NICOSIA, Cyprus — In a growing climate of fear punctuated by riots and bomb explosions, Kurdish nationalists in Turkey are pressing their claim for autonomy.
Turkish military leaders and politicians feel that granting such a demand would be tantamount to storing dynamite under the republic’s foundations, and likely to result in Turkey’s fragmentation along ethnic lines.
As the country counted its latest victims of clashes between the army and Kurdish rebels, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the general staff, called for “unity, loyalty and self-sacrifice” from Turkish soldiers so that “no one will be able to divide the homeland.” He addressed the troops in the provinces bordering Iraq and Iran, where recent clashes took place.
The problem of the Kurds, a tormented nation-tribe deprived of statehood throughout its history, also affects Turkey’s neighbors Iran, Iraq and Syria, where an estimated 10 million Kurds live.
It clouds U.S. policies in the area and Turkey’s candidacy for membership in the European Union, which has been pressing the Turkish government to show restraint in the face of Kurdish violence spilling from the bleak mountains of southeastern Turkey to the urban ghettoes of Istanbul, where a number of Kurds have settled.
To the Turkish government, the creation of a semiautonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq has brought the specter of autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population. The Kurds have braced themselves for more bloodshed and turmoil, while Syria and Iran hint darkly at what they perceive to be the Bush administration’s intention to carve out a Kurdish state from their territories.
Suicide bombings begin
In recent weeks, suicide bombers have appeared in the conflict, which since the 1980s has claimed an estimated 37,000 lives in the war between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), regarded by Turkey, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Hardly a day goes by without rioting and clashes in the mountains, where Kurdish fighters are reportedly supplied with weapons from Iraq. The victims include Kurdish guerrillas and an increasing number of Turkish soldiers.
Mosques and government buildings have been bombed.
Although the PKK has proclaimed a unilateral cease-fire in its campaign, local clashes accompanied by mass demonstrations and rioting have led to a general deterioration of the situation.
According to some diplomatic reports, a number of Kurds doubt the validity of armed struggle, now that Turkey has become an EU candidate. They argue that time should be allowed for the EU to exert more pressure on Turkey to recognize the validity of Kurdish demands.
While allowing the restive Kurds the right to use their language — banned in public not long ago — the Turkish authorities have vowed to suppress rioting and bombings by the PKK.
“Sinister plans buried in history cannot be revived. No one should dare defy the power of the state and of the nation,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu has promised that “our struggle against terrorism will continue with conviction and determination.”
Since 1924, there have been 29 violent Kurdish uprisings.
According to Jean-Francois Perouse, a French specialist on Kurdish affairs, the Turkish Kurds have been “economically and politically marginalized, becoming the republic’s second-class citizens, and prone to violence.”
Though they weigh heavily over Turkey’s stability, officially the Kurds don’t exist. They are “mountain Turks” or “our eastern compatriots.” Their number in Turkey is estimated at 8 million or more — no reliable figures are available.
Addressing economic problems and marginalization in some predominantly Kurdish areas, Mr. Erdogan has promised a series of reforms that would reduce support for PKK militants roaming the mostly barren, wind-swept mountains.
“While they [the PKK] try to capitalize on hatred, we will build more roads, more hospitals, more schools and places of work for the mountain Turks. We will bring more freedom, more democracy, more welfare, more rights and justice.”
Kurdish identity denied
Wrote Hikmet Cetin in the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Politika: “We should not forget that the identity of the Kurds has always been denied and that efforts have always been made to annihilate them.”
Seeking to satisfy some of their demands for freedom of expression, the government recently authorized private television channels to broadcast in Kurdish for up to 45 minutes per day. However, the measure is limited to 45 minutes a day for a total of four hours a week. All video must carry Turkish subtitles. Programs aimed at teaching or propagating the Kurdish language are banned.
Politically, the process of convincing Kurds that “it is not too late” to give up their fight is paralyzed. So far, Mr. Erdogan has refused to meet representatives of the Democratic Society Party, the main pro-Kurdish political entity, until it declares the PKK to be a terrorist organization.
Not all Turkish Kurds are impoverished and angry. According to one diplomatic assessment, “although their Kurdish origin is never mentioned publicly, many Kurds have reached high positions in the Turkish state and enriched many walks of Turkish life.”
“There have been Kurdish judges, Cabinet ministers and members of parliament,” a senior Turkish official said recently, adding that his wife is a Kurd.
Another assessment claims that since the creation of the republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, successive governments “have pursued a policy of assimilation, repression and dispersal of the Kurds. Large numbers of Kurds have been transferred from the eastern provinces to other parts of Anatolia.”
Because “the Kurdish problem” constitutes a considerable obstacle in Turkey’s EU accession process, measures were recently announced to compensate Kurds for their losses in population transfers during which the Turkish army was accused of razing entire villages.
Diplomats say it is too early to assess how successful the compensation process has been.
Despite the great importance of the Kurdish problem, little has been written in Turkey about the Kurds’ origins and aspirations.
The Kurds claim to be Aryans, are classified as a white race, and speak a language considered to be Indo-European. They have lived in parts of Anatolia since the 7th century B.C.
There are countless myths and legends about their history. One says the Kurdish nation sprang from 400 virgins raped by devils en route to King Solomon’s court. There is a prophecy about a great Kurdish leader who will arise one day and throw off the yoke of his people’s various oppressors.
For the time being, many Kurds look up to one leader, now in a Turkish prison. He is Abdullah Ocalan, 57, who once led the PKK and began the latest rebellion in 1984, today blamed for 37,000 deaths.
He was condemned to death for treason in 1999, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty as part of its efforts to adopt EU norms. Kurds have rioted on several occasions demanding his release, which has always been categorically rejected by the government, which considers him a public enemy.