By Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent
ISTANBUL // Turkey?s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has become his country?s first head of government to acknowledge publicly that his country displayed a ?fascist approach? in dealing with its minorities in the past, when Christians and Jews fled abroad after coming under pressure.
?For years, these things were done in this country,? Mr Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Duzce, north-western Turkey, last weekend.
?People of other ethnicities were driven from the country. Did we win anything because of that? This was the result of a fascist approach.?
With this ?historic self-criticism?, as newspapers called it, the prime minister was reacting to opposition criticism aimed at government plans to consider giving the job of clearing landmines along the border with Syria to foreign ? especially Israeli ? companies. As relations between Turkey and Syria have improved rapidly in recent years, both countries have agreed to clear the mines on their border. The parliament in Ankara is expected to debate a bill designed to organise the mine-clearing operation along the border strip of almost 900km this week.
The Erdogan government has been criticised repeatedly by opposition parties for opening Turkey to foreign investors. A law concerning the sale of real estate to foreigners has been stopped by the constitutional court several times in recent years after nationalists said the regulation would enable foreigners to take control over large parts of Turkey?s territories.
Members of Turkey?s tiny non-Muslim minorities are regarded with suspicion by Turkish nationalists, who see them as agents of such foreign powers as Greece or Israel. Countering these accusations in his Duzce speech, Mr Erdogan said: ?Money is like mercury. It goes where it finds the most adequate place.? Referring to the opposition, he added: ?You see, some come out and say: ?This Jewish investment is wrong.? No, this friend is coming to invest in my country. He is investing a billion dollars. There is no ?we don?t want that?.?
In the mine-clearing debate, opposition parties accused the Erdogan government of selling out to foreigners because the company that wins the tender has the right to use the land for organic agriculture for 44 years after the clearing operation.
Opposition politicians said the government was about to hand over control of the border area to Israel because Israeli companies are reported to have come up with very competitive proposals.
?The border is holy, it is a place where national honour is being protected,? Erdal Sihapi, a member of parliament for the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said in a speech this month. ?Now this honour is being given away to foreigners for 44 years.?
Observers say Mr Erdogan went far beyond the usual rhetoric of a Turkish politician when he answered the opposition?s accusations ? the kind of public self-criticism that is very unusual for Turkey.
?That statement was the most courageous thing ever said by Erdogan?, Halil Berktay, a historian at Istanbul?s Sabanci University, told yesterday?s Vatan newspaper. Baskin Oran, another academic known for his liberal views, told the Star newspaper he was ?proud of a prime minister who denounces ethnic and religious cleansing?.
With his comments, Mr Erdogan touched a delicate subject in Turkey. In several waves over the past several decades, thousands of Greeks, Armenians and Jews have left the country after riots or after pressure from the state in the form of punitive taxes. In one incident, Turkish nationalists destroyed hundreds of shops owned by Greeks and Armenians in Istanbul in one night on Sept 6 1955. The subject was taboo in Turkey for a long time and has been discussed openly only for a few years.
?The Greek community, which has been afraid to talk about the events of the 6th and the 7th September, will now talk without fear about their experiences after the prime minister?s statement,? Mihailis Vasiliadis, a journalist and member of Istanbul?s Greek community, told the Star.
The number of Greeks living in Istanbul has shrunk dramatically, to about 3,000 from nearly 100,000 at the end of the 1950s, according to Rev Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, a spokesman of the Greek-Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul.
?These are tragic figures that speak volumes,? Anagnostopoulos said in an interview last month.
?They went away because they did not see a future for themselves.?
Silvio Ovadio, leader of Turkey?s Jewish community, also welcomed Mr Erdogan?s speech. ?Everybody, whatever his religion, is made happy by the prime minister?s words,? he told the Star. The number of Jews in Turkey, once around 60,000, has sunk to 20,000.
Opposition politicians, however, accused Mr Erdogan of defacing Turkey?s history. Onur Oymen, a leading member of the Republican People?s Party, the biggest opposition party in parliament, said no Turkish citizen had ever been expelled because of his ethnicity, the NTV news channel reported. Mr Oymen also said his party will send the mine-clearing bill to the constitutional court if parliament adopts it, according to news reports.
Oktay Vural of the MHP said Mr Erdogan?s words were an insult to the Turkish nation.
Source: “The National”, Abu Dhabi, 25 May 2009