Turkey today stands at a crossroads. Few other moments in the 77-year history of the Turkish republic have been so decisive. In the coming weeks, its parliament will begin to consider the "accession partnership document" recently presented to it by the European Union. The document is a road map for the far-reaching economic and political reforms Turkey must enact if it is to join the EU. Actual membership negotiations between Ankara and Brussels cannot begin until these reforms are implemented, which both parties hope will happen before 2004. But if Turkey expects to meet that deadline, it will need to start acting fast.

Less than a year ago in Helsinki, Finland, the EU finally decided to accept Turkey's candidacy for membership. The Turks were overjoyed. Since 1987, all of their previous applications to join the EU had been rejected. For 12 years, Turkey had complained that as a Muslim nation, it was being discriminated against by an exclusively Christian club. The Europeans had countered that democratic and economic deficiencies in Turkey's institutions and practices disqualified it from membership. If Ankara really wanted to join, Brussels instructed, it should start taking steps to meet the union's many requirements.

Then, at the December 1999 Helsinki meeting, the EU softened its stance and dropped its preconditions. The reasons for this about-face were several. Thanks to a thaw in bilateral relations, Greece had finally lifted its veto. And Turkey was too important a player on the international chessboard to be ignored. Bordering the oil fields of the Middle East, at the edge of the ex-Soviet Turkic republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia (some of which are also rich in oil), and linked through its Ottoman past to the Balkans, Turkey has huge potential to play a stabilizing role in a turbulent region. Moreover, in the economic domain, Turkey had intensified its lucrative commercial and financial ties with Europe and had come to be considered one of the world's ten most promising emerging markets by the U.S. government.

The Helsinki decision called on Turkey, like all other EU membership candidates, to comply with the so-called Copenhagen rules. These guidelines, established in 1993, require EU hopefuls to build Western-style democratic institutions guaranteeing the rule of law, individual rights, and the protection of minorities. Indeed, the EU's eastern and central European candidates adopted most of the Copenhagen norms on their own, before even knocking at the doors of the union.

In contrast, in the ten months since the historic Helsinki decision, Ankara has made no moves to reform its institutions. It is true that, after abstaining for 34 years, Turkey recently signed (but has not ratified) two U.N. conventions on political rights. And some observers were encouraged by parliament's election in May of Ahmed Necdet Sezer, the country's highest-ranking judge and a known liberal, as president of the republic -- although Sezer was seen as a nonpolitical compromise candidate and has limited power. Overall, however, the authoritarian nature of the regime appears to have hardened.

This August -- to cite but one example -- Ankara, acting at the instigation of the army high command, took advantage of a parliamentary recess to issue a decree authorizing it to dismiss, without charges or legal judgments, civil servants suspected of Islamist or pro-Kurdish sympathies. This decree, which could possibly affect tens of thousands of individuals, was denounced as unconstitutional and arbitrary by almost all of Turkey's unions and professional associations and by numerous politicians, jurists, and columnists. In an event unparalleled in the history of the republic, President Sezer vetoed the decree on the grounds that only parliament could pass such a measure. If parliament rejects the draft law when it reconvenes this fall, the military may well interpret the vote as an intolerable challenge to its authority. A major national crisis could result.

This incident gives some idea of the enormous difficulties Ankara will face in adopting the Copenhagen rules. These measures represent more than simple reforms; they mean the virtual dismantling of Turkey's entire state system. This system, which places the armed forces at the very heart of political life, is deeply rooted in a centuries-old culture and in practices that have been ingrained for decades. Whether Turkey will choose to change them -- and whether the army will let it -- remains uncertain. Even EU membership, the ultimate incentive, may not be enough to convince the Turkish military to relinquish its hold on the jugular of the modern Turkish state.


The armed forces have always occupied a privileged place on Turkey's political landscape, under the republic no less than in Ottoman times. The imperial troops, especially the elite Janissaries (until they were disbanded in the nineteenth century), enthroned or overthrew sultans at will. General Mustafa Kemal, who came to be known as Atatürk ("Father of the Turks"), would not have been able to drive out the foreign forces that occupied his country in the wake of World War I or to found the republic on the ashes of empire without the military's active assistance.

Of the ten men to become president since the republic was established in 1923, six have been high-ranking officers. Since 1960, moreover, Turkey has experienced a number of attempted putsches and four successful coups d'etat. The latest, in February 1997, has come to be known in Turkey as the "virtual" or "postmodern" coup, because the troops never actually left their barracks: a thinly veiled ultimatum from the army high command sufficed to bring down the coalition government headed by the so-called Islamist Necmettin Erbakan. Those in the mainstream media who welcomed the military intervention soon began honoring the higher officers with the deferential title "pasha," the imperial term for a general.

The republican pashas, whether left- or right-wing, invariably erupt onto the political scene waving the banner of "Kemalism." The term has become ubiquitous in the successive constitutions that the military has sponsored after overthrowing various civilian governments since 1960. Kemalism is likewise invoked in most of the laws based on those constitutions, as well as in the oaths of allegiance sworn on taking office by Turkey's presidents, parliamentarians, and high officials. To succeed or survive in modern Turkey, all opinions, initiatives, and behavior must conform to the ideas or intentions -- real or imagined -- of Kemal Atatürk.

Modern Kemalism is a faith simple in formulation and broadly positive in content. It has two major elements: the indivisibility of the nation and its territory and the secularism of the republic. The rigid conformity with which these basic principles are upheld is paradoxical, however, and ill conforms to the true spirit of Mustafa Kemal. For although Kemalism has been transformed into a strict ideology since his death, Atatürk himself was no ideologue. He pragmatically borrowed from sources as varied as the French Revolution and the totalitarian regimes of his time in order to forge a nation-state bent on modernization and economic development. Just as paradoxical is the fact that the same people who have championed so-called Kemalist orthodoxy have never hesitated to go against its very essence whenever Atatürk's policies got in the way or were found anachronistic. Atatürk's single party has been replaced with a multiparty system and his statist economy has been gradually abandoned in favor of a market-driven one. Whereas Atatürk laid down the strict principle that under no circumstances should Turkey involve itself in the internal affairs of foreign countries, his successors in the military have defended not only Turkish-speaking minorities in other countries (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and elsewhere) but also -- surprisingly for a militantly secularist state -- Muslim minorities in foreign lands (such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya).

Perhaps the most poignant irony of Kemalism today is the fact that the "Father of the Turks" unalterably opposed any intervention by the armed forces in the affairs of state -- a principle that his admirers have consistently violated for the last 40 years. Such departures from the founder's principles have not prevented the military from virtually deifying Atatürk, however, or elevating Kemalism to the rank of sacrosanct dogma, while arrogating to its officers a monopoly on interpretation and the right to punish suspected dissidents.

The military's principal tool in this pursuit has been the officer corps, an elite caste par excellence. As described by veteran journalist Mehmet Ali Birand in his investigative work, Shirts of Steel, the officer system has been remarkably effective at reproducing itself generation after generation. Candidates for military careers, selected according to strict social, political, intellectual, and physical criteria, are taken completely in hand by the state from the age of 13 or 14. Cadets undergo intensive training in special schools that are beyond the jurisdiction of the ministry of national education. In addition to military training, they follow university-level courses in history, sociology, political science, and economics. The officer is meant to become a top civilian official in uniform; as the chief of staff noted in January 1998, "A general should be able to act as a diplomat, whereas a diplomat should be familiar with military questions; both should be well versed in economics."

Nonetheless, officers enjoy greater privileges than civil servants at the same level: their pay is sometimes twice as high, they shop in subsidized military stores, they obtain low-interest housing loans, and they have access to exclusive holiday resorts, hotels, and clubs. Endowed with a sacred mission, they naturally occupy the pinnacle of the state, and their prestige is unequaled in Turkish society.


A rigid, nationalist ideology and a powerful, activist officer corps: this is what the EU is up against in trying to persuade Turkey to totally revamp a constitution that institutionalizes the army's dominant power and blocks any move toward democratization. Unveiled in 1982 by the generals who had seized power two years before, Turkey's current constitution is the source of laws and practices that frequently undermine basic freedoms and human rights. This summer, in an unprecedentedly frank statement for someone of his rank, Sami Selçuk, the chief justice of Turkey's highest court of appeal, declared that 90 articles of the constitution should be canceled or amended in order to comply with EU rules and promote democratization -- so many that it might be better to "rewrite it completely from scratch." This, in blunt terms, is what the EU has been implicitly suggesting in a series of reports and notes it has sent to Ankara for more than a decade.

One of Brussels' main targets has been Article 118, which establishes the National Security Council (NSC), a kind of shadow government through which the pashas can impose their will on parliament and the government. The NSC is made up of six high-ranking military officers and five civilians. Once a month, decked out in full dress uniform, the chief of staff and the heads of the army, navy, air force, and national police, along with a sixth general acting as the council's general secretary, meet with Turkey's president, prime minister, and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and the interior. The council is empowered to examine all the affairs of state, whether relating to domestic or to foreign policy. Its deliberations are never made public, and even when decisions are announced, they are presented as "recommendations" to the government.

Civilians ignore these recommendations at their peril. Although the NSC acquiesced when its recent order to purge suspect civil servants was vetoed by President Sezer and sent to parliament for approval, the council was far less indulgent in the case of Prime Minister Erbakan. When Erbakan had the temerity to send the NSC's 20 "recommendations" aimed at "eradicating Islamist reaction" to parliament in February 1997, the military had him ousted. Erbakan signed his government's death warrant by pretending not to understand that the recommendations constituted an ultimatum.

The EU has not suggested that the NSC be abolished, but only that it be transformed into an informal and extraconstitutional consultative body with a civilian majority. Unsurprisingly, this idea was well received in Turkey's liberal circles. But the chief of staff hastened to dispel any illusions about the reform. Reminding Turks that the NSC's decisions are taken not by majority vote but by consensus, he declared that the council could include "even one hundred civilians, if that's what they want." As the editor in chief of the Turkish Daily News, Ilnur Çevik, explained, the chief of staff's apparent equanimity stemmed from the fact that the military's "qualitative superiority" on the council assured that the "consensus" it favored would be maintained -- whoever joined the body. As Çevik wrote, "The military present their views and want them to be taken into consideration; no government dares challenge their views and 'advice.'" To ensure compliance, special offices set up within the general staff monitor the activities of most ministries.

The military's "qualitative superiority," as Çevik called it, is guaranteed by a number of articles of the constitution. For example, the constitution gives the chief of staff more power than the defense minister and all other members of government. Although the chief of staff comes after the prime minister in the order of protocol, in fact he has more authority in the most sensitive areas of the state. The head of the military is, in effect, responsible for the country's internal and external security, including the intelligence agencies. It is he who decides on nominations and promotions within the armed forces and who formulates defense policy.

The armed forces enjoy a similar autonomy in the judicial domain, having their own laws, courts, and judges to deal with matters concerning military personnel -- including cases where civilians are involved. Any public criticism of the military (in the press, for example) found to be "insulting" can result in prison sentences of up to six years. Crimes of opinion are tried in state security courts, until recently presided over by high-ranking officers. These tribunals enforce "emergency laws" in Turkey's nine Kurdish provinces, where an official state of emergency has been in force since the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) launched its guerrilla war in 1984. The EU has demanded the abolition of these special courts on the grounds that they are "incompatible with a democratic system and contrary to the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights." But for the time being, at least, they remain in place.

Equally unacceptable to the Europeans is the very concept of freedom as enunciated in the Turkish constitution, the preamble to which reads, in part,

No protection will be extended to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish national interests, the principle of the indivisibility of Turkey ... [or] to Turkish historical and moral values ... [or] to the nationalism, principles, reforms, and modernity of Atatürk.

Not only does the vagueness of the terms open the door to abuses, but the provision makes "thoughts" and "opinions" as punishable as acts.

Similarly, Article 130 of the constitution stipulates that "scientific research and publications" not in keeping with the above-mentioned values are to be banned by the rectors of the universities, without prejudice to additional sanctions. The Turkish Council of Higher Education (known by the Turkish acronym YÖK), created under the 1982 constitution, has the power to fire any professor suspected of ideological dissidence (who can also be tried in the courts if considered dangerous to the public order). The penal code, a number of articles of which were borrowed from Mussolini's, facilitates the judges' task in this regard. Thus Ismail Besikçi, an ethnic Turk and well-known sociologist, was sentenced under various laws to more than 200 years in prison for having expressed allegedly pro-Kurdish "separatist" views in his scholarly works.

According to a study commissioned by the Turkish Press Council, Turkish law today restricts freedom of opinion through no less than 152 legal texts -- not counting the articles of the constitution. Article 312 of the penal code, for example, the abrogation of which the EU has repeatedly sought, penalizes views judged contrary to ethnic and religious harmony. This was the article used in 1998 to strip the 75-year-old Erbakan, a veteran of the political scene for more than three decades, of his civic rights for five years. The same article was applied again this year to sentence him to one year in prison for a campaign speech he gave in 1995, a year before he was appointed prime minister. Similarly, an arrest warrant was issued in August against Fethullah Gülen, a distinguished Muslim cleric who preaches tolerance and human rights. Though the warrant was subsequently dismissed, another prosecutor indicted him again for "planning to establish a theocratic dictatorship." Gülen, who is living in the United States while undergoing medical treatment, is the spiritual leader of an Islamic brotherhood that operates a network of hundreds of schools in Turkey and abroad that have won praise even from the ardently secularist Bülent Ecevit, Turkey's current prime minister. As Çevik editorialized in the Turkish Daily News, "Gülen and his people have done nothing but serve this country, yet we still want to harm them by sending Gülen to prison. Isn't this odd?"

Not if one shares the view of the pashas, who tend to be suspicious of any Muslim activist who is not under state control. As General Hilmi Özkök, speaking in August at his inauguration as chief of the army, declared, any "concession to radical Islamic factions will bring this country back to the darkness of the Middle Ages."

Finally, in addition to the constitution and penal code, the EU has also objected to a number of other laws. These restrict basic rights in various ways: by restricting and outlawing the formation of political parties, professional associations, and unions; by constraining the status of civil servants; by mandating dress codes; and so on.


Apart from its constitutional guarantees, the political power of the pashas would be easier to curtail if it did not rest so firmly on considerable economic and financial means as well. In Turkey, it is the chief of staff, not the prime minister, cabinet, or parliament, who oversees arms production and procurement (which do not figure in the state budget). It is also the general staff that draws up the annual budget of the armed forces (even though it absorbs more than a third of state revenues). Given the amounts involved -- for example, the modernization of the armed forces will cost some $70 billion over the next 15 years -- such budgetary control affords the military huge power. Time-honored tradition has it that parliament approves the military budget as is, without debate and by acclamation, before presenting it to the chief of staff along with its congratulations and good wishes. Again, civilian resistance is dangerous; among the "crimes" perpetrated by Erbakan that led to his downfall was his refusal to release funds requested by the chief of staff beyond the budget already approved by parliament.

Then there are the military-controlled industries. In a recent study, Taha Parla, a professor at Bosphorus University, throws light on the army's most important holdings. The main one, OYAK, is a vast conglomerate comprising some 30 enterprises in sectors as diverse as automobile manufacturing, cement works, food processing, pesticides, petroleum, tourism, insurance, banking, real estate, supermarkets, and high technology. These enterprises employ more than 30,000 people. One of the most important companies of the group is OYAK-Renault, which has an annual production capacity of 160,000 French-designed vehicles.

OYAK, among the three or four largest holding companies in Turkey, is unquestionably one of the most profitable. And with good reason: the group is exempt from duties and taxes. Big business puts up with what could be considered unfair competition because OYAK, shrewdly, has integrated the business community into its activities: OYAK's partners include the powerful holding companies of the Koç and Sabanci families -- the "emperors" of Turkey's industry and trade -- as well the private banking baron Kazim Taskent. For their part, big Turkish corporations co-opt retired senior officers to serve on their boards, not only as compensation for services rendered but to maintain links with the current army brass.

OYAK's sister firm, TSKGV (Foundation for the Strengthening of the Turkish Armed Forces), is devoted exclusively to arms production. Benefiting from the same privileges as OYAK, TSKGV comprises some 30 companies and generates tens of thousands of jobs. More than 80 percent of its revenues go into a reserve fund estimated to reach tens of billions of dollars.


The military's economic base, its unique constitutional status, and a plethora of repressive laws do not alone determine the balance of power between the military and the civilian authority. Other factors can play a role as well. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, a combination of favorable circumstances and good statecraft on the part of then President Turgut Özal allowed him to temporarily curtail the pashas' ability to intervene in the government. Thus when Özal decided to support the allied forces during the Gulf war in 1991, the chief of staff, General Torumtay, could only resign in protest. Nor did the pashas move when Özal, acting against their well-known convictions, began to prepare the way for a political solution to the Kurdish problem and for integrating Turkey's Islamic sectors into the mainstream political system.

Özal's successors have had neither his stature nor the kind of circumstances that would enable them to follow his example, however. After Özal's death in 1993, the high command of the armed forces quickly regained the upper hand, assuming tasks it considered vital for Turkey's future. Seeing that their raison d'être had suffered a blow with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bankruptcy of communism, the generals now launched a battle against two other enemies: Kurdish separatists and Islamic fundamentalists. The military expected this two-front war to confirm its traditional legitimacy as guardian of the Kemalist legacy and to increase its credibility with the public. To this end, ordinary Turks were bombarded with apocalyptic descriptions of the dangers in their midst.

The generals' hand was also strengthened by growing public disenchantment with the traditional political parties, whose servility to the military and apparent inability to take the least initiative further aggravated the power imbalance. The pashas thus received free rein both to diagnose the illness and to prescribe the treatment.

From the outset, the general staff dismissed the possibility of a political solution to either problem. Two all-out wars -- one military, the other political -- were launched against the two movements, Kurdish and Islamic. Drastic action was justified on the grounds that the PKK and the Islamist party were both determined to destroy Kemalist Turkey, the first by dismembering it, the second by infecting it with the virus of fundamentalism. The generals insisted that the movements were puppets in the hands of foreign powers, which supplied them generously with funds, arms, and logistical support. According to military statements made at the time, almost all of Turkey's neighbors -- Syria, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Sudan, Libya, and Russia -- were involved, not to mention Germany, the EU, and sometimes even the United States. These Western states were accused of being too indulgent toward the Islamists, the Kurds, or both.

The army pursued its war against the Kurds relentlessly. When in 1993 the PKK renounced its senseless separatist ambitions, proposing to end the armed conflict in order to negotiate autonomy or even decentralization for the Kurdish provinces of the southeast, the general staff ignored the offers or rejected them as "tricks." The PKK's leaders -- by way of their various contradictions, political errors, and outright crimes -- only made things easier for the generals. With their fuzzy Marxism-Leninism followed by attempts to ally themselves with the Islamists, their preference for armed struggle over political combat, and the atrocities they committed against civilians -- Turkish and Kurdish alike -- the Kurdish warlords served the interests of the hard-liners in Ankara.

The EU, like the United States, has always condemned separatism and terrorism. But it deems unacceptable the notion that these ills justify authoritarian rule, state repression, and the violation of human rights. The Turkish military's attitude, on the other hand, can be summed up in a 1995 statement by Deputy Chief of Staff Ahmet Görekçi, when he announced that the army would "not allow itself to be bound hand and foot by democracy and human rights."

Nor has it, judging from the human rights reports published annually by the U.S. State Department and by various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Over the years, individuals who advocate conciliation, including parliamentarians of Kurdish origin, have been imprisoned by the hundreds. Parties formed by moderate Kurds have been outlawed one after another. Torture has become widespread, and disappearances and assassinations of lawyers, journalists, politicians, and business executives suspected of sympathizing with the rebels have multiplied. According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice, in addition to the 35,000 people killed in military campaigns, 17,500 were assassinated between 1984, when the conflict began, and 1998. An additional 1,000 people were reportedly assassinated in the first nine months of 1999. According to the Turkish press, the authors of these crimes, none of whom have been arrested, belong to groups of mercenaries working either directly or indirectly for the security agencies.

By 1999, the PKK had been totally defeated. Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was imprisoned and condemned to death. The group's other leaders have since renounced violence and called on their followers to disband and to defend their cause "within the framework of peace and democracy." Rather than responding to these overtures, the army, unperturbed, continues to carry out "mopping up" operations in Turkey and northern Iraq, where former fighters have taken refuge. Emergency laws and the special courts are still in force in the nine Kurdish provinces. Capital punishment has not been abolished, despite Turkey's commitment to do so in keeping with EU demands. Nor is there any prospect of recognizing the Kurds' rights, since in the eyes of the military and civilian authorities the Kurds do not exist as a community. This extends even to cultural matters, such as teaching or broadcasting radio and television programs in Kurdish. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the Kurds are enthusiastic supporters of Turkey's EU membership. At least Brussels demands that their elementary rights be respected.

Meanwhile, the struggle -- this one political -- against the Islamists continues with the same tenacity. After outlawing the Rifah (Prosperity) Party two years ago, the legal procedure to ban its successor, the Fazilet (Virtue) Party, is already under way. The government's wrath against the Islamists seemed undiminished by Fazilet's setbacks in the last elections, when it fell from first to third place in the parliament. Nor is Ankara mollified by the fact that Fazilet's program and goals have been so moderated that certain media no longer consider it a "fundamentalist" party, while others describe its leaders as "Muslim Democrats." Indeed, the comparison to Europe's moderate Christian Democrats is apt. What exasperates the supporters of the status quo is that Fazilet, like Rifah before it, has made itself the champion of democratization and human rights, thereby implicitly challenging the political power of the army.


Turkey's EU candidacy has crystallized the way in which two very different visions of the country are now facing off in a contest the outcome of which is difficult to predict. On the one side stands the Turkey of what can be called the "Kemalist republicans," those who see the military as the infallible interpreter of Atatürk's legacy and the sole guardian of the nation and the state. This side has formidable power; the military enjoys not only enormous constitutional and legislative advantages but also unrivaled prestige among large sectors of the population. As a university professor in Istanbul remarked this summer, "If the Turkish people had to choose between the European Union and our army, they would choose the army!"

On the other side stand -- rather cautiously -- what could be called the "Kemalist democrats." They are proud of the revolution carried out by the founder of the republic eight decades ago, but at the same time they believe that the regime should adapt to modernity and Western norms. This group includes intellectuals who maintain that Turkey needs democratization regardless of EU requirements, business circles in favor of the globalization of the economy, and (perhaps ironically) Kurds and Islamists hopeful that Brussels will ensure that their legitimate rights are recognized and guaranteed.

In a recent attempt to tip the scales in favor of his own brand of Kemalism, Chief of Staff Hüsayn Kivrikoglu made an ominous declaration on August 30. Warning the government and political parties to make sure that the bill to purge suspect civil servants is adopted as soon as parliament reconvenes, Kivrikoglu added that the army would closely monitor the process to determine how "sincere" the politicians are in "removing the rotten apples" or "reactionaries" who "have infiltrated the state by the thousands in the aim of destroying it." The chief of staff went on to note that even the judiciary has been infected by the Islamic virus, citing as an example the cancellation (subsequently reversed) of Gülen's arrest warrant.

Though the general's remarks sounded like an ultimatum, Hikmet Sami Türk, the minister of justice and himself a staunch secularist, had the courage to respond (albeit indirectly) that Turkey should avoid witch hunts and McCarthyism. And so tensions mount. With the civil service purge in the works and Brussels' "accession partnership document" soon to be considered, a confrontation between the army and civil society seems inevitable. Despite the unprecedentedly large numbers of people now willing to challenge the military's hold on Turkey's affairs, not everyone is optimistic about the outcome. In a remarkable forthcoming book, Ümit Cizre, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, laments that

1. civil society has increasing latitude but no real strength; parliament contains opposition forces but has no real teeth; the judiciary operates with some independence at times but is by and large controlled politically; media can uncover the dark connections of organized crime, but is itself oligopolistically owned and is prone to nationalist and populist influences.

Will Turkey miss the boat for the European Union? Some of the pashas, jealous of their power, hope that it will. Others are betting that, owing to Turkey's strategic and economic importance and out of "respect for Turkey's national specificities" (to use Prime Minister Ecevit's delicate phrase), the EU will let Turkey into the union after only cosmetic reforms. This seems unlikely. But all that is certain today -- as Turkey stands facing two very different paths forward -- is that the negotiations between Ankara and Brussels will be difficult, painful, and will most likely last for many years to come.

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