Ciller makes sure Turkey knows who is the boss: The Turkish Prime Minister talks to Hugh Pope in Ankara about her vision of a united Europe and her plans to reform her country

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A TWO-STAR general sat in the waiting room of the Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, drumming his fingers on a secret red file as he delivered his verdict on the youthful university professor who seven months ago became this Muslim country's first woman leader.

'She's the boss,' he said. The judgement on the headstrong Mrs Ciller rings increasingly true, even if the Turkish state that she rules seems to be growing ever weaker, undermined by political gridlock, stark economic contradictions and a Kurdish rebel war that on many days kills as many people as die in former Yugoslavia.

A rare interview with European newspapers shows that Turkey's leader has come a long way since her election last June to lead the conservative True Path Party, the senior partner in the coalition government. It is already hard to remember early days when she was so unaccustomed to official life that while disembarking from official flights she could sometimes be found squeezed unceremoniously among a common crush of junior aides.

Bureaucrats, advisers and even ministers have been changed with bewildering speed to the point where everyone is beholden to her. A note of firmness has asserted itself in a voice that can wrap up a meeting in a few seconds. Traces creep into her speeches of her occasional role model, Baroness Thatcher, as she implies a policy is right because she believes it to be right.

Unlike Lady Thatcher, however, her only ideology seems to be reform. Like her country, she is always in a hurry and often late. But like her other role model, the late Turkish President Turgut Ozal, she bravely covers up the most gauche of statements ('We have a come a long way, baby, in democracy since the 1940s') with her greatest asset - a brilliant smile in a face that seems a decade younger than her declared age of 47.

She is no longer a novice in juggling with Turkey's complex tangle of priorities, and brushed aside flustered aides as she trod on sensitive ground such as Turkey's worries about the enlargement of Nato and President Bill Clinton's compromise proposals for a 'partnership for peace' to be put to next week's Nato summit in Brussels.

'I feel it's a realistic kind of attitude. I feel that we should be looking not for the separation of Europe, but for the unification of Europe. The partnership for peace proposal is even too gradual as far as we are concerned, maybe we should move a little faster,' she said.

Mrs Ciller warned that the West should take seriously a potential Russian threat to newly-independent states in the Muslim southern belt of the former Soviet Union, whose population has ethnic links to Turkey. 'Despite what President Yeltsin may have in mind, a theme has come to the surface now, not exactly going back to the old borders (but) definitely a nationalistic attitude. The will is there . . . to make Russia the sole protector of that region,' she said.

But she stressed that Turkey - which once kept watch on a third of Nato's front with the Warsaw Pact- wanted to co-operate with its northern neighbour and had no ambitions of territorial expansion. But she refused to rule out completely military intervention to stop Armenia's victories against Turkey's ethnic cousins in Azerbaijan.

'We always are watching closely . . . considering and reconsidering. As far as Turkey is concerned, we all feel that Armenia should withdraw,' she said.

When the British Prime Minister, John Major, Mr Clinton and other Nato leaders gather at the Brussels summit they will meet a woman not afraid to make demands, particularly over clamping down on the activities in Europe of sympathisers with the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkish officials say reports of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's death in Syria are untrue and hope for Western pressure on Damascus to curb his activities, particularly after the banning of the PKK in Germany and France.

'We have to stand together on all these issues. We should not mix up the issue of the PKK with the Kurds living in Turkey and elsehwere. About 2,000 people have been killed in Turkey in the last year. We are trying to protect our citizens,' she said.

Mrs Ciller showed no sign of flinching from her backing for the security forces' nine-year-old attempts to put down the separatist rebellion by force. Any hint of approaching moderate Kurds was muted, as was any promise of reforming Turkey's 1982 constitution under which people are still sent to prison merely for speaking their mind on Kurdish and other issues.

'Democratisation is something we believe in. We are going to take giant steps in that. Not as a concession to the PKK, not for that region, but for the whole country,' she said. That may be her wish, but diplomats say any major reforms will only be possible in the unlikely event that Mrs Ciller's party receives substantial new backing in local elections due in March.

Mrs Ciller may get a more sympathetic hearing on the question of Turkey's relations with the European Union. She said the takeover of the EU presidency by Greece was only a minor problem, even though Athens has vetoed any substantial European aid to Turkey since 1980. She said she was pleased about a recent British-German initiative to establish a new consultative mechanism, to be set up during a visit to Ankara later this month by the British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and his German counterpart, Klaus Kinkel.

'The major point is that the other European countries see the vitality in Turkey. We are moving very fast (towards customs union with Europe). It's costing us a lot. Despite this we are committed to doing this step by step. What we are doing must be recognised by our friends in Europe. There has been no other country that has done this on her own,' she said.

'Turkey is a bridge to peace, a bridge to the independent countries that have separated from Russia, a bridge for Western values in the Middle East as well,' she added. 'When you give up Turkey you may end up with a border that has Muslim fundamentalism. We need to look not for a separation of cultures, but an intermingling.'

(Photograph omitted)