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Turkey and the Kurds: Television diplomacy

RojinHopes that a new channel may herald fresh reforms

ROJIN is a feisty, beautiful Kurdish bard who belts out nationalist ballads. As a result, private Kurdish television channels that showed her were long penalised or even taken off the air. But now she will be a regular on Turkey’s stultified TRT state television, which this week launched a 24-hour Kurdish channel in the main Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji.

A contradiction, yes. But it may just suggest that the Justice and Development (AK) party is regaining the reformist zeal that made it one of Turkey’s most popular and progressive governments. Kurdish hardliners scoff that the new channel is a cynical sop to the country’s 14m-odd Kurds before local elections in March. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK prime minister, told an audience of Kurds in Diyarbakir in 2005 that the state had made mistakes in its treatment of the Kurds, his party won many a Kurdish heart (and vote). But it has lost them since he succumbed to the army’s demands to deal with Kurdish PKK rebels by force, not negotiation.

The army has been relentlessly pounding PKK guerrilla bases in northern Iraq. The PKK’s civilian arm, the Democratic Society Party, which has 20 elected parliamentarians, has been consistently snubbed by the AK government. Court cases bordering on the ludicrous continue against its members and against Kurdish-run municipalities that name their streets after eminent Kurds. One child in a Kurdish family from Germany was refused entry at the Turkish border recently because he had a Kurdish name.

Even radical Kurds express hope that the new television channel, however wimpish, may spell a new beginning. Indeed, they hope the AK will renew the reform promises that helped it to win re-election, with a bigger share of the vote, in July 2007. Mr Erdogan is expected to make a statement during the televised launch. Kurdish dissidents are due to host some of its shows. Whether it can compete with the PKK’s hugely popular satellite channel, Roj, is another question.

Private Kurdish television channels in Turkey are allowed to broadcast in their mother tongue for only four hours a week. Every show is vetted and has to have Turkish subtitles, making live programmes impossible. But the fact that Shivan Perwer, one of the most renowned Kurdish nationalist singers, is considering appearing on TRT’s Channel Six is being widely hailed as a breakthrough.

In another move, some 200 Turkish intellectuals have launched an internet petition about the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, saying that they are sorry. The text of their apology does not use the term genocide, favoured by Armenians. But at least 25,000 Turks, from many different walks of life, have signed the petition, prompting calls of treason by far-right nationalists. Mr Erdogan himself has called the petition “a mistake”. The country’s president, Abdullah Gul, who has spearheaded secret talks to normalise relations with Armenia, has been accused by an opposition parliamentarian of having Armenian ancestry. He took her to court, claiming his lineage was Turkish and Muslim to boot.

The petition’s signatories have also been assailed by many Armenians, who dismiss it as a ploy to get Barack Obama, who has used the G-word in the past, to drop it. Yet some are less recalcitrant. Khatchig Mouradian, a writer in the Armenian diaspora, says that “without such initiatives, traditional diplomacy resolves too little, late, and risks looking like mere make-up on a deeply scarred face.”

From The Economist print edition, Dec 30th 2008

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