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Turkey troubled by Kurds

EU presses for reforms, but tensions between Turkish government and Kurdish minority increase.

Kurdish women symbolically chain themselves with a plastic chain as they protest the arrest of Kurdish politicians by the Turkish government. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — A helicopter circled over Istanbul’s Tarlabashi neighborhood as rows of riot police swept through its winding lanes, trooping under the sagging century old apartment facades. Away from the din of traffic, men could be heard shouting along the narrow lanes.

The massive police action was to suppress a demonstration by Turkey’s voluble Kurdish minority marking the anniversary of the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the armed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PKK).

Central Istanbul’s Tarlabashi district used to be largely Greek. But in recent years the Greeks were replaced by another minority judged equally problematic by the Turkish state: Kurds.

The Kurdish population makes up about 20 percent of Turkey’s total population of 74 million and they have been pressing for more rights since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, sometimes using violence.

Although the 14 million Kurds have been engaged in a decades-long struggle for more cultural and social rights, not all Kurds support Ocalan.

“I hate Ocalan,” said Serma Cihangir, a Kurdish housewife staring out of her house at the helicopter hovering over a Tarlabashi flashpoint. “My sister’s son (a soldier in the Turkish army) was killed by the PKK.”

Today, Tarlabashi is a run-down ghetto for Kurds, gypsies and others deemed undesirable, such as African immigrants, heroin dealers and brothels full of transvestites. An armored personnel vehicle guards Tarlabashi’s police station and its officers rarely enter Istanbul’s most dangerous neighborhood. The locals encourage this; they like to keep trouble within the tribe.

“What’s going on?” a foreigner asked a group of stone-faced men clustered outside the police station watching columns of riot police disappear into Tarlabashi’s alleys. “Nothing,” they replied after casting a long look at the outsider. “Maneuvers.”

It was 15 February, eleven years since the day when Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was bundled into the trunk of a Turkish intelligence car in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and flown back to face Turkish justice. On the anniversary, the police banned a demonstration by the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Development Party). A sit-in by some 200 marchers deteriorated into stone-throwing.

“They didn’t give us a chance to march so we sat and protested, made a press announcement,” said Shamel Altan, a Turkish activist working with left-wing parties. “The police told us the reason for the ban was because of Ocalan [the anniversary of his arrest]."

Tensions between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority have increased since December, when the government’s much-trumpeted European Union-mandated dialogue with the Kurds, dubbed the "acilim" (opening), faltered. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan expanded Kurdish cultural rights, launching Turkey’s first Kurdish-language state television channel and exhibiting greater tolerance of Kurdish spoken at official events.

But tensions are mounting as Kurds demand more concessions and the security situation worsens in the Kurdish-majority provinces in neighboring Iran and Iraq.