A people crying out for equality

Turkey must give the Kurds basic rights if it wants closer ties with the EU, argues Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
Suleyman Demirel, the ninth president of the modern Turkish state, is an honourable politician, the kind of man with whom Western governments should feel comfortable doing business. But he made a remark last Saturday which summed up everything that is wrong with Turkey's policies towards its Kurdish minority. "We are talking about terrorism. We are not talking about anything else," he said.

Oh, but we are, we are, Mr Demirel. Do not forget that it was only 14 years ago, after the military coup of September 1980, that the use of Kurdish in private conversations in Turkey was officially forbidden. The attitudes of the Turkish authorities have somewhat relaxed since then, but the belief persists that the Kurdish problem can be solved as long as it is treated primarily as a security issue. Nothing is more likely to guarantee that the problem merely grows bigger every year.

The Turkish government defends its military offensive against Kurdish targets in northern Iraq on the grounds that Kurdish guerrillas use the area as a base for attacks in south-eastern Turkey. Up to a point, the argument holds water. No one doubts that Turkey has a genuine security problem on its hands with the Marxist, separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ever since 1982, the PKK has operated two routes of infiltration into Turkey, one from Syria and the other from northern Iraq. The PKK does not speak for all Turkish Kurds, and it is not the sort of organisation to which the West should be lending support.

However, the government in Ankara has fallen into the classic trap of failing to understand that excessive use of force can only increase the sympathy of ordinary Kurds for the PKK. The same thing happened with Russia's assault on Chechnya, which transformed the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, from a moderately ludicrous northern Caucasian strongman into a symbol of brave defiance of Russian viciousness. Turkey has gone way too far in sending 35,000 troops into Iraq to destroy Kurdish camps from which, in many cases, PKK guerrillas have already withdrawn in anticipation of the Turkish assault. No matter how carefully the Turkish armed forces go about their tasks, it is inevitable that civilians are killed in this type of operation.

Wiping out a dozen PKK bases in northern Iraq will do nothing to alleviate Turkey's broader Kurdish problem. This problem is interwoven with terrorism, but it is fundamentally a matter of individual human rights and the right of a national minority to political and cultural self-expression. For all Turkey's protests that Kurdish rights are protected under the law, it is clear that most Kurds do not share this view.

There are signs that some Turks have grasped this point. "Terrorism cannot be wiped out with cross-border raids," said Sami Kohen, a columnist for the newspaper Milliyet. "Diplomatic, political and economic measures have to be considered."

In contrast, say, to ethnic Germans in Belgium or ethnic Albanians in Italy, the Kurds are not a tiny component of Turkey's population. There are 12 million of them, out of a total population of 60 million. Mr Demirel's predecessor as president, Turgut Ozal, was himself half-Kurdish. The longer the Kurds are denied simple rights such as education and broadcasting outlets in their own language, the more likely it is that the Kurdish question will evolve into a permanent crisis for the Turkish state, eroding the quality and ultimately the stability of the democratic institutions that were restored only 11 years ago.

The issue here is not the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Quite apart from the disruptive impact that such a step would have in the Middle East and the Gulf as a whole, an independent Kurdistan in south-eastern Turkey would almost certainly provoke a backlash against the millions of Kurds living in Istanbul and other large Turkish cities.

An insight into the fate that might befall these Kurds was provided two weeks ago, when the Istanbul police shot dead demonstrators from Turkey's Muslim Alawite minority, some of whom are Kurds. The Alawites had gathered in the streets because suspected Islamic fundamentalist gunmen had sprayed automatic gunfire into several Alawite coffee houses, killing three people.

But if an independent Kurdish state is not a realistic proposition, that is not the case with proposals for Kurdish autonomy in the south-east. In a recently published history of modern Turkey, Erik Zrcher, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, writes: "Turkey will have to become a binational state, with Kurdish as its second language in the media, in education and in administration. The south-east will have to be granted some sort of far-reaching autonomy with Kurds governing and policing Kurds. The alternative is a bloody guerrilla war in the south-east, probably coupled with an urban guerrilla war in the west, that will drag on for many years."

Turkey's leaders would do well to understand that such sentiments are expressed in a spirit of friendship towards their country. The last thing that anyone in the West wants is to undermine the secular Turkish state, particularly after the fundamentalist Welfare Party won municipal elections last year in Istanbul and Ankara. To promote Kurdish rights is in Turkey's own best interest.

Even before Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq, it was unclear whether the European Parliament would give the necessary approval to a long-awaited customs union agreement between Turkey and the European Union. The obstacle was the treatment of Kurds inside Turkey. Now, with 35,000 Turkish troops striking into Iraq and aircraft flying regular bombing raids from air bases in eastern Turkey, it is certain that the European Parliament would withhold its consent.

That would represent not just an economic setback but a political blow to Turkey's secular leaders, because one of the Welfare Party's central objectives is to kill off the customs union, which it describes as a form of "enslavement to the Christian establishment". But Turkey's leaders would be missing the point if they criticised the European Parliament for holding up the deal. It is the most appropriate way to remind the Turkish government that its Kurdish policies have a substantial effect on European public perceptions of Turkey and hence on EU-Turkish relations.

To limit the damage, the Turkish armed forces must pull out from northern Iraq as fast as possible. But that in itself will not be enough. Turkey's Kurdish question is crying out for an answer that will grant elementary rights to the Kurds, make them equal citizens and remove the most serious irritant in relations between Turkey and the Western world.