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EU lauds and criticizes Turkey

BRUSSELS, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- The European Union lauded Turkey for its foreign policy developments but urged Ankara to protect press freedom in a generally upbeat progress report on the country's EU membership talks.

Every year, Brussels issues a report on how Turkey is doing in its bid to join the 27-member EU. The latest progress report, issued Wednesday, praises Turkey for its recent foreign policies: It lauds a recent deal with Armenia to re-establish diplomatic ties and reopen the border between the two countries; commends Ankara for its efforts to reach out to its Kurdish minority and the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq; and commends Ankara's role in the Middle East peace process.

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But it also urges Turkey to normalize its relations with EU-member Cyprus, to improve minority and women's rights and to guarantee freedom of the press.

The latter is threatened by a move made by Turkish tax authorities, the EU feels.

Brussels criticized tax evasion fines and penalties over $4 billion against Turkish media conglomerate Dogan Yayin that "potentially undermine the economic viability of the group and therefore affect freedom of the press in practice," the report said.

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EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he had asked Turkish authorities to re-evaluate the fine -- which trumps the company's estimated value -- as it felt to him like a political sanction.

Dogan, which owns prominent newspapers including Hurriyet, owns roughly half of the Turkish media landscape and has been rather critical of the current AK party government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara has denied that the fine is politically motivated.

EU officials are also worried by the fact that Ankara and Cyprus seem to be unable to bury their differences.

Cyprus, a popular Mediterranean tourist destination, has been divided into a Republic of Cyprus -- the Greek Cypriot south -- and a Turkish-occupied north since a 1974 Turkish invasion. Ankara does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member. Its ships and planes are banned from Turkish ports and airports.

And another big problem is that out of the 35 negotiation chapters Turkey needs to complete to join the bloc, Ankara has opened only 11, with 15 chapters frozen by the EU or by individual member states opposed to Turkey's bid.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have in the past advocated granting Turkey a privileged partnership instead of full EU membership, citing the body's expansion fatigue.

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Supporters of the bid say Turkey, a country of nearly 80 million Muslims, as an EU member could become a cultural bridge between the West and the Muslim world.

Apart from Turkey, the EU looks at two more candidate countries, Macedonia and Croatia, the latter being closest to becoming a full member. Other potential members include Albania, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina.

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