PRESIDENT Turgut Ozal was the paramount symbol of the dynamism, contradictions and the breathless pace of change in Turkey today.
Few Turks doubt that their eighth president was Turkey's most influential leader since Kemal Ataturk, who founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. He was also one of Turkey's most controversial and exciting personalities, as happy reconfiguring a journalist's laptop computer as strutting the world stage in Turkey's name.
A profile of the short, stocky leader in a Turkish news-magazine a year ago hit on perhaps the most apt description of his dominating character, dubbing him as Turkey's 'unbridled avant-garde'.
Ozal was always popular in Washington and other Western capitals for his early adoption of free-market principles in Turkey in the early 1980s, his staunch opposition to the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and his pioneering role in breaking down Ataturk-era taboos that had denied the existence of Turkey's ethnic Kurds.
Ozal tirelessly pushed a reluctant Turkey on to the world stage, economically and diplomatically. He revelled in summits, shrugged off his countrymen's scepticism and, long before many others, foresaw the sea change in Turkey's geographic importance that would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union and Iraq.
His hand lay behind Turkey's application to join the European Community, the Black Sea Economic Co-operation zone and attempts to forge a Turkish league between the newly independent Turkic Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.
The brassy cool he used to raise his own and his country's profile was seen at its best when foreign leaders were jostling to meet the newly elected US President Bill Clinton. Ozal simply flew to the United States. When given a polite hand-off to a date after his presumed departure, Ozal changed his schedule until he got his foot in the door.
Seasoned diplomats at the Turkish foreign ministry awaited his off-the- cuff statements with bated breath. Sometimes they were horrified at blunders, like what Ozal called his game of bluff with the dying Bulgarian Communist regime in 1989 over that country's ethnic Turkish minority. The losers were 300,000 ethnic Turks who poured over the border as refugees. More than half have now gone back.
'Everything will be all right,' was one of his catchphrases, repeated on the steps of the presidential palace a few hours after his inauguration in 1989. Few others than himself predicted he would survive so long politically after discarding Turkish norms of an impartial presidency, broken when he had himself elected president by his then unpopular Motherland Party in a half-empty parliament boycotted by Turkey's opposition.
But Ozal never hid his steely determination. He likened himself to bulls and boxers, saying he could not have survived the hurly-burly of Turkey politics otherwise. 'In Turkey, a politician should have a big heart, and a bigger stomach to take the punches. Othewise you cannot be in politics,' he said.
Born the son of a provincial bank official and devout schoolteacher mother in eastern Turkey in 1927, Ozal was educated as an electrical engineer and rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy.
His first abortive venture into politics in the 1970s was as a candidate for the then pro-Islamic party, and he always remained a devout Muslim. But he was also proud of a role as a typically Turkish model for Muslim secular government. He walked hand in hand with and publicly took advice from his unveiled, cigar-smoking wife Semra. Presidential flights served champagne on take-off for Islamic summits.
Ozal came into his own when, with American support, he formed the centre-right Motherland Party and won the first elections after the 1980-83 military coup. He embarked on a dizzy programme of market reforms and jump-started Turkey's stifling bureaucracy and state-owned industries by importing young Turk 'princes' who had been educated abroad.
Financial and trade liberalisation, modern telecommunications, value- added tax, a reformed Istanbul Stock Exchange and a big rise in Turkish industrial exports soon followed. Budgetary reform and privatisation proved much harder. There was sometimes a sense that reforms were being launched half-baked and it is sometimes forgotten that Ozal was also indirectly responsible for the 'bankers scandal' that robbed many Turks of savings in 1982.
As his popularity slipped in the late 1980s, Ozal fell back on his family circle and was responsible for massive state spending around elections in 1987 and 1989 that left Turkey with chronic high inflation. His health started failing with triple-bypass heart surgery in 1987, after which many detected a change to a more intolerant manner.
Many Turks also disapproved as his family grew obviously richer, his policies became more opportunistic and he adopted a spoiling role as his rival and former mentor, Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, challenged him for leadership of the dominant right wing of Turkish politics.
But to the end all remained fascinated to see what Ozal would do next. Once insecure about their place in the world, Turks have taken courage from the bravery he showed in defying a potential assassin who shot and wounded him in 1988 and with which he stood up before many in the world to defend causes in which Turks believe, such as the need to help the people of Bosnia.
For all his many flaws, Turgut Ozal leaves Turkey a much more open, tolerant, democratic and colourful society than it was. Much of this is due to the natural energy his reforms unleashed in the Turks themselves. But he will be sorely missed as an extraordinary, lively leader, who could be both critic and visionary for his country.
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