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Turkey: Political Crisis Could Slow Drive To Get Ocalan

  • Charles Recknagel



Prague, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The fall of Turkey's government today is likely to weaken Ankara's attempts to pressure Italy to extradite Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, whom Turkey considers its most wanted terrorist.

Analysts say that Turkey is heading into a period of political uncertainty after Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz lost a confidence vote in parliament over alleged corruption, effectively ending his government. President Suleyman Demirel is now expected to appoint a caretaker government whose main task will be arranging a smooth passage to early elections in April.

The crisis comes as Ankara and Rome remain locked in a bitter row over Italy's refusal to extradite Ocalan, who has led the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in a 14-year battle against Ankara for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. An Italian court last week freed Ocalan from detention but ordered him to stay in Rome. Italy has said it cannot extradite him to Turkey because it has the death penalty.

Alan Makovsky, an expert on Turkish politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that Turkey's ability to pursue Ocalan's extradition will be impaired by the government's collapse.

"The bureaucracy will be able to do what needs to be done on the extradition requests, on other related matters, but the fact that there is going to be no fully invested foreign minister to speak for the government, the fact that the prime minister and all the lead cabinet members will be preoccupied with politics... impairs Turkey's ability to do everything possible on the extradition request. And to manage relations with Italy, with the United States, and with Europe at this crucial time."

Turkey's relations with Italy and the EU over Ocalan's case only look set to grow more difficult. Ankara's dispute with Rome is rapidly growing into a generalized dispute with the European Union as other member states defend Italy's rights to apply its own laws on extradition. EU Commission President Jacques Santer warned yesterday that the union could impose sanctions on Turkey if Ankara boycotts Italian companies in an attempt to force Ocalan's extradition.

Even though today's collapse of Yilmaz's government heralds a new ruling coalition in Ankara, analysts says n-o Turkish government is likely to soften the demands for Ocalan's return. Turks broadly support the extradition calls and the high emotions have already sparked public burning of Italian goods. There is also little political desire to compromise with Europe, which many Turks say has repeatedly snubbed Turkish interests. Alan Makovsky:

"What you really see happening in Turkey is the merging of two very powerful political currents. One is anti-PKK feeling. And the other is growing anti-Western European feeling ... which has been going on for some time and particularly picked up last year when the European Union held its summit and decided not to make Turkey a full-fledged candidate for membership in the EU. That created a very deep gulf between Turkey and Western Europe in the minds of many Turks."

As Turkey faces a period of political crisis and EU leaders increasingly back Italy's refusal to bend to Turkish pressure, Makovsky says that the two sides alone may be unable to solve their conflict. He says a breakthrough now is likely to have to come from the United States, which is both Turkey and Italy's NATO ally.

"In many ways, the ball is in the US court where it often seems to end up when there is a spat between Turkey and Europe. I think it is really going to be up to the United States to see what it can do to resolve this issue, whether that is through convincing the Germans to go forward with extradition of Ocalan, or whether it is through trying to convince other EU states to issue statements calling for Ocalan to be brought to justice, or whether it is mediating between Rome and Ankara and finding some acceptable means of trying Ocalan." Washington said on Monday that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was working to defuse tensions among Turkey, Italy and Germany and ensure that Ocalan, who was arrested November 14 in Rome on a German warrant, is brought to justice.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said Washington and those countries were reviewing a "full range of options" which he did not specify.

Under the Italian court decision, Ocalan must stay in Rome until December 23 to give Germany time to decide whether it wants to extradite him on charges of ordering the murder of a Kurdish rival in Germany years ago. So far, Germany -- which has a large Turkish and Kurdish population -- has made no official move to do so.

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