A Kurdish Politician Puts Erdogan In A Tough Spot

For years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has positioned himself as a champion of the ethnic Kurds who make up one fifth of Turkey's population. He's spoken Kurdish at election rallies and on television, eased restrictions on the use of the language in public and, with more than a little encouragement from the European Union, pushed through laws that allow education and broadcasting in Kurdish. But last week Erdogan found himself on the spot when an ethnic Kurdish parliamentarian, Ahmet Türk, addressed Parliament in his native language. "Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language," he said as he switched from Turkish to Kurdish. "I promised myself that I would speak in my mother tongue at an official meeting one day."

State TV immediately stopped broadcasting the speech. Turkey's hard-line nationalists, who accuse Türk and his Kurdish-based party, the DTP, of abetting terrorists, rose in uproar. "The seeds of separatism, which were hailed by Erdogan in Kurdish on state television, have started to grow," said Devlet Bahçeli, head of the Nationalist Action Party. "The prime minister's new Kurdish initiative has immediately found its ground in the separatist groups."

Now Erdogan faces an impossible decision. Local elections are approaching, and Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) badly needs Kurdish votes if it is to win. But if Erdogan backs the scrapping of all restrictions on the Kurdish language to please Kurdish voters and Europe, he risks alienating mainstream AKP voters—many of whom strongly oppose Kurdish separatism. Equally important, the AKP is just recovering from a yearlong constitutional wrangle with Turkey's ultrasecularist judiciary, which tried to close down the party and ban its leaders from politics for overturning a prohibition against wearing Islamic headscarves in universities. Though the AKP eventually won the dispute, the party emerged chastened, and reluctant to provoke the establishment into further showdowns. Many Turks, and especially the politically powerful military, believe even limited Kurdish rights threaten Turkey's unity and the vision of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who insisted that every citizen of Turkey be a Turk.

Erdogan can't afford a showdown with the Kurds either. Aside from his need for their votes, Ankara's relations with the Kurds of northern Iraq are just beginning to normalize after years of tension and a Turkish military incursion last year. In February officials from Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan began working together in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil to coordinate efforts and share intelligence in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which last year mounted a series of bloody raids on Turkish troops from camps inside Iraq. Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast is still volatile, too, after a series of riots last year in protest of various grievances including language rights and frustration at the slow rate of return of the estimated 1 million Kurds forced out of their villages by the Turkish Army's anti-insurgency campaign against the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s.

Small wonder that Erdogan often seems to be trying to be all things to all people. Last November he raised nationalist cheers at a rally in Ankara by saying, "We have one nation, one flag, one motherland, and one state ... Those who oppose this should leave." Meantime, he recorded a welcome message last month in Kurdish to mark the opening of a 24-hour Kurdish-language channel on the state-owned TRT 6 network. Several AKP parliamentarians followed his lead, appearing on the new channel speaking and even singing in Kurdish. Last week Erdogan promised an ecstatic crowd in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, that he planned to invite back to Turkey Sivan Perwer, a legendary Kurdish folk singer living in exile since 1976.

Erdogan has little choice but to come up with a hedge yet again. But the scandal over speaking Kurdish in Parliament shows just how far Turkey has come. In 1994 Kurdish parliamentarian Leyla Zana was jailed for treason for taking her oath of office in Kurdish and spent a decade in prison. Türk, the legislator who provoked the latest controversy, faces no punishment. And Erdogan's support for the singer Perwer's return is also revolutionary—in 1999 a television producer was sentenced to five years in prison for playing "Mihemedo," Perwer's most famous song, on a local TV station. Now "Mihemedo," a ballad about a Kurdish solider in the Ottoman Army, is TRT 6's theme tune. Erdogan may be an inconsistent and reluctant champion of Kurdish rights—but he's done more for Turkey's Kurdish minority than years of armed insurgency.