Ozul Leaves a Regional Power TURKEY

April 25, 1993|By HAL PIPER

A Rotary Club meeting in Ankara, Turkey, is much like one anywhere else. Members' birthdays are announced. A project of the Rotary-Anns, wives of the Rotarians, is acknowledged. The food is forgettable, the speaker enthusiastic. Guests are introduced. My host, Ahmet Atac, introduced me.

"Hi, Hal!" chorused the Turkish Rotarians.

Afterward, Mr. Atac told me why he thought Turkey was poised to become "the Japan of the Mediterranean."

"We're at take-off point. Turkey has everything: natural resources, plenty of labor, increasing skill and education levels, political stability. We're plugged into Europe through NATO and into the Middle East as a Muslim country. We can be brokers, we can bridge Europe and the Middle East."

Ten years have passed since Mr. Atac and I were friends, and I haven't heard the phrase "Japan of the Mediterranean" lately, but I imagine he's still a booster. All the favorable factors he pointed to are still true. Turkey is a bigger country than you think -- bigger than France in both size and population (about 59 million). And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey is the natural cultural and economic focus for a hinterland of 80 million or so ethnic cousins in the Central Asian steppes where Marco Polo passed.

Whether or not it ever becomes a "Mediterranean Japan," it is not too far-fetched to imagine Turkey in a decade or two as a regional power wielding influence on the scale of Iran or even Germany. If that happens, a good part of the credit will be due its president, Turgut Ozal, who died last weekend at 66.

Mr. Ozal was in the forefront of Turkish politics for only a dozen years, and he actually led the country for only half of that. He was not a particularly nice man, regarded as bullying and only too willing to use his position for personal benefit. Yet he was perhaps the second most important Turkish leader of the century, and his story demonstrates the role of accident in any individual life.

The most important Turkish leader of the century was, of course, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. What Ataturk built, Mr. Ozal secured, repudiating part of the Ataturk legacy while preserving the essentials.

Ataturk was a contemporary of the Soviet founder V.I. Lenin, and like him is honored with a mausoleum in the heart of the national capital. Ataturk, however, is still a national hero, while in post-Communist Russia politicians try to figure out whether the political pain will be greater if Lenin's remains should be ousted or undisturbed.

Both Lenin and Ataturk seized power in dying empires at the end of World War I; both tried to rescue them by modernizing them. Lenin substituted communist ideology for czarist autocracy, but 75 years later we see that communism, too, was autocratic and unable to adjust to an evolving world.

Ataturk made a cleaner break with the past.

The empire he was born into traced its pedigree back to about 1290, when Osman I united the nomadic Asian tribes that had settled in Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. The Ottoman Empire eventually became the center of Islam, occupying Balkan Europe and parts of North Africa, Arabia and Iran.

In the 1500s and 1600s it was the most powerful empire in the world, but then it settled into a long decline, gradually yielding up territory to nationalist movements in the lands it had conquered in its heyday. In the popular expression before World War I, Turkey was "the sick man of Europe."

Allied to Germany, Turkey suffered a crushing defeat in that war, but although the empire perished, Turkey did not. Ataturk, a military officer, took the radical step of abolishing the caliphate, the spiritual focus of world Muslims. Imagine if Benito Mussolini, upon seizing power in Italy about the same time, had deposed the pope and abolished the papacy. Ataturk's reform was that revolutionary; yet it succeeded.

Ataturk separated church and state, but he did not abolish religious worship as Lenin tried to do in the Soviet Union. Rather Ataturk banned symbols that he deemed backward and obscurantist -- the veil for women; the fez, the tasseled cylindrical red hat worn by men. His aim was to point Turkey westward.

We in the West may not appreciate how well Turkey's reforms took hold. Probably because it is Islamic, Turkey is regarded by many Americans as just another of those Middle Eastern countries, less troublesome than Syria or Iraq, less interesting than Egypt, which has pyramids, or Jordan, whose queen is a Princeton graduate. Turkey is best known for massacring Armenians in 1915, invading Cyprus in 1974, oppressing political prisoners and locking up sweet-faced American druggies.

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