Turkey’s Kurdish policy: sleepwalking to crisis

 A mix of inheritance, repression and strategic vacuity is pulling Turkey's leadership into a long-term Kurdish quagmire, says Bill Park.

Bill Park
31 October 2012

Turkey’s domestic Kurdish difficulties show no signs of abating. Indeed, they are worsening. Just one symptom is that more than 600 Kurdish prisoners are entering the eighth week of a hunger-strike, and the health of many of them is deteriorating rapidly. This is rendered all the more worrying by the fact that Turkey has a track-record of hunger-strikes leading to deaths - well over 100 in the 21st century alone.

The recent spike in violence between the PKK (Partiye Karkeren Kurdistan, or Kurdish Workers' Party) and Turkey’s security forces has resulted in around 700 over the past year or so, adding to the almost 50,000 recorded fatalities from this conflict since 1984. Turkish bombing and commando raids against PKK fighters across the border into northern Iraq have continued apace since late 2007, after a lull following the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is no discernible reason to assume they will meet with any greater military success now than was the case in the past, when Turkey’s cross-border operations were often on a much larger scale than they are today. Furthermore, Baghdad has served notice that it now regards such incursions as intrusions on Iraq’s sovereignty.

A single incident in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast in December 2011 has further added to the despair and bitterness of many of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. This was the killing in a military air-strike of thirty-four civilians, apparently engaged in smuggling but mistaken for PKK fighters by the security forces. The lack of either a public inquiry or any acceptance of responsibility in the aftermath amplified the impact.

In May 2012, the renowned Kurdish MP Leyla Zana, who was first elected to parliament in 1991 and promptly jailed for speaking Kurdish in Ankara's national assembly, was again sentenced to prison (this time for ten years) on charges of spreading pro-PKK propaganda. Her parliamentary immunity will save her for the time being, but her treatment spreads little optimism amongst the country’s Kurds. In fact, around 8,000 activists from the umbrella organisation known as the Kurdish Communities Union, including MPs and elected mayors from the pro-Kurdish BDP (Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi, or Peace and Democracy Party), are currently in detention - and half of these were rounded up during 2011 alone. This number includes many of the hundreds of journalists that are currently held in Turkish jails.

No surprise, then, that Ankara’s approach to its Kurdish problem forms the basis for many of the human-rights and political-liberties shortcomings itemised in the European commission’s latest progress report on Turkey’s accession to the European Union (released in October 2012). It is the harshest EC report on Turkey for many years.

The talks mirage

The ongoing deliberations of the national assembly’s constitution commission, tasked to draw up a replacement for the current (1982) military-endowed constitution, do not look at all likely to produce the regional devolution that the BDP is seeking. In any case, the commission's work appears increasingly stalemated and undermined by the impatient interventions of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All in all, it is not easy to see where progress on Turkey’s Kurdish plight will come from.

Erdogan has lately hinted at a readiness to consider opening talks with the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been detained on the prison island of Imrali since 1999 (his lawyers have been unable to visit him for over a year). Indeed, the amelioration of Ocalan’s isolation, or his release is one of the hunger-strikers' key demands. But what is there to talk about? Turkey’s Kurds seek greater political autonomy, and language and educational rights, than Ankara seems at all prepared to countenance, as well as an amnesty for PKK members. The vigorous crackdown on even relatively moderate Kurdish leaders removes the most likely interlocutors from the political scene, and surely serves to harden Kurdish sentiment. Even if the hard line undermines the BDP’s electoral challenge to the ruling AKP in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast - which is presumably the logic behind it (if logic there is) - it is also likely to set back the prospects of any movement on the Kurdish issue.

The long-term prospect

The government’s so-called "Kurdish opening" of 2009 now appears as the falsest of dawns. The repression is now greater, Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric now more strident, and the violence more intense, than was the case before this much-lauded and now truly dead-and-buried initiative.

Nor do underlying trends offer grounds for faith in Ankara’s dream of greater Kurdish assimilation as the answer to the country’s disquiet. True, around half of the country’s Kurds live in Turkey’s cities rather than the Kurdish southeast - Istanbul rather than Diyarbakir, or indeed Erbil in Kurdish Iraq, hosts the world’s largest concentration of ethnic Kurds. But all the signs are that intercommunal tensions in Turkey’s burgeoning towns and cities are, if anything, increasing.

Kurds are often ghettoised in the poorer districts and lowest-paid jobs, and Turkish attitudes towards them can be downright racist. Mixed marriages between Turks and Kurds are quite common, though some current evidence suggests they are decreasing. More compelling is the recent estimate by the Turkish statistical institute that there are over 22 million Kurds in Turkey, constituting more than 30% of the republic’s population. Furthermore, the Kurdish birthrate in Turkey is reckoned to be at least twice that of ethnic Turks. Although these figures are fuzzy around the edges, they suggest that within a couple of generations, Kurds could well make up the majority of Turkey’s population. True, many are already assimilated; but can the government really believe that the current campaign of political repression and marginalisation, and violence rather than dialogue, stands any chance of assimilating the remainder of them - ever, let alone before such time as Kurds outnumber Turks?

The burden of history

The emergence of the self-governing Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq, and the opportunities offered to Syria’s Kurds by that country’s turmoil, mean that Turkey’s domestic Kurdish woes are now even more at the mercy of developments in the wider region than has been the case hitherto. Moreover, Turkey’s relationship with its western allies is (as the European commission's new report attests) unlikely to be eased without some palpable effort at progress on the issue. Despite all this, Ankara still appears to have no coherent strategy towards this decades-old problem.

Turkey’s intense state-building nationalism might be Kemalism’s most enduring, and destructive, legacy. The consequence is that the Turkish republic’s leaders, regardless of their political hue, have seemed unable constructively to address their country’s most serious challenge. Turkey appears to be sleepwalking into an ever deeper domestic Kurdish quagmire, and is showing precious few signs that it is able to recognise where this could lead it.



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