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Turkey's Detente With Kurds Wavers

Repression of the minority was reduced as the nation sought to woo the EU, but a wave of nationalism is holding back reform efforts.

May 14, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

An estimated 14 million Kurds live in Turkey, roughly 20% of its population. Successive Turkish governments for generations have stamped down any expression of ethnic pride as a way to prevent the spread of separatist aspirations.

A crucial turning point came in 1999, with the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the top commander of PKK separatists. From his jail cell, Ocalan ordered his followers to stop fighting. The PKK declared a cease-fire in a war that had claimed more than 30,000 lives since 1984, and most guerrillas retreated across the border into northern Iraq.

Peace prevailed, Kurdish-dominated cities were allowed to elect their own mayors, and the government in 2002 lifted a state of emergency that had been in place for 15 years. With an eye on joining the EU, Turkey finally allowed limited public use of the Kurdish language, including brief television broadcasts.

"I can finally use the 'w,' " Kurdish newspaper publisher Arif Aslan said. He continues to publish his newspaper, in the nearby city of Batman, in the Turkish language, because he would lose advertisers if he published in Kurdish, he said, and few Kurds actually read Kurdish. But he now freely prints the odd Kurdish-language headline, recently wishing his audience Happy New Year in their language.

But benefits have been slow to trickle down to ordinary Kurds. And some reforms have been so restricted that they raise questions about the sincerity of Turkish authorities in granting them.

After amending the Turkish Constitution, Kurdish-language teaching was finally permitted, but only in private schools that were financially out of reach to most Kurds.

Late last year, Kurdish-language broadcasts were permitted on state television, but only in 45-minute allotments up to five times a week. The broadcasts must contain Turkish-language subtitles, and children's programming is prohibited. Most Kurds prefer Kurdish-language programs beamed in from Europe and Iraq on satellite TV.

"These were big steps for Turkey but very small ones for us," said Cemal Dogan, general manager of a new private Kurdish-language TV and radio network that went on the air in March after jumping through a long series of bureaucratic hoops.

Dogan must follow a strict menu of programming. News and agricultural reports are in; children's cartoons and anything that smacks of teaching the language are out.

Some Kurdish politicians argue that this period presented an opportunity to disarm the guerrillas once and for all by offering an amnesty.

But the Erdogan government remained adamantly opposed to amnesty.

As an Islamist, Erdogan can ill afford to take measures that would anger the military, already mistrustful of his government. The army, which regards itself as the custodian of modern Turkey's secular system, has ousted governments four times in four decades.

In 2004, the PKK suspended its cease-fire, and gradually sporadic skirmishes resumed in Turkey's southeastern hills. An offshoot of the PKK, calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, is threatening foreign tourists who frequent Turkey's popular resorts and quaint cities.

Many in Turkey believe the escalation in violence can be blamed on both the PKK and the shadowy actions of disgruntled military operatives, who oppose Turkey's EU bid because the required reforms not only give cultural rights to the Kurds but also trim the powers of the traditionally all-powerful army. (By the same token, the PKK opposes EU admission because making Turkey a better place for Kurds undermines their goals of an independent state.)

As evidence of rogue operations, people here point to an incident last November in the southeastern town of Semdinli. Three Turkish intelligence agents were caught planting a bomb in a bookstore owned by a Kurdish nationalist. When a crowd ran the trio down, they found a carload of guns and a hit list of local Kurds.

The state prosecutor investigating the incident, Ferhat Sarikaya, was fired by the Justice Ministry after he implicated the army's No. 2 commander, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, in the alleged establishment of secret death squads. Buyukanit emphatically denied the accusation.

The recent developments have led some diplomats and analysts to conclude that the Erdogan government is souring on the goal of joining the EU. A less welcoming Europe, at the same time, has placed additional demands on Turkey, which further frustrates and discourages Ankara.

It appears that for a lot of senior Turkish government officials, a European diplomat said, "the EU project is over."

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