Despite a dramatic overture from Turkey's prime minister and deep fatigue among minority Kurds weary of a civil war that has killed tens of thousands, Kurdish politics remains dominated by men more acquainted with conflict than with conciliation.

In a speech here in August, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "People are asking me what we are planning to do about the 'Kurdish problem.' " His answer -- "more democracy" -- was widely regarded as a significant overture for peace, giving new context to an issue that official Turkey has long cast as a question of law and order.

Kurdish politicians say they saw it as exactly that. The war here, which has killed more than 30,000 and still claims several lives a week, is rooted in Turkey's long, sometimes brutal suppression of Kurdish ethnic identity.

"The words of Prime Minister Erdogan are our wishes," said Selim Sadak, a Kurdish politician who spent 10 years in prison for defying the state. "If such words came before all our pain and suffering, then maybe the pain and suffering could have been avoided."

The challenge now facing Turkey's Kurds is how to answer Erdogan's invitation and shift the issue from the battlefield to the political arena. A solution would also remove a headache for the United States in neighboring Iraq, where several thousand armed Turkish Kurds have taken refuge.

The difficulty that Kurds face is distilled in the effort by Sadak and others to form a new party. The major figures are, like him, former lawmakers who were imprisoned until recently for association with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish-language initials PKK.

More an army than a party, the PKK is regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, chiefly for attacks on civilian targets. Yet the now-forming political party, the Democratic Society Movement, appears intent on associating itself with the PKK and its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Ocalan. The new party's most prominent organizer, former legislator Leyla Zana, made headlines by publicly kissing the hand of Ocalan's sister.

Political professionals argue that, at the grass roots, Ocalan's abiding potency as a symbol of resistance counts for more in Kurdish politics than the disdain he inspires even among many who wish the Kurds well.

"There are a lot of people here who feel not only sympathy with him but blood -- their brothers', their sisters', their sons'," said Mahmut Simsek, an aide to the mayor in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. "When you talk about 35,000 dead, 30,000 of them were from the Kurdish side."

Ocalan organized the PKK on Marxist lines, enforcing discipline that some regarded as brainwashing. Though a brutal infighter who left several rivals dead, Ocalan led from the rear as a commander, surrounding himself with female bodyguards in Syria while young Kurds died in Turkey's barren mountains.

After his 1999 capture in Nairobi by Turkish special forces acting on a U.S. tip, Ocalan was videotaped telling his captors: "I have a hunch I can be of service to the Turkish people and the Kurdish people. My mother is a Turk." From prison, he ordered the PKK to withdraw to northern Iraq, and the Turkish countryside was quiet for five years.

During that interval, things began to change in Turkey, at least on the government side. The state, founded on a concept of "Turkishness," for decades had imposed that view even on non-Turks with their own strong ethnic identities. Kurds were officially dubbed "mountain Turks" and forbidden to publicly express their language, music and customs.

But at the urging of the European Union, Turkey began to indulge the idea of minority rights. In 2002 its parliament legalized Kurdish-language schools and allowed limited broadcasts in Kurdish.

"As far as I know, the E.U. has been very successful in sensitizing the Turkish state to the rights of the Kurds," said Kemal Kirisci, a Bosphorus University professor who wrote a book on the "Kurdish problem."

When Erdogan's government came to power, those largely symbolic changes were followed by personnel shifts that impressed independent observers. Diyarbakir was sent a provincial governor and police chief who spoke of protecting demonstrators at pro-Kurdish rallies. State security forces used to wade into such protests with batons flying.

"The state has had to adapt itself and its institutions to the new paradigm," said Efkan Ala, the governor. "This is one of the basic differences between a developed country and an underdeveloped country."

Human rights activists say Turkey still has a long way to go. Reports of torture continue, especially after PKK guerrillas began to return to Turkey last year and sporadic fighting resumed. The guerrillas say they returned out of disappointment both at receiving no acceptable offer of amnesty and at the state's sluggish implementation of even limited rights.

"They reduced the Kurdish problem to a half-hour on TV and a few language courses," said Cihan Derya, 30, who spent nine years in prison for membership in the PKK and now works for a nonprofit group in Diyarbakir. "They use this E.U. process to deny the reality of the PKK and Mr. Ocalan and separate them from the Kurdish problem. The Kurdish problem cannot be separated from the PKK and Mr. Ocalan."

Some Kurdish politicians have reached the same conclusion. After his release from prison, Sadak toured villages where Ocalan is credited for the gains in Kurdish rights. He said the Kurds were "founding a political party and conducting politics atop this base."

Forming a mainstream party without referencing Ocalan "would be very difficult," said Sadak, who has the garrulous warmth of a natural politician. "It's like reaching over your head to hold your ear."

But others say Kurdish politics lags behind Kurdish interests. Whatever the popularity of Ocalan, opinion polls and interviews show that Kurds overwhelmingly favor Turkish membership in the European Union, recognizing that it would guarantee democratic processes that would, in turn, ensure Kurdish rights.

"Even the shepherd on the mountain knows that. But sometimes even some politicians don't know it," said Halis Nezan, an official of the Rights and Freedom Party. The small group, headquartered in Diyarbakir, is the only Kurdish party aligned against the PKK, a stance that many say stems partly from intimidation.

Mustafa Kemal Ok, 65, a retired teacher, said he was beaten by PKK members after he left the organization to join the opposition party. "The PKK provincial commander came to my house and warned there were hit men coming for me," he said.

"In this region, there is a certain organization and there is the state," said Sah Ismail Bedirhanoglu, president of the Southeastern Anatolian Businessmen and Industrialists' Association. "People we call more tolerant did not have a chance to raise their voice."

A Kurdish political culture independent of militants "hasn't developed," Bedirhanoglu said. "It seems that they fail to see the state can also change its ways."

Days after Erdogan's dramatic outreach, the PKK called a one-month cease-fire, but PKK demonstrations studded with posters of Ocalan quickly dominated the news in Turkey. Turkish ultranationalists rushed to confront the demonstrators, hundreds were injured and, in the uproar, the public focus shifted to proposed anti-terrorism statutes -- in a country where terrorism is regarded as a Kurdish problem.

Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Diyarbakir lawyer who received the 1997 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, said he wished Erdogan had been bolder earlier, summarily sweeping aside all restraints on Kurdish rights. But he lamented the loss of the brief peace when Kurdish politicians chose to remain identified with the PKK.

"They didn't become independent, and that's why the Kurdish problem is at this stage," Tanrikulu said. "These armed forces are preventing Kurdish politics from democratizing."