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Turkey: PKK Considers New Phase In Struggle For Kurdish Rights

By Jean-Christophe PeuchJean-Christophe Peuch

The Kurdistan Workers Party, Turkey's most notorious neo-Marxist guerrilla group, says it will abandon its name as part of a campaign to achieve its objectives through legitimate and peaceful means. The party, which Ankara has banned on charges of separatist activities, appears resolved to break free from its violent reputation in a bid to regain influence over Turkey's 12-million-strong Kurdish minority.

Prague, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL)) -- The outlawed Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym of PKK (Partiya Karkeri Kurdistan), has announced plans to restructure and engage in a peaceful struggle for Kurdish rights.

A PKK statement published on 6 February in German-based Kurdish media said the party's leadership "deems it necessary to stop political, organizational, and practical activities under the PKK banner, especially in Turkey and European Union countries." The communique said that, after the 11 September terrorist attacks, the PKK and the Kurdish people do not wish "to be associated with oppression, division, and terror, but with democracy, peace, and freedom."

The party said a final decision regarding its new name, statutes, and objectives will be made at a forthcoming congress.

On 25 March, Turkish media quoted intelligence sources as saying the congress took place recently at an unspecified location in northern Iraq. The reports said the PKK decided to change its name to the People's Freedom Party, or PAG (Partyia Azadiya Gelan).

Contacted by RFE/RL, a leader of the Kurdish National Congress, who identified himself only as Adam, would neither confirm nor deny that a PKK congress took place but said no decision has been reached regarding the party's name.

Adam said the decision to change the party's focus was prompted by a reassessment of the situation both inside and around Turkey: "The first reason is that the PKK wants to give a new impulse toward the solving of the Kurdish issue and wants to widen its platform. Secondly, a lot of things have changed in the world over the past decade. The world has changed, and the old order is no longer here. A lot of things have changed in Turkey itself, even among Kurds. The PKK wants to renew itself because it has been set up under specific circumstances that no longer exist."

Officials in Ankara dismiss the PKK's decision to change its focus as a ploy. Justice Minister Sami Hikmet Turk said he doubts the PKK transformation is genuine: "It is very unlikely that by changing its name, [the PKK] will change and change its objectives. I see it as a new attempt on the road toward its politicization."

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Bucharest on 26 March, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit described the initiative as an attempt to mislead European countries: "The PKK wishes to enter a reorganization process aimed at concealing its true personality as part of a camouflage effort. On this issue, it has found some support in Europe. But, all in all, the EU is well aware of [the situation]."

The PKK was founded in 1978 by a 30-year-old Ankara university student known as Abdullah Ocalan with the aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan in Turkey's southeast. To counter the dramatic increase in anti-Kurdish moves that followed the 1980 military coup in Ankara, the PKK intensified its activities and, starting in 1984, launched a 15-year guerrilla war in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish provinces.

Fighting between Turkish troops and armed separatists left an estimated 35,000 dead -- mostly Kurdish fighters and civilians -- until Ocalan was arrested in Kenya in early 1999 and handed over to Turkish authorities. In June 1999, Ocalan was sentenced to death on charges of high treason and locked in a high security jail on an island in the Sea of Marmara, where he is awaiting execution.

During his trial, Ocalan urged his followers to lay down their weapons. Most Kurdish fighters went into hiding in Iraq and Iran. Turkey, which did not recognize the cease-fire, continued to carry out security crackdowns in its Kurdish provinces as well as incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of PKK fugitives.

David McDowell is a U.K.-based historian specializing in Kurdish affairs. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said the 5,000 armed PKK activists who Turkey says have sought refuge in Iraq, Iran, and Syria no longer represent a threat to Ankara.

"I don't think [the PKK] represents a threat at all to Turkey. If I was the Turks, I would be much more worried about the idea of Kurdish identity as a real 'danger' to Turkey, not the PKK. I think that the ideas that have been generated by the PKK are much more 'dangerous' than the PKK itself. I think that the Turks have got a major problem on their hands that will not go away by repression," McDowell said.

The majority of PKK militants and sympathizers are now based in Europe, notably in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Romania, and Bulgaria. The party legally operates in Western Europe through affiliated groups and political organizations.

Since 11 September, Turkey has been trying to convince Western countries to officially consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Only the U.S. and Britain have so far agreed. As for the European Union, into which Ankara is seeking admission, it has refused to do so, prompting angry reactions from Turkish politicians and army officials.

Turkey, which refuses to recognize the Kurds as a cultural minority, is being pressed by the EU to grant them greater civil liberties -- especially the right to broadcast in their own language -- as a prerequisite to start accession talks. EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said recent constitutional amendments on the issue are an improvement but that they still fail to meet European human rights and democracy standards.

Nationalists in Ecevit's coalition government claim that legalizing Kurdish identity might foster separatism and break up the country along ethnic lines. Most Turkish politicians and military leaders insist the PKK should be eliminated before giving in to Kurdish demands.

British historian McDowell believes Turkish leaders are making a mistake by trying to solve the Kurdish issue through coercion:

"I think that [the Turks] make a very serious error of judgment because it strikes me that the problem is no longer a military one. It is a much deeper, more intractable one. The PKK, whilst being defeated on the battlefield, has actually won the much more important struggle about creating national consciousness amongst a large proportion of the Kurdish people in Turkey. And I think this feeling is unlikely to disappear. If the Turks don't do something about this in a positive way, I think they're going to have all sort of troubles in the future. I think that Turkey's obsession with military solutions just misses the point," McDowell said.

Turkish authorities have given mixed signals on how far they would be ready to compromise with the EU on the Kurdish issue. On 14 March, Ecevit said the National Security Council -- Turkey's main decision-making body through which the army wields significant influence over politics -- would discuss soon a proposal to allow limited broadcasting in the Kurdish language on state television.

Yet, authorities continue to close down media outlets broadcasting in languages other than Turkish. In addition, dozens of Kurdish students who were petitioning for education in their native language were arrested recently and charged with separatist activities. Prosecutors have also increased pressure on the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party, or HADEP, demanding its closure on the grounds that it is a front for the PKK.

HADEP officials are routinely imprisoned despite their party's legal status. They deny links with the PKK and say their main objective is to seek greater cultural rights for Turkey's 12 million Kurds.

Although HADEP runs three dozen municipalities in Turkey's Kurdistan, including the main city of Diyarbakir, it has no representative in the national parliament. Analysts believe the party represents a much greater force than the PKK.

Hamit Bozarslan is a Turkey analyst at the Paris-based School for Higher Studies in the Social Studies. He told RFE/RL that, although the PKK has been instrumental in fostering Kurdish identity, it no longer carries much weight in the local political arena: "I believe the PKK is no longer in control of the situation. The main change that has occurred in Turkey's Kurdistan is that, up until two years ago, there was one centralized actor, one reference player whose name was the PKK. Now I have the feeling that there is a fragmentation process going on -- which, by the way, could be salutary -- that various initiatives are coming into life. They emanate from civil society; from municipalities that are not controlled by the PKK; from human rights groups that are not supervised by the PKK; and from students, businessmen, and lawyers who are not supervised by the PKK."

Bozarslan believes the PKK -- even if it does decide to adopt new forms of struggle -- is unlikely to regain its influence. He also said that, if Turkish Kurdistan's plea for greater rights continues to remain unheeded in Ankara, many Kurds might be tempted to join groups with more radical views than the PKK, such as the Islamic Hizbullah.

(Radio Free Iraq's Sami Shoresh contributed to this report.)