TURKEY'S human rights activists may soon be able to openly question the police, journalists may be able to criticize the military, and ethnic Kurds may be able to speak their own language without being thrown in jail.
Turkey, the most secular and pro-Western Muslim nation, is facing a crucial six-month period.
Long-talked-about democratization and economic reforms must be enacted in the next six months or a proposed customs union agreement with the European Union -- a preliminary step to full EU membership -- will be rejected by the European Parliament.
Observers say the troubled government of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller has its back against the wall. ''Given the current circumstances, the European Parliament will not approve anything,'' says Emre Gonen, secretary general of the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation, a private, pro-business think tank. ''If we pull back our forces [from Iraq], enact some legislation concerning democratic standards, then we could see the end of the tunnel.''
A two-week old Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq to stamp out the separatist Kurdish Worker's Party is being bitterly criticized by European governments, who are vowing to block the customs union agreement if Turkish troops do not withdraw.
A much-heralded economic package to cut government spending and lower inflation unveiled by Mrs. Ciller a year ago has largely been a dud. Unemployment is still running at 15 percent, and inflation remains at 130 percent annually. Foreign investment has slowed due to fears about the country's stability after pro-secular Muslim Alawites rioted last month in the country's two largest cities over fundamentalist attacks.
The key, according to Turkish and Western observers, is Ciller. The country's first woman prime minister, a former economics professor, entered office with great fanfare in 1992. But complaints about her inability to build coalitions and enact drastic reforms have led her popularity to plummet in polls.
''She is a one-man show, she doesn't consult, she doesn't like teamwork. She decides and implements,'' says Mehmet Ali-Birand, a Turkish journalist facing a potential six-month jail term for criticizing the Turkish military. ''She could manage this way with the old coalition because her partner was a good man and wouldn't say no, but now she's going to have problems.''
Ciller was forced to patch together a new coalition government last month that observers believe will be more difficult for her to control. Turkey's military intervention in northern Iraq, they say, may be a calculated move by Ciller to overcome a public perception that she lacks a clear vision and political agenda. If the operation, which has been hugely popular so far with the Turkish public, is successful, Ciller may have built up enough political support to enact democratic and economic reforms.
''Ciller took the risk [in northern Iraq], and it was good for a woman like her to be seen as tough,'' Mr. Birand says. ''It's a good image. She was sure the public opinion would be with her.''
But some Western observers are questioning how much choice Ciller had in the matter. The politically powerful military, which last seized control of the country in 1980, may have announced they were in favor of going into Iraq and given Ciller little choice but to back them.
''The impression we get is that this was a decision by the military and not the civilian government,'' says a European Union official based in Turkey.'' Ciller was totally unprepared in her first interview regarding the invasion.''
The military's support is crucial for enacting democratic reforms. Ciller had been careful to make no specific proposals, but most steps would involve dismantling draconian antiterrorist laws written into the Constitution by the military when it was in power.
Ciller's main obstacle is the Turkish National Assembly. The Welfare Party (RP), which currently leads Ciller's party in polls but holds few seats in the Assembly, is against the customs union. The politically adept RP, which favors moving Turkey away from secularism, stunned observers by winning municipal elections in Ankara and Istanbul last year.
Party officials have deftly played on the public's frustration with Ciller's apparent ineffectiveness and alleged corruption in her government to win protest votes, observers say, from frustrated, but not necessarily pro-religious Turks. The RP says the customs-union agreement will cause massive job losses and that Turkey will never be granted full EU membership because most Turks are Muslim.
''In some sectors, Turkey is ready for competition. In some sectors we see Turkey as not ready,'' says Abdullah Gul, the RP's vice chairman. ''Once Europe gets access to our markets and our cheap labor, it will end there. Europe doesn't want Turkey as a full [EU] member.''
The EU is calling on Turkey to accelerate a privatization program and other economic reforms that are expected to throw thousands of Turks out of work.
More than 50 percent of the economy is controlled by the government, and that is what prevented Ciller's economic reform package from working, according to Mr. Gonen.
Observers fear that the short-term economic pain caused in Turkey's overcrowded cities by the reforms could force Ciller out of power and create a large opening for the RP. ''Istanbul is getting 30,000 new people [moving in from the countryside] a month, and many of them aren't finding jobs. That's the RP's base,'' the EU official says. ''There is a possibility that if it gets even worse in Turkey, the RP could gain from it.''