Over a period of four days from March 21-24, two people were killed and several hundred injured in clashes with Turkish security forces, as hundreds of thousands of Kurds took the streets to celebrate the Kurdish New Year of Newroz. No reliable figures are available for the number of demonstrators detained by the security forces, although Turkish media reports suggest that several hundred were taken into custody (Hurriyet, Radikal, Cumhuriyet, Milliyet, Yeni Safak, NTV, CNNTurk, March 22-24).
Newroz is not an exclusively Kurdish holiday. It is celebrated on March 21 each year from the Balkans through the Caucasus and Iran and across Asia into northern China. However, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Newroz celebrations were banned in Turkey on the grounds that they encouraged Kurdish separatism. Attempts to mark the holiday were broken up, usually violently, by the security forces. In 1992 over 60 people were believed to have died in clashes with the Turkish security forces during Newroz celebrations.
The situation changed in 1995 when the Turkish authorities decided to rediscover Newroz as “Nevruz,” an authentically Turkish spring holiday with its origins in Central Asia. Although Kurds continued to be prosecuted if they referred to it as Newroz rather than by its Turkish name, the authorities not only began to allow celebrations, but state officials joined in the traditional Newroz ritual of jumping over a fire to symbolize rebirth and renewal.
Initially, the strategy of appropriating Newroz appeared to have worked. During the late 1990s, most of the celebrations passed peacefully, and killings and arrests became relatively rare. However, the newly rediscovered festival of Nevruz failed to capture the imagination of most ethnic Turks, who still regarded it as essentially a Kurdish celebration. In recent years, violence at Newroz celebrations has begun to rise again. The main reason is that participants have increasingly begun to use the festival not just as a public demonstration of their Kurdishness but of their support for the PKK. There is also little doubt that the opportunity has been deliberately exploited by the PKK itself, for whom newspaper photographs and television footage of defenseless demonstrators being beaten and sometimes killed by the Turkish security forces are a propaganda gift.
Significantly, the worst of the recent clashes – and both of the deaths – occurred in southeast Turkey in cities such as Van, Yuksekova, and Hakkari, which have long been hotbeds of PKK support and where the authorities banned any Newroz celebrations this year for fear that they would be hijacked by the organization. But demonstrators gathered anyway, chanting pro-PKK slogans, waving PKK flags and holding posters of the organization’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan. The result was several days of rioting. In Hakkari, life virtually ground to a halt. Stores remained closed and shuttered for three days as the streets became a battleground between stone-throwing youths and members of the security forces (Radikal, Hurriyet, Milliyet, Zaman, March 22-24).
But there were also clashes at Newroz celebrations between PKK supporters and the security forces in the cities of western Turkey, which all now have their own substantial Kurdish populations as the result of migration from southeast Turkey. In Istanbul, which in terms of sheer numbers is now the largest Kurdish city in the world with perhaps up to 4 million ethnic Kurds among its total population of 14 million, more than 100,000 Kurds gathered in the Kazlicesme neighborhood, some of them chanting pro-PKK slogans and carrying banners with portraits of Ocalan (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal, NTV, Dogan Haber Ajansi, March 24).
The Turkish authorities took the opportunity of the Newroz demonstrations to flex their ideological as well as their military muscle. Both in the southeast and in Istanbul, where 10,000 police were assigned to the Kazlicesme demonstration alone, members of the Turkish security forces marched through the streets chanting slogans such as: “Everything for the motherland”; “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk”; “Every Turk is born a soldier”; and, in a reference to Kurdish demands for education in their native language, “One state, one language.”
It is currently unclear whether such attempts at intimidation will do anything either to reduce support for the PKK or to defuse Kurdish demands for greater political and cultural rights. But Turkish television footage of young, male demonstrators clashing with the security forces at Newroz coincided with the publication of a study by the state-owned Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat) on the median age of the Turkish population by geographical region. The results suggested that the median age of the Turkish population rises steeply as one moves from the east to the west of the country. Turkstat reported that, in the predominantly Kurdish provinces of southeastern Turkey, the median age was in the range 17.4 to 21 years, rising to 31.8-35.4 years along the Turkish Aegean coast. The median age in Istanbul was in the range 28.3-31.8 (Radikal, March 23).
The southeast of Turkey has also long been the most underdeveloped region of the country. In some provinces, per capita income is less than 20% of the national average. In many of the cities of southeast Turkey the unemployment rate among young people often reaches 50-60% (see EDM, March 18). As has been once again demonstrated by the clashes during Newroz, the combination of ethnic unrest, poverty, a young population, and a high rate of unemployment is rarely a recipe for social stability.