It looked like the bad old days when Turkey's universities were hot-beds of political strife. On one side of the police barriers were dozens of young students, many with their mouths taped shut to symbolize their support for free speech. On the other was an older crowd of about 200 ulkucu--mostly mustached ultranationalists waving Turkish flags and banners. Slogans were chanted, then abuse; a few missiles sailed through the air. In between, some rather bewildered international historians scuttled into a conference hall amid shouts of "Traitors!" Their subject? The fate of the Ottoman Empire's Armenians during World War I.
In truth, it wasn't 1915 that roused such passions last week at Istanbul's Bilgi University. The real issue is what kind of country Turkey will become. There are those who want Turkey to openly examine its past, rid itself of the legacy of military rule and become truly European. And there are others, mostly conservative nationalists, who cling to the past and fear that interference from Brussels will change their way of life and undermine Turkey's independence.
It's no coincidence that the Armenian flap erupted just days before the start of Turkey's formal negotiations to join the European Union. It was, in fact, a well-orchestrated plan, set in motion by a man named Kemal Kerincsiz, a lawyer with links to the Nationalist Action Party, who filed a complaint that a conference on the Armenian issue would violate Turkish laws on insulting the state and its founder, Kemal Ataturk. A panel of like-minded judges agreed, and banned it. "Those at home and abroad who want to obstruct us are making their last efforts," railed Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a leading advocate of joining the EU, when he heard of the court's order. Citing the damage the banning would do to Turkey's image at such a sensitive moment, Gul and his government quickly circumvented the ruling, and the conference went ahead--but not without accomplishing exactly what the obstructionists had hoped.
This was not the only such incident. Over the last two months, Turkish nationalists and their sympathizers in the judiciary and state bureaucracy have done their utmost to sabotage Turkey's efforts to present itself as a modern European nation. They have succeeded in lodging criminal charges against a prominent publisher, Ragip Zarakolu, for allegedly "insulting Turkish identity and the security forces," because he was about to publish translations of two American books on the Armenian massacres. And last month prosecutors filed similar charges against Turkey's leading novelist, Orhan Pamuk, for "insulting the state" after he told a Swiss magazine that "a million Armenians were killed" in 1915. Though few expect him to be thrown in jail, the case brought back memories of military rule, when tens of thousands of intellectuals were imprisoned. "Right or wrong," says Pamuk, "don't people have the right to express their ideas peacefully in this Turkey?"
All this is fodder for skeptics who say Turkey is not ready to join Europe. Almost unwittingly, "the rejectionists in Turkey and in the EU seem to have formed an unholy alliance," says Dr. Can Baydorol, an EU expert at Bilgi University. And though Turkey's ultranationalists are on the political fringe, there's a danger that their views could become mainstream. Gripes about Europe are already common. One is that the EU is all take and no give: "We have a monster in front of us," complains Emin Colasan, a columnist at the popular centrist daily Hurriyet. "Whatever we give does not satisfy it." Another is that the EU does not keep its word. Negotiations for full membership were supposed to begin without conditions. Now various EU members are trying to renege. No issue is more touchy than divided Cyprus. Ankara bent over backward to promote a U.N. unification plan, only to see it defeated by the Greek Cypriots--who are now using their position inside the Union to lobby against Turkey.
Two thirds of Turks still want to join the EU, according to a recent poll by the German Marshall Fund. But that's down from 73 percent last year, and EU foot-dragging will push those numbers down further. And for all their pro-Europeanism, top officials in the ruling Justice and Development Party say they could well walk away if the EU continues to erect new obstacles to Turkey's membership. Even if it doesn't, the rigors of accession may well dampen Turks' enthusiasm. Complying with Brussels's 80,000 pages of EU law (covering everything from air quality to street-food hygiene and the strength of cigarettes) will not be easy--or popular. All that's grist for those who want the project to fail.