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Step by step, gulf between Turkey and Kurds narrows 10 janvier 2011

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA), January 10, 2011, p. A8

By Sebnem Arsu

For years, Kurds in Turkey knew better than to air demands for more rights in public. In a country that has often valued loyalty to the state above free speech, discussion of placing any distance between the Kurds and the state was tantamount to a prison sentence.

Now, the Web site of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party has published a manifesto that includes a demand for “democratic autonomy.”

No one has been arrested. And although the president traveled to the country’s Kurdish region to try to rein in further talk of autonomy, analysts said that the fact he went at all was the latest sign that the government was continuing its outreach to its most restive minority despite pushback from the nation’s powerful nationalists.

The trip was President Abdullah Gul’s third to the region since taking office in 2007, a drastic shift from the past, when the country’s leaders rarely visited.

The changes, analysts say, are partly the result of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s longstanding policy of trying to reconcile with the Kurds. But it might also be good politics: with a general election just months away and a population increasingly weary of armed conflict, many Turks are ready to make at least some concessions to the Kurds. Reconciliation could also help the country’s continuing efforts to jump-start troubled talks on entry into the European Union.

“The government has the chance of winning Kurdish hearts by quitting the traditional state rhetoric,” said Umit Firat, a Kurdish intellectual. “And in any new formula, both Kurds and Turks are now aware that the outdated principle of ‘everyone is a Turk’ needs to be changed.”

Kurdish militants, meanwhile, have been staging their own public relations offensive. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the P.K.K., has extended a unilateral cease-fire after the group’s violent struggle that lasted more than a quarter-century and cost 40,000 lives, and one of the group’s top leaders, Murat Karayilan, has been arranging interviews with journalists to talk of peace from his redoubt in the mountains of northern Iraq. Many in Turkey are likely to question Mr. Karayilan’s sincerity, but his pronouncements of the need for a political solution follow important moves by the government to quell Kurdish discontent.

A round of reforms in recent years allowed such liberties as the use of the Kurdish language in public, on public television and during prison visits, all of which had been previously banned. Those reforms, motivated mainly by aspirations to join the European Union, were part of gradually improving relations over the past decade.

More recently, the ruling Justice and Development Party has been promising to introduce a new constitution, replacing one that was imposed after a military coup in 1980 and is considered by many to be oppressive. Although the government has not said how the new constitution would affect the Kurds specifically, Mr. Erdogan has promised that changes would be made in consultation with community leaders and nongovernmental organizations.

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Erdogan would consider autonomy for the Kurds, but analysts expect him to at least entertain notions like restructuring election laws to allow minority parties to have greater access to Parliament and allowing wider use of ethnic languages like Kurdish.

Extending the rights of Kurds could help the government in its quest to make further inroads with the country’s 14 million Kurds, including supporters of the Peace and Democracy Party, and allow Mr. Erdogan to work around the party, which the government considers a political wing of the P.K.K.

It is unclear if the changes being considered by the government will meet Kurdish expectations, but with even the P.K.K. talking about peace, the chances for real breakthroughs are greatly improved.

Publicly, the ruling party refuses to negotiate with the P.K.K., which is listed as a terror organization by the European Union and the United States. But behind the scenes, it has been reaching out to Kurdish activists to find common ground on which to build a viable solution.

The government will also have to be careful not to inflame nationalist sentiments, since Kurdish rights remain a politically explosive issue.

There have been setbacks before in relations with the Kurds.

A small group of P.K.K. members were invited by the government to return to Turkey as a political gesture in 2009, which was greeted with such hostility by nationalist groups that the program was abruptly halted.

Later that year, hundreds of Kurdish political activists were arrested on terror charges in an effort to appease the nationalists, and the government has since taken a more cautious tone in addressing the conflict. As recently as last week, the government sounded the same tone: “A single country, a single nation, a single state and the only official language, Turkish — this is the basis of our politics,” Cemil Cicek, a government official, said after a cabinet meeting.

And more violence, following a suicide bombing in Istanbul in October that injured more than 30 people, could chill relations again. Although the P.K.K. said it was not responsible, the Kurdistan Liberation Hawks, a group known to carry out urban attacks on behalf of the P.K.K., later took responsibility.

Still it is clear that the public mood is shifting, as people have been getting used to the relative calm since the P.K.K. declared its cease-fire.

Recently, thousands of Turks staged an unusual gathering in central Istanbul to demand peace with banners that read, “End the operations, establish peace,” and “Embrace your brother, let the peace be.”

“Democracy, for us, is indispensable, and the resolution should definitely be a political one,” Cesim Soylu, a member of the pro-Kurdish party, said, and he warned against violence in case politics failed. “If the deadlock deepens, it is inevitable that forces other than our political party would resort to other methods, which surely also worries us.”


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