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Ciller Discusses Turkey's Relationship with the West

By Alex Ianculscu

Tansu Çiller, former Prime Minister of Turkey, spoke to an overflowing crowd in the Wong Auditorium Tuesday about Turkey's relationship to the West.

Çiller, who was also Turkey's first female Prime Minister, began her speech by calling herself an "idealist, but an idealist without illusions." Thus, she claimed to be taking an objective view on Turkey and its future relationship with the West.

Pointing out that Turkey's geography is very much different from that of the United States, Çiller claimed that such a geography which neither isolates nor insulates Turkey from turmoils in other countries "needs a very tough state, as we have had for more than one thousand years. It is very hard to maintain stability, so we have a tough people, a tough government."

Çiller also claimed that Turkey's "major strength comes from our culture. We place much importance on individual rights." For example, Çiller noted that Turkey gave women the right to vote in 1934, long before either France or Switzerland.

In addition, Çiller felt that the nation has always exhibited religious tolerance and has a "full-fledged democracy." While Çiller noted that Turkey has had 13 nationwide elections in the same time period that the U.S. has had 13 presidential elections, the former Prime Minister admits that "we still have a long way to go."

Çiller also expressed pride in her country's dynamic economy. Because of the the many workers and strong entrepreneurial ability, which she termed the "anatolian tigers," Çiller attributed Turkey's economic dynamism to its "strong private sector."

However, Çiller was quick to point out that "a free, market-oriented economy cannot sustain itself without a complete democracy."

Bringing up some impressive statistics, Çiller quoted Turkey's economic growth rate, which at around eight percent in 1996 and 1997, was double that of any other European country. In addition, Çiller claimed that while Turkey's unemployment rate of seven to eight percent was high for Turkey, it was nevertheless lower that that in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Çiller also stated that Turkey was well ahead of other European countries in areas such as energy production and telecommunications.

Çiller points out shortcomings

After boasting of her country's economic power, Çiller asked "So what is the problem?" She answered her question by admitting that Turkey is "definitely suffering from the heavy hand of government." Çiller said the present Turkish government is archaic and very powerful. It owns too much, taxes unfairly, and regulates excessively.

Despite these present problems, Çiller is confident of some short-term and long-term certainties. "Parliament has approved elections," which will take place on April 18, and "Turkey will always remain democratic and secular."

The present main problem, according to Çiller, is that Turkey now has a minority government, and it cannot deliver the needed reforms. "There is a downward spiral of politics in general in Turkey, and our democracy is not responding to the needs of its people."

Another potential problem in Turkey, which was brought up through a question from the audience, is that the Turkish population is very young. About "75 percent of the population consists of young people," Çiller said. She stated that this young population has both problems and advantages. The main advantage with having such a young population, according to Çiller, is that by educating the younger members of Turkey, the country has a "great potential" now in the Internet age.

However, Çiller pointed out that in Turkey, the elderly is defined as "persons 45 years or older," and supporting the elderly through old-age pensions and social security can prove very burdensome on the present generation.

Fundamentalism questioned

Another question Çiller received from the audience was in regards to fundamentalism in Turkey, and its requirement that women wear head scarves. Çiller defended her own choice to wear a head scarf as a personal choice. "Whether I cover my head or not is something which is personal." Çiller said she always covers her head when she prays, and "no one has a right to question this personal choice." Çiller feels that this very freedom of choice is the "essence of democracy."

While government bureaus and offices can have limitations on what employees should wear, other institutions like colleges must allow a free choice in such matters, Çiller said. "How people choose to practice religion should not determine their right to education."

In response to further questions from the audience about Turkey's current economic status, Çiller claimed that "the Russian collapse did not affect Turkish economy, but the continuation of minority government might." Although the recent global economic crises did not hit Turkey, the country's present government is unable to deliver needed reforms. "I will do what is best and what democracy requires after the election," Çiller promised.

EU membership questioned

With respect to Turkey's membership to the European Union, Çiller stated that Turkey had applied in the early 1960s to the Union, but then delayed its acceptance. Although Turkey entered the Customs Union in 1995, the European Union then "singled out Turkey," according to Çiller, and failed to accept Turkey as a full member to the European Union. "Europe has become a Christian club," Çiller said, and Turkey has been refused membership because she is a Muslim country. She feels that "negotiations need to be pursued," and that the European Union should recognize their own need for Turkey.

Çiller sees herself as a "representative of the West" who wishes to bring Turkey to the European Union of democracy, liberalization, and westernization, but she does not want to place any pressure on how the Turkish people wish to live.

When Çiller first came to office, she said, the inflation rate of Turkey was 150 percent, banks were collapsing, and there was no stock market. Within one year, Çiller raised the amount of country's reserve funds from $3 billion to $16 billion, and lowered the inflation rate to 65 percent. However, she had to "cut real wages by one-third, both in the public and private sector. I had no other choice." Within five years, Çiller anticipated wages to rise and the inflation rate to continue falling, but "the immediate impact on the majority was too big."

Nevertheless, Çiller claims now to have formulated a "big change program" for Turkey, preparing for a "big leap forward in the second democratization stage. I now have the experience to deliver it."

Çiller became Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey in July 1993 and served as that country's head until 1996, when she formed a coalition with a Muslim party. The coalition subsequently disbanded when a new government was elected.

The event was sponsored and held by the Lecture Series Committee.