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Can Erdogan slay Turkey's zombies?

If you turn on a Turkish television today and turn to channel 6, you'll encounter something that would have been unimaginable even a couple years ago: the letters W, Q and X, emerging from the mouths of soap-opera actors on a legal, public national channel.

Those letters, absent from the Turkish alphabet but part of the minority Kurdish language, are still officially illegal to utter or print in Turkey, despite the fact a sixth of the population, or 12 million people, are Kurds. The Turks, according to the constitution that founded their country, are one people, one ethnic group, with one language, regardless of the facts.

But last year Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke through this barrier of illogic by launching a public TV network, TRT 6, in Kurdish, even inaugurating it by making a speech in the forbidden tongue.

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He also allowed schooling to take place in minority languages, opened Kurdish-literature departments in universities, and brought Kurdish politics in from the cold by offering a partial amnesty to fighters from the Kurdish PKK.

This was the core of his "Kurdish opening," an unprecedented effort to bring a peaceful end to one of the three violent, demeaning and seemingly endless conflicts that have prevented Turkey from being fully accepted in the club of nations.

Turkey is an important country now: Economically strong and stable, it provides financial advice and loans to its debt-crippled European neighbours, including - amazingly - aid to Greece; using its United Nations Security Council seat and founding NATO membership, it plays an important role in diplomatic and military matters, as we saw in Tehran last week.

But Turkey's wider progress and acceptance by the European Union are stalled by a set of perpetual injustices, involving Armenia, Cyprus and the Kurds, that paralyze its internal growth in an endless loop of puerile debates.

Baskin Oran, the Ankara historian who launched a petition demanding a Turkish apology to Armenia for the 1915 mass murder of Armenians, describes these unmentionable, hidden injustices as Turkey's zombies.

"When we created this nation, we tried to put the dead bodies in the closet, and now they have come back as the three zombies - the Kurds, Cyprus and Armenia," Mr. Oran told me when I visited him in Ankara this week. "Other countries have such zombies, but we have three at the same time, and we alone created them, and they are all related. Until we can face them and deal with them, we will not be a viable nation."

Turkey, like Canada, was cobbled together from the fragments of a fading empire, the scraps carrying a mixture of cultures, religions and languages; it papered over its inconsistencies with forced assimilations, ethnic cleansings, and by outlawing any discussion of such wrongs under the law against "insulting Turkishness."

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Mr. Erdogan, whose profession of Islamic faith in this officially secular state evokes a fourth zombie, has used his outsider status and huge popularity to attack these hidden corpses like no previous leader. He has launched a rapprochement with Armenia, engaged in serious negotiations with Cyprus to turn the Turkish-occupied state of North Cyprus into a normal part of the island, and reached out to the Kurds and other minorities.

Yet there is a sense today that his efforts have stalled, or perhaps even failed.

When I spoke to the leaders of the Kurdish parties and movements in Ankara and in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, they spoke of a great disillusionment: Mass arrests of Kurds, including children, have started again, the PKK has gone back to war, and there has been no move toward a constitutional recognition of their language. "We backed Erdogan's opening fully, but now we've lost faith - it looks like he only helped us in order to create an image of change to boost his popularity," said Haydar Sayili, vice-president of the BDP, the largest Kurdish party. "There is no real change."

Cyprus was close to a total constitutional resolution last year, but got bogged down in the island's internal politics (though there have been new signs of life this week). And a normalization of relations with Armenia has become similarly stalled, mainly over Turkey's reluctance to fully address the extent of the 1915 mass murder (which Armenians, and many outsiders, call a genocide, but Turks don't even learn about in school). Here, too, there are rumours that secret talks continue.

People in Mr. Erdogan's party tell me that they want to have a full resolution, but the necessary constitutional changes would risk the wrath of the twin forces of Turkish homogeneity, the constitutional court and the army (which tends to overthrow governments that approach such matters).

In an effort to overcome these barriers, Mr. Erdogan is launching constitutional changes that would expand and neutralize the court by allowing appointees from the current government. Some fear these changes as an effort to make Turkey more Islamic. But they may also be the only way to drive a stake through the zombies.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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