Few political leaders have had such a clear vision of their nation's place in a changing world as President Turgut Ozal of Turkey. It was no accident that his death of a heart attack Saturday, at age 66, came just after an arduous 12-day tour of five republics in Central Asia with Islamic populations and Soviet pasts. His death leaves a void for Turkey and the free world.
Mr. Ozal came to the fore as a politician of the 1980s, the first elected prime minister after a military regime. He championed democracy, secularism and the free market. The last brought prosperity to Turkey. He lifted much of the cultural suppression of the Kurdish minority, softened secular limitations on Islamic expression and tried to improve relations with Greece and Cyprus.
But Mr. Ozal's greatest achievements were in piloting Turkey past its role as the West's subsidized prop against Soviet power in the south, after the Soviet collapse. Even after he escaped political vicissitudes by becoming president in 1989, he turned a supposedly weak and nonpolitical position into a powerful presidency with a command of foreign affairs on the French model.
Turkey became the bastion, no longer against communism but against the fundamentalist imperialism emanating from Iran and now Sudan. It became the country with the best chance of showing the Turkic-speaking countries of formerly Soviet Central Asia the way to the modern world, past the twin obstacles of Islamic extremism and Communist relapse. He proved a staunch U.S. ally in the gulf war against Iraq.
Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, Mr. Ozal's one-time mentor and later rival, is expected to be elected by the parliament to succeed him as president, perhaps without drastic policy change. He is 69 and would be a transitional figure.
Turkey remains poised, part European and part Middle Eastern, as a powerful presence in Europe. It looms over the Yugoslav tragedy, stands rival to Iran while improving relations, remains barred from the European Community until it ends the quarrel with Greece, and has the best chance to influence former Soviet republics. It needs to fulfill the liberation of Kurds within Turkey and to bring Turkish Cyprus to terms with Cyprus and Greece.
What Turkey needs is another Turgut Ozal.