Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – In a country where until recently even the mention of the word Kurdistan was taboo, the Turkish prime minister’s reference to a historical “Kurdistan province” under the Ottoman Empire is seen as a step forward for the country’s large Kurdish minority, which for decades has struggled for recognition and basic rights.
The comments last week on CNN Turk by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) is engaged in historic peace talks with the jailed leader of the separatist and illegal Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), were received positively by Turkey’s Kurds, who have been demanding a system of self-governance.
The Ottoman system of vilayets, or provinces, fell apart with the dissolution of the empire in the aftermath of the First World War.
“Talking about a vilayet system was a red line in Turkey till today,” noted Bayram Bozyel, deputy chairman of Freedoms and Rights Party (HAK-PAR), a licensed Kurdish party in Turkey.
“Erdogan talking about this topic, even verbally, is considered a very good step,” he said, adding that since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s Kurds have suffered under a centralized rule.
The Turkish premier opened indirect peace talks in February with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been kept in virtual isolation at a prison on Turkey’s Imrali island since his capture in 1999.
On March 21, in a message marking the Kurdish New Year, Ocalan declared a ceasefire in the three-decade war with Ankara that has claimed more than 40,000 lives, telling supporters that the Kurds are embarking on a new, political struggle.
Although the Turkish government has not publicly outlined what it would cede in return, it is widely believed that Ankara is amenable to constitutional changes that would grant recognition and rights to the Kurds. Kurdish politicians and activists hope to take administration of Turkey’s Kurdish areas into their own hands, as they did under the Ottomans.
“The governing system of the Ottomans was not centralized like now. Their vilayets were independent in everything except foreign affairs,” said Bozyil, who does not see the return of that system anytime soon.
“The Turkish government has referred to 2023 for the realization of this system. This is a big problem. If the vilayet system is needed now, why delay it 10 more years? Maybe he (Erdogan) wants to please the Kurds with these words and delay the issue for 10 more years," he said.
According to political observers, if the system is returned, Turkey will be divided into 18 large municipalities, including the Kurdish regions of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Urfa.
But Bozyil cautioned that, "Kurdistan must not be divided again with the pretext of problem-solving. Kurdistan is one with all its residents, history and culture.”
Murat Bozlak, MP of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that has been the intermediary in Ankara’s dialogue with Ocalan, welcomed Erdogan’s comments to CNN Turk, saying he believed that the vilayet system will help resolve Turkey’s Kurdish issue.
"The Kurds of Turkey demand the rights of identity, culture, and education in their native language. They also want self-governance in Turkey. The vilayet system will become a solution. In this system the Kurdish language will become a formal language in the government institutions in Kurdistan," he said.
Zevar Ozdemir, an AKP MP from the Kurdish city of Batman in Turkey, said that, “The vilayet system is a Turkish reality. We have been avoiding this reality till now, but we can no longer continue to do that.”