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Turkey: Ankara Moves To Curb Military's Influence, While EU Awaits Implementation

Eager to start membership talks with the European Union as soon as possible, Turkey yesterday adopted a series of reforms meant to bring its legislation further in line with democratic and human rights standards. A key part of the legal package are provisions pertaining to the role of the military in the country's political life.

Prague, 31 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Grand National Assembly passed a landmark legal package yesterday aimed in part at curbing the influence of the country's powerful military on politics.

The reforms, which must be approved by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer before they becomes law, theoretically limit the executive powers and areas of responsibility of the military-dominated National Security Council (MGK) and its secretariat. If implemented, the changes may significantly boost Turkey's changes of joining the European Union.

The MGK, which brings together the president, the prime minister, senior cabinet ministers, and the army's top generals, has regulated Turkey's political life since its creation in the early 1960s, shortly after the military coup that overthrew Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.

The MGK was initially established as a mere advisory body designed to help the prime minister make decisions on security issues. But it gradually extended its influence over government policy, sometimes turning into Turkey's main decision-making center.

Critics in Turkey have likened the MGK to the Soviet Union's Politburo and denounce it as a body meant to keep civilian governments under the watchful eye of powerful "pashas," as army generals are commonly referred to in Turkey.

The EU has long pressed the Turkish leadership to curb the influence of its military, which has toppled four governments over the past 43 years. The bloc is set to review Ankara's commitment to democracy and human rights standards -- known as the Copenhagen criteria -- late next year.

Cristina Gallach, a spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy and security chief Javier Solana, yesterday welcomed Turkey's decision as very positive, saying it was going "exactly in the direction of fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria."

In Brussels today, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen's spokesman, Eric Mamer, hailed efforts made by the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to bring Turkey's legislation in line with European standards:

"The continuation of the reform process shows the strong determination of the Turkish government to pursue the legislative changes needed to achieve compliance with the Copenhagen political criteria. The reform of the structure and functioning of the National Security Council is a significant step towards aligning civilian control of the military with practice in EU member states," Mamer said.

But Mamer said the commission will not pass definite judgment on the reforms until it sees how they are implemented. "In order to benefit all Turkish citizens in their daily life, the reforms must be implemented effectively. The commission underlines, in particular, the key role of executive and judicial bodies at different levels throughout the country to implement the reforms in line with the spirit in which they have been adopted," he said.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul yesterday said the government is determined to implement the new legislation, if only for fear of missing the EU's boat.

Ankara applied for EU membership in 1987 but was granted candidate-member status only four years ago. Formal entry talks have been delayed amid Brussels' concerns over Turkey's poor human rights record. The EU has said membership negotiations could open as soon as 2005 if Ankara demonstrates its commitment to the Copenhagen criteria by then.

Last year, Turkey abolished the death penalty, and earlier this week (29 July) its legislature voted an amnesty for repentant Kurdish separatists, another key demand of the EU.

Yet the law excludes the top leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which Ankara blames for waging a bloody separatist war in the 1980s and 1990s. And representatives of Turkey's 12-million strong Kurdish minority continue to complain of harassment, torture, disappearances, and extra-judicial killings.

In a further bid to allay Brussels' concerns, the so-called "seventh EU harmonization package" approved yesterday abolishes some provisions of controversial antiterrorism laws that have been curtailing freedom of thought and expression for two decades. It notably says military courts will no longer be authorized to try civilians in peacetime and pledges to promptly investigate and prosecute allegations of police torture.

It also authorizes the teaching of minority languages in schools, provided it does not undermine the "principles and indivisibility of the state."

Addressing parliament after the vote, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the changes represent "progress for freedom and democracy" and a "significant step on Turkey's road to EU membership."

The new legislation says the MGK will meet once six times a year instead of once a month and that its decisions will be non-binding on the civilian leadership. It also says the MGK secretary-general, who is currently chosen by the army chief of staff among top generals, can from now on be selected by the prime minister from among civilians. In addition, his duties will remain strictly administrative and will no longer include monitoring the implementation of government decisions on security issues.

There has been no immediate reaction from the Turkish military. Some army generals have in recent days expressed concern at the proposed reform, saying they oppose any changes in the duties and structure of the MGK.

Yet the package voted by parliament yesterday appears to be the result of compromise between the military and civilian leaderships. Although it theoretically enables parliament to monitor army spending, the bill also meets one of the generals' key demands by leaving a certain degree of secrecy in such procedures. In return, the army's leadership made it known last week that it no longer objects to the MGK secretariat being run by a civilian.

(RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report.)