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Danger at the Crossroads


"Linchpin" and "crossroads" are two labels often applied to Turkey since World War II. The crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, the intersection of western and Islamic civilizations. The linchpin of the chain of alliances surrounding the Soviet Union that was supposed to contain aggressive communism.

The strains on Turkey's commitment to joining Europe as a full-fledged partner and to maintaining its western-style democracy are great enough for President Clinton to confer today with Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, passing through on a private visit.

Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq in an attempt to wipe out bases for Kurdish separatists raiding across the border has raised concerns about Ankara's already shaky human rights record. Whatever success it may have in crippling the terrorists, it helps those in the European Union opposed to Turkey's entry.

Coupled with the tension in its southeast corner is the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in a country that had been noted for its secular approach to modernizing its society ever since it became a republic in 1923. Not just a rural phenomenon, an Islamic party has won local elections in both Ankara and Istanbul this year. The tell-tale sight of young, urban women wearing tight scarves and ankle-length coats is increasingly familiar. Refugees from the economically blighted countryside join fugitives from repressive police actions in the Kurdish-majority region flood the rapidly growing shanty towns ringing Istanbul and Ankara.

Not the portrait of a nation starting to fall apart, by any means. But neither does Turkey offer the assurance that it has the internal stability to weather rampaging inflation, urban discontent, revived Islamic orthodoxy and a separatist movement that refuses to die. Turkey would profit by closer ties with Europe, and the West needs a stable Turkey on its eastern flank. But is up to the Turks alone to withstand the stresses caused by their living at the confluence of conflicting forces.

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