Davos Journal, Part IX


Friends, welcome to the final installment of this Davos Journal — these scribbles from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, in this wondrous Alpine place. It seems to me that Davos is more beautiful than ever. When you’re up on a mountain, at night, the moon appears at eye level. (At least for a while.) And the stars are so close and clear, you might as well be in a planetarium — with better air.

Back down on earth, a group of us meets with Ali Babacan, the foreign minister of Turkey. But before we get to the foreign minister — have some links, to the previous parts of this journal: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII.

Ali Babacan is young (40), genial, and impressive. He’s smart, quick, informed to the gills — and very, very articulate. He has been minister for the economy, and he has held a number of other portfolios as well. He speaks accented but fluent and idiomatic English. A minute or two in his presence, you know he’s a wunderkind.

A WEF official and I discuss this later: How far will he go? Very, very far, it seems — although, if you’re foreign minister, how much higher do you have to rise?

Babacan tells us that Turkey is in the midst of major transformation. The country has changed dramatically in recent years. In 2008, Turkey is nothing like it was in 2002. “We’re talking about two different countries,” Babacan says. Turkey is making strides in civil rights, the economy, “the supremacy of law.” A lot has been done, he insists; and a lot more remains to be done.

He talks about Turkish accession to the EU — going through “the Copenhagen criteria” and so on. For some Davosers, the phrase “Copenhagen criteria” is as natural as “How are you?” Babacan says that Turkey is becoming “more and more an EU country.” And once — once! — the Turks join that union, they will strengthen it considerably. Turkey will have “weight” in the EU, he says.

He notes that Turkey is a striking multicultural society — bringing together different ethnicities, cultures, religions, languages.

About the PKK — the Turkish terror group — Babacan is no-nonsense: Turkey is going after them, hard. And succeeding. There is no problem between Turkey and Iraq, the foreign minister says; neither is there a problem between Turkey and the Kurds. The problem lies with the PKK.

In the course of his remarks, Babacan makes a favorite point of mine (and yours, I bet): Many countries that call themselves democracies or republics or “democratic republics” are no such thing. Their names are lies. Turkey does not want to be a lie, Babacan says. Turkey will only be the genuine article.

Yes, Turkey is different from the countries in the EU — but France and Germany have been pretty different too. (This is Babacan talking.) In fact, they warred against each other, killing millions of citizens. But they found common ground and united — in the EU. The EU is win-win — no losers.

And the EU should not, says Babacan, be a club of Christian nations. It should be a club for secular and democratic nations.

Yeah, but I’m thinkin’: How many countries are in the Islamic Conference? About a thousand? (Actually, 56 — including Turkey.)

I ask the foreign minister, “How does Turkey view the rise of Iran, and what does Turkey think about a nuclear Iran?” Babacan answers blandly. He says that Turkey is against the acquisition or proliferation of nuclear weapons. But Turkey has good relations with Iran. “The border between our countries has not changed since 1639 — almost 400 years.” Babacan says that the U.S., and the rest of the world, should not isolate Iran; nor should we apply sanctions against them. Diplomacy is the only way to go.

I wonder whether a private answer would differ from Babacan’s public one.

Another American journalist asks about anti-Americanism in Turkey, which has been high: Will it subside once Bush goes? (That Bush is poison is simply a given.) Babacan responds that anti-Americanism has subsided already. The reason is: Bush declared the PKK a common enemy — of Turkey, Iraq, the U.S., and the Kurdish people at large. That made a big difference in public opinion.

Babacan says something about the matter of headscarves — a very dicey issue in Turkey. He says that it’s a matter of religious freedom, not of religious imposition. And he stresses that Turkey is opening up, all the time. There are ever more TV stations, ever more satellites, ever more newspapers and magazines. Turkey “is not a closed country anymore.” I am struck by that word “anymore.”

Someone mentions that, according to polls, Turks are less keen on joining the EU than they once were. Babacan says, Sure — that’s what the polls say. But Turks figure, “If they don’t want us, to hell with them — we don’t want them either.” But Babacan believes that Turks, overwhelmingly, would welcome acceptance into the EU. They would be overjoyed by it.

And that answer — like most of the others — rings true.

From the Turkish foreign minister to the Iranian foreign minister: A group of us meets in the Rinaldi Hotel. While we are waiting for the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, several journos are having a conversation. They are saying, basically, how stupid Americans are, for being hostile to the United Nations, or even skeptical of it, I guess. What a bunch of rubes, are these Americans.