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Turkey: Reforms Raise Hopes For EU Membership, But Brussels Remains Cautious

In an attempt to boost Ankara's chances of joining the European Union, Turkey's parliament last week approved a reform package that includes the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime. The Turkish leadership now says the EU has no excuse for not seriously considering its membership bid, but initial reactions from Brussels and other European capitals suggest that Ankara still has a long road ahead before it will join the 15-country bloc.

Prague, 6 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Reversing decades of rigid state policy designed to prevent separatism, the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) voted on 3 August to approve a package of human-rights reforms it hopes will clear the way for Ankara to join the European Union.

Adopted the morning after an overnight marathon session, the package includes the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime, to be replaced with life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. It also legalizes broadcasting and education in languages other than Turkish, notably Kurdish.

Both reforms were key, long-standing European demands.

Other democratic reforms presented by Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's Motherland coalition party scrapped penalties for criticizing state institutions, including the military; eased restrictions on demonstrations and associations; and allowed non-Muslim religious foundations to buy and sell real estate.

In another concession to the EU -- which has repeatedly criticized Turkey for failing to curb illegal migration from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and South Caucasus region -- the parliament also approved tougher penalties for human traffickers.

The new legislation now must be approved by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and published in the official newspaper to become effective.

Although Turkey applied for EU membership 15 years ago, it was granted candidate status only in December 1999. Ankara, which stands last among 13 would-be members, hopes to join the European bloc in 2010 at the latest.

The 15-member bloc will publish a review of progress achieved by all candidates in the fall, ahead of a December summit in Copenhagen where it is expected to decide on its first enlargement wave. Turkey hopes the summit will also set a time frame for its accession talks.

Talking to reporters on 4 August, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said his country had met all the so-called Copenhagen criteria required to qualify for entry into the EU. He said he expected the bloc to accept Turkey's membership bid "as soon as possible."

But Turkey's pro-EU politicians may find themselves disappointed. Reaction from the West to the reform package has, for the most part, been reserved.

The warmest reception came from the United States, which has been discreetly pressing the EU to soften its stance on its key NATO ally Turkey. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday praised the reform package as a landmark decision. "We welcome the Turkish parliament's steps on 2 and 3 August approving landmark legislation abolishing the death penalty and granting television and radio broadcasting and educational rights in Kurdish and other regional dialects. The reforms are aimed at increasing Turkey's chances of joining the European Union, which the U.S. strongly supports. We welcome these developments and consider the latest reform package, which reflects a commitment to meet Copenhagen criteria requirements for EU membership, as a major step forward in Turkey's bid to join the European Union. We support the aspirations of the citizens of Turkey to see this and other reforms implemented fully and efficiently," Reeker said.

But official reactions in Europe were generally more cautious, with governments laconically describing the weekend reforms as "positive steps in the right direction."

In Brussels, a communique released on 5 August by the European Commission described the new legislation package as "an important signal of the determination of Turkey's political leaders toward further alignment to the values and standards of the EU" and "significant steps toward better protection of human rights and the rights of minorities in Turkey."

But European Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said Brussels wants to see how the reforms are implemented before it assesses Turkey's progress toward achieving European standards of human rights. He said Brussels was particularly concerned about the provisions pertaining to religion, broadcasting, and education in Kurdish and other minority languages.

Filori also declined to say whether a date for the start of accession talks with Ankara would be announced at the Copenhagen summit.

Although Turkey has been observing a moratorium on executions since 1984, extrajudicial executions were still common in the late 1990s. Up until last week, courts were still regularly handing down death sentences and dozens of inmates are on death row in Turkey's controversial high-security prisons.

Among them is Abdullah Ocalan, the former leader of the now-defunct Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the group Turks blame for the death of an estimated 35,000 people in the guerrilla warfare pitting government forces against Kurdish separatists between 1984 and 1999.

Captured in 1999 after an international manhunt and sentenced to capital punishment for high treason, Ocalan is currently the sole inmate in the Imrali island prison, in the Sea of Marmara.

In principle, the Turkish parliament's decision on the death penalty has spared Ocalan -- who had appealed his sentence to the European Court of Human Rights -- from the gallows.

Turkish nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli, however, still insists that Ocalan be hanged.

In remarks made on 4 August, Bahceli -- who is also deputy prime minister in Ecevit's coalition cabinet -- said his Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, would appeal to the Constitutional Court in a bid to force parliament to reverse its decision regarding the death penalty and minority rights.

Following last month's political crisis, which saw Ecevit's leading Democratic Left Party drop to fourth position in parliament, the MHP has been left with the largest number of deputies. It fiercely opposes most of the EU's democracy-building demands.

Nationalists argue that bestowing greater cultural rights to Turkey's 12-million-strong Kurdish minority might reignite armed separatism in the country's southeast. Although Bahceli had initially said he would not oppose the reform package, the MHP was the only party to announce its opposition to the proposed reforms in the final vote on 3 August.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in the central Anatolian province of Kayseri the following day, the far-right politician described the reforms as harmful to Turkey's "national unity and existence" and blasted those who had opposed Ocalan's execution for "doing evil to the country."

To what extent Bahceli's plans to petition the Constitutional Court are related to the upcoming legislative poll -- scheduled for early November -- is unclear.

Although most Turks favor entry into the EU, much of the population remains strongly opposed to granting greater rights to the Kurdish minority.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the Istanbul-based Turkish Foundation for Social and Economic Studies shows that 52 percent of Turks are against providing education in Kurdish, while 47 percent oppose Kurdish-language radio and television broadcasts.

Even if Bahceli succeeds in appealing to the Constitutional Court, the executive branch will likely succeed in implementing the new legislation before the court is able to issue a ruling.

Turkey's newly appointed Education Minister Necdet Tekin said yesterday that private Kurdish-language courses could be created within three months of the new regulation being published in the official newspaper.

Yet Turkey may still have a long road ahead before it can join the EU. In addition to seeing the approved democracy reforms implemented, Brussels wants Ankara to step up diplomatic efforts to solve the issue of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which ranks among the top 10 EU candidates.

Regional analysts generally believe that clear progress in reunification talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots would definitely boost Ankara's chances of joining the bloc by 2010.