Turkey and the Kurdish Question

11/06/2011 – by Richard Weitz

A month ago, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report entitled, “Turkey: Ending The PKK Insurgency,” which offered sensible advice regarding how to make progress resolving Turkey’s Kurdish issue. The thrust of their recommendations was to move the struggle for Kurdish rights from the field of battle to field of parliament. They want “an end to the fighting, major legal reforms, an amnesty and Turkish Kurd acceptance to work within the legal Turkish system.” Their recommendations warrant revisiting given that some 30,00 people have already died in the almost three decades of fighting between Kurdish militants and the Turkish government and many more will do so in the future as long as the conflict persists.

Turkey's Kurdish Question Remains a Barrier to Political Reform and Progress (Credit Image: Bigstock)

Turkey's Kurdish Question Remains a Barrier to Political Reform and Progress (Credit Image: Bigstock)

The ICG authors endorsed the Democratic Opening towards the Kurds adopted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), which has sought to deemphasize ethnic tensions by making some concessions to Kurds as well as stressing the common Muslim identity of Turks and Kurds rather than their ethnic differences.

But the ICG wants to see the Turkish government implement its reforms more consistently and effectively. They also advocate that the authorities release imprisoned non-violent Kurdish politicians and allow even those Kurds sympathetic to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or PKK), which is the leading anti-Ankara terrorist government, to take their elected seats in parliament.

Meanwhile, they call on both sides to avoid tit-for-tat escalatory moves and instead resume the government-PKK ceasefire declared last year—there have been many such ceasefires but they soon collapse due to lack of follow-up and other problems—as well as disarmament negotiations.

Following years of pro-reform rhetoric and open and secret talks with Kurdish nationalists

(including between the director of national intelligence and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan), the AKP-led Turkish government made a major policy reversal in 2009 and adopted a more flexible and embracing policy toward its Kurdish minority as well as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

The Kurdish “opening” within Turkey saw the government give Kurds more cultural rights, including the right to use the Kurdish language in public (responding to claims of “linguistic genocide”). For example, it launched a 24-hour state-run Kurdish language television channel (TRT6, widely available through terrestrial transmission) in January 2009. Furthermore, AKP leaders apologized for past Turkish repression of Kurdish rights and pledged to address earlier wrongs.

Some Kurdish leaders hoped that, once Turks understood that Kurds simply want to achieve equal rights within a common country, more Turks would appreciate and support their concerns.

Kurdish nationalists proposed a peace plan whose components includes a ceasefire; establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with amnesty for ex-PKK fighters; deploying a multinational force to assist with the demobilization of PKK insurgents and their eventual entry into the peaceful political process; releasing PKK prisoners; enhancing Kurds’ constitutional and legal rights; and eventually the release of Öcalan from prison.

The newly declared policy of moderation initially received substantial popular support due to widespread war weariness among Turks, Kurds, and others. Turk-Kurdish violence had persisted for decades; so many individuals on both sides were willing to try to achieve a political resolution of their differences.

But Turkish nationalist parties soon began to make political gains by accusing the AKP of making too many concessions and to little effect. The AKP responded by moving more cautiously, which led to dampening enthusiasm among Kurds for the opening and renewed PKK violence. In effect, the hardliners on both sides were empowering each other.

Furthermore, impatient Kurdish activists, only some of whom defend or even sympathize the PKK and its violent methods, complain that they have seen few changes on the ground in southeast Turkey despite the progressive rhetoric they hear in Ankara.

The slow and half-hearted pace of the AKP Democratic Opening also led some Turkish Kurds to question the government’s sincerity. For example, the government’s amnesty proved very limited and conditional, with many ex-PKK and even non-violent Kurdish nationalists finding themselves re-arrested and imprisoned.

Restrictions on Kurdish political activities continue to constrain opportunities for a peaceful resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish crisis. The requirement that any political party must receive at least ten percent in a general parliamentary election to gain seats in the national legislature is twice as high a hurdle as that in most European countries that proportional representation voting systems. Kurdish nationalists often must run as independents candidates, which deny them access to public television and radio political protests or votes from Turkey’s large diaspora, whose members must vote for one of the parties on the ballot.

And when Kurdish nationalists have sought to establish political parties to campaign legally in elections, as they have done on half a dozen occasions since 1990, the authorities have employed various legal means to prevent them.

For example, in December 2009, Turkey’s Constitutional Court banned the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP). Such bans result in the government’s seizing the parties’ assets and forbidding its leaders from engaging in political activities for a set time period.

Since its establishment in 2005, DTP representatives had met with Erdogan to discuss how to develop and implement the Democratic Opening. The new Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi (BDP, Peace and Democracy Party), whose members ran as “independents’ in the 2011 national elections and then formed as a 36-member party bloc in the parliament, continues to suffer from official harassment and some of its members have been denied their seats in parliament because they were in pre-trial detention, leading all BDP deputies to boycott parliamentary sessions.

Their boycott has had the unfortunate effect of denying Kurds an important means for directly influencing the drafting of the new Turkish constitution presently under consideration.

AKP leaders blame the Kurdish nationalists for making an ostentatious show of their new freedoms and exploiting amnesty and other concessions for media events designed to enhance heir public relations. They also accuse the PKK of seeking to reorganize within Turkey under another name—specifically the new PKK-organized Kurdish network known as the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Ciwakên Kürdistan, KCK)—and using the KCK to repress all Kurdish political activity and community activism not endorsed by the PKK.

The Turkish government has responded by arresting KCK leaders and suppress the organization’s activities. Meanwhile, AKP leaders adopted a more nationalist stance and rhetoric ahead of the June 2011 general elections. The AKP dropped Kurdish nationalists from its lists of candidates and toned down its endorsement of Kurdish community rights.

At present, Kurdish and foreign attention focuses on the AKP plans to rewrite the Turkish constitution. The current draft, written in 1982 during a period of military rule, defines a very centralized, mono-lingual, and mono-ethnic authoritarian political structure. For example, the constitution defines anyone born in Turkey as a Turkish national, thereby excluding the Kurdish identity as a permissible legal category. Article 42, moreover, prohibits the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens.”

The AKP has managed through legislation to relax how many of these clauses are applied in practice, but Kurdish activists want their freedoms guaranteed in writing in a new constitution. They note, for instance, that while the main Kurdish languages spoken in Turkey, Kurmancî and Zazaki, are no longer comprehensively banned, various legal restrictions continue to limit their use in public and commercial affairs.

In addition, there is still no government-approved primary or secondary education in Kurdish in Turkey. The authorities have even prevented Kurdish communities from using street signs written in both Kurdish and Turkish, claiming they violate the current national constitution (Article 3 states that, “The Turkish state … language is Turkish”). In other cases, conservative administrators and courts have thwarted the application of AKP reforms by citing constitutional provisions to prevent their application within their areas of jurisdiction.

Kurdish nationalists demand the right to define themselves as Kurds living in “Kurdistan”, use their language without impediment, including in public schools, and exercise other cultural and political rights within an officially multinational Turkish state. AKP leaders face conflicting pressures regarding how much legal freedom to provide its Kurdish “minority,” with even the use of that word highly contested among Turkish leaders who have insisted that Kurds are “Mountain Turks” who enjoy the same rights as other Turks.

AKP officials have also become distracted by seeking through the new constitution to transform Turkey into a presidential system, which would allow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to remain in power even as he switches offices.

In trying to transform the Kurdish issue from a security into a political question, the AKP also hoped to further its campaign to weaken the influence of the military within Turkey. In the past, Turkish officers had cited the military’s domestic national security role to justify deposing civilian governments and assuming political authority themselves. Decreasing the threat of PKK terrorism would therefore reduce one pretext the military has used to influence the Turkish political system.

Furthermore, the question of Kurdish rights often comes up in discourses on Turkey’s suitability to become a full member of the European Union (EU) or to serve as a model political system for the newly emerging democracies in the Middle East and Asia. AKP leaders have skillfully used Turkey’s drive to join the EU, which they publicly support,  as a means to transform Turkish society in more democratic directions, such as by constraining the power of the military. Especially since the onset of the current Arab Spring, AKP leaders have promoted Turkey as a model democracy worthy of emulation by reformers in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Yet, domestic and foreign critics label Erdogan and other AKP leaders hypocrites for attacking other countries for repressing Muslim rights while conducting similarly repressive policies against their Kurdish minority. For example, they have excluded granting Kurdish localities community rights that they have advocated for Turkish Cypriots in talks with the EU and others regarding Cypriot reunification.

Resolving Turkeys the Kurdish problem could help overcome these objections, though the continued violence and suppression of Kurdish political activism demonstrates that progress remains halting at best. Although the EU 2011 Progress Report on Turkey’s accession process, released in October 2011, sees mixed progress toward establishing Kurdish rights or meeting the other criteria for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, EU governments now wholeheartedly oppose the PKK and, unlike in the past, are actively trying to suppress its finances.

One interesting issue that emerged from our discussions in Turkey during our visit in October was how the governor and mayor divided their governance roles in the provinces. The governor is the senior official but he is appointed to office by the central government. Some of his responsibilities include maintaining law and order, health care, and executing other central government policies in the province.

Meanwhile, the mayor is elected by the city residents. Some of his responsibilities include city planning, water, environment, and local transportation. Turks’ growing wealth had enabled them to buy more private vehicles, requiring extensive road building to reduce the resulting traffic jams. One of the issues the Turks are considering as they draft their new constitution is whether to make the governors elected officials or to expand somewhat the power of the elected mayors. The ruling AKP considers it unfair that, at the local government level, the appointed official outranks the elected one. Increasing the power of elected representatives would also provide a means to give Turkey’s Kurds and other minority’s greater opportunities for self-government.

In considering its strategy towards the Kurdish problem, Turkish authorities would do well to consider how they revised their approach to Iraqi Kurdistan after 2008. By reaching out to local leaders, developing commercial as well as other contacts, and accepting the right of Kurds to exercise local self-government through the Kurdish Regional Government, the Turks empowered a group of stakeholders who now defend Turkish interests in a region traditionally known for Turkish-Kurdish tension.

Such an approach towards Turkey’s own Kurdish minority could go far toward achieving a similar reconciliation in an even more vital area for Turkey’s future.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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