November 1 2002 4:00
Beginning with watershed elections this Sunday, Turkey is set to go through one of the most stressful periods since it was founded as a republic 79 years ago. Aside from the election itself, Ankara faces potential crises over Cyprus and its relations with the European Union and over possible war in Iraq and its attitude towards the Kurds. In addition, it is still struggling to emerge from its worst recession since 1945. How Turkey responds to these multiple and possibly colliding challenges is likely to fix an image of it in international relations for years to come. So far, the auguries are mixed.
The likely victor in the election is the Justice and Development party (AKP), which emerged from the wreckage of two Islamist parties shut down at the insistence of Turkey's powerful military but which is now positioning itself as a conservative party of Muslim identity, analogous to Europe's Christian Democrats.
The Ankara establishment, to its credit, is anticipating this development with relative calm. Nevertheless, it is no help to Turkey's ambition to be considered a fully democratic state that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP leader, was banned from standing and that public prosecutors are trying to get the party closed down altogether. Whether the AKP wins outright or has to form a coalition, having Mr Erdogan governing by proxy will not enhance Turkey's ability to take hard decisions.
The first of those decisions is likely to be over Cyprus, divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots since Turkey's army invaded the island in 1974. The United Nations will this month put on the table a compromise plan to end that division by creating a federal state, enabling Cyprus to enter the EU as a whole in the enlargement to be agreed at the EU's Copenhagen summit on December 12. Unless the Turkish Cypriots stop insisting they first be recognised as sovereign - implying their right eventually to secede - Greek Cyprus will enter the EU alone.
Ankara can undoubtedly influence that decision. If it nudges its Cypriot brethren towards compromise, it will expect as quid pro quo a firm date from the EU to start its own accession negotiations. At best, it is likely only to get a date at which its progress towards full democracy is reviewed. This August, Turkey enacted important reforms, including abolishing the death penalty and granting language and broadcasting rights to its Kurdish minority. Yet it must go much further, establishing civilian control over the army and in implementing these reforms. Ankara's concerns about Iraq, for instance, mainly centre on whether Iraqi Kurds will get autonomy in a post-Saddam Hussein settlement, an attitude that reveals it still cannot decide how to treat its own Kurds.
Turkey's future relationship with the EU will take a long time to work out, in all foreseeable scenarios. Meanwhile, political reform and the full enshrinement of human and minority rights are goals Turkey should be seeking for itself anyway. These are Turkish needs and rights, not just EU club rules.