Novruz, marking the arrival of spring and beginning of a new year, is being celebrated in Turkey between March 20 and 24, along with other Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. This year’s celebrations in Turkey showed that this cultural event still remains highly contested politically, and reflects Turkey’s challenges over the Kurdish question.
Although its origins are disputed, various cultures and religious groups, including Persians, Zoroastrians, Kurds and Turkish communities in Central Asia and the Caucasus, observe Novruz, though seen as a local tradition mostly among the Kurds in Turkey. During the height of the PKK insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK sought to politicize Novruz by organizing large-scale demonstrations, as part of its overall strategy of mobilizing Kurds against the Turkish state which, in turn, forbade Novruz celebrations. There were annual demonstrations and clashes between security forces and PKK supporters and sympathizers, trying to celebrate Novruz illegally in Istanbul and in Kurdish populated cities in Southeastern Turkey. The period preceding Novruz would often hijack the country’s agenda, caused by, in some cases, militants’ provocation of peaceful demonstrators and an overreaction by security forces resulting in violence.
The Turkish state tried to avoid this accelerating cycle of violence, by capitalizing on growing cultural ties between Turkey and the new Turkish-speaking states in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In the mid-1990s, Turkish government officials embraced Novruz as a "Turkish festival," emphasizing its roots in ancient Central Asian culture, and pre-Islamic Turkish mythology. Since then, state authorities have organized official gatherings, and Turkish statesmen have attended festivities, in an attempt to turn the Novruz into a national event. Recently, cabinet members indicated that they would support a parliamentary motion to declare Novruz as an official holiday (Radikal, March 4).
Consequently the Turkish state, helped by improvements in the conditions of the Kurds, has restored the reputation of Novruz. Indeed, Turkey has taken significant steps to allow greater Kurdish minority rights, such as setting up a TV channel broadcasting in Kurdish on the state-run TRT network. Nonetheless, Novruz still remains a politically significant event for Turkey’s Kurdish population, and Kurdish nationalists resist attempts by the state to co-opt Novruz. Therefore, although scenes of violent clashes are largely absent, the political atmosphere remains tense on the eve of Novruz. This year’s celebrations took place against a similar background. Moreover, the ongoing local election campaigns increased the political importance of Novruz.
President Abdullah Gul issued a message wishing happy Novruz to Turkey and the Turkic world. Although emphasizing Novruz as a shared tradition within the wider Turkish-speaking community, Gul noted, "Turkey is a country where people of different beliefs, languages, ethnic roots and cultures live together in peace, and which is home to different sociological realities and traditions. Our differences and diversity are our country’s greatest source of richness. Therefore, everyone will celebrate Novruz according to his own traditions" (www.cankaya.gov.tr, March 20).
Indeed, proving Gul’s point, Novruz was celebrated "differently" across Turkey. On the one hand, public authorities including ministers and governors attended official Novruz ceremonies in major cities. Minister of Culture, Ertugrul Gunay, hosted the festivities in Ankara, where he called on the Turkish people to forget the bad memories of the past and celebrate such festivals in a spirit of tolerance. Gunay and his guests, including U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, performed Novruz rituals and jumped over bonfires (www.ntvmsnbc.com, March 21).
On the other hand, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) organized activities in around fifty cities, and turned the celebrations into political rallies ahead of local elections. The party leader Ahmet Turk and other party officials travelled to different cities to attend these meetings. The DTP staged a demonstration in Diyarbakir on March 21, which it claimed to be the largest-scale Novruz celebration in the Middle East. Although Kurdish news sources claimed that around one million people attended the meeting (ANF News Agency, March 21), Diyarbakir governorship reported that only 75,000 participated (www.tempo24.com, March 22). During the demonstrations participants carried pictures of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed PKK, and chanted his name.
On March 21, Novruz was celebrated across Turkey through several gatherings organized either by the state or the DTP. Yet, the risk of violence at these demonstrations may have forced the police to increase security measures. Since pressures increased on the PKK to seek a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, the PKK has disavowed the use of violence during these celebrations (ANF News Agency, March 20). Some feared that splinter groups within the PKK not wanting to end the armed struggle might seek to incite violence (Bugun, March 19). Indeed, Turkish police in Istanbul caught a group of PKK militants with plastic explosives, allegedly plotting attacks aimed at igniting social unrest (Cihan Haber Ajansi, March 31). In many celebrations, the authorities did not interfere with either speeches or songs in Kurdish. Security forces arrested some people for carrying emblems of Ocalan and the PKK, but overall the festivities were relatively peaceful.
Turkey’s handling of Novruz with relative calm marks an improvement on previous years. But this also conceals two underlying political tensions. First, despite the Turkish state’s attempts to make Novruz a national festivity, two parallel sets of celebrations in fact reflected continued divisions within Turkish society. Second, the calm revealed ongoing uncertainty about the future of the Kurdish problem. Turkey is currently debating how a peaceful solution to this question might be achieved (EDM, March 17). Novruz demonstrations showed once again that Kurdish nationalists avoid accepting any solution to the Kurdish problem which excludes the PKK and Ocalan. Nor is it clear to what extent Turkey can accommodate these demands. For now, these issues are in abeyance, but such tensions could resurface after the local elections on March 29.