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Turkey: Minorities
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics > Political Dynamics > Political Interest Groups > Minorities


At least 15 percent of Turkey's population consists of ethnic and religious minorities. The Kurds are the minority group with the greatest impact on national politics. Since the 1930s, Kurds have resisted government efforts to assimilate them forcibly, including an official ban on speaking or writing Kurdish. Since 1984 Kurdish resistance to Turkification has encompassed both a peaceful political struggle to obtain basic civil rights for Kurds within Turkey and a violent armed struggle to obtain a separate Kurdish state. The leaders of the nonviolent struggle have worked within the political system for the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights, including the right to speak Kurdish in public and to read, write, and publish in Kurdish. Prior to 1991, these Kurds operated within the national political parties, in particular the SHP, the party most sympathetic to their goal of full equality for all citizens of Turkey. President Özal's 1991 call for a more liberal policy toward Kurds and for the repeal of the ban on speaking Kurdish raised the hopes of Kurdish politicians. Following the parliamentary elections of October 1991, several Kurdish deputies, including Hatip Dicle, Feridun Yazar, and Leyla Zayna, formed the HEP, a party with the explicit goal of campaigning within the National Assembly for laws guaranteeing equal rights for the Kurds.

Turkey's other leaders were not as willing as Özal to recognize Kurdish distinctiveness, and only two months after his death in April 1993, the Constitutional Court issued its decision declaring the HEP illegal. In anticipation of this outcome, the Kurdish deputies had resigned from the HEP only days before and formed a new organization, the Democracy Party (Demokrasi Partisi -- DEP). The DEP's objective was similar to that of its predecessor: to promote civil rights for all citizens of Turkey. When the DEP was banned in June 1994, Kurdish deputies formed the new People's Democracy Party (Halkin Demokrasi Partisi -- HADEP).

The PKK initiated armed struggle against the state in 1984 with attacks on gendarmerie posts in the southeast. The PKK's leader, Abdullah Öcalan, had formed the group in the late 1970s while a student in Ankara. Prior to the 1980 coup, Öcalan fled to Lebanon, via Syria, where he continued to maintain his headquarters in 1994. Until October 1992, Öcalan's brother, Osman, had supervised PKK training camps in the mountains separating northern Iraq from Turkey's Hakkâri and Mardin provinces. It was from these camps that PKK guerrillas launched their raids into Turkey. The main characteristic of PKK attacks was the use of indiscriminate violence, and PKK guerrillas did not hesitate to kill Kurds whom they considered collaborators. Targeted in particular were the government's paid militia, known as village guards, and schoolteachers accused of promoting forced assimilation. The extreme violence of the PKK's methods enabled the government to portray the PKK as a terrorist organization and to justify its own policies, which included the destruction of about 850 border villages and the forced removal of their populations to western Turkey.

In March 1993, the PKK dropped its declared objective of creating an independent state of Kurdistan in the southeastern provinces that had Kurdish majorities. Its new goal was to resolve the Kurdish problem within a democratic and federal system. The loss of PKK guerrilla camps in northern Iraq in October 1992, following defeat in a major confrontation with Iraqi Kurdish forces supported by Turkish military intervention, probably influenced this tactical change. At the same time, Öcalan announced a unilateral, albeit temporary, cease-fire in the PKK's war with Turkish security forces. The latter decision may also have reflected the influence of Kurdish civilian leaders, who had been urging an end to the violence in order to test Özal's commitment to equal rights. Whether there were realistic prospects in the spring of 1993 for a political solution to the conflict in southeast Turkey may never be known. Özal suffered a fatal heart attack in April, and his successor, Demirel, did not appear inclined to challenge the military, whose position continued to be that elimination of the PKK was the appropriate way to pacify the region. Fighting between security forces and PKK guerrillas, estimated to number as many as 15,000, resumed by June 1993.

In early 1995, Turkey's other minorities -- Arabs, Armenians, other Caucasian peoples, Circassians, Georgians, Greeks, and Jews -- tended toward political quiescence. Arabs, who are concentrated in the southeast to the west of the Kurds and north of the border with Syria, had demonstrated over language and religious issues in the 1980s. Because most of Turkey's Arabs belong to Islam's Alawi branch, whose adherents also include the leading politicians of Syria, Ankara's often tense relations with Syria tend to be further complicated.

The Armenian issue also adds tension to foreign affairs. The 60,000 Armenians estimated to be living in Turkey in the mid-1990s had refrained from attracting any political attention to their community. However, along with Armenians residing in Lebanon, France, Iran, and the United States, the Republic of Armenia, which borders Turkey's easternmost province of Kars, has embarrassed Turkey with highly publicized annual commemorations of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 -- which the Turkish government denies ever occurred -- have claimed responsibility for assassinations of Turkish diplomatic personnel stationed in the Middle East and Europe. Such assassinations have continued to occur in the 1990s. Unidentified Turkish government officials frequently have leaked reports to the news media accusing Armenia, Lebanon, and Syria of allowing Armenian terrorists to receive training and support within their borders.

Last Updated: January 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Turkey was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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