Diyarbakir, Asharq Al-Awsat – The office of the mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, is always crowded with visitors just as he wants it to be. A lawyer who abandoned his profession for the sake of politics, Baydemir is passionate about working with people. Around his office you would meet both visitors and his team of aides and researchers, some of whom hold doctorate degrees specializing in Kurdish issues.
The office is strewn with books and documents with graphs on the social and economic situation of the Kurds today, in addition to research documents that propose ways with which to resolve the tensions between Ankara and the armed Kurds.
Some in Turkey draw parallels between Baydemir and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he was mayor of Istanbul (1994); both were quite young when they occupied the post and both have a considerable following among the people and they also prioritized the economic and social situation. But what is more important is the fact that both of them have a deep-seated ‘creed’ and are not simply technocrat politicians.
Following is the text of the interview with the Mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir:
Q: How would you define the Kurdish problem today?
A: The Kurdish problem is a thousand years old. It is an international problem that is not only specific to the region. It is also a political, economic, cultural and human problem that is related to human rights. Therefore, we cannot say that it is a one-dimensional or one-sided problem, rather, it is multi-dimensional.
From 1920 to date, it has been one of the major issues in Turkey if not the largest. Theoretically speaking, Turkey may be considered an ideal state in the Middle East and other states can follow its example. However, the reality of the ongoing Kurdish issue over the past 80 years hinders Turkey from being defined as an ideal state that can be emulated on a democratic level.
Not only has the Kurdish problem had an impact on Turkey’s state of democracy, it has also affected the economic situation. I believe that if the Kurdish problem is resolved through dialogue then the Turkish state will have resolved one of its biggest issues. If this problem is not resolved through peaceful means and dialogue then Turkey cannot be considered a democratic state, and thus consequently we cannot refer to it as the ideal democratic state in the region.
Q: When Turkey began official negotiations to join the European Union (EU) and granted the Kurdish people cultural rights within the framework of the cultural reforms that were demanded by the EU, there was a prevalent belief that the demands of the Kurds in Turkey had been fulfilled is that true? And what are the obstacles obstructing the resolution of the Kurdish problem today?
A: In 1999, towards the resolution of the Kurdish issue, two important events took place: Firstly, the Kurdish forces changed their strategy in Turkey when those who had taken up arms (the Kurdistan Workers Party – PKK) against the Turkish military left Turkey and began to explicitly call for the resolution of the Kurdish issue using dialogue and peaceful means.
This development revived the hopes of the Turks and Kurds alike that the problem would be solved peacefully and through employing dialogue methods. It was this development that prompted the EU to commence official accession negotiations with Turkey in 1999. However, prior to that and since the end of 1982, the Turkish state had taken very limited steps to grant the Kurdish people the cultural rights that they have been demanding. But they were incredibly limited [steps]. For example, the state of emergency that had been imposed on Diyarbakir region over the past 25 years was lifted, and capital punishment was abolished from the Turkish penal laws. The price of that punishment was paid mainly by the Kurds whom the state had charged with treason or accused of endangering national security.
The beginning of talks with the EU in 1999 led to the improvement of conditions for the Kurds in Turkey. Prior to that, Kurdish people were forbidden to name their children Kurdish names, but now this has changed. Also, the Kurdish language which is not officially recognized was dealt with differently on an official level; today Turkish television broadcasts 45 minutes in the Kurdish language.
Although we consider these to be major developments, we also consider 45 minutes to be too short. Over the span of 80 years, the Turkish state used to tell us that there was no such thing as ‘Kurd’ or ‘Kurdish’. You are the mountain Turks, meaning that you live in the mountains. The state used to consider us backward Turks. At last they have recognized us as Kurds (laughs), which is a considerable improvement for us.
However; the problem is that despite some modifications, the authority’s manner in dealing with and resolving the Kurdish issue has not radically changed. In fact, starting from October 2005, the Turkish state began to retract these small steps that it had taken towards reform and the military confrontation flared up once again and the killing resumed.
Furthermore, the cultural rights of the Kurdish people have diminished. The situation in 2002 and 2003 was far better than the current situation. For example, Abdullah Demirbas, the former mayor of the Sur district in Diyarbakir who was dismissed from office, as were all the members of the municipal council [which was dissolved], who all suffered the same fate because they had offered some municipal services in other languages, Kurdish and English along with the Turkish language.
Another example is the fact that there are 30 lawsuits filed against me, all of which are related to use of the Kurdish language. On the Kurdish New Year, or Nowruz [celebrated 21 March] we used to send out greeting cards. I wrote in the greeting cards “Happy New Year” in Turkish, Kurdish and English and I sent them to the president, prime minister, the MPs and the heads of courts in Diyarbakir. Many of these officials sent back the greeting cards and refused to accept them. They said it was because the greeting card included a line in the Kurdish language. The head of the Diyarbakir Court did not reply to the card but he did not send it back either.
I was ecstatic and thought he had accepted my well wishes; however, 10 or 15 days later, he sent me a writ of summons to begin an investigation because I had used the Kurdish letter ‘w’ that does not exist in the Turkish language and which is a punishable crime in Turkey. So then I answered the court chief back with a question; I said, ‘Your Honor, in order to access the Turkish Ministry of Justice website you have to type in the letters ‘www’, so why is the English ‘w’ accepted but the Kurdish one deemed a crime? The truth is that the human mind cannot accept such practices. In the 21st century, there exists a language that is spoken by 20 million people, which is the Kurdish language, and it is prohibited. There are dozens of similar examples pertaining to the letter ‘w’.
Q: Do you think Kurdish representation in the new Turkish parliament (22 MPs) can help the municipality of Diyarbakir and the Kurds to communicate their voice to the authorities in Ankara?
A: The Kurdish members in the Turkish parliament act as a base for the Kurdish issue. Their main task is to put an end to the ongoing war against the Kurds. We are confident that this problem cannot be resolved through military means, but with dialogue instead. My fear is that the authorities in Ankara may not offer them the opportunity to broach the problems and demands of the Kurds to parliament.
However, the Kurdish parliamentarians can help achieve the economic demands of the people of Diyarbakir since previously there was no doorway for us from which to demand economic projects in the city. Electing Kurdish MPs will reduce the burden on the Kurdish municipalities, and on a political level they would act as a mouthpiece for the Kurds. From now on, we will focus on the municipal demands of the Kurds in Diyarbakir. As for the political demands, the Kurdish MPs will propose them.
Q: You talked about resolving the Kurdish problem using peaceful means, what is your view of the PKK and its armed elements, some of whom are fighting in the mountains again?
A: This is a very sensitive subject. In my personal opinion, the PKK is not the reason behind the Kurdish problem; rather it is an outcome of the Kurdish problem. If the Turkish perception [of the Kurds] since 1924, when the Turkish republic was first established, to date was not the way it is then there would be no reason for the presence of the PKK. Weapons are never the language of dialogue when it pertains to a problem. If Turkey’s perception of the Kurds remained unchanged then another party would emerge bearing a different name if the PKK were to disappear.
Q: You are an official in the Turkish state and you are also a Kurdish politician who expresses the demands of the Kurds in Turkey, how do you strike a balance between the two?
A: This is the right path that we should follow. I sometimes say that we have to walk on the sharp edge of the sword. Naturally, balancing is difficult, but it is for this difficulty and for the sense of pride I feel in practicing my work. I am originally a lawyer; I practiced the profession for 18 years before I was elected as mayor of Diyarbakir.
The suits that were filed against me, since I assumed the position, are more than the cases for which I pleaded. If I get convicted in all the cases against me, I would have to spend 280 years in jail. But if there is justice, none of these charges would warrant convictions.
What I would like to say is that if one does not have the will to achieve something then no one would have been the mayor of Diyarbakir. Despite what I was subjected to, I remained hopeful because the demands of the Kurdish people are legitimate. When I was elected as a mayor of Diyarbakir three and a half years ago, I told the Kurds in Diyarbakir: If Ankara closes the door on us; we will enter from the window. We would never flee the confrontation with Ankara. The problem, however, is that besides placing restrictions on the cultural rights that were given to us years ago, the authorities in Ankara also act to constrain us economically in Diyarbakir. When the people of Diyarbakir witness no improvement in the public services, they have no other option but to punish the municipal council or the municipality of Diyarbakir.
Q: There is talk on the streets of Diyarbakir that the central authorities in Ankara have reduced the budget allocated to the city in order to put pressure on the Kurdish people, is this true? And if so, is that legitimate?
A: Reducing financial support for Diyarbakir from the national budget is neither legal nor moral. There are over 10 development projects in Diyarbakir that European countries have agreed to finance but Ankara has refused, which is heartbreaking. If we look at the economic situation of the inhabitants of Diyarbakir we would find that people here suffer from poverty. I feel responsible for this deteriorating situation.
Throughout the past 20 years we used to tell the inhabitants of Diyarbakir that they deserve a better life that has yet to happen. The Kurdish people have given all that they had; villages, land and farms during the military confrontations with the Turkish army because of the evacuation operations in the villages and the displacement of the population. The price was expensive, but the demands in return were not cheap; they were demands for national identity.
Q: Your office is always busy with people, is that evidence of many problems?
A: Since I was elected as mayor of the city, I opened up the municipality to the Kurdish people so that they may participate and share their views. Anyone who wants to meet me can do that. But Diyarbakir is a big city and it’s impossible to meet everyone. My day begins at 7am and ends at 10pm, sometimes I stay in my office until 1am, and that includes my holidays.
In Diyarbakir, we designate two or three days to meet with the residents but, of course, the municipality headquarters cannot receive everyone. This is why we hold an open meeting for the public, usually held in one of Diyarbakir’s public squares. It is attended by all the local officials and all the local languages (Kurdish and Armenian among others) can be used during these public meetings.
Q: Is it true that the Islamic-inclined ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] is reinforcing the Islamists in Diyarbakir in an attempt to weaken the Kurdish nationalist movement? Are there Kurdish-Kurdish differences that are related to dealing with the state?
A: The Kurdish people are religious but religion has been exploited during the past 80 years. At present, they have been exploiting the poor economic situation against the Kurds as they had once used religion.
With regards to Kurdish-Kurdish problems, I can say that they do not exist. There are various parties in Diyarbakir but there are no grave disputes between them. Perhaps there are some fighters who get paid to wreak havoc on the Kurdish issue, but this is a malaise that afflicts all societies. There will always be people who can be bought in return for money.
Q: The Kurds of Iraq want full autonomy or federal rule, what are the demands of the Kurds of Turkey?
A: Nothing is clear on this subject. The situation for the Kurds in Turkey is different from those in Syria, Iraq and Iran. There are two out of five Turkish Kurds who leave Diyarbakir to go to other cities, meaning that two out of five are living amongst Turks, and that is a marked change from the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Consequently, I do not believe in the likelihood of the independence of the Turkish Kurds from the Turkish state as we are a mixed people.
However, the question is: Why is the Turkish state concerned with the Turks who live in Bulgaria or the Turkmen of Iraq, for example, and yet shows no interest in its Kurdish citizens? It would be best for Turkey to show more concern towards its Kurds, recognize the Kurdish identity, allow for the official use of the Kurdish language and reinstate the Kurdish names of the villages, because these are some of the realities in the region.
The state’s perception of the Kurds has to change. When that happens, Ankara should then ask the Kurds: What do you want? The solution would lie in that. The Turkish state would be surprised to find that the demands of the Kurds are not that much. Their demands are nothing in comparison to the wars, blood and killing that takes place between the two parties. Both the Kurds and the Turks want peace and an end to the fighting. No one should have to die at the hands of the two parties.