Anatolian spring: season of fresh hopes?

GOOGLING TO FIND proverbs is an activity sometimes necessary in order to come up with pithy hooks for a blog… Searching for aphorisms about spring will turn up a Kurdish proverb that states that when spring arrives grass will grow even under a large stone. It will also lead you to a seemingly more phlegmatic French maxim stating that a late Easter is a harbinger of a long, cold spring.

This year Easter arrives early, so if we invert the rationale of the French proverb this must herald a warm spring. Meanwhile developments in Turkey mean that perhaps at last a spring thaw is occurring as regards Kurdish issue. This may well mean that Kurdish grass – in the form of political and cultural rights – will eventually sprout despite the centuries-old shadow of the heavy stone of Turkish nationalism.

The AKP government’s much-vaunted ‘Kurdish opening’ of 2009 amounted to nothing in the wash up. But recent endeavours appear to be bearing fruit. Direct negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the outlawed PKK, have resulted in the prospect of the PKK laying down their arms once and for all. Long-time parliamentary deputy Ahmet Türk (who, despite his name, is a Kurd) has tipped a PKK ceasefire before Nevruz, the spring equinox and Persian-Kurdish new year on March 21. The government now expects the same.

Image: Benjamin Gimmel

Image: Benjamin Gimmel

Since negotiations began between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and the jailed PKK leader several months ago, things have moved at speed, with even the opposition CHP voicing its approval of the dialogue.

In late February, a letter penned by Öcalan was delivered to PKK operatives in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. I can’t help wondering what language Öcalan’s letter was written. My money would be on Turkish. If that’s the case there’s an irony that such a forceful proponent of Kurdish nationalism should rely on Turkish as his first language. I remember seeing a documentary on Öcalan in the mid-90s and he spoke all the while in Turkish… not just rough street Turkish, but *proper* Turkish, using all the -dir and -dır suffixes that bedevil students of the language.

Whatever language of the letter may have been composed in, the spirit of the letter (I’m assuming the message was to adopt a position of conciliation) has been taken on board by PKK members, with the release in recent days of eight hostages, Turkish police officers and soldiers, who had been held by the PKK, some for almost two years. There is cause for optimism now, from both Turkish and Kurdish perspectives. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu concurs, remarking recently that he has ‘seen hope in Diyabakır’.

Indeed, Today’s Zaman reports that such is the optimism of one observer, Professor Mücahit Bilici, a sociologist at the City University of New York, that he presages a ‘Kurdish spring’ in a post-PKK era.

He comments that Turkey, under the AKP, has experienced a revolution, one that relieved the country of the straitjacket of Kemalism. Bilici contends that this was only the first revolution that Turkey requires; two more are necessary, so there would be a trilogy all told. The second of the three should result in the Kurds being given ‘a state that belongs to them’. In Bilici’s estimation that state should be Turkey, a Turkey shorn of pretensions or aspirations to ethnic homogeneity, a Turkey that is not just a homeland for the Turks but for others as well, a state that ‘belongs to all citizens as individuals and as groups’. The third revolution should be the recognition of the past wrongs done to Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities and the restoration of their rights in the present, Bilici argues.

Bilici envisages the PKK being absorbed into the political framework, their monopolisation of Kurdish discourse being dispelled, a transformation that will result in a ‘democratic Kurdish resurgence against which a democratic Turkey will have no defence’. As he foresees it, the continuation –and ultimate resolution – of the Kurdish struggle will be carried out within an Islamic discourse.

Bilici’s predictions perhaps seem unduly optimistic. While nationalism, and the military establishment which fans it, is not as pervasive in the Turkey of 2013 it is still not a spent force and there remain elements who would recoil in horror at some of Bilici’s sentiments and predictions.  That said, the political arena is much more receptive to such ideas than it was in earlier decades. This can be attributed to a growing realisation that the military struggle against the PKK was not likely to produce an enduring solution, to the fact that Öcalan was in custody, but also to the AKP’s recasting of the national identity. In this they have emphasised an umbrella of Islamic brotherhood that offers Kurds a way of opting in, rather than the ethno-nationalist framework that is at the core of Kemalism that left Kurds at a loose end.

spring-flowers-shirazIt remains to be seen if Turkey is replacing one straitjacket with another by adopting such an approach, but at least at some level it recognises an element of the ‘unity of culture, language and ideal’ that the Republican founders of the modern state aspired to. Such unity was in the 1930s narrowly defined: the language, culture and ideal were all to be homogenously Turkish.  Some 90 years later, perhaps it has been recognised that homogeneity or culture and language are not imperative, but unity of ideal – an ideal to live together harmoniously – is something that both Turks and Kurds can share. Let’s see what transpires from here.

Casting our gaze beyond the confines of Anatolia reveals harbingers of, or at least aspirations to, further springs. Following an election in Armenia in February, a poll boycotted by three political parties and that the incumbent won by a considerable margin, rumblings of discontent have been heard. Voters during the election expressed their dissatisfaction by casting spurious votes for Kim Kardashian (who is of Armenian descent) or Chuck Norris (where did that one come from?), while others did a ‘Gangnam Style’ dance outside  the Central Election Commission. Subsequent accusations of fraud by electoral officials led the runner-up candidate Raffi Hovannisian to organise well-attended protest rallies around the country and announce a ‘Revolution of Hello’. Whether this actually foreshadows a political spring in Armenia remains to be seen. In neighbouring Azerbaijan hopes for a political awakening appear dim, but over recent months there have been several protests at the restrictive rule of the Aliyev regime.

Meanwhile in Iran, former regime-favourite cum fly in the ointment, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been irritating the mullahs by talking up his own ‘spring’ in Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad was the darling of the regime after winning in 2009 what was alleged to be a rigged election, but he has subsequently fallen from favour, displaying a degree of single-mindedness in not bowing to the dictates of the Supreme Leader and assorted cadres, and pursuing his own frankly idiosyncratic and sometimes erratic agenda. Now despite stern disapproval in the corridors of power, he perhaps believes he can choreograph a victory for one of his own cronies in the presidential election scheduled for June this year, an event that in his estimation would amount to yet another ‘spring’. Either that or he’s just razzing up the mullahs. In a weird way you have to admire his chutzpah!

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