Heeding Its Islamic Roots, Secular Turkey Builds Ties to Balkans

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

MORE than a century after losing control of Bosnia, Turkey is seeking a stronger role in the war-torn country.

Public opinion here has been highly critical of Turkey's inaction on Bosnia. As a legacy of three centuries of Ottoman rule, 3 million people of Bosnian descent live in Turkey. One neighborhood of Istanbul is called Yeni Bosna (New Bosnia).

A growing nationalistic trend - particularly among Islamists - sees Bosnia as an area of strategic importance - a sort of gateway to Europe and a stronghold in the Balkans

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On July 23, Turkey's parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to end the arms embargo.

And a Bosnian Muslim military delegation arrived in Turkey on Aug. 7 to pave the way for a military agreement between Turkey and Bosnia.

Government officials say Turkey may provide military training for Bosnian Muslims.

''We want larger, quicker, and more concrete help from Turkey,'' Muhammed Lemes, the assistant Bosnian Muslim defense minister, told reporters before meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Mehmet Golhan. ''If a balance is reached in terms of weapons, peace could be achieved,'' Mr. Lemes said.

Turkey sends an SOS

Turkey is also trying to mobilize the Islamic world to call for the lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia.

Turks were infuriated by the lack of Western action as the United Nations-declared ''safe havens'' of Srebrenica and Zepa fell into the hands of the Serbs in July.

''The world is now realizing that only the language of force can deter the Serbs...,'' says Onur Oymen, undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. ''The West must accept the responsibility of acting and acting strong. Otherwise, it should leave and enable the Muslims to defend themselves....''

Turkey has a 1,600-man military contingent serving with the UN peacekeeping mission in western Bosnia. It also contributes 18 F-16s to the NATO air force, as well as a naval vessel in the Adriatic.

The Turkish government wants NATO and the UN peacekeepers to engage in stronger action to stop and force back the Serbs, rather than withdraw.

If the UN pulls back, Turkey may decide to keep its contingent in Bosnia or even strengthen it.

''If the UN leaves Bosnia, individual countries could independently help to stop aggressors,'' an official said. This would probably lead mainly Muslim countries to jump in to help the Bosnian Muslims.

Balkan inroads

Turkey's government is also attempting to forge new, strong ties with other Balkan countries.

President Suleyman Demirel visited Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, and Croatia recently.

A military agreement was signed between Macedonia and Turkey in July, similar to the one concluded with Albania in 1991 that called for exchanges of information and security.

On board a Turkish naval vessel in the Adriatic in July, President Demirel said: ''This confirms the slogan: 'From the Adriatic to the Wall of China,' '' voicing Turkey's desire to extend its influence from the Balkans to Central Asia.

Turkish officials say this is not an ''alternative'' to Turkey's policy of integration with the West (Ankara is attempting to get its foot in the door of the European Union), but a ''complementary'' dimension to that objective.

One major project Demirel discussed during his Balkan visit is the building of a highway, an East-West corridor that would link Turkey to Bulgaria and Macedonia, and from there to Western Europe. It would bypass Greece, with which relations remain strained.

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