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EU: Turkey Pledges Reforms Ahead Of Membership Talks

The Turkish government has approved a reform program aimed at qualifying the country for membership in the European Union. The new program goes farther in meeting EU criteria than Ankara has ever gone before but still fails to meet key demands regarding the death penalty and the rights of Turkey's ethnic minorities. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.

Prague, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit yesterday approved a national program of political, economic, and legal reforms which it said should pave the way for Turkey's entry into the European Union.

Although Ankara formally applied for EU membership in 1987, accession negotiations have not yet begun. Turkey is last among the 13 EU candidates.

Since the EU granted Ankara official candidate status 15 months ago (Decembar 1999), Turkey's political parties have been wrangling over details of what the government is ready to concede to the 15-nation bloc.

On Sunday (18 March), the government announced that the three coalition partners -- Ecevit's Democratic Left Party, Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's conservative Motherland Party, and Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's Nationalist Movement Party -- had finally reached a compromise on the commitments Turkey will make to the EU.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Deputy Premier Yilmaz said the so-called "national program" of short- and medium-term reforms will require amendments to 94 existing laws and 89 new laws. He said it should be implemented within five years.

Yilmaz, who is in charge of EU affairs in Ecevit's government, also said Ankara's most important aim in adopting the blueprint is to start membership talks as soon as possible.

"Our national program is a project of great transformations. It foresees a fundamental revision of Turkey's political, economic, social, and administrative structures. It aims at bringing together Turkey and Turkish citizens under contemporary standards."

But analysts say the program falls short of meeting some of the EU's chief demands.

Earlier this month, the EU formally adopted a plan -- known as an Accession Partnership Agreement ---setting out the reforms needed by Turkey in order to join the Union. When the EU plan was first proposed in November, it angered Turkey's nationalist parties and influential military by referring to sensitive issues such as Cyprus and Kurdish separatism.

The EU Accession Partnership Agreement for Turkey also urges Ankara to abolish the death penalty, outlaw torture in the country's overcrowded prisons, provide constitutional guarantees for free speech, and protect the cultural rights of minorities. In the economic area, the agreement calls upon the government to overhaul the country's banking sector.

Asked yesterday why the national program, which will be presented to the parliament on Thursday (22 March), does not explicitly mention the abolition of the death penalty, Yilmaz answered:

"Because this document (that is, the national program) has been prepared and approved by the government and, as it is mentioned in the related chapter, in Turkey the authority to decide on this issue (that is, the death penalty) lies with the parliament."

The national program says the moratorium on executions decided on by the Turkish parliament in 1984 will remain in force for the time being. Legislators will decide later whether to abolish the death penalty.

The Turkish government also failed to address the EU's concerns about the power of the military in the country's domestic affairs, notably in Turkey's main decision-making body, the National Security Council. The national program states that the security council is only an "advisory body" whose basic functions are regulated by the constitution. Still, Ankara did pledge greater transparency about the council's work.

Turkey's military, which dominates the security council, is reluctant to see its power reduced. Like Deputy Prime Minister Bahceli's Nationalist Movement Party, it adamantly opposes allowing teaching and broadcasting in the Kurdish language, lest this undermine the country's national security.

Turkey's Kurdish minority is estimated as high as 12 million, out of a total population of some 62 million.

The EU has also urged Ankara to settle the thorny Cyprus issue. Since Ecevit ordered the invasion of the island's northernmost part in 1974, Cyprus has been divided into Turkish- and Greek-controlled areas.

The national program states that Cyprus should be reunified on the basis of equality between its northern part and its internationally recognized Greek southernmost part. That proposal has been rejected by the international community.

Nathalie Tocci, a researcher at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, tells RFE/RL the provisions of the national program regarding minority rights went beyond her expectations and left her with a "very positive" impression.

"It won't go as far as the EU wants. But it is definitely a first step. And I think it is quite fundamental for the Europeans to understand what a major transformation this implies in Turkey. Just the fact of mentioning questions such as minority rights -- the word 'minority' in Turkey has always had a kind of pejorative undertone to it. It is not an easy kind of mental switch to make."

The national program does not refer directly to any of Turkey's ethnic minorities. Ankara also refrained from making commitments on liberalizing media broadcasts and education in the Kurdish language.

The program does say Turkish citizens are free to use "different dialects or languages in their daily lives." But it adds that the use of idioms other than Turkish -- described in the document as "Turkey's official language" -- cannot be used for separatist aims.

The government also pledges to expand freedom of thought and expression, fight against torture, improve conditions in jails, train law-enforcement personnel in respecting human rights, and consider lifting the existing state of emergency in the country's southeastern provinces, where much of the Kurdish population lives.

The EU's initial response to Ankara's national program was cautious. In a statement issued yesterday, the European Commission said that measures announced in Ankara are an "important step forward under the pre-accession process with Turkey." The commission said it will study the document in detail, adding that a "coordinated reply" will be given to the Turkish government.

In an interview with Turkey's private NTV television channel, EU representative in Ankara Karen Fogg said yesterday the national program represents a "positive development."

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country is at odds with Ankara over territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, said the final test will be "whether Turkey lives up to the accession partnership or not."

Analyst Tocci says that accession talks may not start within the five-year time frame implicitly set by Yilmaz. But she thinks EU leaders should not be too impatient when dealing with Turkey.

"I think all of these questions have to be taken in context. If [we] Europeans carry on judging Turkey without really taking into account the Turkish history and the basic development of the Turkish nation and state, we're always going to be faced up with disappointments."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem is expected to submit the document formally to the EU in Brussels on Monday (26 March).

The Turkish government also announced yesterday that it has reached a framework agreement with the International Monetary Fund on emergency measures to help the country end its four-week-old financial crisis.

Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Rustu Kasim Yucelen said the new program will also help Turkey meet the EU's economic criteria.

(Abbas Djavadi of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)