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April 12, 2013
Summary: Following a rebellion in 1925, Turkish became the exclusive language of the Turkish educational system and the bureaucracy; organizing to express ethnicity in a political way was banned. These measures, in retrospect, did not lead to Turkification but instead to a recalcitrant determination to retain and express ethnic identity, including the founding of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in 1974. After decades of conflict, the ruling AKP may have again opened negotiations with the PKK. While there are many obstacles to any peace process, there is no question that the public, tired of a long drawn-out, low-intensity conflict desires a solution.
Turkey’s Second Opening: Light at the End of the Tunnel or Another Failed Attempt?
by İlter Turan
Introduction The Turkish law enforcement authorities both took a deep breath as the Newrouz (Kurdish New Year) festivities on March 21 concluded without major incidents. That day may be remembered as the first occasion when the Turkish state joined the festivities as part of its new “Kurdish Opening” policy. Previously, Newrouz celebrations were often unsuccessfully banned, leading to major public disturbances in the Kurdish plurality parts of the country. Politics of Ethnic Homogenization and Reactions Shortly after its founding, the Turkish nation state embarked on a policy of ethnic homogenization. After the Ottoman empire was dismembered by ethnic minorities making common cause with imperialist powers, the founders of the republic were sensitive to manifestations of ethnic assertiveness. A rebellion in 1925, which the authorities suspected of being British-instigated, only reinforced their determination to proceed with “Turkification” policies. Turkish became the exclusive language of the educational system and the bureaucracy; orga-
nizing to express ethnicity in a political way was banned. This policy worked during the interwar period, when many Kurds lived a semi-nomadic life in dispersed settlements and were not much affected by government policy. Socio-economic developments, however, slowly undermined the conditions on which this policy was based. First came the post-war population growth leading to migration of rural populations to cities, permanently or as seasonal labor, thereby reducing the tribal leaders’ hold on their flocks. Next came a period of economic growth that expanded the working and middle classes and provided educational opportunities for the young. Put together, a more modern society with educated leaders of Kurdish origin emerged. Owing to the legal and political discouragement of the expression of ethnicity, those interested in doing so used discreet ways. The cadres of leftist radicalism of the mid-1960s to 1980 were often Kurdish. The military leadership that took over in 1980 to end the polarized and violent politics found the fusion of leftism and Kurdishness particularly disconcerting. To eradicate it, leftist militants of Kurdish
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origin who were convicted of committing acts of terrorism were subjected to physical abuse and constant humiliation. The singing of songs and publishing of books, magazines, and newspapers in Kurdish were also banned. These measures, in retrospect, did not lead to Turkification but instead to a recalcitrant determination to retain and express ethnic identity. The Rise of the PKK The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), was established Ankara in 1974 as a Marxist student organization but soon transformed itself into a political party aiming to establish by armed struggle an independent Kurdish state. Soon, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, thinking that a terrorist menace would slow down Turkey’s dam construction on the Euphrates, became a sponsor. In 1979, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan slipped into Syria and organized terrorist training camps in Lebanon. The PKK expanded its operations, menacing Turkey’s domestic peace. Over time, it developed into a substantial organization. Combining persuasion and threats, it developed a wide circle of adherents. It engaged in narcotics and arms trade, human trafficking and extortion to generate income. It established an extensive network of branches among the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, and found friends among parties, parliamentarians, bureaucrats, political leaders, intelligence agencies, and governments. Finally, it managed to help organize parties that participated in Turkey’s ordinary political processes. The Turkish government pursued various strategies to eradicate the movement but achieved limited success. Yet, in 1999, by threatening war, it forced Syria to expel Öcalan, who was eventually captured in Nairobi and brought to trial in Turkey. While Öcalan’s capture demoralized the organization, it survived and expanded. Turkish armed forces continued to fight the PKK irregulars. The PKK has changed names, created different affiliated organizations, organized campaigns, and managed to organize or affiliate with political parties that have achieved parliamentary representation. The party’s armed struggle, suffering from the increasing effectiveness of Turkey’s armed forces, has been unsuccessful but not vanquished. Its societal bases of support and its network of affiliated organizations, on the other hand, have expanded. Some of this growth derives from fear of reprisals, yet the ability of the PKK-affiliated Peace and Democracy (BDP) party, which organized voters to elect independent candidates to circumvent the national electoral threshold has been impressive. In the elections of 1987, Erdal İnönü, the Social Democrats’ leader, incorporated some candidates from the People’s Labor Party (HEP) to his party’s district tickets to help the latter overcome the 10 percent national threshold. The Years of Ambivalence The rise of a terrorist movement successful in developing a political base presented the Turkish political establishment with a problem it could not ignore. As the military slowly receded from politics after its 1980-1983 intervention, elected politicians took up the matter. The late premier (1983-1989) and president Halil Turgut Özal (1989-1993) was the first to admit that Turkey had a Kurdish problem. All governments since 1983 had alluded to the Kurdish problem. Political leaders visiting Turkey’s southeast had pronounced their recognition of the problem and their determination to address it, but without results. Their failure did not derive entirely from negligence, however. The military, positioned as a veto group over the actions of civilian governments, did not permit recognizing ethnic pluralism, fearing that departure from Turkification policies would lead to eventual dissintegration of the country. A Change of Policy? Major change began after the governing AKP returned to power in 2007 with an overwhelming majority. The election of AKP’s Abdullah Gül to the presidency further reinforced its power position. Beginning in 2005 when Turkey began accession negotiations with the EU, the government
The rise of a terrorist movement successful in developing a political base presented the Turkish political establishment with a problem it could not ignore.
had already taken steps to deinstitutionalize the military’s political role. Toward the end of 2008, court proceedings were initiated against some retired generals and officers. The defendants were accused of having been involved in plots to take over the government. Several similar cases were introduced later. Many former commanders and active-duty officers were arrested. While many observers agree that trial procedures have not been exemplary in observing the rights of the accused, the admission of evidence, and giving the benefit of the doubt to the defendants, they also recognize that the military’s political role has been irreversibly crippled. The shifts in the loci of political power gave the government a freer hand in addressing the Kurdish question. Recently, it became known that MIT (Turkish Intelligence) representatives had met PKK representatives in Oslo to explore possibilities of ending the conflict. Then in October 2009, the government announced plans to admit those irregulars from northern Iraq who had not committed of acts of terrorism. The BDP judged optimistically that this would mark the beginning of a new era. In the BDPorganized welcoming demonstration at the border, three dozen uniformed irregulars displayed arrogance, causing the general public indignation. The government found itself in an embarrassing position. The first opening proved stillborn. Changes addressing some expectations of the country’s Kurds were, nevertheless, affected. State television introduced Kurdish language broadcasts, and some universities opened departments and research centers for the study and the teaching of Kurdish language and culture. A New Opening and the Difficult Road Ahead All major parties were agreed that after the elections of 2011, the parliament should prepare a new, democratic constitution. It was understood that the new document would offer responses to Turkey’s Kurdish question. While plans for constitution writing have moved at a snail’s pace, the Erdoğan government has decided to move separately on the Kurdish question. The opposition has suggested that the government and the BDP have secretly agreed to trade support for a presidential system that the prime minister wants for concessions that the BDP wants, although the AKP denies this bargain. The new opening, like the first, appears to have been initiated by contacts between Öcalan and the MIT but the formula to be used this time is to have three member teams of BDP deputies visit Öcalan and then communicate his messages to the government and to the public. The possibility of a settlement and the determination Erdoğan has shown in achieving it, have created a wave of optimism that the Kurdish question may finally be over. The press, on the whole, is anxious to facilitate the process and not subvert it by unfavorable news and commentary. References to the oncoming period of prosperity and the rise of Turkey’s status as a regional and a world power abound. Yet, there are reasons for being cautious. To begin with, to many, “solution” means simply an end to the insurgency. The particular measures this will necessitate may not find as much support as ending “armed” struggle itself. That the entire process is couched in terms of “peace” indicates the central focus of the general public. That this may also involve bitter pills is hardly talked about. It may be more prudent not to build expectations that “peace” is around the corner and that getting there is a foregone conclusion. The public has to understand that “peace” usually comes at a price, which some may not welcome.
To many, “solution” means simply an end to the insurgency.
Second, the government itself denies that it is negotiating with the PKK. This may be tactical, intended to defuse domestic objections to bargaining with the “chief terrorist.” BDP’s intermediation may be a way of overcoming this problem. But the prime minister personally determines which BDP deputies should be allowed to visit Öcalan. He also pronounces what will be done and how. Similarly, he has publicly set the conditions of departure of armed irregulars, which the BDP has rejected outright. Such unilateral and arbitrary action has already led to the BDP complaints that Erdoğan thinks that he alone can decide everything, not recognizing that this is a mutual process, not a personal enterprise. Third, the government has limited its efforts to communicate with Öcalan, whose symbolic leadership is
acknowledged but whose power over a complex network of organizations is in question. It is not clear that other relevant actors will go along. Murat Karayılan, commanding the irregulars from Qandil Mountain in Iraq, has ready expressed reservations about his ability to pull the “armed forces” back. More importantly, over the years, terror has created an economy based on illicit drug and arms trade, extortion networks and even bureaucratic beneficiaries. It may be difficult to terminate these structures. They may engage in activities that will subvert the process. Some neighboring countries and others more distant may also continue to support groups that want to subvert the process in order, to retain a resource with a proven nuisance value against Turkey. Fourth, the government has not made a credible effort to bring in the major opposition into the process. Admittedly, the major opposition CHP is divided within and has displayed a confusing approach. The prime minister, however, has chosen to denigrate the opposition rather than encouraging it to become involved in the peace process. This has given the upper hand to the “Nationalist Wing” that opposes the process. Support of the opposition is likely to become more important as the public becomes aware of some changes in the laws and policies that the peace process will entail. According to several surveys, the peace opening is currently supported by a sizable majority of the voters. Public opinion shifts quickly in the face of events, however. It is not a substitute for a consensus among major political actors. Fifth, the process is opaque and the type of things a solution will entail is not clear. This may be in the nature of attempting to settle issues of an ethnic nature. Much quiet exploration, after all, needs to be done to see what is possible and how it is to be achieved. The impression is that this is not happening. The desire of the government to make the process appear unilateral under the prime minister’s stewardship, which may bequeath at will the Kurds with benefits that he deems appropriate undermines the more typical avenue of quiet talks that gradually produce agreements acceptable to all parties. There is no question that the public, tired of a long drawnout, low-intensity conflict desires a solution. Such desires do not, however, translate into easy solutions. The careful, quiet, and sustained communication that produces outcomes that all parties to the conflict can live with is needed in order to bring the “solution” closer. Turkey is now at the stage of building mutual confidence. This is only the beginning of a long and arduous process. Only time will tell whether we will see the light at the end of the tunnel or if that light will go out again.
About the Author
İlter Turan is a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Koç University (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (19871993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) strengthens transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 as a non-partisan, non-profit organization through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has offices in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, Warsaw, and Tunis. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
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