Kurd Issue Still Divides Turkey

ANKARA (AP)–Life should have been easier for Turkey’s government with Abdullah Ocalan behind bars. As Turkey marks the second anniversary of the Kurdish rebel leader’s capture on February 15–the government’s continuing hard line on Kurdish issues is keeping its European Union membership out of reach.

In the capital of Ankara–coalition partners are deadlocked over whether to allow "cultural rights," such as education and broadcasting in Kurdish–for Turkey’s 12 million Kurds. Meanwhile–in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast–violence is on the rise again.

A fragile peace had mostly held in the region since the captured Ocalan urged his Kurdistan Workers’ Party–or PKK–to halt a bloody struggle for autonomy which had cost some 37,000 lives since 1984. However the peace was shaken on Jan. 24–when unknown assailants shot and killed Gaffar Okkan–chief of police in Diyarbakir–the largest city in the southeast. Suspicion fell on the radical Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah.

The next day–two local officials from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party disappeared after receiving a phone call telling them to report to a police station. They have not been seen since. "Mystery killings" are returning to the southeast–Ilnur Cevik wrote in the Turkish Daily News–reporting five unidentified bodies found in the largely Kurdish Sirnak province.

For the region’s people–it is a grim reminder of the height of the conflict in the mid-1990s–when hundreds of people were killed in unsolved murders. PKK guerrillas–Islamic fundamentalists and state-sponsored death squads all played a part in the violence.

Kutbettin Arzu–a director of the Diyarbakir Chamber of Trade and Industry said–"The government has to give more incentives for companies to invest here." However the government is committed under the terms of its loan agreement with the IMF to keep a tight grip on spending. There is little cash to spare for such incentives.

In solitary confinement on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul–Ocalan has moderated his deman’s to cultural rights for the Kurds – one of the points on a list of reforms laid out for Turkey by the European Union last autumn.

Turkey’s 12 million Kurds do not enjoy the same rights as minority Greeks and Armenia’s. Their language is outlawed in schools and non-musical broadcasting.

The European Union is not likely to invite Turkey to membership talks until such bans are lifted–and some members of the government say they are ready to oblige. “Every citizen in Turkey–in every television broadcast–should be able to speak his or her own mother tongue,” Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has said.

For Cem’s nationalist coalition partners–however–relaxing the ban on Kurdish is unthinkable. “There will be a government crisis if we are pushed on this,” their leader–Devlet Bahceli–warned last month. Allowing Kurdish in schools and broadcasting will lead to deman’s for autonomy–he argued.

The deadlock within the government has delayed Turkey’s national program for meeting European Union requiremen’s and created despair among the country’s pro-Europeans. Poll after poll shows a clear majority of Turks in favor of joining the Union.

The views of Turkey’s army–often the final arbiter of major political decisions–will be crucial. “The generals have shown they are against Kurdish broadcasting and education. On the other hand–they want Turkey to join the European Union. They can’t have their cake and eat it,” said William Hale–a Turkey specialist at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

The army is still in charge in the southeast–with thousands of soldiers on the streets. The European Union wants this emergency rule lifted and also wants Turkey–which has not executed anybody for more than 15 years–to abolish the death penalty.

The most prominent prisoner on Turkey’s death row is Ocalan. Sentenced to execution for treason by a Turkish court–he is awaiting the result of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. A verdict is expected later this year.


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