ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey passed a landmark legal reform on Wednesday to curb the political influence of its powerful military–a step Ankara says should win it membership talks with the European Union next year.
Brussels says it will not hold accession talks with Turkey–the only EU candidate with a mainly Muslim population–without it first implementing a whole series of often sensitive reforms its parliament has passed in recent months.
The latest reform may raise tension between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the army–which has led campaigns to overthrow four governmen’s in as many decades.
The army already views the AKP with suspicion because of its Islamist roots.
"This law is a step for democracy and freedom. Our aim is to reach the standards of countries already enjoying first class rights and freedoms,” Justice Minister Cemil Cicek told parliament after the vote.
The package strips the military-dominated National Security Council (MGK) of its executive powers and turns it into an advisory body. It also abolishes some anti-terror laws curtailing freedom of thought and expression.
The series of reforms–which Turkey says it will fully implement in 2004–are designed to harmonize the country’s human rights standards with those of the European Union.
The reform package must now be approved by Turkey’s president–who chairs the MGK–before it becomes law.
DEMOCRACY TAKES FRONT SEAT
Many EU reforms are controversial in Turkey as they challenge a state apparatus that often places nationalist unity and staunch secular principles ahead of democracy.
But AKP has pressed ahead with EU-inspired laws designed to bolster rights and freedoms–particularly for the country’s 12 million Kurds. Turkey’s military has fought a decades-long war against Kurdish separatists at the cost of over 30,000 lives.
Some western diplomats say parts of the armed forces have expressed reservations about the latest reform–but army chief Hilmi Ozkok has yet to officially object.
The EU says the role of the MGK is incompatible with European norms as it demonstrates that the Turkish military wields undue influence over civilian government.
The armed forces led a public campaign against AKP’s predecessor which led to a government collapse. Turkey’s courts later banned the party for being a focus of Islamist militancy.
"If it were a centre-left or centre-right government passing these reforms then I think the army would feel more comfortable,” said Ali Tekin–an Ankara professor.
"This government does not have close connections with the military establishment per se–so I guess they are enjoying it.”
AKP says it fully supports democratic reform in Turkey and is committed to keeping religion out of politics.
While applauding the AKP’s acceleration of political reforms–some EU diplomats privately say Turkey–on the fringes of the Middle East–should not become a member of the EU because its cultural identity and history are not European enough.
But if Brussels delays accession talks with Ankara–analysts fear it may encourage the region’s only secular and democratic Muslim country to follow a more isolationist and eastward-looking path.
"If the EU says no it might lead to a very strong wind of inward political currents in Turkey,” Tekin said.
AMNESTY FOR KURDS
Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday approved a partial amnesty for armed Turkish Kurds holed up in northern Iraq that may help ease tensions between Ankara and Washington.
Turkey has stationed thousands of troops just inside Iraq’s northern border in a deployment it says is necessary to halt incursions into Turkey by the Kurdish rebels.
Washington is uneasy about Turkey’s military presence–and the brief detention by US forces earlier this month of 11 Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq raised tensions between the two NATO allies.
The partial amnesty may reduce attacks by Kurdish rebels on Turkish targets and allow for a possible phased withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq if many Kurds elect to lay down weapons and return to their homes in Turkey.
A Kurdish separatist campaign in Turkey’s southeast has cost over 30,000 lives–most of them Kurds–in recent decades.
Relations between Turkey and the United States have worsened since Washington moved to invade Turkey’s southern neighbor. Most Turks opposed the war and are firmly against the subsequent occupation by US-led forces.
Fears for attacks by Kurdish rebels and a bid by Iraqi Kurds for independence from Baghdad once Saddam Hussein was overthrown contributed to the Turkish parliament’s rejection in March of a US request to invade Iraq from Turkish soil.
The government hopes parliament will soon make an important gesture to Washington and vote to send Turkish troops to help US troops in Iraq–possibly to its central or southern regions.
That might help persuade the United States to release up to $8 billion in loan guarantees for Turkey’s frail economy pledged by the US congress ahead of the war in Iraq.
The United States and Turkey are discussing ways to jointly eradicate the threat of the armed Turkish Kurds–preferably via peaceful means.
Tuesday’s vote envisages reduced prison terms for many Kurdish guerrillas and an amnesty for those who have not participated in attacks on Turkish targets. The laws apply to militants stationed in Turkey and elsewhere.
Ankara hopes the law and other recent reforms expanding rights for Turkey’s Kurds will also bolster its chances of winning membership talks with the EU in late 2004.