SOME ANIMALS MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS IN TURKEY? *

by Kirsty Hughes

Associate of the think-tank Friends of Europe in Brussels


The November 8, 2006 European Commission Report on Turkey confirms that there is a long way to go for Turkey to become a member of the EU.  Stand by for sharp criticisms of its slowdown in political reforms and for a big hullabaloo over Turkey's refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot vessels, until Turkish Cypriot ports in northern Cyprus are open too.

 

But while Turkey complains about the EU's unfair treatment of the politically and economically isolated Turkish Cypriots, it may be a good time to ask why Turkey doesn't grant a big chunk of its citizens the Kurds the same rights it demands for those who are not even Turkish nationals in northern Cyprus?

 

There are after all many similarities.  Both northern Cyprus and the southeast of Turkey, where many of Turkey's estimated 15-20 million Kurds live, have a heavy Turkish military presence. They are geographically close to each other, and in sensitive areas one lying off Syria's coast, the other bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

 

Both Turkish Cypriots and Turkish Kurds are minorities within a larger country speaking their own language albeit the curious status of northern Cyprus, recognised as a separate state only by Turkey, while the whole island is a member of the European Union, even though its rules are suspended in the north.

 

Both northern Cyprus and southeast Turkey are relatively isolated regions. Both are poor, though the Kurds a lot poorer again than the Turkish Cypriots. And in both cases, their economic poverty is linked to the unresolved political and security issues around their identity and political status.

 

But despite these similarities, it's the differences that are more striking.  The rights of Turkish Cypriots are being championed loudly in Turkey's clash with the EU, whether by democratic politicians or by unapologetic representatives of Turkey's 'deep state'; not least the newly appointed hardline, and increasingly vocal, military chief of staff, General Buyukanit. 

 

But anyone who champions Kurdish rights in Turkey, as many Kurds and some Turks do, risks being accused of separatism and even terrorism.  So while Turkey (apart from some nationalists who want a partitioned Cyprus) expects international kudos given its support for a Cyprus solution based on a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality between the two communities (despite their unequal sizes), it argues the precise opposite for its own Kurdish citizens. 

 

For many, perhaps most Turks, the request of Kurds to be labelled Kurdish citizens of Turkey not Turks, or for political equality between Turks and Kurds, or to have a federation, or to use their Kurdish mother-tongue in schools or colleges or in the media, is equivalent to a direct attack on the Turkish nation and its territory.  And while many, perhaps most Kurds, are ready to settle for remaining within a unitary Turkish state as long as they can have full cultural rights, for most Turks, and Turkish Cypriots, the idea of the latter accepting simply minority status in the Greek-Cypriot dominated Republic of Cyprus is complete anathema.

 

In both places, the unlovely Turkish habit of stamping aggressive slogans on mountainsides, can be seen. In northern Cyprus, the slogans declaring the north to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, are directed at the Greek Cypriots across the Green Line, while in the beautiful but desolate mountains of southeast Turkey, the rude mountain slogans asserting 'one state, one flag, one language' are directed at Turkey's own nationals the Kurds.

 

Many in Turkey will argue the Cyprus problem and the Kurdish problem are not the same due to the violence of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (the PKK), in conflict on and off with the Turkish military for over 20 years, and labelled as a terrorist group by Turkey and the EU. 

 

But why should violence by a minority of Kurds mean oppression of the rights of the majority of Kurds? Is the right of Turkish Cypriots to speak Turkish, not Greek, contingent on the entire Turkish-Cypriot population, remaining peaceful in all circumstances?  And how can there be any hope of a political solution in either place without respect for the rights of both these minority groupings?

 

This presumes of course that there is genuine interest in a political solution. While the Finnish presidency of the EU was/is pushing hard for a compromise deal that will allow Turkish ports to be opened to Greek-Cypriots ships, and Turkish-Cypriot ships to have direct trade with the rest of the EU, some are worried that the Turkish deep state does not want even such a temporary 'sticking plaster' Cyprus deal. 

 

And when the PKK, to the relief of many in the southeast, announced a unilateral ceasefire at the start of October, General Buyukanit rapidly announced the military campaign would continue until every last PKK fighter was dead.  In northern Cyprus, foreign researchers and journalists are given a warm welcome, but in Turkey's southeast, low-level harassment is more often the order of the day.

 

Where, one might ask, are the politicians in the face of this apparently negative mindset of the Turkish military?  In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan is struggling on many fronts, not least to win re-election next year in the face of a nationalist and secularist onslaught on his democratic credentials due to his Islamic beliefs, and also to keep Turkey's EU process on track despite negative signals from countries such as Austria and France dampening Turkish public enthusiasm.

 

In this context, Erdogan may be able neither to do a deal on Cyprus to stop a wreckage of the EU talks, nor to make any progress on the southeast in the face of growing 'deep state' hostility both to him and to the Kurds.  And yet while some hardline Turkish nationalists may want an independent northern Cyprus, and some radical Kurds may dream of an independent Kurdistan, in fact neither Turkey's southeast, nor northern Cyprus have a realistic or viable future as independent states.

 

And in both cases northern Cyprus and the southeast the best hopes for an acceptable solution, with full human rights and political equality in both places, lie with a continuation of Turkey's EU negotiations.  A breakdown of EU negotiations will sour the atmosphere for a long time to come over Cyprus.  And it will provoke a nationalist backlash in Turkey where the EU will have lost all leverage to push for respect of human rights for the Kurds as part of Turkey's democratic modernisation.

 

Much of the solution lies in Turkey's hands.  If Turkey's government and public stand up consistently for democracy and human rights whether in support of Turkish Cypriots or Turkey's Kurds and against the undemocratic political pronouncements of Turkey's military and nationalists, then it will be hard for democratic European politicians to give in to European nationalists and suspend Turkey's membership negotiations over a minor spat over Cypriot ports.

 

But while Turkey continues to demonstrate Orwell's chilling slogan that "some animals are more equal than other" in their preference for Turkish-Cypriot over Kurdish rights, then the Turkey-EU crisis may continue to gather speed.

 

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*An edited version of the above piece of Kirsty Hughes first appeared in the International Herald Tribune, on November 14, 2006

 

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