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Turkish entrepreneurs court Europe

By CNN's Jim Boulden
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ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkey is a land of mosques and malls -- a unique blend of East and West.

The two massive bridges that span the Bosporus in Istanbul stand as a symbol of the country's historic links to peoples and markets spanning two continents.

Yet, the growing class of young business entrepreneurs say its now time to look beyond Turkey's geographical advantages when discussing the country's chances of joining the European Union.

"Turkey over the centuries was always being talked about for where she is," Ferit Sahenk, Chairman of Dogus Group said. "Now Turkey is being talked about all the things she's done and for what she represents and that is very important."

Sahenk and many other business leaders say its time for the European Union to look at what Turkey can bring to the EU, and not the other way around. They no longer want people to see Turkey banging on Europe's door, but say one day Europe will need Turkey to join.

"Turks are proud people, proud nation," says Sahenk from his penthouse office atop his Garanti Bank headquarters in Istanbul. "We feel we deserve to be in Europe. We think we can be very beneficial to Europe, we just don't want to sit on the sidelines."

Fast-growing economy

A fast-growing economy and middle class, a focus on education, a lower cost base are all seen as advantages for Turkey. Companies here are finding that Western firms like Intel and GE are not just creating links to do business in Turkey, but also to find a reliable partner when expanding eastwards.

Some business leaders are frustrated that this link goes largely unnoticed. Instead, they read stories about Turkey being just a low-cost place to do business and that EU membership will simply allow companies to move jobs to Turkey.

In fact, with Turkey taking painful steps to meet economic targets set by Brussels and by the IMF after the currency crisis of 2001, many Turks assume their homeland will not be a bastion of cheap labor if it joins the EU in the following decade. So, it needs to focus on making the country competitive.

One company already feels it can compete with any of its Western peers.

Gate Elektronik's founder Turgay Maleri started fixing electrical components in his father's home office in the late 1980's. Based in the capital Ankara, Gate now repairs electrical parts for civilian and military aircraft. Four of its highly educated engineers are even located at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France to help pass on their expertise.

Maleri and many of the country's other engineers work for companies based at the Technolopolis complex; a series of low rise buildings built around the campus of the Middle East Technical University.

Focus on education

Now Turkey is pushing its focus on education to the country's poorest regions. Schools all over the country are installing computers. Intel and Türk Telekom are donating thousands of computers to introduce IT to children, some who don't even have electricity at home.

"We want to drive PC ownership through the needs of education and obviously through communication and entertainment but education is the key," said Turk Telecom's Chairman Paul Doany. He said the privatized firm last year donated $70 million to connect schools and plans to do the same this year.

Behind a locked door at a primary school in Fatih, on the western outskirts of Istanbul, sit around 20 computers donated by Intel. As a part of the U.S. company's "World Ahead" program, Intel wants to add 350 more after school and community-based centers to give Turks access to technology and the Internet.

With excited children huddled around each PC, Intel's Özerk Ertem admitted the company had to rethink its strategy soon after it started to install computers in schools.

"We started our education program maybe 10 years ago in lots of countries and we targeted teaching the children in the beginning. But we recognized that children are very quick in gathering information and understand how to use IT. But teachers at a certain age are slower than the children so that's why we started to teach teachers as well."

Gate's Maleri has his own educational strategy. His eight-year-old son attends a French school. "My son speaks French, in three years he going to start to speak English and that means he's ready, he's going to be ready to be a European."

Maleri says Turkish children have to understand the European mentality and learning the languages goes a long way toward that goal.

With 25 percent of its 70 million population under the age of 14, Turkey hopes that's its education push will be noticed by detractors of its EU drive who fear a great wall of migrants, mostly Muslim, heading for the cities of Western Europe.

These immigration worries have become a focal point during the French election campaign.

Turkey's business community counters that they are increasingly hiring Turks who were either born outside the country or emigrated when they were young, who are returning with Western business experience and foreign language skills. The strong economy also means more young Turks are able to find good jobs at home.

Political and human rights issues

Then there are the political and human rights issue.

When discussing the chances of joining, business leaders steer away from the political issues ranging from Cyprus to the Kurds. Instead, they stress that business is usually ahead of curve and that politicians tend to follow the links companies establish.

If they can prove to Europe that Turkey is a valuable partner, while still having valuable links to the Middle East and places like Iran, then maybe the sticky issues can be resolved.

And as for the economy, business leaders are betting the country is already so tightly tied to the West, that the chance of another currency crisis is remote. And they worry little about government interfering in business.

"I feel Turkey will not go back economically," Sahenk said. "Turkish people want to be part of the world market. Turkey is one of the most important growing emerging markets in the world. We are not very much a big market but I think we are not an emerging country anymore, we are somehow emerged."

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Ferit Sahenk in his penthouse office.

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