Beauty contests and shotgun weddings

Azra Akin, a 22-year-old Turk with gentle eyes and a wonderful smile, was named Miss World last Saturday, sparking an explosion of pride in her country as it prepared for a tempestuous week that would go far in determining its future. «Akin’s success has once again made our country’s name known in the world and and greatly contributed to its promotion,» said Tourism Minister Guldal Aksit, the only woman in the Cabinet. Turkey has been through a lot in recent months, inching its way back from an economic precipice and recently electing its first single-party government in a generation – a government with Islamic roots whose main characteristic is that it represents the absolute rejection of the country’s establishment parties. Earlier this year, Turkey’s soccer team put the country on the sporting map by winning third place in the World Cup. So, with a new broom in power, with the world impressed by the talent of its soccer players and the beauty of its maidens, Turkey could say that it was truly entering a new era. With the United States preparing for possible war in Iraq, Turkey’s strategic position once again placed it in the crossfire of danger and opportunity. Once again, Turkey was involved in the eternal triangle: playing up its strategic value to the US in order to get a ticket into the European Union. At another level, it tried to use the irrevocable bond of Cyprus which ties it to Greece in its EU ambitions. Whereas the EU insisted that Turkey meet the necessary criteria on human rights and democracy before it could be given a date for the start of accession talks, Ankara said it might be more helpful in solving the Cyprus and Euroforce problems if the EU gave it a date soon. This made for a week of intense diplomacy and brinkmanship in which the issues of many years – decades even – came to a head. On Tuesday, ruling party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in the White House with President George W. Bush, who assured him that the United States stood «side by side» with Turkey in its effort. Emboldened as the Copenhagen summit approached, Turkish officials became adamant that they should be given a date within the next year. But EU officials and heads of member states reacted as if the US was trying, for the sake of its own temporary needs, to force the EU into a long-term marriage with a partner who was not ready for it. Germany and France, the two European heavyweights, had already decided that in late 2004 the EU should evaluate whether Turkey had met the necessary criteria and then invite it to start talks the year after. It soon emerged that the most likely compromise would be an evaluation in late 2004 and the immediate start of talks if Turkey met the EU standard. This looming possibility, coupled with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s revised proposals for a solution to the island’s division presented on Tuesday, brought new pressure to bear on solving the Cyprus problem. Something had to give. So Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash took one look at the plan, saw that Copenhagen would be akin to the torturer’s rack, and called in sick. He said he had to be in hospital in Ankara rather than attend the summit. Since Annan presented his proposal on November 11, Denktash has repeatedly declared that he will not be forced into a shotgun wedding. Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, speaking about Cyprus’s impending accession to the EU a few weeks ago, said that if the EU invited a divided Cyprus to join it would be taking a «troubled child» to its bosom, with all the problems this entailed. The metaphor is valuable, because Cyprus has long been the issue binding Greece and Turkey in a tense and unpleasant relationship, like a marriage in which the partners cannot stand each other but are forced together by geography and history. The problem is that, unlike most troubled marriages, it is not concern over the well-being of the child that keeps these unwilling partners together; rather, it is the «troubled child» that has poisoned things between them. After the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which established modern Turkey, and the great exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, Cyprus, Western Thrace and Istanbul were the areas where Greeks and Turks still lived with each other. Ethnic trouble on Cyprus in 1955 and 1964 and the harsh reactions in Turkey all but wiped out the remains of the Greek community in the capital of the former Byzantine Empire, while Muslims of Western Thrace complained of decades of discrimination. The Greek-Cypriot coup and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 nearly caused an all-out war between Greece and Turkey. Twenty-eight years later, 38 percent of Cyprus is still under Turkish military occupation but the island is becoming an EU member. This means that, as of early 2004, Turkish troops will be occupying part of the EU’s territory. That, if anything, should concentrate minds in Ankara and northern Nicosia, no matter how well Denktash can play for time, as he has shown over interminable negotiations since 1974. Athens and Nicosia, through their EU application for the latter, managed to place the Cyprus problem squarely on the international agenda, despite Turkey’s long-running efforts to keep it a Greek-Turkish issue. It has also shown the power of institutions, as for nearly 30 years the international community would not legitimize Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. Despite Greece’s mistakes over these years, in which Athens stood in Ankara’s way of closer ties with the EU, Turkey’s greatest mistake is its inability to know when it has won something. If its main concern in the past was the security of Turkish Cypriots, which ostensibly prompted the invasion in 1974, then it should have seen that Annan’s plan offered enough separation and guarantees to safeguard Turkish Cypriots. The rest – sovereignty for the Turkish-Cypriot component state, territory, and so on – should be secondary. Despite the fact that the Cyprus problem was not solved in Copenhagen, and Turkey did not get the date it wanted, Ankara is most likely to remain focused on joining the EU eventually. So, sooner rather than later, the Cyprus issue will have to be solved. But right up to the last minute yesterday, Denktash tried to keep Cyprus and Turkey chained together. «Greece cannot have rights that Turkey does not have,» he said as he left the hospital yesterday, as the Copenhagen summit was ending. «The Cyprus issue has to remain unsolved until Turkey joins the EU,» he added. Too late. Despite Denktash’s tight grip, Cyprus is walking on its own; it has left the house of its parents. Now, for the sake of his own people, who will be denied the benefits of the EU’s acquis communautaire until a solution is found, he must step aside and let a united Cyprus enter the future. This will be difficult both for Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who have learned to live separately and to dream of a future in which they will get all they want. Nor will Turkey be able to use Cyprus and its troubles with Greece as a crutch. But, once again, Greeks and Turks will have to learn to live with each other with less trouble. As a sign of good will, Greece and Turkey made a joint bid to host the Euro 2008 soccer championship. In a close vote on Thursday, they lost out to a bid by Switzerland and Austria. Perhaps they lost because of fears of spectator violence, like that which accompanied a recent UEFA cup match between Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce in Istanbul. Perhaps 2002 was too soon. Perhaps 2008 would have been dead right. In any case, in a sign of how closely related Greeks and Turks are, soccer officials of both countries blamed the referee (or UEFA, in this case) for the defeat. Turkey too is a winner this week. Apart from the lovely Miss Akin, it also got an EU commitment that it will soon be given a date for the start of accession talks. This means that the Europeans have got over their qualms about whether Turkey is eligible at all. This is far more important than the date. Unlike the Miss World contest, where there is only one winner, in meeting the criteria for EU membership every country is a winner.

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