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Turkish President Talks Unity on Visit to Kurdish Province

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul, right, and city's mayor Osman Baydemir speak to the media in Baydemir's office in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 30 Dec 2010

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul, right, and city's mayor Osman Baydemir speak to the media in Baydemir's office in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 30 Dec 2010

Turkish President Abdullah Gul sent out a message of unity during his long anticipated trip to the southeastern Kurdish province of Diyarbakir.

Diyarbakir extended a warm greeting to President Abdullah Gul.

Throughout his two day visit, the city's Kurdish cultural identity was visible, from music to dance to the Kurdish language. Everywhere he went there were bilingual street signs in Turkish and Kurdish. This highly important separate linguistic identity was also the inspiration behind a gift to the president from the mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir. “This is the dictionary of our beautiful Turkish and our beautiful Kurdish and it is a treasury of 40,000 words,” Baydemir said.” I am honored to present this to you,” he said.

Baydemir is one of the leading figures behind a campaign launched this month for Kurdish cultural and political rights, focusing on the greater use of the Kurdish language.

Kurds make up around a quarter of Turkey's population of 72 million. During the 1980's, the Turkish authorities refused to acknowledge that the Kurdish language even existed and while controls on its use have been eased somewhat, there are still restrictions in place.

Speaking at a dinner with local businessmen Thursday night, President Gul tried to take a balanced approach.

The official language of the Republic of Turkey is Turkish. This will continue in this way. However, we have citizens using different languages, he said. Kurdish is used here, he said, and there are some other citizens using Arabic in other places. All these are ours, our languages.

Observers say the president's stance is in mark contrast to the strong condemnation of the Kurdish demands by the Turkish government. His busy schedule included meetings with Kurdish political and business leaders in another contrast with the government, which has curtly dismissed the main Kurdish party as just an extension of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.

But it is the government that wields the real power in Turkey, not the president. And analysts say the government's condemnation of Kurdish demands will go down well with nationalist conservative Turkish voters. With elections due in less than six months, political commentator Cengiz Aktar expects rifts between Turks and Kurds to deepen.

"The more we get close to the elections the stake gets higher and higher, so it will create more and more tensions in the country,” Aktar said.”Because many of those politicians who take the floor and talk about this issue, they talk in terms of division of the country, secession etc, and this is very, very bad."

Observers warn electoral politics could well overwhelm any good will generated by President Gul's visit.