Turkey's Western Overtures Sag Under 2 Crises

Times Staff Writer

Three months ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan set out on a pilgrimage to the White House and 14 European capitals to sell Turkey's reliability as an ally and its fitness to join the European Union. That bold march westward, after his Islamist-rooted party's landslide at the polls, won plaudits from his hosts as an example for the Muslim world.

But suddenly Turkey has stumbled, under the pressure of looming war in Iraq, plunging its new leader into two crises at once. One, over Turkey's reluctance to back an American-led war, has opened a breach with its most powerful benefactor. The other, over its resistance to a compromise on Cyprus, threatens to alienate Turkey from Europe.

The collapse of U.N.-sponsored peace talks for Cyprus on Tuesday means that when the island joins the EU next year, it will probably do so as a country still partitioned between ethnic Greeks and Turks. The self-proclaimed Turkish Cypriot ministate in the northern third of the war-divided island would be isolated from EU benefits.

Turkey, the Turkish Cypriots' sole patron, would then be in the untenable position of refusing to recognize a member of a club it aspires to join. Worse, Turkey would be occupying part of an EU member state with about 35,000 of its troops. Turkey is set for a review of its EU application in December 2004, a test it is sure to fail if it keeps blocking Cyprus' unification.

Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded in 1974, after an abortive coup by Cypriots who backed union with Greece. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan used Cyprus' scheduled entry into the EU to press the island's Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders to accept a federation that would tear down the barbed wire and reunite their communities under a loose central government.

"Regrettably, these efforts were not a success," Annan announced early Tuesday in The Hague after an all-night bargaining session, before walking away from more than a year of U.N. diplomacy. "We have reached the end of the road."

The Cyprus dispute has been overshadowed by the Turkish parliament's refusal March 1 to let 62,000 U.S. troops use Turkish bases for an assault on Iraq. But the failure on Cyprus holds equally serious risks for Turkey, according to analysts here, in Europe and in Washington, who are watching both issues as critical tests of Erdogan's ability to govern.

Many of Turkey's 67 million people, whose country straddles Europe and Asia, are wary of Western alliances and the Europe-oriented vision of Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey 80 years ago. That suspicion reaches deep into the armed forces, which defend Ataturk's secularist ideology but resist the democratic freedoms Erdogan is promising in order to bring Turkey up to EU standards.

In trying to engage with the United States on Iraq and with Europe on Cyprus, even the hugely popular Erdogan has met deep emotional resistance at home to initiatives that many Turks view as being imposed by untrustworthy outsiders. In surveys, Turks oppose the U.S. deployment by a 4-1 margin and give Rauf R. Denktash, the intransigent Turkish Cypriot leader, approval ratings that rival Erdogan's.

"Outsiders look at our position on Cyprus, as they did with our vote on the troops, and ask how a big country like ours cannot make sacrifices in order to satisfy our partners in the West," said Gurcan Turkoglu, a senior Turkish diplomat. "But these are not small sacrifices. Our people feel deeply about the rights and security of Turkish Cypriots. It is a moral obligation."

If holding out for a better Cyprus deal means blowing Turkey's chances for EU admission, so be it, he said. "Turkey can live without the European Union."

As leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Erdogan struggled in vain to manage the Iraq and Cyprus issues from outside the government of his protege, Abdullah Gul, and will now get to try again as prime minister.

Gul resigned Tuesday to make way for Erdogan, who became eligible for the top government post only Sunday by winning an election to fill a vacancy in parliament. Turkey's president then tapped Erdogan to form a Cabinet; he is expected to do so, and take office, as early as today.

Erdogan's advisors say his immediate task is to extract enough assurances from the Bush administration to persuade lawmakers and the public that Turkey's interests in Iraq -- ensuring the rights of Iraq's Turkmen minority and curbing any separatist ambitions by its Kurds -- would be protected in a war against Saddam Hussein.

If he can do that, the aides say, Erdogan could ask parliament next week to reconsider its refusal to support the American war effort and thus would assure Turkey of up to $15 billion in promised U.S. aid. The Turkish leader also wants to wait for U.N. Security Council action on a resolution backed by the United States, Britain and Spain to authorize war.

When President Bush called to congratulate him on his election to parliament, Erdogan asked him to "give us a chance with our timetable," an aide to the Turkish leader said.

On the Cyprus issue, Erdogan is expected to try to mobilize stronger pressure on Denktash to be more open to a settlement -- and hope U.N. officials would come back to mediate one.

Annan met objections from both sides in The Hague, but Denktash was generally more resistant. He objected mainly to a proposed return of Greek Cypriot refugees to their former homes in the enclave he now rules, claiming that 100,000 of his people would be displaced. Two-thirds of the island's 750,000 inhabitants are Greek Cypriots.

Denktash went to the talks from Ankara, the Turkish capital, with strong Turkish backing against Annan's initiative. Officials said Erdogan, who argued that Cyprus policy "is not Mr. Denktash's personal business," was unable to sway the Cypriot's Turkish supporters because he did not fully control the government.

"Also, the country was preoccupied with Iraq," a senior Turkish official said. "We could not move opinion on two issues at once."

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