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Turkey: Ecevit's Illness Puts Reforms, EU Bid In The Balance

As calls urging Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to resign intensify, the European Union is stepping up pressure on Ankara to proceed with legal reforms needed to qualify for membership. Many in Ankara believe the next few months will be crucial, not only for the future of the ruling coalition but also for Turkey's longtime dream of integrating into Western Europe.

Prague, 4 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There is a mixed sentiment of disenchantment and uncertainty in Turkey these days as this overwhelmingly Muslim country, which stands at a new crossroads in its tormented history, sees its European ambitions growing more distant.

Weakened by concerns over the health of 77-year-old Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Turkey's battered coalition cabinet suffered a harsh blow this week when the European Union virtually dismissed the possibility of Ankara's starting accession talks any time soon.

Although Turkey applied for membership in the bloc 15 years ago, it was granted candidate status only in December 1999. Ankara now stands last among 13 would-be EU members, mostly former communist countries of the Eastern bloc.

Ankara would like to begin accession talks next year and enter the EU in 2007, although some Turkish government officials now acknowledge that 2010 would be more realistic.

Yet, Brussels insists that before accession talks can even begin, Turkey must push through crucial reforms to bring legislation in line with the so-called Copenhagen criteria -- the political and human rights requirements set for EU membership. Much of Turkey's current legislation dates from the many years of military rule the country has known.

Europe's 15-member bloc also wants Ankara to make substantial progress toward a settlement of its territorial dispute with EU member Greece, and to press the leadership of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)," to agree on a deal that would put an end to the 28-year-old division of the Mediterranean island.

In an interview published on 1 July in Germany's daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said there will be no bargaining with Turkey and ruled out any compromise over legal reforms essential to start accession talks.

Among immediate improvements expected from Ankara, Verheugen cited the abolition of the death penalty and the bestowing of greater cultural rights to Turkey's 12-million-strong Kurdish minority. As for the recent flexibility Ankara has displayed on the Cyprus issue, the EU commissioner added, it could not possibly serve as a pretext to compromise membership criteria.

Despite pressure exerted by Turkey on Northern Cyprus, reunification talks between its leader, Rauf Denktash, and Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides have so far yielded no substantial results. The negotiating sides missed the 30 June deadline they had previously agreed upon to draft the outlines of a peace plan.

The Greek Cypriot government applied for EU membership in 1990 on behalf of the whole island, which is now among the 10 front-runners for entry into the bloc, along with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Brussels sees Turkey -- the only country to recognize the TRNC and which maintains an estimated 35,000 troops there -- as the key to the looming problem posed by the island's partition, a claim Verheugen reiterated in his remarks to the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung."

Denmark, which on 1 July took over the EU's rotating presidency from Spain, faces the uneasy task of choosing which candidates will be invited to join the EU in 2004 as part of the first wave of enlargement -- a decision that is expected to be made public at the bloc's summit in Copenhagen in December.

Addressing members of the Strasbourg-based European Parliament yesterday, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Ankara should not expect any departure from membership criteria. He sent a clear warning to the Turkish government: proceed with reforms or face the risk of being left behind.

"Turkey does not fulfill the criteria for getting a date for the start of accession negotiations. So, at the end of the day, it is more or less up to Turkey herself when such a date can be presented because if and when Turkey fulfills the political criteria, we can start accession negotiations."

It is unlikely that the Turkish parliament, which entered a three-month summer recess last week, would be able to vote for the required legal reforms before the European Commission assesses progress made by EU candidates in mid-October.

In Ankara, despondency seems to be spreading among reformists.

Addressing members of his Motherland Party (ANAP) in parliament on 19 June, Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said he had less and less hope of seeing Turkey fulfill the Copenhagen criteria.

However, Yilmaz, who oversees relations with Brussels in Ecevit's cabinet, also said he could not imagine any alternative for Turkey other than entry into the EU.

"We should definitely get rid of the Sevres symbol. Europe is not the same old Europe. Neither is Turkey the same old Turkey," the ANAP leader added, in reference to the 1920 post-World War I treaty named after the French city of Sevres that confirmed the surrender of the Ottoman empire to Europe's Allied powers and reduced its sovereignty to a shadow.

Yilmaz's comments were a veiled response to threats aired earlier this year (7 March) by the secretary-general of Turkey's powerful National Security Council (MGK). Blaming the EU for being a "Christian club," Tuncer Kilinc suggested that instead of focusing on relations with Europe, Ankara should perhaps look for an alternative alliance with neighboring Iran.

Like the majority of his fellow "pashas," or generals, who exert considerable influence on domestic politics through the MGK, Kilinc fears reforms required by Brussels will harm Turkey's national interests.

In tune with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) -- Ecevit's senior coalition partner -- the military favors the maintenance of the death penalty and opposes any decision that, in their view, could reignite armed separatism in Turkey's Kurdish southeast.

Addressing reporters on 1 July, Deputy Parliament Speaker and MHP member Murat Sokmenoglu warned that, in the event of an alliance between the prime minister and the opposition over Kurdish rights, his party would withdraw from the ruling coalition.

"The Nationalist Action Party has a clear-cut position regarding education and broadcast in Kurdish. Should an agreement be reached between coalition and noncoalition parties on [these issues], then you would not see us in the coalition in the future."

Five weeks ago (30 May), the army made a gesture toward the EU by agreeing to lift a 14-year-old emergency rule in two of Turkey's four Kurdish provinces -- a move welcomed by Brussels as "a step in the right direction."

Last fall, the Turkish parliament voted constitutional amendments that officially pave the way for greater Kurdish rights. But the legislation has still to be modified accordingly, and there has been no indication so far that authorities are ready to ease restrictions on Kurds in practice.

Only yesterday, seven rights activists went on trial in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir for issuing invitation cards carrying the Kurdish spelling of "Newroz," the spring festival that marks the beginning of the Kurds' New Year.

Last week (28 June), the Istanbul-based Turkish Foundation for Social and Economic Studies (TESEV) released results of a recent opinion poll that shows that 52 percent of Turks are against providing education in Kurdish, while 47 percent openly oppose radio and television broadcasts in that language.

The TESEV study also indicates that, although more than 60 percent of Turkey's 67-million-strong population supports entry into the EU, almost half of it (49 percent) shares Kilinc's view that the bloc is, first and foremost, a "Christian club." While Turkey's coalition cabinet -- with the noticeable exception of far-right Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's MHP -- is struggling to win acceptance for reforms needed to qualify for EU membership, its future looks anything but certain.

Turkey's veteran leader Ecevit is facing unabated pressure to step down, including from the EU-oriented business community and from within his own Democratic Left Party (DSP), amid concerns about his ability to fulfill his duties.

Ecevit was taken to hospital on 4 May for mild intestinal troubles that, as days went by, turned into a long series of ailments ranging from a muscular nervous disorder and blood clots in one leg to a spinal injury, back pains, and a cracked rib. Health problems have kept Ecevit out of his office for more than 40 days, forcing him to skip a key EU summit in Seville on 22 June.

The prime minister's illness has sent tremors through Turkey's jittery markets, threatening to jeopardize his cabinet's sustained efforts to battle a 17-month-old economic crisis and upset a $16 billion economic recovery pact promised by the International Monetary Fund.

While sending the national currency to near-record lows, Ecevit's absence also left Deputy Prime Ministers Yilmaz and Bahceli a clear field to squabble publicly over legal reforms required by the EU.

Ecevit insists he is feeling well and has consistently rejected calls for his resignation, saying his departure would irreparably damage the economy and plunge Turkey into greater chaos. Conversely, critics argue that Ecevit's refusal to step down generates greater uncertainty over the country's future than the prospect of a new cabinet or early parliamentary elections would.

Addressing reporters on 1 July after talks with his coalition partners on EU-related reforms, a frail Ecevit reiterated that he has no intention of resigning. However -- as he did a few days earlier (27 June) before DSP parliamentarians -- the Turkish leader made a couple of slips of the tongue that prompted renewed calls for his early departure.

"We once again confirmed that [Turkey's] 57th government does not wish early elections and that it should remain in power until April 2003 as stipulated by the constitution. We once again confirmed this point, which we had already agreed upon earlier."

According to the constitution, the next legislative polls are scheduled for April 2004 when the mandate of the current cabinet expires.

Ecevit further confused reporters by saying that he was looking forward to discussing the "upcoming 2004 political year" with other party leaders in the coming weeks.

A few days ago (26 June), Ecevit said his lingering spinal problem would keep him at home for the next two or three weeks, after which he would be able to perform his duties normally.

In separate interviews published yesterday in the mainstream "Milliyet" and "Sabah" dailies, Ecevit for the first time seemed to admit to the possibility of his withdrawal. Arguing that he is not "glued to his seat," the three-time prime minister told "Milliyet" that he would be willing to step down if parliament votes him out. "Let them depose me," he also told "Sabah," on a more challenging note.

Today, the English-language "Turkish Daily News" responded by saying Ecevit seems to feel the country will collapse without him. But "Turkey," it said, "is collapsing because of him."