Analysis

February 19, 2010

Summary: Nearly a year after Turkish President Abdullah Gül declared that “good things are going to happen concerning the Kurdish issue,” the government’s attempts to solve what remains the country’s knottiest problem appear to have fizzled out. Both sides are blaming the other for this worsening state of affairs. The government, fearful of a nationalist backlash, seems unable to press ahead with substantive reforms until the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) halts its attacks. The PKK says it reserves the right to pursue armed attacks until its own conditions are met. But the clock is ticking. If the Kurdish opening is to succeed, the government will need to bring Kurdish leaders into the equation. The sooner the government rouses the courage to sit down with the Kurds, the more likely it is that peace can be achieved.

Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Shifting Into Reverse Gear?
by Amberin Zaman*

“The mountain yielded a mouse.” This old Turkish adage, used to depict a situation where expectations are raised only to be dashed, best describes popular reaction to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) socalled Kurdish opening. Nearly a year after Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül declared that “good things are going to happen concerning the Kurdish issue,” the government’s attempts to solve what remains the country’s knottiest problem appear to have fizzled out. The big question now is: Is the Kurdish opening irreversible? Or is the Kurdish problem poised to escalate to ever-riskier heights? Tension is mounting as hundreds of Kurdish activists, including five elected mayors, continue to be put behind bars on often dubious charges of working on behalf of rebels of the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). More ominously still, a spate of attempted mob lynchings of Kurds by Turks has raised the spectre of ethnic strife, unseen even at the height of the PKK-led insurgency in the 1990s. Such intolerance was on chilling display when a member of the Special Forces
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outside an Ankara bar gunned down Emrah Gezer, 29, in January because he was singing a Kurdish song. There was further violence and mass arrests on February 15, which marked the anniversary of the capture of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Yet, until recently the signs were auspicious. Soon after Gül’s comments, the interior minister Besir Atalay met with Turkish writers and intellectuals to build consensus around a potential blueprint for fixing the Kurdish problem.1 Restrictions on Kurdish language broadcasting by privately owned television channels were eased. Kurdish inmates were allowed finally to converse with visitors in their mother tongue. And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan upped the ante in a series of bold and emotion laced speeches that evoked the shared pain of Turkish and Kurdish mothers whose sons fell in the 25-year long insurgency. By October 2009 peace seemed to be within reach when a group of PKK fighters returned voluntarily from their mountain base in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq just as Turkey’s foreign minister was embarking on a groundbreaking

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Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). 1 Amberin Zaman (2009). “Turkey’s Kurdish Gambit,” On Turkey series, November 13, 2009.

Analysis
trip in the opposite direction2 crucially perhaps, the army seemed to be on board. But the hopes of ordinary Turks swiftly turned to outrage as the PKK fighters decked out in their guerrilla garb proceeded to deliver “victory” speeches before crowds of jubilant supporters in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region. The final blow to the Kurdish opening seemed to come with the PKK’s December attack in the north-western province of Tokat. Seven Turkish soldiers were killed in the clash. This all but clinched the Constitutional Court’s decision on December 11, 2009, to ban the largest pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), on the ground that it posed a threat to the country’s territorial integrity through its “organic” links with the PKK. The party has reconstituted itself under the banner of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). But a day after the BDP held its first convention on February 1, 2010, prosecutors launched an investigation on claims that the new party’s members had glorified “criminals.” They were referring to Öcalan who, after nearly 11 years of captivity, continues to be venerated by millions of Kurds. Both sides are blaming the other for this worsening state of affairs. It’s a bit of a Catch 22. Fearful of a nationalist backlash, the government seems unable to press ahead with substantive reforms until the PKK halts its attacks. The PKK says it reserves the right to pursue its armed attacks until its own conditions are met. These include: an immediate end to the army’s operations, the prompt release of Kurdish politicians who have been rounded up since April 14, 2009, assigning Öcalan a role in the peace process, and the start of negotiations between the government and the PKK. Although nobody is talking about either a federation or autonomy for the Kurds, it is hard to imagine that the government could ever talk to the PKK let alone meet its demands. For one, it would run into fierce resistance from both the army and the opposition. Second, it would doom its chances of winning a third consecutive term of single rule in nationwide parliamentary elections that are expected to be held next year. The government’s earlier attempts to disarm the rebels with the help of the Iraqi Kurds failed, most likely because it
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sought to do so by sidelining Öcalan. He responded by unleashing his supporters in mass demonstrations across the southeast. It was as much of a message to the government as it was to his own men holed up in the mountains: “I may be in prison but I remain in charge.” The recent unrest has fuelled opposition claims that Erdoğan’s Kurdish initiative is nothing more than a fiasco. He insists that it is very much alive. Atalay, the interior minister, recently unveiled a set of measures heralded as part of the opening, but they were disappointingly limp. These include establishment of a body that is supposed to process and monitor human rights abuses. It’s a tired idea. “Human Rights” portfolios have been created before only to die unnoticed. The government is also talking about passing legislation that would reduce penalties for teenagers accused of acting on behalf of the PKK and pave the way for them to be tried in juvenile courts. Over one thousand minors have been either prosecuted or jailed under this law, usually for taking part in pro-PKK demonstrations. But the amendments fall short of shielding children from arrest and prosecution for throwing stones at members of the security forces or chanting nationalist slogans, both considered “terrorist offenses.” Many emerge even further radicalized by their experience. Reports of torture under police detention are on the rise. Uneducated, unemployed and alienated, this new generation of Kurds offers prime recruiting material for the PKK. The trouble is that even if the constitutional amendments were adequate the Constitutional Court, which is increasingly putting itself in the place of the executive, could still overturn them. The most recent example of this was when it threw out the government’s amendment to article 250 of the constitution that would have paved the way for military officials to be tried in civilian courts. Indeed, many AKP officials complain privately that their hands are so full fending off the army and the judiciary that they cannot focus on the grievances of the Kurds. Rather than endlessly tweaking the constitution they should rewrite it from scratch. But the clock is ticking. If the Kurdish opening is to succeed, the government will need to bring Kurdish leaders into the equation. Its most obvious interlocutors are the BDP. They are the elected representatives of nationalist

Amberin Zaman (2009). “Turkey’s Kurdish Gambit,” On Turkey series, November 13, 2009.

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Analysis
Kurds who sympathise with the PKK. No matter how many reforms Erdoğan pushes through, the PKK will simply keep raising the bar until it is allowed to claim at least some success in bringing about a solution. Preparing public opinion for this is the biggest challenge facing the AKP. But Erdoğan does not seem interested in reaching out to his Kurdish peers. If anything the clampdown on them is continuing. By one BDP official’s reckoning, some 800 Kurdish politicians have been arrested over the past year. Now there is talk of a big cross border operation against the PKK’s Iraqi Kurdish strongholds once the snow begins to melt in the spring. Real time intelligence provided by the United States has boosted the army’s effectiveness against the PKK. But if the PKK were to resort to urban terrorism, there is little the army can do. That scenario cannot be ruled out, for Öcalan might some day lose his grip or simply die. The PKK would then likely disintegrate into unruly factions. That is why the sooner the government rouses the courage to sit down with the Kurds the more likely it is that peace can be achieved.

Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist
Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www.gmfus.org/turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.gmfus.org/reaction.

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