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Europe

EU Membership Offers Hope for Turkey's Kurds

For over 13 million Kurds living in Turkey's southeast, EU membership is a chance for more democracy in their conflict-weary region, where many fear a return of violence and unrest if Ankara is denied entry.

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Joining the EU is likely to bring changes to Turkey's southeast

The region has had more than its share of blood and tears since 1984, when the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) took up arms against the government for self-rule, plunging the region into chaos. But the atmosphere has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. Ankara, eager to catch up with European norms to ease its entry into the EU, introduced once-taboo reforms, allowing Kurdish-language programs on the state broadcaster and the creation of private schools that teach Kurdish.

With more rights to their credit thanks to the EU, the Kurds -- whose very existence officialdom denied 10 years ago -- are keeping their fingers crossed for a positive outcome from the Dec. 16-17 summit of EU leaders who will decide whether to open membership talks with Turkey.

Fears of rejection

"I am hopeful that Turkey will obtain a date that will pave the way for more positive changes in the region," 43-year-old worker Ahmet Ataman said in Diyarbakir, the main metropolis of Turkey's largely poor, Kurdish-majority southeast. "I fear the possibility that there will no date. Such a development will tear Turkey away from Europe," he added.

"I do not even want to consider that possibility," said Cevdet Polat, an unemployed 29-year-old. "That would butter the bread of those who oppose the EU."

Hasan Cemal, an experienced journalist who wrote a book on the bloody history of Kurds in Turkey, agreed that failure by EU leaders to open accession talks would be very costly for the region.

"If there is no date, it will strengthen the hand of those who are against the EU and who flinch at the mere mention of Kurds. There will be a huge wave of anti-EU sentiment that will put a stop to democratic reforms," Cemal said. Such a development would also play into the hands of Kurdish hawks bent on pursuing their armed struggle against Ankara, he said.

Bloody conflict

Abdullah Öcalan

Abdullah Ocalan

More than 37,000 people died in the PKK's armed campaign and the subsequent military crackdown in a bloody conflict that led to gross human rights violations on both sides, forced population movements, disappearances and summary executions.

The rebels announced a unilateral truce in 1999, shortly after their leader Abdullah Ocalan (photo) was captured in Kenya and convicted for treason in Turkey. But, the PKK -- which changed names a few times and is now known as the Kurdish Peoples' Congress -- ended the truce in June; sporadic fighting has resumed since, but with far less intensity than before.

"What we have now is controlled fighting," said Selahattin Demirtas, the Diyarbakir head of the Turkish Human Rights Association. "But the lack of an EU perspective would erode

hard-earned democratic rights, increase military operations and counter-attacks by the rebels. "The result would be a return to the old atmosphere of violence," he added.

With the locals giving less support to armed Kurdish rebels and rallying behind the government's EU drive, renewed violence would only hurt a tentative rapprochement between the Kurds and the state, which long resisted their demands to preserve their ethnic identity.

"EU-minded reforms have led to relief in the region and drawn the Kurds closer to the state, but there is a lot more the state can do to really make peace with Kurds," Demirtas said. "At this point, EU membership seems to be the only guarantee for more democratic openings from Ankara," he added.

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