ANKARA (Reuters)–German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping on Tuesday urged Turkey to consider granting Kurdish cultural rights as part of its efforts to conform to entry criteria set by the European Union.
Turkey has steadfastly refused to grant minority rights to its estimated 12 million Kurds–arguing that all its citizens already enjoy equal rights.
Scharping was the first high-profile minister from an EU country to visit Turkey since it was declared a candidate for entry to the 15-nation bloc earlier this month.
"Kurdish people should have the right of speaking their own language–receiving lessons in their own language and living their own culture," the German minister told a news conference.
"This is a matter of human rights and has no links with the autonomy of a country," he said.
Improvemen’s to Turkey’s shaky human rights record are high on the list of measures demanded by the EU before Ankara can make progress towards membership of the rich Western club.
Many of the allegations of rights abuses in Turkey arise from the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast–the scene of a 15-year-old conflict with Abdullah Ocalan’s supporters.
Turkey has ignored repeated calls from Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for a negotiated solution to the fighting–perceiving a threat to its territorial integrity.
Ocalan himself is under sentence of death–and the EU has strongly stated that his execution would damage Turkey’s membership case.
Kurdish leaders on Tuesday welcomed calls from a Turkish government party for better human rights in the mainly Kurdish southeast as a sign that Ankara had seen the need for change to meet EU membership standards.
The conservative Motherland Party–led by Mesut Yilmaz–last week called for reform in the southeast as part of Turkey’s progress to meeting the European criteria. Motherland is the smallest of Turkey’s three coalition parties.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) welcomed the Motherland declaration–issued in the southeast regional capital Diyarbakir.
"A solution to the Kurdish problem is essential for the search for solutions to all economic–social–military–political and cultural problems," the PKK’s leadership council said in a statement carried by the German-based DEM news agency.
"Mesut Yilmaz’s words that ‘The road to the EU passes through Diyarbakir’ is an expression of this truth," it said.
But Yilmaz has been criticized by members of the far-rightist nationalist wing of the coalition for his remarks. The hard-line nationalists oppose any measure that might be seen as a concession to the rebel PKK.
"The acceptance of Turkey as an EU candidate brings a new dimension to the process and makes practical measures urgent," it said.
"Encouraged by recent developmen’s–(the PKK) is determined to fully carry out the decision to end the struggle and to withdraw forces from the area of battle."
Ministers from Yilmaz’s party and the leftists of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit have talked of allowing Kurdish-language television but no formal steps have been taken.
The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) wing of the coalition would almost certainly oppose such a move.