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The Turkish question

The hunger strikers have had European support, but Turkey needs understanding too, says Tony Barber
Taking a swipe at Turkey's human rights record has long been the favourite occupation of a certain type of Western politician and pressure group. Murder, torture, denial of freedom of speech, discrimination against minorities: the allegations pile up so thick and fast that a visitor from Mars might wonder why Turkey has not yet been banished to the same netherworld of pariah states as Iraq or North Korea.

As the death toll rose last week in Turkey's mass prison hunger strike, off went the politicians and pressure groups again. Most European Union governments (with the interesting exception of Britain, of which more below) were quick to point the finger of blame at the Turkish authorities and to demand urgent improvements in the conditions of the prisoners' confinement.

Some of this criticism was fair, but much of it was misplaced. It would be more rewarding, though undoubtedly less fashionable, to make an effort at understanding the challenges facing Turkey, a rapidly modernising country that is uneasily poised on the dividing lines between Europe and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam, the Western and non-Western worlds.

That in turn might enable Europeans, including the thousands of British tourists now on holiday in Turkey, to make up their minds about what sort of Turkey we can expect to see in the future and what sort of relationship we should have with the Turks. Turkey is developing too fast, its strategic position is too important and its role as a standard-bearer for secular democracy in an Islamic society is too valuable for these questions to be put off any longer.

First, that hunger strike. It started two months ago, involved about 300 prisoners in jails scattered across Turkey, and ended last Sunday with 12 inmates dead and 18 others in critical condition. Clearly, it was no trivial matter, yet unfortunately the manner in which it was presented to television audiences and newspaper readers in Europe tended to distort the issues involved.

Most news organisations, searching for a simple label to categorise the prisoners, took to calling them "leftists". So some of them were, in a sense - the same sense in which Martin Bormann and Heinrich Himmler were "rightists". It is open to doubt whether the prisoners themselves would be happy with their media tag. Some would certainly regard it as an insult to be called mere leftists, in the same way that Josef Stalin would have flown into a rage if anyone had dared suggest he was a social democrat of the bourgeois variety.

Most hard-core hunger strikers came from Turkey's relatively young but rich and intermingled traditions of revolutionary terrorism and political extremism. Some protesters had been convicted of murder and bombings, and the majority belonged to groups with names such as the Turkish Revolutionary Communist Union and the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party Front.

This is not left-wing politics of a kind that Tony Blair or even Tony Benn would attach his name to. If it is left-wing politics at all, it is left-wing politics driven by an urge to kill. For these groups openly embrace "armed propaganda", the euphemism for terrorist attacks on politicians, judges, policemen, businessmen and anyone else deemed to symbolise Turkey's power structures. They have nothing but contempt for free elections and civilised political debate, and their purpose in life consists of instilling maximum fear and disorder in Turkish society.

"Leftist" urban terrorists have been active in Turkey since 1970 and, together with their extreme right-wing opposite numbers and the heavy- handedness of the state, they were largely responsible for the climate of violence and chaos that caused the armed forces to launch a coup d'etat in 1980. These days the political influence of the revolutionaries is minimal, and one explanation for the co-ordinated hunger strike is that the prisoners needed publicity and hoped to provoke the Turkish authorities into rash measures of repression.

None of this is to suggest that prison conditions in Turkey are particularly good, or that recent Turkish governments have had a clean record as far as concerns human rights in general. Conditions in some Turkish prisons can be very grim. Eskisehir prison in western Turkey, the institution at the centre of the dispute that gave rise to the hunger strike, is known to its inmates as "the coffin" on account of its cramped one-man cells. The government rejected the protesters' demand for its closure, but ended the hunger strike by agreeing to move about 100 prisoners to Istanbul.

The government also did the right thing by agreeing to improve medical care for prisoners and end the practice of holding them in jails in remote Turkish provinces, thereby restricting access to lawyers and families. No doubt the Islamist-led government of Necmettin Erbakan, the new Prime Minister, could and should have introduced these reforms earlier, helping to save lives. However, the hunger strike was a problem that Mr Erbakan inherited from the previous government of Mesut Yilmaz. It gathered pace at a time when political tensions were running high in Turkey, for the country was about to entrust its fortunes to an Islamist political party for the first time since Kemal Ataturk established the secular republic in 1923.

The hunger strike seemed a sideshow compared with the high drama taking place on the national political stage. Once Mr Erbakan was installed in power, the imprisoned extremists redoubled their resolve to fast to the terrible end as a way of undermining the new government's authority and maximising the damage to Turkey's democratic institutions.

None of these considerations prevented the European Commission, the Socialist group in the European Parliament and the governments of France, Germany and Italy from making public demands last week for the Turkish government to make concessions to the hunger strikers. It was noticeable, however, that the US and British governments took a much more restrained approach.

Their caution was prompted partly by the impending vote in the Turkish parliament on whether to extend Operation Provide Comfort, the US-led mission in which US, British and French aircraft use an air base in southern Turkey to protect Kurds in northern Iraq. The vote is due today and is expected to be close, and the US and British governments were keen not to risk alienating Turkish parliamentary opinion by complaining about prison conditions.

This example illustrates how, like it or not, Turkey occupies too important a place in the geopolitical scheme of things for the West to make human rights the sole yardstick of its relationship with Turkey. As it happens, most Western governments consider that Turkey's human rights record has improved substantially since this time last year, partly in response to EU prodding designed to ensure that the European Parliament would approve a landmark EU-Turkish customs union.

The union gives Turkey the closest possible relationship with the EU short of full membership, and in time it should bring real benefits to the Turkish economy. However, it is not surprising that the Turks do not feel that they have been genuinely welcomed into Europe, since Greece has been blocking EU funds for Turkey ever since the customs union came into effect in January. It is common to hear Turks point out that it is difficult for Western Europeans to understand just what it is like to live in a country that has so many hostile, radical or unstable neighbours. Greece, its traditional enemy, is right on its Aegean coast; Russia lies across the Black Sea; to the north-east is the turbulent Transcaucasus; and to the east and south lie Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Naturally, this does not excuse bad prison conditions inside Turkey, let alone the crude methods that the army and security forces have used in an attempt to extinguish the 12-year-old Kurdish insurgency in the south-east. However, it accounts for a certain hunger for internal order and sensitivity to foreign criticism on the part of the political elite that Western Europeans need to understand better.

A flourishing European-Turkish relationship is important not least because, if the EU can show that it genuinely wants to extend the benefits of prosperity and partnership to a democratic, non-Christian country, then the positive impact on the Middle East and northern Africa could be considerable. Europe's stability could be extended southwards to an area stretching from Algeria to Israel that is plagued by religious radicalism and social upheaval.

Conversely, if the impression arose that the EU regarded Turkey as a fundamentally different type of society and state, worthy of friendship but not of an especially warm relationship, then the chances are that suspicions and misunderstandings will continue to dog Europe's relations with its southern and eastern neighbours.

It is important in this context that EU countries should take care not to give an impression of being worried about the Islamist component in Turkey's government. Mr Erbakan's Welfare Party has achieved power for one simple reason: it won the largest share of the vote in Turkey's general election last December.

The Welfare Party has not abused the rules of democracy, but played within them and won. It offers proof, if proof were needed, that there need be no conflict between an Islam-based political philosophy and Western-style democracy.

To forge a special European relationship with Turkey does not mean that governments should turn a blind eye to human rights issues, nor could it do given the prominent role of private Western human rights organisations in shaping public perceptions of Turkey. With regard to the Kurdish war, probably the major blot on Turkey's record, European governments should try to persuade Turkey to see the matter as something more complicated than a security and terrorism problem.

But all efforts along these lines will bear little fruit unless Europeans get used to the idea of treating Turkey as a friend and equal partner. There has been some progress in recent years, but not enough.