Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 189

Turkey’s prospects of becoming a full-blown member of the European Union are again seriously endangered — this time by a fierce row with France over the “Armenian genocide” bill. According to analysts, the West’s continuous snubbing of the Turks could result in Ankara’s moving strategically closer to Moscow.

On October 12, France’s National Assembly approved a bill making it a crime to deny that the mass slaughter of Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire was genocide. The Socialist-backed legislation, which gained support from right-wing assembly members, stipulates that anyone denying that genocide took place will be jailed for up to five years. (France recognized the killings of Armenians as genocide in 2001, but that bill did not provide for any criminal penalties for denying genocide.)

The Turkish government adamantly denies any accusations of genocide, insisting that hundreds of thousands of Turks and Armenians died in civil strife that was merely a part of the larger World War I conflict.

The French vote caused a wave of indignation in Turkey with thousands of protesters marching in Istanbul and the country’s parliamentary speaker calling the vote a “shameful decision.” There have been calls across the country to retaliate by starting a boycott of French goods.

Although both the French Foreign Ministry and the European Commission distanced themselves from the bill and called it “unhelpful,” most Turks believe they are purposefully discriminated against by the Europeans, who do not want to see Turkey in the EU and thus put ever-new hurdles on Ankara’s European path. The French vote came two weeks after the European Parliament issued a report calling on Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian killings as “genocide.” Last week, French President Jacques Chirac suggested, while visiting Yerevan, that recognition of “genocide” against the Armenians should be a precondition of EU entry. And the leading French presidential hopeful, Nicolas Sarkozy, a long-time opponent of Turkish entry into Europe, raised the stakes further by saying that even if Ankara admitted genocide, that change should not guarantee it EU entry.

The mishandling of the “Turkish question” could prove too costly for Europe’s strategic interests, a number of the Western and Turkish analysts warn.

First, the rebuffs of Ankara’s European ambitions undermine support for the pro-EU forces in Turkey’s domestic politics, as a growing number of the country’s policymakers and experts begin to doubt Europe’s intention to negotiate Turkey’s accession seriously. Some Turkish observers note that with the growing frictions between the West and the Muslim world, the Turkish political discourse has come to be dominated by Islamic considerations. As a result, more Turks tend to view their country and the world around it exclusively through a religious prism — a trend that leads to the perceived dichotomy between Turkey and the West. According to recent opinion polls, almost half of the Turks think that Turkey does not belong in the EU because it is predominantly Muslim. At the same time, an increasing number of Turks appear to feel stronger affinity with other Muslim peoples in the Middle East — a development that results in public demands to establish closer ties with neighboring countries such as Syria and Iran. The rise of the ruling Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, which rests on resurgent Islam, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which is severely condemned by the Turkish public, “created strong feelings of solidarity between Turkey and its Muslim neighbors,” a recent policy paper suggests.

Second, Europe cannot take Ankara’s loyalty for granted because Turkey has strategic alternatives. One such alternative, notes Denis MacShane, Britain’s former Europe minister, in a Financial Times commentary, is that “it can create a Black Sea alliance with Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia.”

Many Turkish analysts consider the Kremlin’s more assertive policy in the Middle East as a positive development rather than as a potential threat. Ankara sees Moscow, which seeks to take a more independent line in the region and is keen to dispel the image of being Washington’s junior partner, as a useful counterbalance to what the Turks perceive as dangerously destabilizing U.S. policies. Both Russian and Turkish experts note the affinity of Ankara’s and Moscow’s positions regarding Middle East issues. “In the final analysis, Turkey’s views are different from the West and closer to Russia,” one influential Turkish analyst argues.

Similarly, both Ankara and Moscow share a pronounced bias in favor of preserving the status quo in the Black Sea and Caucasus region. The U.S. and EU policies of “spreading democracy” make both Turkey and Russia jittery. Their outlooks on the West’s democratic proselytizing are almost identical: reform and change should come as a result of the countries’ internal dynamics; no external influence should be allowed.

(Turkish Daily News, New Anatolian, October 13; RFE/RL, October 12; Financial Times, October 11)