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May 14th, 2008
Turkey's Tigers
Report Card: Turkey and EU Membership?: The Kurds

Steven Cook
Council on Foreign Relations

One of the most sensitive issues in Turkish politics is the question of Kurdish rights. In many ways, Kurds are well-integrated in Turkish society. There are Kurds among the ranks of the Turkish business and political elite and Istanbul is the largest Kurdish city in the world. At the same time, however, particularly rigid forms of Turkish nationalism, which have held sway for much of the Turkish Republic’s history, have been unwilling to accommodate Kurdish demands for cultural and political rights. To complicate matters, beginning in the mid-1980s (with only a five-year lull lasting from 1999-2004), the Turks have battled a Marxist-inspired terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which claimed the mantle of Kurdish nationalism.

Despite these vexing and complicated problems, in order to meet the Copenhagen criteria, Turkey undertook a number of important steps to allow Kurds to study (in private schools) in Kurdish dialects, and Turkey’s state-owned television and radio station began broadcasting in the Kurdish language. It is important to recognize, however, that the implementation of these changes has been slow and has often met with resistance on the part of government officials responsible for carrying them out. In addition, successive Turkish governments have neglected the economic development of the predominantly Kurdish southeast — the crucible of Kurdish nationalism.

The Kurdish issue will remain a significant problem for Turkey as it continues negotiations for entry into the E.U. Nevertheless, critics of Ankara’s policy toward its Kurdish minority and its E.U. aspirations should recognize that one of the best ways to ensure a marked improvement in the social, political, and economic position of Turkey’s Kurds is Turkish membership in the European Union.

Dr. John Brademas
President Emeritus of New York University

A dimension of Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union is the Kurdish question. Of the 30 million Kurds, as many as 18 million live in Turkey, eight million in Iran, five to six million in Iraq, and a million and a half in Syria.

Turkey is deeply hostile to the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report declared, “On a key benchmark for European Union membership, the Turkish government has failed to honor pledges to help 378,000 displaced people, mainly Kurds, return home more than a decade after the army forced them from their villages in southeastern Turkey.” In a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 7, 2006, Human Rights Watch asserted that Turkey was using an anti-terror law to prosecute three Kurdish activists who attempted to stage a peaceful protest near the Iraq border.

“This trial… is a litmus test of Turkey’s commitment to reform,” said Human Rights Watch officials, noting that the association of which the prisoners were members was closed last May for doing its business in the Kurdish language, a charge, said HRW, that violated standards established by the European Union Rights Convention, which Turkey agreed to over half a century ago. Human Rights Watch added, “As of November 2005 not a single private broadcaster had been given permission to broadcast in Kurdish.”

In a report issued on July 18, 2006, “Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk,” the International Crisis Group warned that “Turkey, in particular, has indicated it will not tolerate Kirkuk’s formal absorption into the Kurdish region, and it has various means of coercive diplomacy at its disposal, including last-resort military intervention, to blockade the Kurds’ ambitions.”

A peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue would clearly help Turkey in its ambition to join the European Union. Solving the Kurdish question is, of course, not solely up to Turkey.

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