BACKGROUND: On July, 29 Turkey’s interior minister Beşir Atalay invited the public to participate in the search for a solution to the country’s long-standing Kurdish problem. The appeal of Atalay has initiated outspoken public deliberation and discussion of the issue as never before. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan displayed his government’s intention to break new political ground when he met with Ahmet Türk, the leader of the Kurdish nationalist Democratic society party, DTP, which holds twenty one seats in the Turkish parliament. Erdoğan had until now refused to have any such encounter with Türk, as DTP is generally considered to be the non-violent arm of the separatist PKK.
The AKP government’s “Kurdish opening” was subsequently re-baptized “democratic opening”. Nevertheless, the particulars of the “opening” remain undisclosed; indeed, it is uncertain if the AKP government has any clearly thought out vision of how a solution eventually may look like. It would however be wrong to assume that the “opening” is meant as an invitation to negotiate a departure from the unitary, Turkish nation state.
There is certainly, as President Abdullah Gül stated in an interview in the late 1990’s, “a convergence between the aspirations of the Kurds and us (the Islamic movement)”. The Kurdish nationalists and the Islamic conservatives share a basic antagonism towards the founding ideology of the republic, with its emphasis on secular, Turkish nationalism. Yet, the AKP and the DTP are also -- indeed above all -- rivals. In the general elections in 2007 the AKP succeeded in reining in the secular Kurdish nationalist DTP in the Kurdish, Southeastern region by appealing to Muslim co-religiosity, thus performing a service for the unitary state. In fact, the Turkish republic, although officially secular, has always relied heavily on Islam to bind the nation together. However, the results of the local elections in March 2009, when DTP carried all off the Southeast, revealed that co-religiosity may no longer suffice to bridge the ethnic fault line of Turkish society.
The “Kurdish”, or “democratic opening” of the AKP government is in large measure prompted by a growing realization at the high levels of the state – including the General staff – that the question of what holds Turkey together as a nation needs to be readdressed, with the articles of faith of the nation state being restated, if not negotiated, in a way that somehow accommodates Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The “opening” is an attempt to defuse Kurdish nationalism in general; to induce the separatist PKK to lay down its arms is of immediate concern. As long as the PKK perseveres in its armed struggle against the Turkish state from its base in northern Iraq, Turkey will not be in a position to assume an active role in relation to the Kurdish administered northern Iraq. A resolution of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is a precondition for the fulfillment of the U.S. expectation, that Turkey shoulders a responsibility as a protector of the Kurdish administered northern Iraq, as the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq proceeds.
IMPLICATIONS: At the heart of Turkey’s Kurdish issue is the question of the very identity of the nation. “The people of Turkey that has founded the Turkish republic is called the Turkish nation”, ran the definition of Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the republic. Accordingly, the Turkish constitution states that everyone tied by citizenship to the Turkish state is a Turk. That is not supposed to carry any ethnic connotations, as is recognized by the defenders of the Kemalist tradition that a Turk so defined may indeed be of Kurdish, Bosnian, Albanian, Circassian or whatever ethnicity. Nevertheless, chief among the demands of the Kurdish nationalists, supported by Turkey’s influential liberal intelligentsia, is a redefinition of citizenship in neutral terms, with republican citizenship being emphasized instead of a Turkish “over-identity”. Divorcing citizenship from any references to a particular identity that subsumes all others would indeed be in line with liberal principles, as well as making sense in a multi-ethnic country like Turkey. However, although the DTP tries not to appear to be promoting ethnic group rights, the party’s wish-list is itself anything but ethnically neutral.
The Kurdish nationalists call for the institution of a dual, Turkish and Kurdish, national education system. With the right to teach Kurdish in classes alongside the ordinary school system already having been granted, the demand of the DTP exceeds the requirements of democratization; indeed, the discussion initiated by the “Kurdish opening” has ventured far beyond the standards set by the so called Copenhagen criteria of the European Union. It has become clear that the question is not so much about the Turkish state becoming more democratic, further accommodating the cultural aspirations of individuals of Kurdish origin, but rather about coming to terms with what amounts to a political aspiration to reorganize the Turkish state along ethnic lines.
The Kurdish nationalists envision a Turkey that has been remade into a republic of two nations, even though they generally refrain from making that too explicit. Thus, the DTP does not speak about autonomy for the Kurdish region in the Southeast, instead calling for the transfer of power to the “local administrations”. In the Southeast, which is governed by DTP mayors, strengthening local administration would be synonymous with granting autonomy of sorts.
Although the representatives of the Democratic Society party have commended the “opening” and dialogue initiated by the AKP government, they have also been quick to remind the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, cannot be by-passed, indeed that he is the true interlocutor of any dialogue with the Kurds. Öcalan is expected to present a “road map” for the solution of the Kurdish question.
Meanwhile, growing attention in the public discourse is being paid to what the Turks actually may want. Ever since the 1980s, when the PKK started its armed campaign, the preservation of the integrity of the Turkish state has been the only issue that has mattered from the Turkish perspective. From having focused on armed response, the Turkish state has gradually come to endorse liberalization as a method of encountering and ultimately pacifying Kurdish separatism, an approach that has culminated with the recent “opening”. The question that has never before been addressed is whether or not those who define themselves as Turks want to keep Turkey as it is; their adherence to the commonwealth of “Turks” and “Kurds” was simply never called into question, because they took it for granted. That may be changing now. Indeed, the most striking feature of the discussion prompted by the “Kurdish opening” has been that for the first time, the question whether it is the Turks – and not the Kurds – that turn out to be the ones that want to separate is being seriously addressed.
The harsh reaction of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the rightist Nationalist action party, MHP to the government’s initiative – “We will take to the mountains” – did not really come as a surprise, even though it caused consternation. A violent, Turkish nationalist backlash to what is viewed as illegitimate concessions offered to the PKK cannot be ruled out. Tensions among Turks and Kurds have erupted into violence on a couple of occasions in towns in the western parts of the country during the last year. “Watch out for the separatist Turks”, warns Kadri Gürsel, a columnist in the daily Milliyet. He asks “how worried should we be?” after having received emails from Turkish readers who call for a “divorce” from the Kurds. Such reactions should not be disregarded; they could be signs of undercurrents that run deep in society and that could have the potential to eventually erupt to the surface.
There can be no doubt that the violence of the last twenty five years has taken its inevitable, psychological toll on Kurds and Turks alike. The fact that the violence has not spread beyond the Southeast, that Turks have in general not confused PKK militants and Kurds was long taken as proof that societal cohesion still remained strong. The years of violence are however sure to have sapped that cohesion. The Turkish awakening to the reality that democratization – the granting of cultural rights – has not assuaged Kurdish nationalism will strain it further.
CONCLUSIONS: The “Kurdish/democratic opening” of the AKP government and the unprejudiced public deliberation of the issue that followed are in themselves encouraging. Turkey can ill afford to postpone the attempt to search for a new, societal concord. Yet, the scope for a solution is extremely narrow: The challenge faced by the Turkish state is to accommodate Kurdish aspirations without provoking a Turkish nationalist backlash. The Kurdish nationalists will have to be offered something more than cultural rights, without the cohesion of the unitary state being endangered in the process.
And as the AKP embarks on a renewed effort to reconcile Turkey’s ethnic division, the governing party suffers from lack of credibility as a uniting force. During its seven-year long tenure in government, the AKP has privileged confrontation over consensus politics, and no “opening” has ever been offered to the seculars, who have on the contrary been subjected to treatment as “the other” in the bureaucracy, in politics and in the business world. However, the successful management of the Kurdish question, with its implications on the identity of the state, requires the participation of the other “other” in the process as well.
Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".