MOST Turkish schoolchildren take part in a weekly flag ceremony during which they recite a patriotic chant ending, “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.” The old Ottoman empire was a patchwork quilt of different nationalities and religions, but Ataturk’s Turkey was intolerant of non-Turks, even though the Lausanne treaty of 1923 recognised the existence of Armenians, Greeks and Jews. In his book on eastern Turkey, “Rebel Land”, Christopher de Bellaigue recalls going with a Kurdish friend to meet a local governor. When he tentatively tries to ask about the treatment of minorities, the governor brusquely interrupts to say that “we have no minorities in Turkey.”

In reality Turkey today is a multi-ethnic, multifaith society. Some 99% of the population are Muslim, most of them Sunni. But a minority, perhaps 10-15%, are Alevi, a humanist branch of Shia Islam. Turkey also has deep regional divides and exceptional inequality among regions (income per head around Istanbul is almost ten times as high as in the poorest eastern provinces). It also has some 14m Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims but ethnically and linguistically distinct from Turks. Perhaps 3m of them live in Istanbul, which in that sense is the world’s biggest Kurdish city. But most are in the poor south-east, where they make up 85-90% of the population.

I see no Kurds

Oct 21st 2010The Kurdish question is a festering sore in Turkey. That is in part because successive Turkish governments, egged on by the army, have refused to recognise the Kurds’ existence. Article 166 of the constitution, which remains in force, declares baldly that the inhabitants of Turkey are Turks. For many years Kurds went under the derogatory label “mountain Turks”. Not only was Kurdish culture suppressed, but so was the language. It was banned in education, in broadcasting and even in parliament. In the 1990s, Leyla Zana, a newly elected Kurdish member, was tried and jailed after uttering a few words of Kurdish in parliament.

As in so many countries that have suppressed their minorities, a backlash was inevitable. It came in the form of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), founded by the charismatic Abdullah Ocalan in 1978. Helped for many years by Syria, the PKK has since 1984 waged a long and violent campaign against the Turkish army and state. It has also committed terrorist atrocities, especially but not only in the south-east. The PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation in both Europe and America.

The army’s crackdown in response has been even more violent. Troops and tanks have spread out across the region. Fighter aircraft have bombed suspected guerrilla bases, including some in northern Iraq and Syria. Thousands of suspects have been killed or jailed. A system of village guards was set up, supposedly to fight the PKK but as often to intimidate the locals. At the height of the campaign entire villages were depopulated and 1m people herded into cities.

The grisly details of human-rights abuses, torture and extra-judicial killings in Diyarbakir, Batman, Van and elsewhere have been extensively documented by brave human-rights lawyers and campaigners. The death toll over the PKK’s 26-year-old insurgency has reached 40,000, most of them Kurds. That is more than ten times the number killed during the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland.

Even government officials concede that the Kurdish problem cannot be solved by force alone. The PKK was weakened by the capture and imprisonment of Mr Ocalan in 1999 (he is now held on an island near Istanbul). The level of violence has declined somewhat, and the PKK has periodically declared ceasefires (one is in force now). Yet the organisation is not defeated, and the autonomy won by the Kurdish region of northern Iraq will inevitably give it sustenance. The Kurds’ grievances which the PKK has exploited remain unsettled.

That is not entirely for want of trying. Successive governments have poured resources into the region, believing that the problem is caused partly by the south-east’s backwardness and poverty. The south-eastern Anatolia project (GAP) is the most ambitious and expensive infrastructure project Turkey has ever undertaken; in the 1990s it represented some 5-8% of all investment in the country. It aimed to improve agriculture and provide water and electricity to poor south-eastern villages around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Its network of dams has boosted farm productivity and raised living standards across the region.

Some parts of the east and south-east have also joined in the wider Anatolian economic boom of the past two decades. The city of Gaziantep, in particular, has followed the better-known example of Kayseri into manufacturing. In recent years Gaziantep and much of the surrounding region have also benefited greatly from growing trade with Syria and Iraq (see article). Yet poor education and infrastructure, a deeply conservative Muslim culture and the violence of the PKK continue to discourage investment.

The AK government has tried harder than any predecessor to make amends. Soon after it came to power, it allowed the first ever Kurdish-language television broadcasts. Mr Erdogan has paid several visits to Diyarbakir, the Kurds’ unofficial capital. In 2005 he went so far as to admit to past mistakes, apologise for Turkey’s mistreatment of the Kurds and recognise their legitimate aspirations. He was rewarded with a strong showing for the AK party in the 2007 election, when it won more votes in the region than the main Kurdish party. More recently the government has worked hard to reach an accommodation with the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Yet any Turkish government, no matter how strong, is constrained by two powerful forces: the army and the nationalists. The army resists concessions to the Kurds because it does not want to seem soft on terrorism. Conspiracy theorists also point to evidence of a “deep state” that prolongs the fight against the PKK by staging terrorist acts itself. Nationalists, meanwhile, fret that gestures to meet demands for greater autonomy will inevitably lead to the break-up of Turkey. Both opposition parties, especially the far-right MHP, have fiercely resisted openings towards the Kurds, which is one reason why they win so few votes in the south-east.

Yet in fits and starts, and under pressure from the EU, Mr Erdogan has persisted with his overtures. In mid-2009 his government launched an initiative it called the Kurdish opening, later renamed the democratic opening (and labelled by a local AK official as the “national unity and brotherhood project”). The same year saw the start of the first state-owned 24-hour Kurdish-language TV station. And in a blaze of publicity, the government gave an amnesty to a clutch of disarmed PKK fighters based in northern Iraq, allowing them to return home unmolested.

Sadly, this particular move backfired. Instead of returning quietly home, the PKK men triumphantly paraded in uniform through the streets of Diyarbakir. Turkish nationalists and the army were indignant. The government withdrew a promise to let more fighters return—and the PKK resumed battle. It was widely noted that, on the same day that the nine Turkish civilians killed aboard the Mavi Marmara were given huge media coverage, six soldiers lost their lives to the PKK in the south.

Devolution, devolution

Hard as it may be, more will have to be done to assuage Kurdish feelings. Turkey needs to stop the common practice in the south-east of arresting and jailing elected mayors for allegedly expressing PKK sympathies. As part of a new constitution promised by Mr Erdogan after the next election, article 166 about the inhabitants of Turkey being Turks could be dropped. Allowing Kurdish-language teaching in schools would also be a good idea, but it is controversial. The governor of Batman, for example, expresses cautious support for it, but the governor of Diyarbakir is against. Yet steps like these will be needed if Turkey is ever to get into the EU. And the 1923 Lausanne treaty states clearly that “no restrictions shall be imposed on the free use…of any language.”

Turkey’s regional problems go beyond the Kurdish question. Thanks to Ataturk, the country is excessively centralised. The governors of all 81 Turkish provinces are appointed by the government in Ankara. Over time most have become AK men. Education is still largely run from the centre, on the traditional French model. Given the country’s size and diversity, that may not be the most sensible approach. Turkey now badly needs a debate on more devolution of power to democratically elected local bodies.

What about the army and the nationalists? Mr Erdogan and the AK may now be well placed to call their bluff. By winning the referendum on constitutional changes in mid-September by such a wide margin, the AK government has shown the weakness of the nationalist opposition, especially the MHP. This, and the promise of a new constitution next year, may create an opportunity for imaginative gestures. That the main Kurdish party, the BDP, persuaded so many Kurds to boycott the referendum serves to show again that neither it, nor the PKK, can be ignored.

Ready to bring out the guns again?BDP officials in Diyarbakir dismiss the so-called Kurdish opening as rubbish. The party is wary in part because its predecessor, the DTP, was banned by the constitutional court in 2009. But its success over the referendum boycott reflects its continuing appeal to Kurdish voters. It will win its usual clutch of seats in next year’s election. If AK fails to get a majority, it could do worse than seek a deal (if not a formal coalition) in exchange for BDP support.

That would, however, require concessions such as Kurdish-language education, more power for local mayors and reining in the army. British experience in Northern Ireland also suggests that the AK government may yet have to talk to Mr Ocalan direct. Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawyer with the Human Rights Foundation in Diyarbakir, declares portentously that Turkey is near the “last exit” with the Kurds. But if Mr Erdogan is bold enough to seize the moment, he could yet crown his premiership with a peace settlement in the south-east.