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After Gezi: Turkish-Kurdish fault lines

Turkey’s political landscape may be shifting in the wake of the Gezi protests, but the Kurdish peace process is flagging and distrust lingers between Turkish and Kurdish camps

William Gourlay
27 September 2013

The Gezi protests in Turkey may have been credited with awakening a political consciousness in a younger generation of Turks previously dismissed as passive and apolitical, but they also highlight the fault lines that remain in Turkish society. Most apparent is the divide between urban, secular segments and the conservative, pious supporter base of the AKP government. An ethnic divide, no less significant for the Turkish polity, also remains unbridged. In Turkey’s south-eastern, Kurdish-majority provinces, reactions to the protests were muted, if not dismissive, indicative of the gulf that exists between Turkish and Kurdish political perceptions and aspirations.

While Istanbul skies were riven by teargas canisters and water cannon fusillades in June, Diyarbakır, the largest city in the south-east and fictive capital for Turkey’s Kurds, was enjoying the cloudless calm of early summer. Diyarbakır, epicentre of the 30-year low-intensity war between the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government, has known decades of civil unrest, political protests and repressive measures from the state’s security apparatus, but here there is little sympathy for the plight, or cause, of the Gezi Park protesters. “Who cares about a few trees?” remarks Orhan, a Diyarbakır shop assistant, when asked his opinion of the Gezi events.

Such an attitude may be attributable to Turkish media coverage, which initially ignored the protests and then, once it did report on events, largely adopted a pro-government, anti-protesters stance. But Orhan’s quip reflects a frustration common amongst Kurds that urban Turks, who have so long been indifferent to the tribulations and injustices Kurds have endured, now expect sympathy and solidarity when confronted with their own political challenges.

Omar, a hospital orderly, tells me, “For 30 years people in Istanbul were watching [what was happening in Kurdish provinces], but they did nothing.” Echoing this sentiment, a BBC Turkish report from Diyarbakır asks the question of the protesters in Istanbul, “Where were you when we were hurting?” 

The conviction amongst Gezi protesters that they have endured the worst political violence to have afflicted Turkey does not sit well with Kurds, either. “Turkish protesters are only being sprayed with gas. They are complaining but they had no sympathy for the Kurds who have had worse than this for 30 years,” remarks Murat, a Kurdish shop owner in Istanbul.

Beyond which, in the southeast there is genuine support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP government. The AKP’s more liberal approach to issues of ethnic identity has meant an easing of tensions in the Kurdish provinces, and a booming economy has led to significant rises in living standards. Where previously state institutions upheld a rigidly Turkish character and demonstrations of Kurdishness were suppressed, the AKP has broadened debate on cultural diversity and national identity. This has led to a reappraisal of Turkey's multi-faith and multi-ethnic past and has seen, in the cities of Turkey's east, the refurbishment of places of worship, cultural institutions and historic sites.

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Diyarbakir, Turkey. Demotix/Reporter#19616. All rights reserved.

Diyarbakır, long a place stalked by fear, now has a spring in its step. On the city’s outskirts a sign welcomes visitors in three languages – Turkish, Kurdish and Syriac – something that would have been unthinkable under earlier nationalist-informed governments. Infrastructure programmes and new investment have rejuvenated Diyarbakır. Cafes in historic caravanserais are buzzing, churches have been restored and a diverse, and multi-ethnic, arts scene is flourishing.

Erdoğan also wins plaudits from Kurds for his role in facilitating negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, which set the scene for a PKK ceasefire declared in March this year. The ceasefire was heralded as the first phase of a peace process that would lead to PKK operatives withdrawing from Turkey and, in the second phase, the resolution through legal and political mechanisms of Kurdish demands.

Thus far, the ceasefire has held. Across several cities of the southeast, I encounter Kurds who assert that peace is a reality, for now. They claim that Turks, Kurds, Arabs and other minorities now live happily “beraber” (all together), a marked change from the tense, violence-ridden decades of the 1980s and ‘90s. When asked what has made this turn of events possible, many have a one-word response: “Erdoğan”.

So high are Erdoğan’s stocks in the southeast that some of his more outlandish claims about the causes of the Gezi protests have currency amongst Kurds. Erdoğan has made repeated claims that the June protests were fuelled by internal elements intent on sabotaging the peace process, a claim solemnly echoed to this writer by Kurds in several south-eastern provinces. Similarly, Kurds are wont to parrot Erdoğan’s line that Gezi was an attempt to sow discord instigated by foreign powers who do not want to see a strong Turkey.

To outside observers it may appear that there are obvious parallels between the escalation of the Gezi protests and the cycle of violence that reigned so long in the southeast: excessive force used by police or security agencies to quell protests provokes public outrage and in so doing draws in larger numbers of protesters. Individuals, whether Kurdish villagers or Istanbul students, who would otherwise have remained bystanders, take to the streets to vent their displeasure.

What would appear to be at the heart of both the Gezi protests and the Kurdish political struggle is a desire for a more truly democratic order. Successive governments have insisted on portraying things otherwise. AKP minister Egemen Bağış’s stated that anyone participating in the Gezi protests was deemed a “terrorist”, echoing – perhaps unknowingly – earlier nationalist rhetoric that dismissed all Kurdish agitation as incidences of “terrorism”.

The irony of this situation appears to be lost on many Kurds, who have long decried such egregious misrepresentations of their political protests, but such inability to see the political perspective of the “Other” is not solely restricted to them. A Turkish hotelier in Istanbul tells me that the government’s heavy-handedness created and exacerbated the situation in Gezi, even as he discounts the legitimacy of any Kurdish grievances and blames “foreign agents” for fomenting political unrest amongst Kurds.

There have also been fears in Kurdish circles that the Gezi protests, and the fraught political atmosphere that has stemmed from them, will lead to the derailing of the Kurdish peace process. Kurds in Diyarbakır remark that the government needs to make decisive moves to demonstrate its sincerity in the peace process. Many Kurdish youths remain in prison, accused of “terrorism” for their participation in earlier anti-government protests. The release of these youths would be a grand gesture on the part of the government, but it remains a gesture that it is unwilling to make. It is widely held amongst Kurds that it is their side that has made considerable concessions for peace but that the government is stonewalling.

Meanwhile the final report delivered by the Wise Men Commission, a body charged with keeping the Turkish public informed of developments regarding the peace process, received a subdued response. As the peace process loses momentum, mutual distrust comes to the fore. Turkish columnists have been speculating that the PKK is planning to resume its military struggle, while a senior PKK commander recently declared that the withdrawal of PKK personnel from Turkish territory had stopped because the government hadn’t made concrete moves to implement the second phase of the peace process. The government now looks set to announce a further democratisation package which would further decrease restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in the political sphere, in the hope of kick-starting the stalled negotiation process.

Turkish political scientist İhsan Dağı argues that in the arena of Turkish politics, many believe that any political advance for the Kurds must necessarily be to the detriment of the Turks. Seeing things differently, Ali, a Kurdish jeweller in Diyarbakır, tells me that the Kurdish struggle is not just about Kurdish rights but about democracy for all in the Republic of Turkey. Brave sentiments, but it appears that at present few share his outlook, whether they are Turkish or Kurdish. In the uncertain political climate after Gezi, it seems that both sides are struggling to truly empathise with each other, which is likely to mean that Turkey’s and the Kurds’ political trials will drag on for the foreseeable future.

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