Turkey Looks West, and Up

“For the Turk, freedom is life,” declared Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, in 1920. But he clearly had something in mind quite different from the democratic and market freedoms frequently praised by US President George W. Bush. For Ataturk, in the name of freedom, set about building a country in which the military had ultimate political authority and the economy was state-dominated. Indeed, Turkey became the first country to follow the USSR in adopting economic central planning.

And not without reason. Because the freedom Ataturk had in mind was, specifically, freedom from foreign influence. The economy was state-dominated so it could never be foreign-dominated. The military was made strong to protect Turkey from the powerful European nation-states that had greedily dismembered the country’s geographic predecessor, the Ottoman Empire.

And Ataturk was spectacularly successful, in a sense. Turkey indeed became strong and relatively stable.

But – especially in economics – the country’s navel-gazing was a burden. The state-led, inward-looking economy became a politicized economy. A small, well-connected elite built immense business conglomerates straddling unrelated industries, thanks to favorable regulation and government-allocated capital. Ataturk’s great Business Bank was redubbed the “Bank of Politicians” for its cronyist lending, and the Turkish government itself came to be known as devlet baba, the “father state,” for its economic micromanagement.

Over time, political overspending and interference caused Turkey’s economy to stagnate and then implode, surviving only with larger and larger bailouts from Western allies – reaching $7.5 billion in 2000, then $15 billion in 2001. A despairing Turkish pundit wrote, “it is evident [Turkish] politics in general has been reduced to a game of capturing public resources and then redistributing them through legal and illegal means.”

Understandable, then, that the European Union (EU), which on May 1st added ten new members, and is considering admitting Turkey, would be reluctant to take in such an unstable country. But this ignores the fact that only short years ago, more than a few of the countries just admitted were frighteningly unstable themselves.

In 1998, in the wake of a currency crisis, the Czech Republic elected a divided parliament, in which no party could form a majority. This brought the country’s political and economic reforms to a standstill. Many feared that the Czech Republic was coming unglued, drifting toward the dysfunction of Albania or Russia.

But, unlike those countries, the Czech Republic was on a timetable for EU membership. When its reforms stalled, the EU unleashed a torrent of criticism. The unstable Czech minority government, determined to get into Europe, methodically reviewed the EU criticisms and sketched out legislation that would remedy the situation. And then, remarkably, the Czech opposition – resisting the temptation to score political points – joined the government in passing the reforms at a breakneck pace. The timetable was back on track and foreign investment into the country doubled between 1998 and 2000.

So it went for Hungary. In the 1990s, government overspending pushed Hungary’s external debt to crisis levels. The country, led by a prime minister who had been a Communist, was unrepentant. But in the face of EU criticism, the government suddenly slashed state spending, devalued the currency, cleaned up the banks, and controlled inflation and the debt.

Most dramatically, the goal of EU membership saved Slovakia’s democracy. In the mid-’90s, Slovakia appeared to be slipping towards authoritarian politics. The EU singled out Slovakia among the 10 Eastern European applicants as the only country to have failed to meet the political criteria for EU entry.

Slovakia’s fragmented opposition rallied behind the EU report, put aside differences, and united. Some 70 percent of Slovakia’s population supported EU entry and voted for the opposition in the 1998 elections. The newly cobbled-together government moved swiftly to implement the EU’s demands. An independent judiciary was established. The rights of ethnic minorities were protected. The constitution was amended to clarify and strengthen checks and balances.

The possibility of EU membership united the political and economic elites in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia behind a common goal; a goal that both stabilized and enriched their countries. Leading politicians and businesspeople wanted membership in Europe. But to get there, they needed to stay on the EU timetable and implement the Acquis Communautaire – more than 80,000 pages of the laws, standards, and norms that are in force around the EU.

There is, in short, a kind of magic that occurs when a country’s elites look beyond their borders for peaceful and productive means of generating wealth. This magic has just begun to work on Turkey. Why play the “game” of capturing and redistributing public resources, when so much more wealth is available in the European Union?

And to get that wealth, Turkey’s elites cannot play political games, they must implement reforms. In the past year previously unthinkable measures have been passed – allowing broadcasts in Kurdish and reducing the political role of the military – as Turkey struggles to be more European. Turkey’s superb conduct during recent negotiations on Cyprus is a further example.

To be sure, progress in some areas has been slow. But keep in mind that everything Turkey has done so far has been done on faith – with no formal timetable for EU membership. Not to mention occasional outbursts by EU leaders – such as Valery Giscard D’Estaing’s declaration that admitting Turkey would be the “end of Europe.”

If Turkey is given a formal timetable, the long runup to EU membership will transform and stabilize the country – just as it wholly transformed, in less than a decade, the Eastern European states just admitted. As Turkey’s elites put aside their historic mistrust of foreign influence, and look beyond their borders, prospects for Turkey’s stability are distinctly looking up.

The oped on which this editorial is based was coauthored with Marvin Zonis and ran on page D11 of the Boston Globe on 11/23/2003.