U.S. visit clouds Turkish views

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NICOSIA, Cyprus — Last week’s much-vaunted Washington visit by the Turkish prime minister has left Turkey puzzled about its European future and foreign policy, diplomats say.

Some in the Turkish press also have voiced concern about the ?strategic partnership? with the United States affirmed by President Bush and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Statements emanating from Washington after the visit are ?like a coat of new paint that cannot bring lasting results,? wrote the center-right daily Turkiye’de Aksam.

The mass-circulation Istanbul Cumhuriyet expects no significant changes to result from the Washington talks because ?the United States will support Turkey only when it suits its interests.?

Writing in Milliyet, another major daily, columnist Hasan Cemal concluded that the most positive aspect of the Washington visit was an agreement that ?the two countries need each other and their strategic partnership will continue.?

Diplomats point out that the Washington visit had come at a particularly difficult time for Turkey and Mr. Erdogan, who faces disagreements within his own Justice and Development Party and strident criticism from the opposition.

Compounding the murky atmosphere are rejections of the European constitution by French and Dutch voters. Although the Turkish government insists that its candidacy for the European Union will not be affected, the population is doubtful and increasingly bitter at what many perceive as strong anti-Turkey sentiment across Europe.

Preliminary talks about Turkey’s EU membership are scheduled to begin in October, but the accession process might last 10 to 15 years.

Meanwhile, one Western diplomat said, ?The Turks are bombarded with various EU instructions and edicts and are still not certain whether Europe will accept them.?

Adding to national skepticism is the prospect of German parliamentary elections in September, with the Christian Democratic opposition in a strong position to win. The party’s leader, Angela Merkel, is one of the most vocal opponents of Turkey’s EU membership and has suggested a form of ?association? status, which Turkey rejected.

This and other signs on the political horizon have revived the debate on whether, instead of courting a reluctant and frequently hostile Europe, Turkey should change its strategy and focus its political and economic ambitions on the nearby Middle Eastern countries.

One of the questions raised by Mr. Bush with Mr. Erdogan last week was Turkey’s support for Syria, considered by the United States as a ?rogue? nation harboring terrorism. Turkish sources said Mr. Erdogan merely told Mr. Bush that Syrian President Bashar Assad ?has changed? in recent weeks.

Diplomats in Turkey paid considerable attention to a statement by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, the influential chief of the General Staff, who said the European Union ?is trying to change our national culture by imposing foreign values, fashions and languages which do not fit with Turkish customs and traditions.?

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