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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crisis in Turkey: Nationalism Is Not an Answer

LONDON -- Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller organized a "Respect for Ataturk" day to underline her government's commitment to the secular political principles of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. To many Turks, the gesture looked like a poorly disguised attempt to divert attention from political, economic and security problems that are rapidly turning into Turkey's worst crisis in decades. Ciller, a U.S.-educated economist who was once Turkey's youngest professor, seems to have no answer except to beat the drum of strident nationalism.

Ciller took power last June at a time when Turkey's economy was enjoying one of Europe's fastest growth rates. It is a different story these days. The Turkish lira has lost 80 percent of its value so far this year, and inflation and interest rates are rocketing upward. Turkey's foreign debt rose by one-fifth last year to reach $65 billion.The state deficit is out of control, and international credit-rating agencies have downgraded Turkey's debt. The taxation system is a mess and the government is in deep trouble.

At the same time political violence is once more staining the Turkish landscape. The Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey has taken 11,000 lives since 1984, and Ciller has encouraged the police and armed forces to think they can take any measures they like to suppress it. Four weeks ago the police arrested five democratically elected Kurdish members of parliament. They could face the death penalty if they are found guilty of backing the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party.

Violence is not confined to the Kurdish conflict. In the run-up to last weekend's nationwide local elections, gunmen fired bullets and threw grenades into an Istanbul coffeehouse where a candidate of the pro-Islamic opposition Welfare Party was giving a speech. As in North Africa, Muslim radicalism is on the rise.

The international outlook has changed for Turkey, too. With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Turkish politicians boasted that their country would soon be the most important player in a crescent stretching from southeastern Europe to Central Asia. But it has not worked out like that. The Central Asian republics have turned out to owe more to their common Soviet legacy than to their Turkic identities.

Turkey is trying to compensate by increasing its influence in the Balkans. But this is playing with fire. After Russia deployed troops in Sarajevo, Turkey lobbied hard for the right to send its own forces under a United Nations flag to Bosnia. Last week, the UN agreed to the request. The announcement caused anger in Serbia and is likely to harden the Bosnian Serbs' determination not to accept a compromise peace. Worse, the Turkish deployment will send shock waves through Greece. Greek military leaders have already responded to Turkey's muscle-flexing by stating that they will form a common defense zone with the Greek Cypriot government of southern Cyprus. Turkey and Greece almost came to war over Cyprus in the mid 1980s, and now there are more and more signs that the competition for power and prestige in the Balkans is meshing dangerously with the Cyprus problem.

Turkey has come a long way since the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 and Ataturk dragged his country of conservative religious peasants into the modern age. But the secular democratic Turkish state must act fast now to preserve its gains.