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Turkey Sees West Ganging Up, Tries To Stare Down NATO Over Greece


SHOWING an abundance of entrepreneurial spirit, Istanbul's grand bazaar has for centuries hummed with merchants hawking their wares.

Recently, however, optimism has been tainted by disillusion, filling the bazaar with palpable anti-Western sentiment.

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Turkey's effort to move into the European mainstream is proving more difficult than most expected. And Western institutions, including the European Union and NATO, are easy targets for popular disenchantment.

Turks feel taken advantage of by NATO. In trying to protect Western security interests, many Turks feel NATO is ignoring their concerns. They point especially to the war in Bosnia, where NATO under United Nations command is perceived as facilitating the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims. Turkey is a secular state that has strong religious and cultural ties to Bosnia.

"NATO for me is rubbish," says Mehmet, who owns a leather goods shop in the grand bazaar. "NATO is nothing more than a club for Christian countries."

Such sentiment would seem to limit the Turkish government's room to maneuver in Turkey's bitter dispute with its long-time rival Greece over two NATO bases in Greece. The dispute threatens to hamper the 16-member alliance's ability to function at a crucial time, when armed operations in Bosnia are being considered.

Veto power

At present, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's government is vetoing NATO funding for military projects because of the argument with Athens over plans to bolster alliance forces in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Turkey objects to NATO intentions to base a multinational rapid reaction force at the Greek city of Salonika. Turkish officials also want multilateral control over air and land activities at a proposed base in the Greek town of Larissa. Greece seeks sole control over air activities.

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The Turkish blockade of funding doesn't impede ongoing functions. But it has delayed several investment projects, including the acquisition of a new supercomputer.

Since both nations joined NATO in the 1950s, quarrels between Greece and Turkey have caused annoying disruptions in alliance affairs. The disputes always proved containable in the past.

Right now NATO is dipping into reserve funds. But if the impasse drags on much longer, NATO officials caution, it could hamper operations. For example, money could soon run out to pay salaries at NATO headquarters in Brussels, according to an alliance official.

"This impasse is becoming intolerable," the NATO official said. "We have got to solve this."

Breaking the stalemate won't be easy, NATO officials concede. The problems are rooted in decades-long disputes, including those over air and territorial water rights in the Aegean Sea, as well as the status of the divided island of Cyprus.

NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes visited the Turkish capital of Ankara in mid-May, attempting to unblock the deadlock. But the best Mr. Claes could come away with was a pledge by both Athens and Ankara to negotiate over NATO funding.

"For both sides, there are fundamental issues involved. Thus any concessions risk being seen by their respective domestic audiences as a major surrender," the NATO official said.

In addition to possibly complicating NATO operations in Bosnia, there is concern that the wrangling will damage the alliance's credibility as it plans expansion into Central Europe.

"It makes it rather difficult, even hypocritical to insist that aspiring NATO members meet stringent requirements when existing members fail to meet the criteria," the NATO official said. The official was referring to an alliance demand that all NATO aspirants establish a firm peace with their neighbors.

Denouncing a 'Greek lake'

Recent developments haven't done anything to improve the atmosphere for a negotiated settlement. On June 1, the Greek parliament ratified an international treaty that could greatly expand Greece's territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. Turkey denounced the move, complaining the Aegean could now become a "Greek lake."

Ankara then staged military maneuvers, thereby roiling Greek officials. But diplomats on both sides play down the possibility of the dispute escalating into armed conflict between the two NATO members.

Still, the embattled Turkish government shows little willingness to compromise on the NATO base issues. Ms. Ciller's popularity has suffered since the introduction of economic reforms. The moves brought annual inflation down from roughly 150 percent in 1994 to the current rate of 80 percent, but they also put the government on shaky political ground.

For all the hostility aimed at NATO over its Bosnia policy, most Turks reserve their harshest criticism for the EU, which many perceive as trying to prevent Turkey from emerging as a full-fledged European state.

"The European Union sees Turkey as a heavy burden that would constitute a serious defense risk for Europe," political commentator Sukru Elekdag wrote in the Milliyet daily. "For the time being Turkish membership in the EU is a pipedream."

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