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Mind the Turkish gap

Turkey is one Middle East drama that gets nowhere near the international attention it deserves. After decades of violent uncertainty the body politic is trying to get its act together.

Turkey's geography makes this most powerful state in the region either the keystone of an arch connecting Europe and Asia or a barrier to unity for decades to come. Turbulent politics, social unrest, and religious tension have made it unpredictable in an area that needs stability above all.

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Turkey is split any number of ways and is shot through with paradox as it heads for crucial national elections on Nov. 3.

Seventy-five years ago, Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, defined the state as a secular, democratic republic. A pro-Western modernizer, he abolished not only the Ottoman sultanate, but also the caliphate, the supreme religious authority. He discarded the Arabic alphabet, and Turkish is slowly replacing Arabic as the language of prayer.

But with Muslims about 99 percent of the population, the secular state pays the imams of the mosques salaries as civil servants – mainly to keep them under control.

The Army became the guarantor of secularism, ensuring that politicians, vying for Muslim votes, would not be tempted to compromise. The Army has three times overthrown governments it did not like. Only five years ago, it forced an Islamist prime minister to resign. The Army sees itself, too, as the champion of Turkish national unity, although this state of 70 million includes some 10 million Kurds and other minorities. It fought a 15-year civil war with Kurdish rebels demanding autonomy, which cost some 30,000 lives. The Army's power and its obsession with Kurdish and Muslim dangers block the pursuit of the nation's most urgent goal: membership in the European Union.

Acceptance by Europe would alter Turkey's position as odd man out and open the EU's enormous opportunities to Turkey's considerable entrepreneurial skills. The EU demands a clear rule of law, abolition of the death penalty, respect for minorities and human rights, termination of torture, and an end to crony capitalism by government and political parties using financial institutions as their piggy banks. The EU requires that Turkey get a tighter grip on the heavy traffic in human beings – be they economic migrants, victims, or criminals.

In August, parliament took some real steps to meet these conditions. It had earlier moved seriously to put its financial house in order. After the currency collapsed last year, Kemal Dervish was persuaded to leave a senior post at the World Bank and come home as economy minister. He has since reduced a frightening 50 percent inflation rate and hopes to bring it down to 10 percent by the end of 2003. No smoke and mirrors, just progress.

Mr. Dervish also, with US help, procured large credits from the International Monetary Fund and has the confidence of foreign bankers who may back that up with much-needed private investment. Against the background of some 30 percent unemployment, he is today by far the most popular political figure in Turkey and may in November help a center-left party (founded by Ataturk) brush aside nationalist extremists and those who profit from the old louche ways.

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The same share of the vote may go to an Islamist opposition party, a wild card in the political deck. Some see it as a fundamentalist force dissembling its real aims in order to avert an Army crackdown. Others see it as an emerging democratic element. Whichever it is, a stable political system should be able to contain it. Observers note the almost complete absence of Muslim demonstrations against Turkey's increasingly intimate military and economic relations with Israel.

The US is quite satisfied with Turkey's policy toward Russia in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as its use of Incirlik air base against Iraq.

Ankara, for its part, feels secure enough openly to oppose US invasion of Iraq. However, the road ahead for Turkey holds a number of land mines. The biggest by far is Cyprus, where the clock is ticking. At the end of this year, Greek Cyprus will be invited to join the EU even if the island's division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots has not been resolved. Military voices in Ankara have threatened in that case to annex the northern third of Cyprus as a security measure.

This would poison relations with Greece, which have been gradually improving. Greece, as an EU member, could veto Turkey's application and the fat would really be in the fire.

Much, perhaps everything, depends on a new balance of forces emerging from the Turkish election. Turkey's friends can only watch the process; but doing so intently and openly could help bring home to the Turkish electorate how much hangs on their choice.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.