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September 11, 2012, Tuesday

Stepping back from the abyss

On the Kurdish problem, all alarm bells are ringing, but it seems the authorities are not listening or don't understand what the warnings are all about.

Since the summer of 2011, Turkey has experienced the worst fighting between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the state in over a decade. Hundreds of people have been killed on both sides. Terrorist attacks on civilian targets are slowly creating an atmosphere that reminds many of the 1990s, when Turkey went through a cycle of terror, violence and massive human rights violations.

Although everybody knows and acknowledges that military action and repressive measures will not solve the underlying problem, what we hear from the government and nationalist media these days is a repetition of the angry and aggressive rhetoric that failed to bring the conflict to an end 20 years ago. Let me use two recent examples to make my point that when dealing with the Kurdish problem, Turkey has started to repeat the tragic mistakes of the past.

Last weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave several speeches in which he referred to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). He more or less instructed the judiciary to initiate a case against some BDP deputies for openly demonstrating their affinity with members of the terrorist PKK. The goal would be to lift the parliamentary immunity of these deputies, considered by many as the first step towards the wholesale closure of the party.

With one stone Erdoğan managed to kill two birds: independence of the judiciary and Kurdish political representation. A spokesperson for the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) tried to save the situation by saying that they were already dealing with the case and that Erdoğan's remark was probably a slip of the tongue, because the HSYK does not take instructions from the government. He is fully right on the last point, but I am not sure whether the government would agree with this interpretation of the separation of powers. Let me put it carefully: Appearances are against the prime minister.

The second error was opening the path, both legally and psychologically, to a BDP closure. In the past, all predecessors of the party have been closed down. It only played into the hands of radical Kurdish nationalists, who believe that the Kurds have no democratic means of reaching their goals. It totally undermined the position of those Kurds looking for a political solution. This suggestion also contradicts another speech the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader made last weekend in which he called on the BDP deputies to set a clear course for their work in Parliament and distance themselves from the PKK in the mountains. The prime minister definitively has a point there. But how attractive is this parliamentary option, when at the same time there is a real danger that deputies will be arrested and the party will be closed?

On top of that, Erdoğan's promise that BDP politicians looking for a solution in Parliament will find interlocutors to sit with at the same table sounds rather hollow. If the prime minister really has something to offer the BDP, why does he keep on postponing and placing conditions on his meetings with them? If the government truly believes the BDP is part of the solution, why then have thousands of local BDP representatives and activists been arrested?

In a new report published this week, the International Crisis Group (ICG) lists the elements of a realistic solution. They sound familiar because they have been mentioned so many times before. Even in the absence of a cease-fire, the ICG calls on the Turkish government to address the legitimate and broadly supported demands of Kurdish society for mother-language education, the lowering of the 10 percent electoral threshold, more decentralized local government and removal of discriminatory ethnic bias in the Constitution and laws. Also, the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) and other legislation should be changed to end the detention and prosecution of peaceful Kurdish activists. The ICG believes that Prime Minister Erdoğan is still capable of convincing public opinion that Turkey has no other option than to go down this road. The burning question, however, is whether he is still willing to do so.

The most frustrating problem nowadays in Turkey is the widening gap between the kind of rational and logical steps the ICG is promoting and the heated rhetoric of politicians and parts of the media. Nationalist passions and the inability to learn from the failed policies of the past have brought Turkey close to a new round of violent, dead-end clashes. Who has the courage and the vision to step back from the abyss?

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