November 10, 2009 / 1:46 PM / 10 years ago

Q+A - Turkey's Kurdish reform process

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Turkey’s parliament is set to discuss on Tuesday reforms designed to boost the rights of the country’s Kurdish minority and end a 25-year separatist conflict — moves seen boosting its European Union membership ambitions.

Turkey’s Kurds have long complained of discrimination by the state, which has been targeted since 1984 by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrilla group in a separatist insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people.

Here are questions and answers about Turkey’s Kurdish reform process:



WHAT IS THE DOMESTIC SIGNIFICANCE?

* The reform initiative, which could include further easing restrictions on the use of the once-banned Kurdish language, has boosted hopes of an end to the conflict which has ravaged the mainly Kurdish southeast since it was launched in 1984. In a tentative step, a small group of PKK rebels and sympathisers have returned to Turkey from Iraq. The return of further groups was suspended after a jubilant reception given to the initial PKK group angered Turkish nationalists.

* The reform process builds on tentative steps which the Islamist-rooted government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has already taken to expand cultural rights for Kurds, such as the launch of a state-run Kurdish language television channel. Such steps have been applauded by the EU and further steps are likely to bolster Ankara’s stalled accession process.

* An end to the conflict is likely to encourage investment and economic development in the impoverished southeast, where income levels are around a fifth of those in the relatively prosperous west of the country. It will also encourage further development of the region’s trade links with Iraq, where most of the PKK guerrillas are currently based.

* The reforms would provide fresh momentum to a process of general political evolution in Turkey. The government’s growing resolve to push ahead with the reform programme reflects a re-evaluation by the conservative establishment of how to end the conflict. Any compromise in the past was regarded as threatening national unity but armed forces leader, General Ilker Basbug, has said military action needed to be supplemented by socio-cultural steps.



WHAT IS THE REGIONAL SIGNIFICANCE?

* An end to the conflict would further boost ties between Turkey and its southeastern neighbours Iraq, Iran and Syria — all of which have Kurdish minorities. Turkey nearly went to war with Syria in the late 1990s over its harbouring of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ties with Iraq have also long been strained over the presence of PKK rebels in the north of the country. Improved cooperation follows the establishment last year of a joint Turkish-Iraqi-U.S. command centre in northern Iraq. Since then Turkey has sealed bilateral deals with Syria and Iraq.

* Better relations with its Middle Eastern neighbours have fuelled speculation Ankara may be sacrificing its close ties with its Western allies for the sake of regaining the status of a regional power in the Middle East.



WHY REFORM NOW?

* The PKK has been weakened by Turkish military operations against its bases in northern Iraq over the last couple of years. It has made recent peace offers and has extended a unilateral ceasefire until September.

* Jailed PKK leader Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence, has prepared his own plans to improve Kurdish rights and end the conflict. While the government has said it would not take his proposals into account, Ocalan’s approval of the process is seen as important to secure backing for the reforms in southeast Turkey, where he retains popular support.



WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES?

* The ultimate aim of the process is to get the PKK, which has around 4,000 fighters, to lay down their weapons and come down from the mountains. However, the main stumbling block is the militants’ call for a general amnesty, which has been rejected by the government.

* The reform process has already fuelled a powerful nationalist backlash against what are seen as steps undermining the country’s national unity at a time when the government is seeking to restore ties with Armenia. Opposition parties have expressed strong opposition to the Kurdish initiative, which will require extensive legislative changes to be successful.

* The government will also need to satisfy Kurdish expectations on the reform. The only Kurdish party in parliament, the Democratic Society Party, has called for greater autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast, but this is not expected to be included in the current process. (Additional reporting by Pinar Aydinli; editing by David Stamp)



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