Sunday, April 24, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The Turkish military has returned to the center of the country’s political scene after a period of silence with a strong nationalist message on key domestic and international issues.

The tone of the message raised diplomatic speculation about the continuing influence of the Turkish army in the nation’s affairs, a role that is incompatible with Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union.

In a speech to a military audience last week, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff, accused the United States of tolerating Turkish rebels in northern Iraq, called on Armenia to stop blaming Turkey for World War I massacres of Armenians and slammed the door on the possibility of Turkish military withdrawal from Cyprus.

Some Turkish news media speculated that the tone of Gen. Ozkok’s remarks would damage the atmosphere as Turkey prepares to start EU membership talks. Others were simply puzzled by the senior general’s blunt assessments.

“Gen. Ozkok’s speech reflected a true picture of Turkey,” said Nuray Basaran, a columnist in Istanbul’s Aksam daily. “Why did we not hear those opinions from a civilian official?”

The nationally televised speech of 8,000 words was delivered as an “annual evaluation” to Istanbul’s Military Academy. It was taken extremely seriously by the diplomatic corps and EU representatives in Turkey as well as by the Greek and Greek Cypriot governments.

Turkey’s application to join the EU requires it to limit the political role of the military, the traditional guardian of the republic created in 1923. Gen. Ozkok’s speech suggested the military is reluctant to take a back seat to politicians whose excesses and incompetence it has curbed in the past.

According to the mass circulation Istanbul Milliyet daily, the Ozkok speech revealed developments “which the government has been trying to conceal.” Other newspapers stressed the general’s claim that Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas were tolerated by the United States in Iraq.

“It is thought provoking that no action has been taken yet against that organization,” Gen. Ozkok said. “The PKK must be deprived of foreign support and have its hope of success crushed.”

Equally bluntly, he reiterated that the Turkish military presence of some 30,000 troops in northern Cyprus was strategically important.

Replying to the EU’s suggestion that withdrawing the troops would facilitate a solution to the partition of Cyprus, he noted the continued international ostracism of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

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