April 11, 2012 § 3 Comments
Turkey’s heralded “Kurdish Opening” in 2009, in which the Erdoğan government took concrete steps to better integrate Turkey’s Kurds into political and civic life by relaxing restrictions on Kurdish language and culture and even offering an amnesty to PKK members, ended badly. PKK members returning to Turkey openly exhorted Kurds to fight against the government, Kurdish politicians began calling for Kurdish autonomy, and the AKP quickly backed away from its less restrictive policies. I have pointed out before – particularly during last month’s Nevruz unrest – how crucial it is that Turkey resolve its Kurdish issue, since if it does not it will continue to create a drag on Turkey’s political development and embroil the army in a constant low grade war against PKK separatists. As big of a headache that Syria is now causing for Turkey, there exists an opportunity to use the conflict in Syria as a spur to reinvigorate the Kurdish opening and drive a wedge between Turkey’s Kurdish population and the PKK.
As Gonul Tol notes in Foreign Policy, the idea of a Syria-PKK alliance keeps Turkish leaders up at night, and separatist radicalization among Syrian Kurds will spill over into Turkey’s Kurds as well. In addition, the growing refugee crisis and mass migration into Turkey is bound to contain PKK members no matter how hard Turkey tries to keep them out, and the PKK has demonstrated its capacity to rile up Kurds in Diyarkabır province and other areas of southeastern Turkey. Tol’s takeaway from this is that Turkey needs to work especially hard to bring an end to the fighting in Syria, but any regular readers of this blog (to the extent that there are any) know that I don’t think Turkey will ever go so far as to send in its own military, and it has a very limited capacity to force an international response. I think that given the dangerous implications for Turkey with regard to its Kurdish population the longer that Syria’s descent into chaos continues, Turkey needs to be proactive and immediately take concrete steps to mollify the concerns of its Kurds. The only way to blunt the influence of the PKK is to make it clear that Turkey’s Kurds have plenty to gain through the political process and that violent separatists do the Kurdish population no favors.
There are some easy concrete steps that Ankara can take immediately. First, rather than continue to stonewall the parliamentary investigation into the Uludere airstrike that killed 35 civilians in December, the Justice Ministry should cooperate quickly and comprehensively to demonstrate that the government’s fight against the PKK will not adversely affect the Kurdish population in general.
Second, the constant demonization and harassment of the BDP and Kurdish journalists should end and Erdoğan must make clear that the BDP is a legitimate political party like every other party with seats in the parliament. Whether the BDP is the equivalent of Sinn Fein or legitimately a separate entity from the PKK, the bottom line is that the only way to isolate PKK terrorists is to prioritize a political, rather than a military, solution. Erdoğan last week declared that he would be willing to talk with Kurdish politicians who “can stand on their own feet,” but he needs to go further. Once the AKP normalizes its relationship with the BDP, the tensions between the BDP and PKK will quickly come to the surface in a public way, and which way the BDP turns will give the government a good indication of whether or not there is a serious actor willing to go the political route when speaking on behalf of Turkey’s Kurds. Relatedly, imprisoning scores of journalists for “advocating” on behalf of Kurdish autonomy is entirely self-defeating. It turns legitimate activity into criminal activity, and it sullies Turkey’s international reputation while radicalizing Kurdish civilians. Ending what is a poorly considered policy will go a long way toward building good will.
Third, Erdoğan must make sure that the new constitution gives Turkish Kurds full freedom to speak their language, celebrate their culture, and be secure in their Kurdish identity while remaining full Turkish citizens. A sense of comfort and stability in Turkey will stand in stark contrast to what is taking place right across the border in Syria, and the process of writing a new Turkish constitution is a golden opportunity to drive this point home. If Turkey’s Kurds feel that decades of official discrimination are coming to an end, they will be far less likely to sympathize with a violent separatist movement that feeds on Kurdish resentment.
Turkey is gearing up for its fighting season against the PKK, and it should pursue the PKK with all military means at its disposal. If Ankara wants to avoid a larger problem and contain Syrian blowback among its civilian Kurds, however, it needs to pair the military offensive with a goodwill offensive. This is both the ideal time to do so and an absolutely necessary time to do so with Syria quickly exploding. Bringing back and further extending the short-lived Kurdish opening of 2009 is the only way to deal with the problem at its root, and doing so will stabilize Turkish society and begin to roll back support for the PKK by presenting a real alternative to Kurdish separatism.
March 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
When the AKP came to power a decade ago, many believed that it heralded the end of Kemalism now that an Islamist party was running Turkey. Kemalism has always been associated by the outside world with secularism (or perhaps more accurately, laicism) and the prevailing viewpoint was that the AKP would do away with the old Kemalist philosophy. This overlooked the inconvenient fact that dating back to Atatürk and Inönü and throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the CHP and the military only allowed new actors into the political system if they agreed to maintain Kemalism and protect its core tenets, and when this agreement was violated the military was all too willing to step and reset the system back to what it viewed as its natural equilibrium. When Atatürk determined in 1930 that an opposition party was needed in order to channel discontent and provide the CHP with some competition, his only requirement was that it agree to uphold Kemalism. Similarly, when the DP won Turkey’s first free and fair elections in 1950, the party was mocked in some quarters for being a carbon copy of the CHP due to its embrace of Kemalism. All of Turkish political history dictated that the AKP would not be allowed to compete and take over the reins of government in 2002 absent a commitment to at least tacitly maintain Kemalism, and the subsequent decade has revealed this to be the case.
While the AKP has tried to soften enforced secularism at the margins, it has actually embraced other aspects of Kemalism with surprising vigor, particularly nationalism. As one of the six arrows of Kemalism, nationalism was meant to stress Turkish – rather than Ottoman – identity and focused on civic rather than ethnic citizenship as a means of foreclosing nationalist hope for groups such as the Kurds. Every citizen of Turkey was to be considered a Turk irrespective of ethnic background or heritage, and recognizing the Kurdish national movement would violate the Turkification project. Erdoğan and the AKP have taken up the mantle of Turkish nationalism, perhaps as a way to preempt or blunt any criticism that the AKP seeks some type of pan-Islamic arrangement, and this has manifested itself most visibly over the issue of Kurdish autonomy. On Monday I highlighted what I believe to be foolish behavior on the Turkish government’s part with regard to Nevruz celebrations and expressed that it would just lead to an ever larger outpouring of Kurdish demands for autonomy. Naturally, yesterday and today there have been more clashes and injuries and the official Nevruz celebration has been cancelled in Diyarkabır, which has Turkey’s largest Kurdish population. Just as predictably, a PKK bomb exploded outside the AKP office in Diyarbakır, explosives were found in a number of other locations, and four special forces soldiers were killed in clashes with the PKK. Inevitably, the uptick in terrorist violence along with the heavy-handed response of the government to Nevruz festivities and civilian demonstrations will lead to even greater disenchantment among Turkey’s Kurds and a hardening of Turkey’s position on Kurdish autonomy. In many ways, Nevruz is beginning to resemble marching season in Northern Ireland, during which Ulster loyalists inevitably clash with police and violence, chaos, and civilian deaths ensue.
While it appears as if this could all be easily avoided by a more open and honest discussion about the place of Turkey’s Kurds within the state and whether Kurdish autonomy – rather than outright independence – is a feasible compromise, such a discussion is unlikely to occur. Ideological legacies are notoriously difficult to overcome, and Kemalism has thoroughly shaped Turkish politics, society, and discourse for 90 years. If the AKP, a party populated by religiously devout officials that is open about its desire to see some of the secular restrictions loosened on things such as head scarves in government buildings, has only tiptoed at the very edges of challenging secularism, it certainly is not going to tear down the Kemalist wall surrounding nationalism. Ideology is not something that can be easily discarded, and in the case of the Kurds it means that an important rethinking of the Kurdish question is not going to happen. Instead, the government and the PKK will continue their battle, Kurdish political parties will fight with the government over Nevruz observance and whether Kurdish can be spoken in public settings, and an important policy issue that is hampering Turkish political development and society will remain taboo and unresolved.
March 18, 2012 § 3 Comments
Nevruz, which is the Turkish name for the Persian New Year (traditionally celebrated the first day of spring) has caused all sorts of headaches for successive Turkish governments. It is a day that is celebrated by Kurds, leading to increased Kurdish nationalism and sometimes to PKK violence, both of which the Turkish government wants to avoid. In fact, Nevruz has been so controversial in the past that its celebration was actually banned in the mid-90s following demonstrations and police shooting and killing civilians in 1992. This year, controversy swirled again after the pro-Kurdish BDP announced that it would be celebrating Nevruz this year on March 18 rather than March 21 since Sunday festivities would get more people into the streets, and Turkish provincial governors responded by ordering celebrations to take place on March 21 as usual.
The reasoning behind forbidding Nevruz celebrations today was to minimize excessive shows of Kurdish nationalism, but as was entirely predictable, the move backfired terribly. The BDP refused to back down, police in Diyarbakır and Istanbul ended up using tear gas and water cannons on crowds that gathered to celebrate/protest, and BDP member in Istanbul was killed during the clashes (rumored to be a Kurdish politician).
Two quick thoughts on this, one specific to today’s events and one more general. First, having state officials attempt to dictate when a non-state holiday is to be celebrated is nothing more than foolish and guaranteed to lead to trouble. Ankara is understandably wary of PKK violence on Nevruz and of louder calls for Kurdish autonomy, but attempting to designate an official day on which festivities can be held is always going to be a losing proposition. There was no doubt that Kurds were going to fill the streets, and that police equipped with crowd control devices trying to stop them would lead to injuries and possibly fatalities. What was the potential upside to doing things this way? Now pro-Kurdish politicians get to loudly proclaim that Turkey’s actions make it a “fascist state” and Kurdish nationalism gets a larger boost than it otherwise would, obviating the very purpose of trying to eliminate a Sunday Nevruz observance.
Second, this type of stuff is going to keep on happening until Turkey finds a genuine solution to its Kurdish problem. Kurdish nationalism is not going to disappear, and the 15-20% of Turkey’s population that is ethnically Kurdish is not going to all of a sudden embrace the Kemalist narrative of “we are all Turks.” Erdoğan’s brief Kurdish opening was a start, but he quickly reversed himself and now again has gone back to trying to sweep the issue of Kurdish nationalism and identity under the rug. Until the government has an open and honest conversation about what to do with its Kurdish population in the long term, Nevruz is going to continue to be a day of violence rather than an innocuous festival heralding the end of winter.