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'Loose cannon' threatens NATO expansion

By William Pomeroy, in People's Weekly World, 5 April 1997

While President Clinton and his new foreign policy commando, Madeleine Albright, have been focusing their attention on mobilizing support among the big powers of western Europe for the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe, a major threat to the expansion plan looms within NATO's own ranks.

The recent Albright NATO-stretching tour touched London, Paris, Bonn, Prague and Moscow, from west to east, but it avoided NATO's southern rim, where the menace exists. It comes from Turkey, currently governed by a coalition headed by an Islamic fundamentalist party that has expressed hostility to the west.

Turkey was not one of the original signatories of NATO but was added as a jigsaw piece extending western military encirclement to the Soviet southern flank. As a military partner, its armed forces were built up with massive western aid, and it provided military bases and intelligence listening posts especially for the U.S., but politically and economically it has been held at arms length by the west.

The present Turkish problem for NATO, which threatens to burst into full-scale crisis, has two prongs. One derives from Turkey's long-standing historical antagonism with fellow NATO member Greece.

A year ago this came close to open warfare over the disputed possession of an uninhabited rocky islet in the Aegean Sea, with conflict only prevented by interposition of the U.S. 6th Fleet.

Gravest of the Turkish-Greek flash-points, however, is Cyprus, the eastern Mediterranean island that sits below the large bulge of Turkey into that sea. Cyprus has a divided population with a Greek majority and a Turkish minority.

Its closer tie was traditionally with Greece but when in 1974 a right-wing Greek regime moved to unite Cyprus with Greece, Turkey staged a large-scale military invasion of the mainly Turkish-Cypriot northern part of the island. It carved out an enclave that has since been governed separately, held up by the presence of 30,000 Turkish troops. The Greek Cypriot government has international recognition, but only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot mini-regime, while a U.N. peacekeeping force patrols the border.

The Cyprus issue became inflamed in January when the legitimate government was revealed to be purchasing from Russia SA-300 surface-to-air missiles, to be installed at its Paphos air base. With a range of 90 miles, up to Turkey's southern area, the missiles would counterbalance Turkey's air superiority in the region.

Although the Cyprus government said reasonably that the missiles would be defensive, the Turkish response was hysterical. Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Cillar raging, If they are deployed, we will do what is needed. If that means they need to be hit, they will be hit.

Worried U.S. diplomats were reportedly speaking privately of Turkey as a loose cannon. Said the State Department: Any threat to use force, any decision to use force, is absolutely beyond the bounds of acceptable international behavior. It is no time for the Turkish government to be making wild and dramatic statements.

U.S. concern comes not merely from the Tansu Cillar statements but from the developments in Turkey over the past year, particularly the installing last July of a coalition government headed by Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamic fundamentalist Refah (Welfare) Party which won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the December 1995 election. Refah had campaigned with anti-western, anti-NATO slogans and called for Turkey to turn instead to the east, to ties with Islamic countries.

For the U.S. and its NATO plans, however, the biggest headache comes not from the present Turkish government's leaning to the east but from its efforts to expand alliance with the west, in which it has adopted the position of linking its NATO membership with the attaining of membership in the European Union. Turkey's long-standing application for admission to the EU has been consistently rebuffed by the EU, because of its size, poverty, grim human rights record and (less publicly expressed) its Moslem features.

The EU finally agreed to a customs union with Turkey which came into effect in January 1996 but Turkey has complained about the adverse way this has operated, with EU imports rising 40 percent while Turkish exports to the EU rose but 7 percent, Turkey losing $5 billion in the deal. Although under the agreement Turkey was to be compensated for such trade losses, by up to $500 million, they haven't received payment because Greece has blocked it.

Turkish resentment at this has been compounded by the EU announcement last year of a list of 10 European countries approved as candidates for EU membership. Turkey is excluded.

Turkey's reaction to all this has been to declare that if its application to join the EU is not accepted, it will use its rights as a member of NATO to veto the admission of the proposed new members to NATO. Refah called the EU a Christian Club and called for a common market with Moslem countries instead. However, it is not the Refah hand on the reins of power today that dictates the threat to NATO expansion.

The warning to NATO about a Turkish veto has been made by secular President Demirel, while Tansu Cillar, the former True Path Party prime minister and present deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the coalition with Refah, reiterated the veto threat to a European foreign ministers' meeting in Rome. How do you think you can expand NATO without Turkey's permission? he asked. It cannot be separated, the expansion of Europe, the expansion of NATO, they are interlinked.