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Turkey: Kurds Drive For Self-Determination Perceived As A Perennial Problem

Istanbul, Turkey, 25 June 1998(RFE/RL) -- The development in Turkey of a modern, civil society has sparked a public debate on ethnic and religious identity issues. These were previously regarded as taboo. The reasons for this interest have been prompted by increasingly open, rapidly expanding private news media, largely independent of government control.

The Turkish Republic is a multi-ethnic secular state with a single official language and recognized nationality. The 1982 constitution, enacted during a period of military rule following the 1980 coup stipulates that "all individuals are equal without any discrimination before the law, irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religions and sect..." The constitution prohibits "discrimination on the basis of language, race, religion or sect."

But the constitution also stipulates "no language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education." It also says the national will has absolute supremacy and rejects "any idea or opinion contrary to Turkish national interests."

In practice, regardless of a Turkish citizen's ethnic and religious origins, the state considers him a Turk.

In the words of one Ankara journalist, "you in the West are lucky that you can express yourselves politically as individuals -- here in Turkey we still can only express ourselves as a nation."

Bookstores in Ankara and Istanbul now offer, however, a variety of new works on Turkey's ethnic minorities and religious sects. Most of the works are on the Kurds, but there are also books on such smaller groups as the Laz, the Pontic Greeks, the Kabardians, the Circassians, and the Kirmandz.

No one really knows the size of any of these minorities. The last national census that took into account national minorities was decades ago, and natural assimilation pressures particularly in the cities, make any extrapolations of old census figures or estimates unreliable.

The Kurds are the largest minority, believed to number between seven and ten million or more than ten percent of Turkey's population. The interest in the Kurds has been strongly influenced by the Kurdish drive for self-determination.

One of Turkey's foremost sociologists, Nilufer Gole, of Istanbul's private Bosphorus University, says neither the authorities nor the public perceive the open discussion about minority issues as a threat. The sole exception, she says, is Kurdish nationalism, which she claims, has made the public debate difficult.

"It is basically Kurdish nationalism which is perceived as a threat because...there is a civil war going on there (in Southeastern Anatolia) which challenges Turkish democracy. But I think this is related to what extent we are going to open up our definition of nationalism to other nations and ethnicities. That is the main issue".

The Turkish authorities have opposed to the Kurds' national aspirations, perceiving them to pose a challenge to Turkey's territorial integrity. The government responded with a military action. It portrays this action as a struggle against a terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), supported from abroad. Turkish authorities and some editorial writers continue to claim "there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey," pointing out that Kurds are not discriminated in public life and that the overwhelming majority of Turkish Kurds are law abiding citizens totally integrated into Turkish society and the country's economic, social and cultural life.

The majority of Kurds have fled strife-torn southeastern Anatolia over the past two decades in search of jobs and normal life in the cities of western Turkey.

The Turkish government intends to pour some $1.8 billion a year through the year 2010 into the depopulated southeast through the Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP) in the hope of revitalizing the economically depressed region by developing agriculture and energy production.

The State Minister responsible for GAP, Salih Yidirim recently told the Turkish media that some 40 percent of the population in the region is illiterate and half the women in the area do not speak Turkish. But he also opposed any instruction in Kurdish, saying it is neither necessary nor a "meaningful instrument to harness technology and science in the 21st century."

Yidirim decried the evacuation of villages in the region and said 80 percent of the Kurds who have resettled in western Turkish cities are unemployed and should go back to farming in the southeast.

Denied access to the domestic media in their mother tongue, the Kurds have turned to satellite TV broadcasts from abroad. One of the most striking scenes in eastern Anatolia are the Kurdish minority's stone houses with satellite dishes on flat grass covered roofs. There have been reports of Turkish soldiers destroying satellite antennae of Kurdish households.

The government claims the civil war has been won, despite continued reports of isolated PKK attacks on civilian targets in the southeast, mopping-up operations by the army and the maintenance of the emergency rule over the region.

The military, which is the force behind Turkey's pluralistic government, were said to have recently started to consider whether to survey ethnic identity in the next national census.