Istanbul — Is Turkey becoming alienated from Western Europe and moving closer to the United States? Two recent developments have made this question a timely topic of discussion here - the imprisonment of former premier Bulent Ecevit and the visit to Ankara of US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
European opinion, including that of noted political leaders and organizations , has reacted bitterly to Ecevit's imprisonment. On Dec. 3 the Social Democratic leader started serving a four-month jail sentence in Ankara's central prison, for his criticism of a decision by the present military regime to dissolve all political parties.
The Turkish public is hardly aware of the uproar caused in Europe over Ecevit's imprisonment. The self-controlled Turkish news media have refrained from reporting the various statements and editorial comments strongly condemning what the Europeans see as a grave violation of human rights in Turkey.
But government officials are aware of these reactions and their possible implications. They know that the economic aid programs of some European countries might be endangered, and that pressures for severing Turkey's membership to the Council of Europe might increase.
However, the Turkish generals seem unmoved by these reactions. In fact, their reaction - privately expressed - is one of disappointment and anger at what they see as the lack of understanding and realism in some European quarters. And their warning to the Europeans is that their attitude might force them to be alienated from Western Europe.
Prime Minister Bulent Ulusu told a group of visiting German correspondents Dec. 7 that Turkey considers itself primarily a European country and wants to continue its partnership with the European Community. ''But,'' he added, ''if the Europeans would attempt to expel us from their institutions, then perhaps we would quit it before such action is taken.''
This warning was repeated by Sadi Irmak, chairman of the Consultative Assembly, a body set up recently by the ruling junta to draw up a new constitution. Mr. Irmak said, ''Turkey considers herself as part of Europe and wants to remain in that community. But we must remind some circles in Europe that their attempts to exercise pressure on Turkey for the early return to democracy will not only fail to produce any result, but it will also backfire. This nation knows how to content itself with very little and survive, rather than submit itself.''
Turkish officials see the efforts of some Europeans to make Ecevit a martyr (which is not the case inside Turkey, since not a single word has appeared here since the brief news item about his entering jail) as a hostile attitude that will not help the government to restore democracy and will poison Turkey's relations with the West.
These officials deplore the Europeans' lack of understanding of Turkey's problems and their mistrust of the present Turkish military rulers. One official commented, ''Ecevit was sentenced because he violated a law which banned temporarily any public statements by former politicians. Why should Europeans condone the violation of laws and rules?
''Moreover the present military regime has repeatedly assured that they embarked on the path to restoring democracy, and the setting up of the Consultative Assembly has marked the first step. Why do the Europeans show a lack of faith and patience?
''Finally, the country is still striving to get back to calm and stability after a long period of trouble, which is absolutely necessary before restoring democracy. It is regretful that our European friends do not take these facts into account.''
In spite of the uproar caused in Europe over the human rights issue in Turkey , the military regime refrains from showing public reaction that would damage Turkey's relations with the West. But diplomatic observers fear that the generals may themselves lose patience over a continued anti-Turkish campaign in Europe and may take action - such as a possible decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe, before the council itself expels Turkey - that would move this country away from the Europeans.
The Turks, however, are satisfied with Washington's attitude, which seems more interested in Turkey's stability - and its important strategic role in this part of the world - than issues of human rights. At least this is the impression Secretary Weinberger left here after his two days of talks in Ankara. Mr. Weinberger's expression of admiration for the efforts made by the military regime to restore democracy were pleasant tunes to the ears of the Turkish generals. This was the kind of support they expected from the US at a time when their relations with Europe are strained.
The Polish crisis forced Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to cancel his planned visit to Turkey Dec. 13 and return to Washington.
Although the Turkish government does not want to face a choice between Europe and the US, this new relationship with Washington might prove valuable if Turkey is forced to move away from the Europeans.