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Turkey: Seeking A Rightful Place In Europe And Asia

Washington, 24 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's desire to belong to the family of European nations as much as it belongs to Asia could theoretically wreck the carefully stage-managed process of NATO expansion.

No one really expects Turkey to play the wicked fairy at the ceremonial naming of the first countries to be invited to join NATO at a summit in Madrid this July. But the Ankara government's warning that Turkey would block NATO's planned expansion if it did not get full membership in the European Union has generated irritation and some uncertainty in several capitals.

The NATO charter requires unanimous support of all 16 members for expansion and legislatures of all 16 NATO countries have to ratify the decision.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller sounded the warning note about a possible veto three weeks ago after European Union leaders said Turkey could not be granted full European Union membership until it made progress on disputes with Greece, the Kurdish minority and human rights.

Undersecretary Onur Oymen, number two after Ciller in the Turkish Foreign Ministry, says Ciller didn't really say that and was misunderstood. But in a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL Friday, he made much the same point.

Oymen said Turkey's position at the NATO summit in Madrid will depend "on how things develop" and that "while enlarging NATO one should not push Turkey away from other enlargement processes of the European Union and West European Union."

He said Turkey is not trying to blackmail anyone and there will be no problem if Turkey is treated fairly by the European Union and given the same opportunities as Central European applicants.

Turkey signed an association agreement with the EU nearly 35 years ago and applied to join the group in 1987. It is now watching resentfully as former communist countries move far more rapidly toward the promised land.

Some of this frustration was evident when Oymen said "Turkey should be given the same rights, possibilities, privileges as the other applicants to the European Union such as the former Warsaw Pact countries."

He indicated that this complaint might be resolved soon, saying "we already have positive signals that Turkey should be treated equally with other participants to the European Union's enlargement process."

Oymen was in Washington with a large delegation of high-ranking government officials, military commanders and business leaders to attend the annual meeting of the Turkish-American Council.

For U.S. officials, it was a welcome opportunity to gauge changes in policies and positions in the eight months since the pro-Islamic Welfare or Refah Party of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan came to power.

Oymen assured in the RFE/RL interview that "Turkey is a secular republic and has nothing to do with fundamentalist attitudes."

He emphasized the pro-Western policies Turkey follows, stressing again that Turkey must not be excluded from the future house of Europe.

"This is the message," he said, adding that America has heard and understands well.

After the RFE/RL interview, Oymen went to the U.S. State Department to have lunch with his counterpart, Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff.

Oymen said the NATO expansion question was on the agenda and had been discussed before several times.

He spoke warmly of the cooperation betwseen the United States and Turkey, saying "Americans support very firmly our efforts to join the EU as a full member," and that "there is no disagreement between Turkey and the United States."

Oymen stressed that the United States and Turkey work closely together on regional issues in the Balkans, the Caucauses, and Central Asia.

Turkey is one of the leading countries in a largely U.S.-financed program to train and equip Bosnian armed forces. Oymen said it is working very well. "We have no problem there," he said.

Asked to comment on the Caucauses, Oymen said Turkey is very interested in stabilizing the region and plays an active role in the so-called Minsk process trying to mediate a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

He said Turkey's relations with Armenia would improve quickly if that country withdrew from the territory it occupies in Azerbaijan and recognized that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is part of Azerbaijan.

According to Oymen, Turkey wants harmonious relations with Armenia and does not believe the tragedy of their past relations should shape the present.

We should not make relations of today hostage to history," he said.

Oymen also spoke about Turkey's efforts to expand relations with the Muslim Central Asian nations. Turkey, as a secular state, is a good model for these countries struggling to develop independent national structures, and they are interested in studying and learning from Turkey's experience, Oymen said.

Oymen said among other things, his government has brought close to 10,000 young people from Central Asian republics to Turkey to learn the language, go to university and undergo vocational training. "Turkey's best contribution is our experience," he said.

But he cautioned against overestimating the rate of progress in the region, saying it is difficult to build democratic structures, a free market and preserve internal stability all at once.

"We should not push them to become a Switzerland of Central Asia in a couple of weeks, this process takes time," Oymen said.