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The Uncontainable Kurds


Since the Turkish Republic was set up in 1923, no Turkish statesman has shown the necessary combination of courage and imagination to resolve the question of how the country’s ethnic Kurds, who are now estimated to number fifteen million people, should be treated. Turkey’s leaders have tried variously to isolate the Kurds, integrate them, and repress them, hoping that they might agree to live unobtrusively in a state that was set up on the premise that all its inhabitants, except for a small number of non-Muslim minorities, are Turks.

During the past twenty years, several million Kurds have moved from their homes in southeastern Turkey to towns and cities further west, many to Istanbul—some to escape the state’s pitiless treatment of Kurds, others in the hope of becoming a bit less poor. Some of these Kurds have done what the state wanted them to. They have married Turks, or they have decided not to teach their children to speak Kurmanji, the Kurdish language that is most widespread in Turkey. They have taken their place in the mainstream Turkish economy and learned to enjoy Turkish food, pop music, and soap operas. In short, they have become the Turks that the state always insisted they were.

But there is another group, perhaps as large, who have remained in the southeast and in the Kurdish neighborhoods of cities in western Turkey. These people, recalling the humiliations to which they, as Kurds, have for years been subject, or because members of their families have fought against the Turkish state, retain a strong sense of Kurdish identity that has not been weakened by the military defeat that the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) sustained in the late 1990s, when it was forced to scale down its long guerrilla war against the Turkish army; and that has survived the capture, in 1999, of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island near Istanbul.

The pride of such Kurds in their identity has been sharpened by two unexpected developments. First, since the American invasion of Iraq, the Kurds of northern Iraq have established a federal region that enjoys nearly complete autonomy. It runs its own armed forces, decides how to spend its revenues, and maintains independent (if unofficial) foreign relations. This nearly sovereign Kurdistan—inhabited by more than five million people—is a source of pride to Kurdish nationalists everywhere. Second, under pressure from the European Union, a club that the Turkish government has long wanted to join, Turkey passed a series of laws, mostly between 2002 and 2004, which have increased freedom of expression and relaxed slightly the monopoly held by the official Turkish culture. Under these laws, Kurds now have the right to broadcast in Kurdish and to set up private Kurdish-language schools. They are able to articulate their grievances more bluntly and they are physically safer. Following the passage of anti-torture legislation, reports of torture in police stations and jails have dropped markedly.

In August 2005, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, whose mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party has been in power since 2002, acknowledged during a visit to Diyarbakir, the main city of the largely Kurdish region in the southeast, that the state had made mistakes in its dealings with the Kurds, and that the answer to the problem was “more democracy.” Coming at a time when the PKK was stepping up its attacks, ostensibly in reaction to Turkey’s refusal to offer amnesties to PKK militants and to end Ocalan’s solitary confinement, the prime minister seemed to be making a brave effort to soften the policies of repression that have contributed to the Kurds’ discontent for so long. But this rapprochement did not last long.

Three months after Erdogan’s trip to Diyarbakir, the new mood was changed by Turkish actions so cynical and deliberate that they illustrated how hard it is to control military power once it has become embedded in a civilian state. On November 9, 2005, a bookshop owned by a Kurdish nationalist in Semdinli—a town in the extreme southeastern corner of Turkey near the border with Iraq and Iran—was bombed, killing one man and injuring others. The bombers, who were caught soon after the act by local people, turned out to be two agents of the Turkish gendarmerie and a PKK guerrilla-turned-informer. Their identities seemed to confirm the long-held conviction of many in Turkey that some members of the armed forces, afraid of losing the prestige, political autonomy, and big budgets that they have enjoyed since the PKK rebellion gained momentum in the late 1980s, do not want peace at all.

The attack at Semdinli may have been the moment when Erdogan’s democratically elected, moderately pro-European government lost ground to the chauvinist representatives—only partially visible—of what Turks call the “deep state,” and to their supporters in the armed forces. The generals, many of them secular-minded in the tradition of Kemal Ataturk, get on badly with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which they believe is trying to introduce an Islamic republic by stealth. Shortly after the bombing at Semdinli, Yasar Buyukanit, then the commander of Turkey’s army, who had been tipped to become the next chief of the General Staff, the country’s highest-ranking military post, described one of the bombers as a “good fellow,” and this remark was mentioned in the charge sheet that a prosecutor prepared in connection with the bombing. Put under public pressure from the General Staff and its allies in the pliant mainstream press, Turkey’s judicial authorities fired the prosecutor. The bombers received heavy prison sentences and Buyukanit was duly appointed chief of the General Staff. And so the Semdinli bombing, whose instigators Erdogan had promised to punish, “no matter who they are,” was swept out of sight.

After the explosion at Semdinli, the violence continued, not with the intensity of the war that engulfed the region in the early 1990s, but sharply enough to affect Turkey’s internal politics and damage its international standing. Between January and October of 2006, 299 people, the great majority of them militants, were killed in clashes between the PKK and the armed forces—the highest such figure since 1999. In the spring of 2006, at least ten people died in riots that broke out during a funeral in Diyarbakir for PKK guerrillas killed by government forces. For three days, Diyarbakir was ungovernable, as thousands of unemployed young men, many of whom live in the streets and survive by begging and shining shoes, trashed banks, police stations, and shops. In the summer, a group that is an offshoot of the PKK claimed responsibility for planting a series of deadly bombs in tourist resorts. In September, a Turkish nationalist organization set off a bomb in a crowded park in Diyarbakir, killing ten civilians—all of them presumably Kurds.

To many officials of the European Union, the Semdinli bombing and its aftermath showed that such principles as the subordination of the armed forces to civilian authority and the independence of judges were still being violated in Turkey. In June, the Turkish parliament added what the European Commission described as “restrictions on freedom of expression” to the country’s anti-terror law. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark’s conservative prime minister, described as “shocking” a trial, which is still going on, of more than fifty pro-PKK mayors who had urged him to resist pressure from the Turkish government to close the PKK’s unofficial TV channel, Roj, which broadcasts from Copenhagen.

General Buyukanit, as the new chief of staff, looks the part of head of state, and the mainstream Turkish press, which covered in fawning detail his recent official visit to Greece, treats him almost as if he is one. In October, Buyukanit had a sharp exchange with a Turkish party leader who suggested that PKK guerrillas should be encouraged to come down from the mountains—whether in Turkey or Iraq—and take part in politics. “This is a call for a general amnesty,” Buyukanit said, “and I strongly deplore it.” When he publicly criticized the impunity with which Turkey’s main pro-PKK newspaper propagandizes for the organization, a court then ordered the paper to close down temporarily. As the European Commission’s report lamented, Turkey’s armed forces continue to exercise “significant political influence.”

In November, Finland, holder of the rotating presidency of the European Union, announced that it had failed in its efforts to persuade Turkey to accede to the EU’s demands that it open its ports to Greek Cypriot ships, a step that Turkey is prepared to take only if the EU lifts its embargo on the Turkish-run northern third of the divided island.1 On December 11, European Union foreign ministers punished Turkey by slowing down accession negotiations, pending a settlement of the issue, which may still be possible through diplomacy. But as the commission’s November appraisal showed, Cyprus is not the only big impediment to progress in the negotiations, although it is the most urgent.

The European Commission’s report also criticized Turkey for the influence of its armed forces on “Cyprus, secularism, the Kurdish issue, and the indictment concerning the Semdinli bombing.” Reading these criticisms, I thought of two servants of the Turkish state I met during several visits to eastern Turkey over the past two years. One was an army captain; the other was a policeman, or so he told me.

My visits have coincided with a hardening of European public opinion, especially in Germany and France, against Turkish membership in the union; a reaction has been felt in Turkey, where support for joining has greatly diminished. (According to a recent poll conducted in fifteen Turkish towns and cities, 32 percent of people now believe that Turkey “must certainly enter the European Union”; in 2004, that figure was 67 percent.)

Some European governments and parliaments, led by France, regard Turkey’s refusal to accept moral responsibility on behalf of the Ottoman Empire for the massacre of a million or more Armenians during World War I, or to accept that the massacres amount to genocide, as another serious obstacle to membership, even if the European Commission does not officially regard it as one. Turkish nationalist lawyers have become notorious by bringing suits against dozens of writers, journalists, and academics, Orhan Pamuk among them, on charges of “insulting Turkishness.” (Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor who was shot dead by a Turkish nationalist in January, was one of the few Turkish citizens whose trial on these charges led to a conviction and, in Dink’s case, a suspended sentence.)

In Istanbul and other places, visiting European politicians deplore Turkey’s reluctance to resolve legal ambiguities surrounding the ownership of scores of Christian places of worship. And in the southeast, where the EU has long supported enhanced Kurdish rights—although not the PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization—European officials have on occasion recommended legislation that would make it easier for Kurdish parties that renounce violence to gain admittance to parliament, and would oblige state schools in Kurdish areas to offer instruction in the local language.

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    Cyprus was partitioned in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a Greek Cypriot coup that threatened the security of the island’s Turkish minority. In 2004, the year that Cyprus was accepted into the European Union, Turkish Cypriots voted for reunification of the island under a federal system; reunification was rejected by the Greek Cypriot majority, who favor a unitary system with Turkish Cypriots enjoying minority rights. According to Belgium’s foreign minister, the issue of Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports “is being used by countries which are actually against the accession of Turkey, but don’t want to be caught saying that.”

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