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Regional Outlook : Turkey's Foreign Minister Looks to Neighbors First : Mumtaz Soysal may reorient a country delicately balanced between the West and nations such as Iraq.

October 18, 1994|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANKARA, Turkey — With a twinkle in his eye, Mumtaz Soysal, Turkey's new foreign minister, fenced with reporters questioning his personal impact on the relationship between the Western powers and his own country, NATO's strategic ally on the border with Iraq.

How did he define his policy? Pro-Saddam Hussein? Isolationist? Nationalist? Opportunist? Was he a dove? A hawk?

"I am not a bird," was all the 65-year-old professor would volunteer. He turned to welcome more guests to the terrace of his official mansion. It has one of the best views of Turkey's capital city, appropriate for the enigmatic man now dominating the country's political agenda.

Soysal may not outline the details of his policies, but Turkish commentators have homed in on his keynote goal of a "foreign policy with character . . . with honor." Some believe it may help reorient a country delicately balanced between Europe and the Middle East, between Russia and the Mediterranean, even between Christianity and Islam.

"We are riding for a fall. . . . Turkey has become very successful in establishing policies that will isolate it from the world," wrote Sedat Sertoglu, foreign affairs commentator for Sabah, the country's largest daily. Others have called Soysal a dinosaur, dangerous, even a scourge.

Sertoglu has bitterly criticized Soysal about a trip he made to New York a few months before being named foreign minister on July 27. There he acted as a paid lobbyist for the Iraqi government, urging that the U.N. embargo on Iraq be lifted. Soysal says he has no regrets.

"Turkish interest may not coincide point by point with the interests of our traditional allies. . . . NATO is not anymore the backbone of Turkish foreign policy," the soft-spoken, French-educated minister said in a rare interview. "The West thought that, by carrying on the sanctions, they may topple the regime in Baghdad. We have other aims, Kurdish affairs, the welfare of the region, our commerce."

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Soysal's "neighbors first" policy has yet to reverse decades of Turkish policy anchored in the Western alliance. During the latest Persian Gulf crisis, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller criticized Iraq and reaffirmed Ankara's traditional commitment to U.N. resolutions on Iraq and cooperation with the United States. But Soysal remained silent and questioned whether Hussein had really massed troops on the border.

He has come to symbolize the cracks opening up in Turkey's relationship with the West on a range of issues, including the situations in Iraq, Cyprus and Bosnia-Herzegovina, negotiations on Turkey's aim to achieve a customs union with Europe by 1996 and Russia's right to intervene in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Soysal's supporters argue that a correction was necessary after the strongly pro-American and pro-Western policies of Turkish leader Turgut Ozal, who died in April, 1993, after a decade in which he opened up an introverted, isolated Turkey to the world.

The new tone in policy also rides a strengthening current of nationalist and Islamist sentiment in Turkey, a gut feeling than runs from the man in the street to an informal, cross-party conservative bloc in Parliament. Its adherents believe that Turkey has been unfairly rebuffed by Europe, that the West has betrayed the Muslims of Bosnia and, against all public evidence, that Europeans favor carving out an independent state for the Middle East's 20 million Kurds, half of whom live in Turkey.

Soysal, a constitutional lawyer jailed as a left-winger after the 1971 coup and later a human rights activist with Amnesty International, says he believes that ethnic Kurdish aspirations could be managed by giving limited cultural and local government rights.

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He has used his nationalist agenda to block virtually single-handedly Ciller's ambitions to privatize Turkey's state-dominated economy, even though privatization is a major plank of the International Monetary Fund-backed economic stabilization program of the government. A member of the old-fashioned Social Democrats, a junior partner in Turkey's ruling coalition, Soysal favors old-style "national planning" and wants to block foreign investment that has "the sole aim of profit."

Such talk might sound old-fashioned, but it is associated with a new self-assertion by Turkey. One of Soysal's first moves decreed that citizens of a dozen countries, including the United States, will now have to stand in line at border posts to buy symbolic visas in order to enter Turkey.

"Bravo Ankara," trumpeted a nationalist headline in the daily newspaper Hurriyet.

Then came Ankara's rejection in August of a 10% slice in Turkey's U.S. military aid loans for fiscal 1995, which would have been worth a total $363 million. Turkey was angry that Congress had made the $36.3-million portion conditional upon a State Department report on Turkey's progress on human rights and Cyprus.

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