Leading Article: Reform could ward off Turkey's twin threats

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The Independent Online
TURKEY HAS been badly shaken by last week's atrocity at Sivas, where 36 people died in a hotel set on fire by Islamic fundamentalists. Coming soon after Kurdish attacks on tourists in Turkey, the incident raises the spectre of destabilisation under two-pronged attack from fundamentalists and Kurds, occasionally acting together. Western worries have been growing since Kurds attacked Turkish offices in Western Europe last month. Turkey's pivotal position as a regional power between Europe and the Middle East, and adjoining Armenia and Georgia, makes its internal stability of great interest.

Turkey will not become another Iran, where a pro-Western regime was swept away by Islamic revolution. Nor is it like Egypt or Algeria, where fundamentalism thrives on deep social unrest. Turkey is still a largely secular state with one foot in Europe, with which it does half its trade.

Most of Turkey's religious life is pragmatic rather than fundamentalist, and is sufficiently represented in politics to have acquired a stake in continuity. That stake is reinforced by an economy growing at about 6 per cent a year and spreading its benefits across a reasonably broad band of the population, including active Muslims and many integrated Kurds.

The country is, however, vulnerable to internal threats from two directions. Disaffected young people latch on to Islamic fundamentalism because it provides an ideological framework for protest and earns them moral support from people such as the mayor of Sivas and sections of the police. It also brings in funds from abroad. Recently, they have been given additional reasons for being anti-Western by the betrayal of the Bosnian Muslims. They represent a significant nuisance that may grow but they will not ignite public opinion. Rather the contrary. Most Turks have been appalled by the fire at Sivas.

The Kurds are a different problem, even if their protests occasionally overlap with those of the fundamentalists. They have been appallingly badly treated by most Turkish governments, who bear some of the blame for generating the brutal, retrograde Communism of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The government's failure to respond constructively to the PKK's unilateral ceasefire three months ago was a badly missed opportunity. The Kurds have real grievances, strengthened by watching the trend towards self-determination in other areas.

Turkey's new prime minister, Tansu Ciller, has a chance to bring modern thinking to bear on these problems. She could afford to move beyond the tentative steps of the late president, Turgut Ozal, by granting more autonomy to the Kurds and clamping down on police brutality. The fear that this will lead inevitably to Kurdish secession need not prove justified, particularly if the Kurds are given more reason to prefer living in Turkey. At the moment it is scarcely surprising that some wish to leave.

To make Turkey a more attractive place also requires wider reforms. Turkey was 80 per cent rural when Ataturk started turning it into a modern state. Centralised government and large state industries seemed a necessary feature of development in those days. Now 60 per cent of the population live in towns and are vastly better educated. Parts of industry are very modern. Yet the system of government and administration remains creaky and old-fashioned, and the state sector of the economy far too large. A strong and imaginative government is needed for another push towards reform. Terrorism will get worse if it is allowed to divert attention from the real problems that lie behind it.