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NEWS ANALYSIS

A Delicate Balancing Act for Turkey

November 22, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The targets so far have been British and Jewish, but the next major victim of the deadly bombings jolting this nation that straddles two continents may be the delicate political balance of its Islamic-led government.

Struggling to prove itself democratic and moderate, Turkey's government, which is led by an Islamic party, suddenly finds itself compelled to battle Islamic bombers. To do that effectively without alienating a core constituency while keeping a restive, secular Turkish army at bay is likely to prove a formidable task for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The nature of Turkey's evolving identity may be at stake. As the sole Muslim member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is pulling itself out of a long economic decline and marching steadily toward Western-style democracy, it has been hit with the deadliest spasm of violence in decades. Its embrace of the West, experts say, is part of what has made Turkey a target -- its destabilization is the attackers' goal.

"Turkey's grand experiment, where an Islamic party is trying to redefine itself as a conservative democratic one, is now under threat," said Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Erdogan has defined it this way: If he and his party could show that Islam and democracy were compatible, he said in a major speech last year, a clash of civilizations was avoidable.

Now Erdogan must demonstrate to a skeptical world that he is willing and able to combat Islamic militancy. Doing so without reverting to Turkey's previously harsh tactics against dissent would require a new and perhaps even more delicate balancing act.

Inevitably, he must enlist the military, with which relations are strained and whose power he was in the process of curtailing. Yet a broad crackdown could play into the hands of the extremists who blew up two synagogues, the British Consulate and the offices of one of the world's largest banks, all within five days.

Failure to act decisively also poses risks for the government's stability. Thus far, Erdogan has pledged to pursue and strike "like a fist" those responsible for the attacks. The bombings Thursday killed at least 32 people and occurred in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan. "Those who bloodied this holy day and massacred innocent people will account for it in both worlds," Erdogan said. "They will be damned until eternity."

Eager to be accepted into the European Union, Turkey's government for the last year has taken major steps to bring its civil rights, political structures and military in line with EU standards.

This has meant, on paper at least, substantial oversight of military power and the granting of cultural rights to the nation's long-repressed Kurdish minority, including permission to broadcast in the Kurdish language. Just this month, the government drafted a bill that would require openness from a top military advisory council that wields enormous influence.

These reforms have not sat well with the army, an overweening presence that sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey's secular system and is unaccustomed to having its wings clipped.

Mistrust of Erdogan's party, elected in a landslide last year, runs deep among the generals and colonels, and they might be looking for an opening to slap down the civilians in charge.

Gen. Ilker Basbug, the Turkish army's deputy chief of staff, emerged from a meeting with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in Washington on Thursday and suggested that the bombings might have been intended to provoke a "wrong" military reaction. Basbug said the military was not planning a coup. The fact that he raised the prospect, unprompted, made some people nervous.

"We will not go this way," he said. "We will overcome these difficulties within a normal way."

Already, there have been scattered, street-level rumblings that martial law might be necessary to restore security. Some Turks questioned the government's decision to release 130 members of the Turkish Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group, in September under a 4-month-old amnesty.

Others suggested that security was lax, especially in cosmopolitan Istanbul. The Milliyet newspaper reported Friday that one of its reporters was able to buy 35 items to manufacture eight bombs from a city shopping district for the equivalent of $40 and with no questions asked.

But experts believe that the army, which has unseated four elected governments in four decades, most recently in 1997, is still a long way from moving to overthrow Erdogan.

First, his Justice and Development Party holds a two-thirds majority in parliament; the army has always been keen to heed public opinion. Second, the military arguably could be held accountable for failing to preempt terrorist plans, as could the civilian security services.

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