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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkey's Leader: Symbol of New Generation

LONDON - Turkey has done what the United States, Russia, China and dozens of other countries have not yet done, and made a woman its leader. The election last week of Tansu Ciller as head of the conservative True Path Party - a position that guarantees her the prime minister-ship - symbolizes the enormous social changes that have swept over Turkey in the last two to three decades. These changes are as profound as the revolution that the founder of modem Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, instigated after the Ottoman Empire's collapse in 1918.


It is still relatively rare for women to become political leaders in modem democracies. Nevertheless many who have achieved this feat - India's Indira Gandhi, Israel's Golda Meir, Britain's Margaret Thatcher, France's Edith Cresson - have tended to share a similar type of personality: forceful, combative, stern.


Ciller, 47, is a strong and motivated politician. She is a U. S. -educated economist who was once Turkey's youngest professor. As a teenage bride, she was the first woman in Turkey's recent history to make her husband accept her surname. Like Ataturk in his day, she represents a new generation with new ideas about Turkey's identity.


Her Turkey is a country where brash young business elites in Istanbul set the tone of life, rather than tired bureaucrats in Ankara. It is a country where a brisk urban culture is replacing traditional rural values. It retains links with its Islamic and Turkish nationalist heritage, but it is an outward-looking country, optimistic about its destiny.


Part of the reason for the country's rising self-confidence lies in its knowledge that the West regards Turkey as a vital ally and factor for stability in four dangerous parts of the world: the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and former Soviet Central Asia.


The end of communism and the emergence of regional conflicts have transformed Turkey into a major player on the international stage. During the Gulf War against Iraq, Turkey demonstrated that it can handle its new responsibilities constructively. Turkey has also exercised restraint the wars in former Yugoslavia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But a hostile Turkey, or a Turkey that felt unloved and unwanted by the West, could play its hand differently.


But the new Turkey is not all sweetness and light. Much blood is being spilled near the southeastern border, where government forces are fighting a Kurdish insurgency. Inflation is 55 percent, and the state budget deficit is huge. Ciller has no magic solution for the economy, and seems to have nothing new to offer the Kurds. Nevertheless Turkey and its 80 million people are on the move.