Why Turkey’s Kurds Matter

Why Turkey’s Kurds Matter
November 2005|116 

Johnathan Power 

After five years of calm, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey seems to be rekindling. But the government must not return to the heavy-handed methods of its predecessors. With EU membership now a real prospect, the best way to defuse the conflict is by reform

Issue 116 / November 2005

Why Turkey’s Kurds matter

After five years of calm, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey seems to be rekindling. But the government must not return to the heavy-handed methods of its predecessors. With EU membership now a real prospect, the best way to defuse the conflict is by reform

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power writes on international affairs for the International Herald Tribune

Insurgencies may not die, but at least, like old soldiers, they usually fade away. Well, that seemed to be the case with the Kurdistan Workers’ party, the PKK. For the best part of five years there has been a truce in Turkey’s bitter and savage civil war. Ever since in 1999 the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, appeared to acknowledge that the central government was bent on introducing the reforms he had fought for, there has been peace in the southeast. But quietly this year the insurgency has been rekindled and nothing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done—including, in August, a speech in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish “capital,? close to the border with Syria, in which he promised swifter delivery of the reforms—seems to have had the effect of sidelining the PKK again.

The Kurdish “problem? goes back to the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and probably further. The rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet have been called Kurdistan since the early 13th century, and the Kurds’ roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Most of the world’s 20m Kurds live in the region, although well over a million have emigrated to Istanbul, Baghdad, Tehran and Beirut, often assimilating well with the local people, and there are another million overseas. In Turkey, such Kurds are in prominent positions in many walks of life and a Kurd was prime minister not so long ago.

But just as the Kurds of Istanbul appear cut off from the political attitudes of the rural Kurds of southeast Turkey, so too the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon might as well be six different peoples. Of course, when Saddam Hussein made his notorious effort to bomb Iraq’s northern Kurds in the wake of the ending of the first Gulf war, they poured across the mountains into Turkey and the Turkish Kurds helped them. And today, after the Iraqi Kurds have entrenched their autonomy in the new Iraqi constitution—and probably entrenched their hold on the northern oil fields—there is a lot of buzz on the Turkish side of the mountains about building a new, united Kurdistan. But most of the time Kurdish leaders from these countries do not meet, do not talk, and often speak different languages. Even in the remote villages of the stony landscape of the southeast, villagers preferred to talk to a visiting reporter about their urge for Turkey to be part of Europe than for a link up with their Asian brethren.

When the Ottoman empire collapsed, a casualty of the first world war, undermined by British arms and intrigue, most of its subject peoples knew what they wanted. Greeks, Arab, Armenians, Jews and Palestinians all demanded their own homelands, claiming a right to nationhood, in one case within God-given borders. The Kurds, distinct but indistinct, lacked the resolve that comes from possessing a single ethnic origin, religion, language or leadership, and thus were relegated to the sidelines of the nationalist drama. The opportunity passed them by, and has passed them by ever since.

Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, thought that it would be relatively easy to make a Faustian bargain with the Turkish Kurds, offering them full and complete citizenship in exchange for demanding they give up their language, traditions and identity.

But many Kurds never sat easy with this arrangement. From the beginning they resented the banning of the use of the Kurdish language in schools and law courts. Their first major revolt broke out in 1925 and was brutally repressed.

In the time since the PKK emerged in the early 1980s, spearheading a new revolt, the best estimates suggest that the war between the Kurdish dissidents and the central government led to the destruction of over 2,000 villages and the creation of over 2m refugees. As Human Rights Watch commented in 1996, it was a continuous story of “torture, village destruction, disappearances, unlawful deaths and detention and murder.?

Yet it was not so simple as this potted history suggests. In Turkey’s 1996 general election, the Kurdish People’s Democracy party was for the first time allowed to contest the election without harassment. Nevertheless, out of the 6-7m potential Kurdish votes, it received only 1.2m. It seems that the Kurds in the larger cities voted principally for the mainstream parties and there was a significant rejection of Kurdish nationalism, even of the democratic variety, much less than that of the PKK, then at the height of its powers.

The message for the PKK was that the cause it solicited and the means it chose to use were not widely shared, and certainly not in the towns. For the authorities there was also a message: that they exaggerated the potency of the PKK and misled the public on why they had to be so unsparing and tough on those Kurds that did rebel.

Neither side absorbed the message, and the war went on for another four years until Öcalan’s capture in January 1999, when a Turkish commando team tracked him down to Kenya and snatched him to trial and prison in Turkey. He called off the war and, thanks to EU pressure, escaped the death penalty.

The quid pro quo for a truce—the introduction of reforms—began well. Kurdish nationalists were allowed to administer the main cities in the ethically Kurdish area. The mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, is one of them and is accused by Ankara of effectively organising a boycott of the rally at which the prime minister spoke in August.

But Baydemir has his reasons, and his views are widely shared. Ankara has not delivered on the other expected reforms and, despite the renewed promises of the August speech, nothing substantial appears to be happening. Whilst it is true that Kurdish-language newspapers are now widely on sale, Kurdish-spoken broadcasting is limited to an hour or so a day. Kurdish music on the radio is more common, but even on local radio stations plays second fiddle to Turkish or western music. There has been no effort to introduce Kurdish in primary education and what Kurdish teaching has been allowed has been limited to private academies catering to adults. (These have been poorly attended; these days young adults prefer to learn English.) There is a noticeable absence of effort to economically develop this poor backwater of Turkey.

Very few Kurds want to see the war starting up again. But it has—under the baton of Öcalan’s brother. Not enough Kurdish leaders or intellectuals are speaking out against the PKK. Their disgust with the government appears to outweigh their abhorrence of the PKK’s methods.

Few I talked to in the southeast seem convinced that this revived PKK insurgency will simply fizzle out. It’s complicated by the lure of the EU. Most Kurds want Turkey to get into Europe as fast as it can. They know that the EU, besides offering jobs and investment, also offers copper-bottomed minority rights, and once in the bosom of Europe their position will be secured for all time. They also know that PKK activity might scare off the EU. The PKK is well aware of this sentiment and is treading cautiously. So are the government and the army, conscious that Europe is watching, and aware from their sad experience that the heavy-handed tactics of earlier years inflamed the insurgency and alienated the population. This time the army appears not to be throwing its weight around.

Now that Turkey’s negotiations to become a member of the EU formally began on 3rd October, the EU needs to make clear that progress will not be fast if the Kurdish problem is allowed to smoulder. Ankara needs to get its shoulder to the wheel and deliver on its promised reforms. Then the likelihood is that the PKK will quickly lose momentum.

The Erdogan government has its heart in the right place. But the Turkish bureaucracy is another matter. Europe must kick Erdogan and he must start to kick his bureaucracy.


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Filed under Arabs & Muslims, Europe, Middle East & Muslim World

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