After decades-long repression of the Kurdish identity, last year one of several Kurdish language schools opened amid fanfare as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

But the classrooms now stand empty in the impoverished southeast and Kurdish language broadcasters are silent, a sign of the gap between the promise and implementation of EU-inspired reforms, as Turkey prepares for accession talks.

"The state has made it hard for us and provided no support," Suleyman Yilmaz complained in his office, where a television set shows a Kurdish music programme broadcast from western Europe.

"People have been subjected to an assimilation policy and that turned people off the whole idea of learning," he said.

Lack of interest played a role in a decision to close the schools this summer.

Language matters

Many of Turkey's 12 million strong Kurds want Kurdish to be used in normal schools as the language of instruction, Yilmaz said.

Yilmaz rejected local talk that fighters from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had sought the schools' closure.

The PKK continues to command a
measure of support among Kurds

The sensitivity of Kurdish demands in Turkey can partly be explained by the violence that has wracked the southeast since the PKK launched an armed separatist campaign in 1984.

More than 30,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed in the conflict.

Under EU pressure, in 2002 Turkey lifted bans on teaching and broadcasts in Kurdish, but bureaucratic resistance delayed implementation of the reform.

Last year, state TV and radio began regular, limited programming in Kurdish and other minority languages. Broadcasters in the southeast are yet to benefit from this easing of restrictions.

Growing frustration

At the Gun (Day) station in Diyarbakir, there is growing frustration at the failure of authorities to allow Kurdish programming one and a half years after the channel made its application.

"People have been subjected to an assimilation policy and that turned people off the whole idea of learning"

Suleyman Yilmaz

If permission is granted, broadcasts will be limited to 45 minutes a day or four hours a week with Turkish subtitles.

"These are small steps for us. They have something of a symbolic meaning for us and we are hoping that the restrictions will eventually be removed," said station director Cemal Dogan.

The station has fought 20 court cases, mainly about Kurdish song lyrics. Most ended in acquittal but it has been shut down twice for a month, once when guests spoke Kurdish on a live programme.

Greater confidence

"People can now express themselves freely in the streets, even to the extent of defending an independent Kurdistan, but if I broadcast that, it is regarded as a crime," Dogan said.

Erdogan is the first leader to
refer to a 'Kurdish problem'

The station has already prepared arts and culture programmes, and Dogan speculated that permission to broadcast may be given before the 3 October start of EU talks as a political gesture.

Ironically, the station can already broadcast Kurdish language advertisements. Women parade in brightly coloured Kurdish dresses in one advert for clothing. An advertiser extols a local book fair in another.

Locals can also watch Kurdish language satellite programmes from nearby Iraq or the pro-PKK Roj TV based in Denmark.

The Kurds have acquired a powerful advocate in the country's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who last month became the first Turkish leader to refer to a "Kurdish problem", which he said should be resolved by democratic reforms.

Solidarity with Kurds

In a visit to Diyarbakir, Erdogan vowed solidarity with the southeast and expressed disquiet at the failure of authorities to allow private channels to broadcast in Kurdish.

"These are small steps for us. They have something of a symbolic meaning for us and we are hoping that the restrictions will eventually be removed"

Cemal Dogan,
Gun (Day) station director

Many Kurds welcomed his initiative, which has coincided with a resurgence of separatist violence and nationalist tensions.

The regional head of the Human Rights Association, Selahattin Demirtas, has said the main obstacle to progress lies in Turkey's judicial and bureaucratic apparatus, where old habits die harder than old laws.

"(They) have shown resistance, hence there has been a problem with implementation (of reforms). The problem is more one of mentality than of laws themselves," he said.

At the same time, the government is under pressure to revive restrictions under anti-terror legislation because of growing separatist violence, with fighters attacking military targets in the southeast and even tourists in western Turkey.

"These are backward steps," Demirtas said. "We say that the best security is to increase democracy."