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.
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.
For all of Mr. Erbakan's theatrics in his decades of political opposition, and even now, his actions in office have not been radical. His Welfare Party was not swept in by an Islamic landslide but received a bare 21 percent of the vote. Campaigning in populist terms, he appealed to Islamic sentiments, but not as an extremist. Turkey is not today, nor potentially, a second Iran. Erbakan is prime minister because the other parties could not unify against him. He is in a coalition with the center-right True Path Party, whose leader, Tansu Ciller, is his foreign minister. The Army, which sees itself as the guardian of Kemalism, keeps a wary eye on him. He has moved ahead on military training and technology agreements with Israel, and US and British planes continue security flights for Kurds in northern Iraq from Incirlik air base.
Democracy not threatened
Turkey, fiercely proud as always, is inclined to pursue its own interests in the more relaxed context of the post-Soviet period. Other allies also do business with Iran and Libya and are ready to deal with Saddam Hussein. Nationalism is a part of the Islamic mix but, bearing its problems in mind, Turkey has not departed from Ataturk's democracy. The present government is an odd couple. Erbakan has called Ciller "bride of the infidel." She has referred to his party as "the forces of darkness." Critics call the coalition "the government of deep secrets" or a "money-laundering operation," charging that Ciller joined the partnership to escape prosecution for financial scandal.
For Western democrats, there is something familiar in all this, even reassuring - and there is hope that the next election will straighten things out. But that is up to the Turks alone. Nevertheless, Westerners should not conceal their disapproval of what goes badly. And Western governments could put some grease on the creaky hinge by pushing and helping Turkey measure up to the requirements for European Union admission.
Turkey has long wanted to match its role in NATO with membership in the EU, capping the long Kemalist desire to be accepted as a Western nation. The process has been halting, complicated by two major hurdles. First, Greece, for political reasons, has blocked any chance of the consensus needed to approve new members. Second, Turkey's dismal human rights record caused the European parliament, the legislature of the EU, to recently freeze funds that would help Ankara enter into a customs union with the EU.
Turkey has ample incentives to make changes that would improve relations with Europe. It is important that they be discreetly applied, avoiding the appearance of pressure that could generate a nationalist backlash. This is a turning point, with a great deal hanging on which way it goes.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.