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Turkey: Yilmaz Seeking To Boost Foreign Trade

Prague, 8 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - In a bid to revive Turkey's stagnating economy, Ankara's new government is putting the accent on foreign trade.

Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's week-old coalition faces a parliamentary vote of confidence next week. Hoping to win legislative support, Yilmaz made a number of promises yesterday that will cost a lot of money. Among other things, he pledged strong financial support for the military and more money for social spending in Turkey's impoverished southeast.

Yilmaz also vowed to extend compulsory state education from five to eight years, to combat the threat of Islamism. As he put it: "It will be the basic aim of the government to train people equipped with the knowledge and capability to deal with the information age."

All of these initiatives entail more state spending. At the same time, Yilmaz told parliament that his government is committed to bringing down inflation and cutting the ballooning deficit. How will he manage?

The answer seems to be: by redoubling efforts to boost foreign trade, in hopes of replenishing state coffers.

Away from the limelight, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit yesterday announced the lifting of a ban on border trade with Iraq. The ban was imposed in line with United Nations sanctions, following Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Before the invasion and the resulting Gulf War, Iraq was Turkey's second-largest trading partner. Ankara says the ban has cost it 30,000 million dollars and it has repeatedly asked the UN to let it resume limited trade with Iraq. The UN has not responded. Now, apparently tired of waiting, Ankara has decided to act unilaterally.

Yilmaz is also vowing to breathe new life into Ankara's relations with the European Union. The organization's Executive Commission is due to announce next week (July 16) its recommendations on the entry of potential new members, including Turkey. The EU's final decision on new members will be taken at a summit meeting in December. While diplomats give Ankara little chance of succeeding soon in its membership bid, improved relations could have a positive effect on Turkey's two-year-old - but still barely implemented - customs union with the EU.

To that end, Yilmaz told parliament yesterday that he will continue to push for the adoption of constitutional amendments to bring Turkish legislation in line with the EU. After a year of frosty relations, when former premier Necmettin Erbakan and deputy premier Tansu Ciller both accused Brussels of snubbing Turkey, Yilmaz's conciliatory gesture has already won European praise.

Next week, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel leaves for a state visit to Georgia, during which discussions on opening direct rail links between the two countries are expected to top the agenda. With Central Asian and Caspian oil deals hanging in the balance, the opening of another route to the West via Turkey could soon prove an important source of revenue for Ankara.

To be sure, all of these moves alone will not be enough to balance the government's heavy spending on defense, social programs and agriculture. In its latest country report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD) says those sectors will have to be thoroughly reformed if Turkey is to prosper.

But politics is the art of the possible. Yilmaz only has to remember his previous short stints as prime minister to know that - and to look at his current fragile coalition.