Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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Political aftershocks in Turkey

By Gareth Jenkins

As Turks continue to clear away the rubble and bury the dead from last month's devastating earthquake, new hopes are rising from the grief and destruction, not only for an end to the bloody 15-year-old struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but also for the creation of a more liberal, tolerant society.

The Turkish state's failure to respond effectively to the 17 August earthquake attracted unprecedented public criticism. As local people and foreign rescue teams worked side by side pulling survivors from the ruins, the slowness of the Turkish government's response, and its prickly aggression in the face of criticism, left the state looking not only inefficient but somehow outdated.

"There is a new Turkey now," declared a disc jockey on Istanbul's leading private radio station Power FM last week. She dedicated the next record to "all those ministers and the others who are stuck in the past", and played a song entitled "Bye, Bye, Baby".

Even Turkey's powerful military appear to have caught the mood. On 2 August when imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his followers to renounce the armed struggle and withdraw from Turkey, the Turkish authorities remained sceptical. Several dismissed it is a tactical move designed for Western public opinion, noting that the PKK had previously twice announced and then broken ceasefires.

But on 1 September Osman Ocalan, younger brother of the imprisoned PKK leader and one of the most influential figures on the Presidential Council which has been running the organisation since Ocalan's capture, told the pro-Kurdish Medya-TV: "We are laying down our weapons, never to take them up again. The PKK will never fight again."

The following day at a press briefing the Turkish Chief of Staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, commented: "The PKK have accepted that they cannot get anywhere with guns. They are thinking of a political solution. What they want are some cultural rights. Some of these have been granted anyway. Kurdish newspapers and cassettes are already allowed."

It is a sign of how rapidly attitudes have changed in Turkey that not only did Kivrikoglu avoid ruling out even more cultural rights for the Kurds, given that only 10 years ago the Turkish government denied the existence of Kurds. Even to use words such as "Kurd" and "Kurdish" was forbidden by law.

Kivrikoglu remained cautious about whether the PKK really would withdraw from Turkish territory. "We shall have to wait and see," he said. But he gave the first indication that the military would not object if the Turkish government decided not to implement the death sentence passed on Abdullah Ocalan in June.

"The decision as to whether to implement it or not should be taken in line with the long-term interests of the country," he said. "The armed forces are a party in this conflict. Our reaction is going to be emotional. Don't ask us about it. Let the politicians decide."

Kivrikoglu's statement stunned the PKK leadership. "The solution he envisages is close to our solution," said Cemil Bayik, one of the most hard-line of the PKK's field commanders. "It was unthinkable for the Turkish state to immediately respond to the steps taken by the PKK. We did not expect it."

Further encouraging signs came from other branches of the Turkish establishment. In a speech last week to mark the opening of the new judicial year in the presence of the president, prime minister and chief of the general staff, Turkey's Chief Justice Dr Sami Selcuk declared: "Every culture has a value. Cultural discrimination is a crime against humanity. I want to see a pluralist democracy in Turkey."

Selcuk continued by launching an unprecedented assault on the Turkish constitution, which was introduced in 1982 under military rule. "Turkey has a constitution. But it is not a constitutional state," he said. "Turkey should not enter the new millennium with a constitution whose legitimacy is close to zero."

Selcuk also called for reform of Turkey's draconian restrictions on freedom of expression. "Citizens are not obliged to think in line with the state," he said.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was quick to agree. "It is time to change the constitution," he said. "The earthquake demonstrated that there are some requirements in this regard. As soon as we have done everything for the victims of the earthquake, then we must change the constitution."

But, while it is prepared to countenance the expression of Kurdish identity within a unified Turkish state, the military has made it very clear that secularism remains taboo.

"The struggle against Islamic fundamentalism began over 70 years ago with the foundation of the republic," said General Kivrikoglu. "And it will continue for another hundred, or even a thousand, years if necessary."

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