By Susan Jackson
A diverse nation of 63 million, with a land mass of over 800,000 square kilometers, Turkey shares land borders with eight countries (Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria).
Turkey is a key US ally in a region marked by turmoil. A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey has stood by the side of the US as far back as the Korean War. During the Persian Gulf War, Turkey broke off relations with Iraq, including closing the oil pipeline before the UN-approved oil-for-food deal reopened it, and allowed US flights from bases in Turkey. Turkey has participated in NATO's action in Kosovo, providing pilots and Turkish F-16 planes, bases for American use, and 1,000 peacekeepers for the peacekeeping mission. Before the bombing in Kosovo ended, Turkey had accepted 17,600 refugees in camps in western Turkey, as well as supported camps in Albania and Macedonia.
Turkey's delegation in the United States is headed by Ambassador Baki Ilkin. Married with two sons, Ilkin began his career in Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Greek Affairs. He also served in the Cyprus/Greek Department of the Foreign Ministry followed by postings in Athens and Moscow. Ilkin has been chief of the Private Cabinet of the foreign minister, a counselor in the Turkish Embassy in London, personal advisor to the foreign minister on two separate occasions, and chief of the Turkish president's Private Cabinet. Ilkin also has been ambassador for Turkey in Pakistan, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
The European Union
In 1963 the Association Agreement foresaw Turkey's full membership in the then European Economic Community, incorporating a customs union for trade relations to measure Turkey's progress toward full membership. Due to political instability and the 1980 coup, membership work was stalled. In 1987 Turkey got back on track with its membership application, and in 1995 the Customs Union between Turkey and the European Union (EU) was established.
The EU has stipulated Turkey must make advances in its economy and human rights record in order to accede into the Union. In 1997, the EU's 'Agenda 2000' report on enlargement went further and separated Turkey from other candidates in terms of conditions she must meet before joining the EU. The European Council excluded Turkey from the next round of accession negotiations while including Cyprus and five Central and Eastern European nations. In addition, the Greek-promoted condition that Turkey agree to United Nations negotiations on Cyprus was added to future accession consideration. As a result, Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) dug in their heels and began insisting the TRNC be accepted as an equal partner with state status in future negotiations, something the US and some members of the EU are against.
WI: How important is it for Turkey to become a member of the European Union (EU) and what is the main obstacle to membership?
Amb. Ilkin: It is important for us to become a member of the EU. We have been seeking full membership since 1963. At the moment Turkey is not ready to be a full member, but we should be considered a full candidate. Although we have established a customs union with the EU, and there are close ties with each member of the EU, and we have an association agreement with the EU, we have not been declared a full candidate. We deserve full candidacy. Becoming a full candidate does not mean you automatically become a full member. There are things which need to be done, and Turkey is prepared to meet those criteria. No other candidate has been asked to fulfill certain requirements before they are declared candidates. In the case of the Central and Eastern European countries, the criteria is not there [for full membership] but they were declared candidates. Definitely, if Europe is reunited, Turkey has also contributed to the process. We have expected more understanding and support from some of our European friends for our full candidacy. There was one more attempt [in June in Cologne] at the European Union Summit to prepare us as a full candidate, but some of the member countries objected. A new attempt will be pushed forward in Finland [at the next EU Summit].
In 1930, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Eleutherios Venizelos (then leader of Greece) signed the Convention on the Establishment of Commerce and Navigation, a cooperative framework between Turkey and Greece. Peace existed between these two countries until the 1950s when the issue of independence for Cyprus from the British caused ethnic tensions; Greek Cypriots comprised four-fifths of the island's population and Turkish Cypriots worried about ethnic imbalance in the new government. Following strained relations between the two communities, in 1960 the British pulled out of Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus was born, with Greece and Turkey as co-guarantors of the new, independent nation.
Plagued with problems from the beginning, the complex, bi-communal government on Cyprus broke down completely in 1963. As a result of heavy fighting, the Turkish Cypriots retreated into enclaves for protection. The United Nations dispatched a peacekeeping force (UNFICYP) and embarked on a decade-long peacemaking effort. The UN effort failed and in 1974 a rightist Greek group, with the support of the military junta in Athens, usurped the Cypriot government and supported annexing the island to Greece. Turkey reacted by sending its military into northern Cyprus. Ultimately the Turkish military took over a third of the island, which it still holds today. Turkish Cypriots fled north while Greek Cypriots fled south. The 'Green Line' was drawn between the two communities and the Greek Cypriot-led government was reinstated as the world-recognized legitimate power. The Turkish Cypriots declared themselves a state and established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Against pressure from the world community, Turkey alone has maintained that the Greek Cypriot government is not legitimate and demands negotiations on the status of Cyprus. While the Greek Cypriots look to a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with a single governmental body, the Turkish Cypriots emphasize the importance of a confederation with the governments of each side seen as equals.
WI: What is the main obstacle to resolving the conflict in Cyprus and what sort of route should Cyprus take toward solving the current problems?
Amb. Ilkin: The basic issue is that the Greek Cypriot side will not accept the realities on the ground. There are two states, two peoples, two sovereign administrations. They have been living separately since 1963. If a solution is to be found, it is to be found in an administration in which the two parties share certain powers, and then they can move on and set up a joint administration. But, if they reject the realities on the ground, I'm afraid there is not a possibility of finding a solution. If the Greek Cypriot administration realizes they do not rule the Turkish Cypriots and that their authority is confined to their side, if they are willing to sit down and discuss on equal footing, on an equal basis with their Turkish Cypriot counterparts, then there could be a solution, a confederation. Who knows what the next 20 or 30 years have in store for both peoples? It will start as a confederation on an equal basis and, hopefully, they can build enough confidence that they can be more integrated as they go along. The Turkish Cypriots want a confederation in which equal sovereignty of the two states is accepted. The Turkish Cypriots recently went to elections, and the party that advocates a confederation won a strong majority in parliament. Cyprus could be a perfect confederation model if the Greek Cypriots agree to the solution.
In April 1999 Turkish citizens elected a new government. The coalition formed from the Democratic Left Party, the Nationalist Action Party and the Motherland Party received a vote of confidence from Parliament and is the 57th government of Turkey. The policy and governing package the coalition presented to parliament covers many needed reforms. For instance, in the area of human rights, the new government proposes to lift barriers to the freedom of expression, improve training of the security forces, and strengthen the independence and functions of the judiciary.
WI: What is Turkey's response to world criticism of its human rights record?
Amb. Ilkin: We are all concerned about our own human rights records. Every country is concerned about this. Few countries can say they are finished [working on human rights]. If you single out Turkey, you will be doing it an injustice. In Turkey's case, we need to do more about it. When you talk about human rights you have to differentiate between the abuse of human rights by individuals and the abuse of human rights by states. You can only put Turkey in the first [category]. For that, the present government has a package; hopefully they will enact it. We would do this not just to appease someone abroad, we would do it for the sake of the nation.
WI: Turkey and the US have a history of partnership. What is the basis of this relationship, and how will you work to strengthen the bridge while you are here?
Ambassador Ilkin: It's a solid relationship. It has gone through the test of time. The most important dimension has been the security issue. [Most recently,] Turkey sent forces to Kosovo. We agreed to receive 46,000 Kosovar refugees and maintained 10,000 refugees in camps in Albania and Macedonia. There is still rebuilding and peacekeeping. [In addition to military cooperation with the US] we are now diversifying our relationship in such areas as culture, energy, and trade. In the last ten years trade has doubled, although this is still an insignificant figure compared to other countries, and we have to do more. We now define our relationship as an enhanced partnership, a mutual respect between the two nations. I believe this relationship serves both nations. A lot has been accomplished but, more can be done.
I love being in Washington. When you receive such a reward, you want to live up to the expectations of your own country. So it is the greatest challenge. One of my priorities is to make sure as many people as possible visit Turkey. Then you will meet the real Turk. There is a gentleness, a hospitality and a selflessness. Also, [among others] the greatest event [we will hold] will be the exhibition from Topkapi Palace at the Corcoran Gallery starting in March . We will be displaying about 260 objects from Topkapi. The exhibit also will be in San Diego and Ft. Lauderdale. [Pieces that have never before been taken out of Topkapi Palace are to be on display in the 'Palace of Gold and Light: Topkapi's Treasures' exhibition.]