EARLIER this summer, I was a participant in a Georgetown University study tour of Turkey. The focus was on history - on the Greco-Roman presence in Asia Minor, on the rise of Byzantium, and on the contributions of the nine centuries of the Ottoman empire. But as dramatic as the history has been, the inescapable impressions of the tour were of Turkey's central position in the current events in the region. The Asia Minor nation is once more caught up in the vortex of history.
Turn the corner in the spice bazaar in Istanbul and there, before the visitor, is a street crowded, not with Turks, but with peoples of Russia and other former Soviet republics. What are they doing? They have come to sell for some profit personal property: clothes, toys, family mementos - anything they could carry on the bus trip south.
Or read the Turkish press. The fascination is with the opportunities for Turkey in the new republics of Central Asia: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan - all speaking languages closely akin to Turkish. The Turks have redirected their broadcasting efforts toward these new nations. Peoples of the region are encouraged to come to Turkey to learn the workings of a free, democratic society. Trade is being diverted from Arab countries to Central Asia. To reinforce these policies, Pr ime Minister Suleyman Demirel visited the nations of Central Asia in May.
But Turkey directs its attention not only to the east. Drive out of Izmir toward Seljuk and the Turkish driver points out the tourist hotels now occupied by refugees from war-torn Yugoslavia. Turks are keenly aware, also, of their proximity to the unrest in the Black Sea region to the north. On June 24, leaders of 11 nations, including six former Soviet republics, met in Istanbul to sign a declaration of Black Sea economic cooperation.
Turkey's interest in these regions stems not only from contemporary concerns but also from an awareness of history. The roots of the Turkish people and their language lie in the steppes of Central Asia. The nations of the Balkans and the Islamic communities fighting for their existence in that region were once part of the Ottoman empire. The history that guides Turkish policy today, however, is not that of the ancient past, but of the modern state and its founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk emphasiz ed the need to build a modern, secular state within the boundaries agreed to after World War I and to set aside any dreams of recreating an empire.
To the modern Turk, that vision is being challenged at home from two directions. Fundamentalist Muslims attack the reform traditions of Ataturk; clandestine pamphlets, allegedly financed externally, directly denounce the secularist tradition of the revered father of the modern state. In confronting efforts of fundamentalist Islamic influence in Central Asia, Turks have their domestic situation in mind as well.
The second challenge arises from the long struggle with the Kurdish minority of southeastern Turkey. Turks see the demands of Kurdish rebels for greater autonomy, if not independence, as a direct assault on Ataturk's emphasis on the territorial integrity of the modern state. Efforts at Kurdish separatism in northern Iraq have intensified the actions of extremists among the Turkish Kurds. Turks fear, as do other countries with Kurdish minorities, the emergence of a Kurdish state.
This desire to extend influence beyond modern Turkey and at the same time to resist Kurdish separatism presents the authorities in Ankara with a cruel dilemma. Although the Turkish government has taken steps to improve the economic life of the Kurdish minority, world attention is focused more on the attacks on the Kurds by Ankara's security forces. A generally favorable view in Europe and America of Turkey's role in Central Asia and the Balkans is dampened by the image of Turkey's treatment of this minor ity.
Modern Turkey clearly wishes to be acknowledged as a significant presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. To gain economic strength, it hopes for ultimate membership in the European Community. It seeks to preserve the strong relationship with the United States despite the end of the cold war and any lessened importance of NATO. The Turkish leadership feels that, despite limited resources, it has already demonstrated the constructive influence it can exert in Central Asia, the Black Sea region, and the Balk ans. It asks that the world recognize both the positive steps being taken toward the Kurdish minority and the deep significance attached to the preservation of its territorial integrity. The world response to this Turkish dilemma will determine whether the modern nation, living amidst the glories of its past, will once more become a significant regional leader.