Turkey is a happening and waiting-to-happen place all at once, a country that surprisingly finds itself still being viewed with hesitation by the West even though it has travelled further than any other to consciously jettison its historical baggage in fundamental ways.
Under Kemal Attaturk, modern Turkey, coming out from under the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, began its quest for a European character and visage. It declared itself secular, replaced its millennia-old Arabic script with the Roman script, and passed laws obliging people to adopt western dress. This cultural big bang was followed by quiet consolidation of its political links through much of the 20th century. It joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and then the Council of Europe, and during much of the Cold War, it was a key western bulwark against the dreaded might of the Russian bear.
The end of the Cold War has not been very kind to what is perhaps the only true westernised democracy in the whole Islamic world and what is clearly a sizable military and economic power, even though its importance has been reinforced by a growing network of hydrocarbon pipelines from the oil-rich Caspian region that pass through it.
A range of political issues are dangerously poised against Ankara these days: the Kurdish problem has revived, the country is under renewed global pressure to accept, if not atone, its Armenian history, and relations with its single biggest ally, the US, remain frosty over the Iraq war.
However, Turkeys single biggest concern at this time is its bid for EU membership, a doggedly pursued and emotionally charged enterprise over which formal negotiations are to begin this coming week in Brussels. This is once again in trouble, this time strongly opposed by Austria and not just by France, Poland and the Vatican. Turkey even risks losing its biggest supporter, Germany, if Angela Merkel, the CDU/CSU leader, manages to head the next government, as is widely expected under a fragile coalition. Merkel is firmly opposed to Turkish entry into the EU, favouring a privileged partnership, which, of course, Turkey sees as an insulting downgrade and will not accept.
While the cultural nuances and discussion points of this I-Am-European-No-You-Are-Not are endless, what is increasingly evident is that Turkey now risks losing ground over the 30 year-old Cyprus dispute. Turkish commentators and foreign policy experts are now witnessing a horror in slow motion, with the possibility of an externally forced solution (as a pre-condition for EU membership) increasing every day.
Turkeys bid to wrest a separate state based on ethnicity was always unviable and without any global support, but till last year there were hopes that the Turkish and Greek sides of the divided island state might get more or less equal status. That now looks increasingly unlikely.
The irony is that this overcharged debate over EU membership has distorted many pragmatic attempts to find a reasonable and face-saving solution over Cyprus. Now, it just may be that by pushing Turkey on this issue, the EU will unwittingly erode much of the pro-western sentiment in a country already internally divided among the modern Istanbul elite and the rural Anatolian masses. As a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune put it: Turkey is still just muddling through toward modernity and is delicately poised, pulled in two different direction by its two different social classes.
The whole nature, tenor and direction of European debate about Turkeys membership in the EU is very important for India because of the multiple layers of cultural, geopolitical and Kashmir-related issues. First, how the world settles a bitter dispute like Cyprus may be a curtain raiser on their positions over Kashmir, should we allow the issue to become international instead of bilateral. Second, Turkish membership in EU will test the true limits and sincerity of European multi-culturalism. And lastly, it will have an indirect and but eventual fallout on the debate over the clash of cultures and moderate versus radical faith.
The writer is editor, India Focus