Donkeys and other lost opportunities

In Turkey, we have a saying: If God loves someone, He shows this by getting that fellow''s donkey lost first, so that the lucky fellow feels joy and excitement when he finds it. The Armenian conference is an example: Twice postponed, it was held this weekend as an act of defiance against all reactionary forces who would like to see it never happen. Its very occurrence is a lucky strike, a blessing in disguise.

I myself do not feel any remorse because of what happened in 1915 and 1916, though I am sure something terrible happened. It was a time when a world empire was dissolving and the people running the Ottoman Empire were eager to stop its demise at whatever coast. Those who had hidden agendas to extract them out of a declining empire were active too, to make it more fragile and weak so that they could realize their aims in the end. What happened in those times in the Ottoman Empire is not very different from what happened in many other entities during similar conditions: A human tragedy based on blood and tears…

We have a culture which does not like to discuss our failures and misconduct. We always emphasize our successes, never indulge in our mishaps, in our daily life as well as when we raise an issue concerning our history. Any attempt to analyze our historical misfortunes with a critical eye is met with derision and jeers. Attila Ilhan, a respected leftist poet and essayist, claimed recently that our modern history is laden with untruths, but he dared to say this when he became mature enough, celebrating his 80th year.

The Armenian conference is an important step ahead in a sense that it is the first time we took up issues in a different manner. Some scholars who have historical knowledge and documents to defy the official line have forced their way to come forward. Their decisions about our history may be mistaken, they may overreact, take issues out of context, exaggerate. I do not care, since I have eyes and ears to look for ideas and theses to counter their claims. What I care about is the outcome: The forces of darkness have not won the day. The conference has been held, not in its planned venue, but at another university, but it has been held nevertheless.

This whole adventure has bestowed us with more self-reliance.

Now, we know that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is sincere in its pursuit of European Union. There are those, politicians like Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, who have done everything to block the conference. Yet, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his deputy and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul have stepped in and made the conference a possibility. It is a relief to know this.

In the recent past, when there was a threat presented as concerning state security, none dared defy it. This time, it was different. A group of retired generals accused organizers of the Armenian conference with treason, threatened to raid the conference venue, but they did not succeed. Supporters of ultranationalist parties gathered in front of the campus where the conference was held just to annoy and shoo away the participants, but their presence did not affect the delegates who walked past through them without taking any notice what names those people were calling them.

The day of the conference, when I was returning from Istanbul, I happened to sit in the plane next to a diplomat working for an international agency based in Ankara. She relayed all the usual criticisms I have been accustomed to be hearing lately whenever I come across a foreigner familiar with Turkish affairs. Almost all the problems which cause raised eyebrows in European capitals are problems which exist because Turkey is not yet a European Union member. The Cyprus issue is no exception. Good riddance, she agreed with me.

This is the crux of the matter. The scholars were successful in convening the Armenian conference because Turkey is on its way to EU membership. Turkey has relented that vocational courses be opened for local languages other than Turkish, because of our EU hopes. Turkish Cypriots voted almost unanimously for the Annan plan in a referendum with the understanding that the Cyprus issue would easily be solved with the inclusion of Turkey into the EU. And all the positive steps taken in Turkey to create ways and means for a better democracy and more human rights, we owe them to our EU prospects.

Whether it is my faulty intuition or perhaps it has any ground for pessimism, I am not sure, yet many European capitals are testing Turkey''s patience by trying to extort unpopular last-minute conditions, forcing the government to lose face if it accepts them or to sacrifice its EU hopes if it rejects them. The government seems to be at the end of its tether.

Many developments taking place in Turkey over the last four years have been positive results of politicians'' determination. What we have achieved could not have been achieved if Turkey were not on its way to become an EU member. The reforms we have been enjoying are not one hundred percent popular, and the instigator of the major changes in the Constitution was a coalition government headed by Bulent Ecevit. All the parties in that coalition lost in the ensuing fall 2002 election and are unable to be represented in Parliament today. What the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party has been doing over the last three years may coast them dearly too. Any possibility of taking Turkey off the EU''s hook would not totally dismay the leaders of the AK Party, who are facing hardships selling many remaining reforms to their own party group as well as their constituency.

When push comes to shove, the government won''t hesitate to walk away from the negotiating table, and we, the ordinary Turks, who enjoy the benefits of the nation''s EU hopes, would be the losers.

Those in Turkey who are loved by God Almighty first lose their donkey so that when they find it eventually they become jubilant. We can console ourselves by looking out for the next opportunity, as the fellow who loses his donkey always does.

I only hope the Europeans have heard the saying.

From The New Anatolian, 27 September 2005

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Donkeys and other lost opportunities
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