Sliding Backward

Whatever happened to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the outspoken prime minister whose bold reforms brought Turkey to the very threshold of Europe? He was a rebel who loosened the Turkish military's stranglehold on political power. He brought cultural rights to the country's Kurdish minority and overhauled a quasi-totalitarian legal system. But these days? He sounds more and more like the reactionary old guard he came to power vowing to overturn.

Consider some contrasts. Last August Erdogan electrified crowds in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir by telling them they were citizens with equal rights. But earlier this month, after a week of rioting, he warned Kurdish protesters, "Don't you dare test the power of the state." Last year Erdogan defied nationalists at home by agreeing to open Turkish ports and airports to Greek Cypriot vessels and aircraft, the price the European Union demanded for starting EU accession talks. Now he's backpedaling. Erdogan came to power preaching tolerance and human rights. Now he's repeatedly sued cartoonists who lampoon him.

At home and abroad, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have taken a sharp lurch toward old-fashioned Turkish nationalism--with potentially dramatic implications for Ankara's EU bid as well as Turkey's place in the world. Why? Erdogan's a politician. Elections are looming, perhaps as soon as this November. If his mildly Islamic party is to do well, it must stay in tune with the voters--and they seem to be shifting. Long friendly toward the United States and hungry to join Europe, young Turks in particular now seem to be turning toward parties critical of U.S. policy in the region and EU interference at home. Last month researchers surveying Turkey's 4.5 million 17- to 19-year-olds found that fully 20 percent said they'd vote for the far-right Nationalist Action Party. At a recent congress, NEWSWEEK has learned, Erdogan instructed party elders to play up nationalism to get those voters back. "The party's religious credentials will never be questioned, but their nationalist ones can be," says an AKP source not authorized to speak on the record.

The recent unrest in the largely Kurdish southeast--which left at least 15 protesters dead, including four children--has been a turning point. Revolutionary reforms pushed through by Erdogan (backed by strong EU pressure) have given Turkey's Kurds more rights than they've had in generations, including the opportunity to broadcast and teach in their own language. Yet for his pains, Erdogan has a revolt on his hands that bears uncomfortable similarities to the Palestinian intifada: crowds of children, their faces covered with scarves, throwing stones at soldiers, as well as a female suicide bomber who blew herself up in the northern town of Ordu. Erdogan's reaction was quick and unequivocal. Security forces wouldn't hesitate to act against women and children, he warned, if they allowed themselves to be used as "pawns of terrorism."

A crackdown on the Kurds would be the death knell for Turkey's EU aspirations. But growing numbers of Turks don't seem to care. Indeed, many blame the EU for encouraging dangerous Kurdish national aspirations. According to a recent poll conducted by Istanbul's Bilgi University, the proportion of Turks in favor of joining the EU has fallen from 75 percent in 2004 to 63 percent today. Other surveys put the figure closer to 50 percent. Turks also blame the United States for failing to close down military camps of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq. "You tell the world that you have a war on terror and yet you haven't touched the PKK, despite all the troops you have in the country?" says Kemal Koprulu, the U.S.-educated founder of the ARI think tank in Istanbul.

Cyprus is another flash point. In a nod to Europe, the Turks last year agreed to open Turkish ports to Cyprus on the understanding that the EU would open up ports in Northern Cyprus as well. No go, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn now says. Turkey must open its ports before this coming October's EU progress report or the whole process will turn into a "train wreck." Trouble is, the Turks are so determined not to back down on Cyprus that Ankara's already talking about suspending further EU negotiations.

Unfortunately for Turkey, there's no shortage of Europeans who would like to see just that. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is far less friendly toward Turkish membership than her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, was. Greece, once an ardent champion, is turning cooler too. Athens' new foreign minister, Dora Bakoyannis, warned earlier this month that "Turkey's EU process is not a certain path."

Faced with a chill in Brussels, Erdogan has focused his energies on developing Turkey's ties to the Islamic world. Last month he made a keynote speech at the Arab League conference in Khartoum, and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, hosted Hamas's Khaled Mashal and Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi for talks. There have been numerous high-level visits by Syrian and Iranian officials. To Washington's chagrin, Ankara has even flirted with inviting the hard-line Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr as part of what Erdogan's chief foreign-affairs adviser, Ahmed Davutoglu, calls Turkey's "zero problems with our neighbors'' policy.

Erdogan isn't about to abandon his drive to modernize Turkey, by any means, and preparing the country for EU membership is part and parcel of that effort. Indeed, joining Europe remains the Justice Party's best defense against military hawks opposed to its efforts to dismantle the more repressive apparatus of the state. Yet Erdogan is playing a dangerous game. Perhaps he can balance the dictates of liberal economics, progressive politics and old-time nationalism. But there are plenty of enemies, both at home and in Europe, who would like to see him fail.