ISTANBUL — PRESSURE is mounting on Turkey's government to more actively support the Chechens and other Muslim and Turkic peoples in the Caucasus.
Nationalists and Islamists are criticizing the government for failing to help the Chechens and for considering the Russian invasion of Chechnya as a ``domestic affair of the Russian Federation.''
Even though the Chechens are not ethnically Turkic, they have strong religious ties to the people of Turkey - both are primarily Muslim. A Chechen community of about 50,000 in Turkey is part of a community of Caucasians of about 7 million.
About 15,000 Caucasians and their supporters demonstrated in Ankara Sunday. Addressing the rally, Nationalist Movement Party leader Alparslan Turkes said, ``We support the independence of our Chechen brothers. We want the world to stop Russian imperialism.''
Last weekend, about 10,000 people staged a similar demonstration in Istanbul. Speakers attacked the United Nations and the West for their indifference and also called on the Turkish government to intervene in the conflict.
Chechens here openly admit they are helping their ``motherland'' in its resistance against Russia. ``We have a number of Chechen volunteers who went to Chechnya to take part in the fighting,'' says Ethem Baykal, head of the Chechen-Caucasus Organization. He says, however, that ``the volunteers have been going to Chechnya individually, on their own initiative.''
Turkey's government has maintained a cautious approach to the Chechnya crisis. Although Ankara is critical of Russia's ``near abroad'' policy, which it sees as expansionist and a threat to Turkey's regional interests, it has emphasized respecting Russia's territorial integrity - recognizing that Chechnya is part of Russia.
The Turks also say that a disintegration of the Russian Federation would provoke great instability in the nearby Caucasus.
``There have been enough problems created by the breaking down of the Soviet Union,'' says a Turkish official. ``There will be more conflicts and more wars if Russia also falls apart.''
Turkey's sensitivity over preserving territorial integrity in Russia also stems from its concern over the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey.
Kurdish separatists have waged a decade-long battle to form a Kurdish state in Turkey's southeastern provinces. President Suleyman Demirel said last week that about 14,000 people had been killed in the Kurdistan Workers Party's (PKK) fight to establish a Kurdish homeland.
``Although there are basic differences between the Chechen and Kurdish cases, the preservation of a country's territorial integrity is a principle that we have to defend,'' a Turkish political analyst says.
Yalcin Dogan, a columnist for the leading daily Milliyet newspaper, wrote that if Turkey disregards this principle and supports the seceding of Chechnya from Russia, then Russians could support the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey.
But the nationalist and pro-Islamic view is that Turkey should take advantage of the new challenges offered by the resistance of the Turkic or Muslim peoples against the Russians in this region. ``Any resemblance between the Chechen movement and the PKK activities are without foundation,'' noted the pro-Islamic daily Zaman.
Cengiz Candar, a prominent writer with strong nationalist ideas, finds no reason for Turkey to act timidly on this issue.
``A clash of interests with Russia stretching from the Balkans through the Caucasus to central Asia is inevitable.... Turkey cannot relinquish its historic responsibility and strategic interests.... It is therefore necessary to take advantage of the new strategic possibilities in the Caucasus and within this context to give full support to the Chechen cause.''
Political leaders, too, are more often expressing growing nationalistic feelings. Last week, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, retorted angrily to Greece's efforts to bar a customs union with Turkey. ``Beware,'' she said. ``Turkey is coming, with its 60 million people, and behind them with the 200 million Turkish speaking people.''