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Turks Grow Wary In Easing Up On Kurds

Just last August, Turkey lifted the ban on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language. The parliament's vote to do so represented a push for social change - and a shove from the European Union (EU), which Turkey hopes to join.

But Kurds, who make up as many as 20 million of Turkey's 68 million citizens, say the changes are not being implemented quickly enough.

Here in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, which borders Iraq, many are worried that their drive for more civil freedoms will be set back by a US-led war against Saddam Hussein. Turkey's Kurds have benefited in the last three-plus years from a dissipation of hostilities after Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the banned PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], was captured and convicted - and called on his comrades to lay down their arms.

It seems to me that impending war ought to be a motivation for Turkey to accelerate the lifting of restrictions on Kurdish language and culture. The fear is of a separatist movement wanting to turn eastern Turkey and northern Iraq into an independent Kurdistan, or at least use force to win autonomy within the existing nations.

Repressions of the type Turkey has instituted seem calculated to strip the Kurds of any feeling of dignity or pride in their heritage. This can only feed discontent with Turkey, a feeling that Turkey doesn't want its Kurds. Taken far enough, this is raw material for separatist revolt.

But if Turkey were to speed up its rollback of anti-Kurd regulations (and a rollback will happen eventually, because Turkey's interest in joining the EU is stronger than its interest in keeping the Kurds down), it could undermine separatists' base of support among Turkish Kurds. There could still be incorrigible radicals, but they would find less love -- and perhaps even widespread opposition -- among their brethren. Having suffered so long under regulations that prohibit them from speaking their language or wearing their traditional clothes in public settings, Turkish Kurds (and Iraqi Kurd refugees who hoped to find sanctuary in Turkey) would respond with gratitude, not resentment, toward the Turkish government. They would have less to fight for and more to lose, becoming less receptive to separatists' messages.


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