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Turkey’s Kurdish question at a crossroads


Kurdish Herald Feature - Vol. 1 Issue 5, September 2009


Turkey has changed drastically over the last two decades. The politics of the officially secular republic are today dominated by the firmly entrenched Justice and Development Party (AKP); a party with a national following and an unambiguously Islamist tendency. At the same time, the country is closer than ever before to being regarded as a member of the European community. With respect to the Kurdish question, much has happened over the last two decades that have significantly changed the relationship between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people, including demands, concessions, and methods of dialogue. It cannot be disputed that the Kurdish people living within Turkey’s borders have more right to the expression of their identity than ever before. However, just as equally undeniable are the presence a number of draconian and selectively enforced laws remaining in place that effectively restrict the most basic rights.


Click to enlarge - Rebbaz Royee © Kurdish Herald 2009


While for the first time Turkish high officials are openly expressing their intentions to resolve the unsettled and overdue Kurdish question, there still remains a lack of will in Turkey both politically and socially to approach the conflict in an effective and resolute manner. Each year, deadlines come and go, pivotal events transpire, and yet no solution that comes close to satisfying all parties involved in this conflict seems any closer to reality.

Over the last several weeks, a number of developments that are believed to be a prelude to the Turkish government’s so-called Kurdish initiative have given some cause for optimism. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, issued an unprecedented statement urging members of society to engage in discussions and debates in support of the government's efforts towards solving the Kurdish issue. Additionally, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), shunned from the mainstream political process for years, has been invited for public discussions on the Kurdish issue with members of the AKP and the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP); both refused to meet with the DTP in the past. At the same time, the very existence of a plan to unveil a Kurdish initiative has prompted the mainstream Turkish press to address the Kurdish issue in an uncharacteristically open way.

Ever more subtle yet significant developments with regards to cultural and political rights have also been taking place. In the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir, a move by the city’s provincial council to change the name of the village of ‘Kirkpinar’ back to its original Kurdish name of ‘Celkaniya’ was allowed, rather than being blocked by the city’s governor as was the fate of previous motions. At the same time, an open discussion is taking place on the possibility of offering some education in Kurdish language and Kurdish studies.

While one may think that the official and open discussion of a solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question, including concrete steps being taken to right some wrongs of the past, would mean that a peaceful resolution is on the horizon, it appears that this is not the case. Indeed, the public debates surrounding the AKP’s Kurdish initiative on one hand and a roadmap drawn up by the imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, on the other, simply serves to show – in very plain view – the fault lines that still prevent any true solution from being reached. While the prime minister has made calls for engagement by virtually all segments of society, the government’s candid aim to preemptively dismiss the roadmap seems counterproductive as has been further exemplified by recent public reaction in the Kurdish region. At the beginning of this month, millions rallied in predominantly Kurdish city streets to protest the government’s current approach to the drawing up of a Kurdish initiative.


Kurdish question, PKK, and recurring state denial


When Turkey emerged from the ruins of the collapsed Ottoman Empire after the former died a slow and painful death, denial quickly became a technique for painting over the significant cracks in the logic of the ideology underpinning the new Turkish republic. While the Ottomans used religion as the glue to hold together the various components of their empire, the new Republic of Turkey would use Turkish identity and nationalism to establish itself. As a substantial portion of Turkey’s citizens were Kurdish, and not ethnic Turks, the new republic would need to conveniently deny the existence of the Kurdish identity, and eventually, this denial would become a hallmark of Turkish nationalist ideology dedicated to the unity of the new Republic.


Kurds in Turkey hold signs that write "peace" and rally against the Turkish government's refusal to negotiate with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party - Photo Courtesy Ozgur Gundem



When the PKK became a major force, transforming itself from a small group of leftists into a significant and very disruptive political and military entity, the Turkish state added a new facet to its policy of denial with respect to Turkey’s Kurds, choosing to deny the fact that the PKK enjoyed grassroots support among the Kurdish population while trying to convince the Turkish masses and others that the PKK had minimal popular support and was primarily backed by foreign actors. The folly of this approach is clear – 30 years after the founding of the PKK, the party remains a powerful movement and Ocalan is still a potent symbol to many of Turkey’s Kurds over a decade after his capture.


Turkish denial has entered a new state and despite groundbreaking changes and the apparent ability of Turks to address the Kurdish question openly, this denial persists and manifests itself as the major obstacle to reaching a true solution to the Kurdish question. The Kurdish question in Turkey is as old as the Turkish Republic, and owes itself to the aforementioned denial of Kurdish identity by the Turkish state. Disparity in development and living standards between the primarily Kurdish southeast and the rest of the country stoked the flames of discontent among Turkey’s Kurds.


The PKK emerged as this era’s incarnation of Kurdish rebellion in Turkey and quickly gained support among disgruntled Kurds impacted by the injustices virtually mandated by the founding principles of the Turkish Republic. As the PKK gathered strength and support, the Turkish state took a paradoxical approach to explaining the nature of the group. While, on one hand, the PKK was characterized as a terrorist group backed by foreign actors, on the other hand, most expressions of Kurdish national identity were characterized as “separatist” and thus associated with the PKK. The false assertion by the Turkish state about expressions of Kurdish identity became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an increasingly restrictive policy against Kurdish identity prompted Kurds who still sought to preserve their identity to move closer towards the PKK.


Past policies and statements from the Turkish establishment had the perhaps unintended consequence of causing the Kurdish issue in general and the PKK as a movement to become very much intertwined with one another in both practice and in the mindset of Turkish and Kurdish citizens of Turkey.


Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) base high up in the Qendil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan - © Kurdish Herald 2009


Despite these realities, while the state is assembling its own Kurdish initiative, it seems once again that the Kurdish issue and the PKK are being characterized as two issues that are quite separate from one another. While ostensibly seeking to solve the Kurdish question in Turkey, the Turkish government’s attempt to circumvent the PKK and refusal to address the party directly is among the most definite flaws that may prevent an effective solution to the conflict from being reached. Yet again, basic truths are being ignored for the sake of avoiding the contradiction of patently false beliefs that are part of the Turkish state’s rigid ideology.


Ending conflict requires engagement

Exact details of the Turkish government’s Kurdish initiative are still unknown. However, reactions in the predominantly Kurdish region to preliminary details and public statements by government representatives have not been positive thus far. Earlier this month, thousands of Kurds rallied in Diyarbakir, many of them waving portraits of Ocalan and PKK flags, calling for peace and holding signs with slogans such as “We want our roadmap” and “The counterpart for a democratic solution of the Kurdish question is in Imrali.” Meanwhile, representatives of the pro-Kurdish DTP who have strong support in Diyarbakir and throughout the Kurdish region soundly reject any plans that do not consider the points laid out by their own so-called democratic initiative.


The Turkish government has already dismissed Ocalan’s roadmap even before its release, with Turkish President Abdullah Gul stating that people should “forget about Imrali,” a reference to the island prison where the PKK leader is currently being held. Undoubtedly, many Kurds in today’s Turkey, including some of the democratically-elected political representatives of the Kurdish people, support Ocalan and look to him for a solution to the current state of affairs. Protests and rallies along with complaints of disregard for their own demands are enough to demonstrate that the Turkish government is not taking the required steps to engage the most critical people to the process; people that would most directly be affected by any reform.


It is of great concern that one significant item, an amnesty for PKK fighters, has already been ruled out by the Turkish state. While claiming to pursue an end to war, the Turkish government is reportedly rejecting the idea of giving amnesty to rebels. Indeed, this shows that decisive steps to address the Kurdish issue and end conflict are not part of the state’s initiative. The end of armed confrontations would be perhaps the most crucial sign of the achievement of a solution to the Kurdish issue. If the PKK has not been defeated in twenty-five years by Turkey’s large modern army, then it makes very little sense to believe that the PKK will cease to exist simply because the state formally demands that the rebels, still branded as terrorists, should capitulate.


Overcoming the Political Obstacles


The lack of political will to confront the Kurdish question with the necessary steps and solve the conflict via diplomacy is the biggest roadblock on any map to peace in Turkey. Turkey has fought a brutal war against the PKK for many years. At the same time, the Turkish state’s harsh restrictions on expressions of Kurdish identity has made suspicion of and opposition to basic concessions to the Kurdish people a hallmark of nationalist policy and a litmus test for patriotism among many Turks. Thus, there is an unquestionable political risk for any Turkish politician pondering the idea of promoting reforms relative to the Kurds, and a political risk of significantly greater magnitude which would be faced by anyone who might suggest engaging the rebels. The CHP, Turkey’s oldest political party, has been critical of the ruling AKP for their evident reluctance to involve the opinions of all parties in the political process, but for completely different reasons. Those proposals that the AKP has communicated have generated a great deal of emotional debate and has prompted CHP leader Deniz Baykal to protest that it would “pave the way for separation of the country.”



Kurds in Batman hold a banner in Turkish that says "We want our roadmap" referring to the unreleased roadmap of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan - Photo Courtesy Ozgur Gundem

Citizens in Turkey wave the Turkish flag and rally against attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party - Photo Courtesy Getty



Furthermore, Ocalan himself remains an extremely polarizing figure among both Kurds and Turks. For many years, he was considered Turkey’s most serious threat and most wanted terrorist, and branded a “baby killer” in both official and unofficial discourse. His capture elicited massive celebrations in Turkey. It is not difficult to see that any political figure who entertains the idea of engaging Ocalan or even simply acknowledging his efforts to find a solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question will face great pressure from the Turkish masses as well as elements Turkey’s military and political establishments.


Today, more than ever, the Kurdish issue is acknowledged and, to some extent, addressed in Turkey, and this in and of itself is certainly a positive development. At this critical juncture, the specifics of the Kurdish issue that make a resolution so elusive are more apparent than ever, not only to Turks and Kurds, but also to the world community that keenly follows developments in the republic, especially in light of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. It remains to be seen whether or not today’s new circumstances will bring the Turkish and Kurdish nations any closer to understanding and a just peace.


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