Why Greatness Keeps Eluding Turkey


Turkey Between Two Worlds

By Stephen Kinzer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- 252pp -- $25

Turkey, with 65 million people and a strategic location between Europe and Asia, is an important country that's not well understood in the West. Crescent & Star, Stephen Kinzer's study of Turkey's history and politics, goes a good ways toward redressing that. It's a thoughtful study of the wrenching problems that hold Turkey back--and it's an engaging read to boot.

Kinzer, who until recently was The New York Times correspondent in Istanbul, is an energetic reporter who immersed himself in Turkey's vibrant society. He mixed with ordinary people in buses and smoke shops, hosted a Turkish-language radio program, and he even braved tanker traffic to make the one-mile swim across the Bosphorus. Kinzer also logged plenty of evenings in the Turkish bistros called meyhanes eating meze, or small plates of appetizers, and consuming raki, the Turkish national beverage.

That anise-based alcoholic drink resembles its Greek counterpart, ouzo, but don't tell that to the Turks, who believe it is "gloriously unique." Raki, which is clear in the bottle but turns cloudy when mixed with water, here becomes a metaphor for Kinzer's experience in Turkey. In the early days of his posting, Turkey seemed "a jewel of a country poised on the brink of greatness." Later, however, he found its future direction to be more murky and began wondering whether his temporary home was "condemned to remain an unfulfilled dream."

He depicts Turkey as a country gripped in a long-term struggle between a young, increasingly well-educated population "eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights" and a ruling elite that "refuses to embrace this new nation or even admit that it exists." The irony is the latter, which he describes as a "sclerotic cadre" of "military commanders, prosecutors...lapdog newspaper editors, [and] rigidly conservative politicians," claim they are acting out of loyalty to the principles of the country's modernizing founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk was a "one man revolution" who ordered the traditional Arabic script to be replaced with Latin characters; banned traditional Muslim garb, the veil and the fez; and tried to stamp out the influence of religion. Yet, more than 60 years after his death in 1938, his legacy has become a straitjacket. What remains of Kemalism is not so much the founder's enlightened secularism but his autocratic approach. He believed, Kinzer writes, that "the state, not popular will, was the instrument by which social and political change would be achieved."

Ataturk's military successors also think that big decisions are too important to be left to the people or the politicians. What's more, they will go to great lengths to suppress anything or anyone that seems threatening to the state. Dissident writers are packed off to prison. And in the 1990s, the Turkish military waged a vicious war against leftist Kurdish rebels in a vast area in the mountainous eastern part of the country. According to Kinzer, hundreds of villages were burned, suspected rebel sympathizers were assassinated, and torture was widespread.

This hard-line approach tends to backfire. For instance, the country aspires to join the European Union, but its abysmal human-rights record is a major roadblock. And Turkey's authoritarianism breeds inept and corrupt politicians.

Kinzer provides some telling glimpses of military-civilian interaction. Once a month, the military commanders meet with the supposed heads of government to give them their orders. The beginning of the meeting is televised, and the pictures "perfectly convey the balance of power." The civilians squirm like "guilty schoolboys." The military commanders glower "at their charges...and prepare to deliver their decrees. Always...it is understood that their will must be done."

Kinzer is also good on military culture. The officers-to-be, who enter elite military schools at the age of 14, have become a caste unto themselves--a "priesthood" with Ataturk as their "secular God." They inhabit a world apart, often marrying the daughters of senior officers. They don't see the "vibrant, self-confident and boldly ambitious Turkey that many civilians see. Rather they see a nation surrounded by enemies and populated by simpletons."

Although the military still enjoys public respect, the gap between the officers and the people is growing. Several events that occurred during Kinzer's tenure in Turkey helped widen the divide. One was an extraordinary car crash at the town of Susurluk in 1996. When rescuers arrived, they found a top police commander, the leader of a reactionary Kurdish feudal clan, and a notorious gangster, all dead in the same Mercedes. Susurluk pulled the lid off a seamy world of political killings and drug smuggling. "For generations Turks had clung to a childlike belief that however confusing things seemed, the state probably knew best," Kinzer writes. Susurluk "began to destroy that faith." So did the 1999 earthquake that killed tens of thousands while the military and the government proved incapable of organizing effective rescue operations.

Will the officers back off, allowing a democratic Turkish society to bloom? Kinzer in the end is optimistic that generational change will prompt the leadership to "recognize how fully their people deserve democracy." But it seems unlikely that those in power will easily loosen their grip.

By Stanley Reed

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.