Nevruz, which is the Turkish name for the Persian New Year (traditionally celebrated the first day of spring) has caused all sorts of headaches for successive Turkish governments. It is a day that is celebrated by Kurds, leading to increased Kurdish nationalism and sometimes to PKK violence, both of which the Turkish government wants to avoid. In fact, Nevruz has been so controversial in the past that its celebration was actually banned in the mid-90s following demonstrations and police shooting and killing civilians in 1992. This year, controversy swirled again after the pro-Kurdish BDP announced that it would be celebrating Nevruz this year on March 18 rather than March 21 since Sunday festivities would get more people into the streets, and Turkish provincial governors responded by ordering celebrations to take place on March 21 as usual.
The reasoning behind forbidding Nevruz celebrations today was to minimize excessive shows of Kurdish nationalism, but as was entirely predictable, the move backfired terribly. The BDP refused to back down, police in Diyarbakır and Istanbul ended up using tear gas and water cannons on crowds that gathered to celebrate/protest, and BDP member in Istanbul was killed during the clashes (rumored to be a Kurdish politician).
Two quick thoughts on this, one specific to today’s events and one more general. First, having state officials attempt to dictate when a non-state holiday is to be celebrated is nothing more than foolish and guaranteed to lead to trouble. Ankara is understandably wary of PKK violence on Nevruz and of louder calls for Kurdish autonomy, but attempting to designate an official day on which festivities can be held is always going to be a losing proposition. There was no doubt that Kurds were going to fill the streets, and that police equipped with crowd control devices trying to stop them would lead to injuries and possibly fatalities. What was the potential upside to doing things this way? Now pro-Kurdish politicians get to loudly proclaim that Turkey’s actions make it a “fascist state” and Kurdish nationalism gets a larger boost than it otherwise would, obviating the very purpose of trying to eliminate a Sunday Nevruz observance.
Second, this type of stuff is going to keep on happening until Turkey finds a genuine solution to its Kurdish problem. Kurdish nationalism is not going to disappear, and the 15-20% of Turkey’s population that is ethnically Kurdish is not going to all of a sudden embrace the Kemalist narrative of “we are all Turks.” Erdoğan’s brief Kurdish opening was a start, but he quickly reversed himself and now again has gone back to trying to sweep the issue of Kurdish nationalism and identity under the rug. Until the government has an open and honest conversation about what to do with its Kurdish population in the long term, Nevruz is going to continue to be a day of violence rather than an innocuous festival heralding the end of winter.