Letter from Istanbul

Judging by the traffic and high security, you could easily mistake the country for Portugal. However, we are in Turkey, a nation whose football market is the second largest in Europe after Germany (according to the German SPORT+MARKT). Oh, if only football and politics could go hand in hand! Some 46 heads of state and governments from 46 respective countries, accompanied by their chiefs of general staff, were expected. I was not counting. There are also minister-level representatives from nine countries. European magnates and American executives, US President George W. Bush as well as the NATO Secretary-General himself are in Istanbul. Ten top-level NATO commanders, around 3,500 delegates and 4,000 journalists plus other dignitaries are expected to gather here today at the Lufti Kirdar Congress Hall to mull the NATO summit meeting. It sounds almost like the Olympics! What about security then? After a small bomb went off last week near a hotel in Ankara where Bush was scheduled to stay, and another blast which killed five in Istanbul, Turkey gave assurances that security arrangements were adequate. The Turkish authorities took draconian measures. «We want to make sure there will be zero risk, zero error and we are taking all possible measures for that,» an official declared. What kind of measures? AWACS surveillance planes from NATO are already airborne above the heads of foreign leaders. All ships in transit through the Bosporus are subject to checks, and huge barriers have been placed in front of the Ciragan and Dolmabahce palaces where meetings will be held. Officials said the estimated cost of preparations was $20 million.   «But nobody really knows what all that jazz is going to cost us really…» sighed a clerk at the Lares Park hotel (where the Greek journalists are staying). A small sense of relief was provided by the news that Turkey’s private sector will provide some $5 million to cover costs. The program announced a reception last night at the Ciragan Palace hosted by President Necdet Sezer, and for tonight a concert at the Topkapi Palace, with the schmaltzy title «Lyrical History,» featuring songs from three religions, according to the publicity. And what about the summit itself? The Turkish press, with the daily Cumhuriyet leading, is publishing long articles on some unsure «US demands.» Bordered by the Balkans, Syria and Iraq, Turkey wins the dubious prize for occupying the hottest spot in the NATO alliance. «After the rejection of the March 1, 2003 motion on troop deployment (by the Turkish Parliament) the US withdrew its warplanes from the Incirlik base. It was believed that after Iraq’s occupation, the US would not need Turkey or Incirlik. However, recent developments have shown this not to be the case,» columnist Fikret Bila wrote recently in the prestigious Milliyet. Everyone here agrees that the US is knocking imperiously once again on Turkey’s door with a list of demands similar to those that preceded the war in Iraq. It is a well-known fact that the US is moving its troops from Germany to Bulgaria and Romania and it is also an open secret that the Pentagon wants to open a base in the Turkish Black Sea region. And also, «May we, please, use some of your airports in Trabzon and Samsun?» The so-called US-led Greater Middle East (GME) initiative is one of the big topics at this summit. Bush’s initiative is primarily designed to counter militant Islam. And «voices off» from the summit say that he also insists on involving the EU and NATO in this effort. Even Turkey’s staunchly secular military sees problems regarding the American GME initiative, fearing it could fortify religious elements within the country. Oh yes: Turkey’s almost 70 million people are predominantly Muslim. A columnist, Ali Bayramogloy, wrote in his column, titled «What Does The Summit Promise?» (Yeni Safak, June 25, 2004), that NATO would be now restructured and oriented toward a new model: «The possible ‘new consensus’ reached at the NATO summit will exacerbate the distance between such countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the Western world. «Finally, it probably won’t solve such basic problems as poverty and global inequality which plague the world. Such a decision will not balance the imbalance in the world with civilian political initiatives, but control them through a public security order.» On the other hand, Washington continues to staunchly back Turkey’s EU accession and it is an open secret that the Bush administration has also worked hard for a settlement of the Cyprus problem along the lines that favored Ankara. Turkey’s EU bid also got warm support yesterday from Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and Patriarch Vartholomaios. The two met at the Phanar shortly after the patriarch and leaders of other religious groups met with Bush at the Hilton Hotel, where the president is staying. (By the way, Vartholomaios took the opportunity to congratulate Karamanlis on the Greek soccer team’s victory over France in the Euro 2004 quarterfinals on Friday. «Thank you, but I wasn’t playing,» Karamanlis replied.) And what about anti-NATO demonstrations? Don’t worry! You may hear it from psychologists who specialize in crowd behavior – and who have also studied football fans’ behavior – that what may cause violence is a specific sense of solidarity emerging suddenly and powerfully as a direct result of the way authority confronts crowds. In any case, Turkey, which wants to become the EU’s first Muslim member state, has to comply with democratic (European?) rules. So an official directive published in Turkey’s Official Gazette mentioned some 20 areas of the city where groups and individuals could protest in peace. Public statements are also allowed. «Constitutional rights accorded to citizens would apply in these designated areas,» the official directive stressed significantly. A month ago, on May 30, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, addressing the Balkan Political Club in Tirana, once more brought up Ankara’s oft-stated ambitions. «It is high time the EU and NATO embraced the Balkans by assuming further responsibilities in the development of regional economic conditions, security and stability.» Yet if Balkan people need a sense of shared identity, they are more likely to get it from football rather than NATO. The general secretary of the Greek Ministry of Culture, Christos Zachopoulos, is also the author of the most remarkable study «The Culture of Soccer Fields» (Ianos, Thessaloniki, 2004). On page 20, he maintains that the Greek prime minister often uses sport terminology in his speeches, such as, «We set the bar high.» Most probably, what us Balkan dwellers really want is some respectable referee. Something like what Bush is imposing? Could be.