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CULTURE : Survey on Kurds Challenges View of Turkish Hard-Liners : Most interviewed don't want own state, just respect for culture.

August 19, 1995|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The 11-year-old Kurdish insurgency that has torn Turkey and left 17,500 dead has flared anew in public debate over a survey that asked ethnic Kurds how they really feel about it all.

That such a survey was conducted at all seemed bold, particularly the parts dealing with political questions rarely broached in a country that jails people deemed to have challenged the "indivisible unity" of Turkey.

Despite the intensity of the Kurdish secession struggle, only 11% of Kurds interviewed said they want a Kurdish state. Only 3.5% think the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels can achieve it, even though 34% have relatives in the rebel ranks. But 11% want autonomy, 36% want a federation and 16% want local administrative reform.

Turkey's Kurds make up about one-fifth of the population of 65 million, and are most numerous in southeastern Turkey, where 82% of the people are Kurdish.

The survey has had spectacular impact. Conservatives published tirades charging treachery, liberals welcomed the widening of the debate, and Kurdish radicals saw it as a sop to a critical Europe.

Prof. Dogu Ergil, whose team interviewed 1,267 people in six southeastern towns most affected by the violence, struck a positive note. "This is the collective wisdom of the so-called 'problem' people," he said. "This is the birth of a more healthy approach. Everyone wants an end to the violence."

The report's impact was heightened by its sponsorship. It was commissioned by Turkey's 700,000-member Union of Chambers of Commerce. The union's chief, Yalim Erez, is a wealthy Kurd who is close to Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, who is struggling to push through democratic reforms.

Ciller's tongue slipped when she referred to "our report." But she backed away from claiming responsibility when Turkish conservatives asserted that the report was inspired by the CIA and that its well-known academic author is a money-grubbing fake.

"My dear readers, these are sensitive topics. . . ," wrote Hurriyet newspaper's Emin Colasan, a vigorous supporter of the security forces. "Can they be subcontracted to someone like Dogu Ergil . . . so he can get a salary, make a few expense-paid trips and get famous?"

The report's findings support the view of many American and European diplomats that political concessions to the Kurds would undercut the appeal of the PKK, which Western governments see as a Syrian-backed terrorist group. Turkish conservatives and the army have always blocked such reforms, saying the Kurds really want an unattainable Kurdish state.

That the Kurds feel alienated and want change is no surprise. For decades, their culture has been suppressed by the state. Thousands of Kurdish nationalists have been killed in "mystery murders," rebel suspects are often tortured, and the countryside is littered with the remnants of evacuated and demolished villages.

"The reason that there was so much fuss is that the latest report gives scientific support to what a lot of people have been saying in Turkey for years," wrote Gulay Gokturk, a columnist for the progressive daily Yeni Yuzyil.

An earlier survey of Kurds living in Istanbul, published recently in the newspaper Milliyet, found attitudes similar to those in the southeast. Only 22% wanted an independent state, while 64% said the problem is one of ethnic identity.

Ergil summed up the Kurds' views in these words:

"The PKK is like a train. The last station is an independent state. But most of the people do not get onto the train for this. Some get on for work, some for better education, some for cultural rights. . . . PKK represents Kurdishness to these people. To isolate the PKK is only possible by responding reasonably to these demands."

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