Ankara's nationalist stance alarms West: Hugh Pope talks to Turkey's new, outspoken foreign minister who is taking a tough line

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The Independent Online
MUMTAZ SOYSAL has a charming air of professorial reason as he explains his search for Turkish 'honour' in the world. But his soft-spoken conclusions have caused a storm in Turkey and are widening a rift between the West and its strategic Muslim ally.

In his first interview with a foreign newspaper since taking up his appointment on 27 July, Mr Soysal underlined a Turkish-centred national interest that defined his much- debated new 'foreign policy with character'.

'Nato is no more the backbone of Turkish policy, or for that matter, Western foreign policy. Our interest may not coincide point-by-point with our traditional allies,' said Mr Soysal, 65, a constitutional lawyer who has gone from jail after the 1971 coup to become one of Turkey's most talked-about national figures.

'We have been loyal allies,' he said, a twinkle lighting up his eyes. 'We have never stabbed the US or Europe in the back. They will just have to trust us.'

But Mr Soysal himself seems to be driven by a visceral distrust of the West. The theme has a deep echo in Ottoman history but was dormant during the decade of confident reforms under Turgut Ozal, who died in April last year after breaking down most of the old isolationist walls around Turkey.

Mr Soysal attacked the concept of foreign investment 'with the sole aim of profit', one of Mr Ozal's great successes. He doubted that parliament could successfully enact privatisation, a main plank of the government's IMF-backed recovery programme. He even spoke out for the discredited concept of 'national planning'.

Such talk upsets many who have benefited from Ozal's market reforms. One Istanbul industrialist condemned Mr Soysal as a 'scourge who is frightening off investors'. Hostile newspaper columnists call him a 'dinosaur'.

But Mr Soysal's go-it-alone style is popular among a nationalistic public increasingly alienated by rebuffs from Europe, frustrated by the expulsion of Muslims from Bosnia and radicalised by the 10-year- old Kurdish revolt.

Foreigners' access to northern Iraq has been regulated. And Mr Soysal backed the Turkish administration in northern Cyprus after it took a tougher line. Ankara rejected a 10 per cent portion of Turkey's dollars 363m ( pounds 242m) US military aid because it was linked to progress in Cyprus and human rights. Customs Union with Europe in 1996 remains an important goal, but Ankara has upped demands for financial compensation.

Ironically for a social democrat who symbolises the secular policies common in Turkey during the 1930s and 1960s, Mr Soysal's pugnacious talk is now liked best by nationalists, conservatives and Islamists of the Welfare Party, the main up-and-coming force in Turkish politics.

Mr Soysal is also outspoken in his support for Baghdad. Earlier this year, he accepted an Iraqi-paid trip to New York to lobby for a lifting of the UN embargo. 'The West thought that by carrying on the sanctions they might topple the regime in Baghdad,' he said. 'But we have other aims, other interests, Kurdish affairs, the welfare of the region, our commerce.'

Such views led to a 'very frank' exchange with the US assistant secretary of state, Peter Tarnoff, last week, he said. He gave Mr Tarnoff no assurances about the future of Operation Provide Comfort, under which the US-led air force based in Turkey deters Saddam Hussein from attacking Kurds in northern Iraq.

Mr Soysal said he was determined to improve human and Kurdish rights in Turkey itself. But even though he was once an official with Amnesty International and his first wife died in prison, he plays hard to get on details.

Observers put much of his rhetoric down to domestic opportunism. But they warn that it could be a slippery slope for a weak coalition government. And, they say, today's fuss about a harder tone may prove a warning of changes to come if the anti- Western Islamists of the Welfare Party win power in elections due by 1996.

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