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Turkey’s Kurds: in need of more voices

The military approach, sole government policy since the 1980s, has failed. Hawkish voices are no longer able to dominate discussion and portray the Kurdish question solely as a security issue. Can a solution best be found through democratic means?

William Gourlay
6 August 2012

In late June, Turkey’s most recognisable Kurdish politician, Leyla Zana, the pro-Kurdish independent parliamentary deputy from Diyarbakır, met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reactions were varied. Zana had remarked prior to the meeting that Erdoğan was the only one capable of solving Turkey’s long-running Kurdish issue. Such a statement would no doubt have appealed to Erdoğan’s ego, but with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) having taken control of some towns in northern Syria in recent weeks the situation has only grown more complex.

What initially attracted comment was Zana’s apparent lightbulb moment in stating that the Kurdish issue should be solved by political means. Some within Turkey’s Kurdish community see this as a bold step, an attempt to separate the Kurdish issue from that of terrorism or separatism, a pragmatic move after years of violence and mistrust. Other voices have been raised to warn that Zana is betraying the Kurdish cause.

Such criticisms are petty. Zana has been unrelenting in her attempts to highlight the plight of the Kurds. When first sworn in as a parliamentary deputy in 1994, she made the oath of allegiance to the Turkish Republic, adding in Kurdish a further oath in the name of Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood. In the charged atmosphere of the mid-90s, when the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was at its height, Zana’s use of Kurdish in the parliament was deemed “treason”. She was further charged with membership of the PKK, described by Ankara, and other governments, as a “terrorist group”. She denied any affiliation with the PKK but received a 15-year prison sentence. The EU awarded Zana the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1995, and prodded Turkey for her release for years, something that was acceded to, finally, in 2004.

Zana is hardly the first to suggest that a solution to the Kurdish issue can be best achieved through peaceful means; it is plain that significant numbers of Kurds believe that their demands can be met without recourse to violence. As far back as 1995, political scientist Doğu Ergil in questioning a range of officials and civilians in the eastern provinces of Turkey under the auspices of a Turkish Union of Chambers of Industry and Commerce (TOBB) research project found that most Kurds would not support the PKK – and by extension its military struggle for an independent Kurdish state – if there were alternative ways that they could achieve their goals, hopes and expectations.

Perhaps there has been such an outcry within certain Kurdish circles at Zana’s new initiative – if it can be called such – because vested interests will lose out should the issues of the Kurds’ cultural and political rights be resolved peacefully. Not least amongst these is the PKK, whose bloody fight with the Turkish military and state has presided over 40,000 deaths but has also allowed it to portray itself as the champion of the benighted Kurds. Over recent years, as Erdoğan’s government has made overtures aimed at addressing the concerns of Turkey’s Kurdish population in the political arena, the PKK has found that it may no longer claim that its methods are the only recourse the Kurds have, or indeed that it offers any “solution”. That Turkey’s most prominent – and globally recognised – Kurdish politician is lending her voice to the political-solution chorus will surely serve to make many within the PKK hierarchy fear that they are lapsing into irrelevance.

Political initiatives have foundered before, of course. In 2009, the government’s much-vaunted “Kurdish Opening” saw first steps towards a political resolution being taken. TRT6, a state-run Kurdish language television channel was launched, and a group of PKK operatives turned themselves in at the Turkey-Iraq border ostensibly to demonstrate their support for the government’s democratic initiative. The “returnees” were subsequently released but their victory signs and jubilant reception by local Kurds served to inflame the ire of Turkish nationalists, which in turn led to an increase in suspicion and, ultimately, the demise of the government’s programme. It is tempting to see the PKK engineering such a turn of events by which they could have it both ways, generating good will in turning in some of their operatives, yet managing to derail a peaceful initiative and ensure the issue should drag on, on their terms.

More recently, Murat Karayılan, the acting head of the PKK, made conciliatory statements commenting that a solution to Kurdish complaints may be achieved through negotiation. Yet within days, on June 19, a large force of PKK guerrillas attacked a Turkish army outpost in remote Dağlıca killing eight Turkish soldiers. Some attribute this to a rift opening within the PKK, between the older guard who are wearied after long years of conflict and “second-generation” PKK members, younger Kurds, who have known nothing but military struggle over the last 30 years, who – apparently – cannot stomach political initiatives undermining their agenda. So, in what is becoming a predictable pattern, when conciliatory statements are made, inspiring a consensual optimism that peace and political resolution can be achieved, PKK hardliners engineer events – propagandist or violent – that incite Turkish hardliners to decry any political solution as ill-informed, a threat to territorial integrity and doomed to failure. Through provoking the state into reigniting hostilities the hardliners ensure that the PKK remains relevant.

Meanwhile, it seems that the ground has shifted in Turkish society. Broadly speaking the Kurdish issue has been decoupled from that of “terrorism” and “separatism”, and the notion has been dispelled that a military solution to Kurdish grievances is the only route that the Turkish state can take. The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) undertook a survey into public perceptions of the Kurdish question in 2009, finding that both Kurds and Turks supported the government’s “Kurdish opening” and approved of cultural rights being extended to the Kurds, such as the launch of Kurdish-language TRT6. A majority of respondents said that the solely military approach, which had been government policy since the 1980s, had failed and that a solution could best be found through democratic means.

During the last decade the notion of military tutelage has been watered down in Turkey, so that hawkish voices are no longer able to dominate discussion and portray the Kurdish question solely as a security issue. This has allowed a more reasoned, pragmatic and democratic approach to be taken. The discourse has broadened considerably. But this has not necessarily happened in Kurdish circles. The PKK remains the dominant Kurdish political entity and continues to dictate the agenda.

Recent events in Syria appear to have strengthened the PKK’s hand, and at the very least have set alarm bells ringing in Ankara. The Syrian PYD, seen as being PKK-affiliated, are demanding self-government in any future Syrian polity even as Turkey is threatening to send its military into northern Syria should the PKK use it as a base. Turkey has its hackles up because, as İhsan Dağı argues, it regards any progress for the Kurds as a setback for the Turkish cause, an attitude which in turn only further alienates its Kurdish population.

The slow and stumbling route of political development for the Kurds is encapsulated in the proverb, “when there are too many roosters the village wakes up late”: over years a multiplicity of voices never fostered consensus, leading to a history of infighting and disarray. This has hardly been the case in the Republic of Turkey. Successive Turkish governments spent decades vigorously stamping out all Kurdish voices, then in the 1980s the one that did emerge – that of the PKK – had, from Ankara’s and other perspectives, a wholly unpalatable agenda. It may now be that Ankara rues missed opportunities in not earlier allowing reasonable and pragmatic Kurdish voices any air time. With an emboldened PKK, and Turkey’s Kurdish population observing what unfurls in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, the conciliatory voices of Leyla Zana or a chastened Murat Karayılan are likely to have less resonance and the Turkish government if it is still inclined to pursue a political end to the Kurdish issue will be negotiating at a distinct disadvantage.

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