Though Turkey is continuing with preparations for the start of accession negotiations with the European Union, some troubling developments in recent months have prompted European diplomats and local observers to question the country's determination to enact and adhere to EU-related reforms.
"Watching it from Ankara, there's a sense that the political will in Ankara is not as strong as it was, if there's any left at all, to invest in this process with Europe," says a diplomat from an EU country, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"There's a perception among international observers in Ankara that the initiatives that they [Turkish officials] are still announcing, and the commitment to the EU process that they are still professing is less convincing because its not being reflected by their actions," the diplomat added.
Most troubling from the EU perspective have been a number of court cases in which writers have been accused of insulting the state and "Turkishness," raising concern about Turkey's commitment to freedom of speech. Rights activists are worried that a new anti-terror bill that the government plans to introduce contains several troubling articles, including one that would allow for the jailing of journalists accused of "propagating terrorism." Such a bill could mark a step back in Turkey's legal reform process.
There is also worry that renewed violence in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast will prompt the military to reassert itself in domestic affairs. A revival of the Kurdish separatist issue could also cause the judicial system to backslide on human rights. Already, some 36 Kurdish children are currently awaiting trial for their involvement in violent riots that took place in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir in late March, some of them facing as much as 24 years in prison.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul tried to brush aside suggestions that Ankara is experiencing reform fatigue, saying in a recent statement, "our reform efforts aimed at raising standards and practices in all areas of life to the highest contemporary standards will resolutely continue."
Foreign Ministry officials point out that Turkey and the EU have already successfully agreed on negotiation points for 19 of the 35 "chapters" on which the accession talks will be based, adding that actual negotiations on two of those chapters will start in the coming months.
Despite the Turkish assurances on reforms, EU officials remain skeptical. Speaking to reporters during a recent visit to Bulgaria, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn voiced dissatisfaction with Turkey's reform pace, and strongly admonished the Turkish government to get back on track. "It is necessary that the Turkish government take immediate action to restart the momentum of the reforms in the country," he said.
"This is the best and only way to avoid a train crash later this year in the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey," Rehn added. "It's really in the hands of the Turkish government, parliament and civil society to achieve this."
There is very likely a domestic consideration to the reform slowdown. While public support for EU membership was close to 80 percent two years ago, it now hovers at around 50 percent. Many Turks believe the EU has betrayed Turkey on the Cyprus issue by not rewarding a successful Turkish Cypriot referendum vote to accept a UN plan to unify the island. Many also feel that moves, such as a recently shelved French bill that would criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide, are an outgrowth of a wider European unwillingness to see Turkey join the EU.
With Turkey facing elections in 2007, analysts say the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is reluctant to be viewed as intimately connected with Turkey's EU project. "There is a rising nationalism in the country and [the AKP] also has a constituency that is rather conservative in a nationalist sense," says Mensur Akgun, foreign policy director at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank. "They can do a lot more, if they wanted to, but they don't want to take a risk."
"What [the government leaders] are doing is focusing on elections and on the mood in the country, and that mood is very inward looking and with a feeling of vulnerability on several issues," says the European diplomat. "Instead of showing a way and leadership, the government is listening much more to these ghosts that have been haunting Turkey for decades, and somehow they have been caught up in all of that."
There is some concern now that growing political tension in Turkey may further hinder the reform process. The recent killing of a top judge in Ankara has placed the AKP government firmly on the defensive. There have been large-scale demonstrations in support of the country's secular order and Turkey's top general, in a rare move, publicly urged Turks to continue such demonstrations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But some of the reform slowdown might also be attributed to a kind of disillusionment with the EU within the inner circles of the AKP, a liberal Islamic party. A European Court of Human Right ruling late last year supporting Turkey's headscarf ban in public universities stunned many in the party, who thought EU membership would lead to greater religious freedoms.
"Concerning the EU process, it doesn't seem as if Europe will admit Turkey together with its Islamic identity," Ali Bulac, a leading Islamic intellectual, recently wrote in the daily newspaper Zaman. "Europe does not accept the existence of any other civilization apart from its own."
Adds Fehmi Koru, a columnist with the liberal Islamic newspaper Yeni Safak, which is considered to be close to the AKP government: "Of course there are some disappointments, especially in the field of human rights. Intellectuals who support the AKP had the idea that with the headscarf issue and other issues related to basic human rights would be solved by becoming EU members, but of course this hasn't been realized."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.