Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 205

The European Commission’s annual Progress Report on Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership, which will be published tomorrow, November 6, will press Ankara to grant greater rights to the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, including its sizeable Kurdish community.

The report will be made public amid continuing tensions over a possible Turkish military operation against camps belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Around 40 members of the Turkish security forces have been killed in PKK attacks over the last month. In a report prepared by the Turkish authorities for a meeting in Kuwait of the interior ministers of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay estimated that there are currently 2,650-2,950 PKK militants in 35 different camps in northern Iraq, under the overall command of the organization’s leadership in the Qandil Mountains (Milliyet, November 4).

Turkish officials were pleased by the strongly worded statement released at the conclusion of the expanded Iraq Neighbors Conference in Istanbul on November 3, which pledged to prevent Iraq being used as a platform for attacks on neighboring countries. However, they remain adamant that they want to see action rather than words, particularly from the Iraqi Kurds, who effectively rule the north of the country (Hurriyet, Vatan, Sabah, November 4). As the conference opened, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) moved to close down some of the offices being used by the PKK in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish officials also played a key role in negotiating the November 4 release of eight Turkish soldiers captured when the PKK overran a Turkish military outpost in Daglica on October 21 (see EDM, October 22). But Ankara still insists that action must be taken to close the PKK’s military camps and extradite the organization’s leadership to Turkey (Radikal, Milliyet, Zaman, Sabah, Hurriyet, Vatan, November 5).

When it first launched its insurgency in 1984 the PKK was a Marxist organization, dedicated to establishing a Kurdish communist state. However, in recent years its goals have shifted to demands for the release of the organization’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured in February 1999, and greater cultural rights for Turkey’s Kurds.

These shifts have run in parallel to pressure from the EU for Turkey to lift its often-draconian restrictions on the expression of a minority identity. Turkey was forced to ease some restrictions when it officially became a candidate for EU membership in December 1999. The reform process accelerated after the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002. However, the restrictions have only been eased, not abolished, and implementation has often lagged far behind changes in legislation.

For example, the AKP has allowed the limited use of Kurdish in broadcasting but introduced tight restrictions on both amount and the content. Even though it is the mother tongue of several million Turkish citizens, Kurdish still cannot be used in the state-controlled educational system, neither as a medium of instruction nor as a “foreign language,” although there are no such restrictions on, for example, the teaching of English as a foreign language or its use as a medium of instruction. In 2003 a handful of private educational institutions were allowed to start offering Kurdish language courses. But they have since all closed down. In February and April 2007, members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) and Rights and Freedoms Party (Hak-Par) were sentenced for using Kurdish during their party congresses. Public statements calling for an independent Kurdish state or autonomous Kurdish region are punishable by jail sentences, regardless of the language in which they are uttered.

The fact that the PKK is using violence in the pursuit of goals similar to those demanded by the EU has enabled the Turkish authorities to “securitize” the Kurdish issue and delay lifting restrictions on the expression of a Kurdish identity on the grounds that doing so would be making “concessions to terrorism.” Indeed, the increase in racist anti-Kurdish sentiments in recent months would have made it very difficult for the government to ease restrictions even if it had the political will (see EDM, October 29).

However, the same argument cannot be applied to the cultural rights of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. The forthcoming European Commission’s Progress Report will complain that there has been no progress in protecting the cultural rights or lives of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. It details the continuing obstacles they face in terms of acquiring property, opening places of worship, education, and the training of clergy.

Although it has been vociferous in its support for the right of Muslims to express their religious identity – most notable in its opposition to the current ban on headscarfed women attending university or working in the civil service – the AKP has been less outspoken in defense of the rights of non-Muslims. In September 2007 Yusuf Kaplan, a columnist for the daily newspaper Yeni Safak, which is very close to the AKP and is owned by the father-in-law of one of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sons, told his readers that Muslims could never be friends with Jews and claimed that Jews were working to undermine Islam in Turkey (Yeni Safak, September 4). More recently, Mustafa Özbayrak, an AKP member of parliament, reacted angrily to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights calling for an end to the religious discrimination against Turkey’s substantial Alevi Minority (see EDM, October 12) by asking: “What do they want? Next they’ll be asking us to grant rights to Satanists” (Radikal, Milliyet, November 2).