BACKGROUND: Two incidents during the last fortnight have served to highlight the seriousness of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The first incident took place in Altinova, a small town in the western, Aegean region. A row between a group of Turks and Kurds got out of hand and resulted in two Turks being killed by a Kurdish youth. In response, a Turkish mob set several houses inhabited by Kurds on fire. A delegation from the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) was denied entry into the town for security reasons.
The incident in Altinova was followed by an attack by the Kurdish PKK terrorist organization on a Turkish military outpost in the southeastern province of Hakkari. Seventeen Turkish soldiers, as well as over twenty PKK attackers, were killed in the shoot-out. The attack on the Aktütün garrison sent shockwaves through Turkey. Similar attacks have taken place before; the latest had occurred a year ago, and precipitated a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK a few months later.
The incident in Altinova nevertheless represent something new, and it is in that respect a particularly ominous sign. So far, the war waged since 1984 by the Kurdish PKK against the Turkish state remarkably failed to ignite inter-communal ethnic violence across Turkey. In fact, in spite of the PKK’s efforts to politicize ethnicity, Turks and Kurds have continued to live peacefully side by side in the cities of the western, Aegean region; in the Istanbul region; and in Mediterranean cities, all of which have significant Kurdish populations. This has been the case while the conflict has raged in the southeast, and even though the PKK has committed acts of terrorism in western Turkey. That fact has been a testimony to the basic solidarity that unites Turkish citizens of different ethnic origins.
It has also underlined that the Turkish majority has not perceived the conflict with the PKK as an ethnic one, but rather as a terrorism problem, restricted to the PKK – as successive governments have portrayed it. Significantly, the terrorist acts of the PKK have not led to calls for revenge, targeting ordinary Kurds. Evidently, the official standpoint of the Turkish state has been popularly accepted. According to that standpoint, there is no ethnic conflict in Turkey in which Turks and Kurds are pitted against each other. The PKK problem has instead been attributed to social and economic worries, as well as foreign meddling.
Kurdish separatist terrorism has been explained by the fact that the southeastern, predominantly Kurdish region is the most underdeveloped part of Turkey. Official Turkish reasoning has postulated that if the region is better integrated with the rest of the country in economic terms, if its population is offered better educational and economic opportunities, then the PKK would not be able to mobilize support.
IMPLICATIONS: The perception of the Kurdish question as a solely economic and social one arising from the survival of feudal structures in southeastern Anatolia has nevertheless been challenged by those who have pointed to the importance of culture and identity in shaping Kurdish attitudes. Liberal commentators have called for a greater display of respect by the state for Kurdish identity. Basically, Turkish liberals demand that the state try harder to secure the loyalty of its Kurdish citizens. Very little, if any, attention has however so far been paid to what the Turkish majority thinks; those who call for greater cultural freedom for the Kurdish minority have more or less assumed that the Turkish majority would continue to display democratic maturity in the face of minority assertiveness. It may be that that assumption will have to be revised.
After the inter-communal violence that shook the town of Altinova, Sebahat Tüncel, a deputy from the Kurdish DTP, emphasized that Turks and Kurds have for long lived together in peace and warned that tension among a small group of individuals has reached a level that may bring about more widespread tension between Turks and Kurds. The DTP deputy notably stated that she hoped tensions would dissipate as soon as possible “because otherwise Kurds living here (in the western parts of Turkey) will no longer be able to do so if these events continue.”
The worries of the DTP deputy are shared by most commentators in Turkey. Perhaps for the first time since the conflict began for almost a quarter of a century ago, serious doubts are expressed about the possibility of maintaining harmony between Turks and Kurds.
Two developments give rise to serious concern. First, hatred against the Kurds have taken root among Turks, in particular in the Aegean region. Second, the PKK is increasingly recruiting among the Kurdish youth not in the southeastern region which has been its traditional recruiting ground, but rather in the western parts of the country, notably in Istanbul. Both of these developments, respectively, undermine the two alternative solutions to the Kurdish question that have been put forward.
“When we figure out what makes young Kurds from Istanbul enroll with the PKK, then we will know what the solution to the Kurdish issue is”, commented Ismet Berkan, editor-in-chief of the liberal daily Radikal. Berkan does not believe in the official Turkish standpoint, that Kurds are frustrated and incited to violence because of the underdevelopment of southeastern region. Indeed, the fact that PKK is recruiting among Kurds who live in the relatively prosperous western parts of Turkey makes the traditional Turkish standpoint less credible. It is apparent that the PKK has, at least partly, succeeded in turning the conflict into one about ethnicity.
Solving the conflict will thus require the Turkish state to make much greater room for Kurdish identity in the state and in society, as Berkan, among other liberals, points out. That notably entails the notion of “equal citizenship”, which amounts to redefining the Turkish republic; Turkey would in that case be recast as a state of two partners, of Turks and Kurds.
Yet, even if that is what Kurdish nationalists in Turkey aspire to, the probability that they will succeed in realizing such an aim is slim. Just as the evolution of an ethnic Kurdish nationalism renders the prescription of social and economic alleviations less effective as a solution to the conflict, the rise of an ethnic Turkish nationalism that excludes the Kurds undermines the liberal solution. Turks are increasingly prone to think that the liberalization that has undeniably taken place during the last decade has emboldened Kurdish nationalism; calls for extending further cultural rights to the Kurdish minority to the point of making the Kurdish identity one of the foundations of the republic will fall on deaf ears in crowds like those in Altinova who chanted slogans like “We don’t want Kurds here”.
Until recently, there was only one question that mattered: “What can Turkey do in order to induce Kurds to remain part of the state?” From now on, another question will be “how will Turks who don’t want to have anything more to do with Kurds be induced to accept that Kurds are extended greater cultural freedoms?” Keeping popular, ethnic Turkish nationalism under control will evidently get more difficult with every new attack by the PKK – in a sense, exactly what the terrorist group is looking for.
CONCLUSIONS: Although recent developments give cause for concern, and make it necessary to revise certain assumptions about Turkey’s Kurdish question, outright alarmism remains, for now, unwarranted. For one thing, ethnic, Turkish nationalism remains an exclusively grass-roots phenomenon; no strong political force is trying to exploit it. On the contrary, Turkish officials display considerable restraint. General Ilker Basbug, Chief of the General staff, has notably stated that the problem caused by the PKK can not be countered solely with military actions. Obviously, General Basbug may prove to be unrealistic as he pins his hopes on economic and social measures. Yet, the fact that the military refrains from taking a hawkish posture is noteworthy and laudable; the military could just as well have chosen to act in a way that would have inflamed popular, nationalistic feelings. Likewise, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), often labeled as an extreme-right party, is remarkably careful not to target ethnic Kurds.
The ruling Islamic conservatives of the AKP are ideologically adverse to ethnic, Turkish nationalism. Indeed, the Islamic conservatism of the AKP is an asset, to the extent that it serves to unify Turks and Kurds. However, the damage that PKK can cause to the cohesion of Turkey should not be underestimated. And as the Turkish public is well aware of the impact the situation in Iraq is having on Turkey’s Kurdish problem – the PKK has benefited substantially from having a sanctuary in northern Iraq since 2003 – the rise of anti-Kurdish sentiments will inevitably be accompanied by a synchronous, further rise of anti-American feelings.