Kurds take their case to Europe

Rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, arrested in Rome last week, is at the center of new political strategy for the Kurds.

First, the Irish Republican Army agreed to a cease-fire in Northern Ireland, paving the way for April's peace agreement. Next, Basque separatists called a truce in September and are preparing for negotiations with the Spanish government.

Now, another rebel group is trying a more mainstream, peaceful approach. Turkey's Kurdish rebels are moving their struggle for self-rule from the mountains, where Turkish government troops have dealt them a severe blow, to the capitals of Europe, where they expect to get political support.

At the center of the struggle is Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who was arrested at Rome's airport Nov. 12. "We have abandoned terrorism and are ready for a peace accord," Mr. Ocalan told the newspaper La Repubblica. "My presence here testifies to a change in the strategy of the Kurdish national movement."

Turkey has requested Ocalan's extradition, creating tension between NATO allies Italy and Turkey, and igniting Kurdish political action in Europe.

Ocalan and his PKK are accused in Turkey of a 14-year campaign of violence resulting in more than 30,000 deaths. The campaign was launched from neighboring Syria, which last month expelled Ocalan. (This fall, two new generals in the chief of staff's office, Atilla Ates and Huseyin Kivrikoglu, have called for increased pressure on Syria.) After leaving Syria, Ocalan then went to Russia before ending up in Rome.

The Italian government is now considering what to do with the PKK leader. Turkey maintains that under existing international accords, Italy should return terrorists to where they caused violence. But Italians say their own procedures forbid the extradition of terrorists or criminals to countries where the death penalty is still in force.

The Turks have prepared a bill abolishing capital punishment, which is expected to be passed rapidly by Parliament. But in Italy, strong voices favor giving Ocalan political asylum, although Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema says Ocalan has to prove he has renounced terrorism to gain asylum.

Many in Italy are prepared to consider Ocalan not as an ordinary terrorist, but rather as a liberation fighter. That is exactly in line with the PKK's new strategy of appearing in the European and international platform as a political movement.

Though the strategy is different, the PKK's aims are largely the same: to gain ethnic rights and independence for Turkish Kurds, who are part of a larger Kurdish group in the region. (See story, below.)

Kurds across Europe have taken up Ocalan's cause, with an estimated 10,000 protesting in Rome Tuesday for political asylum. Smaller protests have been staged across Europe, and some Kurds have gone on hunger strike.

To get political support for its larger causes, the PKK has recently embarked on a worldwide campaign from Canada to Russia to South Africa. The movement has a satellite TV station (MED-TV) in Brussels, and the "Kurdish Parliament in Exile," headquartered in Brussels, is establishing contacts with parliaments and political parties around the world.

This new approach seems to be receiving sympathy from some European circles, particularly when two arguments are raised: that Turkey denies the identity of the Kurdish people and that Turkey's fight against PKK insurgents in the southeast has caused the destruction of entire villages, forced emigration of Kurds, and incurred human rights abuses.

Turkish authorities insist that Turkey is a unitary state in which the Kurds are an equal part. The government, which is facing its own crisis of censure votes, officially considers the PKK a terrorist gang without grass-roots support.

The question is how effective this policy will be now that the PKK is shifting strategy. Some Turks think the time has come for the government to adopt a new policy recognizing social and cultural rights for the Kurdish population. But even this opinion rules out a demand for self-rule in the region.

"We are about to face now the PKK threat from another direction and in a different way," notes political scientist Mensur Akgn in Istanbul. "The politicization of the PKK and its appearance as a freedom movement in Europe and elsewhere requires new strategies by the Turkish government."

. . .Who are the Kurds?

By some estimates the Kurds number 25 million, making them one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East.

They are mainly spread out over five states - Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria - often resulting in a frictional relationship with governments there.

Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims in a society with a traditional tribal structure. The Kurdish language is Indo-European and related to Persian. Traditionally nomadic, many are farmers but some live in the cities.

The 20th century has been marked by efforts for Kurdish independence. The 1920 Treaty of Svres, which divided up the Ottoman Empire after World War I, called for an autonomous Kurdistan ("land of the Kurds"), but it was never realized.

Since 1984, Kurdish rebels waged a guerrilla campaign against the Turkish government.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.