IN a sign that East can meet West, the Muslim nation of Turkey could become a partial member of the mostly Christian European Union in 1996.
A green light for such a historic step could come March 6, when EU ministers meet in Brussels to decide whether to approve Turkey's admission to their customs union. Another stamp of approval would then be needed by national parliaments as well as the European Parliament within a year.
The customs union would remove tariffs and other trade barriers between Turkey and the 15 EU member states and pave the way for Turkey to become a full member, possibly allowing 60 million Turks freedom to travel in EU countries.
Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987, but its application was placed on hold because the EU says Turkey is not economically and politically ready for it. Turkey resented that decision, and many Turks see the issue as a ''clash of cultures'' -- alleging that the Europeans do not want to have a Muslim member in a Christian community.
But Turkey's human rights record and a longstanding dispute with EU-member Greece over Cyprus are cited by the EU as possible stumbling blocks to integration.
Permanent representatives to the EU meet today in Brussels to see if a compromise can be reached between Greece and other EU members over Cyprus.
Greece ties Cyprus to deal
Greece threatens to veto Turkey's entry unless they resolve the division of Cyprus. Turkey invaded the Mediterranean island in 1974 following a Greek Cypriot coup backed by Athens. The island remains divided today, with about 160,000 Turk Cypriots living in the northern part and 500,000 Greek Cypriots in the south.
Athens says that unless the EU announces a precise date for the start of negotiations with Cyprus, it will block the planned customs-union agreement with Turkey.
Turkish officials say that Greece's use of a veto will be viewed as a hostile act against this country.
''That would have far-reaching consequences in our relations,'' a senior foreign ministry official says.
Relations between the two NATO members are already strained by the conflict over Cyprus as well as differences over air space, territorial waters, and the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea.
Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller recently told Parliament members in Ankara that Greece's behavior may force Turkey to take strong measures, including ''the integration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.''
Western observers fear that tensions between the two NATO-member countries may spark off a clash in the Aegean Sea and further endanger the potentially explosive situation in the Balkans.
The United States has stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the area. US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke visited the region several times over the past year. And a presidential envoy, Richard Beattie, has been appointed to work on the Cyprus dispute between Greece and Turkey.
Mr. Holbrooke traveled to Turkey last week to encourage the two countries to resolve their conflict over Cyprus. He said a confrontation between Greece and Turkey may cause grave consequences in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean -- already ''the most volatile portion of the world today.''
Human rights link
EU countries, particularly Germany, Britain, and France, are pressuring Turkey to improve its human rights record.
The European Parliament also has warned that unless Turkey respects human rights (especially better treatment of minority ethnic Kurds) that it would recommend the EU deny Turkey closer ties to the EU.
Turkey has cracked down on people either speaking out for or on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist group that is fighting to create a separatist Kurd state in southeast Turkey. The struggle has continued for over eight years, and about 14,000 people have been killed.
In December, eight Kurdish members of parliament were given three- to 15-year prison sentences for speaking out on behalf of the Kurdish people.
Turkey tries to minimize these abuses, stressing that it has to wage war on terrorism. The government also promises to take action on democratic reforms. But Turkish security forces and public prosecutors often do not seem to heed such pledges.
The government, for instance, is pursuing legal proceedings against well-known Turkish writer Yasar Kemal. He recently commented in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that the ethnic identity of Kurds should be recognized, and if they want to separate from Turkey, they should be allowed to do so. This is considered an offense under Turkish laws.
Approval of Turkey joining the customs union would open up a tariff-free market of 60 million people for EU countries. And Turkey would gain access to a 347 million market within the EU.
European businessmen see great opportunities to export to and invest in Turkey. And it would enable them to join Turkey in stretching their markets to the Turkic Republics of Central Asia.
The widespread belief in Turkish circles is that the customs union and closer ties with Turkey will be beneficial for the Europeans. ''After all,'' says President Suleyman Demirel, ''the EU needs Turkey perhaps more than Turkey needs the EU.''
It won't hurt Turkey either. Since Mrs. Ciller, an economist trained in the US, became prime minister in 1993, the economy has plummeted. Inflation rose from 66 percent to more than 150 percent last month. European investment in Turkey, and the opening of European markets to Turkish textiles, will help save the foundering economy, officials say.
Public opinion polls in Turkey show that the majority of people support EU membership. But the Islamic Welfare Party (WP), the only large party whose support has grown recently, is strongly opposed to the idea. In municipal elections last March, the WP gained control of local governments in Ankara and Istanbul. It had the largest percent of vote behind the right-of-center True Path Party and the conservative Motherland Party. Like most Islamic parties, they are gaining support among the poor.
The WP sees the EU as a ''Christian Club'' designed to ''dominate Turkey'' economically and politically. The Welfare Party advocates the creation of an ''Islamic Common Market'' pulling Turkey closer to Islamic countries and further away from the West.
Other critics express concern over the possible negative impact on Turkey's industry as well as on probable political pressures on Turkey.
But the government regards closer ties with the EU as a major foreign-policy objective. Many Turks see this as part of the ''Europeanization'' or Westernization of the nation, at a time when anti-Western Islamic trends are gaining ground. In liberal intellectual Turkish circles, the hope is that closer ties with the EU will lead to the speeding-up of the democratization process in Turkey, and the achievement of political and social reforms to keep in line with European standards.
European diplomats here say most EU members endorse the customs union for Turkey because they fear if it is rejected, it might alienate Turkey. ''Only the Islamists would benefit from it,'' a Western diplomat says. The view in Western circles is that a Turkey closely tied with Europe and the West can stand against fundamentalism.