NEWS

For now, Erdogan is getting a smooth ride, but the military may still buck

All in all, it has been a fabulous week for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the exception of an unfortunate incident – that he fell to the ground while trying to ride a horse. His economic and political reforms went so smoothly that he has won numerous foreign pats on the shoulder. His good fortune may continue in the months ahead unless he continues to behave like himself. Mr Erdogan’s biggest risk is Mr Erdogan – and Turkey skeptics in Brussels. Last week opened with news of Standard and Poor’s upgrade of Turkey’s debt rating as a sign that minor deviations from targets under the $16 billion, IMF-sponsored economic program would not lead to significant sales on Istanbul’s financial markets. Investment bank J.P. Morgan quickly followed suit and raised its allocation of Turkey’s bonds in its model portfolio. But Mr Erdogan had more important concerns than foreign investors. His men in Parliament successfully passed a landmark legal reform to curb the military’s political influence – and without creating too much tension with the generals. The law, as part of efforts to meet the Copenhagen criteria, strips the military-dominated National Security Council of its executive powers and turns it into an advisory body. It also abolishes some anti-terror laws curtailing freedom of thought and expression. Brussels welcomed the reform as «very positive.» But it says it will not hold accession talks with Turkey without it first implementing a whole series of these sensitive reforms. EU reforms are notoriously controversial in Turkey as they challenge a state apparatus that often places nationalist unity and staunch secular principles ahead of democratic practice. But why has the military silently nodded to all the daring reforms passed by a government whose Islamist roots it finds deeply suspicious? The unusually submissive outlook reflects a policy preference by the military’s top command. Although most parts of the armed forces advocate «tougher rules and practice» against the usual foes, i.e. separatists and radical Islam, Turkey’s top general, Hilmi Ozkok, has a different strategy. Gen. Ozkok is a devoted believer in Turkey’s long and difficult journey into the EU – although, like others, he does not fully rely on the EU mindset for Turkish membership. He prefers to face possible national security risks than to suggest the military obstruct the country’s path into the EU. If, the army chief calculates, the EU behaves fairly and opens accession talks with Turkey once all reforms have been passed into legislation and implemented successfully, current fears of security risks will fade away. If the anti-Turkish axis in Brussels succeeds in keeping Turkey at arm’s length despite all reform work, Mr Erdogan will be singled out as the culprit. Then there will be every reason to expect «tougher rules and practice» in Turkey. One thing is certain, though. The closer Turkey gets to the Copenhagen criteria, the more critical Cyprus will become. As this column has frequently argued, Cyprus is the real test case for Turkish membership. After seven different packages of political reforms passed already, with more to come, a solution in Cyprus now depends largely on the future of the currently fractured EU outlook on Turkish membership. If Turkey skeptics in Brussels gain an upper hand in policymaking and rebuff Ankara, for whatever reason, Turkish hardliners too will gain an upper hand and block a settlement. And if things move smoothly between Ankara and Brussels on membership matters other than Cyprus, more and more powerful men in the Turkish state apparatus will tend to agree that the Annan plan could be a good starter for a final round of talks, which would then offer good prospects for ending the conflict. Mr Erdogan might have had a secret agenda in hastily passing all the democratic reforms. He probably thought the EU was the best opportunity for him to prune the powers of the military – a move he is desperate to make for all his survival instincts but would not have dared had he not had this perfect justification no one can object to. All the same, whether or not he has evil plans, he is doing the right thing. Still dizzy at being on unexpectedly smooth terms with the military and the praise from the European Commission, Mr Erdogan won more applause – this time from the International Monetary Fund. Turkey’s biggest foreign donor not only approved a delayed fifth review of Turkey’s loan pact, it also extended Ankara’s loan repayments by one year for 2004 and 2005. That, according to Ali Babacan, the treasury minister, means an immediate cash flow of $476 million and a repayment relief to the tune of $11 billion. With absolute control over 65 percent of the Turkish Parliament, Mr Erdogan has a unique opportunity to make his country a better place. But he is too ambitious and daring. Too much good news may make him feel he is just too powerful. Perhaps he should read more of Turkey’s recent political history. One anecdote could be particularly useful for him. When one journalist asked Suleyman Demirel, former president and seven times prime minister of Turkey, why he allowed the military coup in 1980, Mr Demirel answered, «Unfortunately, I was not in a position to import an army to defend (the government) against my own army.»