Kurdish Unrest in Turkey

Political Solutions Recede into the Distance

The renewed outbreak of armed conflict with the PKK has raised tensions in the southeast of Turkey and forced those calling for further democratic and political reforms to take a defensive position. Ömer Erzeren reports in full

Turkish special forces in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey (photo: AP)
The Kurdish issue once again entered the political spotlight accompanied by violence and death. The burial of PKK fighters in the Kurdish region of Diyarbakir in late March sparked off bloody riots

​​After overcoming protracted bureaucratic obstacles, a number of private Kurdish radio and television stations have begun broadcasting in Turkey. Kurdish language programs are seen as the result of the reform process, which has been going on for the last few years. Only a decade ago, the Turkish state even denied the existence of the Kurdish people.

Today, the publication of Kurdish magazines and books or Kurdish radio broadcasts in Turkey can hardly be called news. When people discuss the Kurdish issue now, talk is about violence – dead soldiers and guerillas, lynchings, bombs, street battles, and looting.

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) began its armed struggle in 1984 with the aim of forcibly highlighting the Kurdish issue as a political problem. Almost 40,000 people lost their lives in the 1980s and 90s as a result of the military conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK.

From dirty war to a process of liberalization

It was a dirty war and civilians suffered the most. Over one million Kurdish farmers were driven from their villages because they were suspected of supporting the PPK. The turning point came in 1999. The PKK fighters were militarily defeated, and their leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who headed the organization along Stalinist lines, was behind bars in Turkey. Öcalan was given the death penalty, but this was later reduced to lifelong imprisonment.

A political liberalization process began after the trial of Öcalan and also as a result of strong pressure from Europe in the run up to accession negotiations to join the European Union. Finally, the state of emergence, which prevailed in the Kurdish regions for over two decades, was lifted.

Earlier this year, the Kurdish issue once again entered the political spotlight accompanied by violence and death. The burial of PKK fighters in the Kurdish region of Diyarbakir in late March sparked off bloody riots.

At the time, it was primarily children and young people who were engaged in skirmishes with the police as well as in the looting of stores. More than a dozen people lost their lives during the unrest, which also spread to the cities of Hakkari, Batman, and Mardin.

Mobilizing the poorest of the poor

The PKK responded with bomb attacks in Istanbul. Three people died when a bus was firebombed. A bomb hidden in a garbage container exploded in the middle class residential district of Bakirköy in Istanbul. A shuttle bus transporting 37 judges and prosecutors narrowly escaped being blown up. A bomb, which was hidden on the bus, failed to explode due to a dead battery on the device.

The recent events contrast considerably with the protests of the 1990s, when the PKK could organize wide support for protests in the Kurdish regions. It was the poorest of the poor, however, who were out on the streets now in Diyarbakir, this time armed with iron rods and firebombs. And it was Kurdish retailers who had their businesses looted.

Even the mayor of Diyarbakir couldn't stop the young activists. It was a politically weakened PKK that had mobilized the adolescents from the slums of Diyarbakir. Those carrying out the violence come from a generation born in the late eighties and early nineties. They are the children of Kurds that were driven out of their villages and who now live under the poverty line in the slums of large cities. It is a generation that has grown up with violence.

Income gap between East and West

These youngsters revere Abdullah Öcalan as a god. This is not because they are concerned with the political and cultural rights of Kurds, but because they see violence as an answer to social marginalization. Even just a glimpse at the numbers collected by the Turkish Statistical Institute reveal the massive regional inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

The average daily per-capita-consumption in Kurdish south Anatolia is only about two euros. The figure is over three times as much in Istanbul. The latest violence in Kurdish cities will only aggravate the situation. Increasingly, investors are postponing planned economic projects in the region.

The wave of violence came unexpectedly for many. Even the government in Ankara was clearly surprised. The government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, which began its term in office by signaling a readiness for dialogue, has steadily adopted nationalistic positions.

There is hardly any talk of reforms. Instead, there are plans to tighten anti-terror legislation. Prime Minister Erdogan has attacked politicians from the Kurdish DTP (Democratic Society Party), to which many mayors from the region belong. Erdogan refuses all talks with them unless they publicly denounce the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The mayors, who play an important role in terms of political dialogue as representatives of a legal political party, are being worn down by the conflicting demands of the Turkish state and the PKK, which informally enjoys great influence within the party apparatus.

Criticism of the PKK

In the meantime, the significance of the Kurdish issue in society has changed. A decade ago, the majority of the population observed the fight between the PKK and security forces from a distance. Even though most Turks supported the uncompromising policies of the state against the PKK, there were never any riots against the Kurds.

Now, racially based animosities have developed towards Kurdish day laborers and Kurdish street children. Years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Kurdish demonstrators would be driven away not by the police, but by local residents.

These changes became apparent during a demonstration of PPK supporters in Istanbul. Young people marching for the release of PKK leader Öcalan in the city's Dolapdere district were beaten and chased away by local Roma residents.

Nationalist agitators have been setting the agenda, which is, in turn, is seized upon by the weakened PKK. Much has changed in recent years. Criticism of the PKK by Kurds used to be a rarity.

Now, many Kurdish voices are damning the PKK. Yet, the recent violence has put those calling for further democratic and political reforms on the defensive. It looks as though a political solution has receded into the distance.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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