03 July 2004

Kurdish Rights Improve in Erdogan's Turkey

Stephen Kinzer reports in the New York Review of Books on developments in Turkey since the electoral triumph of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party last March.
In little more than a year as prime minister, Erdogan has proven himself more committed to democracy than any of the self-proclaimed "secular" leaders who misruled Turkey during the 1990s. He has secured passage of laws and constitutional amendments abolishing the death penalty and army-dominated security courts; he repealed curbs on free speech, and brought the military budget under civilian control for the first time in Turkish history. He authorized Kurdish-language broadcasting, swept aside thirty years of Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus issue, and eased Greek–Turkish tension so effectively that when he visited Athens in May, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis proclaimed that the two countries now enjoyed "a relation of cooperation based on mutual trust." ...

No longer is it considered a crime to assert one's Kurdish identity. Kurdish language courses have begun in three cities, and more are to open soon. On June 9 a court ordered the release of Leyla Zana, a fiery advocate of Kurdish rights, and three other former members of Parliament who had been imprisoned since 1994 on charges of supporting Kurdish terror. "I believe that a new period has started in this country," Zana said as she emerged from prison in Ankara, "and a new page is opened." On June 9, too, apparently by coincidence, the state-owned TRT television network broadcast its first Kurdish-language program, a thirty-minute mix of news and features called "Our Cultural Riches." After watching it, Mayor Osman Baydemir of Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city, said it was "very important that an eighty-year taboo, a phobia, has been overcome." Like most Turkish Kurds, Mr. Baydemir strongly favors his government's campaign to join the EU, and he is planning to tour European capitals later this year to lobby for it. He will argue that by admitting Turkey, the EU would be bringing Kurds into Europe, a step that would secure their rights in Turkey and help stabilize volatile Kurdish politics throughout the Middle East.
However, Kinzer does note a few warning signs on the horizon.
What struck me most about Erdogan during our forty-minute conversation was his burning sense of his own authority. He sees himself personally, not his party or his government, as the force driving Turkey today. When we talked about what has happened in the city of Bingol since it was shaken by an earthquake last year, for example, he told me, "I built a new town for four thousand people who lost their homes," and "I built new schools right away, much better than the old ones." Regarding conditions in the former Kurdish war zone, he said, "I am cleaning up all the mines that were planted along the Syrian border." This is not a self-effacing man, not one who is unsure of his mission.
via Gary Farber of Amygdala on Winds of Change

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