As Turkey reels, hurdles loom for EU bid, Iraq attack

Two popular Turkish ministers resigned Thursday, fueling talk that the ruling coalition may collapse.

Turkey's tottering coalition of left-wingers and right-wing nationalists moved closer to collapse Wednesday morning when popular Foreign Minister Ismail Cem announced his resignation, followed closely by Kemal Dervis, architect of Turkey's economic recovery program. The men are the seventh and eight ministers to resign, further weakening a government that has been paralyzed since May by the failing health of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.

The political crisis could not come at a worse time. Growing political chaos threatens to end Turkey's fading hopes of meeting the European Union's accession criteria in time for the Copenhagen summit this December. Chances of resolving the decades-long deadlock on Cyprus are also receding fast. And the impact on a possible US attack on Iraq and the status of Turkey's peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan are both open questions.

The Turkish peacekeepers are currently confined to the Afghan capital, Kabul, but an extension of their mandate to other parts of the country is being discussed. The US has opposed any change to the status quo, but diplomats believe that with a strong lead from Turkey, the peacekeeping mission could be transformed, to the benefit of Afghan stability. The present climate of political uncertainty here, they say, makes any change unlikely.

For Cengiz Candar, columnist at moderate Islamic daily Yeni Safak, such fears are unfounded. "Turkey's mission in Afghanistan is the affair of the General Staff," he says, "and it's not their power which is falling to pieces right now."

Could affect US struggle with Iraq

Foreign observers also fear early elections here could have a negative effect on Turkey's foreign policy obligations, which has special resonance for its NATO allies, including the US. Turkey recently took charge of the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, and is expected to play an important role in any US-led campaign against neighboring Iraq.

According to Mr. Candar, early elections will deal a blow to Ankara's willingness and ability to provide logistical and military assistance a US assault on Saddam Hussein. Not only is it becoming increasingly unclear who in the Turkish administration US leaders should be talking to, he says, but "any country set on elections has to take into account public sentiment."

Since the plan for an attack on Mr. Hussein was first mooted last autumn, the Turkish public has been hostile. Turkey is estimated to have lost $30 billion in export revenue as a result of sanctions against Iraq since the Gulf War, and many fear a second US attack would destroy the country's crisis-stricken economy. "Any government showing enthusiasm for American plans would be perceived by the electorate as flying in the face of the country's interests," says Mr. Candar.

EU bid hangs in the balance

For most Turks, the essential issue now is Turkey's EU bid. Under increasing pressure from Brussels in recent months to ban the death penalty and improve cultural rights for the country's large Kurdish minority, the government's initiatives have been blocked by ultranationalists in the coalition. The present crisis seems to have strengthened the hand of the anti-European faction, with Mr. Ecevit responding to resignations in his party by promoting deputies known for their hawkish views on Cyprus and Europe. The promotion of anti-European Sukru Sina Gurel to the position of deputy leader, says commentator Ali Bayramoglu of Yeni Safak, "is evidence that Ecevit is willing to adopt the hard-line stance of his ultranationalist coalition partners."

"Turkey is at a crossroads," says CNN-Turk journalist Mehmet Ali Birand. "We could entrust our future to rising political stars capable of opening up to the EU and solving the Cyprus problem, or we could stick with the old system and the old peo- ple." The latter, he thinks, would flatten Turkey's hopes of joining Europe, at least for the foreseeable future. For pro-Europeans like Birand, Turkey's hopes of being ready to begin joining the EU in Copenhagen in December depend on the capacity of opposition leaders to form a party strong enough to challenge the present government.

"Ismail Cem's decision to resign is a vital step," says Murat Yetkin, Ankara correspondent for liberal daily Radikal. "He has prestige. Others will follow him." Reports suggest up to 40 more deputies are considering taking the leap into dissidence.

Financial markets reacted positively to the news of Cem's resignation, and commentators have said that his group stands a better chance with the resignation of Turkey's economics supremo, Kemal Dervis.

Parachuted in from the World Bank in 2000 to deal with Turkey's economic collapse, Dervis has since persuaded the IMF to hand over $17 billion in loans. Of half-German parentage, he has been sneeringly described as "an import commodity" by nationalist politicians here, and until now has resolutely maintained independence from party politics. To Birand, though, he holds the key to Turkey's immediate future.

"Any party he joins will win the next elections," he predicts. Though Dervis' resignation late yesterday came as no shock, it is not yet clear which political party he will join. He met Cem for talks on Wednesday night and is known to be friendly with other senior figures in the dissident group, but other left-wing parties have also been furiously lobbying him to join them.

Metin Heper, head of the politics department at Bilkent University in Ankara, is convinced a phoenix is about to be born from the ashes of Turkey's ruling coalition. "Political structures in Turkey must change," he says. "With the arrival of Cem and Dervis on the political scene, we will be in a totally different ball game. And that, in my opinion, would be an excellent thing for this country."

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