A Repeat of Zimbabwe?: the problem of land reform in South Africa

In 1979, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF comrades came to power in Zimbabwe, ending almost a century of white-minority rule in what had been the British colony of Rhodesia. An immediate policy of the new black government was to begin the sensitive process of land reform. This involved redistributing land to poorer black communities, who owned a disproportionate share of the country’s territory in relation to the white minority.

Initially land reform was successful, with the British government even paying 50% of the costs to transfer formerly white-owned land into smaller, tenanted plots for the black population. This redistribution was carried out under the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, whereby white farmers were only encouraged to sell their land if they were inclined to and were under no compulsory obligation to do so.

This all changed in 1992, however, with the passing of the Land Acquisition Act, created in the hope of speeding up the land reform programme which Mugabe had long-promised his loyal followers. The Act allowed the Zimbabwean government to buy any land it wanted for the purposes of redistribution, provided a satisfactory compensation was paid to the landholder. This clause, unsurprisingly, was the target of abuse, and white farmers began to receiving appalling compensation for their best lands. Consequently, as the 1990s progressed, opposition to the Land Acquisition Act increased, bringing the farmers into direct conflict with Mugabe and his cadre of supporters.  Further complications arose as Mugabe expected the British government to pay a substantial amount of aid for the buying-up of land. The British declined on the grounds that the land reform programme had become increasingly unfair.

As British money dried-up, the land seizures began. White farmers (and some black farmers that were political opponents of Mugabe) were forced from their homes with minimal or no compensation provided. Gangs of black peasants took the initiative and forcibly evicted many families, at the cost of a number of lives. Mugabe turned a blind eye and, indeed, tacitly supported this act of “black empowerment”. Never mind the fact that these once productive farms were either laid to waste or opened to the worst cases of mismanagement by unknowledgeable black farmers, Mugabe did nothing to stop the atrocities. The subsequent hyper-inflation and economic collapse that followed was no surprise, for Zimbabwe had stopped producing enough food. Therefore, instead of providing a means of social advancement for black people, many found their impoverishment increased and some even starved to death.

Violent land reform led to hyperinflation - the Zimbabwean currency became worthless

This foolhardy desperation to rush land reform as part of an independence pledge should serve as a warning. Nevertheless, there are fears that the same thing could befall neighbouring South Africa. As with Zimbabwe, the policy of land reform was one of the earliest initiatives implemented by the ANC on its ascendancy to power in 1994. Also like Zimbabwe, land redistribution has so far proved both a lengthy and costly process in South Africa and has been largely unsuccessful.

Why this is such a pertinent issue now revolves around the internal dissension within the ANC. President Jacob Zuma has faced open criticism from firebrand Youth League leader Julius Malema, whose attitude to wealth redistribution is simple: go and take it. Zuma has manoeuvred the banning of Malema from the party for five years, causing uproar amongst Malema’s own substantial group of supporters. The worry remains that, if Malema is reinstated, or Zuma becomes anxious to dispel the opposition towards his leadership from the poorest segments of society, a similar programme of land reform to Zimbabwe might emerge. There have already been violent threats to white farming communities in the Transvaal and the Cape, with many farmers responding with equal force. Despite the positive rhetoric, could South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe?


Farm Attacks and ANC Inclusivity

As Zimbabwe experienced from the 1990s into the 21st century, attacks on white farms in South Africa have increased in prevalence in recent years. With many agricultural homesteads being situated in far-flung districts of the country’s vast Northern and Western Cape provinces, these attacks have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media in the cities. It is therefore difficult to attain an accurate comparison between the two, disparate states, in terms of precise figures.

However, the murder of far-right agitator Eugéne Terre’Blanche on his farm near Ventersdorp in April 2010 gave the issue of white “farm attacks” a higher profile. For, despite the condemnation of the attack as a “terrible deed” by President Zuma, it came amidst a controversial debate surrounding Julius Malema. As a means of rousing the crowds at his ANC Youth rallies, Malema had orchestrated the singing of a song containing the lyrics “shoot the Boer”, a now derogatory term for white South Africans. Malema has remained unapologetic to this day over his decision to publicise the song, and it contributed greatly to his sacking from the party. Whether intentional or not, the song fits Malema’s mantra of “go and take it” perfectly, and is understandably an issue of great concern for farmers and liberal activists alike.

The murder of Terre'Blanche brought attention to attacks on white farms

Whilst in Zimbabwe Mugabe was happy to allow the violent removal of white farmers from their lands, the ANC is loath to take such a vindictive stance. From the time it came to office under Nelson Mandela in 1994, the ANC has preached inclusivity between all races and ethnicities. Therefore, whilst the ZANU-PF continues to see whites as the oppressors, the ANC theoretically supports a multi-racial society.

This laudable stance cannot, of course, prevent individual criminals from attacking white-owned property and the farmers have responded to these threats with force of their own. Support Groups and security companies have been established that often resemble posses, sent to track down threatening outsiders in an expression of vigilantism. Whilst farmers’ desire to protect their lands is understandable, the Support Groups are an expression of the disdain with which the majority-black law enforcement services are held by many whites in South Africa. When the rule of law breaks down in any state it spells danger. Consequently, the potential for the Support Groups to overstep their remit is a constant threat.

Other farmers, like their counterparts in Zimbabwe, have been more pragmatic, deciding to leave their ancestral homes behind. Although done with great reluctance, many white South African farmers no longer see the incentive of staying in a nation they no longer feel is their own. Many depart for the English-speaking world, whilst others have been driven further into the depths of Africa, where schemes in the Congo and Zambia are trying to entice skilled agrarians to their under-productive countries.

Violent land grabs may not have reached anywhere near the level they did in Zimbabwe at the beginning of the century. Nevertheless, the persistent failure of land reform, coupled with an increasingly-agitated black working class in rural areas, could see this change. Whilst the ANC continues to trumpet the importance of multiracialism, populists like Malema threaten to destabilise any notions of ethnic tolerance with their impulsive preaching.


A Nervous Future

What must be concerning a majority of South Africans, white and black, is the rapidly deteriorating health of Nelson Mandela. Now 93, Mandela is becoming ever frailer and is unlikely to survive too long into the future. Not only would this be a sad loss of a great anti-apartheid figure and democratic agitator, but it may also have a tangible impact on ANC ideology.

The policy of inclusivity, whereby the former white oppressors were incorporated peacefully into the “new” South Africa, was an initiative of Mandela. Whilst he remains alive, the party hierarchy is unlikely to change this official stance. However, after his passing, the possibility for change is strong. With the forcefulness of Malema and other young radical politicians who shun the corrupt ANC hierarchy and preach power to the black masses, the party has the potential to turn the way of ZANU-PF. The black working class that still reveres Mandela today will no longer be shackled by their former leader’s doctrinal desires when he’s gone; Malema’s message will become their new guiding light.

Of course, the institutionalisation of democracy in South Africa means the decrees handed down by Mugabe in Zimbabwe are unlikely to be repeated here. Nevertheless, succumbing to the demands of impoverished blacks may be an inevitable step for a leadership that wants to remove attention from its pork-barrel politics and rent-seeking tendencies. With one of the most vehement demands of the black working class being an access to land, much of which remains in white hands, the potential for unauthorised “land reform” is a strong one.

The future of South Africa rests on the power struggle between Zuma and Malema

South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world (except for Namibia), even surpassing Brazil in the “rich-poor gap”. With the ANC unable to deliver on its independence promises of an era of prosperity for all blacks, the leeway for political manoeuvring is becoming greatly reduced. With Mandela’s demise will come greater demands for a black assumption of power in all areas of life, whether through legal or non-legal channels. Unless President Zuma can control Julius Malema, white farmers and landholders will continue to worry. Zimbabwe’s land attacks may have had presidential approval. The same will not be necessary in the unbalanced and ideologically-confused Republic of South Africa.


Selective Intervention: Britain’s Inconsistent Foreign Policy Post-WWII

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has blamed a foreign conspiracy for trying to destabilise his country, suggesting that Western media outlets and governments alike are at fault for the mass uprising against his rule, which has left over 5,000 people dead since it began almost a year ago. With Arab League observers doing little more than overseeing Assad’s forces’ slaughtering of “terrorist” agitators – which apparently include women and children – the president should be grateful that harsh words is all that he is receiving from abroad. If the NATO-approved intervention in Libya proved anything, it is that Western firepower is easily capable of neutralising the weapons of terror deployed by despots in the Middle East.

However, the chances of a similar intervention are unlikely. Just last month Sir Peter Ricketts, David Cameron’s national security adviser, suggested that whilst similarities existed between Libya and Syria in terms of levels of violence, a similar path of resolution would not be pursued. According to Ricketts, the decision to intervene in Libya was because “we had urgent appeals from a wide range of people”. This, says Ricketts, is apparently not the case with Syria, despite the continued pleas from the country’s citizenry and the Free Syrian Army suggesting otherwise.

This selective intervention is typical of British foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Whilst decisions to involve British forces in another country’s affairs have never been taken lightly, they have hardly been exercised with a consistent logic. Britain played a key combat role in Korea yet stayed out of Vietnam; intervention in Iraq remains fresh in the memory and the UK stays at war in Afghanistan, yet countless other dubious Islamic regimes in the region have been left alone; meanwhile, the UK even sent ground troops into Sierra Leone during a bitter civil war in 2000, yet has neglected to intervene in either Sudan or Zimbabwe, two countries of greater repression and suffering; and now Syria is left unaided despite the military support in Libya. Why has British interventionist policy been so haphazard and inconsistent? What motives decide whether British forces are deployed in another country’s territorial domain?


Ideological Justification for Intervention

Before intervening in the Libyan Civil War as part of the UN coalition, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the Libyan people’s “aspirations for greater democracy, for greater freedom, for greater rights should be met with reform, not repression”. One month later, in March 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, having been lobbied for by the UK and France in particular. A no-fly zone was imposed over Libya and the Royal Air Force and Navy began their campaign to help topple Colonel Gaddafi. When Gaddafi was finally deposed in October, Cameron claimed that he was “proud” of Britain’s role in giving the Libyan people “an even greater chance…of building themselves a strong and democratic future”. From these statements it appeared as if Britain’s intervening role in Libya was based on ideological reasoning: the support of democracy against authoritarian tyranny. Most British interventions since the Second World War have been justified along such lines.

When British forces joined the Korean War in 1950 after the passing of UNSC Resolution 84, it was with a clear message of anti-Communist intent. The North Koreans’ decision to attack the South was the ideological confirmation Britain and their Western allies needed to portray communism as an expansionist threat to newly-budding democracies throughout the world; the so-called “domino effect”. Though no existential threat was posed to the UK, nearly fifteen thousand British troops were committed to the Korean Peninsula. The fact that North Korea remains today the most committed communist country in the world is proof enough that the Western allies did not succeed in their ideological objectives.  Interestingly, British support for anti-Communism did not extend to committing ground forces to the Vietnam War, a far bitterer ideological struggle. It is possible that the incumbency of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration (1964-1970) – one leaning towards socialist policies – throughout the most intense periods of the war explains this inactivity. Labour’s animosity towards communism was perhaps not as strong as the previous Conservative governments or the ruling American administration, making ideological intervention less desirable. Maybe it was the memory of Korea that detracted the British from going into Vietnam. Either way, it marked a very inconsistent policy of foreign intervention against the supposed communist enemy.

Despite the close proximity to WWII, Britain committed almost 15,000 troops to Korea

This inconsistency has been mirrored in Britain’s recent history of intervention in the Middle East. The UN-opposed invasion of Iraq was officially sanctioned by the British and US governments because of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This was based on the ideological conviction of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly within and across authoritarian states. Later events would reveal the misinformation the British administration had acquired regarding Saddam’s nuclear programme. Basically, it did not exist. That did not stop the war in Iraq from continuing, the fateful repercussions of which are still noticeable on a daily basis in a country unprepared for post-war reconstruction. Given that nuclear non-proliferation is apparently so important to Britain, why have its politicians made no steps to intervene in Iran? The Iranians are far from covertly carrying out a uranium enrichment programme and are notoriously hostile towards the “west”. Although economic sanctions have been imposed, military intervention does not appear a viable option, suggesting proliferation concerns alone are not enough for British foreign policymakers.

The same can be said of the determination to stop Islamic fundamentalism, as part of the broader “war on terror”. Again, aside from the US, the British have been the largest military contributors to the War in Afghanistan. The determination to not only overthrow but to destroy the Taliban, decried facilitators of Islamic fundamentalism, has long been trumpeted as the goal of the mission. Yet, there has been no intervention in Yemen; in Somalia; in Pakistan, or any other nation that harbours Islamic extremists. Furthermore, the recent British involvement in Libya has arguably helped to increase the powerbase of extremist militants and their political associates, rather than sowed a fertile ground from which democracy can grow.

Al-Shabaab fighters plague war-ravaged Somalia. Yet these Islamic extremists have been left untouched by the UK

Can all these decisions really be the result of an inconsistent foreign policy application? It appears more likely that ideological considerations, however much they are declared to be so, have never been the primary motivator for British politicians and generals when intervening in a foreign country.


The US Alliance as Justification for Intervention

Although not as openly preached as ideological considerations, the importance of the US alliance to Britain has often been invoked as a partial reason for intervening in foreign conflicts. The determination to preserve the “special relationship” formed by Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War lingers to this day and has certainly played a significant role in British foreign policy over the past sixty years.

After staving off left-wing agitation during the inter-war period, Britain emerged as the strongest supporter of America’s anti-communist doctrine, the first test of which came in Korea. As we know, the British played a strong supporting role in helping the US force the communist invaders back north, albeit without capitalising on their gains. Despite the questionable success of the mission, the actions of Great Britain and the USA in Korea helped establish them as world leaders in the preservation and support of democracy. British politicians have been reluctant to relinquish this mantle ever since.

Having said that, there was no British intervention in Vietnam, despite US appeals. That in itself is enough to raise doubts over the importance of the US alliance in British interventionist policy. Conversely, Tony Blair’s decision to support the US to the hilt in the build-up to the Iraq War was widely seen as a desire to retain Britain’s privileged status with the world’s only superpower. The false intelligence gathered about Saddam’s WMD programme was compiled by the US, yet unquestioningly supported by the Blair government. The subsequent blame regarding the “non-legality” of the ensuing war and the failure to design and implement an effective reconstruction plan for Iraq has almost exclusively been directed at the US and the UK. Unlike the conflicts in Korea and Afghanistan, for instance, the UN, long derided as a US puppet institution, were not supportive of the Iraq invasion.

Although British forces have provided valuable assistance to US troops in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan – all operations at least partly-instigated by the US – the British government has at times taken the initiative in foreign interventions. The recent support for the Libyan rebels is a prime example, where pressure from the UK and France helped sway a reluctant Obama administration into using its undoubted lobbying power to gain support from the UN. A more intriguing example is the successful deployment of British troops during the Sierra Leone civil war in 2000, when a British Special Forces unit was used in support of the Sierra Leone government against rebels backed by Liberian president Charles Taylor. Although not a prolonged intervention, it was nonetheless an unusual example of British forces intervening in foreign territory without the presence of the US.

British marines were a surprising addition to the Sierra Leone Civil War in 2000

Given that Britain has not always aided the US in its foreign battles, despite the obvious desire amongst a succession of governments to retain the “special relationship” between the two nations, it cannot be deemed the most important factor guiding British intervention policy. Again, as with ideological motivations, the invoking of the US alliance as a reason for supporting foreign intervention has been an all too inconsistent strategy.


Resources and Strategy – the hidden agenda?

Whilst British interventionism has often been legitimated by ideological claims and the “special relationship”, cynical observers would suggest that the real reasons for intervention are often far more sinister. For instance, the desire of Western nations to increase their geo-strategic influence over potentially-valuable regions, and thus enhance their power-projection capabilities away from their own homelands, is often touted as a covert motive for intervention.

All of Britain’s foreign interventions since the Second World War can be tied to this “hidden agenda”. Korea, for example, offered Britain an opportunity to strengthen its influence in East Asia, at a time of de-colonialisation. Simultaneously, the chance to reduce Soviet and Chinese influence on the Peninsula was undoubtedly a key factor, therefore tying in with anti-communist sentiment. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, British strategic interests in Asia were waning. Having seen their last Asian colony of Singapore merge with Malaysia in 1963, British politicians abandoned any last-ditch attempts to preserve a degree of imperialism. Attention was being turned to the equally-troublesome European Community instead. Furthermore, given that a new economic powerhouse allied to the West had emerged in the form of Japan, any lingering British concerns about communist domination of East Asia dissipated. Whilst this might not have been the case with the US, the Americans’ large presence in Vietnam also gave the British and other Western allies the confidence that their interests were being protected in any event.

The British support for the War in Afghanistan can to a degree be seen as a revival of British politicians’ desire to regain a foothold in the Middle East, long ago a bastion of British colonial strength. In support of the strategic goals of the US, Afghanistan presented an opportunity for Britain to develop its influence in the region, at the expense of larger powers like China, India, or even Pakistan. Although intervention in the former Taliban state now looks to have damaged the Western reputation amongst ordinary Afghans, the large British presence automatically makes them a key strategic decision-maker in a volatile region. The desire to root out supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would undoubtedly have influenced the British decision to support intervention in Afghanistan, but strategic considerations arguably played a larger role than the official line suggests. With the growing potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, the continuing tribal ruptures in Pakistan and the sectarian violence in Iraq, both the British and Americans may be using their deployment in Afghanistan as a hedge against future ruptures in the Middle East.

In Sierra Leone, a planned evacuation force of British marines ended up playing a decisive role in the civil war. Whether this was an uncontrollable escalation of events or an opportunistic strike by British generals hoping to gain sway with leaders in the resource-rich region is again hard to determine. However, the fact that Sierra Leone is a significant, if small, trading partner of the UK, and offers a plethora of mining and industrial opportunities to British companies, suggests there were hidden factors at play.

Whilst Korea and Afghanistan may have been driven by strategic considerations, the interventions in Iraq and Libya appear far more resource-driven. Although it would be unfair to suggest the Iraq War came about solely because of Anglo-American oil interests, the presence of “black gold” in Saddam’s country undoubtedly made a military operation far more appealing. Therefore the dual goals of securitising energy resources and overthrowing an uncompromising tyrant probably went hand in hand. The same could be said for Libya. Had Colonel Gaddafi’s grip on the country’s oil – a large proportion of which is sold to Britain –persisted amidst the civil war, the disruption of energy exports would also have continued. Sensing the opportunity both to help topple the deranged Gaddafi and at the same time secure a future stream of precious oil, the British took the lead in proposing a no-flyzone along with France, a similarly large beneficiary of Libyan oil reserves. Syria, meanwhile, whilst also a net exporter of oil, relies more on its Middle Eastern neighbours for trade than it does the nations of Western Europe; hence the importance attributed to the toothless Arab League observers. Could it be that the country’s relative lack of resource-importance in comparison to Libya has prevented Britain and its allies from an intervention? Whilst it is almost impossible to prove this, a great number of desperate Syrian citizens see the West’s malaise in relation to their country as inextricably linked with its relative resource deficiencies. If the “hidden agenda” really holds such credence amongst British foreign policymakers, the Syrians may have a long wait on their hands for support in toppling Bashar Al-Assad.

A cause for intervention? Iraq's productive oil wells were of great interest to the Anglo-American alliance.


Consistently Inconsistent

There has certainly not been a consistent doctrine for British intervention in foreign countries since 1945. Whilst any intervention has often been justified by the ideological tenets of liberalism and democracy, the genuineness of such claims are far from convincing. If British interventionism was directed by ideological concerns, reality would dictate that the UK would be embroiled in countless countries across the world. As it is, British forces are concentrated only in a select few. Why is that?

It appears a combination of unpronounced strategic goals, coupled with a desire to maintain strong relations with the US, largely sets the mould for British intervention. Although foreign policymakers are undoubtedly concerned by repressive regimes and anti-democratic political systems, these foibles alone are not enough to justify involvement in a foreign country.

Consequently, unless the Syrian Free Army and their political representatives can put forward a case outlining not only the ruthlessness of the Assad regime but the strategic importance of their country to the West, British military support is unlikely to be forthcoming. Whilst such a selfish foreign policy appears unfortunate, anything other than selective intervention is unrealistic. For the British, as undoubtedly with other states, it is self-interest that must come first.

Turkey in Europe: an uncomfortable presence?

Is Turkey a part of Europe? It is a question that confuses and divides both those within and outside the large Islamic country that straddles two continents. Certainly, the history of the Turkish people is very much intertwined with European affairs, ever since the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist strides in the fifteenth century. Yet for many Europeans, the presence of Turkey in “their” lands is something to be feared, or at least be sceptical about. Nowhere is this clearer than in France.

The French, and to a lesser extent the Germans, are the biggest obstacle to Turkey’s European Union accession. The Turks’ membership proposal has been on the table for several years yet has been consistently ignored by the French, whose politicians and citizens see Turkey as too big, too poor and too Muslim to join. Now, another flashpoint in relations between the two countries has emerged that threatens to destabilise Turkey’s bid for EU membership even further. The French parliament has passed a law making it illegal to deny the “genocide” of the Armenian people perpetrated by the Turks in 1915-16. Widely seen as a policy meant to win President Sarkozy the support of the half-million ethnic Armenians living in France for next year’s election, the Turks have responded with abject fury. Recalling their ambassador from Paris, freezing military cooperation with the French and threatening potential economic sanctions is the Turkish government’s response to what they call an assault on their country’s national identity. They deny that the mass killings and deportation of Armenians was genocide, suggesting rather that it was a sad consequence of the First World War.

The Turks have also been eager to point out the reliance of Europe in general, and France in particular, on their booming economy as part of the Eurozone recovery. Some MPs of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are even asking whether Turkey needs further integration with Europe. What seems clear, not only in France and Turkey but also in the rest of Europe, is that there is a general unease about Turkish Europeanisation. This deeply-embedded mistrust stems from Turkey’s historical role on the continent, which has often run contrary to the interests of the predominantly-Christian states to the west. Whilst this historical legacy lingers, Turkey’s place in Europe will never be fully-accepted.


The Ottomans

The Turks burst onto the European scene with the capture of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, ending the Byzantine Empire and with it the last remnants of the great Roman Empire, a bastion of Christendom for over a millennium. This was only the beginning of the Ottoman expansion. During the course of the sixteenth century, marshalled by their brilliant sultan Suleiman, the Ottomans conquered large swathes of Christian Europe, including Belgrade, Rhodes and much of Hungary. Furthermore, they annexed significant lands in the Middle East, including Jerusalem in 1517, a city long coveted by the Christians.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the beginning of Turkish engagement in Europe

Not only did this aggressive policy of territorial acquisition deal a religious and political blow to Western Europe, but it also had severe economic repercussions. The Ottomans’ control of the traditional caravan trading routes through to Central and Eastern Asia cut off the Europeans from some of their most profitable markets. Although this would ultimately encourage the Age of Exploration and Discovery that led Spain and Portugal to the New World and India by sea, it proved a downfall for many European states. The Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, long commanders of the Mediterranean and Oriental trade routes, began their fall into decline. Meanwhile the central Germanic states became isolated, exacerbating the religious tension already brewing under the Protestant Reformation.

The Ottoman Turks offered a severe challenge to Christian ascendency in Europe, advancing as far as Vienna and the northern tip of Africa. Only the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the other Catholic states of Europe prevented the Islamic march progressing further. Consequently, the legacy of the Turks’ first appearance in Europe is one of religious warfare, economic undermining and political conquest. Whilst the Ottomans indirectly played a role in the creation of the great European colonial empires through their domination of traditional trade routes, they were overwhelmingly responsible for the destruction of Christian kingdoms and cultural artefacts that history makes hard to forget.

It would take the corruption of the Ottoman Sultans and a resurgence of Western and Central European power, brought about by colonial exploitation and industrialisation, to halt the Turkish challenge for European supremacy. Even so, the Ottomans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are still revered amongst some Turks for their show of Islamic power and cultural and political expansion. Such sentiments of invoking Ottoman power are unlikely to improve the Turkish image in the minds of sceptical Europeans, particularly those well-versed in modern history.


World War I

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes. With its territories having diminished to just a few areas of the Middle East and its leadership increasingly unstable, much of present-day Turkey was severely impoverished.

However, despite their restrictions, the Turks joined the War on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914 after signing the Ottoman-German Alliance. The key motivator for the Ottoman’s involvement in the War was territorial. Having been openly competing with Russia for supremacy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for several decades, the Turks were determined to prevent the Tsarist forces assuming control over the strategically-important Bosporus and Dardanelles. These two straits were crucial in connecting Europe and Asia, both in terms of trade and with regards to naval deployment. The Russians had long coveted the straits. The Ottomans, however, were determined not to lose these economic and political lifelines.

With their German alliance, the Ottomans found themselves at war with the other Entente Powers, Britain and France. In one of the most notorious battles of the war, the Turks slaughtered thousands of British and Australasian troops at Gallipoli in 1915 as part of their campaign to hold onto the Dardanelles. Unsurprisingly, such battles, even in the heat of war, are hard to forget and have become part of the Australian and New Zealander national consciousness in particular. Not only that, but the Turks earned themselves long-held resentment by Western European forces, whose war efforts were hampered by having to fight on an additional front. Considering the Ottomans were also in direct competition with Britain and France for territories in the Middle East, there was a resurgence in animosity towards the former marauders of Central Europe by politicians and civilians alike. This was particularly piquant given that the British and French had given thousands of lives to protect Turkish interests against the Russians during the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The Ottoman alliance with Germany had been a result of their desire to weaken Russia, rather than to embroil themselves with the French and British. However, after several victories against the Allies at the beginning of the war, it was the Russians who began to inflict defeats on the increasingly-beleaguered and under-provisioned Turks. During fighting in the Caucuses, Russia won several key battles against their Ottoman enemies. One particular phase of the campaign, fought in Anatolia, saw the beginning of the Turkish deportation of ethnic Armenians to other regions of their Empire, including Syria and Mesopotamia. An Armenian volunteer force had fought with the Russians, with whom they had greater cultural and religious affinities, and the Ottomans retaliated against the Armenian population, in what has come to be seen as an act of genocide.

Victims of the Armenian "Genocide"

It would take the Arab Revolt from 1916, where various Arab leaders sought to overthrow Turkish rule in the Middle East, for the Ottoman Empire to finally be brought to its knees. However, the Turks’ actions in the First World War left a legacy as bitter as the days of their brutal zenith. Aside from the atrocities of Armenia and the Gallipoli campaign, the Ottomans sought to use the War to their advantage against Western Europe. Whilst the Turks were not alone in their motives – the imperialist Russians were also highly culpable in this instance – the existing mistrust towards them after years of religious and political tension further ingrained them as enemies of the people of Western Europe. Any solidarity brought by the Crimean War had long been forgotten.


The Secular Turkish State

The First World War and the resulting Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) finally finished off the Ottoman Empire. In its place was a new secular Turkish state, headed by independence leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. With Turkey’s former Middle Eastern territories already handed over to the Allied Powers after the Treaty of Sevrés (1920), Atatürk set about creating an internal-looking Turkish state. He helped inspire a new sense of Turkish nationalism, withdrawn from the world around it, and quickly quashed any internal dissent.

Consequently, by the time the Second World War came around, the Turks were anything but eager to get involved. Atatürk had died in 1938 and his successor, İsmet İnönü, was determined to maintain Turkish neutrality during the War despite the desperate entreaties of the Allied and Axis powers for his support. Despite the arrival of an opportunity for Turkey to cement a positive future relationship with the rest of Europe, İnönü delayed Turkish entrance into the War until February 1945. Even then, it was little more than a ceremonious gesture to court Allied support in the future. Whilst Turkish neutrality was understandable given the previous horrors of the First World War under the Ottomans, an opportunity was missed to portray Turkey in a new light of responsibility, engaging positively with European affairs. Its status as an outsider was preserved.

Churchill and Roosevelt failed to garner İsmet İnönü's support at the 1943 Cairo Conference

Turkish neutrality was only completely revoked with its accession to NATO in 1952. This move was ostensibly an effort to prevent Stalin’s Soviets from making a move against the treasured Dardanelles and Bosporus once again. As a condition for joining NATO, the Turks were pressed into democratic reform. However, although the first multi-party elections in the country’s history had been held under İnönü in 1946, they were anything but free and fair. Therefore, come the 1950 election, with the world’s attention turned towards Turkey, İnönü had little choice but to behave himself. His party subsequently lost.

If this democratic transition was supposed to inspire a new positive era of Western European-Turkish relations, it was a sore disappointment. A 1960 coup d’état, in which İnönü supposedly conspired, led to the fall of the Democratic Party government. When the subsequent military junta returned power to the civilians in 1961, it was unsurprisingly İnönü’s Republican People’s Party that assumed leadership of the country. Elections were immediately held, in which the opposition leaders were imprisoned. It would take until 1965 before İnönü was eventually toppled for good. However, his determination to cling on to power had prevented the embedding of democratic values in a country now eager to engage with the rest of Europe.

With controversial attacks against the ethnic Kurds in Turkey’s eastern provinces persisting after the 1960s, and democracy still anything but entrenched, there was still little in common between the Turks and Western Europe. Despite closer economic integration and Turkish immigration to mainland Europe since then, the legacy of the Ottomans and two World Wars in which the Turks did little to endear themselves to the European people, has created the suspicions that exist today.


An EU with Turkish Membership?

Turkey’s historical role in Europe is problematic. For the most part, Turkish intervention in Europe has spelt trouble for the traditional political, economic and cultural hierarchies that exist there. Who’s to say that the same thing won’t result from Turkish EU membership? Admittedly, the days of rampaging Ottomans, conquering territory by land and sea, is not going to re-occur. However, with bureaucratic infighting already one of the EU’s biggest stumbling blocks, Turkish inclusion will surely only enhance the problem.

The reality is that French concerns are legitimate. Turkey is not like the rest of Europe. Indeed, in terms of culture and religion they could not be more distinctive, a worrying prospect considering the EU’s desire for peaceful integration of its multi-national population. There remains too much distrust between Western Europe, in particular, and the Turks, whose historical record is no antidote to existing tension.

Two points, however, are worth considering. Firstly, during the debate over the Armenian Genocide law this week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé expressed anger at a motion he perceived would “kill off dialogue with the Turks”. He reminded his administration that “the Turks have just ordered 100 Airbuses [French manufactured] and there are 1,000 French companies doing business in Turkey”. Clearly, economic interdependence between the two nations is already well-established. Secondly, there has been a rising current of dissatisfaction amongst Turkish MPs towards the prospect of EU membership. Many now believe that, with the ongoing Eurozone crisis and antipathy towards their country, that Turkey would be better off retaining the status quo. Given that economic ties are already well-established, this renewed distaste for EU integration might be in the best interests of Turkey and the rest of Europe in general.