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Turks take hardened stance after Ocalan

Will crackdown on PKK shut the separatist group down? West advocates anew dialogue with Kurds.

Turkey's long-held dream of bringing Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to trial is suddenly materializing. But the turn of events has raised questions about Turkey's domestic and foreign policies.

The world is watching closely to see how Turkey treats Mr. Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as his trial nears. Other nations are also observing how Turkey deals with its Kurdish population in the southeast.

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As recently indicated by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, official policy is that there is no Kurdish issue in Turkey.

"The issue Turkey faces is not ethnic or Kurdish, as the Europeans like to call it," Mr. Ecevit said last weekend, calling it instead an issue of underdevelopment.

With Ocalan's capture Feb. 15 in Kenya, Turkey has proclaimed that the main instigator of trouble in the southeast has been apprehended and that plans for economic and social reforms can move forward.

The region has been torn by violence between the PKK and the government for 15 years, and as many as 29,000 people have died. Per capita income is less than half the national average. The area is also deficient in health care, education, housing, and water provision.

The reforms, however, go only so far. To the dismay of Kurds, liberal Turkish political circles, and Western countries, the government has stopped short of calling for political reforms and cultural rights, such as teaching the Kurdish language in schools.

But some Western analysts suggest that the capture of Ocalan may serve as an opportunity for Turkey to review its policy on the Kurdish question from a position of strength and eventually adopt a more flexible attitude.

"Turkey now has a golden opportunity to reconcile with its Kurdish population and ultimately with itself," says Prof. Dogu Ergil, a leading academic.

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Many Europeans - and some Americans too - advocate some kind of dialogue with moderate Kurds and a move to enable the 12 million to 15 million Kurds in Turkey to express their culture and identity in public. Many intellectuals and businesspeople also believe that a change in policy is needed.

"No way" is the response of most Turks. This is the feeling not only of the present minority government led by Ecevit, and of his leftist party, but also of all the political parties - from Islamists to liberals and the rest of the political establishment, including the military.

Two predominantly Kurdish parties are the only exceptions.

Meanwhile, a military crackdown on the PKK guerrillas is expected to continue. Turkish military units were engaged earlier this week in cross-border operations in northern Iraq against PKK camps. They also carried out operations in southeastern Turkey.

The question of whether Ocalan's capture will bring the end of the PKK is widely debated. The official view is that it will. According to Ecevit, it will not take long.

But some experts and analysts maintain that even if a leadership struggle within the PKK were to lead to a breakup, there would still be a radical militant group to continue the fighting.

But the PKK may move toward a political role, which could also pose a threat for Turkey. Ocalan's short exile in Europe enabled the organization to embark on such a campaign on an international scale, as evidenced by the spontaneous Kurdish demonstrations that erupted last week throughout Europe.

Ocalan's trial is likely to start in late March or early April. He could face a death sentence, but capital punishment requires the approval of parliament and the president, and it has not been implemented in more than a decade.

The European Union and the Council of Europe are pressing Turkey for a "fair trial" for Ocalan. They also want the death penalty to be abolished, and they insist on sending observers to the trial. All these demands are flatly rejected by the Turkish government.

"Europeans have no right to tell us how to judge a terrorist," says a senior Turkish official. "Germany, Italy, and others have run away from the responsibility of extraditing or judging Ocalan when he was in Europe.... Now they forget what Ocalan did to us and they pose as his defender."

In terms of foreign policy, the Ocalan situation has yielded a more hawkish attitude.

An official statement published in Ankara Tuesday warned that if the Europeans continue in their demands, there will be an adverse effect on Turkey's relations with the EU, already strained because of the EU's refusal to let Turkey join.

ONE of the early negative effects of Ocalan's capture on foreign policy has been renewed tension between Turkey and rival Greece.

This week President Suleyman Demirel described Greece as a rogue state that should be listed as a terrorist state. In addition, it threatened Athens that it would use its "legitimate right of self-defense" if Greece does not change its attitude. Observers fear this may lead to a serious crisis and escalation of tension between the two NATO countries.

Turkey wants Greece to publicly denounce the PKK and cease the various kinds of support it has provided to the group.

If within the coming days Greece does not meet those expectations, Turkey will step up a worldwide campaign against Greece, analysts say, arguing to world organizations like NATO and the EU that they have an obligation to stand against terrorism.

It may also sever dialogue with Athens and take other measures aimed at Greece, even suspending the so-called confidence-building measures in the Agean instituted last year by the US and NATO as a way of regulating military exercises in disputed airspace.

While the Ocalan situation has mostly hardened Turkey's foreign policy, the US is enjoying a privileged position. Washington has supported Turkey's fight against terrorism, and helped the Turkish intelligence service in Kenya.

Ecevit, who has not always had nice words about US policies, expressed appreciation for the US and said it shows the best understanding to Turkey's problems.

But should Washington criticize the legal proceedings or start pressuring Ankara about the need to find a political solution to the Kurdish problem, Turkey may take a defiant attitude.

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