Tears glisten in Sencan Bayramoglu's eyes. The retired schoolteacher is describing how her son was one of 30,000 victims of the 15-year-long Kurdish uprising that ended with the capture and imprisonment of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Bayramoglu's tears are not of grief, but of anger. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that, in order to comply with European law, Turkey must give Ocalan a new trial. Her fury is directed not only at Ocalan, whom she blames for her son's death, but also at the European institutions that demand Turkey conform to their standards as a precondition for joining the European Union. "We can't just do everything the Europeans say!" she protests. "They behave as if we are some sort of banana republic. They demean us so much. Whenever I get tired, I tell myself I am speaking on my son's behalf and raise my voice even higher."
Many Turkish voices were raised in anger after the court's decision. The judgment inflamed nationalists, who fear and repudiate Kurdish militants as a threat to the unity of the Turkish Republic. Talat Salk, who prosecuted Ocalan in 1999, warned that a retrial would have "huge reverberations" and play directly into the hands of Kurdish "terrorists" by providing them with a pretext to hold demonstrations in major cities. Nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli said the trial would be like a "time bomb" that ignited simmering ethnic tensions. But the decision also pits those who want to Westernize the country's judicial and political systems to speed E.U. accession against Turkish nationalists, many of whose idea of "Turkishness" dates back to the days of the nation's founding father, Kemal Ataturk, and which they insist is threatened by European reforms. Others go further back, citing
Ottoman imperial might.
When General Hilmi Ozkok, head of the powerful Turkish military, heard of the ruling, he complained obliquely [an error occurred while processing this directive] of "political manipulation" by the E.U. He was much more blunt in April. Outside influences "are trying to change our national culture by imposing foreign values, fashion and language that do not match Turkish customs and traditions," he said.
Suspicion of the E.U. has been increasing in the six months since Brussels agreed to open accession talks with the largely Muslim country. A poll published last week found support for joining the E.U. among Turks had fallen 12% in that period, to 63%. "Turks feel at the mercy of forces they don't understand," says Hakan Altinay, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkey office in Istanbul. The long-awaited E.U. decision was "intoxicating for many Turks," he says. "This is the hangover." Suat Kiniklioglu, head of the German Marshall Fund's Turkey office, adds: "Before [the E.U. decision], everyone was holding together to get a date to start talks. Now people are becoming confused. There is fatigue, and nationalism becomes an escape route."
The embattled government of the pro-Islamic Justice and Development (AK) party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has added to the confusion. Eight AK M.P.s, including one Cabinet Minister, have defected to the opposition in the past six months, citing political differences. Erdogan has so far failed to appoint a chief negotiator for E.U. talks in October or to sign a protocol establishing ties with existing member states, a key condition for the talks. "The government has lost its focus," says Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Galatasaray University. The result is an increasingly divided society and, in Turkey's volatile southeast where most Kurds live, a greater number of abuses by the authorities, claims Selahattin Demirtas of the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir. "The verdict by the European Court on Ocalan only reinforces the idea [in Turkish minds] that Kurds are to blame," he says.
E.U. officials monitoring Turkey's pro-gress toward accession talks say the recent problems are no reason to push the panic button yet. Once talks start, "we will have real leverage," argues Krisztina Nagy, spokeswoman for Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. "Nobody said it would be a walk in the park." If Ocalan gets a retrial, it could become a walk through a minefield as Erdogan tries to pick his way between Turkey's E.U. commitments and growing nationalist sentiment. "Turks may seem quiet and patient right now," says Bayramoglu, eyes still glistening, "but very soon there will come a moment when we say, 'Enough!'"