PRESIDENT Turgut Ozal's call to lift the Kurdish language ban signals a major shift in Turkish policy toward its Kurdish minority. One motive for the switch seems to be Mr. Ozal's regional objectives after the Gulf war. The president has been talking recently about the possibility that after the war, Iraq's political status might change and that the Kurds in that country might be granted a larger autonomy, perhaps in a federal system.
In a recent closed meeting, Ozal said it would be in Turkey's interests to gain the sympathy of the Kurds at home and abroad, thus serving as a ``bridge'' not only between those people, but also between Turkey and its neighboring countries.
But the president ruled out categorically the idea of giving the Kurds in Turkey any kind of autonomy.
The status of the country's Kurdish minority has provoked such sensitivity among the Turks that even referring to the Kurds as Kurds had been ``taboo.''
The Turkish press has only recently started to use the word ``Kurd'' or ``Kurdish.'' In the past they would refer to them as ``mountain Turks.'' The majority of the Kurds in Turkey live in the mountainous southeastern provinces, near Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the other three countries with Kurdish minorities.
Ozal told a recent meeting of leading Turkish editors that he was the first leader in Turkey to ``break the taboo and call the Kurds, Kurds.'' He said the time had come to change the attitude toward the Kurds and ``carry out reforms'' that would respect their human rights.
The new legislation is not likely to satisfy Kurdish militants whose aspiration is complete autonomy and self-rule.
Nonetheless, Ozal stands to gain political support from the mass of Kurds in Turkey, who constitute nearly one-fifth of Turkey's population of 56 million. Most of the parliamentarians representing Kurdish constituencies hailed the move, regardless of their respective parties.
In fact, the major opposition party, the Social Democrats, welcomed the bill. Their leader Erdal Inonu said: ``It has come too late, but still it is important that this step is being taken.''
The bill, which abolishes a law passed by the military regime in 1983 that made an offense the use of ``unauthorized languages'' - mainly Kurdish - still contains limitations.
While speaking Kurdish as well as singing Kurdish songs in public, and playing records, cassettes, and videotapes in Kurdish will be allowed, the publication of newspapers, magazines, and books in that language will still be prohibited.
Kurdish will not be used in banners and leaflets in public demonstrations, in public offices and courts, or in schools.
Western diplomats here say that Ozal has taken these moves also with an eye to improving ties with the European Community. Turkey has been waging a quiet, uphill battle to gain EC membership since 1987. European organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, welcomed the new Kurdish policy.
The plight of the Kurds in Turkey had been a source of constant friction between Turkey and those institutions, as well as other international human rights groups.
Mesut Yilmaz, a leading member of the ruling party and ex-foreign minister, said the uneasiness felt in some foreign circles about Turkey's human rights record will now end.
The bill lifting the ban was introduced to Parliament after heated debates in the Council of Ministers and the parliamentary group of the ruling Motherland Party.
THE criticism, and fears, expressed by members of Ozal's ruling party centered on the assumption that once the Kurds got this advantage, they would ask for more.
A member of the Cabinet, State Minister Cemil Cicek, said, ``This will encourage separatism . ... Other demands will follow. ... Their next step will be to ask for the status of minority.''
A recent public opinion poll shows that 56 percent of the people approve this new policy, while 33 percent oppose it. To the question of whether this would hamper national unity, 47 percent replied ``no,'' while 41 percent said ``yes.''