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Europe: Turkey Raises The Stakes On NATO Enlargement

Prague, 30 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Attempts to mollify Russia may no longer be enough, because NATO's planned expansion has just hit another obstacle. Like Russia, it is a large and strategic one. But unlike Russia, it is in a position to make more than empty threats.

Turkey has let it be known that it is tired of being treated like the stepchild of Europe. It wants to join the European Union (EU) and as a NATO member, it is prepared to scuttle the alliance's expansion plans if its demands are not heeded.

Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller delivered that threat in person yesterday at her meeting in Rome with the EU's five largest members: Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Ciller was characteristically blunt. She said Turkey was tired of what she termed its "second-rate" relationship with the 15-member EU.

Turkey's last application to join the organization was rejected in 1989 and remains frozen amid European criticism of Ankara's involvement in Cyprus, its hostile relations with Athens and its war against a Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Although the EU signed a customs union with Turkey last year, rival Greece has blocked all aid due to Ankara under the treaty.

Ciller said Turkey will re-apply to join the EU in June and she said she expected Europe to judge Ankara according to the same criteria being applied to the Central and Eastern European countries whose membership drives are being encouraged. Barring that, Ciller threatened, Turkey will hold up NATO's planned expansion drive, which is scheduled to get underway the following month in Madrid. At that meeting, the alliance is expected to invite one or more Central European states to begin membership negotiations. Ciller said the alliance should not forget it cannot expand "without Turkey's permission."

Will Ciller act on her threat, or is this just an attempt to put pressure on Greece to remove its veto on aid to Ankara? No one can be sure, and that is the point. Having worked hard to de-link the extension of EU and NATO membership, Europe will find Turkey's latest gambit particularly vexing.

The United States, eager not to have its NATO plans marred, stepped in yesterday to support Turkey. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States does "not favor creating any artificial or any new conditions that might prevent Turkey from playing a full role in Europe." Burns added that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had already discussed the issue with visiting British and Dutch officials. He said Albright had stressed the Turkey is a European country and that the West needs to make sure that Turkey is "embedded in major Western institutions, not only NATO but in a stronger affiliation with the European Union."

The EU has acknowledged Turkey's frustration, but for the moment it is countering Ciller's characteristic bluntness with characteristic evasion. That is not surprising.

Among other things, Europe remains uneasy about Turkey's new pro-Islamic government. It also knows that any concession to Ankara will prompt howls from Athens. Delicate bargaining is sure to continue.