Monday, February 05, 2007

Don't miss this window of opportunity

05 February 2007
The New Anatolian
By Ayhan Simsek - Ankara

We are all shocked with the dreadful murder of journalist Hrant Dink and also very much impressed with the thousands of Turks marching in his funeral showing sympathy, EU Term President Germany's Ambassador to The New Anatolian. "Now this can open a new window of opportunity for Turkey and Armenia. I have also said this during a recent dinner of EU ambassadors with Prime Minister Erdogan. This positive momentum should not be missed."

Journalist Hrant Dink, one of the most prominent voices of Turkey's Armenian community, was killed by a gunman last month in Istanbul. His funeral drew some 100,000 mourners on to the streets to protest at the militant nationalism which apparently inspired his killer.

German Ambassador Dr. Eckart Cuntz also participated at the funeral and said that everything there was highly emotional. "Hundreds of thousands of people were on the street to show their solidarity with Dink. They showed that they are against all tendencies of nationalism of any kind. They have demonstrated that they are for freedom of expression and for a better understanding among all Turkish people," Cuntz said.

"Turkey is a big country and of course there are extremists. But the vast majority of the people are looking for a stronger democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and better understanding," German ambassador said and urged the Turkish government to quickly introduce a change in controversial Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

Article 301 makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Journalist Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist had been tried and convicted under it and prominent novelist Orhan Pamuk, who also faced prosecution under Article 301, blamed the article for the killing.

"Nowadays we are having growing discussion on Article 301. Even the Turkish government sees that there is an absolute need to at least change the article," Cuntz stressed. "This is very important. I personally think that it is best to get rid of Article 301 as quick as possible."

In an exclusive interview with The New Anatolian, Ambassador Cuntz also responded to questions on Turkey's troubled EU accession talks, Cyprus problem and Kurdish issue. Here is what he had to tell us:

TNA- Public polls show that, ahead of general elections in Turkey late this year, support for Turkey's EU perspective has sharply decreased. Several analysts blame the EU and Turkey skeptic politicians in Europe for alienating Turkish people by irritating statements as well as what is perceived as "double standards" on many issues from Cyprus problem to conditions for full membership. Do you have some concerns for the future of this process?

CUNTZ- Well, certainly in recent opinion pools the image of the EU is not the best one. Maybe the majority of Turkish people still see the objective of joining the EU but the image of the EU is so bad that sometimes people are telling us: "If you use the word EU it will not lead to any motivation." Of course, this is not a good thing. If you want to have the support of the people to join the EU, you need a positive image of the EU. But this cannot be done only by the EU. This is a task of all those who are in favor of the EU process. We also have to work for a better image of Turkey in the EU countries. This goes hand in hand. We also have to make more visible to the Turkish people, what the EU really is. If you look at the very high growth rates of Turkey in the last couple of years and development of trade, you will see that more than 50 percent goes to the EU. As of November last year, 83 percent of investments is coming from EU countries. Economic development in Turkey is very much due to the EU process. When we look at the political developments, I am sure that achievements in terms of democracy and human rights are felt by most of the Turkish citizens.

Many times I hear criticisms saying injustice done to Turkey on the Cyprus question. I don't think that this is true. Cyprus is unfortunately divided. The EU supports the unification of the island and the resumption of UN talks for a comprehensive settlement with the aim of reunification. I think this is the best for the people in the south and north of the island. Economically speaking the south is at the level of richer countries already in the EU. We see the point that one has to do something for the development of the north and the Turkish community in Cyprus. That's why the EU has made available Euro 259 million for the development of the north. And that is not peanuts for a population about 250 thousand. We should also do something to work for direct trade. This is one of the commitments of the German Presidency. We will work to enable the Turkish community to develop its own economic bases. And I would like to also note that there is already considerable tourism from Germany and other EU countries. This is also a movement helping to end the isolation of the Turkish community.

TNA- There is an expectation among Turkey and Turkish Cypriots that efforts to put an end to isolation of Northern Cyprus should include direct flights. Will your initiative also include this?

CUNTZ-I always say that we should not go to such questions which don't have an easy solution. We should better concentrate on the direct trade issue with the Turkish community. Our commitment is to work very hard on direct trade. At this stage it would not be good to raise such questions.

TNA- What do you think the EU and your Presidency can do to revive the talks for a comprehensive settlement on Cyprus?

CUNTZ-First of all, Turkey has always said that the Cyprus question is not a matter for the EU. So we have to be very careful becoming active as the EU. Our prime task is to support what is happening in the framework in the UN and not to make the job itself. We welcome any such efforts. Any move which will lead to rapprochement of the two communities is certainly welcomed. As you know, there are ongoing technical talks. I personally welcomed [Turkish Cypriot leader] M.r. Talat demolishing that bridge. Unfortunately it has not yet led to another gate between south and north but it showed a preparedness to go there. Other than that, we do have now a newly appointed Secretary General who has declared that he is going to work on reaching a comprehensive settlement on Cyprus.

TNA- Turkey currently has a lively discussion on presidential elections, secularism and foreign policy issues where from time to time high ranking military officials are also involved with public statements. Sometimes we are witnessing harsh criticisms by the EU on military's influence in politics, but it is also a widespread assumption that it will take some time for Turkey to fully align with the best practices of the EU countries. What would be your comment on this issue?

CUNTZ- Turkey has a constitution which clearly describes the responsibility of institutions in your country. The constitution describes distribution of the power and checks and balances in your country. So when the EU made the judgment for the opening of accession talks with Turkey, it accepted that this constitution is a democratic one and offers possibility of fully comply with the political criteria of the EU. What is essential for Turkey is that in a democratic country decisions are taken by the bodies according to the constitution which are democratic and legitimate. Having said that, of course all the people can contribute to the political discussions…In Turkey I can see there is a very lively discussion in such matters and I do think it is good to have such discussions. I am confident that Turkey will find ways and means to get the proper answers for these matters.

TNA-Turkish Prime Minister recently said that the year 2007 will be a year of Iraq for Turkish foreign policy. What is the level of cooperation on political level with the EU and Turkey on Iraq and do you have worries that the situation in the neighboring country may have negative impacts to Turkey?

CUNTZ- The developments in Iraq are certainly a concern for all of us. Stability, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq is a common interest among us. Turkey, EU and others should work in the framework of their possibilities to this end. It is our strong interest that the democratically elected government in Baghdad will have full control of the situation in Iraq. Our aim is to closely cooperate with that government. I do understand Turkey's concerns of Kirkuk. And I am convinced that all those who are involved in that matter… they will take knowledge of Turkey's concerns. I see the Turkish government is very active in informing others on Ankara's concerns.

TNA- Turkey expects U.S. and Iraqi governments to eliminate terrorist PKK presence in northern Iraq but so far no serious step came from Washington or Baghdad. On the other hand Turkish officials say a cross-border operation is still an option on the table. We do also know that EU officials so far stressed the need for a socio-economic plan towards the Southeast. What is your assessment for the recent developments on this issue?

CUNTZ- We have always stated that we are standing together in the fight against terror. It is also true for PKK. But fight against terrorism is not just a task for security forces but it is certainly a task for all lines of political society and business life. It is important to economically develop the region and win the hearts of the people. We have to work to diminish regional disparities.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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