Kurdish Bid for Autonomy Troubles Turks

A RECENT cartoon in Turkey's leading newspaper depicts a crowd of Kurdish refugees standing in the shape of a wedge. The caption reads: ``The slice of the Mideast cake that George Bush gave to Turkey.'' At the outset of the Gulf crisis, President Turgut Ozal reassured his country that Turkey would ultimately get a goodly ``slice of the Mideast cake.'' He envisioned more aid from the United States, and a larger strategic role in the region.

Opposition critics have been quick to point to the irony of a massive Kurdish refugee crisis on Turkey's doorstep. ``Ozal repeatedly stated during the [Gulf] crisis that Turkey would receive three dividends for one that it invested,'' says Suleyman Demirel, an opposition leader and former premier. ``Yes, Mr. Ozal, you have put one, and got 440,000 ... refugees!''

The Turks first attempted to stop the massive influx of refugees, but later were obliged to provide shelter, food, and other services to them. As the cost of relief rose to nearly $2.5 million a day, Ozal called for international support.

But costs of aid are only a part of the Kurdish question. The influential newspaper Cunburiyet said in a recent editorial that the ``political aspect of the issue is now reaching larger dimensions, and becoming a source of greater concern.''

The autonomy question

Among several factors worrying the Turks is a belief that the West wants to help Kurds in Iraq obtain full autonomy, in a confederal or federal system. Many Turks think creation of a safety zone, north of the 36th parallel, would end in establishment of an autonomous region.

The West has long aspired to meet Kurdish nationalist demands, and the refugee problem has aroused worldwide pity and is becoming a vehicle to carry out that desire, says Ugur Mumcu, a Turkish political scientist.

Bulent Ecevit, former prime minister and leader of the Democratic Left Party, says the West seems bent on creating a Kurdish state, sympathetic to them, in order to set up a new political balance in the region, ``and also to put Turkey under continued pressure.''

Another Turkish concern is the possible creation of an autonomous region in Iraq that would have a poltical spillover into Turkey's communities of 12 million Kurds, and that Kurdish militants might make similar demands.

Government officials say living conditions for their Kurdish population bear no resemblance to those in Iraq, and that granting local Kurds autonomy and other rights is out of the question.

``The question of autonomy in Iraq is that country's internal affair,'' says Foreign Minister Kurtcebe Alptimucin. ``We don't want to interfere in that. But there is no analogy between their situation and ours.'' Officials admit privately, however, that creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq could threaten Turkey.

Responding to reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had agreed to give greater autonomy to Kurdistan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Murat Sungar said: ``If this agreement leads to prompt return of refugees to their homes, it is to be welcomed. As to political significance of autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds, this is their business, and this does not set an example for others.'' Finally, senior officials, and political leaders worry that establishing refugee camps on both sides of the border might r esult in camps that eventually resemble Palestinian camps in the Israeli-held territories in Lebanon and the occupied-West Bank and Gaza. Hence, the Ozal administration's insistence that the safe havens should be set up temporarily and that all efforts should be deployed to transfer the refugees to their homes.

Creating a new `Palestine'?

Turkish concern over the ``Palestinization'' of Kurdish camps revolves around the belief that these become recruiting centers or bases for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), whose guerrillas have been involved in terrorist activities.

A longer-term implication is that such camps might become a new source of discord between Turkey and the West, if the West supported Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Several Turkish politicians and commentators have recently expressed suspicion that the West might back creation of an independent Kurdish state on Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish territory.

``If that will be the case, Turkey's relations with the West will seriously deteriorate - even more than they did during the Cyprus crisis,'' a Turkish diplomat says.

That, of course, would likely wash away any gains expected from the Gulf crisis.

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