Turkey rises above its ultra-nationalists

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 24/01/07):

Not for the first time, the violence of extremists has achieved the exact opposite of what they intended. Ogun Samast, alleged to have gunned down the bridge-building ethnic Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink last week, reportedly told investigators he was defending Turkey's national honour. Instead, Turkey's honour stands besmirched before an appalled international audience. The widely felt sense of shame, anger and self questioning that accompanied yesterday's impressive funeral in Istanbul was also not an outcome Turkey's nationalist fringe would presumably welcome. Placards in the procession read: "We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians". Mehmet Ali Birand, a leading columnist, wrote: "We are all responsible."

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quick to condemn the murder. "The bullets aimed at Hrant Dink were shot into all of us," he declared after the killing. And criticism that senior ministers did not attend the funeral was off set by official invitations extended to the Armenian government, with which Turkey has no diplomatic relations, and the influential Armenian Church of America.

That reconciliatory gesture, of great although possibly passing symbolic significance, represented another own goal for the ultra-nationalists who are presumed, directly or indirectly, to have inspired and supported the assassination. Now Turkish media are worrying that the US Congress will follow France's national assembly in censuring Turkey by legally labelling the mass killing of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century as genocide.

Spokesmen say the widespread revulsion in Turkey has a positive aspect. "You can see from this that Turkey has changed a lot," a senior Turkish official said. "There has been a strong public reaction against this terrorist act. It is a delicate situation. We are trying to identify who is behind it. But the government has been responsible in trying to calm people."

Keep calm could be a good motto for Mr Erdogan and his ruling Islamic based Justice and Development party, given all the other pressures Turkey faces in 2007. The government has taken the EU's decision to partially suspend accession talks on the chin. It is pressing ahead with "do-it-yourself" legislative reforms in 32 areas in anticipation of a rapprochement. "We were not happy at all about what the EU did," the official said, but added that there was no use making people turn against the EU. A small reward for patience came on Monday when EU foreign ministers agreed to revive efforts to end an economic embargo on Turkish controlled northern Cyprus.

Turkey is also increasingly concerned about Kurdish designs on Kirkuk, home to an Iraqi Turkoman minority, and resumed PKK separatist incursions into south-east Turkey from Kurdish controlled Iraq. Speaking in Ankara last week, a senior American diplomat, Nicholas Burns, was obliged to give repeated, public assurances that the US and its surrogates were doing all they could to curb the PKK. Turks do not entirely believe this. A commando hunt is occurring in Tunceli province for 350 PKK infiltrators from Iraq.

Turkey is also being tested by growing pains from a dynamic economy that officials say acts as a regional employment and investment magnet. On present trends, it will become a net importer of labour by 2015, which puts EU immigration fears in perspective.

To cap it all, Turkey faces presidential and parliamentary elections this year that may elevate Mr Erdogan to the presidency but weaken his ruling party. At a time of such flux, a retreat into nationalism, ethnic strife and xenophobia is the very last thing Turkey needs. Perhaps Hrant Dink's death will help avert it.