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Turkey awaits Obama with mixed emotions

Turks are excited about his visit, but they don't want him to bring up touchy subjects and belittle their country.

April 05, 2009|Laura King

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — It seems Barack Obama's face is everywhere these days, gazing out from posters on practically every street corner.

That's because one of Turkey's largest banks has appropriated his image for an advertising campaign that cheekily plays off the crisis enveloping U.S. financial institutions. In the campaign's TV ads, an actor playing the president says ruefully, "If only our banks were like this one."

Obama's planned visit to Turkey beginning tonight, his first as president to a predominantly Muslim country, is being greeted with eagerness and excitement here -- but also with a trademark dose of prickly nationalism.

The stopover is viewed with pride as an affirmation of Turkey's importance as a bridge between East and West, a moderate and strategically positioned NATO ally with the ability to mediate with hard-line Muslim governments. For a partnership bruised by the perceived highhandedness of the Bush administration, particularly during the run-up to the Iraq war, the visit is also seen as a much-needed balm.

"Maybe Turkey needs the U.S., but no one should forget for a moment that the U.S. definitely needs us too," said Emrah Goksu, a 24-year-old student watching the crowds go by in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

During the visit, hot-button issues such as Kurdish aspirations, human rights and Turkey's denial that ethnic Armenians were the victims of genocide early in the last century are likely to stay well in the background. But even veiled references to such controversial matters will present plenty of opportunities for outbursts of indignation, especially from right-wing politicians and their supporters.

Human rights groups and others, on the other hand, fret that diplomacy will prevent the new president from raising issues they believe need public airing but are branded as taboo.

"What I want to know is whether Obama thinks of Kurds as terrorists, as we are always being called here," said Serhat Baglas, a trucker from the mainly Kurdish town of Kars. "I want to know whether he sees us as equals, as people."

Draconian security measures, together with a traditional willingness by police to rough up demonstrators, probably will prevent anti-government protesters from airing their views within the U.S. president's sight and hearing.

Demonstrators instead staged small but raucous protests Saturday, with some shouting, "Yankee go home!"

In Ankara, the capital, Obama is scheduled to address parliament -- considered a great honor for a foreign leader -- and visit the mausoleum of Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk.

Even before it takes place, though, the visit has provided a reminder of the near-cult of personality surrounding Ataturk, which is viewed uneasily by Western governments and human rights groups as an instrument of repressing free speech and free expression.

The reverence for Ataturk, who largely created Turkey's secular system of government, is so extreme that criticism of him can draw legal prosecution or the threat of it. It has spurred in part the repeated blockage of YouTube by authorities, lest irreverent videos posted on the site impugn his image.

Last week a magazine superimposed Obama's head on a famous photograph of Ataturk extolling the virtues of the Latin alphabet he had just imposed to replace Arabic script, a gesture meant to propel Turkey into a more modern Western milieu. In the original picture, Ataturk, clad in a business suit, is gesturing at Latin letters on a placard.

But almost as soon as it hit the newsstands, the magazine, MediaCat, had to hastily post a notice on its website explaining that the image was not meant as a reference to Obama being in a position to provide Turks with any sort of tutorial on Western virtues, but rather to invoke the spirit of change the U.S. leader embodied for his own people.

Obama's visit comes when many Turks are disillusioned over the multitude of obstacles to their nation's bid to join the European Union. The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has made EU hopes a policy centerpiece, suffered a rebuke in municipal elections last week, seeing its margin of victory shrink compared with national elections in 2007.

Nationalist parties have long hammered away at the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing it of kowtowing to the West in hopes of gaining EU acceptance.

Perhaps mindful of that, Erdogan seems to have been seeking to appear more independent-minded and less inclined to do the West's bidding. In January he angrily stalked out of a session with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And he raised concerns about the choice of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the new chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who was named to the post Saturday.

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