| DIYARBAKIR, Turkey
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey Nov 13When Prime Minister
Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the existence of a "Kurdish problem"
to a rally in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Mayor Osman
Baydemir was among thousands who stood to applaud a momentous
declaration. For decades, Turkey had refused even to recognise
Kurds as a separate ethnic group.
Seven years later, Baydemir, shaking with anger, blames
Erdogan's government for the worst fighting between the army and
Kurdish rebels in years. Raising the stakes in his confrontation
with Ankara, he has joined a hunger strike by Kurdish prisoners.
"When the prime minister said, 'The Kurdish problem is my
problem too,' I was among those who stood up and applauded him.
But we were fooled, our hopes were falsely raised," he says.
"We are living through the Kurdish cause's most critical
period ... Ours is perhaps the last generation willing to extend
a hand and negotiate."
Baydemir says the prosecution of thousands of Kurdish
politicians and activists since 2009 and more recently the
government's slow response to the hunger strike have sapped
hopes for a solution to a three-decade conflict with the
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - deemed a terrorist group by the
EU and Washington as well as Turkey.
The Kurdish conflict has taken some 40,000 lives, mainly
Kurds, and burns at the heart of Turkey. It brakes the
southeastern economy, draws criticism from abroad on rights
policies and stirs anger in the Turkish heartland with images of
soldiers' coffins returning, draped in the red Turkish flag.
Baydemir, 41, among the most prominent of Kurdish
politicians, says his goal is to stop the violence. He is
nothing if he is not dogged.
The mayor faces hundreds of criminal cases - too many to
count, he says - for things he has said or done, including
attending the funerals of PKK militants that has brought him
charges of "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation".
ERDOGAN'S BOLD STEPS
"All of my life I have stayed away from violence and the
instruments of violence, and have seen a legal, democratic
struggle as the only means to achieve change," Baydemir says,
his hands shaking as he gesticulates with anger.
"But I have had it up to here with the prosecutions, the
government's attitude, the judiciary, the media's stance and the
majority of Turks who view the Kurdish people's justified cause
through a nationalist lens."
Where 37 fellow mayors languish in jail, Baydemir, outspoken
as he is, has been spared arrest; perhaps because of his
popularity or perhaps because of the symbolic importance of
Diyarbakir, a city of 1.5 million people and the regional centre
of Turkey's heavily Kurdish southeast.
"The government has shut all legal, democratic channels.
This sends Kurds the message: 'Head to the mountains,'" Baydemir
says, referring to PKK camps in northern Iraq and the highlands
of southeastern Turkey where it fights Turkish soldiers.
Erdogan would see things quite differently.
He has taken steps leaders before him would never have dared
in a country that had outlawed even the use of the Kurdish
language until 1991.
As part of efforts to meet EU membership criteria, Erdogan
allowed Kurdish television broadcasts and, most recently,
elective Kurdish language courses at state schools.
In 2010, he risked the wrath of a conservative establishment
by endorsing secret talks with PKK representatives. The talks
failed, and the PKK has abandoned a ceasefire.
The last 18 months has seen the heaviest fighting in more
than a decade between the PKK and the Turkish army. Since June
2011, when Erdogan was re-elected to a third term, more than 800
people have been killed, the deadliest fighting since PKK leader
Abdullah Ocalan was captured and jailed in 1999, according to
estimates by the International Crisis Group.
Does Baydemir, then, hold the hope of a mediated political
solution, as his supporters argue? Or are he and his party tools
of the PKK, as Erdogan has suggested?
Critics say Baydemir and other officials of his Peace and
Democracy Party (BDP) have failed to hold the PKK accountable
for violence. The EU has urged the BDP to distance itself
explicitly from the insurgents. The BDP, for its part, says it
shares no overt links, just a common grassroots.
"The BDP is failing those who voted for them to contribute
to a political solution of the Kurdish problem," said Hilal
Kaplan, a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.
"Baydemir is different. He has always questioned the PKK's
effectiveness. But he and others on hunger strike are thumbing
their noses at the state just when it was ready to negotiate."
Many Turks fear the PKK campaign, combined now with Kurdish
rebel activity in Syria and the emergence of a strong autonomous
Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, could threaten the unity of
Turkey and lead to broader ethnic conflict in the country.
Serafettin Elci, an elder statesman in the Kurdish movement,
described Baydemir as a tempering influence, an alternative to
the lure of the PKK's promise of forcing change with the gun.
"His genuine aim is to stop the clashes, end the armed
struggle and establish a lasting peace between Kurds and the
state," said Elci, who served as a cabinet minister in the 1970s
and returned to parliament in 2011 in a bloc with the BDP.
Baydemir announced last Saturday he was joining a hunger
strike launched 64 days ago by prisoners and now involving some
1,800 people. The protesters, taking sugar water and vitamins,
demand expansion of Kurdish language rights and access to
lawyers for Ocalan, now held in an island prison off Istanbul.
A death now, says Baydemir, could only further complicate
efforts towards a solution.
The government said last week it would send a bill to
parliament to allow defendants to testify in Kurdish in court, a
key demand, but cabinet has yet to approve it.
Most of the inmates on hunger strike are either convicted
PKK members or accused of links to the Union of Kurdistan
Communities (KCK), which the state says is a PKK offshoot.
Many of the KCK defendants, including politicians, lawyers,
journalists and others in prison for as long as 3-1/2 years
without conviction, belong to the BDP, which Erdogan calls the
PKK's "political extension."
Baydemir, who studied English in the United States before
becoming mayor in 2004, accuses the government of prosecuting
those who seek a political alternative to the PKK. That, he
says, is the fundamental reason for the escalation in violence.
"We have a powerful prime minister. If he wants to solve the
Kurdish issue, he will," the mayor said.
HOUSE UP FOR SALE
In 2010, a court barred Baydemir from traveling outside
Turkey, but he has thus far escaped the lengthy pre-trial
detention of his peers. Some 190 elected officials are in jail,
including 37 mayors. Six BDP lawmakers are also behind bars.
"Authorities have probably decided against detaining Osman
because he is so well-liked by the Kurdish public. There is a
sensitivity towards Diyarbakir," said Raci Bilici, a successor
of Baydemir as secretary of a human rights organisation.
Baydemir publicly lashed out at Erdogan following the arrest
of Kurdish politicians in December 2009, and, referring to the
BDP's oak tree emblem, asked: "Which branch of the oak tree
poked what part of your body?"
Erdogan sued for defamation. Under a court ruling, a quarter
of Baydemir's monthly salary is now sequestered to pay Erdogan
compensation totalling some 50,000 lira, with fees and interest.
Facing another 50,000 lira suit from Erdogan - this time for
calling the prime minister a "facist" following the arrest of
another Kurdish mayor earlier this year - Baydemir has put his
house up for sale in anticipation of the verdict.
"Osman may be prone to the occasional, very harsh outburst,"
Elci, the veteran Kurdish activist, observed.
"But at heart he is a dove."