Turkish Ambassador Baki Ilkin, who returned from Ankara last week, said his new government is embarked on a program of key reforms.

The new cabinet that Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit formed after April's elections received a vote of confidence in parliament this month, pulling a solid majority of 354 votes out of 550, and is pushing ahead with projects for renewal and modernization, Ilkin told reporters last Wednesday. Since then, a new budget has been approved, as well as a new banking law aimed at making Turkey more attractive to investors.

Changes in the state security law have also been introduced, and the government is reviewing a new social security system that would bring with it human rights reforms and changes in practices that date from Ottoman rule.

Ecevit distributed a detailed circular to all security personnel, identifying observation of human rights guidelines as a "top priority," Ilkin said in a separate interview yesterday. As evidence of the government's intentions, Ilkin highlighted the removal of a military judge from the three-member panel presiding over the trial of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was sentenced to death for treason yesterday.

The Council of Europe had voiced strong objections to the presence of a military judge in those proceedings, and European capitals warned Turkey yesterday against carrying out Ocalan's death sentence, insisting that European standards include either abolishing or bypassing the death penalty. While Turkey has been eager to be considered for membership in the European Union, the government's new reform package does not include removal of the death penalty, the ambassador said -- noting that no death sentence has been carried out in Turkey since 1984. Turkey's Supreme Court will automatically review the Ocalan case.

Now that Ecevit, a secularist, has forged his coalition government, one of Turkey's biggest challenges will be to live up to its pledge to liberalize while keeping militant Islamic sentiments at bay. A campaign spearheaded by the military, Turkey's constitutional guardian of secularism, has led to the jailing of many pro-religious politicians, the banning of their parties and the punishment of civil servants who wear head scarves or make other public religious displays.

Ilkin acknowledged the need to revise legislation governing freedom of expression and to update the Civil Service Act. Also under consideration are laws that would create the office of ombudsman and compensate families of victims of terrorism, he added.

Ilkin emphasized that Turkey's moves toward human rights reform were absolutely necessary for the governance of the nation and were not a submission to outside pressure. "We are not up to pleasing ourselves or anybody else. We are up to setting a high standard," he said.

Ilkin complained that the impediments to Turkey's becoming part of Europe were caused by the application of different yardsticks, not by the declared objections to its human rights record. It's a a "two-way loss," Ilkin said of Turkey's exclusion. "Turkey needs Europe as much as much as Europe needs Turkey." In an obvious reference to Greece, Turkey's age-old rival and EU member, he added: "One country felt it could not be under the same roof with us."

When asked last week whether Ocalan will hang, Ilkin said: "He is responsible for the loss of over 30,000 lives. He has been tried in a court, and he has admitted his . . . crimes." When a reporter asked whether Ocalan had collaborated with Turkish authorities and informed on his Kurdish allies and sympathizers, the ambassador smiled and said, "I feel so sorry for those who have followed him."

After the verdict yesterday, commenting on a request by Ocalan to act as a mediator between his people and the state, Ilkin stressed that "there is no role that he can play. He is just concerned with saving his life."

All That Glitters

Egypt has grand plans for the millennium. It is celebrating not 2,000 but 5,000 years of civilization, so why not adorn the famous Pyramids with some jewelry? The biggest of the three pyramids at Giza will shimmer on New Year's Eve -- even if only with a gold-plated tip.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who came here last week in advance of President Hosni Mubarak's visit, described the millennium festivities to a group of journalists who lunched with him last Friday -- and invited them to join him when the big day arrives.

On a more immediate issue, Moussa noted that the violent exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel last week did not bode well for expectations that Israel could achieve peace with Syria and Lebanon. Anyway, the foreign minister declared, "talks are not around the corner."