Thousands of Turks Join Funeral March for Reformist President


With pomp and ceremony fit for a sultan, Turkey laid reformist President Turgut Ozal in his final resting place here Thursday as the country debated who could fill the great political gap he left behind him.

Tens of thousands of Turks marched for two hours behind Ozal’s coffin from the mosque of Mehmet the Conqueror to his green granite grave outside the city’s Byzantine walls, shouting “Allahu Akbar"-- “God is great"--and almost drowning out a military band’s rendering of Chopin’s Funeral March.

The somber crowds symbolized the enigmatic mix of East and West in Ozal’s character and in present-day Turkey: bearded Islamists among straight-backed army officers, women in modern garb amid traditionalists in full-length black veils, old-fashioned shopkeepers among Turkey’s new generation of rich entrepreneurs in their dark glasses and shiny suits.

Few foreign leaders attended the Istanbul burial, with only the presidents of Azerbaijan and the small Russian republic of Chechenya in evidence. Attendance by mostly low-ranking Western leaders at Wednesday’s state funeral services in Ankara, the capital, boded ill for NATO-member Turkey’s future faith in Western declarations of friendship.


“So what’s all this about Mr. Ozal being a great friend of the West and helping out in the Gulf War? Where is everyone now? Aren’t you ashamed?” asked a young pharmacist as Ozal’s body passed by her shop on a gun carriage here Thursday, followed by crowds chanting “Muslim Turkey!”

Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Clifton Wharton and German President Richard von Weizsaecker did attend Wednesday’s ceremony. But there was no sign of former President George Bush or Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, once friends and ideological stablemates of Ozal, whom they praised as he launched his free-market reform program for Turkey in the 1980s.

President Clinton, however, has invited Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel to visit Washington in early May. The cautious, conservative Demirel is the main candidate to take over the presidency, a traditionally neutral and ceremonial post but one that has strong veto powers and an important status of moral leadership.

Demirel, 68, has said it is too early to divulge his plans, but the seven-time premier has done nothing to dampen speculation about his candidacy in a parliamentary election process to be completed by May 27.


A harder question is who will succeed Demirel as prime minister without upsetting the coalition government in power since 1991. More difficult still is to know who will take over the unique role played by Ozal until his death Saturday, when, exhausted by a 12-day tour of Central Asia, he succumbed to a heart attack.

“As we put Ozal in his grave, I think his lasting heritage will be the leadership and courage he had in taking irreversible steps,” wrote Osman Ulugay, chief economic commentator in the daily newspaper Sabah, referring to Ozal’s reforms of Turkey’s financial system, trade and communications.

But Ozal also could be controversial when he thought big and acted bold. Diplomats believe that Demirel would be more cautious and avoid antagonizing the country’s many difficult neighbors, such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Greece.