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May 27, 2012, Sunday

Uludere, test case for democracy in Turkey

On the evening of Dec. 28 last year in the Uludere district of southeastern Turkey, Turkish fighter jets, acting on false intelligence that Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants were crossing the border, bombed and killed 34 Kurdish villagers of Turkish nationality. They were mostly teenagers, back from Iraq on a tour of smuggling cigarettes, diesel oil and the like packed on mules. Despite promises by the government to find and hold to account those responsible for this “operational mistake,” no progress has been made in the investigation in the five months that have elapsed since the incident.

Developments concerning the Uludere tragedy are increasingly becoming a test case for the future shape of the regime in Turkey. The initial statement by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the Uludere incident (alluding to many criminal cases in the past which have remained in the dark) was, “This will not, cannot get lost in the murky passages of Ankara. Turkey is no longer old Turkey. Whoever is responsible cannot get away with it…” As it stands today, the growing impression is that there is an effort to cover up the crime committed in Uludere, and make sure it's lost in the murky passages of Ankara. The indications, unfortunately, are that Turkey increasingly resembles “old Turkey.”

The strongest sign in that direction came from the Minister of the Interior İdris Naim Şahin, PM Erdoğan's trusted man, who does not hesitate to speak his mind. He said last week that the order to bomb was issued by commanders of the Air Force in Ankara, that the villagers in question if caught would have been prosecuted for smuggling, the goods they were smuggling were supplied by the PKK, they were thus simply pawns of the PKK and there was nothing to apologize for.

PM Erdoğan had admitted that the order to bomb was given without his knowledge, and that the Armed Forces had used the authority extended to it by the government. The minister of the interior was now saying it was the Air Force commanders who gave the orders. If Turkey claims to be a democracy, it is the government which is responsible for the “operational mistake.” The leader of the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) is absolutely right. The authority to stage cross- border military operations are given to the government by the Parliament and the government can in no way delegate that authority to the Armed Forces. The government has to account for Uludere, and the indispensable first step in that context is that a formal apology is issued by the government to the families of the slain villagers.

Although PM Erdoğan has only expressed his sorrow for what has happened and did not formally apologize, he has started saying “we have apologized,” while the minister of the interior says there is no need to apologize since the villagers killed were just pawns of the PKK. And Erdoğan says in what seems to be approval: “No one can present smuggling as a legal activity. … No one should exploit this issue, the media included.” What the minister of the interior and the PM are saying amounts to declaring the villagers of Uludere, who are known to belong to families employed by the state as village guards in the fight against the PKK and to routinely engage in smuggling by tacit approval of the authorities, guilty for the massacre they were victims of.

The PM says both the judicial and administrative investigations into the incident are continuing, but neither the special prosecutor in Diyarbakır nor the parliamentary commission in Ankara have received the information they requested from the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

The tragedy that took place in Uludere, is a test for whether Turkey will revert to old or advance towards new Turkey. The questions raised by Uludere are the following: Will Turkey move forward to achieve, in the words of PM Erdoğan, an “advanced democracy” or fall under increasingly arbitrary rule? Will it continue to suppress the common democratic demands of its Kurdish citizens or move to meet those demands through dialogue and negotiation? Will it grow stronger by achieving a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem or regress towards disintegration?

Turkey strengthening itself by passing the Uludere test depends more than anything else on the attitude of those members of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in power, who are conscientious and committed to democracy.

Previous articles of the columnist