example, if it did not have such an intense political background, connotation and reaction. A giant statue of an ancient warrior on a horse was erected in the main square of the Macedonian capital on June 21. It was greeted with an ecstatic welcome from thousands of Macedonians present at the square and caused a great deal of anger in neighboring Greece.

There was another attraction in the event as well; nobody officially said who the huge equestrian statue represented and in other circumstances it might be one of those “unknown soldiers” that many countries have dedicated national monuments to. In this case, however, the image and appearance of a warrior cast in bronze was well-known to everybody and it was easily recognized as the figure of Alexander the Great, whom both Macedonians and Greeks consider their primeval ancestor.

There is no doubt that Alexander was a great historical Hellenic figure, but that does not mean that everything that was Hellenic belongs to modern Greece. What might be said for numerous historical sites in Anatolia and the Middle East that belonged to the promising Hellenic centuries? Greeks long ago gave up the “Hellenism” of those areas and now go to these destinations as tourists, proud they were once part of that common civilization. The cause of Alexander and Macedonia is, of course, different and it was created in modern times when Ottoman treatment of the Balkan ethnicities was altered by the rise of local nationalism and conflict, even wars among themselves.

Thus, the identification of Alexander the Great as more or less Greek or Macedonian, is an invention of the modern nationalistic movements. Alexander was the son of the Philip II the Macedonian, but he himself could not be regarded as being just Macedonian or Greek. He belongs to both contemporary Greece and Macedonia, by way of his Hellenic blood or by his Macedonian land and ancestors. He belongs perhaps even more to the whole world, despite being regarded as a bearer and messenger of Hellenic civilization or a cruel invader and destroyer of more ancient ones. It is not important that I personally believe the latter and that the West’s prevailing negative view of the old Eastern peoples and cultures was created by biased and prejudiced ancient Greek historians.

At this very moment it is important that modern Macedonia had the right to raise a monument to Alexander the Great if it were done on a more modest scale, in a less striking place in their capital, at a less challenging time and — what is perhaps even more important — if it were not done in reaction to the persistent two-decade-long Greek refusal to recognize the name of the Republic of Macedonia, which the parliament of that country adopted and two thirds of the UN member-states accepted.

Bearing a strange name

However, due to Greece’s rejection of the name and right to veto in the European Union, Macedonia — in all international organizations and official events, even sports-related ones — still bears a long and strange name: “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM), which was adopted as a precondition for the country’s recognition and acceptance to the UN. It is ironic that Yugoslavia has disappeared from the Balkan map, but its name still appears in the name of a country that, similar to other former Yugoslav republics or any other country in the world, deserves the right to name itself by the will of its people. In spite of UN-led negotiations, two countries have not been able to solve the name dispute. Greece hardly accepts Macedonia having the same name as its northern province.

In Athens, the Republic of Macedonia is usually called Skopje, its capital, while it is officially referred to as FYROM. For the same reason the Greek government doesn’t recognize the Macedonian constitution and flag, which bears a symbolic Hellenic sun. For the Macedonian people and language, Greeks use the adjective “Slavomacedonian” because they consider any use of the pure Macedonian term as a theft of their identity and a “falsification” of their history. That is why Greeks consider Alexander the Great theirs and see the unveiling of the statue in Skopje as a direct insult “with the aim of stirring up nationalism and conflict.” This has only re-confirmed the Greek Foreign Ministry’s official explanation of the dispute, which says FYROM “is exercising a policy of irredentism and territorial claims fuelled by the falsification of history.”

The erection of the 13-meter “Warrior on a Horse” statue might be a mark of the Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s victory after the early elections held at the beginning of June. Known for his uncompromising approach towards the name dispute with Greece, he did something similar after his party won elections five years ago, naming the Skopje airport after Alexander the Great, as well. That also irritated Greece.

Gruevski’s party — whose name is as complicated as the country’s name, the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) — has roots in the 1893 Macedonian patriotic revolutionaries’ movement, whose sole aim was “liberating the Macedonian people from the Ottoman yoke.” It is today a Christian Democrat and anti-Communist party, ethnically based and claiming that “the party’s goal and objectives express the tradition of the Macedonian people.” It won 37 percent of a total 1.1 million votes.

The main opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) followed Gruevski’s party with 33 percent of the vote. They are led by former President Branko Crvenkovski, who split earlier with Gruevski, solely on the issue of the country’s name dispute. Crvenkovski followed the more conciliatory line of the first president of the independent Macedonia and former chairman of the Yugoslav socialist parliament, Kiro Gligorov, who said, “We are Slavs who came to this area in the sixth century and we are not descendents of the ancient Macedonians.”

After Greeks have in principle accepted the term Macedonian, it might be included in the country’s name. Both Greek and Macedonian center-left parties were ready to accept some proposals by the UN mediators, such as “New Macedonia” or “North Macedonia,” but the leading center-right politicians remained adamant in their extremist positions. Greeks are still repeating the old slogan, “No EU and NATO membership for Skopje unless they change their name.”

If he did not place a huge monument to Alexander the Great in the center of Skopje, I would be able to understand Prime Minister Gruevski’s persistence regarding the name of his country. The name itself might perhaps be compromised if Greece stops using it as a reason to block Macedonia’s bid to join the European Union and NATO, as that was the only reason it did not become a member of the Euro-Atlantic integrations. When all NATO member states, except Greece, agreed to offer Macedonia membership at the alliance’s summit in Bucharest in 1998 and the US applied additional pressure in that regard, thereby recognizing Macedonia by its constitutional name, the invitation was called off at the last moment.

This is happening again this year, and who knows for how long. I do not know if there is any prime minister who would not be furious sitting at the United Nations, or other international body, without the constitutional name of his own country in front of him. Due to Greek opposition, a ridiculous solution was found in the UN headquarters, as Greeks not only objected to Macedonians sitting behind the letter M, but also being behind the F (of FYROM), because it would be too close to Greece’s G. So, the world organization, most of whose members recognize the country by its constitutional name, assigned Macedonia’s chair after Thailand, by the letter T, because of its provisional name, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”

It is thus possible that the Macedonian prime minister is using Alexander the Great as a tool to gain support for his party with a nationalistic background, diverting people’s attention from the bleak economic situation in a country with a current unemployment rate of at least 30 percent. One could also easily agree with London’s The Economist, which said that unveiling the Alexander statue in Skopje might give George Papandreou’s government in Athens a chance to divert attention from the catastrophic financial situation in his country, but I would hardly agree with the esteemed magazine’s conclusion that “everyone else will assume this is just more Balkan-flavored craziness.” It is a well-known story about the Balkans that it is as a “barrel of gunpowder.” Wouldn’t it also be “craziness” to use an old-fashioned veto to block access to the UN and NATO for a country that has fulfilled all conditions except its name, which its people and representatives have chosen and most of the world countries have accepted?

Although it is another subject to be reviewed on another occasion, there is also reason to question whether the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece is part of the ongoing different approach and even different strategy of the US and leading EU member states toward Balkan issues, which we in Bosnia and Herzegovina are witnessing these days as well.

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey and a lecturer of the history of diplomacy at Philip Noel-Baker International University in Sarajevo.

Macedonia Gets a Statue of Alexander the Great June 26, 2011

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia, Yunanistan.
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Statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)Statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia.

A crowd of several hundred people gathered in Skopje’s central square to watch the lifting of the 30 ton bronze statue. It depicts Alexander the Great on his mighty stallion Bucephalus. The statute is 92 feet tall from the bottom of the pedestal to the tip of alexander’s raised sword.

Macedonian Atso Stoyanov was excited. “This is a fantasy, it is a fantastic thing,” he said. “It’s wonderful for the Macedonian people, not to mention the Balkans, Europe and the entire world.”

Stoyanov was impressed by more than the artistry. He approved of the symbolism. Greece claims Alexander the Great as its ancient hero. But what is today Macedonia, was once, along with parts of Greece and Bulgaria, one geographical territory. And Macedonians like Stoyanov say the statute of Alexander the Great represents their cultural heritage and future.

“With this statue we are showing the world that Macedonian has existed, it still exists, and it will continue to exist. The Macedonian people can never be destroyed. We have roots.” Stoyanov said.

If many Macedonians sound insecure about their identity, they have reason to be. Greece accuses Macedonia of trying to appropriate its history. In fact, Greece insists that Macedonia change its name. But Macedonian cultural anthropologist Aleksandar Ristevski said his compatriots have already done more than enough to appease the Greeks.

“We changed our flag, we are calling ourselves internationally the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, mentioning a country which doesn’t exist for 20 years using some idiotic acronym. We changed the constitution because of them. We changed millions of things. What did we get? Blockage, degradation and sanctions,” Ristevski said.

Still, Greece is blocking Macedonia’s bid to join the European Union and NATO unless it changes its name. Macedonian Zoran Iliev urges his countrymen to stand firm.

The European Union is temporary, it might last for 20, 30 or 50 years, but we are unchanging, we are Macedonians,” he said. “We can change our name now, but then what happens in five years when the EU collapses? I’m not giving up my honor for any European Union. Not a single one.”

It’s that kind of nationalist fervor that provided the backdrop for the construction of the statute of Alexander the Great. Macedonians consider Alexander their heroic native son.

And anthropologist Vasiliki Neofotistos of the State University of New York at Buffalo said that means a lot to this beleaguered but proud nation.

“He was a conqueror and someone who really spread western civilization,” Neofotistos said. “So the idea was that he started his journey from Macedonia and the idea is that this is the birthplace or a cornerstone of western civilization.”

This week’s completion of the statute of Alexander has angered the Greeks further. But more than one Macedonian pointed out that Greece has its own problems to deal with these days.