Troubled state

The New Turkey: the quiet revolution on the edge of Europe

Chris Morris <em>Granta Books, 258pp, £

Is Turkey ready to join the EU? Can it ever be a truly European nation? These are open questions, even among Turks who support the bid for entry to the EU. When it is a European voicing the doubt, however, such questions are likely to express cluelessness. Outside Turkey, there is little understanding of the country or its history, and next to no awareness of the huge social and economic changes of the past two decades. Instead, there are nightmare visions of Turkish immigrants flooding the Continent - or, to quote Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the "river of Islam" entering the "riverbed of secularism".

For those of us who know and love Turkey, such ignorance is hugely frus-trating. And then there is the question of how to respond to it, for to know Turkey's potential is also to know that it is not, at present, a democracy along European lines. The military have long played a leading role in affairs of state, while the state (with its three million bureaucrats) has seen itself as leading the people rather than serving them. Although Turkey is a signatory to the European Convention, its human rights record is notoriously poor.

And yet it has launched a vast programme of reform in recent years - largely in the hope of joining Europe. While there is growing resentment at the rate of change, and stiff resistance in certain parts of that vast state bureaucracy, there is no doubt that Turkey is a freer, more open and more dynamic society than ever before. It is, as Chris Morris writes, undergoing a "second revolution". And although it is not at all clear where this revolution will lead - into Europe or away from it - it is not a process Europe can afford to ignore.

Morris was the BBC's correspondent in Turkey from 1997 to 2001; he spent the next four years in Brussels, covering the EU and Europe, but returning often to Turkey. This gives him the double perspective that the subject demands. There is an eyewitness electricity to his prose, yet he never loses his capacity to see the story from the outside, and he refuses to let his affection for the country blunt his analysis of its problems. While he answers head-on every nagging question a Eurosceptic might ask, it is by showing how Turkey is moving to address these problems that he gives a sense of its dynamism.

The book moves at a pretty fast clip. The republic's Ottoman past is behind us by page 30, Ataturk and his complex legacy by page 50. Yet, even as we trot along, struggling to keep up, we get a pretty clear idea of how the Turkish state developed, and where the people stand in relation to it. The rest of the book is organised around the issues of most concern abroad: the role of Islam, the Kurdish question, the Cyprus question, the continuing disputes about the Armenian genocide of 1915, Turkey's human rights record, its volatile economy, its powerful and privileged military, its corrupt political system, and the millions of Turks already living in Europe.

This is a lot to cover in 258 pages, especially if you feel compelled, as Morris does, to humanise the politics with real-life stories. But this, in the end, is his greatest achievement, because any account of Turkey that does not give a strong sense of its people ends up giving only a strong sense of the overweening, overprivileged and often brutally oppressive state which rules them. Morris's central point is that the state has not kept pace with its people: what they were willing to accept 50 years ago, when their economy was closed and contact with the outside world was limited, is not what they want or expect today.

He sees the turning point as the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, just outside Istanbul, which killed at least 18,000 people. The expectation was that Baba Devlet ("daddy state") would stride in and take charge; however, the military had suffered serious damage and, in any event, did not have emergency plans in place. Betrayal turned to shock when the first foreign rescue team to arrive in the city came from Turkey's old enemy, Greece. Six years on, the rapprochement between the two countries continues. While it would not be possible without the political thaw, it is by indi-viduals and small friendship societies that the real links are being established. The same pattern is evident in most of the other problem areas that Morris covers. The EU reforms might be unpopular with the entrenched bureaucracy, but there is a very broad church that wants them.

However, the picture today is not quite as bright as it was when Morris wrote his epilogue. Tayyip Erdogan, the reforming prime minister, looks much weaker than he did this time last year, while anti-EU nationalists inside Turkey have found perfect allies in the anti-Turkey nationalists of the EU. No one knows how the game will play itself out, but if you want to be able to follow it as it happens, there can be no better preparation than this splendid, astute and compassionate book.

Maureen Freely is the English translator of Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The gathering storm