Just four days after being accepted as an official candidate for full membership in the European Union, Turkey announced today it will ease language restrictions on its Kurdish minority.
In a move that delighted Kurdish activists and Western diplomats here, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said on television: "Everyone in Turkey should have the right to have television broadcasts in their own language." Cem added that Turkey must draw up legislation to that effect.
"Our government will of course assess this issue. But to start [membership] negotiations, Turkey in principle should remove obstacles to democracy and human rights. This is one of them," Cem said in the newspaper Hurriyet.
The EU's decision to place Turkey on its list of candidates for membership at last week's summit meeting in Helsinki was based in part on its assumption that the Turkish government will improve its human rights record, including its treatment of the Kurdish minority.
Cem's acknowledgment that Kurdish-language rights need to be guaranteed by law marks a radical departure from Turkey's long-standing argument that allowing broadcasting and education in any language other than Turkish would encourage ethnic separatism and undermine the unity of the state.
The announcement followed a series of peace overtures by the imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya in February and sentenced to death on treason charges by a Turkish court in June. Ocalan is the leader of the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party.
Ethnic recognition and linguistic rights were a central theme in the party's 15-year armed campaign for self-rule in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
Ocalan's death sentence, which still has to be approved by parliament, is not likely to be carried out, because of Turkey's efforts to gain membership in the EU. At the Helsinki meeting, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit pledged that Turkey would abolish the death penalty, in line with EU policy.
Ocalan, in a message from his death row cell, today welcomed Turkey's EU candidacy. "The republic should acknowledge the historical-cultural-social identity of Kurds, who are among its founders," he said in a statement issued through his lawyers, the Reuters news service reported.