x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Q, W and X spell trouble for Kurdish integration

Ankara is accused of treason against the Turkish language as it tries to end decades of conflict by allowing Kurdish characters into its alphabet.

ISTANBUL // Can a "w" be a threat to national unity? The Turkish government is preparing to submit to parliament a package of measures designed to end the Kurdish conflict, which has cost tens of thousands of lives, but nationalists have been up in arms since media reported that Ankara is planning to allow Kurds to use such letters as q, w and x in public - and maybe even reform the Turkish alphabet itself to embrace the Kurdish letters officially.

"This is treason against the Turkish language," Oktay Vural, a leading member of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, told reporters in Ankara. "This is not a democratic opening, but a separatist one." Q, w and x are not part of the Turkish alphabet at the moment, and although their use in foreign language words and abbreviations - such as "www" - is accepted, Kurdish activists who used the letters in Kurdish words in the past have been charged with violating language provisions laid down in a law dating from 1928.

The row over the Kurdish letters died down after the government denied there were plans to change the alphabet, but the linguistic debate was only an early skirmish in a political battle about to begin in earnest. The "Kurdish opening", as the government's Kurdish plans are called by the media, will be at the top of the agenda of deputies returning to parliament in Ankara tomorrow after a long summer break. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, sees an opportunity to end the Kurdish conflict and can count on the support of many war-weary voters and the military. But the row about the Kurdish letters and other details of Ankara's plan shows that Mr Erdogan faces an uphill struggle to win opposition support for the legal changes necessary to get the initiative on track.

The end of the parliamentary break marks the start of a period that could be crucial for Turkey's domestic and foreign policies, and for Mr Erdogan's own career as well. Apart from the "Kurdish opening", parliament will also debate recent agreements between Turkey and Armenia for the normalisation of relations and an eventual opening of the closed border between the two neighbours. The documents are to be signed by the foreign ministers of the two countries on October 10. After that, parliaments in Ankara and Yerevan will vote on the agreements.

With the Kurdish and Armenian issues, Mr Erdogan is tackling the two most sensitive topics in Turkish politics at the same time. The opposition in Ankara has been protesting against planned steps on both issues. Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has enough seats in parliament to push through legal changes on its own, but it would prefer to get other parties on board as well.

In several speeches over the past few weeks, Mr Erdogan has made it clear that he is aware of the potential political fallout for himself and AKP, should the "Kurdish opening" fail to stop the violence that has plagued the country since 1984, the year rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, took up arms to fight for Kurdish self-rule. "Whatever the cost may be, we will not take a step back," Mr Erdogan told an audience in Istanbul last month. "Our party may lose votes ? We took that risk when we set out on our way and we will do what is necessary." Mr Erdogan has said he wants the "Kurdish opening" to be up and running by the end of the year. The package's main aim is to give more cultural rights to Kurds in an effort to weaken support for the PKK. According to press reports, the plan includes such steps as allowing Turkish families to give Kurdish names to their children, adding directions in Kurdish to road signs in the Kurdish area in south-eastern Anatolia, ending restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language during election campaigns and giving Kurdish children the chance to learn their mother tongue as an optional subject in their schools.

In the run-up to the parliamentary debates, the government has tested public opinion about the "Kurdish opening". According to reports, government polls show that between 55 per cent and 64 per cent of the electorate support the initiative. A crucial factor has been the support of the military, which is highly respected among Turks. Last week, Ilker Basbug, the chief of general staff, was quoted as saying he did not see a problem in teaching Kurdish to children in state schools, a statement that makes it harder for opposition parties like the MHP to argue that Mr Erdogan's government is selling out to Kurdish separatists.