Is Turkey Renaming Istanbul Constantinople?

Chances of Turkey and the Kurds reaching a rapprochement are at their highest in 25 years. But what does that mean for Turkification -- and what concessions are the Turks willing to make?


Last month, Turkish President Abdullah Gul broke a long-standing national taboo: He called the remote village of Guroymak by its Kurdish name, Norshin.

The president’s opponents say renaming Istanbul Constantinople on highway signs will inevitably follow. Or worse. For many Turks, saying Norshin leads to saying Kurdistan, and saying Kurdistan leads to recognizing an independent Kurdish state stretching across Iran, Iraq, and southeastern Turkey.

After a 1980 military coup, Turkey "Turkified": It banned the Kurdish language, imposed new Turkish place names, and famously declared that Kurds were actually "mountain Turks." Its government has since abandoned this extreme form of forced assimilation. But allowing or using Kurdish names is still a politically charged act, seen by many Turks as a concession to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (better known as the PKK), which has fought a brutal 25-year battle for Kurdish independence.

The Turkish government wants to end the PKK’s terrorist campaign without splitting off a Kurdish state — and sees extending cultural rights and linguistic freedoms as the way to do it. But what will it take to reconcile the Turks and the Kurds?

The verbal recognition of Kurds and Kurdish culture at the highest political level is a first step, as Gul’s use of the name Norshin demonstrates. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently brought a number of parliamentarians to tears by saying that something is terribly wrong when the mothers of Turkish soldiers and the mothers of PKK fighters are saying the same prayers over their sons’ bodies. That such a comparison can even be made is itself a sign of progress.

And there are concrete changes, too. Already, the government has opened a Kurdish radio station and promoted Kurdish literature classes at universities. In late July, Erdogan announced his government was beginning a "Kurdish Initiative." He has not yet provided any details. But most Turkish journalists expect the government to allow public servants and politicians to speak Kurdish, end restrictions on Kurdish media, give some form of amnesty to all but the highest ranking PKK members, and possibly even revise the Constitution to allow Kurds to be full Turkish citizens without giving up their Kurdish identity. (Those Kurds who are proud to call themselves Turks have always been accepted and often risen high in the ranks of politics and pop culture) 

These initiatives have met — and will meet — tremendous push-back. Previous leaders have considered similar changes, such as calling citizens "Turkiyeli" (from Turkey) rather than "Turkish," to emphasize citizenship over ethnic identity. But obstacles to implementing such initiatives have been insurmountable. Already, the two leading opposition parties have denounced Erdogan’s plan. Plus, Turkey has a Constitutional Court with the power to strike down laws that alter the country’s "unamendable" constitutional articles — one of which declares that the national language is Turkish.

This time around, though, the government has the army, a long-time rival, on its side. Realizing at last that the fight will never be won through purely military means, Turkey’s leading general now supports greater cultural freedom for Kurds and wants to make it easier for PKK members to surrender. The National Security Council, traditionally a vehicle for the military to "advise" the government on political issues, also gave its blessing to the initiative.

Still, security and foreign-policy concerns complicate the issue. Numerous Turks are convinced that the U.S. government — a friend to politicians and generals, a foe to most everyone else — is behind the Kurdish initiative. They presume that the United States is desperate to ensure stability in northern Iraq as it prepares to withdraw from the country. Thus, they claim, the United States, after supporting the PKK for years, is now forcing Turkey to give in to PKK demands in order to foster peace with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The conspiracy theory is only two parts crazy. The PKK is based in the Kandil Mountains, in Kurdish Iraq. The United States, hesitant to upset Iraq’s lone functioning region, has proven unwilling to take decisive action against it. But such U.S. strategic intransigence stokes anti-American sentiment in Turkey. Further, the KRG’s refusal to prevent the PKK from launching attacks in Turkey has poisoned relations between Ankara and Erbil.

But in the past year, for Turkish policymakers the KRG has increasingly looked less like a threat than a potential ally. Turkish firms have been doing billions of dollars worth of business with Iraqi Kurds for some time now, in every field from construction to telecommunications. Moreover, if chaos follows the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a peaceful Kurdistan would help protect Turkey from the spread of violence. On top of this, Turkey’s new foreign minister is the architect of a regional policy awkwardly but succinctly rendered in English as "zero problems with neighbors." In practice, this has meant trying to mend fences with traditional rivals such as Greece, Syria, Russia, and even Armenia.

Recent developments have also left the KRG eager to improve relations with Turkey. The Kurds are increasingly concerned about being left friendless in the region, as Arab-Kurdish tensions mount, a confrontation over Kirkuk seems possible, and U.S. forces continue to withdraw. As the chief of staff of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan told the International Crisis Group, "If the Shiites choose Iran, and the Sunnis choose the Arab world, then the Kurds will have to ally themselves with Turkey." Economics figure in as well: The oil-rich Iraqi Kurds export their oil though a pipeline that leads to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

But what does all this intricate politicking mean for Ankara and the PKK?

The insurgent Kurdish group’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, continues to maintain a unilateral cease-fire and is no longer demanding independence. But he has also made proposals that no Turkish government would accept. For example, he has said Turks and Kurds must recognize Turkey and Kurdistan as a "joint homeland," whatever that means. He may also harbor dreams of transforming the PKK into a legitimate political party, like Ireland’s Sinn Fein.

Even the most liberal Turkish politicians balk at any legitimization of the PKK. But why would the group give up its guns if that meant agreeing to disband? The United States could be one reason. As the Pentagon considers sending troops to northern Iraq to stem an armed Kurdish-Arab conflict, it could also pressure the KRG to crack down on the PKK’s camps. In this scenario, PKK would have no safehaven in Iraq or Turkey. Then, it might accept amnesty without any politicians in Ankara having to appear to negotiate or concede too much.

Turkey is closer now than ever before to solving the problem that has kept it estranged from the United States, the European Union, and millions of its own citizens. Turkish politicians have started speaking the right language. With luck, action will follow.

Nicholas Danforth is Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP.

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