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Turkey's identity dilemma

A push to expand the rights of Kurds has rattled the foundations of the modern Turkish state.

Patrons linger in an open-air cafe in the Kurdish dominated city of Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, Aug. 10, 2009. (Stringer/Reuters)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Leaving the airport in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, one of the first things that you see is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legendary phrase engraved on mountain slopes in bold, white letters: “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”

For a population that has long struggled to preserve a cultural, if not national, Kurdish identity in the face of a determined effort to eradicate it, the irony is clear enough.

Now, for the first time in its 80-plus years of existence, the Turkish state seems to be addressing the fate of its sizable Kurdish community, delivering perhaps the biggest blow yet to the idea of a monolithic nation state.

In a televised announcement in early August, the government declared that it would expand the rights and freedoms of the country’s Kurds. The statement followed similar, less specific comments earlier this year by President Abdullah Gul, who spoke of a "historic opportunity," and by the army chief, Ilker Basbug, who characterized the Kurdish problem as a test of Turkey's modernization.

Reports in Hurriyet and other Turkish media suggest that the plan could include a general amnesty for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters; enhanced political, economic, language and educational rights; and the reinstatement of banned Kurdish names in towns and villages in the southeast.

Skeptics have been quick to point out that this new resolve to end the conflict was prompted to pre-empt a “road map” that the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, announced via his lawyers on Aug. 15 — exactly 25 years to the date that the guerillas first took up arms. Ever since his capture in 1999, the 61-year-old has said that the PKK is ready to disarm if Turkey is prepared to negotiate — calls which have received little attention until now.

After a quarter of a century of fighting, over 40,000 mostly Kurdish deaths and the capture of Ocalan in 1999, the Turkish government and military establishment have little to show for their efforts. The PKK attracts as many recruits today as it did 20 years ago.

“Everything is related to the concept of belonging. The Constitution tells us that everyone in Turkey must be recognized as a Turk. The official language is Turkish. But that is not the truth,” said Adnan Bilen, news director of Diyarbakir-based Gun TV. “The Kurds in Turkey don’t feel like they are accepted or that they belong to a state that denies them such rights.”

In the past few years, however, Turkey has softened its hard line on the Kurds and made gestures towards a more diplomatic approach — a move that has received wide support from the European Union as it considers a bid by Turkey to join the 27-member bloc.