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Diyarbakir Blues- English Article

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  • Diyarbakir Blues- English Article

    Diyarbakir blues

    Tuesday, June 06, 2006
    The Guardian - By Ian Traynor
    Turkey faces increasing ethnic conflict and the thwarting of its European ambitions if it does not deal with its 'Kurdish problem'.

    Ancient city of Diyarbakir (aka Amed) - photo from

    Turkey's road to Europe, a former Turkish prime minister once famously said, passes through this ancient, dusty city in the Middle East.

    Diyarbakir may have more in common with Amman, Damascus, or Irbil, not places ordinarily seen on a map of Europe. But it is not difficult to see what Mesut Yilmaz meant when linking Turkey's European destiny to this city of around one million Kurds in south-eastern Turkey.

    For without some committed attempt to settle Turkey's age-old Kurdish conflict, the country's ambitions of being the first Muslim state to join the EU look to remain just that - an ambition perennially denied.

    The mood in Diyarbakir - where I am posting from - is one of sullen, pent-up frustration. The population is almost entirely Kurdish. The only ethnic Turks are likely to be policemen, spies, military or civil servants.

    Since the end of March when the city's youth went on the rampage and were met by Turkish gunfire, tear gas, and truncheons that left 10 dead, hundreds injured, and hundreds arrested and beaten, the city has been on edge, waiting for the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' party or PKK to ignite the next explosion. Just a matter of time, after the worst outbreak of violence here in more than a decade.

    The gloom and anxiety is a far cry from the optimism of recent years when two factors fed the notion that after more than 20 years of conflict, Turkey's modernisation and "Europeanisation" could hold the key to a settlement.

    The two factors were the Turkish transformation signalled by the arrival in power in late 2002 of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) and the country's progress in heading for EU accession.

    Erdogan, a former successful mayor of Istanbul, seemed a different type of Turkish politician - genuine, sincere, modest, and hugely popular.

    More importantly, his conservative administration of pragmatic Islamists betokened a clean break with the republic's tradition of fiercely secularist and authoritarian leaders, an addled elite whose early reformist westernising zeal has slowly ossified into nationalist, reactionary paralysis, turning parts of the Ankara ruling class into a feather-bedded nomenklatura of bureaucrats, military officers, and judges determined to defend their privileges.

    With Erdogan came a positive jolt to Turkey's European prospects and a blizzard of reforms aimed at facilitating integration.

    "The process of Turkey's integration with the EU created opportunities here up until last year," said Hisyar Ozsoy, an anthropologist and aide to the Kurdish mayor of Diyarbakir.

    "We want a 100% that Turkey joins the EU," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a prominent Diyarbakir lawyer and a Kurd. The EU would bring greater rights, greater autonomy, a "democratic republic".

    The air of promise was boosted last August when Erdogan came to Diyarbakir and delivered an unusual message for a Turkish leader. He admitted, to the annoyance of much of the establishment in Ankara, that Turkey had a "Kurdish problem" and said the solution lay in greater democracy, greater rights, greater social and economic development - in short in Turkey's "Europeanisation".

    But since then, very little has happened on the plus side while plenty has occurred on the minus side to indicate that both Turkish hardliners in the security services and among the hard men of the PKK have a vested interest in wrecking any chance of a settlement. Perhaps they have too much to lose from the peace.

    Last November in the south-eastern town of Semdinli, maverick Turkish gendarmes exploded a bomb in a Kurdish bookshop, a provocation that was to be blamed on the rebels aimed at fomenting trouble. Turkish nationalists sued the novelist Orhan Pamuk for "denigrating Turkishness" by talking about the Kurdish conflict, resulting in an own goal for the Erdogan government with the international attention focused on Turkey's curbs on freedom of expression when it put its best-known living writer on trial.

    Since then there have clashes between the army and the PKK almost on a daily basis, while Ankara has dispatched tens of thousands of military reinforcements to the region and to the border with Kurd-controlled northern Iraq where the PKK leadership meets and where it runs training camps.

    The only concession to Kurdish demands for greater rights has been to authorise the broadcasting in Kurdish of censored television for 45 minutes a day. No cartoons or children's programmes, Kurdish officials point out, since Kurdish children in the region have to grow up learning Turkish.

    Many Kurds in the region voted for Erdogan in 2002 and many still credit him with good intentions being stymied by powerful elements in the Turkish establishment whose principal bugbears are "sharia and separatism" and who see Erdogan as the stealthy mastermind of a process that will end with Turkey under Islamic law and the state being broken up.

    But Kurdish leaders and liberal Turks are deeply disappointed that Erdogan has not followed through on the promise he showed in Diyarbakir last year.

    "He can't deliver. He doesn't have a policy," said Soli Ozel, an Istanbul political scientist. "And the PKK suffocates all the others. We've created a monolithic Kurdish political bloc and the government doesn't really know how to handle it."

    Another incident illustrates how the Erdogan government has backed away from initial attempts to engage on the Kurdish issue.

    Back in 2004, Ibrahim Kaboglu, an Istanbul law professor, was commissioned by the prime minister's office to write a report on minority rights in Turkey. He proposed greater language and cultural freedoms for "Muslim non-Turks", code for the Kurds.

    "That was when the doomsday started," he said. His report was shredded, he was forced to resign, and put on trial on charges of inciting hatred. After a six-month trial he was acquitted last month.

    "This government is not interested in human rights," he said bitterly. "And things are getting worse."

    Cengiz Aktar, director of EU research at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, agrees that the Erdogan government has "no genuine Kurdish policy", a deficit directly feeding into the country's worsening EU prospects.

    "The PKK attacks are increasing, there is a resurgence of terrorist actions and the government's response is to bring in a special new anti-terrorism law. Do we really need that? Stability in this country is directly linked to the anchor of the EU perspective. But things may yet get worse before they get better."

    One troubling aspect of the Kurdish conflict concerns how it has changed since the "dirty war" of the 1980s and 1990s. Back then the conflict was essentially a battle between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish state. Community relations between Kurds and ethnic Turks were seldom affected.

    But the war of the 1990s resulted in 1.5 million Kurds in the south-eat being uprooted and dispersed across the country. Many of them headed to the cities of western Turkey where life is better and job prospects rosier. There are now estimated to be some 3 million Kurds in Istanbul alone.

    As the battle lines are being redrawn, tensions are increasing in western cities, leading some to predict a new form of internecine conflict.

    "My fear is that Kurdish nationalists and Turkish nationalists are now interested in communal strife. This is a new situation. It's very seriously grim indeed," said Ozel.

    The Turkish newspapers in recent weeks have reported a series of local incidents, with Kurdish settlers being pushed out of big western cities like Izmir on the Aegean. The southern port city of Mersin, for example, saw an influx of tens of thousands of Kurds in the 1990s as a result of the Turkish army's depopulation campaign in the east. The result in Mersin is that slowly the Kurds are taking over local government and administration, triggering friction with the host community.

    And the dispersal of the Kurds to the west has also resulted in the establishment of a breakaway militant organisation, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, urban guerrillas concentrating on the cities and the holiday resorts of the west, albeit linked to the highland PKK rebels of the south-east.

    While the gunmen of the PKK escalate their campaign, the main Kurdish nationalist political party, the DTP or Democratic Society party, is deliberately kept out of the parliament in Ankara by an election system that requires 10% of the national vote to qualify for the assembly. This skewed system means there are only two parties in the national parliament, Erdogan's AKP and its main secularist opposition, the CHP or Republican People's party.

    The DTP, though, succeeds locally and is running dozens of town halls across south-eastern Turkey. The party, in turn, is regarded as close to the PKK. One Istanbul liberal involved in meetings with Kurdish activists says that when DTP officials show up at meetings they are invariably escorted by PKK minders.

    In Diyarbakir, Ozsoy now says that for the Kurds of Turkey, Erdogan's reforms were merely "cosmetic" and that the dream of EU integration has turned out to be a hollow fantasy.

    Tanrikulu, the Kurdish lawyer who regularly condemns PKK terrorism and violence - a risky proposition in a city where many families have relatives in the PKK - is angry and disappointed with the prime minister.

    "I distinguish Erdogan from the other politicians. He seemed to be genuine and different. But I wish he had not come here and used the words he did. Because he's not determined enough. And in the end, if you don't have a programme, all the words are meaningless. Any politician who dealt with the Kurdish problem in this country has only lost."

    With elections due in Turkey next year, Erdogan is not interested in losing and is unlikely to risk any further concessions to the Kurds for fear of forfeiting votes and angering powerful elements in the security establishment.

    That suggests the situation can only get worse, and with it Turkey's European prospects.
    General Antranik (1865-1927): I am not a nationalist. I recognize only one nation, the nation of the oppressed.