EU Must Grasp Role of Turkish Military Says Gurel

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s foreign minister said on Wednesday the European Union–which Ankara hopes to join–should not dwell on the influence of the military in Turkish politics as a problem and should accept the country’s "peculiarities."

Sukru Sina Gurel was launching a campaign to persuade the European Union to start membership talks with Ankara–which wants a date set for the start of full negotiations at a December summit in Copenhagen. The drive for EU talks is complicated by the approach of elections in November.

Turkey passed a broad package of human rights reforms this month aimed at meeting the EU’s criteria on human rights and democracy–but the EU remains concerned about the influence of the military in a country that has seen three coups since 1960.

As recently as 1997 a government led by Islamists was forced from power by a military-led campaign on the grounds it threatened NATO-member Turkey’s strictly secular constitution.

"I believe there is a misunderstanding on that issue in Western public opinion–maybe because the role of the military in the establishment of the republic is not well understood from the outside," Gurel told reporters at a meeting to launch a campaign to win over foreign public opinion.

"Of course the Turkish army is an institution in Turkish society which is incomparable with–for example–the Belgian army in Belgian society. There’s no doubt about that and nobody should doubt that," Gurel said.

Turkey is due to hold a general election in November that opinion polls suggest could bring to power the Justice and Development Party (AKP)–one of two parties formed from the ashes of an Islamist party banned last year.

The AKP presents itself as a conservative democratic party that has moved away from its Islamist roots but there are many in the secular establishment who still see it as Islamist.

Gurel declined to comment on questions about how the military might react if AKP wins the election. But he said the EU should avoid misunderstanding the role of the military.

"The armed forces as an institution has been an important institution on the part of social change–social reform and restructuring in Turkey and they have an appropriate place in the minds and hearts of the Turkish people and that is reflected in the social role as well," Gurel said.

"Rather than misunderstanding this phenomenon and rather than confusing it with other armed forces in other places–all those in the West should try to understand the peculiarity and differences of Turkey’s historical evolution and the role of the armed forces in that."

The founder of modern Turkey–Mustafa Kemal Ataturk–was a general who led the country to independence in 1923 and entrusted the defense of the secular state to the military.

Opinion polls regularly show that the military is the most trusted institution in Turkey and it has always restored democracy–albeit in some eyes a flawed democracy–after coups.

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