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Turkish president seeks to calm Kurdish tensions

The Turkish president is set to travel to the main city of his country's Kurdish minority on Thursday in a bid to defuse tensions over a recent push by Kurds to assert their culture, language and rights.

The PKK flag

Kurds in Turkey have been asserting their culture and language

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is set to make a one-day visit to Turkey's main Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, on Thursday. The trip comes as political tensions continue to rise over an initiative launched by the country's main Kurdish party for greater rights.

The presidential visit, which appears to have been hastily arranged, is being seen as crucial to defusing political tensions in Turkey, which have been heightened by the initiative.

"I think he will look for ways to calm things down," political scientist Cengiz Aktar told Deutsche Welle. "As it is, I think we are again going back to this very belligerent rhetoric of the Kurdish issue. So again we are heading towards a period of dialog."

In addition to meeting with local state officials and businessmen, Gul was also expected to meet with the mayor of the Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, who is one of the leading figures in the Kurdish initiative launched earlier this month, which calls for democratic autonomy and the right to use the Kurdish language in aspects of public life, including in education.

Forbidden culture

Kurdish officially did not exist in Turkey throughout the 1980s and it still remains under tight regulations, particularly in education. Until recently, the ruling AK Party had positioned itself as a champion for Kurdish rights, but its own initiative has stalled and condemnation for this latest demand for more rights has now come from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul

Gul's AK Party had taken a Kurdish-friendly approach

"I am putting it very clearly, those who want to bring discord to this nation are the enemy of 73 million people," Erdogan said. "The artificial discussion of the last few days is a dirty game and evil plot of the terrorist organization and its extensions. My people will not fall for this plot, they'll spoil the game."

The terrorist organization Erdogan referred to is the Kurdish rebel group the outlawed PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights since 1984. For now they've called a unilateral ceasefire.

Threat to the nation

The government says it is committed to making peace, but Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the main Kurdish party, the BDP, questions the sincerity of this claim.

"What happened to the promise of solving this problem, and the promise that mothers won't cry anymore," Demirtas asked. "Were you expecting a BDP which will kneel before you and beg?"

Tensions were further ramped up when the leader of the far-right National Action Party, Devlet Bahceli, warned that the very existence of Turkey was at stake.

"This is a nasty plot hatched by those who want to change the governing structure of Turkey, and to divide the Turkish nation into two, with a separate flag. This will for sure divide our nation," Bahceli said.

The latest Kurdish initiative is seen by some as an important step away from the armed conflict. But the increasingly violent rhetoric is causing hopes to fade.

Ahjead of his trip, President Gul tried to play down expectations, saying it was just a routine visit. But with tensions rapidly escalating, the trip is expected to get a lot of media attention.

Author: Dorian Jones, Istanbul / dfm
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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