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Spiralling towards a regional catastrophe
by Onnik Krikorian


"If Turkey's Warlords asassinate the hope for the peaceful solution
that we legislator's represent, the road is open for Kurds to switch
massively to the camp of violence and Islamic fundamentalism. And if
the Kurds, next door to Iran's Islamic revolutionaries, switch, then
all Turkey will follow suit. And woe on us all."
 Leyla Zana,
 Imprisoned Kurdish MP and Sakharov Peace Prize Winner

Turkey easily lives up to its own promotion of being enviably unique
in its meeting of east and west, but it is also a country that is
deeply schizophrenic and confused. At the centre of this confusion is
the legacy of one man; a figure that is treated internally with a
higher reverance than even that afforded to Allah - Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk and his dream of an ethnically homogenous secular republic
that may well prove to be the reason for the country's future
disintegration.

Whilst still pursuing its interests in the former Soviet Union and the
Middle East, Turkey has constantly stumbled in its application for
membership of the European Union because of its poor record on human
rights and its inability to tolerate alternative religious and
political opinions. In sympathy for its position, it has also stumbled
because of an almost racist European fear of Islam. Ironically, in
Turkey itself there is an even stronger fear of Islam amongst the very
guardians of the republic - the military. As this this article is
written, Refah - the pro-Islamist Welfare Party - is facing action
against it in the constitutional court in Ankara. The chief prosecutor
argues that Refah threatens the Republic by promoting Islamic
fundamentalism and by seeking to forge closer links in the Islamic
world - links deemed detrimental to Turkey's interests and in
contravention to the legacy of Ataturk. Significantly, Refah is the
largest party in the Turkish Parliament, and in the last elections won
a very well publicised more than twenty percent of the vote. Less well
publicised was the fact that many of those who voted for Refah were
Kurds.

The current action against Refah illustrates the weakness of Turkey's
claims to be a democracy equal to those it seeks to join in Europe,
and clearly exposes the fact that it is the military runs Turkey and
not the Turkish parliament. Ironically, it may also prove that the
military is the biggest danger to the republic's existence and the
longevity of Ataturk's dream. In an article in the english newspaper
The Guardian on 12 November 1997, Ilnur Cevik, editor-in-chief of the
influential Turkish Daily News, was quoted as saying: "I would be very
suprised if Refah emerges victorious [in the court case] because the
powers behind the scenes are determined to close it down." It was also
the Turkish Daily News that during the summer published an editorial
advising that if Turkey's controlling elite saw the popularity of
Refah as a danger then the national threshold figure necessary for
election must be lowered so that parties such as the pro-Kurdish
People's Democracy Party (HADEP) may gain representation and split
Refah's vote.

To be elected to the Turkish parliament a party needs to gain more
than ten per cent of the vote nationally, and it is this threshold
figure that has proved the stumbling block for HADEP, just as it had
for its predecessors HEP and DEP. To date over ninety-two of its
members have been murdered and its leadership imprisoned, and gaining
just five percent of the national vote in the December 1995 elections,
it has been denied political representation. Thus, many Kurds instead
voted for Refah, hoping for an opportunity to represent their interests
through an alternative political party.  That belief proved to be
well-founded - Refah indeed did very well.

What was unexpected, however, was that the Turkish military went
immediately on record during Refah's brief inclusion as part of the
government coalition stating that it was an even more dangerous threat
to the republic than the guerillas of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's
Party (PKK) fighting a separatist war in the country's southeast.
Little is the military aware of the confessional in their statement,
that in their paranoid response to a perceived danger - the fear of
Kurdish political representation - against HADEP - they had caused the
ensuing migration of Kurdish votes and contributed to the creation of
this newer, greater threat themselves.

If only they had listened to the warnings of those voices that were
instead silenced - voices like Leyla Zana's.

Offering Kurdish aspirations an alternative to the armed struggle and
campaigning for a peaceful solution to the troubles in the southeast,
Leyla Zana was stripped of her parliamentary immunity on 2 March
1994. The state prosecutor alleged treason and demanded the death
penalty but she was instead sentenced to fifteen years in prison for
promoting 'separatism' and for alleged links to the PKK. Nominated for
the Nobel Peace Prize by Norway in 1995, and recipient of the Sakharov
Peace Prize whilst serving her sentence, two weeks ago the Washington
Post ran an editorial criticising her continued incarceration at the
same time as a US congressional campaign for her release gained
momentum. Outside Capitol Hill, a hunger strike by prominent US human
rights activists, including the President of the US-based Human Rights
Alliance and Congressman's wife, Katheryn Porter, continues.

With international opposition to her imprisonment yielding no positive
results from the Turkish government, voters who had originally
supported Leyla Zana and the other convicted Kurdish MPs may have
instead decided to vote for Refah. And if Refah does indeed share the
same fate as those pro-Kurdish parties that have been shut down -
which may well have given Refah some of their support - who will these
voters turn to next?

Leyla Zana's successor, Selma Tanrikulu, presently stands accused of
membership of the PKK at the State Security Court in Diyarbakir. As
HADEP's candidate for the city, she was elected to the Turkish
parliament in the December 1995 elections but fell victim to the
national threshold figure. Forced into politics after the murder of
her husband, allegedly by a state-backed contra-guerilla death squad,
she was warned off from pursuing her quest to expose her husband's
murderers by the state prosecutor. In the indictment against her,
largely based around the statements of ex-PKK 'confessors', not only
does she stand accused of membership of the PKK, but it is also
implied that her husband was responsible for that involvement.
Presumedly it is no coincidence that the European Court of Human
Rights is currently examining his case, and that Tanrikulu's trial
also serves to discredit her husband's in Strasbourg. Tanrikulu denies
the charges against her and claims that the signed confession that has
been put before the court is falsified. She also alledges that she is
being tortured whilst awaiting trial, and even the court records note
that she appears in ill-health.

With the parallel and extreme actions against a representative of
HADEP and against Refah, the armed sruggle of the PKK can only gain
more momentum, if, with all political avenues closed, it becomes
recognised as the only option left. Alarmingly, even if the Kurds do
not succeed in their struggle for autonomy, the sheer numbers that may
now join the struggle, if only through their support, will deepen the
crisis that exists in Turkey and destabilize not only the republic,
but all of its neighbours, sending shockwaves into Europe and Russia.

Unless the military realises that the ideals and values that they seek
to protect were contemporary to 1923 but are outdated with the world
as it is today, Turkey will remain in a vicious circle of cause and
effect which may spiral down into a regional catastrophe. In order to
avert this crisis, the military must realise that Turkey is like any
other country, with individual groups within its borders that have
individual needs and aspirations, and that must be afforded
representation.

--------------------------------------------------------------------
Onnik Krikorian is a journalist and communications consultant in
London. He has travelled to Turkey to cover stories on media
censorship and human rights abuses for 'The Scotsman on Saturday'
and 'The Journalist' magazines.

[In January 1998 a spread of photographs from the Kurdish region of
Turkey will be published in 'New Internationalist'. He is also
developing a new media communications strategy and incorporating his
photographs into a web site for the independent Kurdish Human Rights
Project.]

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