At age 74, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit may turn out to be Turkey's Tony Blair. A former anti-American socialist who took office in April, Ecevit is a changed man. Last week, he talked with Newsweek contributing editor and Washington Post columnist Lally Weymouth about his efforts to propel his country toward a market economy, enact human rights reforms and promote Turkey's candidacy for the European Union.

The key to Turkey's entrance into the EU now appears to be movement on the intractable Cyprus conflict. Ecevit, who was prime minister in 1974 when Turkish troops invaded Cyprus, has the moral force to get talks going. Will he? The question hangs in the air as President Clinton prepares to visit Istanbul for next month's 54-nation Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit.

How do you see Turkey's relationship with the United States?

Our relations with the United States improved in recent years. When the [Cold War] ended, most political circles in Europe thought Turkey's influence had decreased. But the United States realized that Turkey's importance would increase.

But at the moment, our relations are at a rather low ebb. Our trade volume with the United States is only $6 billion per annum. This year, it decreased. Tourism has become very important for Turkey, but American tourists constitute only 5 percent of those who come here. Joint investments are well below their potential.

However, there is increasing cooperation between our countries in the military sphere. With the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, the zone of action of NATO widened, and the leadership of the United States and Turkey contributed to this process. . . . We have been cooperating with the United States on Iraq as well. All this increased our military burdens, but military assistance from the United States has been cut off.

You used to be a critic of the United States. Has your view of the world changed over the years?

The world has changed, and everybody has to adapt to change.

When you met with President Clinton at the White House, did you agree to jump-start the talks on Cyprus?

We didn't go into details. He said that a return to the pre-1974 conditions could not be contemplated. [Cyprus has been divided into Turkish and Greek sectors since 1974, when Turkey sent troops to protect Turkish Cypriots after a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece.] He expressed the hope that talks would start. . . .

Do you believe that Turkey will become a candidate for European Union membership at the Helsinki summit in December?

It is our right to become a member. I am confident that sooner or later the EU will extend a real invitation without imposing unacceptable political conditions.

Won't some kind of talks on Cyprus have to be underway for Greece not to veto Turkey's entry into the EU?

We don't believe that a serious problem exists on Cyprus. Before the Turkish action in 1974, there was constant conflict on the island--either genocide against the Turks or fractional conflicts between different Greek groups. Since then, there has been uninterrupted peace.

Would you like to see a settlement of the Cyprus conflict?

I would certainly like a settlement to be reached, not only in Cyprus but between Turkey and Greece. But we cannot afford to take the risk of another genocide against Turks on the island, particularly after the tragedies we witnessed in Kosovo. Our suggestion is [to recognize] the undeniable fact that there are two completely independent states on the island. Diplomatic recognition may not be given, but it should be acknowledged that there are two autonomous entities.

No talks until that happens?

Proximity talks. [Turkish Cypriot leader] Rauf Denktash accepted the idea of proximity talks.

Will those talks start soon in New York?

I would suggest Cyprus--it's a beautiful island.

There has been a big change in the atmosphere between Greece and Turkey. Is this going to lead to the end of the strife between these two countries?

I hope so. I always believed that a real dialogue between the two nations would solve the basic issues. Of course, the earthquake [after which Greece sent aid to Turkey] added a welcome impact to the dialogue already started between the two foreign ministers. It would not be realistic to expect to address the basic issues immediately--the Aegean, the continental shelf, sea-bed rights, territorial waters. The dialogue should be established on economic and cultural matters and [we should] try to eradicate psychological obstacles.

Would you be willing to make an official trip to Athens?

It's too early to think of that, but I hope to meet Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis at the OSCE summit.

How difficult will it be for your government to meet the International Monetary Fund's stringent requirements [for a loan]?

We have already taken serious and brave measures to put the economy on its feet and reduce inflation and high interest rates. We have cut expenditures as much as possible and enacted constitutional amendments to introduce international arbitration and privatization, social security reform and a banking law.

In November, you will go to Moscow and perhaps sign [an agreement] for additional gas purchases. What is Turkey's energy priority--the trans-Caspian pipeline supported by the United States, or gas from Moscow?

The trans-Caspian pipeline is certainly a priority. But we had signed an agreement with the Russian federation and have to abide by our engagements.

You have made improvements in human rights and have given journalists amnesty from jail sentences. Are you now going to enact changes to the penal code so that writers will no longer fear jail sentences?

We have already taken some concrete steps in ameliorating the situation and will encourage steps in that direction. We need some constitutional amendments to further increase the scope of expression. We have been living with separatist terrorism for 15 years, which renders it difficult to take some steps in the direction of freedom of expression.

Will there be more freedom of expression for Kurds who want to use their own language?

It is legal to use the Kurdish language. There are periodicals in Kurdish, cassettes in Kurdish.

What about schools, TV and radio?

The terrorism should end before we can take certain substantial steps because the public is very sensitive in this regard.

Turkey is one of the linchpins against [Muslim] fundamentalism. How great is the threat from fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism lost ground in Turkey during the last elections. There was a substantial increase in votes for my party, which has been in the forefront of supporting secularism. The people are disturbed at the exploitation of religion for political purposes.

It has been said in the past that you were soft on Saddam Hussein.

We are afraid of a partitioning of Iraq. It would upset the balance in the region. We are afraid that certain steps might lead to the virtual partition.

[Steps such as] U.S. aid to the Iraqi opposition in the north?

It's obvious that results cannot be obtained by giving support to the opposition in the diaspora. I don't think they can be influential. But the people in northern Iraq can contribute to the relative democratization of Iraq if they establish an effective dialogue with the Baghdad regime.

Saddam is not too interested in talking about democracy.

Few talk about democracy in the Middle East. We are seriously disturbed at the possible effects of continuing this virtual partition of Iraq. It may increase the threat of separatism in Turkey.

Can Saddam be overthrown?

We have to live with the regime. You can't forcefully change the regime.

Why won't you meet with the Iraqi opposition?

I've met with [Jalal] Talabani and [Massoud] Barzani [Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq]. But we don't want to. . . encourage the Iraqi opposition in the diaspora to overthrow the regime in Baghdad. This was tried but failed a few years ago.

Turkey has PKK [Kurdish Workers' Party] leader Abdullah Ocalan in jail. [Ocalan was convicted of treason in June and sentenced to die for leading a violent 14-year campaign against Turkey.] You have always opposed capital punishment. What will Ocalan's fate be?

I can't express any views because any view I expressed would appear as trying to influence the courts.

Is corruption a major problem in this country?

Not anymore. We have enacted new legislation against corruption.

Do you see President Clinton's November visit to Turkey as significant?

Certainly. Very significant. He is most welcome and we are proud that he will address the [Turkish] parliament. It demonstrates Turkey's friendship with the United States.

Turkey holds the key to the water supply for northern Israel. What are your plans?

We can supply Israel with water and southern [Greek] Cyprus, too. We've already started supplying water to the northern [Turkish] part with a new technology--balloons [filled with fresh water and launched] from the Turkish coast to northern Cyprus. We have a pipeline projected also.

When you look ahead to the new millennium, what do you hope to see for Turkey?

Turkey is destined to play a very important role in the region and the world, there's no doubt about that.

How is your health? There are rumors about it.

I have no health problems, but some may wish I had.