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Turkey, NATO's Eastern Hinge, Is Far From Breaking Loose

Its new government isn't likely to cast off hard-won Western ties

By Richard C. Hottelet / November 19, 1996

The Eastern hinge of NATO is creaky. After 45 years as a stalwart ally, most of it in the first line of defense against the Soviet Union, Turkey has raised some doubts about what it is and where it is going. A new prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, has strong Islamic leanings in foreign and domestic affairs. He has sent emissaries to Saddam Hussein. His first official trip abroad included Iran; his next took him to Libya to show his independence from Western - which means primarily American - influence. Such a thumb in the eye makes Washington (and others) wonder whether Turkey is going eastward or backward.

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There is a good deal to wonder about. The Turkey that NATO gladly took in was the product of a profound revolution at the hands of one of the century's great modernizers, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He cleared away the social and political debris of the Ottoman Empire. In its place he put a democratic republic, abolishing the caliphate and the Islamic calendar. It was a drastic separation of church and state. Turkey was to be a secular society, learning from the West. Ataturk replaced Arabic script, the language of the Holy Koran, with the Latin alphabet. He outlawed the fez as a symbol of backwardness and the veil as the first step toward women's liberation.

Ataturk's standards, revered as Kemalism, define modern Turkey, but other forces move it along different paths. Secularism was readily accepted by the military, city dwellers, and intellectuals. Country people, the majority, clung to Islam in their families and their way of life.

Tensions with the Kurds

Turkey was to be a nation-state, unlike the sprawling polyethnic Ottoman Empire. But this smaller country, too, has many minorities - the largest, the Kurds, number at least 10 million, out of a total population of 60 million. Descended from the ancient Medes, the Kurds are split among Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. For 150 years they have fought for their rights. Turkey has been obsessed with this struggle. A bitter guerrilla war in the last dozen years has taken an estimated 20,000 lives. The Turkish Army has destroyed thousands of villages in eastern Anatolia and pursued rebels into northern Iraq. A brutally repressive lid on Kurdish culture and political activity has recently been lifted only slightly. The issue torments the Turkish body politic and hinders Turkey's acceptance by the world as a modern state.

Another historical burden is the hostility between Turkey and Greece, as fresh today as it has been for 1,000 years. The clash of interests keeps enmity close to the point of combustion. War almost broke out this year over a useless rock islet in the Aegean Sea, while bloodshed along the line that divides the Greek and Turkish communities on Cyprus could easily set the mother countries at each others' throats. The fact that they are allies in NATO seems irrelevant to them. It is not so to NATO.

The great foe, the Soviet Union, is gone, so the alliance might seem to be less necessary, but it is not. It links the United States and Europe in the Atlantic community, which remains the ultimate Western guarantor of peace and security. Turkey's role is now political, as a countervailing force of moderation against Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It can speak to the newly independent, mainly Turkic, Central Asian republics as an Islamic uncle. It can help stabilize the Middle East and contribute to security in the turbulent Balkan region.