Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Uttering the "K" Word

Making great strides in Turkish foreign policy is easy: all you have to do is say one word and a new reality is created. That, at least, seems to be the Turkish press’s take on president Abdullah Gul’s recent two-day visit to Iraq. The Iraq visit itself was fairly significant – it was the first one by a Turkish president in 33 years. (For an analysis of the visit's implications, take a look at this report by the Jamestown Foundation. This RFE/RL article also talks about some of the progress Gul's visit might herald in Turkey-Kurdish relations. ) But what made the headlines in Turkey was that, in sharp contrast to previous Turkish policy, Gul -- while talking to Turkish reporters on his plane -- referred to regional government in northern Iraq as the “Kurdistan Regional Administration.” It was the first time a top Turkish official had mentioned the “K” word.

Turkey does not recognize the administration in northern Iraq by its official name for fear that by doing so it will create a precedent for the use of the term “Kurdistan,” which could then be used in its own territory. In an article headlined “Yet another taboo dies in ’Kurdistan,’” Hurriyet reported:
While calling for stronger efforts to end terrorist activities by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish official to refer to northern Iraq as "Kurdistan." Speaking to Turkish journalists aboard his plane en route to Baghdad on Monday, Gül said the "Kurdistan Regional Administration" holds the primary responsibility for ending terrorist activities targeting Turkey. He also emphasized that an amnesty -- suggested by the prime minister of the regional administration in northern Iraq as a way to help resolve the PKK problem -- was a domestic concern for Turkey.

Asked by the press about his use of the term "Kurdistan," the president said it was the region’s official name, as articulated in the Iraqi constitution. "What shall I say? We do not refuse to say Macedonia because Greece refuses to do so," Gül said.
"This is written in the [Iraqi] constitution. It is a fact that those in northern Iraq should calculate the possible outcome of losing Turkey."
In a column in Today’s Zaman, Yavuz Baydar praises Gul’s move as the dawn of a new era in Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish issue:
The change has come to Turkey's 80-some-year-long denial of the Kurdish reality. The word "Kurdistan" was used for the first time, not just by any Turkish official, but by the highest authority, President Gül, while visiting Iraq….

….Finally the taboo of Kurds, undermined for years by the Turkish press, has finally collapsed. Now, both the Turks and Kurds can talk business -- with a real language, without beating around the bush. Surprises haunt us here.
Or maybe not. Unsurprisingly, reaction to Gul’s uttering of the “K” word was swift. "The Justice and Development Party government has caused a grave break in the fight against terrorism,” said one member of the right wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Members of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition group, also accused the government of selling Turkey out by recognizing the existence of “Kurdistan” without getting a firm commitment from the Iraqis about how they plan to root out PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Upon his return to Turkey, Gul was already backtracking, saying he had never mentioned the “K” word. "In fact, I did not use that term (Kurdistan) but as I said this is a reality. The country who attaches the biggest importance to Iraq's unity and integrity is Turkey. There is a regional Kurdish administration in the north of Iraq according to the Iraqi constitution. This is what I had said. I held a meeting with (the regional administration's) prime minister," Gul told reporters at a press conference in Ankara. (As another Hurriyet article makes clear, the now growing debate over whether Gul said "Kurdistan" or not is now reaching farcical levels.)

As is usually the case these days, the Turkish government seems to be making great strides abroad, only to return and find that the real problem is still in its own divided house.

(Photo: A sign at the Iraqi side of the Habur gate, a Turkey-Iraq border crossing. By Yigal Schleifer)

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