Hands across the rubble of earthquakes

When Athens was hit by its own disaster, Turkey was quick to repay Greece's generosity
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WHEN TURKEY'S world fell apart on a hot August night, who would have thought the earthquake which ripped apart its towns and killed 15,000 of its people could bring anything but sorrow? Yet that terrible night of death has given Turkey unprecedented opportunities. It has found friendship in adversity with its old and bitter rival, Greece. The door to membership of the European Union (EU), on which Ankara has hammered for so long in vain, is inching open at last.

True, the flaws which have made Europe keep Turkey at arm's length remain unchanged. The Kurds are still repressed. The limits remains on personal freedom which have deservedly earned Turkey international scorn. But there are unexpected signs of a desire for reform from powerful sections of Turkish society.

This started with those unforgettable scenes as Greek rescuers pulled Turkish survivors from the rubble. Within days, the Turkish and Greek governments were talking of each other as friends.

But if the pictures stole the hearts of ordinary Greeks and Turks, this was not a case of international diplomacy swept aside in emotion. Rather, for once it was the diplomats who made the difference. Ismail Cem and George Papandreou, foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece, seized their opportunity.

Mr Cem and Mr Papandreou have wanted to patch up their countries' differences for some time. The two men get on well. Both are comparatively statesmanlike politicians in positions which have so often been held by rabble-rousers, more concerned with domestic vote-grabbing than peacemaking. Before the quake, Mr Cem and Mr Papandreou had already organised low-level talks. But the quake gave them the chance to weave a little disaster diplomacy. When Athens was hit by its own earthquake this week Turkey was quick to repay Greece's generosity, rushing its rescue teams to the scene.

"Greece now believes it is in its own interest to see Turkey move closer to Europe," Mr Papandreou was able to announce last weekend. Without Greek opposition, Turkey will likely be named as a candidate for EU membership at the Helsinki summit in December.

But if the EU is prepared to make Turkey a candidate on little more than a sympathy vote, it will not be so generous with full membership. The diplomats have seized their opportunity: if Turkey is serious about joining the EU, it will have to take the initiative at home.

There are signs it is prepared to. Days after Mr Papandreou's EU bombshell, a senior Turkish judge dropped his own, calling for Turkey's entire constitution to be rewritten. "This is a diseased, clumsy state which does not trust its people, and argues with them at courthouses on laws which it adopted as state policies," said Sami Selcuk, denouncing restrictions on freedom of speech. Mr Selcuk's words were widely applauded - remarkably, even by the Prime Minister. Now the government has promised to reform and modernise Turkish law.

But Turkey will have to tackle more than just freedom of speech. It has to find some form of reconciliation with its Kurdish minority, embittered by 15 years of bloody rebellion, denied for years the rights to teach their children their language, or even to call themselves a minority.

The time is ripe. The rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has renounced violence and is in retreat. Even more welcome, then, were the reported words last weekend of General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, the head of the Turkish armed forces, to a private meeting of Turkish journalists. Turkey may have an elected President and Prime Minister, but no one doubts that the real power lies with the military. "[The PKK] don't want a federation. What they want are some cultural rights," General Kivrikoglu was reported as saying. It was the first time a Turkish general has conceded Kurdish rights even come into the question.

But mixed signals are coming from headquarters. No sooner were General Kivrikoglu's remarks reported than the military issued a statement saying that he had been "misunderstood" and that there would be "no conciliation" from the army.

And if the general sounded conciliatory on the Kurdish question, he uttered a battle cry on Turkey's other bete noir, political Islam, demanding yet more stringent measures against Islamists, many of whom are languishing in prison.

Nor did the general hold out much hope of free speech. The Turkish army was heavily criticised for its lack of relief efforts after the quake, and General Kivrikoglu decided to shoot the messenger. "The soldiers are upset with you," he told journalists, somewhat menacingly. And even if Turkey does mend its ways, an old obstacle to its European dream is looming large. Even as Turkey and Greece celebrate their newfound friendship, and Mr Cem and Mr Papandreou quietly congratulate themselves, the Cypriots are ready to spoil the party.

The unrecognised Turkish republic of North Cyprus has no intention of joining in, and its President, Rauf Denktash, was noticeably noisy this week about his refusal to attend new negotiations with the Greek Cypriots.

His Prime Minister, Dervis Eroglu, went further, gracelessly denouncing Greek Cypriot aid to survivors of the Turkish earthquake as amounting to nothing, and accusing the Greek Cypriot church of campaigning to block the aid. However great the opportunities for Turkey, it seems the Turkish- Cypriots still fear Greeks bearing gifts.