Buoyed by its endorsement by European leaders as a candidate for membership of the European Union, Turkey is stepping up efforts to improve relations with neighboring Greece, clean up its human rights record and ease pressure on its embattled Kurdish minority.
Speaking before his party's parliamentary deputies Thursday, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said his government would do its utmost to solve territorial disputes with Greece ahead of a 2004 deadline set by the EU for a negotiated settlement on the status of the Aegean Sea dividing the two NATO members.
Not stopping at that, he went on to vow that Turkey would work to meet all of the EU's conditions for full membership, though he pointedly stopped short of pledging to meet Greek demands that Turkey abandon its efforts to win international recognition for a Turkish Cypriot state in northern Cyprus.
Ecevit's remarks were the latest sign of the moderating influence the prospect of EU membership is having on Turkish policy. In the past week alone, Turkey has signaled it will lift its longstanding ban on Kurdish language broadcasts, abolish the death penalty in line with EU policy and bring its legal system up to EU standards.
Becoming a part of the 15-nation EU has been a goal of a succession of Turkish governments, which have viewed EU membership as the culmination of the predominantly Muslim country's decades-old goal of winning acceptance as a European state. Although the EU put Turkey on its list of candidate members at its Dec. 10-11 summit in Helsinki, the process will take years. Accession talks likely will not begin until at least 2004, and Turkey will have to undertake sweeping economic and political reforms before it is finally accepted.
For all the government's pledges to bring itself in line with EU policies, some European diplomats express doubts as to whether Turkey has thought through all the changes needed to gain admission. "Invitation to join was perceived as an end in itself," said one official. "But nobody has really thought about what lies beyond that."
Turkey is playing a growing strategic role as a bridge between Europe and the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, as a bulwark against hostile regimes in Iran and Iraq and as a stabilizing force in the Balkans. Many officials wonder whether Turkey will be prepared to yield huge chunks of its sovereignty to a supra-national body in Brussels.
In the near future, the most delicate issue is the continuing intervention of the Turkish military in foreign and domestic policy. Turkey's secular generals have seized power three times since 1960, and they pressured the country's first Islam-based government to step down in 1997 amid charges that it was seeking to establish religious rule.
For most pro-Western Turks, both EU membership and the army's role are viewed as the most solid guarantees against the threat of Islamic militancy. Relinquishing one in favor of the other will be a tough choice.
Differences over Cyprus pose an equally daunting obstacle. Ecevit insisted that his government would not back down on demands that the Turkish-run part of the Mediterranean island be recognized as an independent state as a precondition for peace with the Greek Cypriot majority. Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops took over its northern third.
Ignoring Turkish objections, the EU has started accession talks with the Greek Cypriot administration, recognized by the rest of the world as the legitimate government of Cyprus. In what has been viewed as a major concession to Greece, EU leaders used deliberately vague language that appeared to leave the door open to full membership for Cyprus in the absence of any settlement with the Turkish Cypriots.
Historically rancorous Turkish-Greek relations have given way to a budding atmosphere of peace since Greek rescue teams rushed to Turkey's aid in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that struck northwestern Turkey on Aug. 17. A Turkish team was first on the scene just weeks later when a powerful temblor rocked Athens.
The peace process appears to have gathered momentum since Greece dropped its long-running objections to Turkey's EU candidacy. "We will do whatever we can," Ecevit said in his remarks Thursday, "to reach a solution to the Aegean problems within four years before the [international] courts."
Turkey is also moving to address the concerns of its minority Kurds. On Thursday, Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the center-right Motherland Party, which shares power in Ecevit's coalition government, visited the largely Kurdish southeastern province of Diyarbakir. He spoke of the need for "more freedom for Turks and Kurds alike," and of the need to lift repressive emergency rule governing five Kurdish provinces by the end of the year.
This week, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem argued in favor of easing restrictions on broadcasting in the Kurdish language, just days after a Kurdish singer, Asker Tan, was arrested on charges of "promoting separatism" in a song he performed at a circumcision ceremony in Diyarbakir. Cem's words apparently failed to prevent a year-long ban, for broadcasting "subversive" Kurdish music, slapped on a private TV station, Kanal 21, that was set to begin today.
The Kurdish region has been wracked by a 15-year insurgency led by rebels of the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party, known as the PKK. But the violence has sharply subsided in the wake of a string of military setbacks suffered by the rebels and peace overtures made by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. A Turkish court sentenced Ocalan to death on treason charges in June. The verdict was upheld by an appeals court last month, but Turkish leaders have indicated that Ocalan's life will most likely be spared in line with EU demands that the death sentence be abolished.