Turkish President Abdullah Gul. Photo: AFP
COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Speaking Kurdish and any expression of Kurdish culture was completely banned in Turkey until 1991. Now, Turkish President Abdullah Gul is distancing himself from his country’s past Kurdish policy.
"I'm brave enough to admit past mistakes," Gul told the Danish newspaper Politiken on Saturday.
In addition, the Turkish president predicts that, if the state gives the Kurds "democratic rights," there will be no reason for guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to "fight anymore".
"The Kurdish question is about the democratic level. If you raise it, then the problems will fix themselves. If you take away all the reasons to fight, it is clear that the people will be with you," he told Politiken.
In the interview, Gul stressed the "very good relations with" the Iraqi Kurds.
"The Kurds are our relatives and they are not much different from us. We have no allergy to the Kurds. Today, the Kurdish region is developed by Turkish experts and engineers. If you go there, you will be impressed by how active Turks in Erbil and Sulaimani and other Kurdish areas of Iraq are."
Many journalists, especially from the pro-Kurdish media, have been arrested in Turkey. The Turkish president admits problems with the press, while stressing that the press must be “free.”
“Everyone in this country is free to write and publish, criticize or write their opinions freely. Even those with the toughest positions can freely publish and express their opinions."
Recently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, something that Gul had rejected.
"It is technically impossible, and it is completely excluded. You cannot take a decision to shut down Facebook, YouTube or other channels," he told Politiken.
According to Daniella Kuzmanovic, associate professor and Turkey expert at University of Copenhagen, Gul’s statements represent a break with Turkey's official position, held until the 1990s, that the Kurdish problem was not caused by democratic problems, but socio-economic factors.
"Before, Turkish politicians used to say that the problem would be solved by improving the economy. Now, Gul is emphasizing that the Kurdish issue is solved with more democracy,” she told Rudaw.
According to Sardar Sharif, a PhD researcher in international relations at the University of Dohuk, Gul's statements must be understood in light of the forthcoming local elections in Turkey on March 30.
“Kurdish areas are on AKP (the ruling Justice and Development Party) focus, and Gul’s political statement at this time appears more as a political maneuver to capture Kurdish voters. Another issue is that AKP also now uses its political relations with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in these elections, which is quite understandable,” he said.
In Turkey, the presidency is largely a ceremonial office. Yet, Gul’s statements are important, according to Kuzmanovic and Sharif.
"When Gul admits making mistakes against the Kurds, it is important because the head of state is of great importance to Turkey's international image. It is politically courageous and shows that you take a step forward to do better," Sharif said.
Kuzmanovic said that Gul has often disagreed with Prime Minister Erdogan, for example on banning social media. Turkish media have been speculating over Gul's political ambitions, with some suggesting he could become prime minister, as he was briefly in 2002.
"Gul’s opinions are important. The president of Turkey can veto a law and send them back to parliament for further work. And then, Gul is co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party, and is likely a political challenge to Prime Minister Erdogan."