Prospects for a Kurdish spring

A while back I wrote something about the Kurdish spring for openDemocracy. Turns out I missed the bus as they published something on the same topic while my piece was being considered. To get at least some mileage out of it, I’ll post it here, even though it’s a bit outdated now. So here goes…

ON MARCH 21, the day celebrated as the Kurdish new year, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), broadcast a letter in Diyarbakır in south-eastern Turkey calling on PKK operatives to lay down their arms. From their mountain redoubt in northern Iraq, PKK commanders duly called a ceasefire.

The stage is now set for a comprehensive peace to bring an end to the long-running PKK insurgency that has beset the south-east of Turkey for almost 30 years.

The Turkish state’s response to the PKK since its first operations in 1984 was to pursue military action. The PKK’s terror tactics and avowedly separatist agenda meant that the Turkish establishment lumped together all Kurdish demands as threats to citizenry and state. Through the 1980s and ‘90s little heed was given to the Kurdish grievances that gave impetus to the PKK cause, and even less attempt was made to address them. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Kurds had, under a Kemalist-inspired programme of nation building, been denied an identity, subjected to assimilation and had their language, literature and music outlawed. In a political order where military tutelage and illiberal Turkish nationalist discourse set the agenda, Kurdish demands, legitimate or otherwise, were given short shrift.

The last decade, however, has seen something of a recalibration of the societal and political spheres in Turkey. The AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; Justice and Development Party) government, since coming to power in 2002 has reasserted popular sovereignty at the expense of military hegemony, while also allowing Islam to reappear in the public sphere (something that, like Kurdish identity, is anathema to many supporters of the state’s hegemonic ideology, Kemalism).

van-dolmusWith the military now largely confined to barracks and the general public exhausted with what was clearly an unwinnable war for either Turkish military or PKK, the AKP government has taken a different approach to the Kurdish issue. In 2009, the Kurdish-language state television channel TRT6 was established; more recently Kurdish-language courses have been instituted in universities and high schools and Kurdish has been allowed to be used in courts. Since October last year, the government has also been directly negotiating with Öcalan, a figure revered by many Kurds but widely disliked by Turks who see him as the mastermind behind PKK terror. Nonetheless, negotiations thus far have borne fruit, leading to Öcalan’s letter and the ceasefire that followed it.

Circumstances may now be more conducive than ever before to a resolution to the Kurdish issue but many pitfalls remain. The government must follow a path that allows it to fulfil the hopes of its Kurdish constituents while also addressing misgivings arising within the Turkish majority. Turkish political scientist Ihsan Dağı contends that many Turks view the Kurdish situation as a zero-sum game, believing that any political changes that enhance the circumstances of the Kurds must in turn be to the detriment of the Turks.

Taking account of prevailing sensitivities, the government appears to be proceeding cautiously. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced the formation of a committee of ‘wise men’ that will effectively play a PR role keeping the Turkish public abreast of ongoing developments in negotiations between the government and the PKK. Including journalists, artists, musicians, academics, intellectuals and representatives from NGOs, the 63 members of the ‘wise men’ committee (which includes 12 women) convened for the first time in early April in Istanbul.

This is a pragmatic move on the government’s part, no doubt intended to prevent a repeat of mistakes that led to the failure of earlier peace initiatives. In 2009’s ‘Kurdish opening’ negotiations between the state officials and the PKK were instituted, and as a gesture of goodwill a group of PKK operatives turned themselves in on the Turkey-Iraq border. But rather than submitting to Turkish authorities, the PKK coterie received a hero’s welcome from local Kurds, which outraged the Turkish public, in so doing scuppering the negotiation process. Presumably, this time around the ‘wise men’, in acting as go-betweens linking negotiators and the public, will be able to prevent similar such surprises being sprung on assembled onlookers.

The adversarial attitude towards the Kurds that many Turks harbour stems from the strong nationalist current that has infused state discourse since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Mustafa Akyol observes that Turkish schoolchildren have long been taught that Turkey is surrounded by seas on three sides and by enemies on four.  For Turkish nationalists, Turkey must stand alone – and unified – to fend off foreign encroachment.


Similarly pluralism has been regarded with suspicion: internal enemies are considered perhaps an even greater threat. After the fragmentation along ethnic lines, of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic was predicated on a unitary foundation where every citizen – in theory – was Turkish. This ‘unity of language, culture and ideal’, as espoused by the founding fathers, was to be the cement that would hold tight the new nation-state, but it also led to the denial of the Kurdish reality from which all aspects of the Kurdish issue have arisen. The separatist manifesto of the PKK only served to underline the imperative of Turkish nationalist’s exhortations to homogeneity, and heightened fear of all demonstrations of Kurdish identity and nationalism.

In response to the government’s negotiations with the PKK, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the hard-line MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, Nationalist Action Party) has cried foul, claiming that talks with Öcalan and the PKK will result in Turkey being dismantled. As negotiations have gathered pace Bahçeli has grown increasingly desperate in his rhetoric, effectively accusing AKP Prime Minister Erdoğan of selling out the Turkish nation-state and acting in the interests of ‘Crusaders’. Paramount in the nationalist imagination is the protection of the Turkishness of the state, something that any accommodation of Kurdish demands or acknowledgement of Kurdish identity will undermine. Such a mindset posits that acknowledging diversity is tantamount to dismembering the Turkish nation-state: during the 1990s when the lifting of a ban on the use of Kurdish was being debated parliamentarian Alparslan Pehlivanlı remarked that granting Kurdish language rights amounted to ‘separatism’.

While Bahçeli’s bizarre accusations of aiding the ‘Crusaders’ might be the ranting of a politician whose nationalist rhetoric is losing its credibility, the hard-line MHP still commands a sizable constituency. As Turkish journalist Semih Idiz reports, in the western city of Bursa several days after Öcalan’s March 21 message, Bahçeli addressed a rally of ultranationalists who pledged their willingness to ‘strike’ against those who they see as betraying the Turkish state. What such threats constitute is difficult to fathom, but it is certainly the case that shady ultranationalist groups have in the past instituted violent campaigns against Kurdish interests, PKK-associated and otherwise, purportedly in the name of ‘defending the state’.

It may be that the greatest risk to the ongoing peace process is not PKK intransigence but the ultranationalists threatening violence. Yet the hard-line nationalist position fails to recognise that the unchecked militaristic approach during the ‘80s and ‘90s did not bring a solution and only exacerbated the Kurdish issue, something that Prime Minister Erdoğan acknowledges. It similarly remains deaf to the fact that, as reported by Turkish research institute SETA in 2009, a majority of Kurds do not subscribe to a separatist mentality but want recognition of their Kurdish identity while remaining citizens of Turkey.

It is to be hoped that government and Kurdish negotiators can hold their course, not allowing threats or diversions – whichever side they may come from – to derail the peace process. There currently exists a great opportunity to address the Kurdish issue, to bring about a so-called Kurdish spring, and in doing so to cast off a millstone that has weighed down the Turkish Republic throughout its history.


2 thoughts on “Prospects for a Kurdish spring

    • Thanks for your comment, Luis. And yes, that’s the trouble with writing about current affairs – things change very quickly, so the writing doesn’t stay ‘current’ for very long! It’s also interesting because in this case things have changed in unexpected ways…

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