Turkey weighs cost of EU integration

A reform package was announced last month, but many say it falls short with respect to minority Kurds.

Dozens of children chase soccer balls along the narrow, potholed streets. Others play in the dust. Small groups of people loiter on nearly every corner.

In some places, Diyarbakir resembles a refugee camp, and in many respects it is. Hundreds of thousands of villagers, forced out of the countryside by the Army over the past few years, arecrammed into this mainly Kurdish city. By every social and economic indicator, it is the poorest region in the country - and the biggest obstacle to Turkey's aspirations of joining the European Union.

The EU has criticized Turkey's treatment of the minority Kurds, saying EU acceptance hinges on fundamental change. But parts of the Turkish establishment fear that implementing economic and political reform might encourage the Kurds to push for autonomy or even independence.

The reality of integration with the West is forcing Turkey to decide just how European it wants to be.

For two decades the southeast was at the center of the brutal conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Since the capture and trial of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the fighting has almost stopped. But promises of massive economic investment have yet to be put into practice, and freedom of expression is still tightly controlled in a region governed under emergency rule.

"The number of killings has gone down compared to a few years ago," says Mehmet Ozal, as he pushes a cart loaded with vegetables along the street. "But in other respects things are terrible, and people are waiting for change."

Last month Turkey released details of a "National Program" of proposed reforms, in line with its bid for EU membership. This massive undertaking has much to commend it, but on crucial political issues like the Kurdish question it falls far short of European expectations.

At the heart of the debate is the right of individuals to use the language of their choice. A few years ago the use of Kurdish was strictly forbidden, even though an estimated 12 million people here are of Kurdish origin. The restrictions have been eased, but many influential parts of the establishment, including the armed forces, believe that is is quite enough.

The National Program states that Turkish is the country's official language, but it says other languages and dialects can be used in daily life so long as they do not promote separatism. But the EU wants much more specific reform. It believes Turkey should allow Kurds to broadcast and educate children in their own language. Nationalists fear that this would reignite Kurdish rebellion and weaken national unity.

The sensitivity of the debate was revealed late last month when Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit ordered government offices to prevent people using Kurdish place names. He called the place names an "attempt to create an artificial separatist movement."

Meanwhile, in this region, hopes have faded that a new era of political liberalization was beginning, and many people in Diyarbakir are bitterly disappointed. "The problem is that people cannot express themselves freely," says the city's Kurdish mayor, Feridun Celik. "The state has to trust its people and respect their cultural diversity."

But walking around Diyarbakir, the limits of official policy soon become apparent. Modern technology has brought satellite dishes to every building, beaming Kurdish language TV stations from Europe.

"Everyone watches Kurdish TV," says one man, who wouldn't give his name. "My mother doesn't understand Turkish. What else do they expect her to do?"

Many pro-European Turks agree that change is long overdue, but there are profound political disagreements about how Turkey should approach reform over the next few years.

Nationalists fear the PKK is using politics to make the gains it failed to win on the battlefield. Mr. Ocalan has certainly changed his tune, and he now speaks from his prison cell of his democratic project. The fact that Ocalan and many other Kurds have begun framing their demands for change in European terms makes Turkey's European dilemma even more acute.

"This is a culture where compromise is often seen as a sign of weakness," says one Western diplomat, "and that makes things more difficult."

A certain amount of soul-searching is inevitable, and the European Union is prepared to bide its time."Things must change on the ground," says the EU's Commissioner for Enlargement, Gunther Verheugen. "We need to see a different reality in Turkey."

But while the EU may be ready to wait for reform, there is much less patience in Diyarbakir.

"We want to live like Americans, like Europeans, like the rest of Turkey," says Hamdullah Aktas, a displaced villager sitting in his small apartment. "We Kurds should have the same rights as everyone else, but at the momentwe're stuck."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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