ISTANBUL // Announcing the broadest-based effort yet to solve the Kurdish conflict and breaking with a past that favoured military over political means, the Turkish government said yesterday it was working on a plan to tackle the problem with democratic reforms that would make Kurds "equal and free" citizens of the republic. "This problem has to be solved at last," Besir Atalay, the interior minister, who has been co-ordinating the government's work on the plan, told a televised news conference in Ankara. "We have to draw lessons from the past and save the future together."
He called on intellectuals, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, the media and all opposition parties to provide ideas for a solution. Mr Atalay refused to provide details of what the government plan would look like, but stressed that it would consist of "determined and courageous" steps designed to broaden democracy and human rights. "The problem will be solved by widening and strengthening democratic rights and by letting every citizen feel equal and free."
With that focus, the plan promised by Mr Atalay would address one of the roots of a conflict that has cost about 40,000 lives since rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, took up arms for Kurdish autonomy in 1984. Many of Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds feel like second-class citizens who lag behind in education, health care, infrastructure and, critically, chances to find a good job.
"For the first time, a government minister has stressed democracy and human rights" as basic principles of a solution for the Kurdish conflict, said Beril Dedeoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Galatasaray University. "It is no longer seen as just a security issue." The big question is: will Ankara follow through on what Mr Atalay promised yesterday, or is the government just trying to be seen to be doing something, without committing to concrete reforms?
In first reactions to Mr Atalay's statement, Kurdish politicians welcomed the announcement but called on the government to provide deeds that match the words. "We have been given hope, but we still do not know the road map," Sirri Sakik, a leading member of the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, Turkey's main Kurdish party, told the NTV news channel. Mr Dedeoglu said she expected the government to formulate concrete steps in the light of the input it will get from political parties and other players. "The state is opening itself to the Kurds, to its citizens," she said.
Fikret Bila, a columnist with the Milliyet newspaper, told the news channel CNN-Turk the government was trying to broaden the base for a solution, but also "trying to widen responsibility" by getting everybody on board. Media reports have said the government was anxious to present the outlines of its Kurdish plan before the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan presents a plan of his own. Ocalan is to publish his ideas on or around August 15, the anniversary of the PKK attack that started the rebellion in 1984.
Mr Atalay denied that his announcement had anything to do with Ocalan's plans. "A date like August 15 is not our date," he said. In the past, Turkey stressed the need to counter the PKK rebellion with military means, denying that there were political, cultural or social aspects that had to be solved. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, became the first Turkish head of government to publicly use the term "Kurdish problem" in 2005. In a series of reforms under Turkey's bid to join the European Union in recent years, Ankara strengthened human rights and loosened some of the restrictions on the public use of the Kurdish language.
According to media reports, the plan that the government is working on will continue that trend. Under the plan, Ankara wants to open departments for Kurdish language and literature at public universities and to give back Kurdish names to villages in the Kurdish region. There have also been reports that Kurdish could be taught as an optional subject in schools. As for foreign aspects of the issue, Mr Atalay said that Turkey would look at the experience of western countries with similar problems, among them Spain, which has been fighting Basque separatists. Ankara is also looking for ways to disarm the several thousand PKK fighters that are hiding in northern Iraq. Mr Atalay held talks with Iraqi and US officials on the subject on Tuesday.
Turkish media reported that Ankara wants the UN-administered Mahmur refugee camp in northern Iraq, which houses more than 10,000 Kurds from Turkey and is seen as a recruiting ground for the PKK, to be closed at the end of the year. PKK rebels should then leave their weapons to the Iraqis and move to the empty camp. Many rank and file rebels could return to Turkey without fear of prosecution, while PKK leaders would be allowed to travel into exile from Iraq, the reports said.
Once work inside the government on the plan is finished, it will be sent to Mr Erdogan for approval before being submitted to the National Security Council, a body comprising the president, top ministers and the leadership of the armed forces. All this is to be done before parliament returns from summer recess in September, in order to make sure that any changes of laws can be dealt with quickly, media reports have said.