Turkey's Travails

A TWO-MONTH cease-fire between Turks and Kurds in southeastern Turkey was broken last week when Kurdish separatist rebels killed 33 Turkish soldiers. On Wednesday, the Turkish military responded, killing 125 Kurd guerrillas.

A resumption of hostilities inside Turkey, which made steady progress on the Kurdish problem under late president Turgut Ozal, would be tragic. Mr. Ozal's sudden death in April, along with general uncertainties about relations among NATO allies now that the cold war is over, puts Turkey at a pivotal point.

Ankara can be an important player in the post-cold-war era, where regional powers are more prominent. Turkey is a unique Muslim state - moderate, democratic, secular - that reaches out in all directions: it bridges Europe and the Middle East; it is near the Persian Gulf; it borders the newly independent states of Central Asia.

A Turkish TV satellite will be put in orbit next December to link Turkey's 60 million people with the 34 million Turkish speakers in Central Asia and the 2 million in Europe. Ankara has already donated 2,500-line telephone terminals to four Central Asian states.

Yet more basic problems persist that could halt Turkey's progress, including a bad human-rights record. In order to strengthen its ties with Europe, forestall rising Islamic fundamentalism, and become a peacemaker in an unstable region, Turkey must resolve its own internal ethnic strife.

Though brutally repressed since the creation of the Turkish state in 1925, the Kurds refused to assimilate. For the past two years, Ozal liberalized Turkey's policies toward its 15 million Kurds, giving them the right to speak their language.

At the same time, Ozal cracked down on rebels in the southeast who since 1984 have fought for a separate Kurdish state. He sent 200,000 troops there in November. Breaking the March cease-fire may be Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan's way to test Ankara. Now, with Ozal gone, how will Turkey respond? Will it resort to crushing out the rebels in the way of Saddam Hussein? Or will it continue to work toward a political settlement?

Certainly, Turkey is big and secure enough to develop a multiethnic democracy. We hope a reformer is chosen as the new prime minister during elections this weekend. Bridges must be built to moderate Kurd leaders.

The West has a stake in helping Turkey. The US should advocate Turkish EC membership, which has been blocked by Greece and Spain. It can drop selective trade barriers.

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