A Kurdish protester holds a picture of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan near a burning vehicle at Istanbul's Taksim Square. Photo: AP
WASHINGTON DC - A small protest against the removal of a park in Istanbul has spiraled into a national issue, dragging in the Kurds and stoking fears it could derail Ankara’s historic peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The participation of Sirri Sureyya Onder, the Istanbul representative of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), in the protests drew massive media attention.
The protesters are a mix of anti-government citizens and ultra-nationalists, who demand the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But the character of the protests has raised concerns among Turkey’s Kurds. They sympathize with the protests, but worry how they will impact the unfolding peace process, which is in its sensitive first stages.
Co-chair of the BDP, Selahattin Demirtas, said publicly that his party supported the protests against “repressive government policies in Taksim and all over Turkey.”
He also reminded his supporters that nationalist groups might try to use the protests to derail the peace process with the PKK.
“We will not participate in protests with racists and fascists,” said Demirtas. “And we will not allow the events in Gezi Park to turn against the peace process.”
But on the other hand the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has sent out a message of support to the protesters through Demirtas, saying, “I find the resistance meaningful and I salute it.”
Erdogan said on Tuesday that he will not bow to the protesters and that his “patience is running out.” He also called the protesters extremists who are trying to harm Turkey.
Ocalan, too, pointed to ultra-nationalists being behind the protests and warned the Kurds against falling victim to their agenda.
Similarly, the Kurdistan Communities' Union (KCK) -- PKK’s civilian wing -- released a statement in support of the protests, describing them as a “civilian reflex against the interventions of the government into the private lives of its citizens.”
KCK also emphasized Ocalan’s warning that the Kurds should be careful and not let “opportunists” use them for their own aims.
BDP leaders are the most vocal critics of Erdogan’s government, accusing it of backtracking on its pledged democratization process, of clamping down on Kurdish activists and of unwillingness to amend Turkey’s constitution in a way that would address the aspirations and rights of minority groups.
Other Kurds worry that weakening Erdogan’s government would strengthen radical Turkish parties, such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), that have historically shown more animosity toward the Kurds.
The former head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, M. Emin Aktar, told Rudaw that, “This time they (Kurds) are more careful, and their participation in the protests is limited.”
“At a time when the peace process is going on, the Kurds do not want to be the cause of any provocations,” Aktar added.