Turkey's Kurdish Question

"More Democracy, More Citizens' Rights, More Prosperity"

The most recent bombings of PKK splinter groups seemed to suggest there is little hope of reconciling Turkey's Kurdish question. Minister President Erdogan, however, seems to be determined to initiate a policy of rapprochement. Ömer Erzeren reports

After the terrorist bombing is Kusadasi, Turkey, July (photo: AP)
The Kurds have lost patience with terrorist acts directed against the Turkish state, Ömer Erzeron says

​​Play down the incidents. Say that terrorism is a global problem and not specific to Turkey. Promise that the government will actively pursue the offenders.

The "Kurdish Question" behind all the violence is largely glossed over. No one wants to be reminded of the 1990s, when fighting between security forces and PKK militants took over 30,000 lives. In the fast-paced world of Turkish politics, those terrible days have simply been swept under the rug.

Two decisive factors have contributed to the relative peace that has reigned since 1999. That year, the Turkish secret service captured PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in Kenya and brought him back to Turkey. He was tried and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life-long imprisonment. This struck a major blow to the Stalinist-style organization, paralyzed without its 'Führer'.

Easing of Kurdish-Turkish relations

Democratic constitutional and legal reforms as well as political liberalization during the past few years have also played a significant role in easing relations between the Kurds and the Turkish state. Laws against Kurdish identity and the Kurdish language were repealed.

The prospect of accession talks with the EU helped foster this process. And yet, as the latest attacks show, neither the fact that the PKK leader is locked up in a high-security prison nor the burgeoning democratic reforms have conclusively solved the conflict.

The Islamic conservative administration under Minister President Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly come under pressure from nationalist circles which hold democratization responsible for the renewed flare-up of terrorist acts.

The military also views the government's EU-bound course with skepticism, concerned that it will hinder the "war against terrorism." Only recently, General Chief of Staff Hilmi Özkök complained that the army's capabilities for dealing with terrorism had been curtailed.

Minister President Erdogan, who until now had consistently avoided taking a position on the Kurdish Question, evidently resolved to go on the offensive.

Without warning, he called a meeting, inviting predominantly left-wing Turkish intellectuals, including some of the harshest critics of national Kurdish policy. They had issued a manifesto calling for an end to the violence. Kurdish politician Leyla Zana, who was long imprisoned, cited this as an "important, courageous step."

New efforts at mutual understanding

A day later, Erdogan travelled to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. The speech the Turkish Minister President gave on this first state visit to the most highly populated Kurdish city heralded a new direction in Kurdish-Turkish relations. The state must admit to past mistakes.

Erdogan spoke openly of the "Kurdish Question" and also indicated his formula for a solution: "more democracy, more citizens' rights, more prosperity."

The speech constituted a rebuff to the nationalist critics who would like to see the reform process reversed. Typical of the reactions to Erdogan's speech was that of the chairman of the "Nationalist Movement Party" (MHP), Devlet Bahceli: "Whoever speaks of the Kurdish Question only fuels further ethnic provocation and bloody terror."

It is true that, in the face of terrorist attacks and resistance from the military, Erdogan finds himself in a precarious position. This is joined by the fact that the USA as well as the Iraqi government have failed to comply with Turkey's demand to clear out the PKK camps in the Kurd-dominated northern section Iraq, where several thousand armed militants are lurking.

In view of domestic resistance in Turkey, politically sensible demands, such as a general amnesty for the PKK militants in the hills, the suspension of the undemocratic 10-percent hurdle for parties to participate in national elections, which discriminates against the Kurdish parties, or the shoring up of federal powers within the political system, can hardly be realized.

And yet, the speech at Diyarbakir was still of great significance. The government got the ball rolling, opening up the possibility of revisiting the Kurdish Question.

Kurdish policy at a crossroads

Today, Kurdish policy in Turkey is at a crossroads. For a long time, the PKK was viewed among the Kurds as a symbol of the fight against the repression of the Turkish state. Today, however, the Kurds have no patience with terrorist acts at Turkish beaches, especially seeing how the peaceful times of late have helped prepare the ground for a modest economic upswing in the Kurdish regions.

The murder of Kurdish politician Hikmet Fidan, who presumably fell victim to a PKK commando, was also registered by the politically active Kurds. Fidan, who once spent ten years in a Turkish prison, had advocated a parting of ways for the Kurdish movement from the political roadmap dictated by Öcalan – still able to issue political guidelines from prison by way of his attorneys – and had urged the organization to embrace democratization.

A quick solution to the Kurdish Question is nowhere in sight. It will ultimately not depend on the willingness of the Turkish government to institute reforms, but rather on whether democratic currents can take shape among the Kurds outside the PKK.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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