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10-11-06, 11:18
Bulent Ecevit

Nov 9th 2006

From The Economist print edition

Bulent Ecevit, a Turkish prime minister and poet, died on November 5th, aged 81

WHEN Bulent Ecevit decided, on July 20th 1974, to send an invasion force to Cyprus, he could find many reasons for it. Greeks and Turks on the island had been killing each other for years. Turkish-Cypriots, the minority, needed protection against “genocide”. A coup had been staged by a Greek guerrilla leader in the name of union with Greece; and if it succeeded, Turkey's southern coast would be “almost imprisoned”, as Mr Ecevit put it later, among the Greek Aegean islands.

But these considerations, weighty as they were, were not what fortified him as he was briefed that day, in an underground bunker, by a group of sweating generals. He was thinking of the “Bhagavad Gita”, which he knew in the original Sanskrit; and the “Gita” taught that if a man was sure he was morally right, he should not hesitate to take action.

Judging Mr Ecevit by his day-job—four times prime minister of Turkey between 1973 and 2002, sidelined after eight months by the Cyprus adventure, chucked out by a coup in 1980, almost derailed by a financial crash in 2001—his fondness for Hindu mysticism might seem strange. Looking at him, it made more sense. His face, narrow and hawkish, with thick glasses and a drooping black moustache, seemed made for peering into books.

His happiest times had been spent doing so. At his high school, Robert College in Istanbul, he put Rabindranath Tagore into Turkish at 14; some years later, as a press attaché in London, he studied Bengali to read Tagore in the original. He translated T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, besides writing Sufism-flavoured verses of his own. “A cup of tea, a piece of paper, a pencil and a poetry book are the most faithful friends of Bulent,” read his entry in the high-school year-book. In old age he would still hold court over poetry and tea on a blue sofa in his flat. Verses and politics went together, he insisted. Ottoman sultans had regularly combined them.

As a politician he was a man of surprises. To begin with, he was honest; in power his lifestyle was as modest and bookish as before. Second, he was at heart a socialist, a rare breed in his country. Having arrived in parliament in 1957 as a member of the Republican People's Party that had been founded by Kemal Ataturk, the maker of modern Turkey, he steadily took the party leftwards towards political reform and land redistribution; and as the country's first left-wing prime minister he might have enacted such policies, if Cyprus had not undone him.

The invasion cost both him and his country dearly. Turkey's reputation abroad took a dive, Mr Ecevit served a mere eight months in power, and the unhappy 1970s ended with a military coup. Mr Ecevit was sent to prison in 1980 and banned from active politics for a decade. He re-emerged with his own new outfit, the Democratic Left Party (DLP), which despite its name edged gradually towards more free-market policies. By 1999, when the DLP won most seats at the election, Turkey could present itself as a plausible candidate for membership of the EU.

Raki by the Aegean

But Cyprus had also showed how crude a nationalist this sophisticated man could be. Mr Ecevit refused to the end to make concessions to the Greeks over the island, on which a backward and impoverished Turkish-Cypriot rump still persisted, unrecognised by any other country but Turkey. To make progress on settling the dispute was essential to Turkey's hopes of joining the European club. But Cyprus, Mr Ecevit thought, was none of the EU's business.

He would not be pushed by America, either. Reluctantly, because he wished to be thought a good member of NATO, he let American planes use Turkish bases to patrol northern Iraq. But he bridled at America's nagging on behalf of Turkey's 15m Kurds, rebuffing all talk of autonomy and stalling on the use of Kurdish in schools. They were simply not a minority, he explained patiently. They were “part of the majority in an unquestionable way”.

About the ever-more-tendentious Islamists he felt similarly. He cared above all about Turkey's cohesion, and saw religious fundamentalism whittling it away. When in 1999 a female member of the Islamist Virtue Party wore a headscarf in Parliament, Mr Ecevit accused her of “challenging the state”. His own life was so secular and western that his wife Rahsan, who ran the DLP with him, was said to have him firmly under her thumb and to nurse his political grudges for him.

He preferred not to hold them. His last spell in government was in coalition with the Nationalist Action Party, old right-wing enemies growing steadily more extreme; but he shook their hands, saying that the era of ideologies was over.

There remained the Greeks and the Cyprus question. Ecevit the politician was unbudging. Ecevit the poet had seen things differently, as poets do.

The golden age of the Aegean
Will revive through us
As with the fire of the future
The hearth of the past comes alive.

Turk and Greek might sit together, he went on, drinking raki and ouzo by the “blue magic” of the sea that divided them. But Mr Ecevit wrote that in London, homesick, in 1947.