Turkey in the 1990’s

In the 1990’s, the redefinition of the international order following the collapse of the Soviet bloc placed Turkey in a crucial position: a geographical, political and cultural meeting point between East and West, it found itself in the need to reformulate its position in relations with the ‘West and with Islamic countries, its role within Europe and, last but not least, its national identity and the internal political scenario.

In mid- 1995, according to Topschoolsintheusa, the ruling coalition of Turkey was formed by the Right Way Party (Doğru Yol Partisi, center-right) and the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, center-left, heir to Atatürk’s party). At the head of the executive was the leader of the Right Way Party Turkey Çiller, who pursued a policy of rapprochement with the European Union and Western democracies. The outcome of the political consultations of December 1995(called in advance to cope with the growing unrest in the public sector) made the governability of the country even more problematic: in fact, no party was able to clearly prevail over the others. The Prosperity Party (Refah Partisi, moderate Islamic) of N. Erbakan (21.4 %) won the relative majority of the votes ; very close results were obtained, however, by the Party of the motherland (Anavatan Partisi, center-right), of M. Yılmaz (19.7 %), and the same Party of the right way (19.2%). The prospect of a (albeit moderately) Islamic administration worried the Turkish political establishment to the point that Erbakan found no party willing to form an alliance, while Çiller and Yılmaz came to smooth out their mutual differences and start a coalition government, agreeing on a turnover of the prime minister (March 1996). The experiment was short-lived: the disagreements emerged shortly after (May 1996) when the party of Yılmaz, which was entrusted with the first turn of government, refused parliamentary support to Çiller, accused of illegal involvement in the sale of some companies (the leader was acquitted of all charges in January 1997). Çiller withdrew her support for the executive, and soon afterwards Yılmaz resigned.

Building on the success achieved in the municipal consultations of June 1996, Erbakan was given the task of forming the new ministry by President S. Demirel; at the end of the month, the leader of the Prosperity Party managed to conclude an agreement with Çiller, however arousing strong dissension within the Right Way Party. The coexistence in power of secular and religious formations inspired mixed feelings: if for some the experience would have consolidated the role of Turkey as a country in which the principles of Islam and those of a Western democracy were reconciled, in others the fear of a shift towards a state governed by Islamic law. In particular the National Security Council (Millî Güvenlik Konseyi), an expression of military power, understood the rise to power of the Refah as a threat to the foundations of the secular state, going so far as to impose its authority by force (in February 1997, in response to an Islamic demonstration, tanks were paraded on the streets of Ankara). The contradictions in government policy became immediately evident: if on the one hand Turkey confirmed its link with NATO and the countries of the Western bloc, on the other hand it brought about a rapprochement with Islamic countries, signing, among other things, an economic agreement with the ‘Iran, despite the veto just imposed by the US (August 1996). The implementation of proposals such as the extension of Islamic education and the authorization of the use of religious clothing in public workplaces was prevented by opposition from the Right Way Party (February 1997). In an already precarious situation (among other things, at the end of 1996 there was evidence of the involvement of state apparatuses in organized crime activities), these differences were destined to degenerate into conflict. In early 1997the opposition parties, supported by the National Security Council, tried several times to outweigh the government. In mid-June, Erbakan resigned. The advent of the new government, presided over by Yılmaz, did not help calm the waters; in January 1998, despite the condemnation of human rights organizations, the Constitutional Court decreed the dissolution of the Prosperity Party for violation of the Constitution, accusing it of having attacked the foundations of the secular state. The veterans of the formation were largely welcomed by the Party of Virtue (Fazilet Partisi), which quickly reached the parliamentary majority. On the resignation of Yılmaz, accused of corruption (November 1998), followed by a short provisional government led by the leader of the Left Democratic Party (Demokratik Sol Parti), B. Ecevit, in office until the legislative elections. The consultations were held in April 1999: Ecevit, with his party, secured 22.1 % of the votes (136 seats out of 550), placing himself at the head of a heterogeneous three-party coalition, in which the Nationalist Party took part. action (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, far right: the so-called Gray Wolves) of D. Bahceli, which had obtained 17.9 % of the votes (129 seats), and the Motherland Party (13.2 % of the votes and 86seats). Despite their ideological differences, Ecevit and Bahceli shared profound nationalism and opposition to any compromise against the Kurdish rebels: a stance that assumed particular importance when the dispute reached a turning point.

In fact, the Kurdish question remained at the center of the internal problems of Turkey: the military repression against the independence guerrillas, headed by the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, Kurdish Workers’ Party), had assumed the proportions of a real war in 1995. In December 1995, the leader of the PKK, A. Ocalan, announced a unilateral ceasefire, but obtained no guarantees from the Turkish government in return; hostilities resumed in the following months, in a crescendo of violence which led, in 1996, to a death toll of a thousand, especially among the members of the PKK. Between 1997 and 1998T. launched a massive military offensive against Kurdish separatists based in Iraq, Iran and Syria. In August 1998, the PKK announced a new unilateral truce, which was however rejected by the Turkish government. In November, Ocalan, having arrived in Italy and taken under arrest, asked for political asylum, while the Turkish authorities demanded his extradition, carrying out heavy commercial retaliation. Not wanting to grant extradition to a country where the death penalty was in force, nor to interrupt diplomatic relations with an important economic partner, the Italian government ordered Ocalan to leave the country (January 1999). In the following month, Turkish special services arrested Ocalan at the Greek embassy in Nairobi. The result was a resumption of independence terrorism, and violent repression by the Turkish authorities.

Ocalan’s capture had important repercussions: internally, in fact, there was a strengthening of those parties that had shown greater inflexibility on the Kurdish question; on the international level, on the other hand, if on the one hand Turkey’s ties with the USA were consolidated, on the other hand relations with the countries of the European Union entered into crisis, which exerted pressure for the Kurdish leader to be subjected to a fair trial. At the end of February, Ocalan was formally charged with high treason; from prison, he appealed to the clemency of the judges, declaring that he wanted to abandon the armed struggle and work for the maintenance of peace. Despite this, on 29 June the Court for State Security (which since 18 June no longer included a military judge) sentenced Ocalan to hang. The decision was welcomed with enthusiasm within the country, but the European Union intervened in favor of the condemned: the government thus found itself in the embarrassing situation of having to find a balance between internal consensus and international approval, just at the moment in which the probability of Turkey’s entry into the Union was finally taking shape. In January 2000, at the end of a very long summit of the majority, Turkey announced the decision to suspend the execution of Ocalan, accepting the request of the European Court of Human Rights. The suspension, however, remained ready to be lifted if the PKK or the Court itself showed that they wanted to use the situation to free the PKK leader from Turkish justice.

The succession of Turkey to the demands of Europe came at the end of a troubled path to obtain admission to the Union, in which the general question of human rights was one of the key points. The harshest criticisms made by European countries against Turkey in fact concerned in particular the conditions of the detainees, the lack of freedom of expression, the use of torture. In reality, however, humanitarian reasons were accompanied by economic reasons: the low level of industrialization and development, combined with the high unemployment rate and rapid population growth, led to fears of an uncontrolled exodus of Turkish workers towards the countries of more stable economy. On a political level, he also worried about the profound interference of military power in the Turkish reality. 1997, Turkey had not been included among the countries invited to join the Union and, in response, had announced a cooling of relations with Europe, to which the EU responded by withdrawing the aid planned for 1998 and inviting the country to resolve the Kurdish question and that of human rights. However, in December 1999 Turkey was granted formal status as a candidate country for accession. The actual start of the negotiations was however conditional on compliance with the ‘Copenhagen criteria’: consideration of human rights and those of minorities. The problem of the death penalty remained open (last applied in 1984); Prime Minister Ecevit in any case expressed his will to reach its abolition as soon as possible. The last reservation concerned the resolution of the disputes with Greece concerning both the territories occupied by the Turks in Cyprus and the delimitation of territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. The relations between the two countries, despite the persistence of strong contrasts – exacerbated by the growing tensions between the Turkish and Hellenic communities in Cyprus (1996) and by the failure of the repeated attempts at dialogue between the parties – underwent an improvement. The thaw began on the occasion of the terrible earthquake that struck the area around the industrial city of İzmit, in the north-west of the Turkey on 17 August 1999, causing over 15,000 victims: Greece was among the first countries to send relief, arousing the warm appreciation of Turkish commentators. In January 2000, the two countries signed four cooperation agreements, expressing optimism about the possibility of resolving territorial disputes.

During the 1990s, Turkey also sought to increase its role in the Middle Eastern chessboard. On the one hand, in fact, the government tried to forge ties with Israel, with which it signed a treaty for military cooperation (April 1996) that the League of Arab States denounced as an act of aggression; on the other hand, it did not give up on stipulating economic agreements with Iran (August and December 1996), reaffirming its role as a decisive trading partner. This did not prevent the emergence of a diplomatic crisis when the Iranian ambassador called for the introduction of Islamic law in Turkey (February 1997); between October 1998 and February 1999 however, the two countries collaborated again to redefine and maintain security along the border between the two countries. Problematic relations with its south-eastern neighbors, Syria and Iraq, were dominated by issues of Kurdish rebels and the exploitation of river waters. The Turkey also offered a strategic position to the United States, which had used Turkish air bases several times for their forays into Iraqi territory. However, in 1996 Turkey made a rapprochement with Iraq (among other things promoting the reopening of the oil pipeline common to the two countries, closed in 1990 following the invasion of Kuwait). When, between September 1996 and December 1998, the US-Iraq crisis worsened again, Turkey worked to reach a diplomatic solution, repeatedly refusing the use of its bases for operations against Iraq.

Turkey in the 1990's

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