TOPICS > Nation

Conversation on Turkey

February 25, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation about Turkey and the Kurds, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: With me is a journalist who has been reporting from Turkey for the past 11 years. Nicole Pope is a correspondent for the French newspaper, “Le Monde,” and also co-author of a new book “Turkey Unveiled.” She spent time in southeastern Turkey home to many of the nation’s nearly 13 million Kurds. She just left the country last week. Welcome, Nicole. Tell me, what was the reaction like inside Turkey among ordinary Turkish people when the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested? Were the people as elated as the government seemed to be?

NICOLE POPE, Journalist/Author: I think so, yes because Ocalan is perceived in Turkey by most of the Turks as being the one being responsible for this conflict that’s been going on for 15 years. So the government, and certainly the press has been portraying this as being responsible for the death of 30,000 people. So he has been public enemy number one for years.

MARGARET WARNER: And how did the Kurdish minority react? We saw a lot of news coverage here of Kurds living in Western Europe and Europe as a whole, you know, reacting with great anger but we didn’t see much coverage of Kurds inside Turkey.

NICOLE POPE: Well, Kurds inside Turkey these days are rather depressed. They feel a bit defeated. The conflict has hit them hard because the region has been very much impoverished. The repression has been quite harsh too, so basically they want peace at this stage. So they are much less militant than they were. They also feel that the world has abandoned them in a way. They were hoping that the Europeans, they were hoping that the Americans would stand by them and do more for the Kurdish cause. And when Abdullah Ocalan was arrested initially in Rome in November, they realized that, in fact, no one was really going to help them.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying that the PKK insurgency that Ocalan was leading is losing steam?

NICOLE POPE: I think that it’s been shifting. I think that certainly the guerrilla movement in itself has been losing steam for sometime partly because the Turkish army’s operation has been quite successful in the past few years. They have been much more proactive and they’ve really gone into the mountains; they’ve trained special commanders to go after the guerrillas, and this has worked to a large extent. So even before he was arrested, Ocalan was trying to sort of make a shift towards a more political role, and of course this shift is plainly felt in Europe, where there is now a very strong Kurdish diaspora, which is quite vocal and, in fact, more radical than the Kurds in Turkey.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s interesting. Do you think that the arrest of Ocalan will pave the way for some sort of accommodation now between the Kurds and the Turkish government?

NICOLE POPE: Well, it is a golden opportunity. You know, if the Turkish government could now make some gesture, give some cultural rights, maybe the right to have their radio, TV, or some education, maybe it would certainly pave the way for some sort of reconciliation. Unfortunately, the Turkish government feels that the problem is not so much a political problem or ethnic problem but it’s been purely a problem of terrorism. And since they think that with the arrest of Ocalan, terrorism has been defeated, they don’t really feel the need to make political concessions.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think – I mean, you’ve lived there for over a decade — why do you think the Turkish government is so resistant to granting the kind of cultural and linguistic aspirations that the Kurds say they want?

NICOLE POPE: Well, it goes back to history really. I mean, the Turks have not got over the fact that after the first World War, basically the European powers were trying to divide the Ottoman Empire. So every time an outsider comes in and interferes, which is how they see any kind of support for the Kurdish cause, they fear that it’s, in fact, a way to divide the country and they feel that any concessions would sort of lead — would be a step on the slippery slope that would lead to partition.

MARGARET WARNER: How are the relationship between Kurdish and Turkish people – I mean, is it a situation such as between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland? Is it that kind of hostility?

NICOLE POPE: Not at all. In fact, I mean, that’s the interesting thing is that despite 15 years of conflicts, death on both sides and the fact that the Turkish media have generally portrayed the Kurds as being these terrorists, there has been virtually no incidents of communal fighting at all. In fact, they intermarry and live side by side. So it’s not really at this level at all that the problem is. As long as the Kurds are willing to play the game and see themselves as Turks and leave aside their Kurdish identity, they have no — they face no discrimination at all. It’s only when they want to emphasize or claim their difference that they run into these political problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us a little bit about what it’s like in southeastern Turkey where a lot of the Kurds live. And I know a lot of them have also moved into the cities and moved farther West — but when you went down to the region.

NICOLE POPE: About half the Kurds have moved to the western part of the country to the big cities where they are workers. In the Southeast, where it’s a very poor region, it always was – it was mainly relying on agriculture, some trade with Iraq, which of course the embargo has also killed a lot of that trade. But the conflict has really left the region devastated because a lot of agriculture has just died because the villages, some of the villages were evacuated, either because of threats from the PKK, or simply the army wanted to cut off this logistical support that the PKK was getting from villagers. And also, for example, animal husbandry has almost disappeared because they can no longer take their animals to the mountains in the summer like they used to, because that’s where the operation, the military operations are taking place. So, it is a very poor region and a lot of these villagers, who were forced to leave their houses, have now congregated in the bigger cities where there’s virtually no jobs and they live in really poor conditions.

MARGARET WARNER: They are kind of like internal refugees.

NICOLE POPE: Yes. Sort of, yes. Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned that the Turkish government really doesn’t like to hear from western governments about what they should do about the Kurds or about human rights, minority rights. That, of course, doesn’t stop the U.S. Government and others from criticizing. And I was just looking at the State Department’s Human Rights Report from last year and, you know, it detailed a lot of the same criticisms. And this wasn’t just involving the Kurds, but you know a lot of torture goes on and stifling of dissent, and newspapers closed, and journalists jailed. And I guess it’s hard for Americans to understand why a democracy, which Turkey is, a parliamentary democracy, why still such measures are used by the government.

NICOLE POPE: It’s very difficult to explain. And even after all this time in Turkey, I still don’t really understand the mechanism. But really there is a fundamental fear in the government in the state institutions that any — tolerating any form of dissent will lead to some, you know, massive reactions — and that things will disintegrate from then on. In fact, the Turkish population, and indeed even the Kurds, the population never really wanted an independent Kurdistan. So the state was not — the threat was not really that big, I don’t think. And the Turkish population generally is a very steady, hard working population and not at all revolutionary or radical.

MARGARET WARNER: In your book, you wrote about also this great entrepreneurial spirit, business-wise since the mid-80’s. Turkey has really been advancing. I mean, does the middle class in Turkey just turn a blind eye to all of this and think well, that’s what the military government or the military and the government want and we’ll just accede to it?

NICOLE POPE: Well, people have never really known anything else. And there is a great respect for authority in this society, not just for the government, but within the family, I mean there is a great respect for authority. But as people begin to travel more because they become more prosperous, I mean obviously there is an opening in the society, but it’s a slow process. And so far they haven’t really, apart from a few people in the elite, there haven’t been that many people who have called for greater human rights, for example.

MARGARET WARNER: You also said in your book, I found it interesting, that you thought the West had lots of misconceptions about Turkey. And you said even when you came, you realized that you had, I think you said a lot of political and cultural baggage that you brought from your western education. What did you mean by that?

NICOLE POPE: Well, I think that, you know, in Europe, first of all I think most of the history that we learn is sort of based on Greek history, based on, you know, the classical history. So we don’t know very much about Islam to begin with. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam in the West, for example. And people don’t see there are a lot of shades of Islam and in Turkey, for example, it is very moderate. And of course there are things like the film “Midnight Express” which really caused lasting damage and I think that a lot of people still remember it and see just that side of Turkey, which is, of course, a reality but not the whole reality.

MARGARET WARNER: And that was about, as I recall, somebody in Turkish jail or –

NICOLE POPE: Exactly, yes. Someone was smuggling drugs. Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think some of those misconceptions are being slowly erased, or alleviated, or do you think there remains a big gulf between Turkey and the West, even though Turkey is a member of NATO and has been a very reliable ally for the U.S. and the West over the years?

NICOLE POPE: Yes. Well, I think that some of the misconceptions are certainly still there. Of course, sometimes the Turkish government, when it reacts — overreacts to some events, or is not as forthcoming when it comes to reforms as it should be, it only reinforces these prejudices for the U.S., I think the U.S. sees Turkey as — in a different light than the Europeans do because for America, Turkey is essentially a strategic ally. So it’s very much sort of a military ally. Whereas, the Europeans need more of a smooth integration of society, and, therefore, they have more ever a problem with the situation in the society in Turkey.

MARGARET WARNER: Well Nicole, thank you very much.