Talk of social collapse leaves Turkey cold: The country must wake up to its political and economic responsibilities if it is to avert crisis, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul

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The Independent Online
FROM the gilt ballrooms of the old embassies at the Ottoman Porte to the fast-spreading concrete suburbs around Istanbul, the subject of conversation rarely changes these days in Turkey. Will it be another military coup? Economic collapse? An Islamic takeover? Or just more years of misery under treatment by the IMF doctor?

The Turkish government is facing its worst economic, political and security crisis for decades, but Turkish society is proving as impotent as the government to do anything about it.

'The economy is on autopilot, walking like a dead man with his head cut off, yet nobody seems to have noticed,' said one banker in the growing business of channelling personal capital out of the country. 'And the actions of the government so far amount to rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.'

The Turkish lira fell 10 per cent on Friday alone, bringing it down nearly 80 per cent so far this year. Imports are drying up. Industrial production is slowing as manufacturing lay-offs spread. Banks stopped giving loans in January. Almost all their money is being used to speculate or collect interest as the Central Bank hoists interest rates through the roof in a desperate attempt to control the lira's collapse.

Most extraordinary of all, perhaps, is the lack of passion as Turkey heads towards triple-digit inflation. The captains of Turkish industry in Istanbul debate Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's floundering attempts to run the country as if the government in Ankara was a television soap opera. It's nothing to do with real life, they say openly.

They may be right, at least in the short term. Everybody seems to have money in Turkey except the government itself. Dollarisation is rife and most long-term investors have kept their savings in foreign currency for years. Increasingly pervasive corruption means that almost any rule or law can be bent.

Traditionally, the armed forces have stepped in to clear such messes. But few Turks believe a new coup is in the works. The armed forces already do almost what they want.

Turkish society therefore bears the responsibility for cutting off the branch on which it is sitting, and unless something is done quickly, all will fall together.

Turkey may still be able to service its foreign debt, but it jumped at least 20 per cent last year to more than dollars 65bn ( pounds 43bn). Failure to come to grips with taxation and state deficits provided fair reason for international rating agencies to downgrade Turkey's debt in January. Ominously, the country has been forced into pulling back from its most recent dollars 750m bond sale.

Turkish business and opinion- makers were shocked at February's World Economic Forum in Davos to find they were no longer the model developing country that everybody courted in the 1980s. Turkish politicians and diplomats may find the same thing if there is more backsliding in human rights of the kind seen on 2 March, when police, including a well-known alleged torturer, dragged legally elected Kurdish nationalist deputies off to prison from the gates of parliament. Yesterday the constitutional court restored the parliamentary immunity of one of the MPs but upheld the assembly's decision to strip five other Kurdish nationalist members of their immunity.

'The trouble is that Turkish nationalism is now surging up from below against the Kurds. I just pray that this beating of the nationalist drum will not turn us into a new Serbia,' lamented one moderate economist and politician.

Turkish officials maintain the judicial system is merely working itself out and, under Turkey's present laws, some of the Kurdish deputies may have a case to answer. It is a poor excuse, however, and does not address the problem that by European standards the laws are appallingly restrictive.

Strong government is needed to win back respect, to get control of the economy and to modernise laws, to say nothing of protecting Turkey's increasing interests in the Balkans, the Caucasus and beyond. But strong government has eluded Turkey for more than five years. Political parties have split so many ways that it would be a miracle if any party were to win 30 per cent of the vote in nationwide local elections on Sunday. A sensible change, such as a French-style, two-stage voting system, is debated only by high-society intellectuals.

Turkey should wake up. It is no longer the laggard country of blindly religious, illiterate peasants that the republican founder, Kemal Ataturk, dragged into the 20th century with highly centralised, one- man government. Society must pursue to its logical conclusion the liberalisation and urbanisation pushed through by the late president, Turgut Ozal.

All is far from lost. Opinion polls suggest some protest votes may go to the pro-Islamist Welfare Party. But more will be taken by two parties that represent modernity - the centre-right Motherland Party and the newly revamped Social Democrats, now favourite to win in Istanbul.

The question is how to harness the energy of a young population, to recreate a sense of communal responsibility and how to take advantage of all the borders that have opened up around Turkey following the end of the Cold War.

'What we lack is not technology, but serious planning,' Gungor Mengi wrote about last week's disastrous tanker collision on the Bosporus strait. 'For us technology was not used to help save the two sailors clinging to the radar mast, but to give us live television coverage of their death.'