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Op-Ed

Winds of Change in Turkish-Kurdish Relations

Yigal Schleifer, August 27, 2009

Pro-Kurdish demonstrators calling themselves "Peace Mothers" hold a sit-in protest near the Turkish General Staff headquarters in Ankara on Aug. 11. (Photo: Adem Altan/ AFP-Getty Images)

After decades of conflict and repressive policies, Turkey appears to be taking crucial steps toward introducing a peace initiative to resolve longstanding unrest among its Kurdish population. But for any plan to succeed, it cannot be simply another state-run, unilateral initiative that fails to take into account local grievances. It must go beyond previous efforts and truly involve the Kurdish population in the process.

Turkey has tried to establish itself as a regional power and mediator in different ways, through initiatives such as facilitating last year's indirect talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey's emerging profile on the world stage, where it is currently a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council, has encouraged the country to become more outspoken on international events. Ankara was among the fiercest critics of Israel's January war in Gaza and of China's response to the recent unrest in its Xinjiang province, home to the Turkic Uighur people.

But increased visibility on the international stage has also drawn attention to Turkey's domestic problems, particularly ongoing conflict with its Kurdish population, who make up 20 percent of the country. Although the situation in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast region is significantly better than it was during the 1980's and 1990's when the conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (P.K.K.) made the area a virtual war zone, significant problems remain.

Local Kurdish politicians are still criticized for speaking Kurdish in their official capacity. And in recent years, dozens of Kurdish youth who demonstrated in anti-government protests have been jailed for supporting the P.K.K. Although the ruling Justice and Development Party has Kurdish members and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party is represented in parliament with 20 of 550 seats, in reality there is little room for Kurdish voices within Turkey's current political structure.

But winds of change are blowing out of Ankara.

Earlier this year, the government launched Turkey's first ever state-owned Kurdish language television station. And in recent months, both President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have strongly indicated that an initiative to seriously engage the Kurdish population is in the works.

Also, Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay said during a July 29 news conference that the government is actively working on a comprehensive plan to increase Kurds' rights based on democratization, and to expand their cultural space. Although he didn't offer any specific details or a timeframe, Atalay told reporters, "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps…. This can be seen as a new stage."

According to the Turkish press, the government's plan may include expanded cultural autonomy, including the establishment of private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well as allowing towns and villages to once again use their original Kurdish names. It is not clear if it would extend to a wide-ranging amnesty program for members of the outlawed P.K.K.

The group continues to attack Turkish security forces, mostly from its hideouts in northern Iraq. But in recent years the organization has realized that separating from Turkey is not a realistic goal and has made it clear that it only seeks expanded political and cultural rights for Kurds within Turkey. Meanwhile, jailed P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan is expected to release his own road map for solving the Kurdish issue in the coming weeks.

This is not the first time Ankara has tried to solve the Kurdish issue. Prior initiatives involved various economic development packages—usually under-funded—for the chronically underdeveloped southeast region, which lags behind the rest of the country in almost every economic benchmark. This time, however, the government's initiative looks different.

First, the government appears to be talking about a comprehensive package, taking cultural rights, political reforms and democratization into account. Second, the force behind the new initiative is not due to external pressure, but comes from the political and military establishment itself. This will certainly make it easier for the government to market the plan to a skeptical public, which has often been told that Kurdish demands for more rights pose a threat to national unity.

Perhaps the most important factors for success are the need to involve various sectors in Kurdish society, such as civil society groups, in the process and to take into account real Kurdish grievances, including demands for increased political power for local elected bodies in the southeast. The process of beginning the initiative must reflect its end goal: giving Kurdish populations a cultural and political place in Turkey.

This article was originally published by commongroundnews.org.

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