Peace at top of agenda for Ecevit visit

Turkish president arrives in Washington today

September 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- With Greece and Turkey suddenly seeming ready to end generations of hostility, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit of Turkey is due in Washington today for talks this week with President Clinton and congressional leaders.

Clinton is expected to raise a series of issues with his guest, from trade to human rights. But the prospect of finally bringing peace to the volatile eastern Mediterranean will be at the top of his agenda.

Ecevit was prime minister when Turkey sent troops to Cyprus in 1974 and has been a hero to nationalists.

Now back in power at 74, he may be in a position to lead his country toward friendship with Greece and possibly even resolution of the Cyprus dispute.

If Clinton can encourage Ecevit in this direction, he may be able to claim the outcome as a great foreign policy success.

The two, who have never met, are to hold talks at the White House on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Ecevit is to travel to New York for meetings with Turkish-American groups and with foreign leaders attending the U.N. General Assembly.

Turkey's industrial heartland was devastated by an earthquake last month, and the administration is preparing a package of relief aid intended to show American commitment to Turkey, which has for decades been a NATO ally and key strategic partner.

In the past, U.S. efforts to help Turkey have been hobbled by the campaigns of anti-Turkish lobbies, including those sponsored by Greeks and Greek-Americans. But for the first time in living memory, that climate has changed.

Greece sent generous relief aid to Turkey after the earthquake Aug. 17, provoking an emotional wave of gratitude. Relations between the countries warmed further when Turkish relief teams flew to Greece after an earthquake struck Athens three weeks later.

This new detente appears to be widely popular in both countries, but there are skeptics. One of them, a former Turkish foreign minister, Mumtaz Soysal, recently published a column in an Istanbul newspaper warning against "idiotic optimism" and asking, "Do you want us unilaterally to surrender our vital interests in the Aegean and Cyprus in the name of friendship?"

That question is also being asked within Ecevit's coalition government, which includes a rightist party that has traditionally appealed to chauvinistic nationalism.

"We have a fairly strong view that there will never be a better time to deal with this issue," said an administration authority on Cyprus.

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