Letter from Thessaloniki

My luck would be coveted by many Turks, I presume. As Turkey is currently preparing for an important celebration – its 80th anniversary as a modern nation on Oct. 29 – on that specific day next week, I shall have the honor of being entertained – together with many other Thessalonians – by the new consul general of Turkey in Thessaloniki, Mr Sekin Cetinelli, in the compound where the house of Ataturk, the «father of all Turks,» stands. It is difficult for people in the West to conceive what Mustafa Kemal – described in his juvenile years as being a sullen, red-haired, blue-eyed boy, here in Thessaloniki where he was born – means to the Turks. Even one of his most fervent adversaries, Greek PM Eleftherios Venizelos recognized him publicly as one of the very few great statesmen of the previous century. For, in the 1920s and ’30s, the reformer of modern Turkey did thoroughly Westernize Turkey and made a completely secular republic out of a medieval society. He made – forced is better – the country adopt the entire Swiss legal code and the Christian calendar, and established Sunday as a day of rest. Education and marriage were secularized, the wearing of the fez banned and Arabic and Persian words rooted out. The Roman alphabet replaced the Arabic. A great womanizer, he is famed to have had relations with a blonde Greek actress, Zozo Dalmas, whose head still smiles from the box of Sante cigarettes. Of course, we Greeks at the time had every plausible reason to see him as enemy No 1. But that is another story, told so often and so thoroughly during the last decades that every Greek knows it only too well. Yet now that our Eastern neighbor has applied for European Union membership, one can recall Kemal Ataturk as the father of «European Turks» as well. One of his famous photos shows him in European formal attire – white tie and tailcoat – demonstrating Roman letters to a crowd of his completely disorientated countrymen. By establishing a dictatorship, he made important reforms, he boosted his countrymen’s morale while he constantly preached that their first aspiration should be to look westward. Eighty years later, and with EU entry as top priority (the present PM, Mr Erdogan, has recently predicted that Turkey will be ready to join in 2012), the Turks are doing again what they were already trying to do in the ’20s and ’30s: to effect as many reforms as possible in a very short time. With a progressive card with which Ankara hopes to trump European rivals, restrictions on Kurdish language courses were lifted yesterday. Yet that seems not to be enough. The shape of Turkish-EU politics to come cannot yet be discerned through the murky aftermath of military rule. First of all, Ankara has to convince the EU member states that Turks are worthy of entering the European Union. Last Thursday, the Hurriyet daily columnist Cuneyt Ulsever raised some crucial questions about Turkey’s membership process. First, he posed the question: «Are the Turks European?» A good question, indeed, if one considers that until Kemal’s time to be called a «Turk» in the Ottoman Empire was something of an insult, at least among the aristocratic Ottomans. The enduring Turkish peasants of Anatolia had to put up with as much scorn as the «lesser» minorities of the empire. They surely were worse off than the Greeks living there. To this question Mr Ulsever answers with an emphatic «No.» «As Europeans are mostly familiar with people who have migrated to the Continent from Anatolia’s small towns and villages, they aren’t aware that most Turks are much more modern and European that these immigrants.» That’s something I can personally confirm after many visits to Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Their younger generation is identical to ours. Another question posed by the same columnist was: «Will the Cyprus issue be resolved?» «Politicians, in particular, are remarking that if the Cyprus issue isn’t resolved by next May, when the Greek Cypriots are to join the EU’s ranks, then Turkey should forget about getting a date for its own membership negotiations in December 2004. They hope that opposition parties will win this December’s elections in occupied northern Cyprus; a development they hope will lead to key changes on the island.» At about the same time, Greek-Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos declared in Brussels: «We will welcome Turkey joining the EU,» adding also that «we will evaluate the issue when the time comes but I think a veto would be unwise.» And the final question was: «Does Europe need Turkey?» Certain politicians stated frankly that the decision the EU is to make on Turkey in 2004 will indeed be a political one. If the then 25 EU members agree that Europe doesn’t need Turkey, Ankara will once again have to forget about its EU membership hopes. In brief, our time is short, but our path remains too long! A week ago, speaking to Kathimerini, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said that his Turkish counterpart and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul’s official visit to Athens next Wednesday would be a great opportunity to improve the two countries’ relations. Perhaps there are even better ways to do just that, such as heaving the living mediation of a US foreign secretary. It’s a shame that Secretary of State Colin Powell decided not to visit Athens while Abdullah Gul was to be here. Yet there are other means that could help our Greek-Turkish relations. Here is one suggestion: A month ago (September 20) the following reader’s letter was published in the Turkish daily Zaman: Dear Editors, What the two countries need is an agreement on soccer cooperation. With peace in Cyprus, my country, Greece, can finally become WORLD CHAMPION in soccer. Then you’ll see if anyone in Greece complains… Here you have a country like Italy, that plays TERRIBLE SOCCER and has won how many world cups? Three? I believe the only way to be serious about peace and cooperation is through soccer, but our politicians are too busy to understand this. I’d like to congratulate Turkey for their great performance in the last World Cup including the games with Brasil that Turkey played better. Without peace, I doubt if I will ever see Greece playing the soccer that it should be playing. Basketball, yes, but soccer… never! We have lost so much time arguing about what? Borders? In the era of Globalization, who cares about Borders? Have Panathinaikos or the other big Greek team Olympiakos or the national team lose by five goals and then you see productivity go down the tubes! Am I wrong? Am I wrong or right? It is well known to people who study economics that there is a link between the economy and soccer results. Just ask the experts on this, the Italians. I propose Greek-Turkish tournaments in Turkey and the Turks can come and live in Athens. The rest is peanuts. Peanuts! Peanuts! With Respect, Nico (Armado) Paul Nicolaides