ALTHOUGH the American press rarely deals with Turkey, Americans clearly have a considerable stake in the far-reaching reforms of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal now under way throughout this proud nation. After all, Turkey controls the strategic Bosporus and Dardanelles waterways, through which Soviet ships must pass into the Mediterranean.
Ankara contributes 600,000 troops to the NATO alliance, more than any other American ally, and plays host to the most vital United States listening posts, along with major air bases that house 6,000 American military personnel. Turkey is also the third-largest recipient of bilateral US aid and has recently been entrusted with joint production, in cooperation with General Dynamics, of 160 advanced F-16 interceptor aircraft.
The point, however, is that the economic and administrative reforms of Mr. Ozal, a conservative economist, are shaking Turkish life in a way that the Anatolian Peninsula has not seen since Kemal Ataturk transformed Turkey into the only secular Muslim state.
Major state enterprises, such as Turkish Airlines, are headed for private ownership, as are important parts of the mining, cement, and textile industries. Public shares in the toll revenues of the Bosporus Bridge were sold out within an hour of going on sale last year, helping to raise capital for a second bridge spanning the waterway. A similar income-producing project involving the Keban dam, the fourth-largest hydro power station in the world, is equally popular. An even larger dam, named for Atatur k, is also being built on the Euphrates, while a metro and tunnel system is being built in Istanbul, along with long-overdue modernization of major highways, railways, and telecommunications facilities.
After decades of strict state-guided economic planning, controls dating from Ottoman times are being liberalized, and private-sector investment has been growing at 5 percent a year in real terms. Likewise, foreign investment has increased fivefold in just five years. Turkish banking has also undergone a revolution, since interest rates have been allowed to float freely, and six more foreign banks will open up Turkish operations this year, not far from the newly modernized Istanbul Stock Exchange.
Yet, as an ancient society that in many respects has evolved little from Ottoman days, Turkey remains about midway in development between the third world and the European nations it seeks to join one day as a member of the Common Market. Unemployment is running at 1 in 5 workers. There is a high birthrate. Nearly half of Turkey's population still works on the land, and illiteracy in rural areas is far above European levels.
But what separates Turkey from the rest of Europe is not so much economic underdevelopment as the continuing power of the military, which permeates all facets of Anatolian life. It is a phenomenon that most Turks find as comforting as their Western allies find alarming.
A case in point is the concern that many urban Turks have expressed about the withdrawal of Turkish military police from the streets of most major cities in recent months. To the untutored observer, returning normal police functions to the civilian sector seems a logical step in the country's slow but steady march back to civilian rule. In fact, the police are regarded with great suspicion, since their ranks are still rent by the kind of ideological strife that nearly led to civil war before the militar y coup of September 1980. As one left-wing academic put it, ``The military arrested me after the coup, then eventually let me go. Had it been the police, I probably would have been dead.''
If the Army is less visible, it still controls the government, the press, and education. It is Turkey's President, Gen. Kenan Evren, who really calls the shots on critical decisions, although day-to-day government management is left to Ozal and his civilian team. General Evren is a popular figure who would almost certainly win a no-holds-barred election, though the military has been afraid to hold a truly democratic contest.
Indeed, Evren personifies the military hierarchy in his austere personal life style, his honesty, and his equal distaste for urban leftists and right-wing Islamic extremists. The President's credo could be his terse statement five years ago that ``There will be no more riots and disorder in Turkey -- period.'' He has kept that promise.
When Evren tours the countryside, he delivers paternal lectures to the peasants, sternly admonishing them against veiling their girls, since, as he says, ``A girl needs to see correctly, to hear, to smell. . . . This is necessary to her development.'' Though scarcely a revolutionary message by Western standards, Evren is nevertheless met with polite skepticism in remote areas of eastern Turkey.
Military relations with the press typify the ambiguities of human rights in a society that is in some respects Western, but has never enjoyed a stable democratic tradition. Unlike the news media in truly oppressive fascist or communist regimes, the Turkish press does not merely cheerlead for the government, nor is it subject to much direct censorship. Criticism of the civilian government is allowed, but the military is held to be sacrosanct. Former politicians considered responsible for the pre-1980 ana rchy, such as ex-Premier Suleyman Demirel, cannot be quoted by name, but instead must to referred to by phrases such as ``a well-placed observer.''
For Europeans and Americans long accustomed to the give-and-take of a democratic society, such restrictions are difficult to bear, as are continued trials of political dissidents. Western intellectual luminaries, such as Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter, have even gone to Istanbul in an effort to protest continued human rights violations by Turkish authorities. Typically, the two men vented their outrage solely to the international press, partly because of fears among Turkish journalists of confronting t he military, but also because of the fierce nationalistic pride that runs through the soul of nearly every Turk. As one Turkish journalist, long critical of human rights abuses, fumed, ``I am sure that these men have problems in their own country with Negro rights and other issues instead of trying to attack our country.'' To Western complaints of torture in Turkish prisons (such as beating prisoners on the soles of their feet), most Turks shrug their shoulders and reply, ``It was even worse before the mili tary.''
Such mutual miscomprehension is typical of the vast cultural divide that has always separated the West from Asia Minor. Indeed, Westerners are naive if they think the Turkish people can proceed much faster toward democratization without endangering the balance the military has struck between urban left and traditionalist right. What Americans should hope for from this vital ally is that Ozal's economic reforms will emulate those of Franco's Spain by providing the financial wherewithal for a future democ racy.
Kevin Michel Cap'e is a French-American writer who visited Turkey earlier this year.