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West nurtures 'silent hope' Turkey protests can bring reform

05 june 2013, 18:27
0
Caught off-guard by the massive protests erupting in Turkey, the country's Western partners have roundly condemned the use of excessive violence while prudently insisting on the need for calm and dialogue in a nation deemed a key regional ally, AFP reports.

"The silent hope is that all this will mean a return to commonsense and to a more liberal path in Turkey," said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank. "The question is whether this can happen under (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan."

A member of the 28-nation NATO alliance and longtime EU hopeful, Turkey is a pivotal player in the region at any given time, but currently holds a trump due to its proximity with the conflict tearing Syria apart.

So it is hardly surprising that days after simmering anger vented against Erdogan spilled onto the streets, Europe's governments continue to tread a cautious line, as does Washington.

"We are confident that Turkey will overcome this difficult moment, proving itself to be a mature democracy," said Italy's Foreign Minister Emma Bonino on Tuesday.

"Italy continues to firmly believe in Turkey's European prospects," she added, referring to Turkey's stalled bid to join the European Union.

Such comments have echoed across EU capitals in the last days.

The bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton this week voiced "deep concern" over police violence but pleaded for "a peaceful solution" while Germany urged "de-escalation" reminding Erdogan that freedom of expression and assembly were "a basic right" in a democratic society.

Telling the authorities in Ankara to take an honest look at the reasons behind the protests, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius nonetheless brushed aside all talk of a "Turkish Spring" on the model of the revolutions that swept the Arab world.

"This is a government that was democratically elected," he said.

That was a view also held by visiting Turkish analyst Sinan Ulgen of the EDAM think tank, who discounted comparisons being made with the protests on Cairo's Tahrir square that swept away Egypt's Mubarak regime as simply "not correct".

"Turkey is a democracy and there is no call for regime change like in Egypt. The only overlap with Tahrir remains this immense sense of empowerment and emancipation by ordinary citizens who have seen the impact they can have on the political system," he added.

Protesters accuse Erdogan of imposing conservative Islamic reforms on the predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular nation.

Turkey's leadership, from Erdogan to the opposition, needs to readjust their sights to strive for a more consensual style of decision-making in a country of assertive educated people aware of what open societies are about, analysts said.

In power since 2002 and often dubbed the most influential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, Erdogan has won three successive elections, increasing his share of the vote each time.

But in the process "he's lost touch with planet Earth" -- dixit Techau -- until "it now seems that his style of governance has reached the limit of Turkish society's tolerance" -- dixit Ulgen.

Slammed by protesters as a strongman, Erdogan has remained defiant, dismissing accusations he is a "dictator".

"He wants to be the next Attaturk," Techau said.

But within his own camp, moderates have pressed home their differences and even President Abdullah Gul -- once the target of criticism because his wife wore an Islamic headscarf -- has said the protesters' message had been "received".

"The government has learnt its lesson from what happened," said Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Tuesday. "We do not have the right and cannot afford to ignore people. Democracies cannot exist without opposition."

"The hope is there that Erdogan will soften and that that will enable the West to find a more constructive partner in Turkey," Techau said.

Turkey's efforts to join the EU formally started in 2005 but have stalled in recent years due to reticence over its human rights record and the row over Cyprus, divided between its Greek and Turkish communities since Ankara invaded the island in 1974 after a Greece-led coup.

During a visit to Brussels last month, Foreign Minister Davutoglu said efforts to move ahead "at this rate ... will take 50 years".

But without Turkey, the EU would not be complete as it would lack strategic and geographical continuity, he said.

Asked whether reform could revive Turkey's stalled EU membership talks, Techau said that "if we see a changed domestic process that could re-energise the accession talks".

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle this week insisted he saw "no direct effect" from the violence on Ankara's bid to join the EU, while prominent Greens EU lawmaker Danny Cohn-Bendit said the protests on the contrary should incite the European Union to open negotiations on justice and rights.

"This would be particularly pertinent and opportune," he said.

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