It's all downhill for Turkey's Kurdish youth

In the latest effort to keep Kurdish youths from joining rebels, the Turkish government has come up with an original idea: teach them how to ski.

ISTANBUL // In the latest effort to keep Kurdish youths from joining rebels in the mountains of south-eastern Anatolia, the Turkish government has come up with an original idea: teach them how to ski.

Up to 40 centres for skiing and other winter sports will be opened in the snow-rich region, the Turkish sports minister, Faruk Ozak, told local media last weekend. "I think the project is just as important from the point of view of sport as it is from the social point of view," the minister was quoted as saying. In a region lacking jobs and prospects for young people, the scheme is to direct the energy of Kurdish children and teenagers, seen by the state as potential future fighters for the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, into peaceful channels. Mr Ozak's plan is part of a wider effort by the government to find a non-violent solution to the Kurdish conflict after 25 years of fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK that has left tens of thousands of people dead.

Known as the Democratic Opening, the government initiative has come under fire from both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. Turkish right-wingers accuse Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, of caving in to Kurdish separatists. But Kurdish activists say the plans fall far short of what is needed to satisfy Kurdish demands for more self-rule. Emine Ayna, a leading member of the pro-Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, told Aksam newspaper yesterday that the state should take the PKK's demands into account, something Mr Erdogan strictly refuses to do. "There will be no solution if the PKK is ignored," Ms Ayna said. She and many other Kurdish politicians joined the BDP after Turkey's constitutional court last month banned a Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP.

Despite the stiff resistance from all sides of the political spectrum, Mr Erdogan has vowed to stick with the Democratic Opening in the new year. One key piece of legislation foresees a reduction of jail sentences for under-age participants of violent demonstrations in the Kurdish area. Current laws say children who throw stones at police during riots have to be regarded as taking part in terrorist acts, a definition that has led to long jail sentences handed down to minors in recent years.

Mr Erdogan wants to change those rules to show the country's estimated 12 million Kurds that his government is serious about wanting to bring peace to their region. According to the government's proposals, stone-throwing children would be tried in juvenile courts, where sentences are lighter and courts could decide to send offenders to do social work instead of jail time. "Let us take on those changes immediately," Mr Erdogan was quoted as telling a leadership meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, at the end of last year. It is unclear when the amendment will be brought to parliament, however.

Other legislative plans announced by the government include the establishment of a new, independent human rights body, a new institution for the prevention of discrimination against members of minorities like the Kurds, and the foundation of a committee charged with investigating complaints from citizens against the security forces. Mr Erdogan argues that the changes will benefit everyone in Turkey, not just the Kurds, and will strengthen democracy.

The AKP, a party that includes Islamist, nationalist and reformist wings, controls 337 of 550 seats in Ankara's parliament and can push through new laws without the support of other groups. But for the first time since the AKP was founded by Mr Erdogan in 2001, serious cracks have appeared within the organisation. One AKP deputy complained publicly that the Democratic Opening has gone too far. That kind of open resistance to a party leader's wishes is rare in Turkish politics, where parties are strictly controlled from the top down.

Zeki Ozcan, an AKP deputy from the capital, Ankara, said the Democratic Opening carried the risk of deepening ethnical tensions by showering Kurds with benefits and highlighting differences between Turkish citizens of various ethnic backgrounds. "It is not possible to find a solution [of the Kurdish problem] by stressing ethnicity," Mr Ozcan told the CNN-Turk news channel. "The way the process is being conducted harms the unitary structure" of the state, he added.

According to news reports, Mr Ozcan and seven other AKP deputies are thinking about leaving the party in protest against the Democratic Opening and joining another conservative group, the Democratic Party, or DP. At the moment, Mesut Yilmaz, a former prime minister, is the only DP deputy in parliament. Several AKP deputies said to be mulling a resignation from the party have denied the reports. At the same time, AKP politicians from the Kurdish area are reported to be demanding more concrete steps by the government. "Although non-Kurdish AKP supporters have concerns about the Opening, party members from the south-east are worried because the Opening has not made progress," Rusen Cakir, a columnist regarded as an AKP expert, wrote in the Vatan newspaper.

Given the row surrounding the Democratic Opening both inside and outside the governing party, Mr Erdogan will not find it easy to push the process forward in the coming months, Cakir wrote.